Saturday, March 31, 2007

More on Shoup

Donald Shoup is a good writer, too, damn it. I guess I am going to have to read his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking.” He had an expression in the Times piece that I loved: the Goldilocks Principle, which (I may as well quote him) is the balance between supply (of curb space) and demand (for parking in it)—“the price is too high if too many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant. But when only a few spaces are vacant, the price is just right.” Much of his article is about cruising (I do not do a lot of cruising), and he touches on luck: “underpriced curb spaces go to the lucky more often than they do to the deserving.” I am always willing to be lucky, even if it’s dumb luck; more often, though, one has to create the conditions for luck, by being in the right place at the right time. Shoup acknowledges this, but he feels sorry for the guy who comes along too late and can’t find a spot: “While the car owner with good timing can enjoy his space free or cheaply for hours or days, [yes!] others who are late for a meeting or a job interview are left to circle the block, making themselves—and other drivers—miserable.” Obviously, those people should find a garage or a parking lot.

Really what I want to say to Professor Shoup is What of it? In defense of the indefensible, the defensive get belligerent. I’ll bet he parks in a fancy garage every time he gets the chance, and then writes it off as a business expense. He’d be crazy not to.

I have been thinking about the element of financial acumen that informs my parking strategy. Could I afford a garage? I don’t think so. At any rate, if I did garage my car, it would mean penny-pinching in many other areas. I will start keeping track of exactly how much I spend on the car to see if it would make sense to rent space for the car in the city. Maybe it will turn out to be a case of Depression Meatloaf. (If Shoup can have the Goldilocks Principle, surely I am entitled to Depression Meatloaf.) I used to make fun of my mother for putting so many crushed saltine crackers in her meatloaf. Her meatloaf was awful, to tell the truth; she had learned the recipe from her father during the Depression. Once our family had come to enjoy a more middle-class existence (we were nouveau middle class), she could have made a better meatloaf. She did make the switch from margarine to butter when she realized that butter was cheaper than the cheap substitute. But she never figured out that she didn’t have to augment the meat with sawdust anymore. Maybe alternate-side parking will turn out to be an eccentricity that I need no longer practice, and I will find I can house my car in a luxury garage with a swimming pool and a hot tub, or at least one of those lap pools about as big as a car (as advertised in The New Yorker) that you can set to create enough resistance to swim in place in. I’d like that.

An essential element of Shoup’s parking utopia is to invest the income from parking back into the parker’s neighborhood. So if I paid a couple dollars a week for a spot on my second-favorite block, maybe we could import some of those superheroes from Madrid who wash down the street at night with a fire hose? One Saturday morning when I lived in lower Manhattan, in the financial district, I watched out the ninth-floor window while firemen (or some civil servants with the right tools) opened the fire hydrants and let the water rush through the streets like rapids. They could do that more often.

Friday, March 30, 2007



While I was enjoying my free parking spot yesterday, the Mayor’s aides were no doubt directing his attention to a piece on the Times Op-Ed page by Donald Shoup, the professor of parking studies at U.C.L.A. O Times, how could you? What Shoup says makes so much sense that I don’t dare repeat it here. Once the Mayor gets wind of Shoupism, it could put an end to alternate-side parking culture forever.

Let me say right up front that I feel guilty as hell for having a car in New York City. I don’t need it, it takes up valuable real estate, it pollutes the environment, and I squander hours a week either sitting in the car or plotting where to sit in the car next. But I can’t help it. I need the car to get out of the city; I adore occupying valuable real estate; I’m not the worst polluter around (the car is, after all, a Honda, and I don’t drive it to work in Times Square); and I’ve spent some very happy hours daydreaming in it.

Once, when I was still fresh in New York, my brother and I were in the back seat of a car driven by a man whom a friend of our older brother had met in a Learning Annex cooking class. In short, he was not our kind. The car was not a Cadillac, but neither was it a Hyundai. As we cruised down Macdougal Street, looking for a parking spot, he took a sudden right into a parking garage, and we lunged forward and screamed, “No! Not in there!” as if he were driving into the mouth of Hell. The horror!

Maybe it’s inbred. (Would a Gypsy pay for parking? I don’t think so.) Shoup cites George Constanza, of “Seinfeld,” who said, “My father never paid for parking, my mother, my brother, nobody. It’s like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

Makes sense to me.

Since the Mayor's terrible error in not suspending alternate-side parking when there was a winter storm, he has seemed really afraid of offending the parking public. He was suspending alternate-side right and left, east and west, if there was so much as a flurry. We can only hope that he didn't read the paper yesterday.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Window Seat

I would enjoy coming to this spot to sit even if I didn’t have to be with the car. Two cars ahead of me is a car very similar to mine, a gray Nissan Sentra, with Florida vanity plates and a stethoscope hanging from the rearview mirror. (Can this be the car belonging to the guy with the recumbent bicycle?) Up ahead of him is a lady with a red Honda who parks here all the time. She looks to be retired and carries a big old library book.

Well. That was rude. At 8:48, the Sanitation Police came and made us move. Florida Man got a ticket because there was no one in his car. He seems to have a long scratch or a hairline fracture on his windshield. (In the reshuffling following the street sweeper, I moved up to the spot right behind him.) I, too, have acquired a crack in my windshield. I figure it happened during the ice storm in Rockaway—some freak ice pellet must have bounced off the windshield in such a way as to leave a tiny divot, and a boomerang-shaped crack sprang out of it. And this while parked in a driveway in a lovely low-crime neighborhood. Clearly it was an Act of God, or Mother Nature, not vandalism. Woe is me, as my mother would say. Woe, woe is me. I wonder if I can get the insurance company to pay for it.

Here is my window seat at the Alhambra (but for now you may have to view it sideways):

Monday, March 26, 2007

Location, Location, Location!

I brought my car back into the city over the weekend, and succeeded yesterday, on the Feast of the Annunciation, in finding a spot on my all-time favorite parking block. This spot has several things to recommend it: (1) the vigil in the car is only a half hour, as on my second-favorite parking block, but, unlike that other spot, where you have to be in the car at 7:30 A.M., (2) you don’t have to be in this one till 8:30, a much more civilized hour; plus, because the spot is in front of a medical facility (in my anxiety not to create more competition for one of these eight spots, I can say no more), it is fairly sanitary, and the street sweeper passes it by, so (3) you don’t have to move the car at all; also, (4) it has a view of one of the city’s loveliest tall buildings; and, to top it all off, (5) it is located near a swimming pool at a gym where, incredibly, I am a member.

It’s good for people-watching, too. A man in a motorized wheelchair, wearing a black cowboy hat and a poncho, parks on the sidewalk and smokes a cigarette: a Marlboro man for the handicapped zone. A guy with a bicycle helmet fitted with a tiny rearview mirror, like a dentist’s tool, stands guard by his car till nine, then pedals off on what looks like a homemade recumbent bicycle: tiny wheels, loose loop of chain, and a board behind the seat for him to lean back on. After my swim, I stop back at the car, which is doubling this week as a locker, and hang my bathing suit from the steering wheel to dry. If I put air in my bike tires and count parking as a sport, I could turn alternate-side parking into a triathlon.

The Annunciation, I feel constrained to add, is not on the alternate-side-parking calendar, but it should be: both the Assumption (August 15th) and the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) are, and it could be argued that the Annunciation is what started it all. Of course, because March 25th fell on a Sunday, this is all moot, but still. Finding this spot, this parking spa, on that day was something of a religious experience.

Besides, the Annunciation inspired an entire artistic genre. I read recently that an Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci had just arrived in Japan, on loan from the Uffizi. The Uffizi seemed to be regretting the decision to let the painting travel, but I think it was a good idea. When I was at the Uffizi, it was hard to get a good look at the painting, because Japanese tourists were lining up to pose in front of it. The resulting snapshots would be in the tradition of those religious paintings in which the artist has placed St. Benedict, say, at the Nativity, or even painted a worldly patron into the little group at the foot of the cross. I resisted the urge to tell the Japanese tourists that they were not going to fool any of their friends back home into thinking that they had been there with Mary and Gabriel at the Annunciation. Now that the Leonardo has gone to Japan, perhaps the Japanese will get their fill of it.

There were also Japanese tourists at Montserrat, the otherworldly-looking range of jagged mountains (the name means “serrated mountain”) just north of Barcelona, where Benedictines have built a monastery to house the Black Madonna, a wooden statue said to have been carved by St. Luke. I was supposed to have gone with a group of people in Dee’s entourage, but at the last minute the others decided not to go, leaving me a lone, stubborn, idiot pilgrim. The ride in the cable car, over a spectacular gorge, was thrilling, but I looked away from the Funicular of St. John, in which one might continue the hair-raising voyage up into a crevice between serrations. Instead, I made a beeline for the parking lot, as if I knew where I was going, and then backtracked to the entrance to the basilica, where everyone else from my cable car was already in line ahead of me. To get to the shrine, you go down a hall and up some stairs; the statue, called La Moreneta, is up behind the altar, visible to the congregation through a sort of lunette. The Madonna, who has a long shapely nose, is encased in plexiglas, except for the orb she holds in her right hand. People touch the orb and chunk some change into the box provided. When my turn came, I refused to put in any money, but I also refrained from leaning back and taking a picture of the gorgeous mosaics in the vault of the shrine, depicting the Life of the Virgin, in some ravishing shades of blue. Ahead of me in line were two Japanese girls in puffy white jackets, who of course posed with the Black Madonna.

Every time I went into a church in Barcelona, I was assailed by thoughts of the Spanish Inquisition. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) Statues of saints, even on the front of the Gaudí Cathedral, are very militant-looking, like faceless soldiers in medieval armor. I thought of the rack and the screw. I visited the city’s other cathedral, and peeked at the crypt of St. Eulalia, the patron saint of Barcelona, before finding the cloister, which is usually a lovely quiet part of a church but in this case was teeming with tourists and full of geese. (Hail Mary, full of ...) Geese in church were even more unexpected than the Spanish Inquisition, and effectively cancelled it out.

When I got back from Montserrat and showed the others my postcards, the chief Catholic among them said, “But where’s the monastery?” I had bought one postcard of the Black Madonna, a couple of cigarette lighters (one with a head of Mary on it, one with a yellow cable car), and a bar of chocolate. The Benedictine monastery interested me only insofar as it was an excuse to view the topology: the serrated mountain itself. Monks, and also nuns, and also the Greeks, with their temples to the gods, can always be counted on to build in the most spectacular locations.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Garden at Alhambra

This is not upside down.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Self-Portrait in Alhambra

My Alhambra

Granada was that rare place that left me free of conflicts. I never had to decide where to go: I just went up the hill to the Alhambra. Within an hour of getting off the bus from Madrid, I had found a place to stay and changed clothes—changed into sandals, in fact, because suddenly it was hot—and climbed to the big arched gate with ways up to the right, to the left, and straight ahead. I took the left: the ramparts of the fortress, high sand-colored walls, rose very satisfactorily to my left, and there were the sounds of a waterfall. There were also smells of spring, a musky, nose-prickling scent, and bird calls. I found my way to the ticket office, which had a confusing schedule of year-round entry times for morning, noon, and night, but once you cut through the ticket thicket, you’re in among the clipped cypresses and the trickling fountains. The ticket specifies a time at which you can enter the Nasrid Palaces, and I had just enough time to find the entrance for a 5:30 P.M. admission.

I was so happy, so sort of burbling, to be at the Alhambra, fulfilling at last a lifelong fantasy, that there was no way it could fail to surpass my expectations. It already had: I was satisfied just to see the outer walls of the place; every stone and alcove, every ceramic tile and plaster ornament inside was a bonus. You go in the entry hall, called the Mexuar, and right away you’re hit with tile mosaics on the lower portions of the walls. There were tiles set like diamonds, in a pattern that radiated out from, say, a row of black diamonds, surrounded by blue ones, surrounded by black ones, by bronze, by black, by green, by black, and topped with a row of uniform bell shapes. One of the motifs along the top rows looked like pine trees, very schematic, in ink-green. It would make a good Christmas card, I thought, if it weren’t for the fact that the Muslims who built the place would be appalled to have their geometry turned into Christian symbolism.

All this part of Spain was ruled for centuries by Moors, Muslims from Africa, who were conquered (it’s called the Reconquest) by the Christian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (an easy date to remember). This was their court and their home and their church and their spa, their Buckingham Palace and San Marco and Las Vegas, all rolled into one. At least three generations of sultans built it, for the most part in the thirteen-hundreds. Clearly, if you were alive in those times, this was the place to be.

The Mexuar opens into the Court of the Myrtles, with a long pool, fed by narrow troughs of water, that reflects the façades of the palaces at either end. Hedges of clipped myrtle run along the sides. A tomcat was stalking goldfish from the edge of the pool. There are lots of columns, more ceramic-tile mosaics, and, in rooms off to the sides, arches and walls covered in stuccoed floral patterns and Arabic calligraphy, with touches of ravishing blue in some of the hollows. These rise to fabulous vaulted ceilings with concentric rings of wheeling stars. The guide books call the shapes in the stucco “stalactites” and the arches "squinches"; what the vaults looked like to me was the insides of seeded pomegranates.

The next court was the Lion Court, and if I’d known anything much beforehand about the Alhambra I’d have been disappointed, because the lions—twelve of them—that hold up the marble fountain in the center were in restoration, so there was a bundle of plywood and plastic sheeting where the fountain ought to be, but it was perfectly possible to avert your eyes and enjoy the forest of graceful columns and the filigreed squinches and the sky. In the rooms off the Lion Court were more dazzling tiles, featuring patterns of stars and tilted stars and flower bursts and curled leaves and a kind of squiggle, like a bird in flight, that I believe is called an arabesque. High up, sunlight filtered in through carved wooden screens. Every room I went into was my favorite, especially the last, the Mirador de Lindaraja, where the mosaics were in a fine pattern of eight-pointed stars, in black and green and blue and red, topped by those inky-green pine trees, and where low, arched windows looked out over a fountain in a garden of palms and orange trees. Right there, I could have lain down and died.

Of course there were other pesky tourists about, posing for pictures, getting in the frame of my pictures, standing stock-still listening to their audioguides, their gaze fixed on the middle distance. The way down into the garden went through a room with a plaque dedicated to Washington Irving, who lived and wrote in the Alhambra in 1829. Outside was another mirador, or vista, or belvedere, or fabulous view, looking out over the city of Granada: white and yellow houses with corrugated tile rooftops in faded ochre, with clumps of cypresses interspersed, and the late-afternoon light defining with the distant hills. The air had a fresh chill on it imported directly from the snowy mountains. Out in the gardens, small children on family outings were screaming and tumbling around. I found out what time to return for night admission, and floated back down the hill.


There was a full moon that night, its face looking off to the left, slightly glazed and travel-weary. Now it was cold, and I had to change back into regular shoes and put a coat on. At night, the palaces are lit with lamps that cast an upward glow, like candlelight, showing the stucco to its best advantage. People were lying on the floor with cameras and tripods trying to photograph the ceilings. I was cursing myself for not having solved the problem with the battery of my digital camera before leaving home. Then, again, I was free simply to look and absorb. On the way up the path between the cypress trees, I’d been addressed by a young woman in Spanish, who soon switched to English and turned out to be a student from Madison, Wisconsin, spending a semester in Madrid. She had chosen to come to the Alhambra at night so that she’d be free to go skiing the next day, and was having qualms. I liked being by myself at the Alhambra, liked the direct experience of just me and the place, with no one to come between us. So I didn’t adopt the child from Madison, I didn’t let her affect the pace of my very leisurely second tour of the Nasrid Palaces by moonlight, but I didn’t mind answering her questions.

I said I’d had a thing about the Alhambra all my life, and she asked where that came from. It had ludicrously prosaic roots in a house that was different from all the other houses in the neighborhood I grew up in, at the top of the valley overlooking Brookside Park and the Cleveland Zoo. We used to climb down this hill, which descended from the end of our street to some railroad tracks and a swamp, beyond which was another set of railroad tracks, and then the zoo. About four or five blocks over from us, this one house at the top of the cliff, instead of being a big two-family frame house with a front porch, like all the other houses, had solid walls that rose up like a fortress, very Spanish-looking to my mind, romantic and mysterious. I was never in the house, and I never knew who lived there, but I always thought of it as the Alhambra.

My head was full of Zorro and Walt Disney in those days, with maybe a pinch of Ali Baba, but I’ve since developed a passion for mosaics. Greek mosaics, Roman mosaics, Byzantine mosaics: I’ve been to Paphos and Venice and Ravenna and Palermo, and though I later read that the Alhambra is built of “cheap” materials (I like stone), the designs make you completely forget that they’re not the most precious stones on earth. The shapes explode out of them: stars, crosses, diamonds, blades, clocks, tilted lilies, flung birds, more stars ... I got out my notebook and tried to sketch some of the patterns. One started out as an eight-pointed star, with each side of a star point extending into a cross, and somehow all the angles formed a circle before locking into another eight-pointed star. How did they do that? My notebook had a few sheets of graph paper at the back, and I thought that might help. But it was frustrating to try to comprehend how they fit together, and I gave up.

I was in my current favorite room, the throne room off the Lion’s Court, when the girl from Madison found me and asked, “Is this all there is?” Poor child! She was smart enough to have learned Spanish and gotten herself to Madrid for a semester and to the Alhambra by herself on a moonlit night, and she could ski, but she had not had my advantages. She had not grown up near the Cleveland Zoo.

Later, on the plane home, when I was finally able to focus on the little book I’d brought along (“The Alhambra,” by Robert Irwin; a very irritating, scholarly fellow, until you know what he’s talking about), I learned that the sultan’s geometers were working with surds (a surd is an irrational square root, say of the number 7) and that the patterns were meant to express infinity.


I was there again the next morning, this time climbing up past the ticket office to see what I was missing, and finding a parking lot. (I have radar for parking lots.) I walked farther up among the buttercups and olive trees and tried to get it through my head that the snow on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada was not a mirage. Outside the parking lot, Gypsies in spandex were accosting tourists with sprigs of laurel, trying to get hold of the hand of a little white-haired lady to read her palm and perhaps extract a fraction of a euro.

This time when I bought my ticket, I rented the audioguide and strolled through the palaces more leisurely than ever, visiting also the Alcazaba (the watchtower) and the Generalife (its name looks like an insurance company, but it’s actually pronounced HeneraLEAFay), a sort of auxiliary complex of palaces and gardens with something called a water stairway. One of the things the Moors were brilliant at was plumbing, and they devised the hydraulics to bring water up from the rivers of Granada to water their fortress. I bought every postcard of mosaic tiles that I wanted, and also spotted a little pile of broken tiles at the back of one gift shop, which I sorted through until I had found two fragments, one a piece of calligraphy with a touch of blue in it and the other a fairly complete version of one of those pine-tree shapes. I thought it was green, but by the light of home I see that though the background is mint green, the shape itself is a dark iridescence, shiny black-blue-brown, that has the effect of green. I am under no illusion that these are antiquities, but I do like the sensation of having come away with a little piece of the Alhambra.

Then there was the night train back to Barcelona, about which the less said the better (I should have gone first class). I never wrote about the Gaudí in Barcelona, distracted as I was by my life as a groupie. I went to Park Güell with one of the groupies, and when we came down from among all the swirls and cracks and blues and greens, the curved mosaic benches made from tiles that looked as if the sun had been shattered and put back together again, everything we saw looked different from how it had looked on the way up. Gaudí altered my consciousness. The Alhambra, though I liked it better, did not make me look at the world differently; it made me wish the world looked different—more like the Alhambra.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


The world is now divided for me into people who have been to the Alhambra and people who have not. At a party last night, I was with a bunch of architects (is there a collective noun for architects? A pile? A project? A complex? A grid? A brace? How about a buttress?), and the subject of the Alhambra came up. It wasn’t even I who brought it up, honest. A woman who, like me, had been in Barcelona last week told the lead architect at the table that the Alhambra was privately owned and that you couldn’t go there without a reservation. She had gone to a travel agent in Barcelona who told her this, and that the only way to get there was a miserable nine-hour journey by night train. I was appalled. How dare anyone utter a discouraging word about the Alhambra—especially someone who was only an authority on not going there?

But perhaps she deserves sympathy. She got bad advice, and she followed it. One of the things I found out very early on about travelling is that people, notably your fellow-tourists, love to tell you where to go and what to see and what not to bother with, and you let them talk and you listen, and then you go off and do what you originally planned. On the other hand, if this woman had been lucky enough to have a hermaphrodite in the family, a musical hermaphrodite, who was playing a concert in Barcelona followed by one in Madrid, she would have had the necessary motivation to go to Madrid, where, after she survived the attempt on her purse in front of the Prado and heard the superheroes talking each to each as they hosed down the street in the middle of the night, she might have found her way to the prosaic bus station, where a perfectly nice company called Continental had a luxurious coach leaving Madrid at ten-thirty in the morning, arriving in Granada at four in the afternoon.

The bus had video monitors and showed a double feature (“Proof” and “Happy Feet”), but I was trying to read up on the Alhambra and succeeding mostly in gazing out the window. A shantytown, black bulls, donkeys in a vineyard, horses, olive trees that looked as if their trunks had been cleft as saplings and now grew two, or even three, to a plot. The bus made a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, and when we got back on the road the scenery got very dramatic. We were going through the Sierra Nevada. Dee and I had seen a bar in Madrid called Nevada and thought it was funny—why would a bar in Madrid be named for the state of Nevada?—but now I realized that we had it backwards: “nevada” means snow-covered, and the state of Nevada must have been named, by the Spanish, for the snow, like these mountains in Andalucía called the Sierra Nevada, with their jagged snow-covered ridges. The olive trees are planted at perfect intervals, forming a pattern of dots on the hillsides that would have connected into squares, a grid of olive trees stretched over the dusty hills. The combination of olive trees and snow made that whole trip worthwhile.

I have been waiting to write about the Alhambra until I could post some pictures, and until I could find a Web site to make a link to. The official site of the Alhambra turns out to be in Spanish, of course, and the translation on the Web is, um, risible (although the poetry written in Arabic all over the Alhambra holds up amazingly well). If you google the Alhambra, the first site you get is not the official one but one overseen by none other than architects! The best one is a virtual tour put together by Columbia University. I will post these things here and then revert to my own tiny little point of view. My Alhambra.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Hotel Sardinero

Madrid was a surprise. It’s a beautiful, well-cared-for, vintage city, full of fountains and buildings topped in domes and clocks, and with monumental stairs guarded by stone lions and sphinxes and eagles. It’s a capital city, in the British sense of “capital”: a really quite excellent city. But we got off to a rocky start.

All I knew about Madrid was what everyone knows: the Prado. I found my way there and sat on a bench to study a map that I had acquired at the train station. I was trying to locate the venue so that I could find a cheap hotel nearby. Rosario had given me the name and location, as well as those of the hotel the entourage was staying at. (They had not had room for me—sob. I’d had a crisis of confidence the day before when I realized I was going to have to show up in a foreign city all by my lonesome and find a place to stay. I did it all the time when I was young—or, rather, younger—but I got spoiled by having Rosario look out for me in Barcelona.) So I was sitting there trying to orient myself, which isn’t hard alongside the Prado, with its huge banner advertising “TINTORETTO,” and a girl approached to ask where the museum was. It was obvious: the museum was right behind me—there was a sign pointing to it. She seemed really dense. “Museo? Museo?” she kept saying. I wanted to say, You can see the sign as well as I can, bitch. I turned to indicate the massive museum-like building, and there was a kid on the bench next to me, facing in the opposite direction, with his hand inside my tote bag, just touching the small black zippered bag from Bahia that I kept all my valuables in. I screamed and started slapping him in the face with the map of Madrid. “I am just on my cell phone,” he said, not even backing off. The girl, his accomplice, stood there innocently. It is part of their scam not to run scared but to look at you as if you’re a crazy foreigner flipping out in their midst, which, of course, I was.

It started to rain lightly, and I was sweating, because I wore a lot of my clothes rather than carry them. While looking for the venue, I saw this place called the Hostal Sardinero, which sort of called to me (my Italian teacher is Sardinian by way of Tuscany), but I kept going and asked first at a hotel farther on. The hotels in my price range are like the ones near the train station in Rome, on upper floors of five- or six-story buildings. The man at the first place had a double but didn’t want me to pay for a double when I needed only a single. Upstairs from him, a lady had a single but only for one night. I’m sweating, lugging my stuff in and out of those tiny birdcage elevators, opening the outer door and the inner doors, closing the inner doors and the outer door, riding up, riding down ... Back at the Hostal Sardinero, the lady behind the desk was a little scary: long face and long, pulled-back graying-black hair. She looked like an El Greco. But she had a room with a bath for 45 euros. It even had a little balcony with a view of the moon, and it turned out to be right across the street from the venue.

I found the others’ hotel on the map, or at least the square, and was just approaching it when Kevin, the British male nurse, showed up. They had all just arrived, and seemed sort of shaken. Dee and Annie had had a gig the night before in Castelló, down the coast toward Valencia, and Maude, who is a convert (they say “revert”) to Islam, had argued with Paul, Little Annie’s accompanist, about sex, politics, and religion all the way to Madrid. Everyone seemed to have dispersed to recover. Dee and I had a drink in the nearest bar, and Maude and Kev joined us; then Fabrizio sent Maude a text message saying, “I am in a gay bar.” We found him and Annie in a place called XXX. A waiter recommended a place nearby for dinner, and afterward we all walked back toward my place to check out the venue for the next night’s show. At one point, we ran into Paul, but when he found out where everyone was going, he went someplace else.

The venue, Casa Pueblo, was great: if I lived in Madrid, it would be my favorite bar. It was all dark wood and mirrors and fairy lights, decorated with old Victrolas and vintage photos of vintage bathing beauties, etc. The proprietor was a swarthy barrel-chested guy with a fondness for Edith Piaf. The stage was in an alcove at the back, with an upright piano and a mirror reflecting more fairy lights: it was like a music box, or a carrousel. There was room for only about fifty people. Dee had a solo gig there, though Little Annie would do a few numbers as a guest.

That night, from my hotel room, I heard a familiar British voice call out, “We found a short cut!” It was Kev, leaving the venue with Fabrizio, leading the way back to their hotel. Before I fell asleep, I heard another racket in the street and rolled out of bed and onto the floor, in my eagerness to get to the balcony. Men in yellow-and-green superhero outfits, with boots like the ones hotels in Venice lend to tourists during the acqua alta, were pressure-washing the street with a firehose hooked up to a pumper. “LIMPIEZA,” it said on the back of their jackets: “Cleanup.” A man came behind with a cart and a broom and green plastic bags. I wonder how often they do this: once a year or twice a week? To me, getting out of the way of the street sweeper twice a week in my car, it looked like the equivalent of getting down on your hands and knees with a toothbrush to clean between the tiles on the kitchen floor. When they had finished, the garbagemen came and left a pile of refuse in the middle of the clean street.

* * *

Dee had warned me, “Never go to the sound check,” but I did anyway. Dee had brought the harp over to the venue early, so it could acclimatize, and it looked magical on the tiny stage, like something out of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Dee was at the piano, pumping away, and Fabrizio, who was acting as the soundman, was setting up microphones and snaking cords to amplifiers and turning knobs, knocking on mikes, taming feedback. Rosario gave me a little wave. The proprietor, who was wearing a garish black-and-white floral shirt and bluejeans, told me, “Está cerrado,” but it took me so long to figure out what he meant (“We’re closed. Go away”) that there was ultimately not much point in my leaving. I tried to tell him that I was with the musicians, and then I tried to stay out of the way. I didn’t dare ask for a drink.

The room had an eccentric shape, with tables running in a narrow passage from the door along the bar to the stage at the back, where the space opened up and there was room for a few rows of chairs. A line formed outside on the sidewalk. Kevin was pressed into service as bouncer and ticket-taker, as well as being put in charge of the “merch” (merchandise: Dee had two CDs for sale and Little Annie had one). When it was time for the show to start, the owner blasted Edith Piaf. Dee, on the accordion, tried to segue into her own act, but Piaf launched into another number at full volume. Fabrizio leapt up and went to the bar to get the owner to turn her down.

That afternoon at lunch, at a restaurant in the gay district of Madrid (who knew that Madrid had a gay district? It reminded me of Amsterdam’s Red-Light District, or of Christopher Street: porn shops, a sculpture of an archangel with genitals, a door handle in the shape of an erect penis), I found a description of Dee, in Spanish, in an events publication called Shanguide. The item, which had been placed by Rosario, was headed “Marc Almond + Baby Dee,” and featured a photograph of a swooning and bespangled Marc Almond, with a red rose, looking as if he were playing Carmen. And then: “Baby Dee, a curiosity within a panorama of real music, an androgynous sideshow act* and street musician and an original member of Antony and the Johnsons,** possesses a fascinating voice. But it’s not only her voice that makes Baby Dee so special;*** she delivers each one of her songs with intensity, intimacy, emotion, and silences.”****

[I don’t know how to do footnotes, but (*) Dee did a hermaphrodite act at Coney Island; (**) I don’t think this is true about Dee playing with Antony and the Johnsons, but Antony “discovered” Dee in that he got David Tibet to listen to Dee’s songs, which led to Dee’s first CD; (***) the Spanish was "peculiar"; (****) Rosario objected to my translation of "silencios," but it was the best I could do. It turned out they had printed the item verbatim from her text message.]

Here’s truth (a line from one of Dee’s songs): Dee’s songs are obviously autobiographical and some of them are about being literally misconceived, yet, having been created, feeling compelled to sing about it. A trained singer controls her voice; emotion wells up in the throat, and if you’re moved by your own song you just can’t sing it, period: the point is to move the listener. When Dee sings, all her emotions are in her voice. The lyrics may be beautiful and sad and the melody sweet, but the voice sometimes has a heartbreaking cackle in it, a signal that the singer, so deadly serious, does not expect to be taken seriously. There is humility in it. Yet some aspects of her singing Dee is in complete control of. She can prolong the last word of a song into, yes, seraphic silence.

The first half was all what she calls “dirges,” including some of my favorites: “Lilacs” (it contains the bit from the Song of Solomon “Arise my love and come away, For the winter’s ruinous work is done”) and “Set Me As a Seal on Your Arm.” Then Dee introduced Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch (she called him Whitefish). I imagine they felt a little the way Dee felt in Barcelona when she had to follow Marc Almond. Annie did two of her own songs, and she was great. (Little Annie just had a stroke of luck when one of her songs, “Strange Love,” was picked up to run as the soundtrack for a Levi’s commercial in Europe and now also in South America. While in Europe, she got the news that they’d like to put her song on musical hold. That is, when you call Levi’s and they put you on hold, you’ll hear Little Annie. Also, they gave her a lot of clothes, including a T-shirt with flies on it.) The owner let out another blast of Edith Piaf, and Dee took the stage again.

Fortunately, Dee has a range that may keep her off of NPR for eternity. She started at the piano, in the honky-tonk fashion that our grandmother used to play old World War II songs in, and did a new song, called “Fresh Out of Candles,” about the saints being deposed. Nobody knew whether to laugh or not. Then she did “Pisspot,” a song written largely by our mother, a sing-along and crowd-pleaser. Then she introduced “a sleazy one from way back when,” and launched into “Tranny Girl” (“I’m a tranny girl, Ain’t got no dick no more; Got me a store-bought pussy …”). It’s odd: when Dee does serious songs, it’s sometimes hard to make out the lyrics, but when she does these raunchy ones every word is crystal clear. I could see from the expression on the face of the music critic in the front row that he was contemplating a revise of his review.

Then Dee moved to the harp again: “Now where am I gonna go?” Fabrizio signalled to her that time was almost up. “Ten minutes? I wasn’t planning on taking that long.” She finished with “Black But Comely.” Dee may not have a beautiful voice, she may be singing in a smoky tenor songs written for boy soprano, but she can deliver. The song ends “Like a night shot with stars,” and Dee’s face—eyes closed, lips sealed—was like that of someone in fervent prayer.

And then that stupid git blasted us with Edith Piaf for the fourth time, and it was over.

* * *

The next day, the tour went on to Porto and then to Vigo, but it was time for me to get off the metaphorical bus and onto a real one, to Granada. I did make it to the Prado, and everyone who said I shouldn’t miss it was right, of course. The place is huge, and so packed with treasures that I found myself, on the way to the Velazquez rooms, almost blowing off a whole wall of Titians! (I thought, They can’t really be Titians. Nobody has this many Titians. But the Prado has a lot of Titians.) I know now that Madrid has many beautiful bars all plastered with majolica tiles. And when the light is green for pedestrians, there is the sound of a bird chirping (for the blind, I suppose). And the bed pillows in the hotels are shaped like long sausages.

Speaking of hotels, the lady who looked like El Greco turned out to be twins, or at least sisters. I saw her on my way out of the room, and she walked me to the desk, where she was already sitting. And the first one, who was talking to some tourists as I was leaving, interrupted herself to come out from behind the desk and offer me her hand and give me a warm handshake and wish me a good trip.