I first visited Barcelona back in the mid-nineties. Now returning to the city some years after my first trip, I recall it differently, intermingled as it is with what feels like a very different me altogether. My first visit was a few years after the Olympics, and yet many of the prostitutes who I assumed came to ply their trade during the heavy tourist traffic of the summer of '92, liked the city so much they decided to stay. And while accommodation off the city's most famous street, La Rambla, and in fact throughout the city, might have been a problem during the games, it continued afterwards too. I surmised, though, in time with evidence to back up the claim, that many of the little hotels had become short-stay brothels, that the African prostitutes, Brazilian transsexuals and the ageing, life-battered whores from Madrid and Andalusia would use the city's many one-star hotels as temporary whorehouses.
Of course, I'm going partially on second-hand knowledge (tourist guides, British newspapers) but also on a specific first-hand experience. It was in one of those one-star hotels that I stayed for about twenty-five minutes; a decision based on irresolution, tiredness and perhaps something more.
I had been trying all evening to find accommodation, but this was in early September, and there were no rooms anywhere near the old neighbourhood where I wandered. As I heard the yowling of stray cats, watching them prowl around a fenced, wasteland menagerie, where I stepped over dog excrement, and felt helpless as a street urchin kicked a long-tamed dog, I couldn't find anywhere to stay. Nor could I find anything in the city centre where I walked later in the evening, passing the Gothic area and its famous cathedral. By the time I thought I would try outside the centre, I realized in this city where evening starts later than almost anywhere else, and goes on so much longer, the metro had closed. The deceptive busyness of the night led me to think it was earlier than it was - it was after two.
So what I decided to do to motivate myself through the rest of the evening, to stay awake till the hostel would open at seven, was to imagine sleeping with one of the prostitutes that would stand against a wall along La Rambla, or inside a doorway on one of its side streets. I had no intention of acting on my observations; merely to offer each woman a grading. I also decided, however, to make my grading so stringent that if, by some vision beyond my control, I was to come across a ten, I would allow myself for the first and surely the last time to pay for sex.
I even over the evening provided a mini-taxonomy: generally the white women were older and their clothes usually tatty; the blacks all under thirty and dressed in Lycra pants, often white or black, with a top of the same colour. They would also generally chew gum, where the white women sucked on cigarettes, and while I rarely saw a white woman worthy of more than a five; there wasn't a black girl who fell below a six.
However, I also offered a further taxonomy. I noticed that those who would proposition the women seemed to fall into three categories. The first were young and drunk, and propositioned the black girls. The second group were businessmen a decade or two older than those in the first group, and they chose a mixture of black girls and white women. The third group seemed mainly to be people from the city; middle-aged men who looked as if they had sneaked out of their family homes during the night, or were lonely men unable to sleep. They seemed drawn to the older white whores. I also assumed that where the first group saw a prostitute as nothing more nor less than guaranteed sex after a drunken night, the second group were simply filling in time and expelling a sexual urge whilst in a foreign city. The third group were, I decided, surely either addicted to low-grade prostitution or repelled in some way by themselves or their own loneliness.
So clearly this trawl through Barcelona's back streets and main thoroughfare wasn't just about the need for sexual release wrapped in layers of denial, and yet I'm still intrigued to know whether it was chiefly a sexual rather than cerebral curiosity that led me to my actions that evening. Or was it something else, something that thought it wanted another's beauty but perhaps wanted to find something more intrinsic: an aspect of one's own self-disgust?
It was about quarter past three by the time I'd wandered around most of the city centre's back alleys and main streets. Most of the cafes were by now closed, but I noticed one, in the old barrio, where there were people coming in and going out of a single corrugated iron door, with the rest of the windowed faade completely grilled, and the door itself pulled over immediately after a person entered or left. It would thus generally have given the impression of complete closure. I tapped on the door, a waiter opened it, and ushered me in, promptly closing the door behind him. I found a table in the corner of the caf, sat down, and waited for someone to come over and take my order. Instead of the waiter a woman came over, roughly in her late thirties, white, obviously a prostitute, and with the garish make-up that couldn't hide the puff-cheeked despair beneath it.
As she prepared to sit down opposite me, I shook my head and made it clear I was fine with my own company. She smiled, sat down nevertheless, and said she just wanted to talk. She said this not in Spanish but in English, and I replied in English that I supposed I had plenty time for chat.
She talked for only half an hour, but no words seemed wasted. She said she had come from Buenos Aires ten years before, that she followed a lover from Barcelona who had been staying in the Argentine capital. It was he, she said, who had introduced her to heroin. She thrust her sleeve up to show the track marks; perhaps to give credence to a story so close to clich, but smiled as she realized that by doing so she was adding to it; and, curiously, in smiling, finally managed to undermine it. Check out the parks down from the Olympic village, she said - that will give you a shock to the system.
As she spoke, her English was less poor than hesitantly rusty. I enquired whether she had studied it at school; she said she had studied it at university, and seemed pleased when I didn't look surprised. Perhaps I knew then, she said, why she needed to talk, why she needed to speak English. It was the only outlet where she could still get credence. I asked her about her addiction. You absorb it and it absorbs you she said. It is an addiction of the body, of the soul. It has a beautiful logic: the more you use it, the less veins you have for injecting: it takes over your very bloodstream. As we talked, I noticed people looking at us; though less with disdain than confusion. What was I, a keen-eyed twenty four-year old doing with this drawn and deadened prostitute? Would I not have thought the same only half an hour before? Would I not think something else again, some years later?
I wouldn't want to exaggerate this encounter, but as she stood up, on high heels that made her walk as hesitant as her English, and snatching her Marlboros and lighter from the table, I sensed that if we weren't to meet again that would only be a matter of specifics. Whatever she represented, I instinctively knew in some way that I was drawn to it.
I wondered when I went back out onto the streets that night whether I searched with less intent my number ten after seeing so clearly someone in whom all physical attractiveness had long since gone. Just as her English was enfeebled by neglect, so her looks had completely dissipated, and yet at least the traces of fluent English could be located. I could see nothing of what she proclaimed (and I think with absolute sincerity) was her former beauty, except perhaps for her pert, still cute nose. I felt as I searched the streets that sexual pleasure was no longer an idle possibility, but a probable reality. I somehow felt too pure and innocent, and I knew I had no right to some perfect ten - a seven or eight would be enough.
I found a seven and a half along La Rambla. She was popping gum, wearing a white T-shirt and white Lycra pants, and she looked at most nineteen: not so many years younger than me. After I gave her the money, she grabbed my hand and we walked along a side street as if a regular couple. Then suddenly she stopped, let go of my hand and pressed a door buzzer, before yanking me into the stairwell after someone released the door. It turned out to be a one star hotel on the second floor from the top, and the man sitting at the desk looked half porter and half pimp. He was around sixty, with filmy skin, and his teeth looked newly false. He grinned constantly, though as if smiling were alien to him. When he grinned, his eyes remained dead. The prostitute handed over some money, took the key, and guided me along the narrow-lit corridor, where I could hear moaning from at least two rooms.
Once inside she pointed to the shower, looked at her watch, and said, in English, that I had thirty minutes. I quickly showered, came out with the soiled looking towel around my waist (I should have wormed my own out of the rucksack), and watched her black body lying stretched out naked on its front, as she undid the condom wrapper.
I didn't need thirty minutes.
By the time I left it was almost five o'clock. I asked, using a mixture of Spanish, English and sign language, if she knew of a bakery in the area. The guidebook suggested there was a great one in the district, and which opened at about four in the morning. Pointing out the window, she gave me directions.
The man serving at the bakery realized almost immediately that I was an English speaker, despite my perfect and well-prepared Spanish sentence, and asked where I was from. I said Glasgow in Scotland. He reckoned I looked more South American - or Mexican, his own home country. He asked me what I wanted to eat. I mentioned croissants. He asked me to wait a moment before pulling off a box of broken croissants from the shelf, which must have had the equivalent of about a dozen pastries in it. There was a mixture of plain, almond and chocolate croissants, half broken. He said they were yesterday's leftovers, but very tasty. He said they proved very popular with backpackers. I paid for them, removed the cellophane wrapper, and started eating a chunk of croissant. I asked how long he had been in the city. He said three years; and that he had been in the same job since he arrived. He added that he hoped to get a night portering job soon. I briefly thought of the man in the hotel - was that the sort of night portering job he was thinking of?
After thanking him, and turning along towards La Rambla, passing a few stray hookers still hoping for business, I was beginning to feel that the night had a strange sort of pornologic to it. It was as if the logic of the evening had led me inextricably to the prostitute, and that the wider motives and morality of my life had no bearing on the situation. I found a bench to sit and eat the pastries, and beside me was a newsagent still open selling porno magazines, tapes and, no doubt, condoms. I bought a bottle of water.
It would have been about six by the time I finished the litre bottle, and I felt nauseous after eating the entire box of croissants, and so I started looking for a hostel - I needed a proper lie down. Many of the hostels booked people in on a first come first serve basis at seven I'd read, so I wandered up to a youth hostel in the old neighbourhood and lay down on a bench, using my rucksack as a large pillow. After a while I heard the click of the hostel door, opened my eyes and saw what was obviously a prostitute and a man in his late twenties leaving the building. I looked in my guidebook - yes definitely a youth hostel it said, but then there were presumably other flats in the buildings also. Is that how pornologic works? That everything gets mediated through the form of a sexual cause and effect?
However, over the next couple of days my instinct was validated: a number of rooms on one floor that clearly belonged to the hostel was generally reserved for prostitutes. Amsterdam might be the city of sexual and social liberation, but it also appeared compartmentally libertine. Here something else seemed to be going on. Or was it just chiefly my way of looking at things?
I stayed in Barcelona for only three days. I had a month's Euro-rail pass and my next stop was Madrid. But before leaving the city I found the park below the Olympic stadium and carried on down past the disused fair ground area where the woman had mentioned I would get a shock. Scattered in the bushes next to the main path were disused swabs of cotton wool, empty syringe packets and numerous syringes. In some of the syringes there was still blood, others were empty, and were sticking out of the ground, the needles digging out of the grass. The woman was right; there was something so oblique about what I saw that it became ineffably vivid. When she showed me her arm it was as if it were all of a ruined piece: I couldn't see anything in her that would make me feel the loss of her old self for the physical wreck that had sat in front of me. However, here was a park where kids could conceivably play, where cats and dogs wandered freely. Somehow, there was something more appalling about a cat or a dog accidentally treading on a needle, than the woman whose entire arm was a swollen rash.
There was certainly something scrambled on that Barcelona visit more than ten years ago. Now returning to the city for an IT conference, and with a life of multiple incompatibles that only regular drinking can appease, I find myself once again returning to the streets; no matter if on this occasion a salubrious room awaits me in a pleasant district in the city centre. Once again, though, I might wonder whether it's curiosity or sexual need that pulls me back out on the streets, and towards the same districts. I haven't been with a prostitute in the intervening years, but I feel I've made many equally arbitrary and un-intrinsic, perhaps even equally dubiously moral, decisions - if you go with the idea of moral dubiousness. I suspect I do. When I think back, yes I might have gone to the semi-beautiful black prostitute to cancel out my curious feelings towards a woman who had destroyed her life, her health and her looks, but, strangely, in time the reverse has happened. Now I have no concrete image of the young woman, but a vivid one of the haggard whore. I suppose I also realise, as I again wander the streets, that if I am to pay once more to sleep with a woman she wouldn't be young and black, but older, white and with a life tattered, torn and surprised by her own fate. I also feel that as I look at backpackers searching out hostels, maybe also considering sex, or just curious about its encompassing presence in this city, that if any of them were to do some analytic observing, would they wonder to which customer taxonomy I might now belong?
© Tony McKibbin