Thursday, 16 May 2013

Spiderman Unmasked

Like the rest of Madrid, Plaza Mayor wakes up slowly. In the morning, it is refreshingly quiet and serene; you can amble across the cobbles without having to traverse the crowds, pause to take a photo without being harangued by a Mickey Mouse and take your pick of the terraces without having to stalk tables... The calm before the carnival.

As the morning drifts by, the street performers filter in one-by-one, preparing for the day’s entertainment. A year since I last visited, I watched as a steady stream of familiar faces arrived. The inexplicably successful snapping goat (a body of tinsel and a plastic head with a hinged jaw) remained resident in the north-west corner. Whether desperate or just enthusiastic, its jingles, snaps and shakes seemed even more animated than they were last year. The man masquerading as a baby, his face painted garish colours and nestled in an overly twee pram, took up position in the centre of the square. More disturbing than entertaining, his success is even more surprising than that of the goat. The headless sailors meanwhile had multiplied three-fold. Wearing identically ill-fitting suits, the bulge of their heads protruding clumsily from between the shoulder pads, they hovered awkwardly in opposite corners of the plaza. 

A few new faces had joined the ranks. The yellow zig-zag crest of a Bart Simpson bobbed through the crowd, alongside a short and squat Tigger, a Winney the Pooh and a host of less-recognisable characters. I was informed that one, which can only be described as a pink banana with a smile, was the sidekick to Spongebob Squarepants. Innovation must be running low… There were a few token Spanish acts: an ornately dressed matador waving a bilious red flag and a Carmen swishing the elaborate red skirts of a full flamenco dress, as well as a few notable absentees: the tango-tanned Elvis and the Charlie Chaplin were nowhere to be seen, nor was the Jesus Christ who made his debut last April (hardly surprising in a staunchly catholic country). 

In the business of the plaza, experience shows. By midday, the Tigger had retreated glumly to the shade of the central statue; the Goat, in comparison, had procured a generous hatful of change from passersby. Spiderman meanwhile, the undisputed ringmaster of Plaza Mayor, remained nowhere to be seen. Presumably, he was unconcerned with the slow trade of the early morning. As expected, just as the square was beginning to buzz, I heard the rattle of his plastic trunk being dragged unceremoniously across the cobbles. 

When I looked up however, Spiderman was nowhere to be seen. In his place, a large, squashy-looking Spaniard wearing an unbuttoned scruffy shirt, baggy knee-length shorts and flip flops. Running a hand absent-mindedly through his thick mop of black hair, he sat down on the trunk and looked around the plaza absent-mindedly. His round-shouldered slouch and perusing gaze curiously familiar, not to mention his possession of the trademark trunk, I was immediately suspicious. … Could this bushy-haired, broad-bellied Spaniard be the man behind the mask? After a moment or two he lumbered to his feet. Standing, his silhouette was unmistakable. The faded black T-shirt had risen to reveal a band of belly flesh drooping in a generous sag over the waistband of his shorts and he was rocking back on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. There was no mistake: Spiderman had appeared in the plaza without his disguise. Was this a first? Spiderman unmasked?

He didn’t linger long in the open. Taking hold of his trunk, he began walking towards a nearby restaurant and, waving a hand in greeting to the waiter, vanished inside. I imagine his metamorphosis from mere mortal into superhero was rather more cumbersome than most flash transformations; he didn’t emerge for some time. A booming “Venga! Hay criminales por aqui?!” alerted me to his reappearance. Slaloming through the crowd with his distinctive gait – belly first and breast bouncing slightly with each step – he began his shift by patrolling the square. Taking command of the plaza, he swept past the restaurants to high-five the waiters and greet the locals before setting to work with characteristic panache.

On his watch, even those observing from the safety of restaurant terraces weren’t safe. Quick to catch the eye of any tourist even mildly curious, he would swoop to their table, yoink them from their seats and work them through his extended repertory of poses: ultra-camp, then heroic, then sexy. When a slightly disorientated group wearing sombreros and dragging wheelie suitcases stumbled into the plaza – a potential jackpot – he was immediately ready for the pounce: legs bent and bouncing on the balls of his toes as they approached. While the snapping goat lay abandoned in a shimmery heap on the floor (its occupant having a quick fag under the archway) and the Flamenco dancer squatted dolefully under the shade of her umbrella, Spiderman dominated the square with ease. 

Undoubtedly the star of the circus, Spiderman's success is undeniable. When I first saw him in the scorching heat of August 2010, he was practically a permanent resident of the plaza: a guaranteed presence right from the first cafĂ© latte through to the evening aperitif. Now, he has the liberty to work to his own slightly sporadic timetable, has upgraded his worn out rucksack to a sturdy plastic trunk and has acquired a miniature statue of himself. He has even appeared in the local English newspaper several times. Needless to say, those in miscellaneous fancy dress have their work cut out if they’re trying to compete!

As you can probably tell, I’ve been following Spiderman for fair while...

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