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The Bilbao Museum, Abraham Lincoln and Basque Separatists

Finally. Finally after thirty-three years of missed opportunities, uncomfortable silences and the fear I’d take my thoughts on the subject to the grave, someone asked me what I thought about our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain.

A virile monstrosity. The kinetic mass breathed its fury from the banks of the Nervión River. Painful angles led to delicate curves. Soft planes quelled deep ridges. I stood, befuddled, by the consortium of interconnecting shapes.

Gehry’s design revolution crumpled conventional style. The concrete abstraction had no front. No back. And the upside was down. It was a hybrid of every broken rule – and one that forced engineers to smash their vectors, bemoan differential equations and find a fourth dimension to hold the museum together.

Huge support blocks of limestone challenged sinuous planks of Titanium that ran along the sides like scales on a fish and reflected the sun with contrary blindness. Its underbelly was soft, with glass curtain walls. Gravity pulled me inside and left me twisted, breathless. The central atrium stood three-stories tall with a dizzying motorway of reflected light rays, angled staircases and monumental windows. Each of the nineteen galleries fed design with art. And art with design. Confused but determined, an amorphous cabal of international visitors loitered, exchanging smiles of desperate anticipation in a fight for the Message.

I left a better man than I entered. Perfect strangers had shared their art with me, trusting me more than I trusted myself. I was in love.

Then I met Patxi.

The forty-something dockworker was an erratic mix of Darth Vader, Willy Loman and Arthur Fonzarelli. I saw him pull up to the bar in a late model Volkswagen Beetle; his 6’5″ 275 pound frame. He emerged from his black car and adjusted his black shades. Combed his black hair and straightened his black suit. I gulped my red wine.

I should have gulped more, since there was only one empty seat in the place and it was at my side. As his dark shroud approached, it induced flashbacks of time I spent in the Triassic period with other unforgiving Pterodactyls. I offered the barstool. He offered his hand. It was the size of a front loader and grabbed me up to the forearm. We shook like desperate politicians.

Patxi, as he introduced himself, pulled out a cigarette, ripped off the filter and shoved what remained between his big gray teeth. He yelled for a double gin and tonic but the bartender already knew. The quart-sized drink graced the bar, accompanied by unidentifiable pieces of dried fish. There was a moment of silence. Then, a slight of hand, where Patxi lit the cigarette, stroked his hair and took a sip of the drink – all at the same time. I was hoping the trembling reflection I saw in his sunglasses was not mine.

We talked. Rather, he talked. A vociferous giant, Patxi slung his enormity to and fro, creating whirlwinds of rhetorical discussion and finishing off each point with the grating sounds of an emphysema-laced guffaw. Still, he lit another. At one point I thought he caught fire, as smoke seeped from his nose, oozed from his mouth and drifted from the waves of his coif.

At the arrival of Patxi’s third gin and tonic, I expected him to pick up the bar and balance it on his shoulders. He didn’t. Instead, his body arrested and he fell back catatonic on the barstool. His eyes turned ice cold. His teeth gripped the dying embers of burning tobacco. He breathed as if he were Zeus. Stared. Then popped the question. “So…how exactly do you feel about your president, Abraham Lincoln…?”

I backpedaled. A fake cough and a meager smile. I hadn’t prepared for a pop quiz. And the last time I thought about Abraham Lincoln, I was watching my high school history teacher yell at the A.V. Dude because he had mistreated the American Presidents filmstrip series.

I made a pathetic reference to Honest Abe that drew a raised eyebrow from my intrepid new friend. He wanted an educated answer and went on the attack.

Patxi swallowed a fourth drink, turned his attention to the heavens and then bellowed over a background of indistinguishable flamenco. His mouth spun out of control, expounding on Lincoln and how he had ruined the South, exploited the North and destroyed all sense of national (Nationalist) pride in the United States. After finishing the last piece of unidentifiable dried fish, he spat a lifeless cigarette to the floor, sucked on the ice from his drink and rolled his sleeves to his elbows. Patxi’s voice dropped an octave and he said, “There’s a definite need for a separate, independent Basque country.”

With that, he finished. Walking out, Patxi mumbled something about an apartment he owned. It was on an abandoned street in the outskirts of the city. Along the river. Empty. He pointed out the window, as if I could see it, and said if I ever needed a place to “stay,” all I had to do was call.

John Torrente