by Nathalie Graham
Travel guides and tourist handbooks tell you to clutch your bag closely because pickpockets run rampant. But it’s not pickpockets that are causing the collection of Euro coins you’ve amassed to dwindle; it’s the people on the street.
It’s impossible to walk down a busy street in any major city without being asked for money in some way, shape, or form. Madrid is no exception. Aside from the staggering number of homeless, there are countless people trying to make a buck through their own means and resourcefulness.
None of this is shocking to me. Coming from Seattle, where the unemployment rate is 3.1 percent and falling but the homeless population continues to rise, I’m used to seeing the city’s poorest and most destitute on my daily commute. With nearly 3,000 people sleeping outdoors every night, the sanctuary city is plagued with problems. However, the challenges in Spain are different.
There is currently an 18 percent unemployment rate in Spain. This is a stark improvement from recent years but it’s still the highest rate in the European Union behind Greece. Talk about second place being a first place loser.
Stringent employment laws put in place by Spain, and, on a broader scale, the EU inhibit immigrants. To work in Spain, an immigrant must get a work visa. And, even then, native Spaniards have first priority, followed by residents of the EU.
Many of these people on the street are immigrants trying to establish themselves among these realities.
For instance, the most obvious display of these endeavors is the groups of African men selling counterfeit goods. Their wares are spread out on blankets with strings knotted around each corner. Once they spot a policeman, they snatch up the strings, toss the blankets over their shoulder like some kind of obese knapsack, and sprint down the street.
Selling counterfeit goods is not strictly legal. In fact, these merchandizers could face a two-year prison sentence if they get caught. Maybe that’s why only a select few do it.
Being a street performer is the safer option.
These performers have a knack for getting people to stop in their tracks to watch or listen to what they’re doing.
One of my fondest memories of street performance is the guy that sings in Seattle on the corner of University Way and 41st street right in front of Wells Fargo.
He was singing Jingle Bells on the first day of December and I happened to have broken out my holiday sweater for the start of the season. I was filled with holiday cheer, his singing was a siren song good enough for the early seasons American Idol, his smile was, for lack of a better word, jolly, and I couldn’t help but dig into my backpack to give him a dollar.
I saw him board a bus later that day with a bundle of bills in hand. I guess he’d affected other people in the same way.
It verges on naïve to assume this is the case for all street performers, or even that success happens on that scale every day.
The payment is inconsistent and the job is grueling at times, Sulu, a Nigerian guitar player who didn’t give me his last name, told me on the streets of Madrid in between the Bob Marley songs he was playing.
“Sometimes it’s worth it,” Sulu said. “Other times, well.” He shrugged.
Being able to live off of street performing is an art form in and of itself and something Ion Ilie Tataru, 47, has figured out.
It’s also something many immigrants must rely on to make ends meet.
Tataru is from Romania originally. He fled a communist regime and ended up in Madrid fifteen years ago. Here, he’s held every service job under the sun.
“I cooked, I cleaned, I even drove tour buses,” Tataru said in Spanish. “None of it paid well. The pay was garbage.”
Tataru took to the streets. The pay, it turns out, was a lot better. He’s been successfully living off of street performance for 8 years.
Situated in Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Tataru constructed a costume based on the Romanian Capra, a traditional dance performed during the New Year. It involves someone, traditionally a man, wearing a goat mask and sheep skin going house to house and dancing.
Tataru’s iteration takes clear inspiration from this. The costume has a goat head, whether it’s wood or a skull is beyond me, though, if my translation is correct, Tataru mentioned he hunted the goat himself. The jaw is unhinged like a puppet so he can make the thing come to life by making it snap its jaw or making whistling sounds.
The body of the costume looks like pure tinsel. Tataru crouches inside, completely obscured to the outside world. He holds a stick inside so he can make the goat jump and move. Bells attached to its horns and the sound of the tinsel moving give the creature more life.
“I’ve made $2,000 in a day before,” Tataru said.
During the peak tourism season in the summer, he’s incredibly successful. But a day of work for him isn’t a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. gig. Depending on the day, Tataru can be crouched in Plaza Mayor for up to 12 hours.
It’s worth it, he said.
“From 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. I can make a couple of hundred dollars,” he said. “Plus, I don’t work that hard.”
Most of the time he’s interacting with children. Their sense of wonder and their smiles all aimed at him make his work that much more rewarding. It makes the time go by quickly.
I asked him if this was his only job. He laughed, his grin big and, in many places, toothless.
Tataru, it seems, is a jack of all trades.
“I paint too, you know,” he said after rifling through his bag for some string. “I do many things. Muchisimo, muchismo, cosas. Many, many, things.”
He began performing a magic trick.
“I finger paint and sell it along the street,” he said as he turned one string into three different strings with one stroke of his hand.
The police make it hard to sell any of his work. Street performing is safer that way, it’s legal.
After the magic trick, an impressive feat for a self-taught magician, Tataru pulled out his phone. He started showing me pictures of his finger paintings.
As he swiped through to find the paintings he stopped at pictures of his daughter, his wife, even a bowl full of the coins he had earned that day. He smiled with pride.
“I just want to give them a good life,” Tataru said.