h, how I loved Calle de Serrano, the nearest bustling boulevard to our house on Calle de Nunez de Balboa. Aside from loving Serrano for its name, which sounded to me like some sort of sleek train, I loved it for the California.
What to call the California now, more than a half century later? A big cafeteria, a crowded tea house, an Italian-style coffee bar? A little of all three, because it had a glimmering counter and a back room with restaurant-style tables. I popped in so often I was nicknamed pequeño, little one, and for whatever reason became something of a mascot. They liked that I was a little American who had come to speak infant Spanish, as if I might be a component part of a New York skyscraper, as most of the waiters assumed all Americans came from New York.
In the afternoon, when my lizard duties were done, I had the taxi drop me off in front of the California so I could have a batido di vanilla, a vanilla shake. I loved the whirring the machine made, different from any American whirring I knew. While they made my shake I’d watch the cars go up and down Serrano, calling out 1500 or 2300, personal proof I knew the difference between the two most common cars, both SEATs, the Spanish branch of FIAT. There I was, the New York skyscraper in the flesh, calling out the names of Spanish cars while sipping on my shake. Pequeño indeed.
What also took the people of the California by surprise was that I came alone, after school — this in a culture in which children belonged at all times to their families, like limbs, natural extensions of the moving whole. A little boy alone with a milkshake just wasn’t done. This, of course, was my father’s doing, he who insisted on the importance of giving children, or his one child, a sense of precocious individualism, and with it a wanderlust-hued freedom of movement (appropriate that the theater producer and actor John Houseman would, in a 1972 memoir, describe my father as “a Napoleonic dynamo of a man with a stopwatch on both wrists,” since he urged me to act with dynamism at all times.) Whenever I went to the California with my friend Paco, we were usually a clumped mass of family, all of it his, and finding a table was difficult.
This aloneness I was given, I took as a gift. I explored our neighborhood alone. I went to the newspaper kiosk and befriended the owner, who always handed me an old newspaper or two (with its ritual censorship holes): this he did to keep me busy so he could ask about my life in New York among the skyscrapers. In Madrid of the time, it would have helped if I’d actually been in a skyscraper, or even in New York, which I hadn’t.
On Sunday, when my mother often dined with chic female friends, I’d go with my father and ritually order a filetto di ternera echo con mantequilla, a steak cooked in butter. And sprinkled with arroz, rice, to me sacred and without which a meal was incomplete. But the key to all this was the butter. Spanish olive oil was as thick as blood, a thuggish cousin of Italy’s less aggressive variants, and the lifeblood of all Spanish food. I couldn’t bear its heaviness, schooled in Parisian butter as an infant. So butter it was for the peqeño, along with the batido, and I never failed to run over to listen to the whirring, which my father found odd.
“Why do you like that sound?” he asked.
My best answer was that it was a sound, and sounds required care and attention, in particular by American boys in Madrid considered part and parcel of the making of the Empire State Building.
That the place was called the California made my role as a miniature American all the more vital. One waiter refused the pequeño moniker and called me Peck. “Tenemos Peck,” he’d say. He’d seen “Roman Holiday” and that made me Gregory Peck in the wings — if only I’d known who Gregory Peck was.
How strange, then, that the following summer, when John Kennedy was still alive, we went south on a trip to meet with a friend of my father’s who in turn was a friend of a man named Nicholas Ray — who made movies and was at the time at work on some kind of epic.
That trip introduced me to the idea of Hollywood, and, even more astonishingly, saw me, pequeño, little American skyscraper, come face to face with none other than (how else could it be?) one Mr. Gregory Peck. So it is time that we leave batidos behind and head south.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.