Sunday 1 March 2009

A less pleasant face of Madrid

There’s this scrawny guy who crouches most days in the Calle de Arenal, one of Madrid’s streets thronged with tourists as they move from Sol to the Palacio Real. Apart from looking somewhat emaciated, he seems in reasonable health, in late teens or early twenties, is well dressed and occasionally can be seen smoking a cigarette. Yet all day he crouches, staring at the ground. One leg is bent under him, the other bares the weight of his right arm stretched out with the hand semi clasped like a claw, but open enough to form a cup into which passers-by are silently beseeched to drop a few coins. Unlike the other human statues that seems to plague Madrid; those street “performance artists” dressed as miners, ballerinas, cowboys or caked in mud, who pose unmoving until an impressed observer throws a coin into the provided receptacle, this scrawny young man does nothing, not even a murmured “gracias” for the few céntimos that the sympathetic feel obliged to give him.

On Saturdays, when the shopping crowds throng the Calle de Preciados, a main shopping thoroughfare that connects the Gran Via to the Puerta del Sol and bounded by richly stocked department stores, the pedestrians passage is often blocked by supplicants kneeling and bent like Moslems praying to Mecca. These people moan and cry out for help, often beseeching God’s assistance, but what they really want are the shoppers to throw unwanted change into the cardboard box, cap or a McDonalds paper cup sitting before them on the paving slabs. The sight disgusts a Spanish friend who accuses them of duping the public with their piety and claims they make a small fortune from the compassionate crowd.

When August comes around, Madrid, deserted by vacationing Spaniards, but full of tourists, is full of beggars plying their supposed plight and appeal for alms. It is almost impossible to walk Madrid’s streets without being pestered. Even the diner or person minding his own business in a café is not safe. The beggars approach tables seeking cigarettes or money. To one seeking a cigarette I pointed to a vending machine not five metres away. I received a torrent of abuse for my helpfulness and she moved on to other tables. In another place a man approached me apparently selling lottery tickets. In Spain this is a job given to the blind and disabled, so one is naturally sympathetic, but this one appeared neither blind nor suffering any other handicap. When I told him I did not want a ticket, he quite rudely demanded I gave him money for food. I declined.

Quite frankly, estoy hasta la pelo with these people. I want to walk and sightsee unmolested. I have heard voiced similar complaints about these people from elderly British and American visitors. The beggars can be quite demanding and these people feel threatened. It is not a good memory to take from what is one of the most beautiful and friendly cities in Europe and does not present Madrid, and by extension, Spain, in a good light.

In the Plaza de Callao most days, a small South American woman with severely truncated arms, I presume from being born to a mother who took thalidomide while pregnant, spreads out a blanket on the pavement and in the searing heat of an unforgiving sun, asks for financial help. At the other end of the Calle de Preciados, in Sol, a youngish man with no arms at all holds and rattles a plastic cup in his mouth and appeals for money “para la amor de dios”. And while it is remarkable that he can voice this appeal while holding the increasingly heavy cup between his teeth, he is always well groomed, well nourished, clean and polite, which surely means that, with his appalling handicap, this man has someone who feeds him, dresses him, and cares for him in many ways. So why does he feel the need to appeal to the crowds of Sol for money? So many visitors must go away thinking that rich, resourceful Spain does not care for its less able population.

Yet we know this not to be true. Daily the local news on TV invariably will carry an item of how communities or charities are extending their help to the less well off members of this society. Of course, there are people who slip through the net. Like capital cities across the globe, Madrid has its share of rough sleepers blocking alleys and shop doorways with their makeshift cardboard “homes”. The numbers of poor legal and illegal immigrants are a huge drain on the community’s resources, but I have also been approached, two evenings running, by an obviously absent minded American youth who claimed his passport and wallet had been stolen and he just needed a “couple of euros” for him to use a photo booth so he could get a new passport. Then there was the purported Swiss businessman who claimed he had been mugged and wanted “to borrow” some money for a hotel room!

Although I can’t write this without remembering a band of happily inebriated beggars who used to occupy a few slabs of pavement near Sol metro station and then moved on to Callao. They would huddle on their cardboard surrounded by hand-written signs soliciting financial donations “por cerveza”, “por ron” and “por whisky” (for beer, for rum, and for whisky). They were always laughing and having a joke with the passing crowd. Any tourist amused enough to want to take a photo of this carefree bunch would suddenly see through his view-finder one of the men holding aloft a sign that bore the legend, “Fotos – 2 euros”. Unfortunately, other members of their ilk are not so amicable.

Wherever you look in Madrid, the “honest unemployed” are setting themselves up with an act to appeal for the tourist euro. The city is awash with musicians, performance artists, jugglers and other street entertainers. In several cases it would seem that “talent” is a minimal requirement, but at least they are giving something in return for whatever few coins they receive. But the beggars are just a pain.

This is something the authorities need to address urgently. The beggars seem to operate unmolested by the police, unless a café calls them in specifically. Compared to them I almost prefer the pick-pockets who operate in the Rastro, Madrid’s crowded Sunday street market). Despicable though they are, they do not exploit the good nature of a sympathetic, but ultimately deceived public.

1 comment:

  1. I met that Swiss guy 2 weeks running after a class I used to give on Thursdays just by the Hard Rock Cafe.

    I reminded him that he asked me last week and then suddenly remembered an important appointment he had to drag his broke arse too.

    Memories are funny things.