Monday, June 13, 2016


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.

I had started trying to find a job as a writer almost as soon as I started getting to know Buenos Aires well enough to get around by myself. I went after this goal with an attitude of entitlement based more on sheer ignorance than on any inflated opinion of myself and my budding craft. What I lacked in know-how, I made up for in unbridled enthusiasm, and pushed ahead blindly on the perhaps delusional notion that I was owed a chance to prove myself, to show what I could do, to demonstrate that I had what it took to write for a living. After all, I’d been writing pretty much all my life. What did it matter that I was basically the only person who had ever read or evaluated any of my stuff?
As soon as I knew the streets of Buenos Aires well enough to get 
around on my own, I starting knocking on doors looking for a job
as a writer.

So, while still working as a night bellhop at the Hotel Salles in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires, I had begun haunting the offices of correspondents from the major US publications and agencies—Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, AP, UPI, the New York Times and others—but to no avail. Most of the correspondents were not nearly as unkind as they could have been. As reporters, they obviously valued enthusiasm and persistence, even if they must have considered me at least impudent and a pest, if not insane.

All of them either asked about my 'experience' or wanted to know what “j-school” I had gone to. Ultimately, to a man and woman, they asked me if I had talked to "Bob Cox over at the Herald" yet. But for some reason, I kept avoiding this option, perhaps because my mind was full of stories about Hemingway’s cub reporter days with the Kansas City Star and his later work as a young reporter for the Toronto Star. I guess I wanted to get in on the ground floor with an organization whose name people knew, and who knew the Buenos Aires Herald? Many, I would later learn, since the Herald did indeed enjoy a privileged reputation among international news people dating back to the time when its editor had been Norman Ingrey—who had made a name for himself reporting in China and elsewhere before settling in until retirement at the Buenos Aires newspaper—and one that was being vastly underscored by its current editor, Robert J. Cox.

In the meantime, I had managed to land a slightly better job than the one at the hotel, this time as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car, working out of their office at Calle Charcas and “el bajo”, a section of town which, today, is touristy and full of shops and cafes, but which, back then, was on the down-at-heel edge of a shabby red-light district frequented by sailors from around the world whose ships sailed up the River Plate from the Atlantic to call at the Port of Buenos Aires a few blocks away. If the hotel, with its colorful cast of characters, had been an interesting enough place for a writer to work, the Charcas office of Avis Rent-a-Car was a gold mine of street scene impressions. And the best part about it, to my mind, was that it was located only a few blocks from the offices that the Buenos Aires Herald rented at that time in the very heart of that colorful, if unsavory, deep downtown area. That made it easier than ever to go bother Cox after work whenever the spirit moved me, something I had finally started doing, at first reluctantly, on the advice of just about everyone in the news business, while I was still working nights at the Hotel Salles. 
The Avis office was at Charcas and 25 de Mayo, a street that
was then part of the redlight district that began only a few
short blocks from the Cathedral, shown here in the 1970s. 

Mornings in the cramped little auto rental office were breathlessly busy pretty much all year around, since most clients picked up their rental cars during the hours from nine until noon. Returns straggled in throughout the day, but there were lengthy lulls, as well, veritable workday doldrums. Early afternoons were the worst and could drag endlessly if you didn’t have a pastime other than tracking the incoming and outgoing movement of the rented cars that we recorded in a big ledger book using a No. 2 pencil and an eraser—which our English-school educated Chilean boss, Mariela, delighted me by referring to as an “Indian rubber”. Luckily, I had a pastime (or vocation as I preferred to think of it): writing. And I made endless notes on the scenes unfolding beyond the floor to ceiling window and glass door that made up the tiny office’s facade.

A sort of continuous everyday drama was taking place right across that street. There was a dingy, nameless bar, worse than most others in the area—which was saying something—frequented (invaded, one might say) by derelict drunkards, most of them erstwhile street people, who took the place as both a home and a watering-hole for the hours that it was open each day. And, to be sure, it was only closed for a few. Above the bar there was a flophouse of sorts where those who worked occasionally and had a bit of cash could rent a room for as long as their money held out.

Watching the bar from my high stool behind the rental desk was a bit like having what today might be a wide-screen reality show on all day long. A lot of what went on was about who was “in” and who was “out” at the establishment. I got to “know” the patrons by sight and could tell when one of them was “in the money” and another was down and out by changes in that tavern society’s pecking order. The ones who could walk in and not be unceremoniously escorted out by noon had hit it big. The ones drinking outside out of shared bottles purchased at the grocery store around the corner had been marginalized from the indoor population but still cruised the fringes of that society with hope springing eternal that they would soon be invited back in. The ones slouching against the ramshackle front of the building just past the big front windows, glancing wistfully inside and toward their erstwhile drinking pals who still had the money to at least chip in and invest in a bottle from the store around the corner, were veritable exiles. These would only hang around until it became obvious no one was going to take pity on them and buy them a drink, and then they would shuffle up the hill from the bajo toward nearby Calle Florida to begin the hard, humiliating work of panhandling the price of a day-long drunk.

At the top of the societal pyramid were, of course, the drunks who could afford to both drink in the bar and pay for a flop above it. When days were sultry, the upstairs windows were flung open and I could see some of those skinny, sickly men drifting back and forth in the shadows of those dusty rooms, looking more like ghosts than flesh and blood humans. And yet, I reminded myself, these were the lucky ones, who didn’t have to worry about whether it would rain that night and, if so, which doorway they could curl up in without being rousted out or picked up by the cops for vagrancy. But no matter what downtrodden position they all held on the skids of this lower downtown society, they were all recognizable satellites of this bar, a social complex repeated in other neighborhoods and other similar bars around the city.

Sometimes there was a bit of excitement: boisterous arguments, bum’s rush evictions, the occasional shoving match or drunks’ slow-motion fight, events that enlivened my workday, especially during the dragging hours of the siesta when I was usually left alone to man the Charcas office. But as in any society, there were also landmark events, and I witnessed one of these.
Mid-morning of a dreary autumn day, the low sky ominous, the air dense and damp with drizzle off the River Plate, it was easy to see there was something afoot. The drunks were uncharacteristically anxious, standing out in front of the bar in little knots of four or five men, not drinking, but talking in hushed tones among themselves. As they talked, they would glance from time to time rather expectantly down the block toward el bajo, the direction from which traffic came on the one-way Calle Charcas. And then, alternatively, they would glance into the penumbral interior of the bar through the open door or windows, as if to see what was going on inside.
This "colectivo", the 119 line, was the one I often caught to 
go home, 80 blocks away on the West Side. 

At first I thought perhaps there had been a fire and that this was why the patrons had cleared out into the street. There could be little doubt that the place was a fire trap, especially when the owners cranked up the grill at noon-time and the smell of old grease burning off laid an odiferous pall in the air along the entire block. But there was no smoke, nor did the drunks seem to have the attitude of people escaping from a fire...although, they were, after all, I reasoned, career alcoholics, the kind of guys who could sleep through an earthquake on the steps of a crumbling cathedral and not be shaken awake.

Then, however, from the direction down the block toward which the gathering kept glancing, I heard the hoarse blare of a siren and in a few seconds, a dark blue, paneled, Federal Police morgue truck pulled up in front of the bar. And right away, I knew what had happened. For several days, I’d been missing one of the resident regulars, one whom I referred to as El Conde (The Count), a figure who lived permanently above the bar and seemed to command the respect and deference of the rest of the patrons. But I figured, as did the owners of the place, evidently, that he was either bingeing and too drunk and sick to leave his room, or that, perhaps he’d gone away for a few days, since a weekend had fallen in the midst of the three or four days that he had been absent from the scene. Now, however, two uniformed cops were being let in the side entrance by one of the bartenders, who handed them a pass key, rather than accompany them, and then they headed up the stairs, carrying a folded canvas stretcher between them.

By this time, my workmate Paul and I had stepped out of the office into the street to get a better look at the procedures.  We knew immediately when the police had opened the door to El Conde’s room, not merely because all of the patrons on the other side of the street quickly moved away from the stairway entrance and shuffled down to the other end of the front of the bar, but also because it wasn’t more than a minute or so before the stench emanating from the upstairs of the bar washed over us like a tidal wave, so strong and dense in the humid air that it activated our gag reflexes and prompted us to glance down at our own clothes, as if we might actually be able to see it soaking into the fabric.

Now the two policemen were exiting the building with the stretcher between them. The cadaver hadn’t been placed in a body bag but was merely covered with a blanket, and the stretcher left a trail of evil, slimy liquid on the pavement as they stepped down off of the curb and hoisted the body into the back of their truck, slamming shut and latching the doors behind it.
The drunks on the sidewalk stood staring at the trail of body fluids on the pavement, most looking sicklier than usual, some holding hankies over their noses and mouths, others turning away and gagging. The cops, in an apparent hurry to be rid of the decomposing corpse, hopped into the cab of their morgue truck, cranked up the siren and immediately sped off, hell bent for leather, sailing into the intersection at the end of the block without even bothering to slow down. But that was as far as they got, because just at that Murphy’s-Law moment, a five-ton truck loaded with bricks was also sailing from the left through that same intersection, also without slowing down, and the two collided with such a tremendous crash in the middle of the crossing that the bed of the freight truck with its five-ton load of bricks was knock up onto the sidewalk and the cab of the Federal Police morgue truck was accordioned against it. The driver of the police truck was hanging halfway out of the sprung-open door. He was covered in blood and appeared to be unconscious or dead. The other policeman had gone through the windshield and was lying halfway out of the cab with his torso on the crushed hood.  He too appeared unresponsive. The rear doors of the closed truck had burst wide open on impact and the stretcher with the body on it was hanging precariously out of the back end a couple of feet.

When it was all over, there was an incongruous silence as we all—drunks, bar and shop owners and employees, Paul, myself and passersby—all stood open-mouthed in disbelief, staring at the grisly scene we had just witnessed. But then we all recovered and sprang into action, some people rushing away, not wanting to get involved, others dashing toward the two trucks to see if they could help, Paul and I hurrying back into the office to call the police and then back out onto the street to wait for the squad cars to arrive.
It was then, standing there in the street that was now bustling with cops, photographers, curiosity seekers and neighbors, that I realized what I had been thinking the entire time that this incident had been unfolding. No matter what other feelings or reactions I’d had, at the back of my mind, I had been writing the story, describing the scene, seeking a hook for the first paragraph. I was, I realized, made to do this, to write what I saw and heard and felt. I was born to it. And now I was more desperate than ever to find a place to publish my stories.


Sylvia said...

My goodness, Dan, I could almost smell the ghastly atmosphere at the bar...and then felt I was present at the crash of the two lorries, with the poor policemen probably dead and the cadaver about to fall out of the truck. What a tale of horror!
Did you write this part right after the event? I think I would be sick in bed, but one never knows, when one is a lot younger it's probable that scenes such as you've so deftly described don't affect one so much. Dunno...
Congrats once again. I couldn't stop reading this piece for a moment, despite the fact that I felt rather sorry for the drunks that frequented the bar. In some aspects, Buenos Aires hasn't changed over the years. The homeless still abound, and not only in shabby districts.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments, Syl.
It's a funny thing about that. I think in that way, I am a born reporter. Even when a scene like this might horrify me like it would anyone else, I'm always able to put that part of my personality behind me, even when it's something that affects me directly, and as the event unfolds I'm already "recording it", as if it were something I'm filming. And all the while, I'm putting the words together in my head for how I'm going to tell the story. Although I do all of this naturally and without premeditation, and although I've honed my story-telling craft over the years, I think of my writing as more intuitive than anything else.
I always recall another writer who once described my work as "cinematographic"--movie-like, in other words. And that's precisely how my mind works, like a video camera, taking in the scene and "recording" it so I can access the memory pretty much as it was at a later date. Luckily, despite my advancing years, I still have a fairly keen memory and one that, more than dates and facts, recalls scenes, sensations and feelings.