1. A Lucky Man
The Madrid North Train Station was a newly-built but not fully operational facility, well heated, and very clean. Under the building, almost as an afterthought, were located the train platforms. The workmen had retired for the day by the time I arrived at six p.m. I placed my bags in a coin locker tucked away in a corner of the waiting area’s great expanse, then I cashed a traveler’s check and bought a ticket for San Sebastian. I had a three-hour wait and found a bench where I could stretch out, write a few letters, and, possibly, catch a nap in anticipation of my second overnight journey in as many nights.
Nearly an hour passed. As I was writing the last lines of a letter, a middle-aged man sat down beside me. He carried a book and opened it. A minute went by; I sealed the letter in an envelope and placed it in my knapsack. I felt an apple, a souvenir of the previous night’s train trip, at the knapsack’s bottom. It was warm and soft in too many spots, but there was no trash can close by, so I didn’t worry about it. Suddenly, the man beside me smacked his book down between us and mumbled a few words. I didn’t hear them clearly, but I assumed they were meant for me. I glanced at the book’s title, The Onion Field, and it was then, and not when he spoke, that I realized that he was speaking English.
I had not spoken to a countryman in nearly three weeks and took his fit of petulance as an invitation, if rather a dubious one, for conversation. I decided to ask a stock but safe question: where was he headed? My mouth and throat were dry; I hissed, rasped, coughed, and choked on the words.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered from the top of my lungs. I gestured to my knapsack on the ground and asked him to guard it.
He nodded. He seemed very understanding and friendly.
I hurried to a cafe bar about a hundred feet from our bench, swigged a glass of Pepsi-Cola, not for a second taking my eyes off the fellow I had asked to guard my things. When I returned, I was able to explain to him that I had contracted a sore throat a few days before and that it was progressing into laryngitis.
“You sound much better,” he said.
I asked what he was reading.
“Someone gave it to me a couple days ago,” he said forlornly, holding up the book for me to see. He changed the subject, as if there were something distasteful connected with the book, and asked me the stock question I was originally going to ask him.
I told him my destination.
“How long were you in Madrid?”
“One day. Just today, since seven this morning.’’
I spoke defensively, partly recoiling from the sacrilege of staying such a short time in this great city. I had been in Europe for five months, I elaborated, and was sick of traveling by the time I reached Spain. I was now going through the motions of travel, spending the better part of my days in pension and hotel rooms, writing letters, sleeping, and faintly hoping my next stop would generate some life in me. I came to Madrid for one reason: to pick up a mail packet at the American Express office. To my surprise, the packet was awaiting my arrival. I completely abandoned any plans for a visit to the Prado. I was ready to go back to England, where this trip had begun. I chose to stop in San Sebastian, near the French border, only because of the convenience afforded by the railway timetable.
“You’re lucky,” he commented.
Two days before, he told me, he was in Casablanca, Morocco, starting a week-long holiday. He had pulled into a villa hotel with his new car and gone inside to notify the manager of his arrival. He spent a few minutes at the hotel desk and then returned outside to find his car was missing. Three minutes into his vacation and his car had been stolen! Worse, his money (the wallet in the glove compartment), luggage (in the trunk), suits (in the back seat) — everything except the clothes on his back and the passport in his inside jacket pocket was in the car. The manager of the hotel told him to report the theft to the police. My friend had few illusions about the Moroccan constabulary; as far as he was concerned they were probably involved with the thieves. Reluctantly, he assented to the manager’s suggestion. The police said that he imagined the whole thing, that he had just misplaced the automobile, and that it would turn up eventually. Only after he insisted they look into the matter did they change their tack; now he was told it was his fault that the car had been stolen and he deserved to have it happen. Finally, they said there was little they could do about it.
All this was fine with him. He wanted to get away from the police and out of Morocco before they decided to lock him up for stealing his own car.
The man worked for the United Nations. He showed me his identification and a passport replete with border stamps; his name was Brian. Based on the cursory evidence, I had little cause to doubt his authenticity. He served as an economic advisor in Central West Africa, headquartered in Portuguese Guinea. What made the loss of the car so difficult to stomach was that he had planned to ship it duty-free to the United States; this was the only reason he bought it in Africa. It was this more than the loss of personal valuables and the incredible inconveniences he had suffered that vexed him so.
The car had to be given up as an absolute loss (he mentioned nothing about insurance); this was the way of life in Morocco, as he had been given to understand. His next move was to have money wired from the United States and, presumably, to use this money to return to the States. There seemed to be no question of returning to Guinea. His destination was Paris; there were no United Nations agencies in Morocco or Spain. The hotel manager had driven him to Tangiers to catch a boat for Spain, but had given him only enough money to make it to Madrid.
“I have eighteen pesetas to my name.”
He dug into his pants pockets and pulled out six coins which were worth hardly twenty-five cents.
Now I understood why he had called me “lucky.”
Beggars have accosted me many times during my life, often in or around train stations. In Florence, gypsy women carrying infants (not their own) approach people in the ticket lines and tug on their coat sleeves as they ask for loose change. My first day in England, as I was walking out of a train station, an elderly man asked me for a tuppence for a cup of tea. From one whiff of his breath, one could tell he had had a bit of tea already; nevertheless, I parted with a shilling. On the promenade by the sea in Nice, I entered into a conversation with a German fellow, and after five minutes he rewarded the pleasure of my company with a request for five francs. I parted with the money, anxious to extract myself from the situation with a minimum of unpleasantness. And twice within one hundred yards on an Amsterdam avenue I was tapped for a sum of five guilders (two and a half dollars). On each occasion I hated myself for succumbing to that strange mixture of pity and fear which the impoverished of the world inspire in us, and more so hated those who benefitted from my fit of generosity. It has been well said by Samuel Johnson that in these situations, one feels terrible parting with one’s money, and one feels terrible not parting with it. For the record, I feel considerably less terrible when I deliberately ignore, or coldly refuse, the entreaties of the lame, the gypsy, and the professional bum.
Upon learning of Brian’s temporary impoverishment — eighteen pitiful pesetas — I immediately became suspicious. The situation was reminiscent of the one in Nice, only I had been with this man for thirty minutes instead of five!
I had but one thought regarding him: what did he want from me? Or rather: how much did he want?
His timing, so far, had been perfect. He sat beside me just as I finished the letter and less than an hour after I had cashed the traveler’s check. He had said that he had been in the North Station all day; he could have been watching me the entire time I was there. Should I become evasive and concoct an excuse for escaping his company? Or should I simply wait for that inevitable moment when he thought the time was ripe to make the request for some money? When that time came, would I give him any?
Our conversation bounced around as I tried to keep it away from the yard of his misfortunes. We compared our different travels, our impressions of certain nationalities. I expressed a strong liking for the Greeks, which he countered with a strong contempt. The Greeks, he claimed, were detrimental to the economic well-being of Europe, they were a lazy people, and so on. His criticism remained tightly within the bounds of his specialty, economics, and his opinions seemed undeniable. I did not bother to attack his statements; his reasons for hating the Greeks were the very reasons I admired them. Besides, whenever I find myself in this type of disagreement, I lose confidence in my opinions; my personal observations feel immature and incomplete, my experience second-rate, my arguments indefensible.
Brian was a slight man, five-and-a-half feet tall and of a slender, angular build. He was missing two teeth, one on the bottom in front, the other to the side on top. His face was roughly hewn and his hair combed tight and short. His clothes were more disposed for a summer climate — a light shirt and pair of pants with a sport coat. It was the middle of March and his apparel gave credence to his Moroccan nightmare.
I finally asked where he was from because I could not detect an accent in his speech. I had assumed he was American, but he told me he was born in Southwest England. During World War II, when he was six years old, he had had prolonged contact with American soldiers and had acquired their manner of speaking. He was living with his aunt; his parents stayed in London and were killed in 1944 by a V-2 rocket bomb.
At the present, he maintained three residences. He owned a house in New Mexico where his wife lived; there was a flat in London, but he gave no reason why he kept it; and he rented an apartment in Greenwich Village for the couple of months each year he worked at the United Nations building. Then he wrote the New York and New Mexico addresses into a little notebook I kept for such a purpose. Did he expect me to drop in on him if I were in the neighborhood?
I would not call a brief acquaintance struck up in a train station worth his gesture of giving me his addresses — unless he wanted something from me.
The longer we sat and talked, the greater his confidence must have grown that I could not turn down any reasonable request for money. The addresses? I could use them to collect on the debt when I returned to the States. One could imagine this supposedly friendly gesture becoming part of an inevitable train of logic which demanded I give him some money: “. . . but you have my address!” (In case, let’s say, I feared that I would not be paid back.)
“Do you smoke?” he asked.
“Not lately,” I rasped, “with this throat as it is. I haven’t had a cigarette in a week.”
He nodded. He had entered Spain the day before with two packs of smokes. They were gone now; he said that he was a “two-pack-a-day” man. Smoking helped him to think more clearly. Then he announced that he had not eaten a thing all day, except for a croissant and a coffee.
These were hints, no doubt, to buy him a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee. I responded by suggesting that we go over to the cafe bar and get some refreshments.
He ordered the coffees. While we waited, he pulled out his eighteen pesetas.
“That’s all right, I’ll get both of them,” I said. I had supposed when I made the suggestion to come to the bar that he understood I was buying. Did he really think I would let him pay for himself?
While we drank our coffees, I stared at a cigarette machine and rattled the coins in my pocket.
“I think I’ll buy some Spanish cigarettes,” I said. “They’re only twenty-five pesetas.”
“Do yourself a favor,” Brian said. “If you’re going to buy a pack of cigarettes, get a pack of Marlboros.”
I had once purchased Spanish cigarettes in Mallorca, smoked three of them, then thrown the pack away. He was right; I would be doing myself a favor if I bought Marlboros (which had to be his brand, so I suppose I did us a favor). I could have done myself a greater favor by not smoking at all, but I gave him fifty-five pesetas and let him buy the pack. He returned with a cigarette already in his mouth, handed me one, and lit them. I took a puff inhaled cautiously, and exploded with a series of violent, hacking coughs. My chest heaved, my eyes watered. He patted me on the back and asked if I was all right. I couldn’t talk for a few minutes; then, when I felt the convulsion subside, I drank the rest of my coffee in one swig.
We talked more, he finished his coffee, and I suggested we have another cup. I was feeling quite generous, though it was nice to have the coffee handy in case the cigarette irritated my pipes. I blew a few smoke rings, then inhaled another puff; a sudden tickle was soothed by a quick sip.
My train would be leaving in forty-five minutes.
4. Greater Suspicions
We were ready to return to the bench. Brian picked up the Marlboros from the counter and put them inside his jacket. I didn’t say a word; I don’t know if I would have, for no sooner was the pack secure in his pocket than he caught himself.
“Excuse me,” he muttered, and handed over the cigarettes.
“That’s all right,” I said, and shrugged it off; in fact, I offered him another cigarette when we sat down.
“I hope I can spend the night here,” he said.
I noticed a couple of men lazily pushing brooms from one end of the spacious station to the other, and I remembered having seen a sign notifying the public that the station closed at eleven-forty-five. Brian was not pleased to hear this. He speculated on the chances of finding a cheap room in Madrid. This shouldn’t be difficult, he told himself; two- and three-dollar-a-night rooms were abundant in Spain. But wasn’t he forgetting the cruel fact that he had no money? He seemed to read my mind and cursed his predicament.
“How am I going to spend the night?” He answered himself, “Hell, I’ve got a couple of nights to worry about!” Then he asked, “What the fuck am I going to do?”
He could not have picked a better moment to ask if I would help him. He just had to snap out of his private thoughts and say, “Could you spare a couple hundred pesetas so I could find a room? It’s cold out here tonight, and I don’t have an overcoat. I’d do the same for you.” Plus, I had his addresses! How could I turn him down and be able to live with myself? But I had resolved to give him money only if he asked for it.
Then I mentioned that it might be difficult to find a pension room on a Saturday night. In one respect, I was painting his bleak prospects even bleaker; but if he thought about my remark, he would see that I was at least assuming that he had the means to secure a room. I added that the next day was Palm Sunday and there would be an influx of Easter tourists in the city.
“Oh, shit,” he exclaimed. His speech was inundated with “fucks” and “shits,” and the purpose and violence with which he used these words shocked me. “My son’s birthday is on Good Friday.” Not only had he forgotten to buy his son a birthday present, but his circumstances would now prevent him from getting a birthday card to New Mexico in time.
This new problem initiated another soliloquy.
“If I could make it to the French border, I could easily thumb a ride to Paris. I wouldn’t have to wait for money to be wired overseas.”
As I listened, a wild consideration struck me: he wants me to give him my train ticket.
5. More Hints
Earlier, Brian had mentioned that when he used a car during his world travels, he had a general rule to pick up any backpackers hitchhiking. I now wondered if he had merely said that to get on my good side. Couldn’t I consider him a person who would do a favor for a traveler like myself who might be hitchhiking? Therefore, couldn’t I return the favor for the one he might have done for me? But would Brian go so far as to ask for the money for a train ticket?
“Maybe you should get going,” he said.
“I still have ten or twenty minutes,” I answered, but I did go over to the lockers to retrieve my luggage. When I returned, I opened my small backpack, which served as a portable library, and asked if he wanted to read any of my books, to help him pass the long hours ahead.
What must he have thought? “Here I am, about to starve, no money, three days until I get money, no cigarettes, no place to sleep, and this idiot is offering me books.” I sorted through the pack and produced two which I thought suitable to his taste, literary but active: Bocaccio’s Decameron and Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia. Brian took the books and thanked me.
I checked the clock on the wall behind the ticket counter.
“I should be getting down to the quai,” I said, anxious to bid him goodbye.
“I’ve nothing else to do. “I’ll accompany you down to the train.”
I didn’t want him to come, but I was not disposed to deny a condemned man his last request.
I put on my coat and we advanced to the center of the station. I hesitated and pulled the Marlboros from my shirt pocket. There were good reasons for giving them to him: he had suggested the brand, gotten them from the machine; he had even thought they were his for a couple of seconds! He accepted the pack from me with minimal courtesy, as if he were getting what was rightfully his.
I looked around. I had no idea from which platform I would embark, and had difficulty understanding the departures board, which spanned the wall beneath the clock. My companion called out, “It’s number six, follow me.”
I couldn’t find the train listed on the board. He had hurried forward and then turned and saw I wasn’t following. He approached me.
“Let’s see your ticket.”
He eased beside me and plucked the ticket from between the fingers of the hand that clutched my suitcase. I wanted the ticket back, but I didn’t want him to think I harbored any suspicions; at this critical moment, I cared more how he perceived my character. He said he wanted to be sure that I got to the right car and compartment — all seats on Spanish trains were reserved. Heading down the stairs to the platforms, he moved ahead by three, four, then five steps. Once on the quai, I caught up and kept my eye on the ticket. I feared he would substitute it for a used one, if he hadn’t already done so. A train was standing by, steam huffing from underneath the cars, and people were boarding, yet I was by no means certain this was the right train. We continued down the platform, Brian on the right side by the train, and I on the left next to the empty tracks, with thick, peeling columns interposed between us every thirty feet; five times I lost sight of him for a split second. I imagined walking by one of the pillars and my counterpart not emerging, as if I had stepped before a plateless mirror stand.
“Here it is,” he called out.
I climbed aboard the train after him; he was guiding me all the way to my compartment. How was I to repay such magnanimity? Tip him?
Maybe he had something planned; it wasn’t too late. I tensed myself: maybe something outrageous; he still had the ticket, he could have claimed the seat for himself. Everything in the last two hours had been leading to a fabulous coup de gras. He had mentioned before that he knew twelve languages, including Chinese. If he knew so many languages, one of them had to be Spanish. He could have portrayed himself to the passengers and the ticket conductor more clearly than I could have. He could have gotten my luggage if he wanted to pull off the caper of the year.
We reached the compartment. Now was his chance.
Four people were seated in the compartment, two on each side, all members of a family. I passed my bag and backpack inside to my friend, who placed them on the rack above. When he stepped outside, I wrested the ticket from his moderately firm grasp. I examined it and was satisfied he hadn’t pulled a switch.
“You still have twenty minutes,” Brian said. “Why don’t we catch a smoke on the platform?”
“I think I’ll stay here,” I answered stiffly.
“OK,” he said. There was a pause, then we shook hands.
During our last seconds together I expected a request for assistance. I was hoping he would make one; I would have parted with anything but the train ticket. I knew he was desperate, but I also wanted to be sure that he wanted something.
He walked down the train corridor. I staggered between four pairs of legs to get to my seat. I did not happen to catch a glimpse of him on the platform.
6. An Unlucky Man
I checked my ticket again, then considered whether this was the train to San Sebastian. I looked through my knapsack, sifting its contents, but everything was there, including the apple I had to get rid of. I patted my rump to feel for my wallet, then pulled the peseta notes from my pocket and counted them. All my belongings were accounted for, yet I thought something was missing, something small and valuable which I would remember only an hour or two later.
Or was I disappointed that I had been, after all, left intact? That I had let myself pass through the episode without letting myself be taken? Indeed, that the situation itself had been left incomplete was exactly what was missing.
In the following weeks, I had occasion to relate this episode to several people. Their opinion was unanimous: the man who claimed to be in the employ of the United Nations was really a con man. I was taken to task for not realizing the obvious; I was lucky to have escaped with my ticket, wallet, and loose pesetas.
But what about the addresses, the profusely stamped passport, his son’s birthday, the book The Onion Field which, if I remember correctly, was given to him by the hotel manager in Casablanca, and his long, sad tale about the stolen car?
Part of an elaborate scam, I was informed.
But even if I agreed the man’s stories were fabrications and couldn’t stand close scrutiny, why didn’t he ask for anything more than cigarettes and coffee? He had barely asked for these things.
No one could adequately respond to this question; neither did it change anyone’s notion about Brian. It seemed as if I alone could not reach some satisfactory conclusion about him. But I was no more inclined to check up on his addresses than I was to eat the soft apple in my knapsack.
Life becomes curious when you are left suspended amid sheer possibilities; left alone in the space of your recollections, you become less certain as to what really happened. A simple episode, as it befell me in the Madrid North Station, accrues more and more the characteristics of enigma, uncertainty, and inevitability. Innocent gestures and talk become insincere and stupid. Soon, one cannot even begin to guess the truth. In the end, I am left to wonder about this man, whoever he was, and he about me, as if we had never parted on the train. We replay the drama: I wait for his request for a few hundred pesetas or for my ticket to be stolen; he waits for me to give him something besides a book.