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shops in the downtown area where I used to buy fine leather shoes or quality shirts or trousers, I often find they’ve been replaced by stores whose windows feature the latest in cell phones and ipods and other sophisticated and resplendent devices.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.