Night, 6 p.m., June 11. A bit cooler than previous days. In my way to Teatro Colón, downtown Buenos Aires. As I walk the old, cast-iron footbridge crossing over the Tigre line, I overhead a fragment of conversation. “Well, that’s the nature of projects,” says a mid-age woman to a young adolescent, speaking on a tender, sympathetic tone –like inviting the youngster to give a try to whatever endeavor he has in mind. “We start them all, thinking that they are going to go to the end. But many of them fail halfway through.” How true.
During the twenty-minute ride from Vicente López to Retiro three, four, five itinerant vendors will be coming through the train wagon. They try to sell anything you can think of: rechargeable batteries, winter wool socks, home improvement tool kits, tissue boxes, romantic music CDs, lighters, poetry books… Then, there are also the musicians or singers. They show solo, or at times in small bands. I saw the other day a six-member Native American ensemble playing with a cuatro, a guitar, a flute, and percussions some sort of strange –but intriguing– “folk rap” (for lack of a better term).
They are all, vendors and musicians alike, just regular, humble people trying to make ends meet in this very tight economy. I am always amazed at how patient and understanding their co-citizens are, how well they treat these people. With respect, not as scum. Never a bad gesture or a mean word towards them.
This time is a young man singing a capella—a classic from The Three Tenors repertoire. Beautiful voice. Close to perfect pitch. I cannot see him, as I am sitting facing the opposite way. I wonder what he looks like.
And the song is over: decent job. There is complete silence across the wagon. Just the clattering and rattling of the train snaking over the tracks. Seconds later the young man starts talking out loud. He wishes everybody peace and joy. Truly, from his heart. Violence does not solve any problem, he says. Yes, there are struggles in life. Always. Conditions are not good. We know that. But we have to keep a positive outlook in life. Violence is not the answer.
The tone of his voice is kind of funny. I wonder if he has any type of mild intellectual disability. His philosophizing will become soon rambling, I predict inside my head. Yet I feel he is striking a chord with this quiet audience. For how much has been enduring this country, over the last decade or so? It is heartbreaking to see, the lack of confidence of the Argentinean people—on their institutions, on their political leaders, on their future. It comes out in every conversation, in every encounter. They have stomached so much. And yet they feel there is still much more to come their way, in the form of corruption scandals, misgovernment, economic hardships, lack of prospects, lack of justice. I don’t blame them.
The young man moves on to his next topic: mothers. “We all have to thank our mothers,” he says. “We all come from mothers, we all owe everything to mothers. Mothers are the best,” he keeps on going, “who doesn’t love his or her mother?”
Amen to that: by my book, mothers are indeed the best there is. The young man is starting to earn my respect. His words are sweet, his comments thoughtful. He speaks with an odd honesty. Everybody in the wagon is silent, listening. And the train is packed. And yes, we are all listening closely to what the man has to say.
“And of course, I cannot forget: next Sunday is Father’s Day. A great day, and plenty of happiness, to all you fathers. How can I forget you, fathers? You guys, you work hard. I am sure you guys are the best daddies in the world. The best. So: I want to wish you all a great night, and best of luck for the future. Keep it together. If you can help me in any ways, I truly appreciate it. If not, joy and peace for you.”
And thus he ends his 4-5 minute speech. People in the train start clapping. The man starts walking the wagon’s length. I am now torn with the situation: I sincerely want to give him some money; but to do so, I have to open my wallet, and I have a couple of big bills in there, and everybody has recommended me not to be ostentatious with money in any public setting. Pickpocketers abound in Buenos Aires, I have been warned. I get my wallet out and, trying to hide it from everybody’s view, in a ridiculous, clumsy way, I take out quickly whatever I think are a couple of small bills. Suddenly I am ashamed of myself, of my stupid mistrust and my stereotyping. Like you are going to be mugged right here.
The young man comes by. He is about 5’7”, late twenties. Chubby, with black, curly hair. Big cheeks, innocent smile. He wears oversized jeans and a blue checkered shirt. I hand in to him two bills, a five and a two pesos bill. He says thank you. “No, thanks to you. For yours is a strange way of asking for charity money, keeping your own dignity and at the same time uplifting others’ spirits.”
That is what I should have said to him. But I didn’t said anything. Instead, minutes later, I walk out of the train, and then out of Retiro, to Buenos Aires’ cool, clear, end-of-autumn night.
[An excerpt from a longer essay “Buenos Aires – A Notebook,” June 2014]