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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Connie from California

My girlfriend and I don't have a lot of money so we try not to go out that often. To boost our morale, we play the Primitiva Lottery once a week. Before the numbers come in we imagine ourselves eating in fancy restaurants, ordering any dish we want, drinking the finest wines. So far, we haven't gotten more than two out of the six numbers. For entertainment sometimes we go to Café Zurich and watch people. Even though the place is over-priced and packed with tourists, we like to sit there and watch the rabble walk by. It's like a circus out there, with its mix match parade of people.

One night, about six months ago, we were sitting out there drinking coffee and making plans for our big lottery score. It was unusually cold that night, so we dressed in layers. When we were about halfway done with our coffees I spotted a woman standing in front of the subway exit, wide-eyed, looking in our direction. She had a bleach blonde perm that sat like a helmet on top of her head. She wore a GAP sweatshirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes, and was carrying a couple El Corte Ingles shopping bags. She reminded me of one of those tourist caricatures that they do on Las Ramblas. She squinted her eyes and scanned the tables assembled outside. They were all full. Then she looked back in our direction and started walking towards us. The couple next to us was leaving and a waiter was wiping table. The woman held up her shopping bags and squeezed her chunky ass through a maze of stainless steel chairs and sat down at the table.

She sat there huffing for a minute or so. Then the waiter came to take her order. With a piercing Californian accent she ordered a caffay con Baileys. Then she pulled out a map of Barcelona and started studying it. She had a notebook with a list of some sort and she was checking things off. She began mumbling to herself, scratching her chin. Then she tugged on my jacket. I turned to face her and she shoved her map in my face. Then, reading from her notebook she said, “Con kay autobus pway-do eer a Plaza Espan-yah?” I pointed to my girlfriend, and, in Spanish, she gave her the correct bus number and where to catch it. She looked confused and leaned back in her seat and studied her map some more. Then she tugged on my jacket again.

“Pare-done. Hab-lez eengles?”

“Sure do, I'm from Louisiana.” – which is actually true.

“Oh that's great! What a coincidence!”

We gave her the directions in English this time. Then she asked us if it was safe to walk around here at night.

“It depends on where you go and what you look like. Stay away from the lower part of the Barrio Chino and you'll be all right,” I said.

She thanked us and told us her name was Connie Hatcher.

“I'm from L.A., she said, and it never gets this cold where I'm from! I'm sorry for talking so much, but this is such a great coincidence to meet another American here in Barcelona!”

I watched the people passing by. Everybody on their all important missions. Finally, when I said we had to get going, Connie insisted on buying us a couple drinks.

“But not here, she said. It's too cold out here. Remember, I’m Connie from California!!” She broke into a hysterical fit of laughter. I looked at my girlfriend who seemed to think it was okay. You can't turn down a free drink.

Connie drank about a fourth of her coffee and paid for the three of us. We told her we knew of some bars nearby and led her down the center median of Las Ramblas. It was packed that night and we had to dodge kids with mohawks asking for change and drunken English football fans singing pride anthems. The tourist season hadn't arrived yet, but you would never have guessed it by walking down Las Ramblas that night. You could hear practically every language besides Catalan and Castellano.

We were about a quarter of the way down the Ramblas, near the Liceu stop, when Connie stopped in front of one of the street performers. He was a living statue covered in silver paint and dressed in a kung fu uniform. Connie dropped a Euro in his tin cup and he did a karate kick. Connie’s face got all red and I thought she was going to burst. Then she doubled over laughing. Then, all together, we walked another ten meters or so and Connie huffed and set her shopping bags down. She put her hands on her hips.

“All this walking is making me hungry. Why don't we get a quick bite to eat? My treat!”

I suggested a little falafel joint near Placa Real. She was skeptical at first, but I told her it was nearby and she wouldn't have to walk much further. We walked through the plaza, then made a left on Calle Escudellers, passing an open flame with rotisserie chicken. The place I was looking for was a few meters further up the street.

The place was brightly lit and cigarette butts suffused the floor. They don't stretch for ambience in these cheaper joints. Connie looked skeptical.

“Come on!”

Two English tourists had just placed their orders. We took up three stools at the far end of the stainless steel counter. There was a Moroccan guy working behind it. He asked Connie what she wanted. She read from a page in her notebook.

“Uhhh ... Dah may oon ... showarma, por fah vor.”

We ordered too and when the waiter turned around Connie said to me, low, “Look at those vegetables!” She was looking at an open tray of diced vegetables. “That's not sanitary! How long do you think they've been sitting there! I'm sure that guy didn't even wash his hands!”

Meanwhile, the cook was taking his time. I looked at Connie and imagined her mouth was full of rotten vegetable rinds. Every time she spoke she spat out slimy projectiles.

Finally the sandwiches arrived. First Connie's, which she left sitting in front of her, then ours. They were good sandwiches and I ate mine quickly.

We left the falafel joint and went to a bar in Plaza George Orwell. I ordered three beers while Connie left for the bathroom. When she came back she was frowning.

“What’s wrong?”

“There was no soap in the bathroom! How un-sanitary! And this bar is a fire hazard! There's not enough room in here for all these people! How can they allow smoking in here? What if you don't smoke?”

She was so righteous and sure of herself that it was entertaining. The Connie from California Show. I remembered how one Bulgarian guy said to me, “You Americans are just like on the television. Ev-er-ee-time you walk in a room you make big announcement. Then tah duhm! I expect the funny music.”

Later we walked her to the taxi stand in Plaza Catalunya. There was a line of taxis and we walked to the next available one. We said good-bye to Connie and she plopped in the back seat, her shopping bags beside her. When the taxi pulled out I could see her big hair sticking up over the back seat.

“Remember, I'm Connie from California!!”

The next morning I woke up and the first thing I thought of was Connie Hatcher sitting in a plane, somewhere over the Atlantic. I could see her with her headphones on, watching the in-flight movie, laughing hysterically at every obvious joke. Then I saw her filing her nails and opening a bottle of nail polish. She was painting her nails and everybody around her got nauseous from the fumes. I took a long hot shower and tried to make those images evaporate.