El Rastro

South of Plaza Mayor by Plaza de Cascorro—
past streets named Lettuce, Raisin, Barley—
is Madrid’s outdoor market called El Rastro,
hundreds of stalls, lean-tos, tents squeezed tight
as niches where anything from a clawfoot tub, 
to a surgeon’s saw to a tattered La Celestina
bound in sheepskin could be haggled down
with raunchy bravado or the promise of beer.   
Mostly it was junk passed off to the tourists
as pricey souvenirs, like plastic castanets, hand fans
of silk (rayon really), or tin-plate doubloons. 
So what drew the youth of Madrid to this place
every Sunday afternoon by the hundreds?
None of us were bargain hunters or hoarders,
just hippieish kids in patched dungarees, 
espadrilles, & wool coats frayed to cheesecloth,
our pockets with enough pesetas to buy
a handful of stale cigarettes. It was to revel
in life, squeeze out joy from the lees of fate,
make fellowship like pilgrims to a shrine. 
We’d sprawl against a wall or a lamppost
long into the afternoon to talk, joke, carouse,
eat cheese rinds with secondhand bread, 
drink wine more like iodine than merlot,
oblivious to time & space, the crowds tripping
on our legs, tossing butts into our heads,
how they smelled like horses & we told them so,
who then shot out crude medieval curses,
but we didn’t care, for we felt alive as never before,
singular in every breath, word, & thought,
stubborn as wayward seeds that trick a drought
& grow into hardscrabble woodland trees.  

Copyright © 2018 by Orlando Ricardo Menes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 4, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“As the children of Spanish fathers who had immigrated to Cuba, my parents loved Spain and everything Spanish, so we moved to Madrid in 1973 and stayed there until 1975. I was a teenager then and quite rebellious. I was definitely not alone in those last two years of the Franco dictatorship when Spain was ready to be rid of repression and explode into the so-called Movida. We hung out in discos, bars, plazas, parks, and, of course, at the Rastro every Sunday. We were crazy, so crazy back then.”
—Orlando Ricardo Menes