On the Plaza de Santa Ana our expatriate buddies welcomed us back as heroes. Everybody was excited to sample the marijuana we had crossed the water to bring them. And one night it all came together in the home of an American beatnik who was married to a French woman. They had a nice big house and about thirty of us got together there. Everybody got a chance to smoke the kief. Most of the people had never smoked marijuana and my own experience was only two weeks old. At that time, it was not something one did continually. It was special, expensive, and not very available.
I was sitting on a couch with Ruth next to me and Harold Smith in his tweed suit on the other side of her. In the corner, Sebastiano rolled big “cubano” joints of kief and passed them around the room. Everybody was getting high, most of them for the first time, and everybody altogether at the same time! It was momentous. We were riveted to our seats by the effects of the kief, just sitting there experiencing it and wondering what was going to happen next.
Music was playing and a friendly, happy atmosphere pervaded the group. On the couch next to me Ruth was starting to giggle because on the other side of her Harold was all red in the face and projecting a salacious gleam from his eye directed at her! He would say, “Oh Ruth, Oh, Oh,” like a proper English cave man and she would giggle. But then he started touching and getting a little out of control. Finally, we both said, “You have to stop this now, Harold,” and he would demure only to rise again shortly thereafter. He was taking cover in the idea that this was all the marijuana’s fault. Within the pungent cloud of pot smoke, he was giving his libido free reign.
Eventually he pretended a mild faint and when he came out of it, he said, “Oh goodness me. I have no idea what could have possibly possessed me.” We didn’t buy that ruse but no harm was done either. No doubt, under the surface, this little Englishman was a hot porn star trapped in a tiny body wrapped in tweed.
A week or so later a stout Danish girl we knew was harassed by him in the street to such an extent that she had to beat him off with an umbrella she carried. He limped into the café with quite a lump on his head. We had begun to figure out the nature of “the difficulties” he had encountered in England.
A turning point was coming now in my life; whether to stay in Madrid or go home and go back to school in the fall. Sebastiano and Ruth wanted me to go in with them in renting an apartment. I could teach English. From home, my father was planning a big celebration for my mother’s fiftieth birthday and he wanted me to be the big surprise. I decided to go back.
In this Muslim country the women stayed in and only the men socialized outside the home. Kief was not even illegal, maybe a slight misdemeanor. It was alcohol that was the forbidden fruit.
We made our business arrangements. The next evening, I was to ride on my motorcycle out into the country with an unknown Moroccan on the passenger seat. I had the money from the movie crew and some of my own to buy two kilos of kief, almost five pounds. This was a little tense because anything could happen. I was completely vulnerable. I could disappear easily.
The appointed time came and the contact person met us. He and I got on the Triumph and slipped out of town and into the dark desert night. We travelled about half an hour into the countryside. It was cold. The desert doesn’t keep its heat. The sea breeze coming off the Mediterranean and the wind chill of the motorcycle straight on my chest made my teeth chatter. I didn’t have my motorcycle jacket on, just a light suede sport jacket.
The guy on the back, who was not much older than I, could tell I was cold and reached around and held the jacket closed around my neck so the wind wouldn’t get me there. We came to a little farmhouse and he showed me the keif laid out on the table on newspapers. I smelled it and gave him the money. He bagged it up and we stuffed it in our shirts and headed back to town.
With all our business accomplished, the plan was to travel to Tangiers the next day. That night Sebastiano and I were on our own. We sampled our kief and it was just as good as we had hoped, as good as the night before. High as two kites we got on the motorcycle and drove toward the beach through town. That evening all the shops and bazaars were open. Everywhere there was activity and the smell of cooking, and on the beach, people strolling under the stars and drinking tea, prayers being called, and the Arab music playing on many radios while street vendors sang their wares.
I was driving a motorcycle through all this and not conscious of driving at all. Somehow my Triumph took care of me. I was only aware of the colors and the sounds of the unfolding scene coming at me from all sides. After another good meal at the couscous place, we began to think about the next leg of the trip to Tangiers and back to Madrid.
Now we had five pounds of pot to think about, protect, and hide all at the same time. We had no luggage space on the motorcycle and hardly a change of clothes with us. It’s not easy to hide five pounds of bulky herb in a situation like this. Sebastiano found a shop where he bought some big manila envelopes and tape. The idea was to stuff those envelopes with kief and tape them onto our backs. What we couldn’t fit there would go into my helmet and somewhere deep in the motorcycle.
After a last uneventful night in Tangiers, we headed for the first boat to Spain in the morning. Looking back, it seems like crazy luck we were not stopped or bothered either by the Moroccans or by Spanish customs. We were so obvious and stood out so much. Possibly the motorcycle helped. All the official types of guys liked it and related to it and to the sense of adventure it suggested. And it certainly didn’t look like there was much room for any contraband.
But about half an hour outside of Algeciras, on our way back to Madrid, two motorcycle cops from the Guardia Civil stopped us. Friendly but firm, they made us get off the motorcycle while they looked it over. They even had me take off my helmet. They looked right into it and right at the bags of kief underneath the banding but for some reason they didn’t see it, or chose not to notice it. They let us go. If we had been caught then and sent to jail in Franco’s Spain, well, it’s hard to think about that.
So many times in my life I have wondered why some are spared and some are caught or die. Many times in my life, because of my own reckless impulses, bad things could have happened to me but didn’t. And this was one of those prime moments. Sebastiano didn’t get shook up about this either. His war experience, no doubt, had something to do with his immunity to fear. We just kept going and felt now that we were in the clear.
Morocco at that time was literally like stepping back into Biblical times. Crossing into Spain from the rest of Europe was like going back into time hundreds of years. This was like going back a thousand. Tetuan is in the desert by the Mediterranean. They manage to grow food with irrigation. At that time, it was all agriculture and crafts and Islam. We saw only men. Women, if they were out at all, were covered in burkas. The road was good with little traffic because there were few vehicles. The air was clean. It was still hot as we pulled into Tetuan in the late afternoon; people resting inside waiting for evening. It was a very quiet place, a small town with a beautiful center square, palm trees and, on the buildings, mosaic tiles.
We heard the call to prayer from the minaret as we circled the zocalo, the main plaza, and looked for a place to park the Triumph so we could walk around. No sooner had I killed the engine and dropped the kickstand than there were a couple of young boys telling us where to spend the night and where to park the motorcycle safely. They had a garage for the motorcycle and a good, cheap rooming house for us. We got into our room and put our feet up, happy to be off the road for a while. No more than five minutes later there was a knock on the door.
Striding into the room was a big, rugged-looking Arab with a Fez cap on his head. It was scary. He was about Sebastiano’s age and, like Sebastiano, he had a very commanding presence. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Then he said, in perfect hipster talk, “Whoa babies, be cool. I’m the cat in this town. Everything’s gonna to be fine. Take it easy man.” This was so unexpected it totally stopped our minds. His name was Abid but he liked to be called “Bubba.” He had lived in New York for ten years and knew everything about Greenwich Village and the hip scene there.
He put us at ease because what he communicated more than anything was how happy he was that we had come into his territory. He knew our purpose and so did everyone else in the town just by looking at us riding in on that motorcycle. He said he could help us. He did so immediately by pulling out a couple of big joints of kief and lighting them up on the spot, giggling all the time. We sucked down that mysterious smoke like a couple of vacuum cleaners. It wasn’t long before reality started to warp in a very pleasant way. All the sounds and colors and the light from the window and the breeze with its African spice came forward and the mind’s chatter drifted into the background.
The next few days were time out of time. “Bubba” had a car and a driver to take us around to meet his friends and see the sights. For me to be able to sink back in the seats as a passenger and watch the scenery passing by as the sun began to set was a luxury after the stress of the motorcycle journey. We trusted the situation and felt we were with kindred spirits. The kief heightened every sense and pushed the exotic to a further level of wonder. We drove around and out of town to the beach where Bubba brought us to a teahouse. He knew everyone there and we were greeted warmly. They served us sugary mint tea and, as we sat at the simple wooden tables and looked out at the beach through the open sides of the building, men would come up to our table just to say “Welcome, thank you for being here.”
As the sun set, we smoked more kief and listened to Moroccan music on the radio. We walked out on the huge expanse of unspoiled beach to see the sun sink into the Mediterranean. He took us then to a place to eat couscous and later to another gathering place where, once again, there were only men. And, once again, they greeted us with warmth and friendliness and offered us hashish and other kinds of hashish candy.
Sebastiano was a good guy to travel with. Around me he didn’t display that crazy, manic side we saw so often back at the Plaza de Santa Ana. He knew I liked him for who he was and he didn’t have to be anything else. Lots of times people in restaurants would think we were father and son even though genetically we were very different. He would say with force, “No, somos companeros!” For a young man out on his own for the first time it was a nice, protected feeling being with him, like having a father who was also a buddy or a strong big brother. With my command of the language and his intimidating fearlessness we managed very well together.
The boat to Morocco sailed from Algeciras across the straits of Gibraltar to Ceuta, which is a little postage-stamp piece of territory in Africa belonging to Spain. The sun blazed. Objects cast impenetrable black shadows as in De Chirico’s paintings. On the boat we could feel the heat coming out of Africa and the Mediterranean sparkled its special cerulean blue light. A breeze softened the heat. Every variegated shape of fair-weather cumulus cloud moved across the blue sky. A group of foreign legionnaires smoked on deck and talked together, rough, virile men, their shirts open to give their chest hair freedom and all of them looking like they were ready to kill.
Our plan was to go to Tetuan and buy kief, which is what they call pot there, and then go to Tangiers and take the boat back to Algeciras from there. The reason for not going straight back was that we had heard that the pot sellers turn around and inform on you. That way they get their pot back or some kind of kickback. This kind of information made me aware that we didn’t exactly know what we were doing.
Marijuana was hardly known in those days except to a small group of beatniks, musicians and actors. I knew enough not to be afraid of it because, back home in Pelham, Felix said it was good medicine. Felix later made a lot of money and a lot of good music with a group called “The Rascals.” He had gotten some pot from the jazz master of the organ, Jimmy Smith. But the rest of us couldn’t get any. And now I was going to find out about it in the most exotic place possible.
Just about the time we were out of the mountains and going through the last series of downhill turns we came to a short tunnel about two or three hundred feet long. This was ordinarily not a big deal except that it was black as coal in that tunnel. I can’t remember if I turned on the Triumph’s big chrome light or not. It wouldn’t have done much good anyway because the contrast between the intense Spanish sun and the black of the tunnel was too much for the eye. But the road had been good so there was no concern until, in the middle of that black tunnel, we hit a hole that almost spoiled everything.
From high off my seat somewhere in space I struggled to keep the front fork from going out of control. Sebastiano went so far up in the air that only one of his hands was able to touch the top of my helmet. It was like a circus act. Somehow the motorcycle kept going and we literally fell out of space and back into position. We pulled over on the other side of the tunnel and took stock of ourselves. I was sure the motorcycle had a wrecked front wheel but it was okay. And after a few minutes of nervous congratulations, we were on the road again, very grateful and a little wiser about the traps the road can set. After that, I think we felt like we could travel around the world like this and be all right. We descended from the mountains and saw Granada in the distance. The aroma of gardenias and all the flowers of the Alhambra rose up to meet us on the hot afternoon air.
Now we were getting close to the Mediterranean and our destination on the straits of Gibraltar. The next day, late afternoon, we got to Algeciras, found a small hotel, and started walking everywhere, way out on the breakwater where the boats were coming in and around the big horseshoe walk along the ocean that every town of this type seems to have. But Algeciras was different in other ways.
The Moors were in Spain for seven hundred years and controlled all of Andalusia. Their influence could be seen everywhere. Here in Algeciras, they were still in control and the place had a mysterious and distinctly Muslim feel to it. Mosaic tile work decorated the small hotels and restaurants and, in the cafes, there were dark men with sunglasses reading papers and waiting for messages or to meet somebody. People spoke Arabic as much as Spanish. The kitchen smells were different, cumin and coriander and fennel instead of garlic and olive oil. We knew we were entering a different world.
On a cool early morning in June, we climbed on the Triumph and headed out of town getting a feeling for how this was going to go and how the bike would handle. A motorcycle is much different to drive and to brake with two big people on it. But it worked great. Sebastiano never complained. I pulled over when I was tired and we would get something to eat or drink. We spent the nights in cheap places and at one point had to spend an extra night because something went wrong with the bike. In Spain, you don’t have to look far to find someone who can fix your motorcycle. It was soon on the road better than ever.
Spain was poor in those days and the road was peaceful, not much traffic. Some of the road was very good and other parts full of holes. It was tricky sometimes. We cruised down into Andalusia, the southern region that produces lots of olive oil. The olive trees were in bloom and the smell of rich olive oil stored in casks everywhere permeated everything. We cruised through miles and miles of orchards and small towns totally involved with the trees and the fruit. The smell was intoxicating in the clean hot air. Everything was low-tech agriculture in harmony with the land. These towns and their olive groves had been like this for centuries.
We stopped to eat at little houses, private homes sometimes, and would take whatever they had. One time we had a dozen eggs drenched in olive oil with sliced, salted tomatoes in oil too, on the side. With good homemade bread it made a great meal. Another time a woman came out holding a rabbit by its ears and twenty minutes later we were looking at it on the plate. And that’s how we rolled along at that magical time of year when the countryside seemed from another age and its people tied firmly to their roots deep in the land.
There’s a range of mountains, La Sierra Morena, in the south of Spain. You have to cross it to get to Granada and Algeciras where the boat to Morocco is docked. The road is steep and winding with one hairpin turn after another going up and then down again. It’s exhausting on a motorcycle where one needs to find the line around the turns with good accuracy. And it’s especially tough coming down the mountains with two people aboard because of inertia and gravity. With a motorcycle it’s about gearing down and using the brakes as little as possible and judging the turns, one after another.
One day Sebastiano met me and said, “How about going to Morocco?”
“In a car?” I said.
“No, the two of us on the bike.”
“Really? It’s okay with me,” I said.
“We can buy pot down there. It’s legal. And we’ll bring it back and sell it to the actors on the movie set. Make some money.”
“Okay Sebastiano. Sounds good.” That’s how long I took to decide.
We started thinking about how we were going to make the trip. I was impressed that Sebastiano was willing to ride on the back of the Triumph for a long trip on old winding Spanish roads, without a helmet and with a nineteen-year-old driving. Also, he was a big guy, well over six feet. It was a lot to take on. But we made plans and set a date. Everything was moving toward that time.
Ruth came by my pension one morning early, very upset, and got me out of bed. She warned me not to go. She felt Sebastiano was taking advantage of me somehow. I didn’t understand that. In any case, I wanted to go. It gave me a focus and a purpose, which, other than Emilia in the bar, I didn’t have. It was obvious to other people that my life was adrift.
One time I was sitting in the plaza drinking horchata and watching the cockroaches rock and roll in the leaves by the wall. Felipe, the older waiter in the bar, talked to me. As I lit another cigarette he said, “You know I had a friend who only smoked three cigarettes every day, one after every meal, never any more. When you think about it what else does a man have?” I thought about this for a long time. I realized he was trying to help me and teach me something. I took it to heart but it took many years to manifest in my life. I was just entering a phase when I figured that, if a little of something is good, a lot of it must be better.
Ted, the FBI guy, got wind of the trip and also tried to steer me off without directly letting on that he knew the specifics. To the more responsible people in our crowd, the notion of me riding the motorcycle to Morocco with Sebastiano on the back could not be a good thing. I never had a second thought. I was flattered that Sebastiano thought I was good enough on the motorcycle to put his life in my hands, literally. And the road called to me, an exotic road to the south; Granada, Algeciras, Ceuta, Tetuan, Tangiers, Africa!
Our expatriate crowd had a local godfather, a non-violent one named Paco. He was Mr. “Sportin’ Life” and a lot of fun. He had more money than the rest of the locals because of scams he controlled and he cultivated the expat crowd because one of the scams involved us. You would see Paco from far away making his way through the narrow streets hunkered down behind the wheel of his nineteen thirties vintage Packard convertible with fenders that stretched out a mile in front. It seemed impossible that car could maneuver through those streets. His waxed moustache stabbed the air; his smiling teeth clamped down on his cigarette holder. A Panama hat completed the look of total gangster chic. Paco had seen all the American movies and saw himself as a mini Al Capone without the violence. I can’t imagine him hurting anyone. He seemed to be having so much fun.
It didn’t take Paco long to figure that Sebastiano was the leader of the pack and that’s how I got to know him and his friends. The expat group was always hard up for money. We sold blood, taught English, and did whatever we could to maintain our beatnik expat life. In Franco’s Spain there was a shortage of cars because their production wasn’t good at the time. The wealthier people in Spain could afford a good car but they were on a long waiting list. However, a foreigner could buy a car without waiting. Paco would recruit the foreigners to go to the central office and buy a Spanish car called a Seat, which was then turned over to the Spanish customer. Paco had a “soldier” who processed the transactions in the central office, so the whole thing was a walk in the park. We got to know Paco’s friends who were just slightly older than I, all very good-natured guys to be with.
In addition to the assorted dancers, poets, writers, people studying flamenco and the occasional tourists passing through our scene at the Plaza de Santa Ana, there was a little Englishman named Harold Smith who seemed very proper and very British. He and Ruth afforded a bit of élan to our unwashed group. Harold was another one whose purpose was not clear. He was studying Spanish but was not good at it and I remember something about “difficulties” he had had in England. We never knew the details but suspected he was laying low for a while. In our group nobody pressed for the details.
Harold was always in a tweed suit even when the streets were sizzling like a frying pan. Madrid is a big dry plateau, a high desert, and from May through September the heat is brutal during the day. But the English are English and never more English than when they are out of their country. In India they built fireplaces in their houses and carried umbrellas to shade them from the sun if not the rain.
Within the expatriate scene there were all kinds of people and cross currents. It was a moveable feast, in Hemingway’s words, a congregation, always changing but balanced and constant in its character because it had a center, La Plaza de Santa Ana, and because everyone was transient to one degree or another.
The memory of the Spanish Civil War was still painful and World War II was not far in the past. I had a German friend, Hans, who was my age. He lived around the plaza too. His father had sent him to Spain to learn the language for business reasons. We traveled together to Segovia outside of Madrid on my motorcycle to see the Roman aqueduct. We visited Avila, the home of Saint Teresa, one of the “doctors of the church,” one of the greatest saints.
Hans told me how to say not guilty, “un shuldige” in German, and orders are orders, “befehlt est befehlt”. We laughed like hell nervously about that, acknowledging the horrors of the holocaust and trying to get past it, which is not possible. He was there in Madrid with an older German friend who was studying at the University. That guy would not even meet me to shake my hand because I was an American. These young men had grown up in a Germany flattened by American bombing. They were the sons of Nazis.
I had another friend, Reynold Eston, who was Jewish from the Bronx and had some mysterious purpose in Madrid. He had graduated from college in the states and hung out with the FBI guy who claimed to be a writer but was actually some kind of a spy. They would occasionally “get lucky” with some middle-aged schoolteachers from the states eager to bone up on their Spanish skills.
Reynold was a good guy with red hair like me. We saw each other back in New York for a while but my goyisha, non-Jewish, identity made the friendship impossible there. He lived in a big apartment building with his grandparents and they wouldn’t even let me in the house. I tried to fix him up with my sister and he introduced me to a real smart and interesting Jewish girl at a concert in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. We hit it off well. I asked her out but when I showed up at her apartment she came to the door and said her father wouldn’t let her go out with me. The Germans didn’t like me because I was American and the Jews had a problem because I wasn’t Jewish. Oy vey!