by HUGH GILMORE
I’m sitting at my desk at three in the afternoon – this is last Wednesday, the day the Local comes out – and the phone rings. I pick up.
“You really think bullfighting should be banned? Is that really your opinion? You given a lot of thought to this?”
Who starts a phone call without saying hello? This has to be one of my friends kidding around. The voice is gravelly, but kind of friendly.
He goes on, “What would you rather be: a fighting bull, you live for four or five years pampered, nice easy life, and then you go out in a blaze of glory, have a chance to defend yourself? Or live for a year and a half as a dairy cow and then get slaughtered?”
Whoa. I don’t like words like “slaughter” spoken by strangers in the first minute of a, so far, anonymous conversation. And I just realized that what I thought was friendly in his tone was really just a mid-western accent.
I said, “I’ll be glad to talk about this, but you should identify yourself.”
“I’m Jerry McMurtry (second name a pseudonym I’ve assigned him) based on a nightclub he once ran) calling from southern California. Do you really think bullfighting should be banned? Why? You think it hurts the animals, eh? Animal cruelty. Man, you don’t understand, these toreros love the animals. They love them. There’s such respect. You ever seen a bullfight? Live?”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Man, I was to 24 corridas last year, up and down Spain. Every feria (festival) we went to was capped off with a corrida. Amazing. I’ve seen some beautiful bullfights.”
“So you’re a real aficionado?” I said.
“Oh god, yeah, have been since 1966, I’ve done the whole eight days at Pamplona, I’ve been up and down that country. Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, even in southern France, Portugal, Mexico City – all over. I met James Michener back in ‘66 when he was researching his book ‘Iberia.’ He based a character on me.”
By now I was very excited and enjoying this conversation. The column he’d read (“Running from Hemingway’s Bull, Part 3,” March 10) described my enthusiasm to learn about bullfighting for a novel I’m writing. As an aside, I’d written that despite bullfighting’s occasional grace and beauty it was cruel and should be banned.
In this telephone conversation, though, I had no interest in getting into a fruitless debate about whether animals felt pain. Of course they do. Pain evolved to tell creatures to get the hell away from whatever was causing them the pain. And just because some people had found a way to make a mysterious, aesthetic ritual out of handicapping a competition, that didn’t mean the animal felt pain any the less. And the animal is not there by choice.
But what I said was, “What ferias have you been to? Who have you seen fight?”
And oh, he was a fountain of information. He told me I should read Kenneth Tynan’s “Bull Fever,” if I wanted an inside-the-game view. That the perfect bulls come from the Victorino Ranch. That we live today in the “golden age of bullfighting.” Unlike the old days when the emphasis was on simply having the courage to kill, today’s fights were all about the “prep.”
And each thing he said was a thrill for me to hear because all the words he was using and ideas he was expressing had merely been words on the printed page before he called. Now I was hearing the words pronounced correctly. I was hearing fine distinctions made about concepts I didn’t quite understand just from my reading. The information was coming alive.
From watching YouTube I knew a few matadors of today. “Have you seen Alejandro Talavante?” I asked.
“He’s good, yes, I’ve seen him. But I’d put him in my top nine, as number nine. My absolute favorite – the best in the world today – is Jose Tomas. Then there’s Enrique Ponce. He’s so perfect, he’s too perfect many people say. There’s also El Juli.”
I said, “I’m trying to get into the head of this bullfighter character I’m writing. Do you think these toreros you mentioned care about the so-called artistry of bullfighting, really care?”
“Oh god, yes. You’ve got to see this one matador, Morante de la Puebla. He’s the epitome of the brooding artist. And my own personal favorite along those dramatic lines, Miguel Pererra.”
And on and on we went for an hour. By now, his angry edge was gone – we were just two guys with more time behind them than ahead. An incredible amount of forgiveness goes into that equation when men talk. I was willing to be the pupil if he was willing to be the teacher. I felt as though I were passing some elementary test, given at the end of the first weeks of study. But I needed to satisfy my curiosity about another simple matter.
“Say, Jerry, how did my article came to your attention?”
He growled, “There’s a website, Mundo Taurino. The world of bulls and bullfighting. It picks up stories from all around the world. I linked to you from there. You should subscribe. Oh, and yeah, there’s a group in England that publishes an English-language quarterly. They’re called Club Taurino of London. You should join.”
A few more interchanges, and then I was being called to dinner.
“Jerry, a final question before I go,” I said.
“What prompted you to actually pick up the phone and call? What did you want to get out of calling me?”
“Ah, I don’t know. Probably just to say ‘Eff you’ or something along those lines.”
“You mind if I call you if I have questions?”
He hemmed and hawed a bit, but gave me his home and, after another pause, his cell numbers. “What the hell,” he said, “I’m an old retired guy. I got nothing better to do.”
P.S. I joined Club Taurino of London on Friday. The next time they have their monthly Thursday night dinner I might just fly over and drink some manzanilla (like Carmen, et al.) with them. And possibly rub epaulettes with that “brooding artiste” Morante de la Puebla or whoever the guest is. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” or something.