Uncategorized: apartment cultural divide excuses moving stress transport trust
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I suppose before continuing I should say something about the new apartment. It’s been some time since I’ve written, and the last thing I wrote regarded leaving First Apartment, so for the sake of narrative let’s put the character in an establishing shot.
What can I say about Next Apartment? It was supposed to be a move in the right direction – the right direction being Palermo Viejo. Palermo is the largest barrio in the city, characterized by shops and parks and the sort of culture attracted to those things. The north-looking realestate businesses here had the genius to call one area of Palermo “SOHO” and another “Hollywood”. Palermo SOHO, like it’s namesake in New York, has an unusual frequency of boutiques and women in uncomfortable shoes. Palermo Hollywood, I understand, is where most of the film/television/entertainment business happens. Both “neighborhoods” benefit from exponential rising rent due to the emotional effect their names have on expats-to-be. Palermo Viejo is a different name entirely – I don’t think the same realestate interests were involved – describing a cluster of blocks in Palermo SOHO (if we’re really going to allow the term) with lots of bars, clubs, and the rowdy 5am shrieking culture attracted to those things. Having laid it out like that I’m embarrassed to say my goal was Palermo Viejo, but my thinking at the time was that I should be right there ‘in the thick of it’. If I’m going to do Spanish class for 3 hours and work for 8+ hours daily, that leaves little time to commute between home and Wherever It Is the People Are. So why not live Where the People Are even if it costs a bit more?
It took me some time to find a new place. I had about an hour every day at 11pm to do the search – in between swallowing my dinner and hitting the lights. That’s not enough time. The real estate market in BsAs in late February isn’t easy. A lot of people from the other hemisphere are still here or newly arriving. I arrived with a lot of expectations about what things would cost and it turns out a lot of the information – though offered with the best intentions – was out of date. Rents have doubled in three years and agents have gotten smart. They know what a New Yorker is used to paying. An apartment’s value here has much more to do with who’s asking than any “going rate”. I’m certain some of my neighbors pay 1/10th what I pay. The expat tax has not apparently decreased in the economic “slowdown”. Where does a laid-off New York banker go if not to BsAs? 1600 for an amazing loft in the best neighborhood of Buenos Aires AND the weather’s great? Throw in a wine tour and he’ll pay twice that. So when I spent my 11pms looking for a new apartment, those were the guys I was contending with. I probably held out a little too long for that perfect apartment with the gated balcony and the full kitchen and respectable selection of English language novels because I found myself three days from my move-out date without a new contract. I want to be the kind of person that enjoys that moment – that says to himself “I don’t know where I’m going to wake up three days from now and that’s awesome” – but I kind of freaked out. It may be that I’m getting older. It may be that I feel a massive obligation to my museum to maintain some semblance of a normal, regular schedule – and that obligation makes me unreasonably anxious. Anyway I freaked out and signed myself into the first apartment in my price range that had Internet and that was within walking distance to Palermo Viejo.
It’s a 30 minute walk. It’s small, a studio, with a queen bed filling one half of the room and one of those crappy dining room tables that has one side bolted into the wall (to save on legs and/or prevent theft?). It has the sorts of pots and pans that you buy if you’ve never cooked before. Sad black steel sauce pans that conduct heat so unevenly the hot zone is exactly the size and shape of the burner beneath it. These pans hate food. The french press – which I assume is what they had in mind when they listed “Coffee Maker!” – is broken. Right in half. Two chairs are deceptively incapable of supporting weight. I could go on. The best part was the Internet connection, which I was assured existed and worked perfectly. When I arrived to sign the contract I learned that the previous tenant had stolen the modem. “There is no Internet?” “There is Internet, you can see [holds up the cable]. There is just needs a modem.”
This is one of those One Hand Clapping things isn’t it? How fast is an Internet connection that doesn’t have a modem? The connection exists, arguably. It’s just not actualized…
Because I had no other options I signed the contract – adding a note for all to see that I considered the thing unfulfilled until an Internet connection was installed. I was very clear with my landlord how important it was that the new modem be installed immediately. He assured me it would be done Monday.
On Tuesday I stopped in to find that my Internet connection was still.. conceptual. I reached my landlord, who complained that it was impossible to receive the technician on Monday because I’m the only one with a key to the apartment. Como se dice ‘paucity of foresight’? I met with him to make a spare and in between ridiculous stilted smalltalk I reiterated the supreme importance of establishing an Internet connection. I was now in such a state that when I told him I could be fired from my job for the eminent lapse in connectivity I nearly believed myself.
He rescheduled for Wednesday. On Wednesday by coincidence I had to check out of my old apartment. I worked all day from the old apartment, foreboding enduring troubles. At the last available moment I packed up my computer and took a cab North to the new apartment. I stepped in with my things and looked immediately to the shelf where I hoped to see a little black box with blinking green lights. Where the modem should have been a note was left explaining that the technician had come but that it was “fundamental” that my computer be in the apartment at the time of the setup to configure the modem. In a stroke that indicated he believed he had completed his obligation to me he left an 800 number I should call to reschedule. Suddenly his cellphone refused my calls.
I did try his 800 number – not that it should have been my responsibility to assist the installation of a service I was already paying for – and the Fibertel agent that answered couldn’t help me when I didn’t speak sufficient Spanish. He also didn’t know what to do with me when I asked him if I was fucked.
I spent the next two days getting to know the agency people really well by telephone. Daniel seemed nice enough but didn’t seem to share much with his evening replacement, Gwen, because I had to repeat myself any time I called to remind them that they were all going to die.
I don’t care about the gym. I don’t care about the so called 24 hour security (which from what I can tell is really just a guy that mops the lobby twice weekly at odd hours and says “Buen Día”). I don’t care about the in-house laundry room nor the pool. I don’t really know what a parilla is much less why I should be glad there are a bunch of them on the roof. I need Internet.
The agency, in spite of many discussions about the nature of a “connection” and where certain lines of responsibility are drawn, could not help me. This was a matter between me and the landlord whose cellphone stopped working shortly after I paid. Eventually I learned from the nice couple down the block (that somehow run a business selling 50 centavo phone calls and gum) that my landlord’s cellphone likely just needed credit. He had let his prepaid phone run out of minutes and hadn’t added any more. For two days. Which, in the convoluted Argentine telecom system, means one needs to buy a special card whose sole purpose is to place calls to prepaid cellphones that don’t have credit. Yeah. That card exists. It costs about 30 cents a minute and I would have paid ten bucks because hearing the surprise in that asshole’s voice when he realized I had vaulted over his no-credit prepaid scam was priceless. “Hola… Paul…. Que tal?”
He rescheduled for the following Tuesday.
I skipped class Tuesday to receive the Fibertel man. Like 98 percent of Argentina he didn’t speak a word of English, but we got by on what Spanish I knew and mary mother of christ I got my Internet.
I started writing this thinking I’d say something about how nice it is to have a balcony – a private space outside where you can close your eyes in the sun – but it kind of descended into another needlessly detailed account of the folly of expecting things to work in this country.
The balcony is nice.
Alright so here’s how it went down.
In the last days in Brooklyn, the details of putting my worldly possessions in boxes and exiting my life consumed me. I didn’t read much and I didn’t read my Lonely Planet guide to Argentina – except to confirm my stubborn assumptions about San Telmo, the neighborhood I had already wired money to move into. I didn’t read the ‘Getting There’ section until I was on the plane. Because any travel to, from, or around BsAs is complicated, I read the section twice. My big take-away was one major point that I’ve seen echoed on blogs and other guide books: Be very careful about the cabs. Specifically, be careful not to be given fake bills as change. Also be careful not to be driven for a loop on a scenic route designed to raise the fare. Also be careful not to be driven out into a rural area, robbed of your cash, possessions, and passport – and left on the side of the road. It’s amazing these guides coexist with a thriving taxi industry in this city.
I planned to take a shuttle. It was unclear where it would take me. Lonely Planet thoroughly convinced me of the practicality and safety of the shuttle service, but I was left unsatisfied with specifics. I absorbed that I would – or could – be taken downtown, but I was unclear where downtown was nor how to ask for it nor really whether or not I wanted to go downtown. I mused optimistically that the shuttle desk would be staffed by courteous, immensely helpful English speakers that would facilitate an efficient, effortless transfer and recommend a good vegan restaurant besides. I drifted off into less extravagant dreams.
After a few hours of plane sleep and a coffee that was way too small,we touched down at EZE and filed out into Arrivals area. A mob of strangers eyed each of us as we entered the lobby. Dozens of handwritten signs were held up with local and foreign surnames. I briefly regretted not arranging to have my name among them. Now beyond the safety of Immigration and Baggage, I assumed what I hoped was the countenance of a person that knows what he’s doing. Yet my backpack towered over me – larger than me and better than half as heavy – and I pushed a second suitcase in front of me. Atop this was the black carry-on that contained my laptop, mac mini, guidebooks, music drive, and 900 dollars cash – exactly what I needed for rent. Looking back I realize I could not have looked less like I knew what I was doing if I had worn cowboy boots and a Planet Hollywood t-shirt.
There were no obvious ATMs. Of course none of the visual clues I rely upon to find ATMs were likely there. (In particular, they’re not marked “ATM”.) And I didn’t want to spend too much time looking or pull out my phrase book and risk outing myself as a tourist (because lots of Porteños heft around overstuffed REI hiking backpacks). I regretfully resigned to finding cash after I hit town.
I approached the Sierra Leon shuttle desk and was greeted in Spanish. I told him “centro” hoping this was a reasonable response to whatever he had said to me. I don’t know why I didn’t just say “San Telmo”. It’s a frequent problem here that I try to converse entirely in Spanish when I have no idea what’s going on. Is it really better that the counter guy think I know what I’m doing than that I wind up two miles from my apartment? Anyway I said “centro” with confidence, as if that was a reasonable thing to say (it wasn’t) and he stared at me a beat – just in case I was about to start acting like a normal person. When I didn’t he ran me a ticket to Retiro.
The ride was pleasant enough. I sat next to a man from Spain. He looked at me quizzically when I said “me escusa”. I learned later that that’s not Spanish.
We flew down the highway passing neighborhoods of ramshackle brick homes and shanties. Dark, leaning buildings built on top of buildings – none taller than 3 stories. Plywood roofs. Stray dogs. I began preparing a joke for my new expat friends that these buildings are not built to code. Probably not many licensed contractors involved. Delivery will be key. Ah the privilege.
We arrived at Retiro and nothing was familiar. There was no patient, bilingual Porteño waiting to greet me and call me a car. I walked briskly from one end of the station to the other as if I knew what I was doing, glancing up at the signs on the walls through the corners of my eyes, hoping one of them would tell me how to get where I needed to be. I realized quickly that my pacing was drawing attention and swiftly walked out the nearest exit.
The street was wide and empty. Unmarked buildings towered over me. An intersection came together at 5 points, no street signs.. I walked purposefully back inside.
This time a uniformed shuttle worker approached and offered something in Spanish. I dropped the well executed facade and apologized “Habla Ingles?”. The man did not. I laid all the cards out on the table by revealing my Lonely Planet map. “Necesito ir a San Telmo.” I expressed that, being from New York, traveling by subway would satisfy a now swelling hunger for the familiar. He was uninterested in the psychology of the choice but told me where I could find a subway and cash machine. He seemed genuinely pleased to have helped me and I made a mental note to return to this “Retiro” with a bottle of good Scotch for this man whose kindness was so at odds with the cruel destitution I’d seen in the ramshackle shanties that were definitely not to code.
I crossed wide avenues, shaking my head at offers from cabs. I located the Subte entrance and descended. I pulled 300 pesos (85 bucks) from a machine under a sign that did not say “ATM” and purchased 20 viajes, squeezed my things through the turnstile, and stepped onto the last car of a very old train. Rings hanging from leather straps. I dismounted my backpack and wiped several sleeves of sweat from my face. My head throbbed with dehydration and want of coffee but I watched out the windows and scanned the ads as if bored – as if completely at home.
Several stations later we pulled into Independencia and I ascended the stairs to the street. I took a shameful glance at my guide book and memorized the calles I would pass if I was walking in the correct direction, quickly returned the book to my bag. Just another paper-white Porteño with a hundred pounds of luggage. I set off.
My backpack bobbed over me, towered a head above. I pushed my suitcase in front, with my black carry-on resting on top. The sidewalks were irregularly finished and broken. Large holes were frequent. Like the area had been pummeled with mortars. As if I have any idea what that looks like.
Crossing the second intersection I had to slow briefly to pull my bag onto the handicap-unfriendly curb. I became aware suddenly of two people walking leisurely behind me. Their speed carried them briefly at level with me and they slowed, chatting about something. I powered on and they dropped behind me.
I wasn’t concerned. My shirt was soaked with sweat, my head was ringing, and I knew where I was going. Five lanes of traffic baked beside me; strange European cars; unfamiliar music.
Something dark flew past my left shoulder. I became aware again of the couple behind me and without looking back I concluded that one of them had flicked cigarette ash on me. I did not want a confrontation. Also I couldn’t confirm the ashing was malicious. I kept on, pushing my suitcase, wheels not designed for these mortar-damaged streets.
Something landed in my hair. I bushed at it with a free hand and found it was wet and black like oil. The couple behind me began to pass. The man glanced at me and smiled. “Hola.” He said something complicated in Spanish and the woman reiterated, pointing at me and at then at her own back. I glanced for the first time over my left shoulder and found that I was splattered with the same black oil that I had found in my hair. We all stopped on the sidewalk now and the couple was concerned. “Que es?” I asked in a manner that exuded confidence with this, my second language. I knew what I was doing. I knew how a reasonable person reacted to black oil found on one’s clothing. I mimicked a bird flapping its wings with my hands. “Es de un pájaro?” I was on fire. The woman held out some napkins – the sort of napkins freely available from fast rood restaurants. She wetted one and demonstrated the manner in which I should I approach “limpiar”ing the presumed bird shit from my shirt. She demonstrated removing my pack, insisting in a language that was not English that a reasonable person would remove his backpack and attend to the bird shit now. Naturally I was inclined to keep on and deal with the birdshit later. If I’m anything I’m a soak-then-pad-dry kind of guy. I’m not of the scrub-with-water-and-paper-napkins school. But this couple’s smiling insistence that I attend to the issue sooner than later was the encouragement I required and I was soon scrubbing the oil from my shirt with the nearly endless supply of napkins that this woman seemed to have in her bag. Like the Mary Poppins of fast food napkins. The man meanwhile walked about 20 feet down the street – in the same direction of traffic – and examined the trees I had walked beneath. I watched after him and looked up too. Pinche pájaros. Not two hours in town and they’re shitting on me from trees. I wondered if I was giving off some foreign smell that the birds reacted negatively to – like a cat I once lived with that pissed on my suitcase anytime I returned from a long trip.
I continued scrubbing the oil from my shirt and hair. This was about as effective as one should expect any effort to remove oil from cotton using only water and napkins should be. A couple of times I made movements to remount my backpack and continue, but the woman was insistent. She seemed embarrassed for me and it occurred to me to worry that showing up at my new apartment with bird shit on my things and hair would be a poor start indeed, so I endured further “limpiar”ing.
I became aware of a cab, which had pulled up to the curb beside the woman.
The man, who was maybe 20 feet down, suddenly called out, pointing to the tourist-hating birds. I looked hard, saw nothing. His finger drifted to the buildings behind the trees, which joined with a lingering suspicion at the back of my mind that the bird shit might not be “de pájaros” at all but in fact some prank pulled by humans in the boarded buildings above. Was I overly cynical to entertain the possibility that someone could be so mean as to squirt oil on a passing pedestrian from above? I scanned the windows, determined to stare their occupants to justice. I saw nothing. When I looked down to the man he was climbing quickly into a cab.
Well, that’s strange behavior.
I turned about face to find the woman not where I left her. I was suddenly alone on the sidewalk clutching a bottle of water and a wad of napkins. Being a careful traveler I took quick inventory of my things. Backpack. Suitcase. The top of my suitcase gleamed brilliant, clean maroon where my carry-on had sat.
There’s a special sound made when all of the blood in your body suddenly accelerates to twice it’s normal velocity. It’s the sudden throb of pressure against your ears as a gallon of blood suddenly fires through your veins on a course to ready your muscles for fight or flight. Boom.
HEY! I wondered briefly what the Spanish translation of HEY should be. Oye? I had no idea. HEY! I sprinted to the cab, which was slow to reach speed. Somehow in the space between the theft and the sprinting I had already concluded that it would be futile to pursue, but I felt the obligation to do so anyway. What am I going to do if I catch up to them? I had to confront the absence of obvious answers to this question because I did catch up to them. The cab was rolling along at 15, 20, 25. The man was having trouble pulling the door all the way closed. I considered pulling the door open by the handle but the cab was already beating me and I reasoned I wouldn’t have leverage. Also, what then? So I did what has always come natural to me when the blood pounds in my ears. I banged on the window with my fist as hard as I could. I could feel the window flex with each impact, which raised another question: What will I do if I break the window? I mean what other goal can I have here if it’s not to break this window?
The cab did not stop. It accelerated leisurely, as if there was not a blood-red tourist, screaming in a foreign language, trying to break his hand on the rear window.
At some point it picked up enough speed that I slowed and closed my eyes to go somewhere else. I became aware now – as if that did me any good before – that I was completely alone on the side of the road with one bag safely separated from me in a cab bound for brick shanties and my only other possessions sitting alone half a block away. I turned and returned to the sidewalk. When I spotted my (remaining) bags and confirmed that they were not also being loaded into cabs, I indulged the loudest “FUCK” I hope Buenos Aires has ever heard. It was a magnificent fuck. Every Porteño in 10 blocks had an English lesson that day.
I found that i was still clutching the woman’s water bottle and napkins. Oregonians are physically unable to litter. The irony was too much and I indulged another “FUCK” and a few variations on that idea, throwing (with a little shame) the water bottle and napkins into the street.
Bienvenido a Buenos Aires.
Necessarily, things improved considerably thereafter – as they can only do when they’re so low. I was approached immediately by five or six foreigners that heard my story (a sputtering synopsis of what you just read) and helped me to a police station. My head was ringing, shirt drenched, hair a mess of black oil (shoe polish maybe?) and sweat. After hours of pretending to bear a confidence I did not, my face now perfectly reflected my interior. A sharp, clenched scowl with eyes anxious to stare into every passing pedestrian. What more can you take? Fucking country. Try it! Let’s fight with fingernails and teeth like god damned animals. I’m genuinely curious what will happen.
But the blood subsided and I gave my statement to the police. At times I would recall one more essential item I had forgotten was in the bag and the pounding anger would return. My guide. My maps. My phrase book. What are they going to do with a phrase book? My landlord’s telephone number. The RSA keyfob that lets me work remotely for the museum… Oh my god all the passwords..
Of course I’m not getting the bag back. There will be no crack team of detectives brushing the water bottle for prints and hair fragments. I didn’t even have a license plate number. I’m not in the habit of noting plate numbers and I didn’t start when I arrived in BsAs. In the Moment one doesn’t always do what’s sensible. I had a plan and it started with breaking my hand on some glass.
I still wake up and it takes a moment to realize where I am. And when I remember I still immediately think about Day One. And I kick myself, continue to kick myself mentally – sharp, full-force, steel-toe jabs – until I forget. There were too many moments of dim awareness. It was too obvious. Too many opportunities to reverse it.
Of course it could have been much much worse. The first solace I allowed was the realization that this was not an act of aggression. These people were smart and they got lucky that I was not. (In my defense I was also hot, tired, under-caffeinated, and generally disoriented. Add to that a heavy dose of white guilt that inclines me to assume the best of anyone a few shades darker than me, and you’ve got a willing victim.) But they were not aggressive. They suggested I look one way, and when I did they took my bag. I could have stopped them by noticing.
It will have to suffice for now to say that things are more or less sorted. My museum sent me a computer and a new RSA fob. I spent a week recalling all of the passwords I had saved in text files on that computer – had to contact many clients and suggest they change their passwords (definitely one of the most embarrassing aspects of this). I bought a new guide book, which I found says roughly the same thing about the danger of cabs. I don’t imagine I’ll quickly replace the music that was collected on the harddrive. I didn’t keep backups – one of the least stupid of several stupid mistakes. The loss of the 900 for rent of my apartment was a serious blow. My landlord was very understanding and allowed me to pay the following week. After a couple weeks I allowed myself to go out after dark. In a couple more I might even take a cab.
The other day I ran a load of laundry and examined the “pájaro” stains for the first time and I gotta say I think scrubbing that shit with napkins made it worse.