BULLS, BANDS, AND LONDON CONTENTS
1 SHE LEFT ME ON FRIDAY
…Our first big fight felt different from all the rest. Of course, it contained the usual amounts of outrage and pettiness. But it also introduced something new: an acute impression of finality.
When Jordan slammed the car door, I knew she wouldn’t return my calls for awhile. And I knew that I couldn’t patch up our problems with a warm embrace or a fitful apology or an overpriced gift or a complete retraction of everything I had said or had meant to say. No, I would need something bigger than all that.
The conversation that evolved into our big blow-up started off innocently enough. Since popular music was my obsession and her profession, we often debated bands and artists. But it never ended acrimoniously…
…So Mom’s lovers paraded through our house throughout my entire childhood. But they never got to spend the night; they always had to sleep in their own beds.
Most were nameless but some left slight impressions. Derek taught me how to properly pack a snowball. Oscar let me hold his burning cigarette whenever he mixed rum and cokes. Jerry had a trampoline in his backyard so I got to jump on it for a whole month.
However, Tom was my favorite because he left behind his Peter Gabriel record. “Shock the Monkey” always made me laugh. Any song that mentions foxes, rats, and apes is always a favorite for any eight-year-old.
Then he introduced me to The Clash’s Combat Rock. “Rock the Casbah?” What the hell was a casbah? “Should I Stay or Should I Go”—with backing vocals in Spanish? That was practically revolutionary.
And I have been hooked on British rock ‘n’ roll ever since…
3 I HANG SUSPENDED
4 DARK CLOUDS
…After the hastily arranged funeral, I felt defeated and depressed for months. I returned to the facility to see Rebecca. More than once.
“You’ve got problems, Neil.”
“Yeah, I know, thanks.”
“You can’t keep coming around here. It’s not healthy.”
“I know, it’s just…”
“You need a holiday or something. Get out of that depressing house. Take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Anything else while you’re scolding me?”
“Yeah, the next time you take out a girl? Close the bathroom door when you’re puking after sex…”
5 LIKE A FRIEND
…I followed the signs to the Tube and stayed out of the way of the turbo-Tubers. They’re the experts of the Underground who angrily stride through the metro melee like they own the place. They know the routes and they know the shortcuts. And they have little patience for the lost and the helpless. They will leave you to die if you show any sign of weakness.
I bought my ticket and proceeded to my platform. I didn’t even try to elude the street vendors handing out free newspapers. They were as aggressive as the turbo-Tubers—with a quick fold of the newspaper and then a straight arm thrust into oncoming pedestrian traffic.
I didn’t have to wait long on the platform for my District line train. Settling into my car, I read my free newspaper, appropriately entitled The London Paper. It was deliciously trashy with world politics on one page and celebrity gossip on the next—like the two subject matters were mutually inclusive. “Hmmm, there’s some civil unrest brewing in the Middle East again…Oh look, that footballer’s wife dressed like a slut at the club…”
6 THERE’S NO YOU
7 I’D LIKE TO KNOW
8 GIRLS & BOYS
…Sunlight still baked the park when the band strolled onto the stage. It was a simple set-up with a huge map of London posted on the left side and a big map of England posted on the right.
It was 1995 in an instant. Damon, Graham, Alex, and Dave were still young; I was still young.
I was twenty-five again and dreaming about my hazy future. I had to embrace this rock ‘n’ roll moment completely. It had weight. It had history. I can’t remember what the band wore. I can’t remember any significant gestures. But I watched intently and with a savoring smile—the same savoring smile I had on 14 Draper Street, with my feet dangling off the arm of the couch and my mom napping through her early stages of dementia…
9 THIS IS A LOW
10 SALE OF THE CENTURY
…If Westminster was about the history of English church and state, then Camden Town was about the history of London rock ‘n’ roll. It was northwest of Charing Cross and south of Kentish Town with Islington to the east and Regent’s Park to the west. It was suburban but with an urban hipness that still skirts the edge of the mainstream—if such a thing is possible. It’s loaded with market stalls, ethnic food shops, and good pubs, but most importantly, Camden Town was a living, breathing rock ‘n’ roll playground. It was a magical place where every weekend you could discover the next Oasis.
It started out as a rural backwater with a few scattered farms and two notorious coaching inns, The Mother Red Cap (now The World’s End) and The Southampton (now Edwards). They served eighteenth-century travelers heading to London from Hampstead and Highgate. This meant that the entire Camden area was a dangerous place frequented by thieves on horseback.
Considering the original perception of rock ‘n’ roll as a dangerous form of popular music it seems suited that you can still find it and celebrate it in Camden Town (where the thieves no longer ride horseback, but instead they charge you a high cover price).
11 STAYING OUT FOR THE SUMMER
12 FOR TOMORROW
13 DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME?
…But whatever the guise and whatever the century, it was the still the central meeting place for the proud locals who lived down the narrow streets extending north, east, and west to the city’s oldest quarters.
And on this particular evening, a small marching band was indeed performing inside the bandstand while a temporary stage hosted the 2009 edition of the Ernest Hemingway Look-A-Like contest.
Ernest Hemingway was the favorite American son of Pamplona ever since he published his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, based on his own 1925 trip to Pamplona for the San Fermin Festival.
In 1926, Hemingway was twenty-seven years old with a trim build and a brown moustache.
In 2009, all the men in the Ernest Hemingway Look-A-Like contest were old and paunchy with gray white hair and gray white beards. And it appeared that the paunchiest man with the whitest beard got the loudest applause of all.
The Hemingway pretenders were clearly dressed as a latter-day Hemingway living in Cuba—but it clearly wasn’t my place to climb on the stage and point out their historical inaccuracy.
Earlier in the evening, I complained about the city’s lack of medieval charm. I found it as soon as I escaped the Plaza del Castillo and wandered onto Calle de la Estafeta, perhaps the most famous street in the city…
14 CHEMICAL WORLD
15 BEAUTIFUL LOSER
17 COMMON PEOPLE
…It was a war out there. Within seconds of stepping into the square, I was sprayed with sangria and champagne. And then pelted with eggs. And splattered with bags of flour.
And it came from all directions. From the people standing next to me. From the people standing far ahead of me. From the people standing far behind me. And especially from the people standing on the apartment balconies above the Plaza de Consistorial.
It was a sadistic sport. Hey, your shirt looks too clean. Pow! Do you want some eggs to go with that flour? Plop!
So what are you going to do about it? Get angry? No. You don’t like it? Leave.
Soon the sticky mess felt like a badge of honor. And it really didn’t last. Because the people standing on the apartment balconies also poured out buckets of cold tap water onto our sorry heads.
At ten twenty in the morning, we wore crisp white T-shirts. By eleven, we were repeatedly covered in breakfast food and then doused with water by the good people of Pamplona.
Jordan and I considered spraying the locals back with our own bottles of champagne. But cooler heads prevailed and we drank from Jordan’s bottle instead. We needed the alcohol fortification to combat the pandemonium and the chilling balcony showers…
18 MAKING THE MOST OF
19 WAKING UP
..Runners all over the course did one of two things: panicked and ran—or got out of the way and steeled themselves for what was about to happen.
I stood my ground while Jordan jumped up and down on the other side of the street. We were now completely separated by the early runners. Wave after wave arrived from Calle de Santo Domingo and Calle de los Mercaderes and sprinted past us towards the bullring.
“Go! I’m waiting for the bulls!”
“C’mon, let’s go!”
“Go! I’ll see you in the bullring!”
Jordan didn’t need any more encouragement. She turned and joined the mad rush and scampered up the street. I watched her ponytail bob along for a few seconds but soon lost her in the crush of pandemonium.
The second rocket! The last bull had left the corral. All the bulls and steers were in the street—and all charging directly towards me!…
BULLETS, BUTTERFLIES, AND ITALY CONTENTS
1 DRINKS WITH MR. MAGIC
…I wandered the streets for hours, seeing nothing, going nowhere. I just wanted to get out of Rome. In desperate need of a chair, I settled for the Spanish Steps.
Designed by Italians, funded by the French, linking the Spanish embassy to a French church, the great staircase of one hundred and thirty-eight steps connects the Piazza di Spagna below with the Trinita dei Monti church above. But you can be forgiven for not knowing the church is even there with the monstrous Lancome Paris perfume billboard splattered across its base.
I found a spot on the second tier of steps and faced the piazza washed in a warm amber glow from the street lights. Most people gathered here to rest, meet friends, or make some new ones. I was invisible. A crush of humanity surrounded me and I felt nothing but loneliness…
2 AMALFI MISUNDERSTANDING
3 THE FINAL LIST
I stayed outside. Stepping into the café would be too close. Too confrontational. So I paced, I strayed, I feigned interest in the café’s gelato display. I considered every flavor, agreeing to several taste tests from the tip of a wooden sample spoon.
Antonella stood at the bar and sipped her creamy coffee. It took so long I stepped back into the street and took photos of nothing, eventually sneaking a picture of Antonella licking the foam off the brim of her cup.
I backed into the piazza, waiting for her to ascend the street again. I made sure I kept my distance. Past the wine store with the pushy shopkeeper. Past the wind chime shop.
She paused at the maritime store window. What caught her eye? The maps? The miniature boats? The drunken pirate figurines? Did she just glance back at me?..
4 ENTER FRANCO
Franco bellowed, “Canadese slow today!” He meant it as encouragement.
They stayed well ahead of me, conversing in Italian gibberish. I considered bolting at every convenient turn but my curious affinity for Antonella never diminished.
At intervals Franco tossed back conversational concessions. “Is beautiful, eh Sack? This place not in Canada, I think. Is hard on legs but good for heart, okay?”
I answered each of his verbal offers by wiping perspiration from my forehead.
Another curve to the north, followed by a curve to the south, led us to the village of Vettica; a scattering of homes outside Amalfi. Each one housed a multi-level lemon orchard cascading down the slope-face, like steps fit for a giant…
5 MANHOOD MARCH TO RAVELLO
6 SIENA INVITATION
7 ROMAN RUSE
…I can’t describe the building with any kind of style or flowery detail as I don’t know my Doric from my Corinthian. But it took three emperors to complete the Empire’s finest amphitheater so fifty thousand spectators could gather and roar their approval over the good-natured slaughter of man and beast.
And fifty thousand people seemed to be gathering again, right then and there, as tour bus after tour bus unloaded a shimmering horde of fat women with brightly painted fingernails and perspiring men in baseball caps.
The requisite sidestepping and toe crushing quickly diminished the ethereal experience. Or maybe it was the kissing.
Because despite the relentless onslaught of shutterbugs and guidebook sluts, Franco and Antonella decided to close their eyes and press their lips together. Perhaps the memory of Christian corpses turned them on…
8 THE SWEETNESS OF ST. MATTHEW
9 THE SPECTACLE OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL
…Time neither passed quickly nor stood still. It was inconsequential. Michelangelo spent eleven years of his life creating these works. Surely one can spend thirty minutes, an hour, several days, to acknowledge his masterpieces.
I only cast down my gaze to break away from the building ache to my body: the weariness of my eyes, the tautness of my neck, the gentle throbbing of my restless feet. I just wanted to rest. But the ineffective officials who prodded the persistent paparazzi wouldn’t allow anyone to sit on the altar stairs either. And I agreed. Stand and deliver, or get out.
I never noticed Antonella and Franco inside the Sistine Chapel. We drifted apart immediately. And I didn’t think about them. Or my birthday. Or Mr. Magic and my untimely death. Michelangelo and his glorious manifestations occupied my thoughts entirely. I didn’t even notice the other wall frescoes by the lesser masters. Those walls were as good as blank…
10 THE SEDUCTION OF ST. PETER
11 SPARRING IN THE SUPPERCLUB
…The Supperclub was nearby. We headed south on Corso Rinascimento and I lost my bearings until we reached the grim narrow alley of Via de Nari. Our dining location at number 14 held more promise for an unpleasant stabbing rather than a quality meal.
“Are you sure this is the place?”
Franco knocked and the door was opened by a slender-neck bouncer. No words were spoken. The greeter simply smiled and waved us into the building.
The Supperclub is set inside a restored third century mansion, which finally came to light after a moment of visual adjustment. The entrance walls were dull white with a mix of stone masonry. A lone figure at the end of the hallway suggested a queer and exotic experience awaited us…
12 THE HOOKER IN THE PANDA
13 THE PALIO LOTTERY
14 THE SIENA RULES
15 THE PASSION OF THE PALIO
…Eleven people and two horses for each contrada all slowly marching while the flag throwers performed their flourishes and throws with incredible precision. Drummers beat and the Palio band blared on. The haze of sight and sound numbed the senses in a never-ending display of pageantry.
It pulsated and it brayed and it never stopped. The pace was glacial and the mood was solemn; yet somehow the atmosphere inside the corral intensified. Each minute of movement signaled one minute closer to possible glory. It clouded the mind and drugged the body.
For minutes at a time, I sat down and took pensive sips. Too hot, too claustrophobic, too plodding. Some were enchanted, but I felt restless. Some were enthralled, but I was aching for the race to begin…
16 SEVENTY-FIVE SECONDS TO GLORY
17 SEARCHING FOR MR. MAGIC
18 THE FINAL OFFER
19 THE RACE TO ATRANI
…I bolted through the arch and ran east along Corso delle Repubbliche Marinare. I charged along the sidewalk with the planters and trees only offering a minimal shield.
Previous ailments vanished under the tremendous mental strain to…just…keep moving. The groin was healed, the back was loose, the knee was solid.
Fatigue set in as I hit the highway, but I didn’t slow down. My lungs were burning, my eyes were watering, my breath was straining. What did the high school track coach say? Two short inhalations, one long expiration. Repeat, concentrate. Move those arms.
I glanced back as I approached the northern turn at the Torre Saracena. He was fading a little. Just a little.
There was a fiery pop and a richochet off the pavement near my feet. A gun shot!…
20 SALERNO SUMMITS