Wednesday, December 29, 2010

For Your Feet

I don’t recall how we got onto the subject, but the other day some colleagues—with whom I’m in an on-line writer’s group—and I got to talking about footwear. I mean, we don’t always talk about character, plot, description and point of view. Actually, now that I think about it, we almost never do. The fact is that in a writing group you can talk about just about anything, because, in the end, everything—for writers at least—refers back to writing, since everything we do or say or think, we eventually turn into writing of one sort or another.
My choice for everyday wear,
the Caterpillar chukka.
But anyhow, footwear, that was the topic. And it wasn’t until I started talking about “shoes I’d known”, that I realized just how important—for whatever reason—the right footwear has always been to me. Seems the same was true of some of the other writers as well, so the subject definitely appeared to spark interest. After listening to some of their “foot fetishes” and sharing some of my own, I realized that while we may live with our heads in the clouds much of the time, many of us have our feet very firmly planted on the ground—in some seriously heavy-duty footwear.
Timberland hikers for my trail hikes
and walks on the mountain road.

Where I live at this point in my life and for the past eighteen years, the only footwear you want to have is boots of one sort or another. As regular readers know, I make my home in a rural mountain area in Patagonia. The nearest pavement of any kind is a mile and a half away and consists of a two-lane highway with dirt berms. It’s about fourteen miles to the nearest sidewalk.  That’s “in town” and once you get past town, it’s miles and miles of open country, desert steppe land and mountain terrain, two hundred-fifty miles of it, in fact, to the next city of any size. So unless you’re a “townie” and live in the little make-believe paved world of Bariloche with its ski-resort character, its hotels and restaurants, its chocolate factories and shops, its building supply stores and municipal offices, then you definitely want to have all-terrain shoes that will get you from point A to point B with your feet intact, if something should happen and you should find yourself on foot in the middle of nowhere.
Classic wingtips
       Back in my urban days, as a newsman in Buenos Aires—a bustling cosmopolitan city on the other side of the continent, over a thousand miles from here, and where I lived for almost twenty years—my shoes of choice were black or brown wingtips and black low-quarters. But they had to be both tough and comfortable as well as elegant. As a reporter, I did a lot of walking…and occasional running! Fortunately, that was back when Argentina was still the maker of some of the finest leather shoes on earth. I bought mine at Los Angelitos, one of the fine old stores from the pre-globalization days when porteños (Buenos Aires natives) were also some of the most elegantly clad people on earth. Los Angelitos sold dress shoes that made you sigh and go “aaahhh” as soon as you put them on. Comfortable from day one! Still, before I wore a new pair, I always took them to a shoe-mender’s and had them fitted with rubber heels and rubber half-soles. The purists who made dress shoes for Los Angelitos didn’t believe in anything but shoe leather.  But I couldn’t afford to slip on a wet sidewalk and break my neck while chasing after a story. And, for my money, once the rubber half-sole and heel were on the shoe, it became a perhaps less elegant but certainly more versatile piece of footwear.
Back then, I dressed as elegantly as I could afford. My suits were few and off the rack, but tasteful—light two-piece ones for summer and wool-blend three-piece ones for winter, all in blues, grays and thin chalkline pinstripes. I learned something right off when I started working in the street: Typically, reporters—especially the young ones like myself—wore the kind of informal or whimsical garb that marked them from the get-go as reporters and earned them the immediate enmity and suspicion of executives, cops, military officers and government officials alike. One look at them and security was on them like dogs on a bone. ‘Dressing up’ was half the battle. Press corps idealists tended to think of ‘the suit’ as a cop-out. I considered it body armor, which let me slip unscathed and undetected into places where the less well-dressed ended up outside looking in with their noses pressed against the windowpane. Still, if things did end up getting ‘hairy’, having on shoeleather you could move quickly in was another great advantage.
Dobbs snap-brim
That kind of footwear was nothing new to me. When other kids my age were wearing loafers and sneakers in high school, I was already wearing wingtips, since by the last part of my sophomore year, I was a rather precocious professional nightclub musician and was playing one or two weeknights and just about every weekend at jazz clubs in the area—‘the area’ being Lima, Ohio and vicinity. I also gave private percussion lessons and sold musical instruments part-time for a major music store in the area and worked hard at looking the part—right down to a Dobbs snap-brimmed hat and hound's-tooth topcoat for winter. When I also took up smoking Anthony and Cleopatra Grenadiers in my senior year, I began to bear a resemblance to nothing as much as some kind of junior member of the gangland families that owned some of the area’s top nightclubs.
Earlier, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I went through a dark protest stage in which I wore a duck-tailed ‘Detroiter’ hairstyle, carried a folding knife in my hip pocket, wore black shirts and black trousers, and my footwear of choice became “Spanish boots”. 

Spanish boots - at thirteen,
I thought they made a statement.  
 These, I felt, made a statement, a statement of non-conformity. I pictured myself looking sophisticated and dangerous…not like a juvenile idiot. They were a kind of modified Flamenco ankle boot with high-ish heels and pointy toes. I think I had gone through two pairs of them and was on the third—all of which I bought with money I earned doing myriad odd jobs and selling papers, because the ol’ man said he didn’t mind paying for a nice sturdy oxford, but that he was damned if he was buying me “those ridiculous goddamn boots”— before I started getting chronic ingrown toenails. After a local GP mangled both of my big toes getting the ingrowns out a couple of times, I finally went to a podiatrist someone had recommended.
The foot specialist was a gentle soul, a delicate little man who talked not unlike Truman Capote, dressed in pastel colors and wore his short gray hair in a feathery ‘Caesar cut’ to cover up the fact that he was balding. You could tell that feet weren’t just his job. He loved feet. His patients sat in a tall chair that looked a little like a shoeshiner or barber’s chair, while he sat on a low stool at one’s feet: “All the better to see your feet, my dear.” And before and after treatment, he would, almost fondly, hold one of your feet in his hands, rather as if it were a loaf of warm bread, while he talked to you about what was ailing your feet and what to do about it. In my case he gently—compared with the exquisitely painful Oriental torture inflicted by the GP—removed the ingrown portions of the nails on both big toes, cured the wounds they had caused and then patiently taught me how to cut the nails so as to avoid future problems.
Finally, one of my tormented and now relieved feet in one hand, he reached down with the other and picked up one of my Spanish boots, turning it this way and that, looking at it from all angles. Then he said, “And please, get rid of these.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he said, “Listen, not only are these terrible for your feet—and the probable cause of your ingrown toenails—but they also are so improper. I mean, you seem like a perfectly nice young fellow, and I’ve always equated this kind of footwear with, well, shall we say, uncouth individuals.”
I still sat there looking back at him with a dubious expression.
Please,” he added, “for the sake of your feet, and your reputation, for goodness sake!”
Vietnam vintage, US
Army-issue combat boot
It was in the United States Army, however, that I was first introduced to major footwear: namely, combat boots. I did my basic combat training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Rangers (and home to Rambo—that’s where Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentor, says he’ll take him, “back to Bragg,” when the disturbed Vietnam vet turns a whole town into a disaster area because the sheriff treats him like a vagrant and won’t let him get something to eat). After doing even plain old basic training with those guys (all of our DI’s were Airborne Rangers) you kind of ‘got’ where Rambo was coming from. Army ‘psychology’ worked back then, no matter how smart or in control you thought you were. It tore you down to basic parts and then pieced you back together in the image of the “American Fighting Man” described in the Basic Combat Training Manual. You went in there whatever you had been “back in the world”—farm kid, factory hand, construction worker or joe college—but you came out knowing that if push came to shove, you could be a killer.
Vietnam jungle boots -
fortunately I never
needed any.
This was the 1970s, two decades before Desert Storm turned all Army issue into the sand camouflage of today. Back then the Army was a green army and the boots were black leather—simple, no lining, single-piece sole and heel and tough as a bronco’s saddle. You got two pairs. On one you had to paint a little white square on the back at the top of the upper. That way you couldn’t cheat and use one pair for combat training and have the other one all shined up and perfect for inspection. It was black back one day, white square the next, so that every time your boots got wet and sullied and scuffed in training, it meant you’d spend a long time before lights-out patiently getting them cleaned and polished and buffed up for the next wearing.
My two pairs of basic issue boots accompanied me throughout my three-year tour, as did my single pair of Army-issue black low-quarters to wear with dress greens, dress blues and, sometimes khakis, although khakis were often worn for parades with boots, helmet-liner and pistol belt. Had I been sent to Vietnam at any point I would probably also have been issued a pair of jungle boots—a boot with canvas upper, specially designed for hot, humid conditions in which footwear had to breathe in order to let the wearer’s feet dry out. Fortunately, in Europe, where I was eventually assigned for an overseas tour, there was no need for jungle boots.
The way you broke your new combat boots in was by immediately putting them on and going on a forced march—the first of many. That first forced march in new boots was tough, but putting your feet back into the boots and going for a 5 a.m. run the next day before chow was even tougher. I would have to say that my feet adapted fairly quickly—if only the rest of me had reacted so fast! But there were guys who had never had anything more challenging than a pair of penny-loafers on their feet who ended up requiring treatment at the infirmary. I recall one chubby little guy with a complexion so fair that he was almost translucent, whose feet blistered so badly during the first week of training that he lost the toenail on one of his big toes. But once your feet molded to the boots (those boots never molded to your feet), Army-issue combat boots were really comfortable footwear for long walks in rough places or for standing on pavement for hours on end.
US Army-issue low-quarters.
And the low-quarters were also incredibly durable and comfortable. These looked like a simple, no-frills, black, leather, dress shoe. But they were made so tough that, in my case, for instance, they withstood countless formal and holiday parades in which we accompanied the color guard on marches of up to five miles wearing dress greens or dress blues. And all they required was once-a-year resoling and reheeling. What other dress shoe could you do that in?
When I was discharged, they took my field jacket away from me: It was a practical piece of clothing that I cherished by then, but it was the seventies and the old officers and NCOs were sick and tired of seeing Army field jackets, with peace signs emblazoned on them. So they confiscated them as we “processed out”. But I did manage to keep my Army overcoat (an excellent garment over a suit for cold winter weather) and my dress blue trench coat (that came in handy in rainy Buenos Aires winters). I also kept my two pairs of boots and my low-quarters, items that I had come to be fond of and that were to influence my choices in footwear from then on.

Carolina loggers

The low-quarters I finished wearing out in my first couple of years as a reporter on the streets of Buenos Aires. The combat boots, meanwhile, accompanied me on every adventure in the wilds that I was to have from the time of my discharge in 1973 until the last surviving pair gave up the ghost sixteen years later. Those last boots had a fitting end for veteran footwear. They died at the end of the eighties on the particularly sharp and abrasive surface of an ancient lava bed in Neuquén Province, Patagonia, at the foot of a beautifully cone-shaped extinct volcano called Lanín. Luckily, I had taken along my first pair of serious store-bought boots, which were Carolina loggers. Those not only survived the lava-rock, but also lasted me for another decade, even though, by the end of that time, I was already living in Patagonia and putting them to the test on an almost daily basis.
When I'm in the States
I always pick up a pair
of light Wolverines
Nowadays, I no longer own a single pair of formal shoes. My choice for everyday wear, no matter where in the world I happen to be, is some form of chukka boots (currently from CAT - see photo at the start of this blog entry). These, I even wear—to my wife’s chagrin—with a blazer and chinos when I go to Buenos Aires on business. For general trail-hiking, I’ve most lately favored Timberland hikers (I’m on my third pair). And whenever I’m back in the States, I always make sure to pick up a new pair of Wolverine light Gore-tex high-top boots, which are my standard fair-weather work boot for patrolling the woodland that I administrate or for gathering firewood during the summer months—a light, comfortable, simple boot.
The MyS mountain boot
one of the toughest anywhere
But for really heavy-duty weather—heavy winter rain, mud, snow—and terrain (the mountainous outback of Patagonia), I rely on the most traditional name in Argentine, handmade, outdoor footwear: Marasco y Speziale. The mountain high-tops and hiking boots that this small craftwork factory turns out are the Willys Jeep of footwear: "virtually indestructible". Real four by four power for your feet. They are simple, unlined, heavy as flatirons, tough as whet-leather and hard as a rock. But once you’ve broken them in, nothing in the world gives more support to your feet and ankles in rugged terrain. These are the boots you want to have on if you are about to go, literally, where no man has tread before.
Marasco y Speziale hikers -
virtually indestructible
When I last bought a pair of Marasco y Speziale, I got them from the hands of Marasco himself. He was sitting by himself in the modest showroom of his shop in midtown Buenos Aires, a gruff octogenarian who sized me up before deciding whether he would wait on me or let someone else do it, but who quickly fell into conversation with me when I told him that I administrated 70 acres of woodland in Río Negro and was an admirer of his work. My wife, I told him, was still wearing a pair of MyS hiking boots that I had bought her for Christmas fifteen years before .
He eagerly launched into his own story. He had, he told me, been highly active in the inauguration of the ski resort on Mount Catedral, near my home, decades before and had been providing footwear to mountaineers in the region since 1945. Not only that, for years, he had frequented the Andean-Patagonian region where I live, having hiked and skied and generally enjoyed the beautiful landscape of the region every chance he got for many years.
We ended up talking for a good forty-five minutes or an hour. I was fascinated by his story and he was only too glad to recall the good old days, before the second and third generations in the family firm had started moving MyS more toward lighter outdoor wear and ski gear. He gave me to understand that he could still keep them making the old standard boots because he himself still sat at his cobbler’s bench and hand-crafted them. He had been the one to pass on the trade to his children and their children. But in the future, who knew? 
I ended up buying a new pair of hiking boots for my wife and another pair for myself. When the old gent wrapped them up and handed them to me, I couldn’t help but feel honored to be receiving the items from the very hands of one of the two men who had first created Marasco y Speziale boots, some of the best and toughest footwear the world has ever known.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Book Bob Never Wrote

In the forward to David Cox’s powerful portrait of a violent time, his father, journalist Robert J. Cox, writes:
“This is the book that I could not write…A quarter of a century has passed since the end of the aptly named “Dirty War” in Argentina, yet I still find it too painful to relive those malevolent times by writing about them. So I am deeply indebted to my son David for telling the story of a small English-language newspaper…which saved lives by refusing to be silenced…”
The title of the book is Dirty Secrets, Dirty War (©2008 by David Cox, published by the Evening Post Publishing Co., Charleston, S.C. with Joggling Board Press) and a new edition has just been launched on the market in Spanish (Guerra sucia, secretos sucios, ©2010 by Sudamericana S.A., Buenos Aires, with translation by Teresa Arijón). Both books are listed on Amazon.
While the story is indeed that of the Buenos Aires Herald, where the author’s father worked from 1959 until 1979, and where he was editor-in-chief for well over a decade, it is more the story of the author’s hero: also his father, Robert J. Cox.
David was barely a teenager when, after suffering years of threats, intimidation, arrest and several close calls, his father finally and reluctantly chose to leave Argentina in order to take his family out of harm’s way. But David has since followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a journalist and writer in his own right, and having worked for publications including the Buenos Aires Herald, the International Herald Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Sunday Times, Clarín, La Nación and Perfil. He is currently a journalist with CNN in Atlanta.    
From May 1974 until December 1979—precisely the violent years that David Cox focuses on in his book—I had the privilege of learning my craft as a writer and journalist from Bob Cox. In fact, in my early days as a newsman, back when it still embarrassed me that I had never managed to find the time or money to complete a college education, when somebody asked where I had gone to “J-school”,  I would say, “Cox-Herald.” And when they said, “Huh, never heard of it,” I would just shrug and raise my eyebrows knowingly, as if to say, “Your loss!”
I recall that when I had worked for the paper for a little over a year and began to feel I was becoming a real newsman, we received a high-flying intern who was placed with me on the night desk editing international news. I immediately felt threatened since the guy had a degree (from the Columbia School of Journalism, if memory serves) and his father was a ranking editor at a major U.S. paper, as well as being a personal friend of Bob’s. To make matters worse, we were kind of left to our own devices, to sort out who was going to run the show on the international desk.
In the end, that part of it seemed to work out brilliantly. Since Bob refused to discuss the matter with either of us, (“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Just get to work and turn the bloody paper out!”) we reached a truce and simply shared the desk. I benefited from his superior education (significantly improving my technical knowledge of news-handling), and he benefited from my greater knowledge of the local scene, the local language and the workings of the printshop. Moreover, left to work things out on our own, we began to get quite bold and creative with layout and headlines, like two rival soda jerks, seeing who could out-do the other making the most elaborate of ice-cream sundaes. Granted, at times, we carried this to extremes: The ever conservative, ever droll Basil Thomson—the Herald’s brilliant humorist and then-chairman of the board—once quipped when we arrogantly asked what he thought of the changes we were making in the front-page layout: “Sometimes it’s difficult to finish breakfast after seeing it.”
Anyway, one night this fellow and I were having one of our frequent arguments over idiotic issues. This time it was about which knowledge was more useful to a newsman, classroom hours or hours wearing out shoe-leather on the street. I had some good defensive arguments and was sort of getting the upper hand when Bob walked into our cubicle, absorbed, as usual, in making final penciled corrections to his editorial as he walked. So this guy decides to engage Bob in our discussion and shut me up.
“I’ll bet Bob has a journalism degree, don’t you, Bob?” he says. “Uh, Bob…don’t you?”
Bob was holding a page against the wall with his left hand while he wrote in a correction with his right, and now he looked away from his work at us as if we had just awakened him from a sound sleep and said, “What?”
“J-school,” says the intern.
“What about it?”
“You went, right?”
Bob looked at him, then at me, then back at him and, handing me his editorial to put into the out-basket for the shop, said: “Most places I’ve worked, if you had a journalism degree, you didn’t talk about it.”
The discussion ended there and neither of us ever brought it up again. And from then on, we were almost chummy.      
I’ve talked here before about how Bob and I met, about how I almost literally besieged him for months on end until he finally hired me to work for the Herald. What I neglected to say was that about ten years ago, when he and I spent an evening reminiscing at his home in Charleston, South Carolina, after not seeing each other for two decades, I reminded him of this and asked if he remembered how obnoxious I had been. To my surprise, he told me that he had sometimes used me and my hounding him as an example of the dogged persistence a journalist needed to have. I felt honored, since before that, I had frequently thought back to that time with a certain chagrin, always feeling that I had simply worn him down when he had no real interest in hiring me.
A lot of what I learned from Bob Cox came as much from what he didn’t tell me to do as from what he did. From the outset he explained that I would often find myself on my own when I felt like there should be someone to hold my hand and walk me through the procedures. If I wanted to be a reporter, it was up to me to get out and do it. But that wouldn’t keep me from having to do what I might feel was more than my share of the hard daily grind of getting the news into print and onto the street. Writing and reporting would be done on my own time, since from 6pm until midnight, or until we were done, I would be expected to be at my desk helping do whatever it took to create a daily edition. During those hours, I would have to make decisions that I probably didn’t have the experience or expertise to make and I would have to be responsible for their outcome. No excuses. So it would behoove me to make those decisions logically and ethically. All of this was simply the nature of working for a small, under-funded, community newspaper and if I could live with that and pass my thirty-day trial, I had a job.
In other words, from the beginning, I was treated like a professional, like somebody who should know what he was doing, even though I clearly didn’t. But that kind of responsibility tended to make you learn fast. And not having the boss breathing down your neck all the time meant that when he did tell you something, it was memorable and it changed and molded you.

Author David Cox

One of the greatest lessons I learned from Bob was that a newsman’s first loyalty should not be to the advertising department, to the Board of Directors, to the boss or even to the paper’s editorial line, but to the reader and to his or her own sense of honesty. This was, perhaps, the greatest lesson I ever learned, not only about authentic journalism, but also about writing in general. And a second lesson he taught me was that neither journalism nor writing was like any other job in the world. It wasn’t something that could be done without full commitment. If what you were looking for was simply a steady job where you could just show up and that would be enough, then you should be a bureaucrat. If you were going to be a journalist or a writer or both, however, you needed to be the job. Nothing less would do.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson that Bob Cox taught me, however, more through his actions than his words, was that there were severe consequences to publicly telling the truth, and that you had to be willing to accept those consequences and live (or die) with them. Otherwise you needed to look for something less risky to do with your life, because painting a portrait of your times, telling what you saw exactly as you saw it, was one of the riskiest occupations on earth. A morning newspaper was, in the end, not merely a selected assembly of the previous day’s events, but a—hopefully objective—reflection of the times, a daily snapshot of the era, history in real time. As such, it had to be as true as you could get it. And wherever there was truth, there were people who wanted to silence it…at any cost.
This kind of commitment is what David Cox’s book is about. In this highly inspired portrait of his father, David demonstrates himself to be an accomplished writer, stepping back somewhat from his more intimate role as Bob’s son and observing his father as the subject of a probing and detailed biography. Interestingly enough, the author doesn’t merely talk about the years of the bloody military regime in Argentina that turned his father into an internationally renowned journalist, but starts, instead, at the beginning, when his father was a boy, growing up in war-torn England and forming his first ideals in the face of the Nazi and Fascist threats to world peace and freedom. He talks about Bob’s precociously early first steps in journalism and his first job as a reporter. He then goes on to tell about the hand of fate that took Bob to Buenos Aires, of how Basil Thomson traveled to Britain in search of new talent for the Herald and how, like in a writer’s fantasy, Bob became his choice and was taken away on a voyage to a new adventure in a strange land.
This is the story too of how that adventure became a lifetime commitment—to an editor he admired, to the woman he met, loved and married, to the family they formed, and to the newspaper that became his mission and his life as a journalist, writer and editor.
But despite the distance he takes to tell his father’s story as an objective narrator, David Cox skillfully manages to weave intimacy into the story as well, since we also see the effects of those “malevolent times”—as Bob refers to them in his forward—on the entire family, on David’s mother, Maud Daverio de Cox, and on David himself and his four siblings, Robert Andrew, Victoria, Peter and Ruth. He carefully paints a portrait not only of Robert J. Cox, journalist and editor, but also of Bob Cox, husband and father, and of the strength that the family members drew from each other and from friends and supporters in the midst of critical and life-changing times.
In the end, the story that David Cox tells—and that I highly recommend, even if you don’t know anything about, or have the slightest interest in Argentina—is a universal one. It is a story about the true value of staunch idealism and provides proof that determined individuals can make a difference, and in doing so, both change and save lives.   

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Buenos Aires Still Knocks Me Out

Buenos Aires has changed in the forty years that I’ve known it. So have I, obviously. A younger writer acquaintance who read a few chapters of a manuscript about my early years here once commented that he loved to read me because “my Buenos Aires was the city his father had told him about”. At first his statement came as something of a shock to me, since when I’m writing about those times, the city comes alive to me again, just as it was back then. But he was right, of course.
The places I haunted in the past have mostly changed names and  owners and the way they look. When I search for shops in the downtown area where I used to buy fine leather shoes or quality shirts or trousers, I often find they’ve been replaced by stores whose windows feature the latest in cell phones and ipods and other sophisticated and resplendent devices. An international bank branch has usurped a place that had the best spinach pizza with white sauce on the planet. And a lot of the dark, steamy-windowed joints where I used to hang out with other newsmen on cold winter days  drinking demitasses of powerful black coffee and sipping Reserva San Juan cognac served by efficient, laconic Spaniards, who stood on wooden pallets behind zinc-covered bars, are now “air-conditioned  nightmares” with LED spotlighting, designer plant arrangements, blonde Scandinavian-style chairs and tables and a weaker version of once hair-raising java, served in pristine service and accompanied by tiny glasses of watered-down orange juice and a teensy pre-packaged cookie. Fast food has replaced the leisurely lunches and endless talk of yesteryear and seemingly no one under the age of thirty goes anywhere without being hooked up to some kind of mp3 or mp5, BlackBerry or hands free communications device to keep them oblivious to their surroundings and in touch with their ever-ubiquitous, virtual friends until they get wherever it is that they’re all going in such a hurry, behind the latest in UV-proof, polarized, cool-and-incognito shades that stand in for the dwindling ozone layer.
But if I practice a bit of abstraction, I still know where I am and  can still recognize whole segments of the city that saw me grow from young to middle-aged, before I decided to leave the noise and the bustle behind and head for the Andean hills—where I have since grown well past middle-aged (I mean, unless I plan on living past a hundred and twenty). My friend and colleague Esteban Lozano also often finds himself a stranger to the advance of change in the city, even though he has remained here and watched it happen—keen observer that he is—in intimate detail. So whenever he hears I’m coming to town for a visit, he always goes out of his way to find some place sufficiently déclassé to meet with my approval. A couple of times he tried to treat me by making the venue some posh new watering hole where the ‘in’ crowd enjoys the imported institution of ‘happy hour’ after work, but found that when I was sitting there bolt upright on the edge of a white leather settee before a low glass and stone coffee table with a glass of imported lager or a scotch in my hand, I was far too jittery and ill at ease with the surroundings to concentrate on the conversation, so he has since opted for the kind of ever-rarer dives we are both more familiar with.
This time, it was a place called Los Galgos, at the corner of Avenida Callao and calle Lavalle. It was a place after my own heart: wood and glass swinging doors, a painted concrete floor, plain water-green painted walls, and a once-white twelve-foot ceiling, aged and smoked a deep ivory. The simple, hardwood bar stead with linoleum-covered counter dominated the length of one side of the barroom. At one end of it was a cash register, manned by an aging gallego in a dark blue jacket and reading glasses, who never strayed from his post. The wall to the rear of the bar was fitted with shelves en lieu of a back bar, all holding an adequate array of liquor and wine bottles. The walls were bare for the most part—no posters or prints of greyhounds or dog races to allude to the establishment’s enigmatic moniker (literally, ‘The Greyhounds’).
Totally out of character at the far end of the room, however, hung a large, brightly colored painting, well achieved in the hyperrealistic style of certain fifties magazine illustrators. It was as if the drab reflection of the barroom had been passed through a multicolored kaleidoscope and projected onto the wall. There on the canvas was the entire room, in slightly skewed perspective and brilliant acrylic hues, dominated by the bar and backlighted so that the figure in the foreground—a waiter balancing a circular steel tray on one hand and placing the drinks he was picking up at the bar on it with the other—was almost, but not quite silhouetted in a rich, deep, burgundy shade, but still carefully shadowed and with his features, even the creases and folds of his linen jacket, painstakingly reproduced. A dozen hardwood tables that might well have been the ones with which the bar had opened in another age occupied the rest of the space, each with respective sets of matching chairs that creaked and squeaked under the weight of a handful of forenoon habitués. Over the bar there was a sign reading: Los Galgos – established 1930. So perhaps the old gents now in charge were the sons of the Spaniards who had immigrated to Argentina in the golden days of tango and started the bar they had always dreamed of owning.  
The appointment was for eleven in the morning. This was odd for Esteban and me, since we were more prone to meeting for the cocktail hour, but he had house husband duties this week, taking care of his two kids and aging father, while his young wife, Laura, was away at work. I had arrived a little early and took a seat against the opposite wall from the painting. I was thinking about how, in a place like this, it had very likely been a gift from an artist who was a regular, perhaps even as a means of paying off a bar bill long ago and long overdue, when the place was still thriving and such an offer might have seemed attractive to the proprietors. Now, waiters and counter staff, to a man, all looked to be reaching ‘the golden years’.
I was studying, from across the room, the well-crafted details of the main figure in the foreground of the picture, when a waiter stepped into my line of vision to ask for my order. “Ask” is rather too strong a word. A sober-looking septuagenarian with the appearance of someone whose flat feet have hurt him for the past forty years, he looked at me unsmilingly, nodded when I said, “Buenos días” and raised his eyebrows questioningly. In the painting, he was smiling—not so as to show teeth or anything, mind you, but kind of to himself as if thinking of a punch line he’d just heard—but even with his now impassive expression I could see it was definitely the same guy.
“Great portrait of you over there,” I said, pointing over his shoulder.
He grunted, said something like, “Isn’t it just, though,” and raised his eyebrows again.
Café solo,” I said, “and a glass of soda water.”          
Just when I had received my piping hot espresso and was taking a sip Esteban walked in through the door. I stood and, as is the custom among friends here, he gave me a perfunctory hug and a dry kiss on the cheek. He chuckled, pointed at my coffee and said, “How strange to see you with a coffee cup instead of a whisky glass in your hand.”
“Giving whisky a rest,” I said. “Puro tintillo these days, friend, malbec for the circulation.”
He laughed again and pulled up a chair. The waiter returned to take his order, but this time was teetering on the edge of amiable. I figured Esteban must have checked the place out a few times previously.
“Come here often?” I asked, after he’d ordered a cup of coffee and the waiter had gone to fetch it.
“I’ve come  a few times, yes, why?”
“No reason. The waiter just seemed less hostile than before, after you arrived.”
We  always have a lot of catching up to do, Esteban and I. And almost never about current events. Books, writers, films, directors, a bit of art and music thrown in for color, and always against the backdrop of the Buenos Aires we both knew in decades past, those are the subjects of our get-togethers. This trip, I’d been doing a lot of catching up. I only had one pressing business engagement for the week—a working breakfast with an author whose research, writing and translation team I’m a member of. The rest was all personal, a kind of ‘old home week’, and pretty nostalgic, since a mutual friend, writer Claudio Remeseira, was also back in his home town from New York, where he now lives, on a tour set up by the U.S. Embassy’s cultural department to promote a new anthology of Hispanic writers called Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook, for which he was the editor and in which several of his own essays appear. He and Esteban have been friends since they were very young. Claudio and I, meanwhile, shared an office in the same Buenos Aires publishing company in the early nineties and became close friends.
Funny how the three of us hooked up, though. As I say, Claudio and I shared an office. We were the Special Projects Department (the entire department) for a fairly well known Buenos Aires magazine and although we worked quite hard by most magazine standards (which are much more relaxed than those for newspaper work), probably spent as much time talking about writers and writing and books as we did working. Anyway, I mentioned to him once that I had always envied writers who wrote about their little cliques—other writers and artists and musicians with whom they met regularly, some nearly every day, to drink and eat and talk over life and their craft. I was never the type. Usually overworked and pretty much a loner, I had never gotten involved in this brand of casual yet profound cultural exchange, and by then, having reached middle age, felt I’d missed out on something.
“Never too late,” Claudio had said. “In fact, I’m friends with a writer type called Esteban Lozano whom I think would go for the idea. We could scout some old bars until we find one we like and make it our hangout. Start with the three of us and meet, say, once every week or two, and then get other writers to join us.”  
Typically, I said, “What a great idea!” then immediately forgot about it. Same excuses as always: Too much work, too little time. Everything that felt like fun got shoved to the end of the line. But a decade later, after I had long since decided to leave the city to go live in the mountains and Claudio had gone off to get a master’s degree at Columbia University and ended up staying in New York City ‘for the duration’, fate stepped in. Esteban was editing a Spanish-language luxury living magazine and the publisher had asked him to find somebody to do an English-language edition. Claudio told him to get hold of me and the two of us have worked together, via Internet, ever since. And every time I’m in Buenos Aires—I travel there a couple of times a year—he and I get together for our ‘literary circle’ (of two). We often drink a toast to Claudio too, so he’s there in absentia. The writers’ clique, then, took shape after all. The fact that it’s a clique of two probably says a lot about its members, but not so as you’d want to analyze it much, since that would mean facing the fact that our mutual lack of gregariousness has probably had something to do with our also mutual lack of literary success.   
But this week all of us—Claudio, Esteban and I—were back in town. The three of us had met, in fact, the Saturday before. Claudio picked the bar. It was another traditional old place but a little more upscale than this one, a bar called El Tolón, in Claudio’s childhood neighborhood of Palermo. Claudio and Esteban had arrived just before me and were in the midst of a discussion: domestic or imported, Quilmes Bock or Guinness Stout. I was to be the tiebreaker.
“Guinness,” I said, to Claudio’s cheers and Esteban’s groans. So Guinness it was.
It was a great get-together, only the second one all three of us had been in Buenos Aires for in the last ten years. I’d had lunch with Claudio and his wife, Marcia, and friends of theirs the day before and it had been wonderful since we’d all had leisure time to spend. Claudio had finished his book tour and I was just arriving and had nothing planned until the following Monday. So after lunching at a fashionable restaurant in the famed Puerto Madero real estate development that has flourished in what was once the old port of Buenos Aires, we ordered more wine and coffee and stayed there talking until nearly five in the afternoon. Claudio, Marcia and I then walked to the subway and took a B-line train to a part of town where there are bookstores one beside the other, so that Claudio could buy something for a friend back in New York. Afterward, still ready for more conversation, we crossed Avenida Corrientes to a confitería for another cup of coffee and stayed there chatting until nearly seven.
The meeting the next day at El Tolón was, however, a genuine facsimile of the idea Claudio and I had conceived but never actually hatched nearly two decades before—an informal gathering of writer friends that ideally would have taken place weekly, but that we now gratefully accepted whenever possible (in this case, just twice since we’d all three known one another). There was a lot of friendly banter between Claudio and Esteban: Claudio making sarcastic remarks about Esteban’s “ever-optimistic attitude” (not), and Esteban barely tolerating Claudio’s newfound Yankee enthusiasm.
For my part, I found it refreshing to see Claudio’s positive effect on this friend from his youth and how, within an hour, he was already beginning to convince the other writer to dust off an historical novel with which he had won a national book award many years before and do a reedition for Argentina’s bicentennial.
“That’ll get you a foot in the door with the publishing world again,” Claudio prodded, “so you can start getting some of your other manuscripts out of your desk drawer.”
He had suggestions for me as well. “How long have I been telling you that your memoirs will sell. They’re the kind of thing that’s making the New York Times Bestseller List every week.”
It wasn’t just the effect of this optimism that I found so positive, but the optimism itself. In the nearly twenty years that we had been friends, Claudio had worked as hard as any writer I had ever known to overcome his own issues of self worth and make a name for himself, first in Buenos Aires, where he became an award-winning investigative journalist, and then in the even tougher environment of Manhattan, where, as the winner of one of only two annual full scholarships to Columbia, he had fallen in with a crowd of intellectuals who were among the top minds in some of the most elite circles in the U.S. intelligentsia. This book that he was now promoting was a crowning achievement in the latest cycle of this prolonged effort and one that promised to open new doors to him as a writer and ever more noted Hispanic intellectual, in the years to come.
All of this showed in his attitude. He had a new confidence, a soundness that he transmitted to others. It was contagious and made me happy for him.
Now Claudio was back in New York and it was just Esteban and I here in Los Galgos.
As we sipped our coffee, Esteban opened the conversation by saying he had walked the length of calle Lavalle from downtown. In the golden age of cinema, Lavalle was the movie strip, a brightly lit several blocks of movie theaters, side by side. Although, in a city of avid moviegoers, the cinemas also spilled over onto other main downtown thoroughfares—the Ópera and Gran Rex on Corrientes, the Metro on 9 de Julio, Santa Fe I and II on Avenida Santa Fe, the Gaumont on Rivadavia, but Lavalle was the quintessential cinema center of the city.
A couple of them are still open but the once bright movie district is now a down-at-heel section of the downtown area, peopled by panhandlers, pickpockets and sotto voce promoters who flash cards with pictures of naked girls on then and try to lure one into dark little dens for sex shows and strip acts. A couple of the old theatres have been broken up into numerous mini-cinemas and others are multi-show porn houses. Still others have succumbed to videogame madness. A few of the traditional old eateries that thrived on the cinema crowd are still open for business, but look like they are struggling.
“Now,” Esteban is saying, “they’re installing little plaques in the sidewalk in commemoration of the great movie theaters that used to be there.  It’s disgraceful! They’ve turned the street into a cinema cemetery!”
Esteban is almost as passionate about cinema as he is about literature. His father worked in film production when Esteban was a kid and he used to accompany his dad on the set. He met some of the stars of Spanish-language film and got to watch motion pictures in the making. Later he co-wrote and edited scripts, and, in the process, became a studious international film buff.
It’s hard telling where our conversations will lead. There’s no agenda. We just let free association take its course. A mention of Ridley Scott ends up in a lengthy discussion of the mood and plot of Bladerunner. And by some incomprehensible twist, this morphs into a conversation about Ricardo Piglia’s book, Artificial Respiration. Any literary discussion of ours always leads to Truman Capote, since he is the one author on whom our opinions entirely coincide.
I say, “To my mind, while In Cold Blood was an absolutely unique study of reportage-as-novel, his real masterpiece is…”
And Esteban finishes my sentence with, “…Hand-Carved Coffins. Yes,” he says nodding enthusiastically, “I agree entirely. The critics always try to convince everybody that he never wrote anything worthwhile after In Cold Blood, but in Hand-Carved Coffins, it’s as if he pulled it all together, so concise and chilling.”
It’s right about this time that Esteban looks at his empty coffee cup, then at the clock behind the bar and, seeing that it is now past noon, quips, “I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. What shall we drink?” And that’s when he orders the first liter bottle of Quilmes Bock beer, two glasses and peanuts. Now the conversation grows even less structured. The next session includes Hemingway. Both he and Claudio insist I could go to Key West for the yearly Hemingway look-alike contest. Other than qualifying as an aging, bespectacled, barrel-chested, paunchy, snowy-bearded white guy, I don’t really see the resemblance. But Esteban calls this “denial”. And at any rate, I observe, I’ll have to hurry if I’m going to compete, since Hemingway blew his brains out when he was a year older than I am right now, so another year and I’ll be too old to make the cut.
I mention that the time I went to Key West in the off season, I found it the kind of place where I could live for a while. Perhaps, I say, the only one in Florida, with its abominably hot and humid tropical climate, which I really, really dislike.
“So what’s different about Key West?”
“Well, there’s a marine breeze at least, but mostly it seems in the off-season like a place that’s full of rule-breakers and rebels. I could go for a place like that. Maybe it’s what attracted Hemingway—that and the fishing. Tourists have ruined the place though. I mean, they serve drinks in plastic glasses at Sloppy Joe’s, for chrissake. Hem would have shoved them up the bartender’s ass.”
“So what did you think of his house?” Esteban asks.
“I’ve never gone in.”
Definitely denial!” he cries.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t like to go in,” I say, “just not with all those tourists. I’ve read a lot about it though.” 
This leads to another lengthy discussion of the strong vibrations given off by the places where creative people have lived. I talk about the emotion my wife and I both felt the first time we visited Victoria Ocampo’s summer house in Mar del Plata, before it became a popular tourist attraction. Esteban talks about having once felt something similar when seeing Poe's silver-headed walking stick in a Richmond museum and thinking about how it had been in the writer’s hand, probably every day for many years, and what a strong impact that had on him. This then takes us to a discussion of the cats at the Hemingway house in Key West.
“I just read recently,” I tell him, “that many of the cats that still live there (at least half a hundred descendants of successive Hemingway litters) are six-toed cats.” Seems Hemingway may have mentioned someplace that one of his cats had a recessive six-toed trait. So although other cats may have come and gone over the half century since the author took his own life (at another of his homes, that one in Ketchum, Idaho), the six-toed ones are very probably descendants of Papa’s original cats.
And then we decide we could use some more peanuts, and so, order another beer, and somewhere between that one and the next one, we also order a sandwich: This is a drinking bar—no hot food, just beer, booze, wine, coffee and various and sundry cold sandwiches and pastries. Now, Esteban launches into a glowing critique of three books I’ve never read: the Hannibal Lecter trilogy. The fact is that I never knew that the highly successful movies about the anthropophagous serial killer had been based on earlier novels by a writer called Thomas Harris. Gleeful at my ignorance, Esteban tells me that Harris is a former journalist and a very sound writer. He tells me about the three books, Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). I comment that it seems strange that they shot the movies out of order (‘Silence’ first). But here, Estaban’s got me again.
“Actually,” he says, “they didn’t. The first Hannibal Lector picture was called Manhunter, filmed back in the eighties. It was based on Red Dragon, and starred Brian Cox.”
“Hmm!” I go. “Never saw it.”
“Yeah, neither did anybody else, but Cox was really good in the part.”
And so the day goes, from author to author, book to book and film to film, until I realize with a start that it is now four-fifteen and I have another appointment at five o’clock in mid-town.
After leaving Esteban, as I’m crossing town to meet another friend for coffee (the guy who has been my accountant for the last twenty-eight years), I’m thinking about that idea Claudio and I had all those years ago of founding a writers’ clique. And I still can’t help envying other writers who have always enjoyed this kind of society with fellow artists. It’s a way of identifying with the craft, of giving each other incentive and of talking to others who see the world in the same eccentric way that you do.
As I cross town, I watch the typical midtown scenes go by, from the imposing Congress building to Plaza Once, and think how strange it is for a Midwestern American boy to be as familiar with all of this as with the main drag in my little hometown back in Ohio. Stranger still that for the past seventeen years I’ve been a Patagonian, living my life a thousand miles southwest of here—and a gazillion miles, in terms of geography plus lifestyle, from where I started out—at my ease in the forests and lakes and rocky crags of the Andean foothills, but now “at home” again in the city where I invested, spent and misspent my youth. It’s changed, this city, that’s always been as personal and unique as Paris or New York. It’s now a tougher, dirtier, less homogenous and exceedingly more violent version of its old self. But images of it live constantly in my thoughts and dreams and memories, and no matter what it’s become, Buenos Aires still knocks me out.