Wednesday 7 October 2009

A Mess Of .... Miércoles

By Richard Morley
I have always thought Madrid to be a clean town. There seems to a huge green jacketed army going around after us picking up our unwanted unsavoury waste. Our bins are emptied in the small hours of the morning by ruthlessly efficient, although noisy, bin men who are followed in turn by a team armed with high pressure hoses who wash the streets and clean the rubbish bins on every lamppost.

Watching the Cabalgada de los Reyes Magos, or the parade of the three kings, which among other things has riders on horseback, I was amused to see that directly behind the horses were three street cleaners, pushing their barrows, ready to sweep up any droppings the horses left behind them. I was amused, but not surprised. With a hoard of marchers on foot bringing up the rear this was a very sensible action to take. Evidence once again that Madrid takes having clean streets seriously – and a good reminder to the crowd.

Before the Puerta del Sol took on the appearance of a perpetual building site, I once watched three protest demonstrations in a row. Each group handed out immediately discarded flyers and left a pile of detritus. But between each demo the street cleaners moved in, leaving a pristine plaza for the next group to desecrate. Within minutes of the last demonstration, all the rubbish was gone.

The same thing happens at the New Year celebrations that also take place in Sol. With tens of thousands of revellers drinking canned beer or bottles of cava and discarding cigarette ends, hamburger cartons, drinking cups etc, the authorities estimated the street cleaners removed twenty-seven tons of rubbish last year. By sunrise on New Year’s Day it was all gone!

A mole on the inside of the Ayuntamiento tells me that a street cleaner’s job is one of the most sought after in the city. I don’t suppose the pay is marvellous or the hours very sociable, but it’s a service the community needs and so guarantees pretty much constant employment. And they seem to have every mechanical aid they need at their disposal.

So what can be swept or washed away never stays around for long.

Other blots on our city’s landscape are a little more permanent.

I have written before about graffiti. Then I was praising those that can do it well.

Unfortunately the truly gifted are in the minority.

From time to time my own apartment block has come under attack from the spray paint fraternity. But no nimbyism here – I think everyone’s backyard should be free from this defacement. On Monday I visited one of Madrid’s least beautiful areas. It was a bleak residential area where efforts to provide a small park and play area had been completely violated by this obscene insanity. What should have been a small haven of peace and beauty had been completely despoiled. Surrounding walls had been covered with nonsensical scrawls, names, insults, and vulgarities, and although there were some that had been painted by someone with a modicum of talent, the content of the work made me feel threatened. I suppose it did not help that the only people in this tiny park, given to the community to provide fun for children and rest to the elderly, were five young men who were encouraging two dogs to fight each other. I will have to visit this street on a regular basis from now on. I will not feel comfortable.

Quite rightly the authorities consider graffiti an act of vandalism; an act that costs the city dear to clean it up. This is reflected in the size of fines given to those actually caught in the act: from a derisory €300 to a more substantial €6000.

That last figure is a sizable sum. I doubt if many of the untalented youth who leave our walls disfigured with their childish squiggles could afford to pay it. So the Ayuntamiento have come up with an alternative: Clean up your own mess.

So from now on, anyone foolish enough to be caught in the act will be asked to remove it and any other “street art” in the neighbourhood. I am not sure whether they are “fined” a particular number of hours of work or square metres of wall space. I would think ten times the area of the wall you are found to be defacing would be sufficient. Already eight youths, aged between 16 and 20, have begun work. “We want to make them wake up to the damage they do”, said Ana Botella, the Ayuntamiento’s environment delegate. I do hope they see the error of their ways.

Included in this programme are young people caught in the antisocial crime, (according to authority), of engaging in a “Botellón”. I witnessed this heinous crime in action a few weeks ago. A few dozen youths spread themselves and sprawled across the Plaza dos de Mayo and wilfully drank Calimochó, a mixture of red wine and Coca-Cola, which they can buy for a couple of euros a litre. Like most teenagers they looked rather sullen. In a corner of the plaza a small squad of policemen with a couple of cars and an unmarked van stood watch over the listless bunch.
“A bit of an overkill”, I remarked to an English friend as we walked past.
“I don’t know”, he remarked. “They ought to arrest that guitar player for offending good taste”.
Other than that, these “criminals” seemed to have far to much lassitude to actually do something antisocial.

Not that that is unknown. Less than a month ago, in the western suburb of Pozuelo, a Botellón did get out of hand and serious crimes were committed. Local residents blamed it on the drinking, but I have heard that something more than a sad evening of consuming cheap alcohol had been organised by someone with an axe to grind. Fortunately this does not happen often.

But I also plead guilty to this crime, I have to admit to taking part in a “Botellón myself. I swear I was the oldest there by thirty years. I was in La Latina and saw this crowd of youths when one of them shouted my name. He had been at one of the English Villages I attend and came out of the crowd to offer me some Spanish hospitality. He thrust a plastic coke bottle in my hand. “Calimocho”, he explained. “Have a drink.” Cheap wine and generic coke; yes it tasted as you would imagine.

But it’s not their drinking habits the Ayuntamiento find troublesome, although the act of drinking in the street IS illegal, but the discarded plastic and smashed broken bottles they leave behind them. They too, if caught, can now be fined a tidy sum, or be sentenced to tidy. I wonder if we can expect to see orange suited youths chain-ganged together, brooms and scrubbing brushes held at the ready.

“Quite right too”, would say the tax payers of Madrid, who have recently received increased demands from the city council to pay for refuse collection. The new tax is seen as unfair as it is based on the size of the property and not on the number of waste producing residents.

Elisha Bartholomew, who lives with his wife in Vallecas, is retired on a pension of €900 a month and claims he produces no waste except for some potato peeling and newspapers. His “garbage tax” is €112. But neighbour Lucas Garcia has four residents in his house and will only pay €94. He says, “It’s very unfair. Gallardón (The mayor of Madrid) has spent a fortune on the M30 (The Madrid ring-road) and the attempt to get the Olympic Games and we have to pay.”

Now, the newspaper report I culled that from did not say if either family had a dog, but if they did they should be held responsible for their share of the mierda de perro that fouls the streets of Madrid all the time.

Near where I live there is a small, sandy area designated for dogs to come and do what is necessary. The Ayuntamiento has provided a bin that also dispenses free plastic bags to assist the owners clean up after their pets. There are signs on every lamp post informing them of this little bit of civic behaviour. And do they? Do they heck! The area is a minefield where you would indeed be foolish to rush in where even angels would fear to tread. I have seen a motorcycle equipped with a vacuum cleaner that dashes about the streets collecting these doggy mementos.
It is a legal requirement to pick up after your animals. There’s a fine of €200 if you do not. But it would seem there’s one law for us and one law for the police. The streets of Lavapies, a barrio in south central Madrid full of narrow twisting lanes, are patrolled by police on horseback. Well horses are animal too and the residents are complaining about the splatters of poop that present a far great challenge to avoid that what the dogs leave behind. Worse, it’s somewhat more liquid and squirts up in smelly jets if a car drives over it. “The law should be equal for all”, commented one resident, remarking he had never seen a cop dismount and clean up after his horse.

Quite right too!
Author's note: Miércoles means Wednesday, but is also used as a humerous euphemism for excrement. It's Wednesday, I am writing about it - and it amused me.
What do you think should be a suitable punishment for the spray paint despoilers? Should the punishment fit the crime? Comments please.


  1. Fining people who have no money is, as you say, pointless. So I'm all for the idea of community service type punishments. I would also like to see the offenders not just painting over public walls and removing their, and other's, graffiti but perhaps being despatched to, say, paint the outside of some little old lady's house in need of sprucing up. The house, not the little old lady!

    I'm also impressed by the street cleaning brigade here! Many's the time I've been sat on the balcony here at 2am and spotted the dustcart careening down the hill towards the flats, 2 overall-clad men swinging happily off the back, before they launch themselves at the wheelie bins. The European standard of street cleanliness (yes, if you ignore the dog crap!) puts just about any city in the UK to shame. I still can't believe that when I left Brighton, they were still only collecting the rubbish once a week, and the recycling once a fortnight.

  2. I also like the idea of community service, including Em's idea of helping the elderly. The Madrid (and European) standard of cleanliness is much better than here in the states. In Rindge, New Hampshire, I have to take my trash and recyclables to the transfer station. In Phoenix, Arizona, we carry our trash out to large bins and our condo association has contracted to have those emptied once per week - but we have to take our recyclables to the recycling station. Maybe I need to move to Madrid or Salamanca or Barcelona. As for the dog and horse droppings, it is much worse here in the U.S. In many areas, people feel that it is their God-given right to let their dogs run loose - so it is not only the droppings, but the dogs themselves you have to deal with (we have a large black labrador mix, but we have an invisible fence that keeps him in our yard - and he only goes out of our yard on a leash and with us following with a plastic pick-up bag).