I Got Picked Up and Pickpocketed in Madrid
It started in Parque del Buen Retiro, one of Madrid’s biggest parks, as I rested on a bench overlooking the stately monument to King Alfonso XII. Couples rowed dinghies around the man-made lake and, off to one side, a local kid played Oasis covers.
A Spaniard appeared on a bicycle, asking in lightly accented English if he could share my bench. I asked him how he knew I wasn’t Spanish.
“You don’t look Spanish,” he smiled.
Diego used to work for an auction house that sold high-end art, but he’d lost that job early on in the economic crisis that continues to this day. “But I’m lucky,” he said. “I was kind of spoilt as a child, and my parents help me a lot.”
Diego loved sushi and Michael Jackson. He also liked rollerblading. A slender boy rolled up to say hello, and they traded pleasantries in Spanish for a while. When I was introduced, my “Hola!” was met with a shy smile. Then he rolled off to leave us alone.
There were a lot of rollerbladers in the park. One of them did this weird crouching move, sliding to a halt right in front of us and I whistled, impressed.
“That’s an easy one,” winked Diego.
The sun was touching the treetops when he asked what I was up to later.
“How about you come out with me tonight? I’ll show you around my city.”
I met him outside a McDonald’s on the Gran Via, one of the only big thoroughfares in a city of alleys and one-way streets. He was late. He was also hungry.
“Come,” he said, leading me down an alleyway, “we’ll eat at my favourite restaurant.”
It was a sushi place just off one of Madrid’s many plazas. I have a habit of going out with more cash than I can afford to spend, wary of being left dry if a night out suddenly turns into a Big Night Out. Even so, my 35 euros weren’t going to cut it in this place. Diego smiled.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.”
I’ve never liked seafood, but that meal remains one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was lavished with fried eel and beer, and wondered why the waitresses kept smiling at me when they thought I wasn’t looking. When the bill came, it was in an elaborately carved wooden box and Diego shook his head when I reached into my pocket.
“It’s on me tonight,” he said. What a nice guy, I thought. I watched him hand over three blue 20 euro notes and receive a couple of coins change. He left them for the tip. He slapped me on the back as we stepped into the street.
“Now we drink sangria,” he bellowed.
The sangria bar was underground, patrons crowding on tiny stools around miniature tables. The waiters were old men in crisp shirts tucked into black pants and fastened with bowties, and Diego assured me it was a local tradition to hurl insults at them. To make his point, he called the stern specimen who brought our next jug a “hijo de puta” – a son of a bitch. The old man peered down through his spectacles, sucked in his belly and let forth a torrent of abuse so foul it stopped conversations all around us. Diego’s giggles rattled across the brief silence that followed, before the waiter turned away and the noise resumed.
The whole time we were there, I didn’t see a single other person insulting the waiters.
They kicked us out at 3am, and when we found Diego’s favourite spot for beer and tapas, everything was closed. This is odd for Madrid – watching the sunrise over scattered tapas plates and empty pint glasses is an institution in the Spanish capital. But I’d only been here a day.
“I have a solution,” said Diego and triumphantly produced a joint from his shirt pocket. We smoked it on a playground in some plaza, beneath a towering cathedral. I have vague recollections of being bundled into a taxi.
The next thing I remember is stumbling across yet another plaza.
“We’re too far from my place or your hostel, and I’m too drunk. So we’re just going to stay in a hotel tonight and figure it out in the morning,” said Diego. I still had every cent of my 35 euros, but I wasn’t about to fork out for a hotel room.
“I told you, it’s on me tonight. Don’t worry,” he replied, slapping me on the back. All I could think of was a bed.
I found myself alone in a small room, teetering before a king-sized ocean of blankets and pillows. I stripped down to my underwear and climbed in, vaguely wondering what had happened to my friend. Two minutes passed before I heard voices outside. The door opened. I rolled onto my back, preparing a mini speech about how I was “too tired to party on”. But it was only Diego.
I wondered where his clothes had gone. Then I wondered why he was straddling me, soft hands gently rubbing my shoulders. I asked him what he was doing.
“Relax,” he cooed, “I’m helping you sleep. I’m giving you a massage.” I was thinking it was strange that he should give me a massage on my front when, at long last, the penny dropped. The smirking waitresses at the sushi joint. The time he told me I was “handsome” that I’d put down to some mistaken translation. The rollerblading for chrissake, the rollerblading.
I pushed him off me and rolled away, still determined to sleep. He saw this as an invitation to spoon, and twice I swatted away his creeping hand before I jumped away. I was sincerely sorry for the misunderstanding, I stammered, but I wasn’t of that persuasion and I really wasn’t into whatever it was he had in mind.
“Nooo you don’t have to be. Just try it, just relax,” he whispered, creeping across the bed on all fours. I didn’t relax. I reached wildly for my clothes and he jumped in front of me, holding my jeans behind his back. I teetered on the edge of the bed, unable to stand up.
“I’m sorry, I’ll go back to my room! Just stay here!” he pleaded, suddenly defensive. “I won’t come back until morning, just please stay here.” But he wouldn’t give me back my clothes.
I’d never been in a fight in my life, but enough was enough. I swung wildly, completely missing his jaw and falling face first off the bed as the momentum of my mighty air punch threw me off balance. I still have never been in a fight.
Disgusted now, Diego dropped my jeans and marched out, leaving me alone on the floor of the room. I dressed and allowed myself a drunken giggle as I trotted down the stairs into the plaza. There was no one around. I instinctively checked my pockets as I crossed the square – and found my wallet missing.
“Uh… ¿dónde está la gran vía?”
The young men I’d addressed looked up at me, startled. One of them pointed at an alley and I lurched off towards it. My wallet hadn’t been in the hotel room. I’d trashed it, pulling it apart piece by piece in front of the bespectacled old nightshift man who’d taken me back upstairs.
“¡Por favor señor! ¡Por favor!” he’d kept screaming.
Now, I had to get back to the computers in my hostel on Gran Via, cancel my credit card, and to hell with my 35 euros. Time was short. I was also lost.
Then I saw him. He was surrounded by a group of the most beautiful Spanish girls I’d ever seen, and I wondered angrily where they’d been several hours earlier. I screamed at him to give me my wallet back and the girls crowded around.
“Hee deed nowt take jour wallet! Heesa good man!” they chorused, as Diego pushed his way to the front. His accent thickened with indignation.
“What ees thees? Jou theenk I need jour wallet? Jou theenk I need jour” – and he spat on the pavement – “35 euros?”
The man had a point. He’d paid for everything that night, plucking bills from a fat roll of cash that he kept in his hip pocket.
Once again, the wallet wasn’t in the hotel room. Between Diego, the old man and I, no one could find it. We thanked the grumbling old man and stepped into the elevator.
“Empty your pockets,” I demanded. Diego exploded.
“Jou theenk I need jour 35 euros? Jou reely theenk so?” he screamed, and in one quick movement his jeans were open, his manhood dangling free. “Then searrrch me motherfucker, searrrch me if jou theenk I haff jour money!” he screamed, spittle flying as he rolled his Rs.
It was too much. I spent the long ride down to the lobby with my face in my hands, turned into the corner, apologising to a half-naked Spaniard who kept shouting at me to “searrrch” him.
Back in the street, my mission was to find the hostel and cancel my credit card. I was still lost. Gentleman that he was, Diego offered to walk me home. He was convinced that I’d been pickpocketed in the sangria bar. He’d even seen it happen, he reckoned. Saw some guy brush past me as I squeezed through crowds to the bathroom.
Lies, I kept thinking. So many lies.
The sun was peeking over the Gran Via’s stately ramparts when we arrived at the hostel. Diego held my arm as I marched towards the hostel door, turning me to face him.
“Look, I’m sorry about what happened before. I don’t usually do this. I just let myself go,” he started. He grabbed me a second time as I turned away, taking my mobile phone from my pocket. “Here’s my number,” he said, punching buttons, “call me if you still have problems later. I have lawyers. I want to help you.” My voice shook pitifully as I replied that I’d be happy to never see his face again.
“Looks like you’ve had a big night,” chuckled the Irishman on the hostel’s nightshift. I threw him my filthiest look and staggered for my dorm, looking to retrieve cash for internet use.
The Irishman was still grinning when I came back down.
“There’s a feller in the street and I think he’s looking for you,” he sang. The sun was well and truly up by now. Commuters were hurrying to start a fresh day at work, the whores across the street were changing shifts, and through them strode Diego, a grin on his face and my wallet held aloft.
“I saw the guy from the sangria bar and I abused him, I said ‘He’s just a traveller, he needs his money!’ and he gave it back to me,” he chirped.
Diego, my knight in shining armour.
I rifled through the frayed mess of polyester that I’d been chasing for so long. My cards were all there. Later checks would show no suspect purchases, no anonymous withdrawals. I was home free. I was ecstatic.
I was also still very intoxicated. “My cash is gone,” I slurred. It was merely an observation. Not a lament, and certainly not an accusation. Just a statement of fact.
Diego exploded, his accent thickening again with his rage.
“¡Hijo de puta! Jou reely theenk I need jour thirty-five euros?” he screamed, scaring off the approaching prostitutes. He yanked a crisp 50 euro note from his roll and thrust it into my open wallet.
I was silent for a moment, my meagre, “Thanks, man,” met with a gesture that said ‘talk to the hand’ as Diego stormed off, lost in the throng before he’d even crossed the Gran Via.
The lesson from all this? That an enterprising hobo can get a free dinner, free drinks, free weed, a free hotel room and a 15-euro tip all for sitting on a bench in Madrid’s Parque del Buen Retiro. And you don’t even have to sleep with the guy.