A Red-Lit Basement
By Bobby Rich
Photos by Sarrah Danziger
The night was similar to every other night we had had in Barcelona. We’d go for a drink and take it from there. If nothing happened we’d go back to our place and have a couple bottles of cava. If something did happen, like we found a party or met some people who were club hopping, we would hang with them until we got bored. This was the easiest way I had found to discover a city. When doing this there was no telling where you might find yourself, who you might meet or what you might end up doing.
The next stop of the night would be Marsella, an absinthe bar. It was a tourist bar, I suppose, but it was the best tourist bar in the city. It was first opened in 1820, and the absinthe, from what I have heard from a reliable source, is brewed in the back of the bar. One thing I can tell you from firsthand experience, I have never been as happily drunk as I have been here. It’s even better when you realize you’ve only spent seven euros to feel drunk.
We had met this guy earlier in the night at a bar somewhere in the Barrio Gothic. We had just been standing there at the cigarette machine. Sophia and my friend Claire, who was from Paris and visitng Barcelona for the first time, were laughing and I wasn’t listening to them. There was bad music playing and we had just paid too much for our beer. It was precisely at that moment, when everything was adding up and I was about to be in a bad mood, that I heard a trailing voice pass me: “You from America?” it said. The girls weren’t paying attention to it, but I looked up and saw the man that the voice had come from. He wore a Yankee’s cap, so I pointed to my head and said, “We’re from New York City.”
He said, “Yeah?” It was questioning, as though he didn’t believe me.
I said, “Brooklyn.”
He said, “Yeah?” His eyes sparkled, “I’m from Queens.”
“Off the J?”
“I’m off the J, too. The Flushing stop.”
“That’s where my brother lives.”
We thought about what else we could say.
“Uh-huh,” I muttered, “another friend of mine from Flushing is living here. Right down the street actually.” (This is the friend who told me Marsella makes the absinthe in the back room.)
“I haven’t met anyone from America here.”
“Really? There are people all over Barcelona from America”
“Yeah, I meet them all the time. People from all over the fucking place. Texas, New York, California, Washington. Shit, Claire’s from New Jersey and I’m from Georgia.”
He laughed. “Shit, where in Georgia?”
“Aww,” he said, understandingly. “I’m moving here soon, I think. You know, because the situation in America is so fucked up.”
“Yep,” I said. I had recently watched Zeitgeist, and crazily thought he was talking about how fucked up American politics were. “Well, I really think you’ll like it here.”
We walked away from the cigarette machine and left the girls where they were. I said, “It’s similar to New York here, you have a subway at least. It’s just a lot smaller. You’ll figure it out in no time. If you got New York City down, then this is easy.”
“You know, I don’t know how to get around, so I’m just kickin’ it at my brother’s. I’ve been living in Camden, NJ since ’97.”
I laughed. “Just get a map. Do you even like it here so far?”
“I don’t know. The bitches are different. And they just pass you off like what?”
“Well, I guess it’s difficult if you don’t speak Spanish.”
“Naw,” he said, “I do speak Spanish. My father is Dominican and my mom’s Puerto Rican.”
“That makes sense,” I said. For some reason I hadn’t assumed any ethnicity for him. “Well, you’re set then. I think you’ll like it just fine. What are you doing here, anyway?” That was the most New York question I had asked since I arrived in Spain. I felt like I was betraying my purpose for traveling. But sometimes these kind of feelings can be wrong, because the next question this guy asked me was: “You do coke?”
I was taken by surprise at first, but out of habit I then asked, “Why, you selling?”
“Yeah. And this shit’s good, dawg. I’ve seen them cook it.”
“What do they cut it with?”
“Baking soda. Shit’s ninety-seven percent pure.”
“I don’t know.” I was playing the game, the New York game possibly. I wanted a free bump, and he knew it. You at least have to get a gummer before you throw fifty down on a sack.
“Try it,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said, excitedly. But I wasn’t blowing it.
“I don’t care. I just moved here three days ago, and I’m trying to get some regular customers.” He handed me a folded-up American fifty dollar bill.
“How much of this do you have?” I said, referring to the currency.
He opened up his wallet and flashed me the cash. There must of been $7,000 in it. I acted cool, even though I wanted to knock out his teeth and take every cent of it, and then laugh in his face like a banshee in the night. Instead I would make him feel less about himself, since he had no previous international traveling experience. I laughed condescendingly, “That’s like monopoly money here, fool.”
“I know,” he said, but he wasn’t about to give it up. And I let a greedy wave, that had probably shown in my eyes, pass through me and be taken with the winds that howled in the alley. He then asked how much I paid for my ticket from New York City to Barcelona.
“Twelve-hundred dollars!” I repeated. “Man, I’m going to go to the bathroom and do this coke, but you got ripped off.”
“Shit,” he said, “Where did you get it?”
“Cheap Tickets dot com, or something. Be right back.”
I passed Sophia and Claire, who had taken a seat at a table by the window. Sophia looked at me. I wanted to tell her the news, but the girls and I had talked earlier about getting coke and they had said they didn’t want it. I knew both of them would take it for free, but I always like to hold someone to their word.
The bathroom looked very hipster. They had Vice magazine pictures glued to the walls, very attractive women and men necking and sucking and even fucking! Pictures of cops getting head from young Spanish brunettes, bro’s rocking a shaka sign and boning a prostitute over the toilet! Pop culture had become sick and twisted, and I was glad I stayed out of it as much as I could. I hadn’t had cable for over five years, and I thought it was distasteful when someone did. I was so far distanced from what was happening I hadn’t even heard of HD until three months ago.
I shook my head and took my eyes off of the Vice pictures, and then I opened the door to the bathroom and some chick was squatting over the toilet. I closed the door fast, my cheeks running pink from embarrassment. Then I tried to open the other door across from it. It was open, but apparently someone had been waiting in line before me. He pushed me aside and went in. I didn’t start an argument because my Spanish wasn’t good enough to do so. I waited my turn and, when that asshole who had pushed me aside was finished, I went in the stall and locked the door. The coke was folded up in the fifty dollar bill in a little square. I looked inside of it, and there was a lot more coke than I thought there would be. I looked in my pockets for my house key, but I knew it would do nothing for me in this situation. It wasn’t shaped the way normal American keys are shaped (perfect for doing bumps of coke), it was shaped like an old lever key, which is triangular and not useful for doing coke. I searched my pocket for anything that may help me in my mission, but I found nothing. My credit and bank cards had been left at home and none of my coins would suffice. I finally dumped the whole thing into the palm of my hand and lifted it to my nose, sniffing like a pig in heat. I looked into my hand, expecting to see some coke left over, but there was none. I shrugged my shoulders and walked back toward the street, passing the girls and seeing Sophia again. Already I had that coke horniness, and so thought the stuff was good. I interrupted Sophia and gave her a kiss. She didn’t seem to be impressed, but as I walked away we looked at each other and had eye sex right then and there.
I knew she had liked it, and, at the same time, found it surprising. I felt good about it, anyway. At least she didn’t roll her eyes, I thought. That would have been a dagger to the heart.
He was standing outside. “What’d you think?” he asked.
“It’s all right. I think it’s laced with speed, not baking soda. That shit will keep me up all night with the shakes.”
“Naw, I’m telling you, it’s pure. I watch them make it.”
“Alright. Well, let me get your number. What’s your name anyway?”
“Jay,” he said. “Actually let me get your number. Then I’ll call you, and you’ll have mine.”
“Works for me.”
We made the exchange and he said, “Call me anytime. I’ll be around.” We shook hands and went our separate ways: him down the dark alley of Caller de Avinyo, and me back to the bar and the girls.
The girls, once again, were talking, and their conversation couldn’t have been any more boring to me. They were talking about birth control and the effects it had on a woman’s mental state. Claire had recently stopped taking birth control, and now was just going for it without any protection. Sophia and I thought it was a bad idea. The difference between Sophia and I was that Sophia told her it was a bad idea and I didn’t say anything. As far as I was concerned, she could do whatever the fuck she wanted.
Sophia always told the same story about her birth control experience. It went something like this:
(I’m actually going to ask her to tell the story now. I’ll record it and transcribe it later. She is in the room alone with the tape recorder, and I’m in the living room writing this. She’s telling her story, the horror story of using birth control. And she’s not the only woman who has had these problems. If you are a woman and you’re feeling crazy, it’s time to stop blaming it on your period, it’s time to stop blaming it on your boyfriend, it’s time to stop blaming it on your ex-boyfriend, it’s time to stop blaming it on your parents, your husband, or your children. It is none of the above, it is your birth control. Wake up! Read the reviews and the side-effects of your prescription! This isn’t news, ladies. This is a fact, and it may be happening to you! So if you are a crazy bitch, go talk to your doctor right now and get another script, get some Xanax – get something! But take Sophia’s advice to Claire, don’t actually stop taking birth control, just find the one that makes you least crazy. Because truth be told, us guys, we don’t like using condoms. It gives us even less of the pleasure we as men are able to feel. It’s a scientific fact, ladies, that the sexual regions of a woman are ten times more sensitive than a males’. So, in short, honey, baby (whatever the fuck he calls you), go crazy for him, but don’t go so crazy that you bother him and everybody around you. You have to be perfectly crazy to turn your man on. And I mean that with all the love in the world.
I was smoking my twentieth cigarette by the time Sophia finished her story and I was ready to leave the bar. I knew a place that had good jazz some nights, called The Pipa Club, so I told the girls about it. We had all finished our absurdly small beers, that were quarter pints at a Euro-fifty a glass, and we were ready to go. We had a bottle of wine stashed in Claire’s purse, so the plan was to chug it while walking to the club. The club was about six blocks away at the Placa Reial.
For anyone who finds themselves in Barcelona and want to see good jazz, or wants to play good jazz, go to the Sunday night jam sessions at The Pipa Club. Jam sessions are equivalent to America’s open mics, except jam sessions are themed. At some places it may be Rasta themed, at some places it may be Electro Jazz themed, at some places it may be Flamenco themed – in the case of Sunday nights at the Pipa Club it is acoustic Ragtime and Gypsy Jazz themed. The address is 3 Placa Reial. To get in you have to buzz the bottom right button of the intercom, and they will let you in if they’re open. The bar is on the second floor. The focus there seems to be on stringed instruments, but the musicians are usually open to anything, as long as it fits the genre. I have seen some of the greatest unexpected orchestrations here. Seven guitarists, two violinists and a bassist, half of whom the regulars didn’t know the names of, and they managed to improvise one of the best stringed versions of “Dina” I had ever heard.
Sunday Nights at Pipa Club
The Pipa Club is not all great though. All in all it’s a hit or miss club. I have found Sunday nights to be consistent, but there have been other nights, nights when I was drunk and searching for jazz, only to enter the Pipa Club and find a room filled with Australian and Brazilian tourists wearing silken shirts with their top three buttons undone, listening to house music, bobbing their heads, and speaking unfathomable babble to women way out of my league. So, in short, go to the Pipa Club at your own risk. And I suggest getting drunk before you get there, because beers are five Euros and straight liquors or mixed drinks are at least seven Euros, and the prices go up from there.
When Sophia, Claire and I got to the Pipa Club this night, after chugging our one-twenty euro bottle of merlot, we didn’t get buzzed in. We walked away from the door looking up to the second story windows, but unfortunately we didn’t see any lights on. I asked Sophia what time it was, and she told me it was past midnight. I knew they had after-hour times on Friday and Saturday, but it seemed strange to me that on Saturday they wouldn’t be open at midnight. “Well, Claire,” I said, “We tried to show you a cool club. I know they’re open on Sundays so, if you wanna, we’ll go there tomorrow.”
“That’d be nice. For tonight, it doesn’t really matter.”
Claire and I started walking to another bar, while Sophia trailed behind taking photographs.
“Are you tired?” I asked Claire. She had mentioned earlier she was tired from not having slept for two nights, and wanted to go home early. “If you wanna go home, it’s no big deal to me. We’ll walk you to your hostel from here. Or do you think you know your way by now?”
“I could probably find my way.”
“To tell you the truth, I’d rather walk you home anyway. That way it will give me an excuse to go to the absinthe bar. ‘Sophia, we’re already in this neighborhood, we might as well get an absinthe.’”
“Okay, okay,” she said.
We stopped completely and waited for Sophia to catch up.
“All right,” I said, “We’re going to walk Claire home.”
“Okay,” she said. Sophia was used to doing this. Claire had only been in town for two nights and we had walked her back to her hostel on both. Granted, it would have been extremely easy for Claire to walk there from where we were, all she had to do was walk straight until she hit Paral-lel. But Claire kept insisting she didn’t know her way, and then Sophia whispered into my ear, “Why don’t we just tell her to go by herself?”
I have always been good at keeping a secret, but never any good at subduing my excitement. “Because I wanna get an absinthe,” I blurted. She didn’t say anything. I had gotten an absinthe every night for the past two weeks, and, in that time, she had gotten used to the flavor, which she initially hated. Still, I knew she didn’t want to go to Marsella. “C’mon,” I said, “It’ll be fun. And I promise, I’ll just have a quickie.”
She pushed me away from her. “That’s what you always say.”
“Well, this time I mean it. One absinthe, and then we can go home.”
She gave me a dirty look that in my mind meant, “Yes, of course you can go to Marsella for an absinthe. I love you.”
I gave her a kiss. She gave me another dirty look.
Bar Marsella is located at 65 Carrer Sant Pau, and, like I said earlier, it is about two hundred years old. Many say it was the first bar in Barcelona. I don’t believe the place has been dusted since the day it opened. There are liquor bottles caked with resin an inch thick lining the interior walls, and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that are caked with resin just as thick. And just imagine, you can sit there looking at all this and think, “That’s the resin from the cigarettes of Picasso, Gaudi, Hemingway, and Dali!” And then scribble in your little notebook.
Unfortunately Bar Marsella is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a great place, and, as far as I’m concerned, the only place to get an absinthe in Barcelona. However, on a Friday or Saturday night it is packed shoulder to shoulder, reminding one of a club in New York City. And don’t go there expecting to hear any music made before 1985. They love to play artists such as The Cure, Queen, and Tom Petty. And they do not take requests, so don’t even try it. Apparently it’s one of their policies.
In no way were Claire and Sophia interested in being at Bar Marsella tonight. They hadn’t told me this, but it was all too clear by their expressions. I walked in with them, we stood in a circle in the middle of the crowd, and I was unable to hear anything they were saying. The crowd was so loud I couldn’t even hear the bad music that was playing. I asked the girls if they wanted a drink, and both said no. “All right,” I yelled over the buzz of voices, “I’ll be right back.”
I went over to the bar and asked for an Absinthe.
“Con agua?” asked the barkeep.
“Si, senior,” I answered. My Spanish wasn’t great, but I knew how to be polite.
The barkeep went to the next customer, and I dropped two sugar cubes into the absinthe. As the sugar absorbed the liquor I looked for the girls, but they were gone. I left my drink where it was and went searching for them. I found them outside smoking cigarettes. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s too loud in there,” they answered.
I was annoyed, but wasn’t going to leave my drink unattended longer than a minute.
The sugar had already started to dissolve into the absinthe when I got back. I used the fork which was placed on top of the glass to mix the sugar. Many people like to light the sugar on fire, but I think that’s just a parlor trick, it’s a novelty, like blowing fire with 151. It becomes trite after a while, and you realize how unnecessary it is. Eventually you just want the drink, and that’s all that matters. Next, I mixed in the water and watched the clear yellow liquid become a milky green. I looked at it with a fiendish glare, and then drank it in two gulps, gagging discreetly on the second. Then I walked back to the girls, feeling congenial now.
“You didn’t have to drink it that fast. We’re fine,” said Sophia.
“I told you I was going for a quickie.” For once I had kept my word on such a promise, and I was sure Sophia was happy she hadn’t waited on me for an hour, like she usually did.
It was at this time that I heard a familiar voice call my name. I looked over my shoulder and saw that it was Dan, Natalia, Xavier, and a couple others whom I hadn’t met. We started talking the shit: “That’s crazy that we just ran into each other like this”, “I tried to call you earlier tonight”, and “What have you been up to tonight?” We sorted through all the bull-shit and decided we’d hang out for a while. With everyone being excited for the next bar, we left bar Marsella behind and at the same time Claire. I hadn’t even realized she was missing until I asked Sophia. Then she told me she had forgotten to tell me that Claire had said good-night.
I didn’t like the next bar we went to. It played techno music, it was packed even more than Marsella (but people were trying to dance), the drinks were expensive, and it was extremely hot. It was so hot in this place that I decided to go outside for a cigarette. To my surprise everyone I had come with was outside smoking a joint. What’s crazy about Barcelona, and possibly all of Spain, is that its citizens are allowed to have two marijuana plants in their home, legally. It’s also legal to purchase weed, but illegal to sell it. It’s common to see a person light a pipe or roll a joint at the bars there, which suited my fancy. I had never been one to purchase weed, but any time it was around I smoked it.
I passed the joint to Dan, and he said the shit was making him tired and that he wanted an upper. I didn’t know Dan well, but I didn’t have any qualms telling him that I had just met a guy from New York who sold coke and delivered, and, if he wanted, I could call him and hook up a deal. Dan asked me if it was any good and I answered, “Well, I’m on it right now, and I like it.” That was a good enough answer for everyone. Xavier, Dan, Natalia, Sophia, and I decided we’d pitch ten each and get a gram.
I called Jay and told him I wanted to get a sack. He told me that wouldn’t be a problem, but that he had gone back to his brother’s and would have to meet me in thirty minutes on Las Ramblas. I confirmed saying, “All right, I’ll meet you there at one-thirty.” Everyone wanted to know the status of the deal, and I told them I was going to meet Jay in a half-hour. That sounded good to everyone, and they all handed me their money. During the waiting period we went back into the club. I attempted to dance for a few minutes with Sophia, but there were too many people and we couldn’t move the way we wanted. “Do you just wanna get some beer on the street and wait for Jay?” I asked Sophia.
“I don’t wanna be here any more than you do,” she answered.
We had a problem getting out of the club though. I told Dan we were going to meet the man and that we would be back in an hour maximum, but he said he wanted Sophia to stay as collateral. But Sophia didn’t want to stay, so I comforted him, reminding him that he had my phone number, my email, and all my other information. I also said I had no intention of ripping him off, and this pacified him.
Like it always happens, the dealer was running late. I tried calling him, I tried calling Dan, I tried calling Natalia, but no one would answer their phone. As I was stressing out, Sophia was gaily taking photos of the prostitutes across the street. I knew they all would think I was sketchy now, but I shrugged my shoulders to this idea, instead deciding to blame it on them for not answering their phones.
Ladies of the Night, Barcelona
So, at quarter past two, I finally get a call from Jay. He’s getting out of the subway right now and he’ll be there in a few minuets. I tell him not to worry about being late and I’ll see him when he gets here. When he does get here the exchange is made with a handshake, and then we both part ways. An hour and fifteen minute wait for a ten second exchange and a fifteen minute high, I think to myself, what a deal!
Sophia and I start walking back to the club that we left, calling Dan and Natalia, but neither will answer their phone. Sophia and I are nervous about this, but at the same time it only means there’s more for us. This revelation brings comfort to our stroll, and we start realizing what beauty we are walking through. Barcelona is truly one of the most fantastic cities in Europe. Besides the Gaudi, just the simple Gothic architecture can make you feel that you are in a different time. All the cobble stone alleys, the terraces, and the dim-lit bars make the Barrio Raval and Gothic romantic at anytime. So Sophia and I decide to hold hands and enjoy it while we can.
Barrio Gothic, Barcelona
By the time we got back to the club it was closed. Sophia asked me if I wanted to call them again, but I said, “What’s the point? We’ve already tried to call them ten times.” She agreed, and we started to leave. But as we were going down the alley to the train station I received a call and looked at the number. It was Dan.
“Where you been, man? We’ve been waiting for you.”
“I tried to call you. You should pick up your phone every once-in-awhile. Hey, we’re at the club, where did you go?”
“Did you get the stuff?”
“Yeah, I got the stuff.”
“We’re going to this after hours club on Cera and Sant Pau. You know where that is?”
“All right. Stay right there. Natalia and I will be there in a minute.”
The after hours club was located at 55 Ronda de Sant Pau and Carrer de la Cera. The place didn’t have a name, nor did it have any specific hours. It was ran by a group of hip African immigrants who threw parties whenever they felt like it, said Dan. All I knew was there was no cover charge to get in, and I didn’t have anything to lose. When we got there we all waited in line for the bathroom, and when it was our turn Dan, Natalia, Sophia, and I crammed into a small stall together and finished the sack in no time. But it was too long for someone who kept knocking on the door.
The dance floor was downstairs in the basement, and it didn’t take long before I realized I didn’t want to be there. Once again it was some bad techno music, which seems to be an overwhelming trend that has spread uncontrollably throughout Europe. Currently I was a little drunk and extremely high on coke, but the music just wouldn’t do. I just don’t like techno, it doesn’t matter how high or drunk I am.
So I decided I would explore the building of this after hours club. In a way it reminded me of a warehouse party, except for the fact that it was located in the center of the city. It was an entire apartment building. The top three floors were personal rooms for the owners to bring their girls into, the ground floor was where the entrance and bathrooms were, and the basement was where the party was. On my way back to the dance floor I noticed a door that was cracked open, and peeked inside. Sitting in a circle were three men and one woman. One guy had a guitar and the other two men were singing call and response, as the woman would clap. It was Flamenco, my first experience with the heart and soul of it, and I couldn’t have been happier.
I went back and retrieved Sophia. The scene was so enchanting in that little room it was hard not to be mesmerized. There was a dim red light hanging above them and they all had six packs beside them. They were crying out there souls to each other, and those who were there were actually listening. Sophia and I just sat there watching, and soon the speed thoughts of cocaine vanished and all we could pay attention to was the next electric moan of the vocalists, and the encouragement of the listeners and the plucking of the guitarists. The next thing I knew I heard someone singing from across the way, and realized there were now more people in this room than there had been on the dance floor.
I had no idea how much time had passed, or where Dan and Natalia were, but that didn’t matter to me. People all over the room were taking their turn singing now, women were dancing, people were clapping. If you weren’t participating you were watching with amazement. But all good things have to come to an end, and unfortunately this party got broken up by the owners of the club. They were pissed off that everyone was in this room and not buying drinks at their bar on the dance floor. We told them to fuck off at first, but they kept bothering us. In the end, I guess, the owners got what they deserved for breaking up our party, because the cops busted in and everyone slowly began to leave.
Sophia and I commenced our walk to the subway, which runs twenty-four hours on Saturday, but first talked to a street peddler and bargained two beers for a Euro. They tasted nice and cold in the cheap air.
Locations in Barcelona
C/ Sant Pau, 65
08001 Barcelona, España
934 427 263
Plaça Reial, 3
08002 Barcelona, España
933 011 165
After Hours Club
55 Ronda de Sant Pau (at Carrer de la Cera)
08001 Barcelona, Espana