July 17, 2006
Development on vacant land within a metropolitan area is known as urban infill, and something analogous happens to mental geography when a traveler is made to focus on some spot previously sped through without curiosity. Such was my relation to Almeria, a minor Spanish city where inland and coastal routes meet and whose highlight for me was a right-angle turn. When I returned to Spain in 1996 to visit my friend Manolo, co-owner of a bar in Puerto Real, on the Atlantic coast, I learned that he was temporarily stuck in Almeria, on the Mediterranean coast. He had become partner in a second business, a small contracting firm that specialized in bridge building and boat repair, and the bridge he was building in Almeria was behind schedule because of high winds and strikes. I reached him by phone and arranged to join him until the job was done, geared for a bit of traveler’s infill.
Manolo, his business partner and certain members of the crew they brought with them from Puerto Real had already spent two months in Almeria and for them the novelty had worn off. Subcontracted locals could return to their normal lives at night, but Puerto Realeños were stranded in cheap Almerian hotels. Because of a discount and a running tab, they took all meals at a bar that was called La Gloria because it used to be the last bar on the way to the cemetery, where the deceased were bound for glory. There was little to do in their spare time, and they felt their lives were stalled until the bridge was complete and they could go home. But their tedium was my novelty, and I gladly took a room in Manolo’s cheap hotel and ate meals in the back room of La Gloria, which had a clientele of construction workers, wisecracking waiters and decent food.”It’s not so great when you’ve had each of their five dishes a dozen times,” snapped a welder when I praised the rice.Manolo showed me the sights of Almeria, critically. Clearly Almeria had once been an elegant coastal city, with boulevards of ornate buildings and atmospheric side streets. In recent decades, decent architecture had been randomly torn down and replaced with cold boxes that made no attempt to harmonize new with old, and even the fine buildings that survived were in disrepair, their ground floors given over to ugly storefronts contemptuous of the splendid façades above them. Where was the cohesion, the town’s sense of itself? asked Manolo. For that matter, where were the people?
Though hardly abandoned, Almeria’s streets were lightly populated for a Spanish town. There were no surging crowds and the scattered pedestrians included a dismaying number of panhandlers. During the Franco years, Gypsies – usually smallish, piteous women with babies that squalled pathetically, often because they were pinched – were the bane of cafés, more wheedling than lottery salesmen. With the advent of democracy, anti-begging laws and welfare programs diminished the Gypsy presence and the new mendicants were disheveled young men: drug addicts. They detained us with heart-rending tales of being stranded far from home, of needing bus fare back, of never taking drugs and being mortified to find themselves among these degenerates. The storytellers were polished, and Manolo and I were amused to pass one of them later and overhear him haggling over the price of hash.Manolo was concerned about my idleness while he was off at the bridge and he bought me a book by García Marquez, “El General en su laberinto.” My hotel room lacked even a chair and I floated from one outdoor café to another, sipping coffee in the morning, beer in the afternoon, reading what turned out to be a work of nonfiction about the final journey – toward death rather than his intended goal in Europe – of Simon Bolívar, his dream of creating an independent and unified South America now in ruin. Bolívar’s torpor matched my own as I waited for things to happen, but at least I learned something of General Páez, forefather of my Venezuelan ex-brother-in-law, my half sister’s first husband. Páez, it turned out, wanted to break away and create the separate democracy of Venezuela, of which he would be dictator, a family megalomania that had passed intact to the late Eduardo, the kook from Caracas, and I was amazed that Almeria had also thrown in some family infill. I would meet the work crew for lunch at La Gloria, float for a bit more with the fading Bolívar, then take a defensive nap – for another evening of trying to scare up some action in Almeria loomed. The crew returned around 7, showered, napped, then convened at a bar with pool tables near the hotel. Manolo and his partner bought the first few rounds as dividends for a good day’s work. The inevitable talk of sports, women, work and the flaws of Almeria frequently spiraled to such topics as history: Which invasion came first, the Vandals or the Visigoths? What were the archeological traces? The crew listened raptly when Manolo recited poetry. A crane operator asked the origin of some verses about the open horizon. “It’s a gaucho poem, from Argentina,” said Manolo. “Beautiful,” the crane operator sighed. There were foreign policy debates. How was it, said one to me, that a country as fine as the United States in its own land felt compelled to meddle in everyone else’s land? I answered that I didn’t agree with much of the meddling and that there were great differences of opinion within the United States, relieved that Manolo backed me up. I found, as I often had before, that blue-collar nights on the town in Spain were more intelligent than most white-collar nights in the United States.After a couple of hours with the crew, some of whom sensibly went home to bed, Manolo and I, sometimes with his business partner, would venture farther afield. A narrow one-block street had several lively bars full of younger Almerians with money. I was drawn to the animation but Manolo was put off by the pretense, and we usually left after one drink or none. Mexican food had just hit Spain, and I treated Manolo to some botched enchiladas with reliable beer. We did time in a bingo parlor. We crossed paths with members of the crew and compared notes on where the action wasn’t. “Almeria is going to miss us,” said Manolo truthfully.
By 2 in the morning we headed to the one establishment Manolo thoroughly approved of, a free-standing kiosk between the sidewalk and the street, with magazines, snacks and a full bar. Bloated with beer, we switched to the stuff of nightcaps, scotch. Two brands were popular, whose names transliterated into English were Vayanteenase and Hota Bay and which were, respectively, Ballantine’s and J&B. Poured neat into brandy snifters, they were doubles and triples by American standards.Manolo and his partner were now in a mood to sing, and their repertoire featured songs from a satirical men’s chorus in Cadiz, which brought out albums on topical subjects. Some of the numbers were risqué, others required such synchronized gestures as the mutual slapping of hands, and tag lines became familiar enough that I could join in. Looking fondly into my eyes, every night they serenaded me with a ballad about the American blockade of Cuba. I responded with a paso doble written in Puerto Real in the ’60s, about the assassination of President Kennedy. As customers we were rowdier than most Almerians, and I was particularly interested in the reactions of two Moroccans in coats and ties who rigidly sipped their coffee, eyed us skeptically, and were finally seen to smirk.The kiosk had no bathroom, the beer would back up, and one night I became desperate. A retarded young man who frequently hovered around the kiosk trying to cadge drinks or small change heard me ask the owner where I could urinate. “For 100 pesetas I’ll show you,” offered the young man. At that price relief was a bargain and I followed him. We took five steps to a tree that stood by the curb. “You can go behind that,” he said. Laughing, I handed him the coin, and behind a trunk a third my own width, grateful for the light traffic, I emptied myself into the street. By 4 in the morning we generally called it a night.Near the end of the weeklong idyll I visited the bridge. On the edge of a port that had sprawled in both directions along the coast, it would provide a new entrance from the east, spanning a small chasm a half kilometer above the sea. Twin orange girders, gently curving bands of truss work, rested on sets of concrete piers, with an unpaved gravel roadbed between them. Wind swept punishingly from the Sierra Nevada as I walked the roadbed, awed that it was suspended by men who began each workday on few hours’ sleep. A gravel truck started onto the bridge, and the entire structure began to sway in wide, alarming oscillations. I caught up with Manolo. “If a single truck can set it rocking like this, what’s going to happen when it opens to real traffic?”
Manolo was grinning, anticipating the question. “Regular traffic is nothing compared to the distortion the bridge is taking right now. This movement is a good sign, proof that the bridge has been engineered to withstand the worst imbalance.”Below us stood an earlier bridge, a stone causeway built by the Romans in the fifth century, and I suggested we scramble down to it. We picked our way over loose rock and reached it some 20 minutes later. Dipping slightly in the center, it spanned the gorge like the open wings of a bird. A narrow arch pierced its center, framed by finely worked lateral ribbing, a juxtaposition with the raw functional girders overhead that caricatured the old and new façades of Almeria. Phone and power lines crossed the single-lane top of the old bridge, and debris from the new road to Manolo’s span had spilled onto it from one side. Manolo identified its building blocks as ostionero, oyster rock, a species of limestone stuck with shells. For all its abuse it showed very little wear, and I asked if it had any historical protection. “It should,” said Manolo, “but it doesn’t.”We descended to the current coast road, where a sprawling restaurant and bar that was a standard Spanish truck stop waited with our afternoon beers. We were on our second round when the welder bored with the rice scooped us up in the company truck. “The Roman bridge has been here 1500 years,” said the welder, who had passed out in his hotel bed at 5 and gone to work at 7. “I wonder if ours will last so long.”
Bruce Berger’s “The Complete Half-Aspenite” has won the 2006 Colorado Authors’ League Award for narrative nonfiction.