MAGAZINES

CHASING TORO

By Wright Thompson

The Kansas City Star

December 5, 2004

MADRID, Spain - The old man leans over to the young bullfighter, generations of knowledge passing with a smile. All around, in a chilly warehouse at Spain's oldest school of toreo, teenagers with cowlicks and ponytails silently repeat the skills that may someday make them professional matadors.

They practice taking violent spills gracefully. They work on making the mad dash for safety seem artistic. They stand like arrows, in preparation for the day when that stillness will be the only thing between them and death: alone in an infirmary, making an accounting of their lives and asking, at the end, if the art was worth the pain.

On the wall above these diligent students hangs a sign, the school's motto.

"To become a star in bullfighting requires a miracle," it reads. "But the one who does reach the top, the bull can take his life but never his glory."

Pedro Giraldo remembers well the first time he stepped into a ring, and so he nods approvingly when student Juan Jimenez poses with his back straight, eyes fixed. Though more than four decades separate them, they are brothers in a cause.

"Whether they triumph or not," Giraldo says in Spanish, his wife, Muriel Feiner, translating, "after so many years of risking your life together, you feel like you belong to a special society. It forms a friendship that lasts a lifetime because you've shared a very difficult dream. It marks you."

In just a few days' time, Jimenez's life will change forever. He will be marked. He's 16, not old enough to see an R-rated movie, and he knows how to work the cape and the sword. He knows how to stand still so the bull will follow the movement of the cloth. He knows how to fall when the bull doesn't. He knows the science; he doesn't yet know the fear.

"I have no doubts," he insists, firmly, four gold chains and an armada of bravado hanging around his neck. "I'm just waiting on the moment to come."

Giraldo, his body battered after more than a dozen serious gorings, lowers his voice to a whisper.

"Go for it," he tells the boy. "Go all the way. Don't hesitate."

***

My friends make fun of me for stalking Ernest Hemingway. I'm aware there is something pathetic about it. Whatever. Years ago, I read his bullfighting tome,Death in the Afternoon, and something about it enraptured me. I've continued to read, and, though books are informative, they've never explained to me the most important thing.

Why do toreros do it?

To know this, you must go to the source. You must see the bulls up close and exchange stares. A brush with bullfighting is just that: You must feel the animal.

My journey began in San Diego, at the California Academy of Tauromaquia - America's only bullfighting school. A man named Coleman Cooney runs the place, and he's been an aficionado for years, since the days when he was living in Madrid.

He loves what he simply calls "the moment" and goes to great lengths to give others a taste. He looks the part of a cowboy, driving a beat-up Suburban. As my classmates and I arrived on a chilly Friday night in Chula Vista, Calif., Coleman climbed out of his SUV carrying swords, capes and a set of horns. That got our attention.

The next morning, we were bouncing along rugged Mexican gravel roads, the trash piling up to either side of us on the way to Valle de las Palmas. A ranch named Santa Alicia, with colonial gates and ancient stone walls, sat somewhere out there, getting closer.

The scenery west of Tijuana would have been breathtaking, and later, in the afterglow, it was. All of it. The mountains rising in the distance, towering over the darker green of the immediate hills; horses running the crowns, the white one catching the most sun, all of them peering every so often into the stone ring; Coleman writing down notes, a thin pen looking miniature in his sausage fingers.

I asked Guillermo Ganteaume, the only member of our class with professional aspirations, why he wanted to be a bullfighter. The answer stopped me, brought the truck to silence and generated knowing nods from the enthusiasts among us.

"Going to work is like going to die," he said, "and you've got to live your life to the fullest outside of the ring."

We were a strange group. There was Jim Cornfield, a Hollywood photographer who came back to this world about eight years ago. On his 50th birthday, his wife gave him a lesson, hoping to exorcise demons of a bad experience fighting bulls 34 years previously, one that had haunted him his entire adult life. He had left the ring then a coward, but this return had helped him reclaim something. The patron saint of bullfighters hung around his neck in thanks.

There was Augustin Gonzalez, an intelligent and thoughtful USC film student who was completing a screenplay about Manolete, one of bullfighting's tragic heroes, killed in the end by his own arrogance and thirst for applause.

There was Aleco Bravo, an actor and producer from Hollywood, and the son of famous matador Jaime Bravo. He'd been studying a lot, and the extra work showed. He had panache.

We were almost to the ranch when Jim learned of Bravo's lineage. The older man turned around from the front seat and told of a bullfight long ago.

Jaime Bravo had a reputation for taking risks with his life, for playing to the crowd. Women would throw bras and panties and hotel keys at him. Once, in Tijuana, with a young Jim watching with his family from the stands, Jaime fought a bull from his knees. He got cut by the horns and blood ran down his face. He didn't flinch and finished the job. From his knees.

"It was the only time," Jim said, "my father ever stood up and applauded. We were delirious. He was extraordinary. He lived on the edge. He was a great man."

"Thank you very much," Aleco said, clearly happy to learn more details of his "papa."

***

It was my turn now. I had already completed three trips in the ring, and by the fourth and final bull, I got scared and wanted to go home. The art of bullfighting truly begins in that moment, when you look into the bull's eyes and try to bottle up your fear.

That fourth vaca - or 18-month-old, waist-high bull - was stopping short, which is a rookie's worst nightmare. Instead of completing neat passes, the animal parks by your side, his horns suddenly in play. It's terrifying.

"I don't feel comfortable with this one," I said to Coleman, who looked at me funny but didn't say anything. After almost everyone had gone, he asked if I wanted to be the only one who skipped a turn. I thought he was smirking. As I cursed and grabbed the muleta, he smiled.

"You can shame a man into anything," he cracked.

I did two ungraceful but complete passes. I heard the applause and, to be honest, was very proud of myself. I know the bull was relatively small. I know the horns were, too. That wasn't the point, though, and the back slaps confirmed it for me.

Going back out there was the best thing I'd done in a while. I hadn't quit. We climbed into the Suburban, giddy and full of ourselves. We sipped anejotequila from a sterling silver flask in the fading sunshine, the sky purple and orange, like an angry bruise.

We told jokes all the way to Tecate, where we stopped at a well-worn, open-air taco stand. A middle-aged man carved off pork, which he threw onto a sizzling tortilla made a minute before by old women. From three bowls in front of him, the man added fresh onions, cilantro and salsa. I'll never forget that taste, or the cool soda from the longneck bottle, or the gooey cheese quesadillas. Standing at the counter, Aleco and I threw our heads back and laughed. Our voices filled the darkened streets, wafting out into the neighborhoods.

"This is the best day I've had in a long, long time," I told him. He agreed.

***

After that trip, bullfighting began to make sense. Still, there was much left to understand.

My experience had been relatively tame. My bull could leave a bruise and hurt my pride, but full-grown bulls can, and do, kill talented toreros every year. As the days passed, replaying that first moment with the fourth bull, I realized I'd been asking the wrong question.

I didn't need to know why. I needed to know how.

How do they make themselves go out there? How do they stand still? How do they do any of it, never succumbing to their nerves?

On Nov. 29, the plane rose into the clouds and touched down in Spain nine hours later. The center of the bullfighting world has always been here, on Madrid's Plaza de Santa Ana. At the restaurant Vina P, with dour, white-jacketed waiters bringing bottles of wine and sizzling plates of salted meat to the tables, the talk soon turns to the bulls.

Sitting with me is Muriel, a bullfighting journalist, professional translator and wife of Pedro. She's from New York but came to Spain more than 30 years ago and was captured by the fights, or, as they are called, corridas. An animal has almost killed her husband in front of her, and, like many bullfight wives, she wanted him to retire years before he did. According to the code, she said nothing. There's no place for negative thoughts in the ring.

Muriel puts down her fork, takes a sip of the house Rioja, and begins to speak. First, she says, understand that it isn't sport. They don't keep score. It isn't a competition. The bull almost always dies. In fact, a bull learns so quickly during a fight that he can never face a matador again, for the bull would always win. The purpose isn't simply to kill the bull, or move him around the ring. Instead, the aim is doing it with grace, as close to the animal as possible. It's an art, a dangerous and beautiful art, formed when two living things are joined in a symphony that goes against all the natural instincts of both.

"If you go see a Goya, it doesn't change," she says. "But if you don't go see that bullfighter, and he does some historic work of art, it's lost. It's an art, but it's a fleeting art. Of course, you can't forget that the matador is risking his life. No painter has been injured by his brush."

A torero doesn't compete against the bull. He uses the bull as a tool to overcome his own demons, to subject nature to man's will. She pointed to a picture on the wall of a perfectly executed pass with a cape. It doesn't get any prettier, with hair from the bull sticking to the matador's pants. They are one, like an elaborate drawing completed with a single line.

"He has no guarantee that the bull is not suddenly, in the middle of the pass, going to raise his head and kill him," she says. "Any bullfighter I've spoken to, including my husband, says the fear starts when you see your name on the cartel and the fear stops when the bull comes into the ring. Before the bull comes into the ring, you want to die."

***

The backstage area of the bullring is a jumble of nervous energy. There's an old joke: A boy is waiting to fight when a man comes to wish him luck. They shake hands, and the young matador says, "Tell my father hello." The man takes a step back and answers, "I am your father!"

Yet something happens when the boots touch the sand.

Muriel decides the best way to show me how men and women step in front of 1,200-pound bulls is to visit the school where they are actually taught how.

We arrive to hugs for Pedro and kisses for Muriel and quick glances for me. This is a private world, and outsiders aren't often given a peek inside. Soon enough, after an introduction, they accept my presence and go back to work.

It's that endless repetition, after watching accepted masters, that wipes the voodoo from the corrida. The practice takes fear from the fighter and rearms him with knowledge.

Soon, the bull becomes inconsequential. The art takes over. That doesn't come easy; students are allowed five years to learn at the school.

Much of the work is a technical study of terrain, the lessons given by former matadors. They learn when a bull will charge, and how fast he will arrive over different surfaces. Part of this art is mathematics, doing geometry with deadly consequences. Take distance and rate, get time, do it instantly, try to imagine the path of the bull, and position yourself somewhere along it, far enough away to live but close enough to excite the crowd.

Then there are the more obvious and fundamental lessons: the cape, sword and muleta. They learn how to correct a bull who hooks to the right or left, and how to quickly train a bull to make the most artistic passes.

Physical training is vital, too. The matador in charge of the workouts, leading her fellow students, is an 18-year-old woman, Carmen Sanchez. She has black hair past her shoulders and the brightest charcoal eyes. Her dainty earrings seem out of place. She first dreamed of becoming a matador when she was 9. She's fought 30 bulls.

Someday, she hopes to find an agent, sign contracts and do this for a living. She smiles thinly, pointing to the motto behind her head, the one about miracles and glory.

"The bull puts everybody in the place where they belong," she says. "I believe in destiny."

Behind her, school director Joaquin Bernado gives a lesson. He wears his hair slicked back, with a day or two of stubble on his face. Lines run around his jowls, and a long scar on his chin marks him as a torero. He used to be a figura - think Derek Jeter - and his cape work makes the students smile. Like all the professors here, he's been gored, almost killed. Those men stand as the final lesson at this school. The young students often pull the maestros aside, asking if it hurt, and if they were scared.

"They ask me questions," Bernado says. "It's really important to talk about it openly, to talk about fear, to talk about the injuries that can happen. But even though they talk about it openly, they never really know. They are all afraid that once they get their first goring, they won't be able to get over it. They're almost relieved."

***

On the way back, through the darkened and rain-soaked streets of Madrid, the black Mercedes is quiet. The car is more old than new, the hood ornament missing. Pedro silently shifts gears. He misses fighting the bulls, and though the school keeps him around the thing he loves, it also makes him remember.

It's been two years now - he struggled to make it to 55, pension age - but it's still so close. He keeps all three of his costumes in a closet down the hall. A few months after he retired, he stood backstage following a bullfight. As thetoreros stood in line to get documentation from the promoter, he, by habit, fell in behind them. Muriel touched his arm.

"You're not fighting today," she said, softly.

"Yeah," he replied.

"You miss it, don't you?" she asked.

"Yes, I do."

That's why the school is filled with former bullfighters. They can't let it go. Long after the money and fame have left them, long after the crowds have turned against them and their bodies have failed them, they still need bullfighting.

"Everyday when I wake up in the morning," Bernado says, "I think the same thing: I wish I could start it over again."

After working so close to death, normal life is hard. Where's the honor in dying of old age? Bullfighters often falter when faced with the trivialities of life.

"I think there is a big emptiness," Muriel says.

I nod, looking out the window. In my monthlong search, I have dreamt of bulls while an aircraft carrier's running lights shined into my hotel window, sparred with vacas inside Mexico, shared tacos with my friend Aleco and watched hopeful Spanish kids dreaming of glory once owned by the old men teaching them.

"The moment" has come and gone for me, and all that's left is a single image. It is Pedro Giraldo shuffling down his stone street with a limp. A cold wind rushes in and drizzle falls as the old bullfighter walks to his car, now a mere mortal, just like us.