A Street Story: Barrio del Carmen

An artist who draws or paints on the street– and who expects to survive– learns of necessity to develop a kind of radar, an early warning system. An indoor studio is a space you can control; it has a door you can close, and if necessary, lock. Out on the street however, you’re vulnerable to whomever is passing by, to someone who simply wants to strike up a conversation, or to offer a critique of your painting, or of your life– or of their life.  Or perhaps they want to harangue you about whatever might be bothering them, or if your back is turned, to sneak off with some of your brushes or your water bottle or a couple of tubes of paint.

One summer morning in the long ago, in Spain, I was beginning to paint the watercolor you see here, some crumbling buildings in one of the oldest barrios in Valencia. The street, calle Tapinería, is too short and insignificant to appear on most maps and the palos supporting the collapsing walls at the end of the block made it impossible for automobiles to pass. So it was a relatively quiet location to set up my easel.

I had been working undisturbed for a couple of hours when the early warning radar began to murmur and I sensed the presence of an intruder. Behind me, I saw that less than a block away, a woman had me locked in her sights and was closing in. I turned back to the painting and even when I felt her presence next to me I ignored her until she sighed, “That old falling-down building you are painting used to be my home.” I put my brushes aside and began, in my rudimentary Spanish, a friendship.


Barrio del Carmen – Watercolor – 11 x 15 inches

Pilar was a widow in her early fifties who had lived for years with her son in peace and quiet in the flat on the 3rd floor until the city had condemned the building, and the adjacent structures as well. The room with the hole in the wall had been their living room, she told me. Next to it had been her son’s bedroom and behind that had been her bedroom, the bathroom and their kitchen. Her neighbors’ homes used to exist in the empty space between the buildings on the right-hand side of the painting. She did not leave her home out of her own choice, but was evicted by the police, by force.  “Con golpes y patadas,” she told me, “nos echaron en la calle.”  “With punches and kicks, they threw us out onto the street.”

Because of the kindness of a friend, she and her son found room to live in the building across the street. She worked in a bar nearby and it was there I learned about the plight of her neighborhood. During the years of the Franco dictatorship, she said, the government, in order to pacify the populace, placed limits on the amount of money landlords could charge for rent. This made tenants like her content, but when leaks appeared in the roof, or there were problems with the stairs or the plumbing, there was no monetary incentive for the owners to fix the problems because they couldn’t pass on the costs of the repairs to the tenants. So the buildings were left to the mercy of rain and sun and the laws of gravity and eventually began to disintegrate. “They were still our homes, but they were collapsing from the inside out,” she said. “The story of my house is the story of this whole part of Valencia, our sad Barrio del Carmen.”

I did not meet her son, but kept in touch with her at the bar and during the summer, I showed her the progress of the painting and other watercolors I was working on. I enjoyed her company during those visits, and her sense of humor, and I welcomed her corrections of my Spanish, but I dreaded the day she would ask me the question she eventually asked: “I would like to buy the painting, Miguel. How much would it cost?”

My first impulse was simply to give her the watercolor, but giving paintings away is rarely a good idea. Besides, I had a prospective buyer. I offered to give her a high-quality color copy instead. She said that the painting itself was less important than the memory of her home and of our unlikely friendship and that a copy would make her very happy.

The heat of summer cooled into autumn. On the afternoon of my departure from Valencia, I brought the copy of the watercolor to the bar. Her co-workers were worried: Pilar had not come to work for several days. So I went to the building where she had been taken in by the kind neighbor and rang the bell. The man who answered the door said that Pilar was in the hospital, very ill, that the doctors suspected cancer and that she was undergoing tests that very afternoon. I explained that I was flying to California in the morning and that my train for Madrid would be leaving in little more than an hour. He patted me on the arm. “Give me the image and I promise I will put it into her hands tomorrow when I see her.”

Every departure from Valencia has been sad, that one even more so.

Seven months later I returned to the city and on the first day I went to the Barrio del Carmen. The street where Pilar had lived was barely recognizable. Her building had been completely demolished and so had all of the others around it, including the one where I had given her friend a copy of the memory of her home to give to her. In the empty spaces where the buildings had been, carpenters and cement workers were preparing the foundations for new homes.

The bar where she had worked was still intact. Her fellow workers told me that the doctors had been right: Pilar had died of ovarian cancer during the winter.

Her son? They shrugged.

And the man who had taken her in? “We don’t know where he lives. He doesn’t come into our bar anymore.”

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