There's nothing like the approach of Carnaval to make a guy feel utterly alone. I was in the 3,000-year-old port city of Cadiz, Spain, walking along a pier that jutted out from the very corner of Europe. But rather than marveling at the ocean crashing against the stone embankment below me, or at the branchless drago trees in the distance, I was struggling against a funk that had enveloped me as fully as the salt air.
The day before, I had been sitting on an airplane, excited about my trip. I imagined alleyways crammed with ancient, crumbling buildings; labyrinthine neighborhoods scented with olives and oranges; sun so intense it would bronze my skin. I couldn't wait to throw myself into a beery, music-drenched pre-Lenten celebration that had been compared favorably to Rio's. And yet, from the moment I arrived in town, I had been confronted by an unexpected disorientation. I couldn't decipher the Gaditano dialect; couldn't navigate an old city where half the intersections were unmarked; couldn't shake off my homesickness. The coming Carnaval, I feared, would only make things worse: I pictured myself, a 37-year-old American with a tenuous grasp of the language, friendless amid the revelry.
I was walking back from the castle at the end of the pier, seriously considering whether I should catch the next train back to Madrid, when I thought I heard someone call me. I turned around. Sitting on a bench, in a limestone alcove that separated the pier from the gates back into the old city, was a group of 20-year-olds, maybe a dozen of them, mostly male. I immediately felt drawn to them. They looked so approachable, all smiles and sunglasses and baggy sweatshirts and denim jackets. I liked their easy physical intimacy, so common among Spanish men, the casual way hands rested on knees. I wanted to join them. ?"Hablan inglis?" I asked.
Only, those two words took about 10 seconds to force past my lips. My stutter, severe in English, had spiraled out of control in Spanish, so that every word became a battle between brain and breath. I pushed the sounds hard through vocal cords locked in spasm, until finally four discrete syllables tumbled out of my mouth. Ha. Blan. In. Gles.
When I came up for air, they were laughing. Not nervous chuckles but robust, doubled-over guffaws. I had just become the star of their day's life-comedy. Not in the mood for their mockery, I said "Adios" and stormed off through the whitewashed gate and back into the old city.
I had gone only a block before I reconsidered. Maybe it was the loneliness I had felt the night before, a terror so visceral that I was on the edge of puking till dawn. Maybe I needed to confront my demons, lest they trail me throughout Carnaval. But something inside me told me to return. So I walked back and looked them straight in the eyes. "I have a problem speaking," I said. "I've had it all my life. I don't like it."
No one laughed. I felt proud of myself. To lighten the mood, I asked if I could photograph them. Suddenly they were beckoning every friend for 50 feet around to join them in the photo, squeezing together tight. They started singing and clapping. I took out my snapshots from home, and everyone crowded around, marveling at my modest white bungalow with its leafy yard. They periodically snickered at the stutter again, but then one would shoot another a look, and the laughter would stop.
That's how I met the Boys. Throughout that afternoon and evening, these childhood friends -- a few of them working blue-collar jobs, but most victim to the city's 45-percent unemployment rate -- initiated me into life on the wharves and plazas of the city. They offered me hashish and taught me slang. They proffered a fresh-caught sea urchin, its spiny tennis ball-sized body sliced in half, and instructed me to suck out the fluorescent orange guts. By dinner time, they had decided that no friend of theirs could be without a nickname. So I became El Metralleta, which means "the machine gun." It was a reference to my stutter, of course, but it was derived from one of the Carnaval groups, a singing gangster family that carried metralletas made of anchovy cans and colored paper.
That night, late, we reconvened outside Falla Theater, a pink mosquelike building named after Cadiz's most famous resident, composer Manuel de Falla. There, a half-dozen groups of teenage balladeers, dressed as sailors and flamenco dancers and disgruntled house painters, stood in the plaza, taking turns serenading the crowd with guitars, drums and joyous vocal harmonies. Between songs, the musicians jumped up and down, shook hands, chanted one another's names. Then kazoos would sound and another group would start singing. The crowd, pressed in close, cheered and clapped. The Boys were all smiles, soaking in the music and introducing me around. Eight hours into our relationship, I was still a novelty. But my stutter no longer was.
It became clear that it was physically impossible to go 24 hours without
seeing the Boys. Cádiz, squeezed onto a tiny peninsula, was simply too
compact. Over the next few days, faces began distinguishing themselves, and
names stuck in my head. Late afternoons we would sit on the city beach,
chasing the sun along the edge of a stone wall, asking questions about one
another's lives. Do I have a car? A wife? Will I write a book about my
travels? If I do, I promised, they would all be in it, and it would be
called "El Metralleta en Cádiz."
Two of them came into greater focus than the others, best buds who went out
of their way to make sure I never felt alone. Silva was dark and robust,
with thick eyebrows, two hoop earrings and a waist-length ponytail. A
camera-ham who managed to squeeze his way into dozens of my photos, he could
also get very serious, asking about racism in America and nodding earnestly
at my reports. Chano was a former sailor who worked alongside the American
troops in Yugoslavia. He had pale blue eyes, curly blond hair and a style so
gentle that women generally regarded him as the most decent of the Boys. He
and his girlfriend planned to get married and move to the Canary Islands
in the spring, where they would at least have a chance of finding work.
Chano and Silva warned me to save my energy for Saturday night, when all of
Cádiz would get dressed up and flood La Viña, the old fishermen's quarter.
So that night, I put on a yellow tasseled face mask and a sailor's cap and
set out. The Boys were right. By 11 p.m., I was caught in a white-water
torrent of costumed bodies: nuns and monks, monsters, male brides,
cave people. Every single cobblestone street was so crowded
that I couldn't see much in front of me. I just let myself be pulled in,
enjoying the sensuality of the crowd. Then a street would terminate in a
plaza, and a makeshift stage would be set up, where Carnaval bands would be
singing satirical songs in complex harmony. Now and then I stopped to
listen: to the make-believe Mafia family with their metralletas; a troupe of
singing basketball players in polyester sweat suits; a band of white-winged
angels with heaven-blue gowns.
It took me until 3:30 a.m. before I caught up with the Boys in Plaza San
Antonio, a grand commons fronted by a luminous, turreted 17th century
church. They were with their girlfriends, dark women in flamenco costumes
with heavy lipstick and gaudy false lashes. Silva wore an American Indian
headdress with feather earrings and a fringed suede jacket. Chano was done
up more elaborately as San Pancracio, the saint who's supposed to bring work to Cádiz. He
wore a green satiny robe; a garland of parsley framed his slender face.
My disguise worked. I was able to sneak up on the group without being
noticed -- and when Silva figured out who I was, I was greeted with cheers and
handshakes and the beating of drums. "Metra-lleta!" Bom-bom-bom-bom.
"Metra-lleta!" Drinks were placed in my hands -- whiskey, beer -- and singing
erupted, and I was instructed on how to do the flamenco hand-clap to Cádiz's
unofficial chant: Esto es Cai, y aquí hay que mamar. "This is Cádiz, and
here you have to suck."
Chano introduced me to his fiancée, then brought me deeper into the fold
with proclamations of lifelong friendship. "You are of Cádiz," he announced,
and gave me a wrap-around hug. Then he took a ceramic shot glass hanging by
a string around his neck, wrote Del Chano de Cai -- "from Chano of
Cádiz" -- on it in black marker and placed it around my neck. "For you," he
said. Silva quickly followed by giving me his kazoo, the ubiquitous
instrument of Carnaval. And all the while: "Metra-lleta!" Bom-bom-bom-bom.
And more alcohol and more hash, and by this point hugs all around.
And constantly there was the introduction of new friends, who would
invariably laugh at the stutter before Chano or Silva or someone would tell
them to knock it off. All of the core group went out of their way to be
patient, even when I lost patience with myself. They made it clear that they
had all the time in the world -- relax. They had so many questions about
America: How much poverty? Do people own guns? And what about crack? What
does it look like? Do people smoke it?
Then, without a discernible signal, we were leaving Plaza San Antonio,
forming a train to stay together, hands on shoulders. We walked deep into La
Viña, to Plaza Cañamaque, a modern, concrete square where a makeshift bar
sold San Miguels and men peed uninhibitedly behind the parked cars. Silva
and a friend put their arms around each other and serenaded me with a
Carnaval song. It was dark, and vaguely menacing, and I felt so enveloped by
everyone that the surroundings only made it better. "This is one of the best
nights of my life," I told Chano, and meant it.
I finally left the plaza at 7:30 a.m. Walking back along the coast road, I
watched daylight break and the Atlantic turn deep denim blue. I sat on the
wall overlooking the ocean while two young recorder players (one with a
safety pin through his eyelid and a pierced lip) welcomed the morning with a
quiet, tender Greensleeves.
I left Cádiz for two days the next week and traveled north to where
everyone sounded like my high school Spanish teacher. When I returned on Ash
Wednesday, Carnaval was still in full swing. I went to La Viña at 10:30 p.m.
to listen to some music, but instead I found the Boys. They were passing
time in the most garish part of the district, where rows of illuminated
hamburger stands cast a fluorescent glow on the otherwise dark and ancient
They were in fine spirits, and I was glad to see them. "I was just in
Sevilla province," I told them, with more than my usual level of clarity,
having practiced this little speech, "and I learned something very
important. You all don't speak Spanish! Up there I understood everything.
Everything!" My spirited declaration had the intended effect of altering the
dynamic -- in particular, raising my coolness quotient a bit.
Chano, Silva and a taxi driver friend named Melchor crowded around me. They
were loaded with questions. How were the Baroque villages? Did I like them
more than Cádiz? The conversation bounced hyperactively from subject to
subject. Is there work in America? How much does it pay? Would they hire us?
Can we stay with you? What's the name of your city's basketball team? The
The Durham Bulls, I told them, answering the last question. That piqued
their interest. In Gaditano slang, the word for bull also refers to a man
whose wife cheats on him. Chano tried to explain this concept to me. "If I'm
Silva's wife -- which I'm not -- and I ..." -- at this point he dry-humped
Melchor -- "what does that make Silva?" I ran through my mental dictionary and
came up with the English word "cuckold." They liked this a lot. "Cuckold!"
they laughed, pointing at each other. "Cuckold!" they called out to every
male friend who passed by. "Cuck-o-o-old!" Chano shouted, his hands a megaphone.
Then Chano asked me the English for another slang word, mariquita. I was
stumped. "Maricón," he said, putting an arm around Chano's shoulder. "Man
and man, instead of man and woman." A pause. "Which we're not."
"Gay," I said, but I stuttered a lot. Despite Cádiz's reputation for
tolerance of homosexuality, I had decided not to discuss my own orientation
with the Boys. They had already come far in accepting my foreignness, my
stutter, my age. I didn't want to pit my personal realities against the
church's teachings and their own collective machismo.
But Chano was stubborn. About a half-hour later, after I had already
forgotten the Spanish word, he asked me in front of the others, "Are you
mariquita?" When I drew a blank, he pointed rapidly to himself and Silva.
"Man and man," he said. Another pause. "Which we're not. You're not, are you?"
Earlier in the evening, I had gone to an Ash Wednesday mass. As we lined up
in front of the gilded altar for ashes -- "from dust you came and to dust you
shall return" -- a woman read a litany of supplications. Her words, her voice,
resonated with eerie repetition. Father forgive us for violence. Father
forgive us for individual and collective sin. Father forgive us for not
following Christ's words in our lives. Father forgive us for lying.
Forgive us for lying. I realized that if I denied Chano's question, I'd be
stepping into a bigger deception than I could live with. "If I said, yes,
I'm gay, what would your reaction be?" I asked.
"My reaction?" Chano
replied. "Es igual." It's equal. Gay, straight. Doesn't matter.
Not fully believing him, I took a deep breath. "OK," I said. "I am."
I knew at that moment I was potentially changing the entire course of the
trip, perhaps casting myself back into the stomach-turning loneliness I
experienced on my first night. I was unprepared for the simplicity of their
reaction. All three of them, simultaneously, without consulting the others,
reached out to shake my hand. I would have felt profound relief if I was not
so stunned by what I had just done. "In the United States, if you tell the
wrong person you're gay," I started, and Chano made a motion of slitting his
"Here," he said, "it's no big deal."
And it truly was no big deal to Silva and Melchor. I didn't detect a
moment's pause or a smidgen less affection. It was Chano, to my surprise,
who had some sorting out to do. He needed to tell me, for the fourth time,
that he and Silva weren't a couple. He assured me that he had no problems
with having gay friends, as long as they didn't try to feel him up. And then
came the biggie. "Man and woman is better," he said.
"Why?" I asked, to
which he replied, "Because man and man is anti-natural."
I conjured up every
ounce of my 37-year-old authority. "For you, it's anti-natural," I said.
"For me, it's natural."
This seemed to satisfy him. But just to reseal the friendship, I bought the
next round of San Miguels.
Nothing more was said. The party resumed. Chano and Silva were delighted
with their new word, "cuckold." After a while, I set out with my original
intention of finding music. I would never have thought the week would take
this turn, or that I would quench my loneliness with this unpredictable
group of men, who were fascinated by my stutter but mostly shrugged at my
Throughout my stay in Cádiz, I thought about redemption. The Boys had
started out in my mind as my childhood bullies, the ones who devoted their
entire elementary school career to taunting me because of my stutter. So
much had changed in 10 days. How easy it would have been to let my initial
prejudices rob me of what became a treasured relationship. How easy it would
have been for the Boys to do the same.
I had romantic plans for the end of my trip, the final blowout weekend of
Carnaval. In my fantasy, we'd be together -- Silva, Chano and the rest -- and
I'd make a speech announcing my departure. "I speak English and you speak
all Spanish, but friendship speaks all languages," I'd tell them.
I met up with Chano and two of his friends at 4 o'clock Sunday morning,
back in Plaza San Antonio. All three were talking quickly, and I couldn't
figure out their plans, but they made it clear I'd be part of those plans.
The gist was that we were walking to Plaza Mina, a few blocks away. Chano
would try to sell some hash, and if he succeeded, he would take us all to
an expensive dance in a waterfront amphitheater. Silva was already there,
dancing his butt off and flying on Ecstasy. So was Chano's fiancée.
The plaza was a web of revelers -- dense knots of people, mostly in costume,
connected by well-trafficked pathways lined with lush North African palms.
There was drumming, the drinking of manzanilla and laughter everywhere.
Chano seemed to know everybody. But he couldn't make his sale.
It was evident the evening was careening rapidly toward anticlimax. I
didn't want my last memory of Cádiz to be watching the Boys wistfully
sitting outside the dance. So I bailed. I gave my little speech to Chano
alone, gave him my sailor's cap and a short sloppy hug, and walked off.
But, as on the day we met, I didn't feel comfortable with my hasty exit. So
I returned, and asked him to tell Silva goodbye for me. "I will tell him
he's a good friend to you," Chano said. My last words were supposed to be,
"Give a hug to Silva for me." But I only got as far as "Give a hug," and
Chano pulled me into a strong, tender, not-at-all reticent embrace. As I
walked away again, I heard a loud whistle. I turned around and saw Chano for
the last time, feverishly waving goodbye.