(I wrote the first part of this story in 2011 while visiting Madrid. The second part was written this week after a man contacted me about his experiences there.)
On a summer in Madrid, en route to the sumptuous Prado National Museum, I told the taxi driver that the day before I’d visited and been shocked by the harsh industrial neighborhood Villaverde where around the clock provocatively dressed women stand on streets, waiting to rent their bodies.
“I know a place a thousand times worse than that,” he said.
“No, Valdemingomez is the most tragic place I’ve ever seen. Gypsies live there.”
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Just ten or fifteen minutes.”
A short time later, as he pulled off the freeway and moved toward Valdemingomez, the driver, Fernando, locked all four doors and said, “I’m scared.”
I opened my notebook, placed it in my lap, and pulled out a pen.
“It’ll be a little dangerous because the Gypsies sell so many drugs: heroin, cocaine, hash, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy.”
We moved off a smooth paved road onto an old one marred by many holes. Garbage and numerous mud puddles rotted next to the road in front of dwellings that should not be called houses; they’re shacks with cardboard or flimsy wood roofs, and some have corrugated gates, that used to be roofs, leading into yards behind graffiti-blighted walls. About a quarter of the lots bore piles of rubble from destroyed shacks, as if Valdemingomez had been repeatedly bombed.
“The rats here are big as cats,” said Fernando.
“Look,” I said, and pointed at a young woman frantically running both hands through her long thick curly hair, as if trying to put out a fire.
“Drug addict,” said Fernando.
Valdemingomez is long and defined by the main street, and very narrow like a pipeline to hell. As we moved deeper inside, numerous women, generally middle-aged and overweight, ran from their homes and vigorously motioned for us to pull over. They seemed to have plenty to sell, but we probably wouldn’t have gotten out for interviews even if the police hadn’t pulled behind us.
“Get ready, they’re going to stop us,” Fernando said.
“That’s fine. I’ll show them my notes.”
“They’re stopping someone else.” Several evident drug consumers had driven in from middle-class Madrid. The one behind us would not be leaving with what he came for.
In contrast to the women, a majority of the men we saw were unnaturally thin, almost skeletal, and had gaunt, unshaven faces. These fellows drove dilapidated cars. Unseen and presumably enterprising residents parked plenty of Mercedes Benzes and BMWs in front of shabby homes boasting satellite dishes.
“About ten years ago the government gathered the Gypsies and brought them here,” Fernando said. “Most of the kids don’t go to school. As you can see there’s not much garbage collection. It’s sad.”
For a people enslaved by the Romans, murdered by the Nazis, and shunned in most countries, the Gypsy tragedy continues.
* * *
A few years after visiting Spain and writing the story above, I received this email: “Hello, my name is Roger. I’m twenty-four and from England. I currently live in Madrid. I’ve been here nearly two years. And I know the people of Valdemingomez. Their stories are very interesting and well worth documenting.”
I replied with a list of questions and suggested Roger type the answers. He responded that he preferred to talk, especially on camera, because “there are a few things I want to say and ask.” He recommended several complex maneuvers on an advanced cell phone, and by email I confessed, “I just have a basic model for calling and texting.”
He asked for my phone number and said, aided by a marvelous app, we could talk “absolutely free.” About noon Pacific Time on a Saturday I received a call he made at nine p.m. in Madrid.
“Roger, great to hear from you.”
Adjusting to his British accent, I exchanged a little personal information before discussing my experiences in Valdemingomez, and Roger said, “Tom, is there going to be any money in this?”
“No, Roger, I interview many people and write stories before collecting them in books. I’m a publisher. I take the risks. Money can’t be part of this conversation.”
“Okay,” said the genial fellow, “but we still need a microphone and video camera.”
We hung up, and within twenty minutes I’d borrowed a laptop with requisite options and was looking at Roger as he broadcast himself sauntering on a Madrid sidewalk, looking cool under a reddish brown pompadour. Our substantive conversation began at once, but in a few minutes he stopped me, held the camera under his left eye, and said, “Look at my eye, Tom, see that? My right eye, too? The same.”
“They’re a little dark underneath.”
“They were quite black until recently. I was beaten early last Saturday morning.”
“Jesus. What happened?”
“I was attacked in Valdemingomez. I arrived Friday afternoon and foolishly stayed quite late. I had an expensive telephone and was perceived as English with lots of money.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Smoking crack and heroin.”
“Bad news,” I said.
“Indeed, though the drugs go quite well together, crack being an upper and heroin a downer.”
“I’m not preaching, but you’re going to get killed.”
“I was in a drug house and needed a ride out of Valdemingomez as it was about five Saturday morning.”
“You’d been smoking crack and heroin all that time?”
“Yes. And I asked a dirty husband and his very skinny wife to help. They spoke English well and had a nice car. They tried to make friends and kept telling me how nice they were. I asked them to take me to the bank to get cash. We returned to Valdemingomez and I bought twenty euros of powdered cocaine.”
“Powdered? You said you’d been smoking it.”
“I was going to rock it up later. I gave them some cocaine for the ride. The lady went bonkers and wouldn’t let me speak. I got out of the car and asked for my lighter. Three times I asked, and they said no. I walked away but he drove up behind me, and both got out of the car. I got the man in a headlock but he bit my hand and I let go. His wife attacked me, and the man rugby tackled both of us. He punched me and they both got on top of me, punching, trying to take my bag.
“A man driving by stopped and asked, ‘What’s going on?’
“‘He’s trying to rob us,’ they said. The car pulled away. I just couldn’t punch and landed very few blows. The man was tough. They took my bag and left. I had a concussion and was vomiting. I stumbled to several houses and asked people to call an ambulance but nobody would.
“Then I staggered out of Valdemingomez and flagged down the police. They didn’t want to help. They treated me badly because of the place where I was. I felt very looked down on. Finally, the police called an ambulance. In the hospital I asked to speak to the police but was told to talk to a social worker. She wrote the police address, but that was all.”
Roger turned off the video portion of our interview as he arrived at his hotel residence.
I asked, “How long were you in the hospital?”
“Several hours, until (last) Saturday afternoon.”
Roger emailed me some photos of himself in the hospital, bearing two black eyes and the look of a thrashed puppy.
“Please delete those,” he said. “I don’t know why I sent them.”
After this vigorous opening act, I told Roger we needed some personal history to illuminate the present.
“I was raised north of London. My father worked for an insurance company and is very well off. He and my mother love each other and were very responsible raising me. But my mother was gay and they got divorced. My father lives in London with his new girlfriend. They’re going to have a baby.
“In my teens I was expelled from school twice for smoking marijuana. I eventually went to college to become a motor vehicle mechanic. They put me in some engineering program I wasn’t interested in, and I dropped out and worked in a call center. When I was nineteen I met a woman from Spain. She was twenty-four, tall, and beautiful. We got addicted to crack cocaine and heroin.”
“North of London?” I asked.
“Yes. We asked the English government for help but couldn’t get a response. We decided to move to Madrid to get away from drugs.”
I pointed out that Valdemingomez was a poor place to avoid drugs.
“That’s true. My girlfriend straightened up and we separated several months ago. She has our son.”
“I think that’s appropriate,” I said.
“I’ve also got a six-year old girl with another lady.”
“You’re a popular rascal.”
“I went to Valdemingomez looking for a story,” I said. “That’s clearly not the case with you.”
“I came to visit and bought drugs,” he said. “I never sold.”
“How much do drugs cost in Valdemingomez?”
“A tenth of a gram of cocaine costs six euros (about seven dollars.) Sometimes I smoke crack, others I smoke heroin, and sometimes they sell the drugs mixed.”
“That sounds expensive,” I said.
“I was spending twenty to forty euros a day.”
“That’s two or three hundred dollars a week. How do you finance that?”
“I was working in a call center that deals with companies in England. The English company terminated the contract recently. I’m out of work now but think I’ve got another job at a call center waiting Monday.”
“A call center job didn’t pay for all those drugs as well as the cost of living, especially with a child.”
“My mother also sends me money.”
“Do your mother and father know you’re doing drugs?”
I asked Roger to tell me about the culture of Valdemingomez. “During my brief visit, I got the impression it’s saturated with drugs.”
“It’s a crazy place,” he said. “I recently saw a man looking at a spot on the main road in the morning, and when I returned that night he was still looking at the same spot.”
That road, unpaved and full of pot holes, crawls by homes that, from outside, appear rather modest.
“Valdemingomez has been there about twenty years,” Roger said. “Very few people are working. All the money – the cars, houses, TVs – comes from drugs. People are building fortresses there, and the police don’t do anything. A lot of the houses have gates in front and very strong doors. If a family sells drugs, and it seems most do, it hires a junkie to look out for police in front. He tells people like me when I can go in. He says, “Puerta,” door in Spanish, and another guy inside opens the door. I walk down a passageway to a courtyard and then into a room with bricks or chairs to sit on. They’ve always got plenty of crack, heroin, or a mixture.”
“You haven’t been back since you were beaten and robbed eight days ago, have you?”
“I’ve been back three times.”
“I’ve gotta tell you: that’s crazy. Do you live near there?”
“Now I do. The woman I was renting a room from kicked me out. I understand why. I’d lost my job and then came home bruised like this.”
“Do you have a car?”
“In England I had a BMW. Here, I take the bus. My hotel’s only a short walk to the bus stop.”
“I can’t believe you’ve already been back three times. You’re going to get killed.”
An uncomfortable feeling encroached, and I asked, “You aren’t planning to go there tonight, are you?”
“I want to. I’m thinking about it.”
“Do you have any pot?”
“All right. Stay in your hotel room tonight and smoke the pot. Don’t go back to Valdemingomez. And I mean never go back. Forget your lousy new job that may happen Monday. Get out of Spain now. There are drugs everywhere, but Madrid isn’t working for you.”
“I think I’m going back to England very soon. I know I should. I could live with my mother in a cottage in the country. Living with her at my age isn’t ideal, but I could chop wood and walk the dog.”
Notes: This is one in a series of stories about poverty, prostitution, and slavery. In the spring, these pieces will comprise a book titled “In Other Hands.”