Saturday, September 16, 2017


The main thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve gotten tired of our clothes. I was surprised how easily I adapted to wearing shorts and flipflops everywhere, feeling like a white hairy giant every time I had to sit down somewhere and my whole leg was there on display, looking like something like that could be used to sneak past Polyphemus. Even my feet have hobbit-esque tufts of hair on them. I wonder how the people here sitting next to me can keep from staring when a yeti in Adidas shorts plops down next to them on the bus. But when the high hits 90 degrees every day, you can’t argue. I go to work wearing long pants and a button-up shirt and wrench the sodden outfit off the minute I come home, stripping down to my underwear, which is all I wear for the rest of the day. Initially, it was a little awkward sitting down to dinner, but conventions such as wearing a shirt to the table were eventually flung aside. In a place that is always warm enough to make you sweat—even at dawn—there’s no point in covering yourself unnecessarily. It’d be like pulling the blanket up to your chin on a hot night just because it’s there.

Apart from the occasional Skype call, nothing intrudes on our dishabille world and, to better adapt, our clothes have become more and more absurd. In public, I wear undershirts so thin they have a pellucid quality to them, like smoke in the light of a projector, cottony and profuse yet insubstantial. My shorts make it about a quarter of the way down to my knees to allow for as much surface area as possible for the feeble breezes to cool. I never wear shoes; there’s no point, all I need is something to keep the sole of my foot from being shredded by the streets so I wear my rubber bath sandals everywhere which has resulted in some thorny calluses. Gina, at some point, went out and bought a few pairs of an item she calls jazzy pants which are billowy and patterned; each leg like a separate dress, disclosing a foot at the bottom, orphaned by its parent leg which, under the yards of fabric is nowhere to be found.

For months, we strode around wearing these ‘clothes’ strangely, without embarrassment. I have always preferred a comfortable cover. Something cotton and densely woven: jeans, shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, beanie, shoes + socks. Gina is the same. Often, we’d meet after work in the States to find we were wearing the same pile of denim and flannel, but on a chilly gray day, with the fog blowing in from the ocean, what could be better than standing on a rocky outcropping overlooking the kelp and wave troubled Pacific, holding a hot cup of coffee with your hat pulled low and your free hand deep inside a jean pocket to keep off the cold.

In Aesop’s fable about the sun and the wind, the two are trying to see which is more powerful by betting which can make a man take off his jacket first. The wind rages which causes the man to pull his jacket tighter to himself. The sun shines and, in its warmth, the man takes of his jacket. I have lived on either side of this contest, only the sun in this current version is vindictive as hell, and plans to rub the wind’s face in his victory by making the man shed everything. I’ve borne all this with great patience, but after a while, one gets tired of looking like a castaway from a beach volleyball tournament: sunglasses, tanned knees (knees fer god’s sake!), beet red and leathery face. There is no beach where I live; there is nothing but a strangely denuded city, which, for lack of tree cover, bakes in the sun. If it wasn’t for an overzealous appreciation for uniforms (school children, university students, civil service—almost anyone who is expected to be some place on time every day wears some kind of uniform) everyone would be wearing clothes like ours, shorts and flipflops. I accepted it as a necessity, but after months of vertigo induced by looking down this long column of hair that holds me up from the ground, I got tired of having no choice and had to admit my vanity, or at least my desire to moderate my own clothing choices. I got tired of wearing the exact same thing. Gina readily agreed that what is unaccounted for in tropical latitudes is that one wears the most comfortable, lightest thing available. There is no reason for additions. Clothing becomes a stark and utilitarian affair—like tying the same loincloth on day after day. After a while, the snug memory of pant cuffs over socks or a cozy scarf seems ridiculously indulgent, a bit like going out in public with an electric blanket wrapped around you, connected to a portable generator. Sometimes, I just sit and imagine the coarseness and weight of a sweater. I close my eyes and wander through autumnal forests, crackling with frost and press closer to winter fires, appreciative, for once, of both the warmth of the fire and the chill of the night.

We went to northern Vietnam anticipating cooler weather; Hanoi is the only city in southeast Asia that sees anything like a winter, but we were too early and while the city wasn’t as hot and sun-baked as southern Thailand, the temperature never dropped below 80. So rather than focus on the drastically different climate, I was left to consider the socio-cultural dimensions of the country which still blazed with yellow hammer and sickle motifs and red flags, like the flames of some all-encompassing bonfire.

Coming from the airport at night, we drove under a series of arches decorated with Soviet ears of wheat and slogans of prosperity I couldn’t read. It felt like an element of the past had somehow broken through and arrived in the present. Traveling the former Soviet Union, one sees the occasional reminders of communism, faded red stars, rain dissolved states of straight-jawed heroes of the people, but its all buried under the sheen of emergent capitalism, pushed aside to clear a space for a new billboard. Vietnam was the only place where I’ve ever seen the two ideologies so well-entwined. Obviously, in the time I was there, I had no more than a very superficial look, but all the salient elements of communist rule were present. The word ‘people’ or ‘people’s’ was visible on almost every government building, school children wore red bandannas around their necks and people who didn’t seem to be soldiers wore military-style clothing, olive drab with lots of pockets. But free trade seemed to be flourishing. There were no state-owned stores and plenty of people seemed to have their own little business selling ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirts and assorted knickknacks to tourists or at least tea and beer on the sidewalk.

When we first arrived there wasn’t much traffic. In the old quarter, there were a few motorbikes looping through the intersections but the streets were generally quiet. We were given a room in our hotel with a fake window. A small pane of glass looked out on a narrow shaft that had been artificially lit up and decorated with fake plants. At night, it didn’t seem too bad when all light is artificial; I closed the curtains so that light wouldn’t pour into the room and got into bed.

I woke up about nine hours later with the disorientation that comes of waking up in complete darkness. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but I was undeniably awake. Gina was still asleep and I slunk out of the room to get some coffee. When I opened the door, I felt like the natural light flooding the stairwell was going to blind me. I staggered along the wall to the elevator, squinting my eyes as tightly as I could, but even the small amount of light was making wringing such copious tears out of them, I looked like I had been sobbing all night. I felt my water to the elevator, hoping that no one would see how absurd I must’ve looked, acting like I’d been woken up by a bucket of cold water. I gained the elevator at the same time as a young, well-rested looking couple. I explained to them that my watery eyes and general bewildered look was the result of having no windows in my room. They couldn’t sympathize; their room had plenty of windows, but, they added, it also faced the street so it was very noisy. It was a hard decision, but, in the end, I think I was happier having a cave rather than a well-lit room flooded with the frenetic sounds of the Hanoi streets. When I first arrived in Thailand, I was impressed at the lack of honking despite the number of motorbikes and the chaotic traffic patterns. Gradually, I had come to take the relative silence for granted. Plenty of teenagers had their mufflers taken off and loved blasting down the street at all times of the day leaving a long wake of engine noise behind them. Maybe no one honked in Thailand, but it was still pretty loud. Hanoi, by comparison, was a cauldron of sound. Surrounded by the heavy, damp, white-washed concrete of colonial buildings the sounds of the streets crashed into each other like hot air rising from a chimney. Motorbikes tooted their horns at pedestrians, cars honked at the motorbikes, ladies walked by with bikes laden with goods, proclaiming their wares with loudspeakers, people laughed and tea glasses clinked. The traffic lights changed from one color to another heeded by absolutely no one but us and a few other tourists naively waiting on the corner for a chance to cross. It was incredible to watch so much traffic weave through itself so effortlessly. Some people driving through the green light, others driving through the red, but everyone with the right-of-way. I watched the multi-directional traffic and realized that it would never work in the US because we wouldn’t have the patience for it. Everyone was moving, but no one seemed to be in a particular hurry and, more importantly, there was no sense of ‘my turn.’ A notion westerners are instilled with and come to treasure at a young age. We cling to ‘my turn’ for security, even while we seek to usurp the ‘turns’ of others. Even when there’s nothing to possess, occidentals unconsciously box off what’s around them and place a value on it; fifth in line is better than eighth in line. One space becomes more valuable than another. We stop at the red light and wait, but when the light is green again we are impatient if the car in front of us doesn’t move immediately. We want to get out ahead. In Vietnam, the people were able to go through the red light only because they didn’t seem to care much about getting ahead. The looks on their faces were imperturbable. They moved forward not to attain a goal, but simply because they were endowed with motion from birth and knew there to be no alternative. Red and green lights make no difference in Vietnam because the people seem to understand that crossing the intersection offers no great reward or punishment. It’s just another step somewhere between birth and death. It has no value. There is nothing to gain by getting ahead of the traffic, nor is there anything to lose by falling behind. You go only because you have no reason to stop.

This didn’t stop me from feeling nervous stepping down from the curb into the torrent of horns and exhaust. It was like gradually lowering yourself into a turbid river after the monsoons when its full of green tangles of vegetation plunging along like small islands on the face of the swirling chocolate milk-colored water. Your senses are blinded by the warmth and buoyancy of the water. You hop toward the other side, feeling the rushing current pulling you further downstream. Your footing is loose and precarious. When you gain the opposite bank, you’re much further down from where you started and the river continues by, indifferent to your crossing, pushing the tangled branches and the dirty gray fish down to a great estuary. On the other side of the street, I’d look back into the solid mass of traffic, unable to understand how I’d been able to cross it at all.

Our first morning, after a particularly viscous cup of black (đen) Vietnamese coffee which tastes sort of like it’s got vanilla or a little maple syrup poured into it, though not entirely in a bad way—we went down to Lenin park and walked absent-mindedly over the half-moon bridges, along the warm, misty-covered lake and under the dangling roots of the Banyan trees until we began to feel hungry and walked back to the Old Quarter. On the way to the restaurant, we passed St. Joeseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in the 1880s with a soot-darkened facade soaring up to a point over a small forecourt, it’s the most European feature of the entire country and homesick tourists flock to it. Either because it seems such an aberration or because we can’t help but to be drawn to what’s familiar. The shape and color of it, however, have a funereal aspect, which I guess is appropriate in a church, but seems out of place in an otherwise tangled and loud city. I couldn’t help but to marvel that it hadn’t been torn down the minute the revolution declared victory. A colonial religious building was the antithesis of a national communist rule and yet, somehow it had been allowed to survive. I expected the narthex would give some clue as to why the church had been left standing, but before entering the cathedral there was nothing but the usual dusty prayer books for sale and an attendant asleep on a glass case of rosaries.

In the afternoon, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison, which had been built by the French, if the history placards were to be believed, with the express purpose of executing Vietnamese insurrectionists. After the French left and the Americans came in, the revolutionary government maintained the prison for American POWs, although there was less information about this, perhaps because it only seems to have housed about 20 pilots who crashed over northern Vietnam. This was about as close to the Vietnam War as I was going to get. While most of the other museums noted the American War (as it’s known in Vietnam), the French and the horrors of colonialism still seemed to be the primary focus of the country’s ire. The struggle for independence had been so long and arduous, the war which followed it was just like another campaign. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and while Northern Vietnam continued fighting, I think it was more from impetus. The documentation of everything after 1969 seemed to be disinterested, like a period which had to be acknowledged, but didn’t have the same ‘new dawn’ nostalgia to be glossed over with. Of course, all the information was biased. In the Hoa Lo Prison there was no information about the American POWs other than that which related to how well they were treated. Pictures of basketball games, Christmas decorations and the wrapper of a care package which had been sent via Moscow were all on display as were pictures of the POWs and quotes about how much they’d enjoyed themselves while in captivity, like they were writing home from a summer camp. I found it interesting how a single building could house two such opposing viewpoints. On one side of the exhibition, the Vietnamese had been tortured, confined in appalling conditions and beheaded by the French and on the other side of the building the Americans had been treated to all kinds of entertainments with none of the deprivations, despite being in the same building. I noticed it gave no mention of where the Americans stayed, probably because all the cells had been used up to showcase the atrocities of the French.

In the end, even a notorious prison museum is like a visit to any other attraction. There’s a gift shop at the end. Where you inevitably stand and try to make sense out of all you’ve seen. I stood there, feeling the keen disappointment of knowing this was as close as I was ever going to get to the war I’d grown up hearing about. Even if I spent months in Vietnam, went down south, crawled through the old Viet Cong tunnels and held the discarded mine casings under the patter of rain on the banana leaves, everything was going to be an attraction with an admission fee and a guide. In other words, a fake, a reenactment, a Disney World animatronic soldier, blinking in that false, robotic way mouthing the words ‘war is hell.’ To make myself accept this reality, I bought a bunch of stuff in the gift shop. The weight of the postcards, t-shirts and refrigerator magnets in my backpack was to be the closest tangible connection I’d have to the war which had been such an impact on my dad’s life. There was a place in the prison to burn incense, which Buddhists do when praying. Before leaving, I lit one, placed it in the holder and watched it smoke for a while, profoundly aware of how little I knew.

When we got back to our hotel that evening, as usual, the staff jumped up to open the doors for us and inquired how we’d spent the day. We told them we’d had a very nice time exploring their city and museums (without saying exactly which ones) and they gave suggestions for the next day’s entertainment. They obviously hoped we’d be ridiculous enough to want to venture out into the countryside so we could foot the bill for a bus-boat-bus combo out to an island paradise, but package travel has never appealed to me. If I can’t get to a place as a local would, I imagine, I don’t have much business being there. “Besides,” I told the hotel staff, “we live in Thailand; I don’t care about beaches.” Once the staff realized we weren’t going to budge from Hanoi they dropped their mercenary hints about islands and emerald rice paddies and talked to us about their city. Over the five days we were there, we talked quite a bit and although the staff was always slightly obsequious, we managed to have a few nice conversations about Hanoi without talking unnecessarily about the traffic.

ii. Buying a Coat

Everyone at the hotel spoke English quite well. Most of the staff had obviously studied the language at a university level. Speaking to them, I realized I probably knew more about them than I was aware. They didn’t seem to be much different than my students in Thailand, Paraguay or Armenia. They had studied English to get this job, they considered good, which, back in the States, we wouldn’t have exactly regarded as the apex of achievement. The hotel workers all seemed to be new; they were all young and friendly. They jumped up every time anyone walked through the lobby. Just in case there should be a question, the full attention of the staff was assured. I’ve always felt a little awkward about being waited on but I try to ignore it and tell myself it’s just part of the world economic model. There’s no point in feeling guilty for what you’ve got; it can’t be given away, not in the way you’d like, anyway. As I always do, I tried to repay the staff’s humility with my own humility. I nodded at their nods and made an effort to reply to their chitchat with a smile even when they stood between me and the first cup of coffee in the morning, my face was clammy with all-night airconditioning, my eyes bunched up and leaking against the shock of sunlight. The staff went so far as to compliment me on my civil behavior, saying I was ‘nice’ as if it were a quality other guests lacked. I found this disconcerting. Because I know that people consider not being nice to also be part of the world economic model. Almost anything can be justified when you take a broad enough view. I never told the staff that it was impossible for me to act rudely to them because I’d been seeing their faces every day in classes for years and I knew they’d been good students. Consequently, I couldn’t help but to think they deserved something better than a small hotel lobby and someone as shabby as me as a customer...and that’s how I feel about travel in general, unless I’m in Scandinavia or New Zealand, some place where I know the clerk makes more a year than I do, has better health care and a view of a fjord or a sound from the lobby windows.

Outside our hotel, in the Old Quarter, was a blend of Vietnamese and tourist life. There were still plenty of Vietnamese squatting around zinc braziers drinking tea, smoking and chatting; many of them actually wearing those conical straw hats no one else looks good in. They still sell them as souvenirs and not only the hats but t-shirts, coffee (‘weasel’ and otherwise), lacquerware, jade and knock-off North Face jackets. Why they have come to be purveyors of the latter, I have no idea. There didn’t seem to be any other brands being bootlegged in such profusion. No Columbia, no REI, no Arcteryx, just North Face. Literally every corner in the Old Quarter has a shop selling only North Face apparel. As Gina and I will be leaving SE Asia soon—heading to cold mountainous places where reception clerks make more than me and then on to a December in the Midwest— it seemed prudent to buy one of these knock-off coats. I’ve never seen winter coats for sale in Thailand and, if they had them, they’d be a luxury item as, in the southern part of the country, they’d be completely superfluous. Something only people who could afford distant vacations would ever need. Despite being fake, the coats looked alright so we thought we’d buy one; I dreaded this, knowing these stores were only here for tourists and I have an irrational fear of looking like I’m gullible and going into any store for tourists is, by definition, a gullible thing to do.

These bootleg jacket shops were all about the size of a large closet. The merchandise fondling you instead of the other way around. The sleeves of the coats velcroed to your shirt as you passed and held on, ensnaring you. Of course there were no prices marked anywhere and asking only produced the usual confusing tactics. One shopkeeper would lead me in one direction, and another would corner Gina at the other end of the store. The coat I’d touched or brushed past would be tossed in a bag as if my contact with it were enough to make for a legally binding agreement and a price would be given as if it were the most iron clad thing in the world. These prices all seemed fine to me, but the fear of looking gullible made it impossible for me not to try a little bargaining. I’d seen a truck unloading bails of these coats in front of a store one night, tossing them off a truck like they weren’t even worth touching. I knew the value of them couldn’t be very high. Hanoi gets chilly in the winter, but it doesn’t get winter coat chilly but each time I tried a price the clerk seeing that I wasn’t going to be an easy sell, would lose enthusiasm and each time, I walked out empty-handed but feeling like I needed a coat more than anything in the world. If you ever want to understand the power of commerce go into a store, spend an hour looking at something, talking about it and then leave without buying it, then go another store, locate the same item and repeat. Do this three or four times. The object will hassle your thoughts until you buy it, barging in like a realization of an oven left on. If you can manage to do this without eventually buying the item or driving yourself crazy, you’re stronger than me.

Friday night, we went over to the Hanoi Social Club for a drink. The cooks in the place are under-privileged youth given the chance to study culinary school and the building is three stories of cozy attics and balconies. The place had an expat air, not so touristy, people were reading something other than guidebooks, no one was wearing those conical straw hats but the only Vietnamese around were the workers. We sat on the third floor balcony enshrouded in plants and a mist of rain that had been falling all evening. I ordered a coffee and bourbon which, apparently, no one ever does. The staff kept coming up to ask me how it was. Watching me drink it with incredulous looks like I sipping a glass of strychnine. When I told them they should try it, most of them surprised me saying they weren’t old enough to drink yet. I checked, Wikipedia says Vietnam is one of the only countries that has no official drinking age.

Sufficiently relaxed after the effects of a warm boozy drink in a rain-tapped wooden building, I paid the check determined to finish the coat business. We stopped into the first closet-store we reached, run by a woman just past middle age, friendly with an ingratiating smile. Gina wanted nothing to do with my efforts to get a good price. She indicated the coat she wanted and, after shaking her head at me for a few minutes, went to wait outside. I continually paced up and down the narrow store, taking in the 100s of coats with a sweeping glance as if to say ‘and you only have these 800? Aren’t there anymore?”I continually took down coats I had little interest in and put them on, just to look like I hadn’t decided. The woman had already tried to bag up a coat for me but I prevaricated and tried to act like I wasn’t even sure I wanted a coat to try to get the price down. “Hmmm,” I said out loud to myself. “I could probably just wear a sweater and a few plastic bags, the effect is basically the same.” The owner wasn’t having it and she watched my buffoonery with a smile, standing next to the coat she’d already bagged, knowing I was going to buy it when I was finished the bad acting. When I finally bought the coats, the owner laughed. It seemed she’d enjoyed it too. We’d had an interaction beyond the usual seller and purchaser exchange. I came out with two coats in a huge bag. Gina was waiting on the stairs of a nearby building. She’d been waiting a while. She didn’t see why I’d haggle over a price that was already ridiculously low, fake coats or not. I told her it was the principle of the thing, feeling like the lead in an old black and while movie. The light rain, the dim streetlights, the tangles of powerlines, the old balconies covered with older rattan chairs and the hammer and sickle everywhere only increased the sense of noir. The women in straw hats and long shirts wheeled the bikes they used to sell produce home for the night and I walked along toting an anachronistic bag of puffy, fake Goretex coats.

In the morning, we walked to the Citadel. The light rain from the night before had started up again and the tangles of powerlines and dangling banyan tree roots were all steadily dripping into the streets; awnings hung bead curtains of rain drops before the store fronts. The mist was largely insubstantial and didn’t fall so much as it hung in the air except in a few places where it coalesced and dropped, but in a lazy way. We stopped into a cafe down a sidestreet that had been recommended. The place had the same wooden, lamplit solemnity we’d encountered the night before at the Hanoi Social Club, but was tucked into a space not much larger than a bunk bed. The kind of place where patrons sat so close to each other, you feel obliged to speak almost at a whisper, which is great for the general atmosphere: all murmurs and the shrill gurgling of the espresso machine steam wand. A Japanese couple across from us occasionally snapped a picture and studied the guidebook open across their knees. It rained hard for a few minutes and the whole place went quiet to listen, or perhaps because it couldn’t be spoken over without using indecorous volume.

We walked to the Citadel, passing the entrance to the military museum where three or four rickshaw drivers were hanging out. It must’ve been a heavily touristed area, but in the rain, it was hard to tell. There were only two Japanese tourists milling around and a few rickshaw drivers who immediately sidled up to us with menus of places they could go and became a confusing mass of jabbing fingers. They jabbed at me, at the rickshaw and at ‘Snake Village’ on the menu which probably would’ve sounded tempting if I hadn’t read that this was just an area where they have a lot of places where you can order some kind of live cobra drink. They chop the head off the snake, drain the blood into your glass of rice wine and give you the heart, still beating, as a chaser. I tried to tell the jabbing fingers I was vegetarian, they swung around at this and jabbed at me like I was the Pillsbury Doughboy. The rickshaw drivers seemed to enjoy touching us; I couldn’t be sure if it was part of the tout or if they were just curious. Gina said they were trying to get a peak at the tattoo on her back by lifting up her shirt. I didn’t see this because one of them kept running his hand over my beard and, when he tired of that, playfully poked me several times in the stomach and ribs. Did they believe westerners liked this treatment? Who knows, perhaps we do. I certainly wasn’t offended and I got in a few stomach pokes myself. For a moment, the whole thing was in danger of devolving into a big ball of grabass. Somewhat symbolically, this all took place opposite a massive Lenin statue, built in the Soviet style with a paved forecourt about ¼ the size of a city block. Eventually we managed to extract ourselves from the jabbing fingers, excusing ourselves to go see Vladimir Ilyich.

The guidebook said the Citadel was free, but since it’s publication in 2014, a ticket booth had gone up. The price was negligible, but I still balked for a minute, wondering if it was worth it. The rain was falling harder again and we took refuge in the little museum about the French occupation surrounding the ticket booths, pointedly examining each item, reading each placard to kill time, listening to the rain falling on the thin roof of the place and looking around in the absent way people do when they’re waiting for the rain to stop.

I hadn’t expected too much from the Citadel, but the grounds were much larger than I thought. The whole complex was studded with pomelo trees. Even the view in the rain looked festive with the jade green globes seeming to float everywhere just a few feet from the ground.

The Citadel was from the 11th century, but it was surrounded with buildings containing artifacts from much earlier periods of history as well as photographs of when and how it’d been used in the colonial and post-colonial periods. In the middle of the complex, Ho Chi Minh had built a nondescript meeting room tunneling down into several bunkers. These rooms with there large conference tables were nearly wallpapered in maps from the Vietnam War-era showing multiple red arrows converging on Saigon. There were so many of these maps and they were so similar, they looked monomaniacal—as I guess all war objectives are. We walked down the three flights of stairs to the airless bunkers. Even in the bunkers, there were only conference tables. I wondered if these people ever did anything but confer and draw arrows on maps.

In the back of the courtyard there was a temple, near the temple an area where it looked like workers lived. We walked up through the spindly pomelos on a worker calmly vomiting into what looked like a rose bush. I didn’t think much of it as, in Thailand, I hear a lot of vomiting. I hear it in my apartment building nearly every morning drifting from someone’s window and occasionally elsewhere near open bathroom windows. I can’t confirm it’s vomiting, but I can’t imagine what people would gag on in such an obstreperous way if not vomit; but my imagination prohibits me from too long of a consideration of why someone would vomit regularly every morning.

We went into the temple complex, climbed a steep and narrow staircase and popped into a nearly empty room through the floor. An elderly man was standing by an open window burning incense. The smoke and the rainy light on the stone were so peaceful it was hard not to feel we were intruding on something and we tiptoed past him. The shrine in the next room was off-limits to those, like us, wearing shorts. We took a look at the Buddha statue from the doorway and continued down another stone stairway, so steep it was easier to descend backwards. Back outside, even the gray, humid air seemed bright after the smoky somnolence of the temple. A man walking toward us stopped, turned toward the bush and began to vomit so copiously, it was hard not to watch. Gina noticed that he was carrying a case of beer, so I guess that explained it, still, you’d thinking puking was some kind of ablution given the number of people so calmly engaged in it so close to the temple.

We walked through the neighborhoods to the Ho Tay Lake, passing several of the boxy ministry buildings revolutions the world over seem bent on constructing. Its exactly these systematic buildings that make me leery of any revolutionary call to action. These places all look like they’d be at home with ‘Ministry of Love’ chiseled coldly into their brutalist facades. Many of the buildings had been abandoned and the emptiness had soften them. The sagged and dripped. They had notes chalked in Vietnamese over the doors that looked like they could be translated as ‘quarantine.’ Despite a neglected look—plants growing from the eaves, surfaces blackened with stagnated dripping water, chest-high weeds in the courtyard—an elderly man sat in a chair in the open doorway of one building, looking out over the street. There was a dog curled up on the stairs not far from his feet. I had to resist the temptation to wave.

A few blocks from the lake we passed a massive yellow-orange catholic church. The cupcake -colored building was constructed mainly in cylinders with large round windows and conical rooftops at various levels. It was surrounded by a high fence I could see no way into although people were walking around in the courtyard. We admired it as we passed by but saw no reason to seek out the entrance.

We were walking toward the English-language bookshop in the neighborhood near the lake when something odd happened. Two girls, both foreigners, tourists like us, came walking up the other side of the street. We were on the left, they were on the right, both of us walking in the same direction. The streets in this neighborhood were narrow, barely enough for two cars to pass each other and with all the vehicles parked on the side of the street they were made even more narrow. With the girls on one side and us on the other there was barely enough room for the cars to get through. I tried to walk faster, but I couldn’t seem to overtake them. When I slowed down, they seemed to do the same. I wanted to call out to them, to point out how obnoxious our situation was. But I didn’t know how much English the girls would understand, not knowing where they were from. We walked on in this obtuse fashion, taking up half the street, but never admitting to it which is a standard predicament of the tourist, being forced into rudeness, without being sure how to escape it. On we walked, taking up most of the street. “Get out of the way, we’re sightseeing!” I wanted to yell at the motorbikes swerving around us. Luckily we gained the bookstore before too long and ducked in to lay around in the airconditioning and read guidebooks about other places where we’d be able to walk in the middle of the street.

Our last day in Hanoi, we went into the art museum and after the first few rooms, we found ourselves confronted with the same objects of war and revolution we’d been seeing in all the other museums. Even in the art, peasants were arranged in an ideal way, open shirt collar, bulging muscles, scythe held aloft wrapped in a strong fist. Soldiers smiled in villages, helping the elderly to gain freedom. One sculpture was weeping for a lost son and in a painting, three mothers presented pictures of lost sons, but mostly the legacy of the decades of fighting was interpreted in a positive way. The style of art may have varied, but the story was told the same way. The soldier’s gun, the farmer’s hoe and the teacher’s book are held up together in solidarity, the building blocks of the new world. There was always a faceless aggressor. The French or American forces were never portrayed as anything more than a tank or a piece of wreckage with a flag stenciled on it. The soldiers were always brave, fighting for the people. There were no acts of aggression. No mention of the Vietnamese army in Cambodia or the Boat People fleeing reeducation.

After a few hours in the museum, we came to the last floor and I was giving each painting about three seconds of my time. After five days, my legs were continually threatening to dump me and my art-stunted brain on the floor. I wasn’t even thinking anymore. I’d seen so many stars, raised fists, olive drab in the foreground, fiery red and yellow in the background. From the revolution museum to Hoa Lo Prison and even here I’d been seeing the same theme in varied permutations and it was hard to find it novel even after a few days. Even the most creative endeavors were washing past me like the blurred lights of a city through a rainy taxi window. I probably would’ve walked out with this impression, an overdose on revolutionary iconography if it hadn’t been for the bronze.

When I was a kid, about ten, my dad took us all down to Washington DC to see the Vietnam War Memorial, or maybe my mom took my dad there and my brother and sister and I just came along for atmosphere; I don’t know. The main things I remember from the trip were the wet willies my brother kept giving me on the plane (he was sitting behind me), seeing Tales from the Crypt for the first time watching HBO in the hotel room and the bronze statue of the three soldiers at the Vietnam War Memorial. I was impressed with how soft and even damp the artist had made the soldiers. Their skin looked sweaty; their clothes ruffled and dirty and the guns they carried looked heavy. It was the first time I’d seen such realism and the longer I looked at the figures, the more I expected them to come to life. Years later, as an adult, I was in DC with an afternoon to kill. I went back to the statue and had the same feeling that the figures were going to move, perhaps because by then, I’d heard enough stories to animate them. I guess that’s why they’re there, to be effigies for everyone lost in the war. A face to manipulate with memory and find your friend, your brother or your dad staring back at you.

On the top floor of the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum, they had a similar bronze sculpture depicting North Vietnamese soldiers in the war. They looked just as real and, at the same time, just as blank as the soldiers in DC, ready to be filled in with the sentiments of the people, to be scapegoated or martyred, while remaining solid, incorruptible and molded of the same material as their counterparts back in DC.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Plastic Tubes

The Hostel Gardel
Buenos Aires, 2011


I couldn’t sleep anymore. I pulled the blanket from my head and stared sleepily out the double panes of the plastic window. We’d come down under the clouds. The city was under the plane and the pre-dawn lights sparkled like dust moats in dim afternoon light. Pulling back a little, I could see nothing but my own reflection on the first plastic pane. I leaned forward again and watched the distant lights set fire to my shadowy features and slowly burn them down. I pulled back and saw my features coalesce, like rain draining into growing lakes and reassert themselves. When I realized no one was coming, I set out to the back of the plane for a cup of coffee, the flight attendants almost glad to see me. I was probably the first person awake.

We landed in Buenos Aires a few hours later and it was still early, before six. The plane was cluttered with blankets and pillows and exiting felt like escaping a slumber party that had been cut short. The children on the plane were being carried away nuzzling their little backpacks, mouths open, arms dangling. A few adults were still curled up and sleeping, looking homeless and passive.

I found my bike at the over-sized baggage claim. The box still looked pretty good. I put it on a cart and wheeled it out into the morning to the cab stand. The morning was foggy and the horizon was a mass of gray. A man with a cab driver’s belly and non-haircut raised his hand and strode up to me. We agreed on a price and pushed the box over the folded seat, I thought of how Gina and I had carried it across Oakland to get it on the BART. The cardboard handholds were nearly ripped out. I had to pay extra to get it in the cab. It would be one last thing.

I’d taken a semester of Spanish before coming, but the class had been an introductory-level thing which hadn’t required much effort. I did all the extra work I could, but the professor was retiring. He was from Spain and spoke with lots of -th. The last day of class the wine on his breath was like the smell of old flowers in stale water. When the other students had left, he walked by and scooped up my exam before I’d finished it saying ‘get out of here.’ I’d asked if he was seguro. He told me he was and I left, knowing almost nothing more than what I’d started the semester with.

In the cab, I felt no compunction talking about the weather and fell to chattering just to see how it felt. I was surprised how many words I was able to conjure. My verbs were terrible, though and as we drove down the highway, I rattled out a string of nouns nodding at the unfamiliarity on the highway. The driver humored me for a while slowly telling me I had raison and also nodding. He turned on the radio and I couldn’t catch a word except Kirchnerismo which was terrible-sounding. It caught in the grating of the speakers and crumpled out like a large piece of paper being shoved through a mail slot. The cab driver shook his head at the word, but said nothing.

When we got off the highway, the neighborhood looked like something long buried under the shadow of an overpass. No one was out and all the shutters were down. The address was right, but there was no sign for the Hostel Gardel, where I’d made reservations for two weeks. I got out and rang the buzzer before paying the driver. I couldn’t hear any sound inside to tell if it was working. No one answered. A light blue mist clung to the base of the buildings as if the sidewalks were evaporating. I tried the buzzer again. I had no backup plan, but I figured I’d pay the driver and wait with all my stuff. If no one came along, I’d flag down another cab and find another hostel. Hopefully they’d a room open for a few weeks.

The driver, tired of waiting, got out, pressed the button and yelled into what looked like an intercom. I waited on the misty sidewalk without making a move to get my bike. The sidewalk was littered with newspapers and pigeon shit. I kept my knees pulled up under my chin and waited for the cab driver to make a decision. He knocked on the door in a deliberate, European way with the flat of his palm. I looked around for a window to peer into, but there was only the brick melting into the sidewalk and a few beer bottles set against the wall. The driver paced around and knocked again before turning to me and making a ‘what now, chief?’ gesture. I returned a ‘search me!’ which made him wave me off and return to the cab. I stood looking at the door a moment before making up my mind to take my bike out of the cab. The driver got up and came over to help me. We were easing the awkward box out when behind us, the hostel door opened, a man with impossibly curly hair stood there in a bathrobe looking like someone who’d been kept up half the night by a crying baby. He asked me in English if I was there for the hostel and the three of us all dragged the bike over the threshold, into the tiled hallway.

I tipped the driver, paid the exhausted-looking guy for a week at the hostel and moved the bike upstairs into a dormitory. There were six beds but only two were occupied by sleepers both turned toward the wall. At a table in the middle of the room, one of the lodgers was reading. We nodded to each other. It seemed rude to talk in a room so full of sleep. There were no windows in the dormitory except the small panes in the french doors. The light inside was rainy-day thick. I got a locker but it wasn’t big enough for my bag. I put my stuff on the floor and pushed it into a corner. I examined my bunk with my hand, checking the strength of the mattress but I couldn’t lie down. The unfamiliarity of the place pressed in on me and made sleep impossible. I looked around the room for a moment and went back out to the doors and turned the handle quietly like a kid sneaking away from sleeping parents.

The hostel was shaped like a wide elevator shaft. The rooms were crowded around an open courtyard that rose three floors through the institutional-shaped building. There was no roof over it and a light rain was falling to the black and white tiles below. Catwalks circled this courtyard on each level surrounded by a low wall, rounded at the top, which gave it an adobe feel—the type of wall it was difficult to pass and not pat with the flat of your hand for the clean snare-drum sound it made. Flat, worn enamel tiles covered the floors and walkways. The kitchen, pushed to the back for the second floor was greasy but clean. The lights were off and the pilot flame gave the stove a faint blue aura.

There were single rooms up on the roof. They had been added on and looked very small, like a row of beach cabanas with those flimsy doors you have to push harder to close because they have no impetus and even the air works against them. The view from the roof was of another roof and the scaffold back of a billboard.

After looking around, I went back down to the greasy kitchen, found some common-use instant coffee and stared into the blue shadows cast by the stove while the water boiled, examining all the broken pasta noodles and bread crumbs that had fallen under the burner ring. I sat in the only seat from which I could look out over the elevator shaft courtyard and watch the light rain fall through the middle of the building. It was past nine o’clock, but the place was still completely quiet; no one had any intention of waking up soon. I enjoyed the warmth of the coffee, but I was beginning to feel too impatient to sit in the kitchen and drink it all. I drank about half the cup, tossed the rest in the sink and made my way back downstairs to the street.

Corrientes was the closest thoroughfare to the hostel and I walked it toward downtown. There were a few theaters, but most of the businesses seemed to be those cellphone kiosks with the bulk of their business in Ziplock bagged cellphone parts and glass display cases that looked like they’d been purchased from an auction. I stopped into one and managed to communicate that I wanted a cheap phone and a sim card. I put the stress on the third syllable when I said ‘telefono’ and had to pantomime when I wasn’t understood. I bought a used red Nokkia which looked like a toy and used the free minutes that came with the sim card to call Gina back in California. It was drizzling harder, almost raining, when I left the cellphone kiosk. I could find no place to talk out of the rain that wasn’t crowded and roaring with background noise. I stood under an awning with my index finger jammed into my ear, squinting against the noise like it was a harsh light. I got her voicemail and I listened carefully to the outgoing message. “This is 6161513; leave a message.” At the beep, I described everything around me: the crushed sidewalks, the tables with socks for sale covered with clear plastic tarps, the maimed-looking pigeons, the corniced buildings, the Burger King with the sign ‘Cono, Solo 1 Peso.’ I didn’t say much about myself. I didn’t know what to say. ‘I made it. Ha ha, the bike made it.’ I stretched the message until the voicemail cut me off.

When I hung up, all the specificity had gone out of the place and the streets and buildings had been reassembled with a haphazard ‘anywhere’ quality, like an airport terminal. I couldn’t make up my mind to walk in any particular direction and hurried toward the obelisco like a giant pin stuck in the city, a you-are-here location to give my walk some import. I walked quickly through the rain while considering a post-apocalyptic scenario in which there were no more planes or buses and I had to get back home. The walk would take a year at least. I’d have to swim the Panama Canal and probably climb a good portion of the Andes. I’d be old by the time I got back. Thinking of the miles between Corrientes Avenue and Arcata, California, I started to radiate loneliness. I felt it hot on my face and tilted my chin up to feel the coolness of the rain.

I walked up to the obelisk and turned around without paying it, or the people around it selling bracelets, much attention. I stopped into a market and bought some things for dinner. Walking back to the hostel, the light rain pooled at the bottom of my plastic shopping bag and soaked through my cardboard box of pasta, making the ends of the spaghetti noodles swell into an indistinguishable white gunk.

There was no key for the door of the hostel, so I had to ring the buzzer and wait until someone opened the door. It was the curly-haired owner again. He looked like he’d gone back to bed and I’d woken him up for a second time. His beard was crushed on the side he’d been sleeping. His eyes had a dull, febrile sheen. He tried to be friendly, but I could see he was getting tired of opening the door for me. I thanked him and he disappeared back into the building.

The kitchen was still dim and empty, except someone had left a glob of jam and a bunch of white crumbs on the counter by the stove. I boiled some water and looked out over the elevator shaft courtyard while my pasta cooked. The place reminded me of a high school bathroom. It was hard, worn and utilitarian. The myriad plants below in the courtyard could not belie the stale echo of dripping water and the sense of purposelessness that pervades such places. I looked up and noticed the ceiling paint had cracked and fallen and was hanging like jagged lace from dusty spiders’ webs. The corners of the floor were smoothed over with the masonry of compacted dirt too long swept out of the way. I poured my pasta into a colander and let the steam rise into my face, taking a deep breath, trying not force down the feeling that I’d abandoned myself by moving down here.

I went back into my room for a book, came back and took my plate to a corner of the room, feeling more comfortable sitting next to a wall. I was too hungry to read well and the book lay open, the first line barely skimmed as I shoveled the over-cooked pasta into my mouth. I stabbed at the mess with a bread roll I’d bought, which, even soaked in tomato sauce, was as hard and tasteless as styrofoam. I had just taken an embarrassingly large bite when someone walked into the room. “Estais comienjho?” he asked, speaking Spanish with such a strong accent, it sounded like Portuguese. I had too much food in my mouth to answer and pointed to my mouth while raising my index finger, still holding my fork before realizing I could answer and began to nod. Rather than being put off by this manic series of gestures, my interlocutor continued to walk toward me, smiling. He had one of those out-of-date haircuts that make people immediately endearing, a dark 1993 Devin Sawa puffy center part that swung just below pompadour range. His eyes were almost an emerald green. He sat down next to me and said something else that seemed to come entirely out of his nose. He offered his hand and introduced himself as Nelson.

I shook Nelson’s hand and offered him some of my rain-swollen pasta. He declined, but sat with me while I continued to shovel up the food on my plate. He seemed to wait until I took a bite before asking me anything, forcing me again to nod, or shake my head and swallow quickly so I could complete my answer. After a few questions he waved his hands around like he was casting a spell on my spaghetti and told me to eat, turning around to show that he wasn’t going to bother me with anymore questions. He didn’t get up, but stayed where he was, half-turned away from me, looking out over the drizzling courtyard and singing quietly to himself like he was on a boat, looking out over the waves for home. I listened to him sing politely, but eventually, I picked my book back up. I’d read about three words when he jumped up and yelled “Carlos!” I looked up to see the guy who’d been reading in the dorm when I’d put my stuff down that morning walking toward us from the catwalk. Nelson welcomed Carlos to the table still speaking Spanish but saying everything through his nose and putting ‘g’ sounds all over the place. He had the way of talking where every phrase seemed to ask ‘isn’t that great?’ Carlos and I couldn’t help but to nod at this unspoken question.

Carlos and Nelson were perfectly matched. Carlos had a slow, studious air. He spoke Spanish in measured tones and his Brazilian Portuguese only came out when he spoke it intentionally. He had a the bearing of someone constantly dressed in a dressing gown and wrapped in an ascot. His large, round eyes were slow in their orbits and seldom made direct contact. He never moved his hands when he talked unless he needed to illustrate something, when he did this, it was hard not to feel glad for the extra company which suddenly fluttered into the conversation. Carlos spoke English, but after our first meeting, we agreed not to speak it as we both wanted to learn Spanish. When he came to our table, Carlos, didn’t sit. He greeted me and then welcomed me to the hostel and, by extension, to the room we all shared before moving off to make some tea and sit by himself in the corner of the room under the flaky paint and spider webs with his own book. Nelson watched him go with a quiet affection and I thought maybe he’d go join him but he stayed where he was with me, looking out over the courtyard and singing quietly, his 1990s hair bobbing along, keeping time. Nelson and Carlos were like two people who’d been married in a previous life. Their relationship had a grandma and grandpa quality to it. When I finished my meal, Nelson jumped up and asked if I wanted some tea. He ran to the room and came back with three tea bags. I washed my dishes and when the tea was ready, I went over and talked to Nelson a little about his home in Brazil. Although Carlos had been given a tea, he stayed where he was reading in the corner, paying us no further attention. The second cup of tea steaming and untouched on the table.

I went back to my room to settle in early that first evening. I wasn’t planning on unpacking entirely, but I’d bought a lock for the locker and I wanted to put a few things in it. The backpack I’d brought was one of those ridiculously large hernia-inducing things that had enough capacity for a small refrigerator which I been foolish enough to take complete advantage of by cramming it to the brim with sweaters and books. I dug around in the thing, rifling through the paperbacks and socks and extracted a few envelopes. One was from Lyndsey, my coworker from the cafe back in Humboldt who’d gotten everyone at work to donate and gave me 100 bucks as a send off. It was in this gift card that sang You’ve Got a Friend in Me when you opened it. The other card was from Gina. It was full of reminiscences and vague promises. Most of the content in the envelope was dried rosemary and jasmine—northern California plants, the smell of them combined was heartbreaking and a trial I was to submit myself to multiple times a day.

That first night, I reopened both the envelopes—I’d already read multiple times on the plane— read them again, listened to Randy Newman profess his friendship and put them in my locker as my only valuable possessions. I stuffed the 100 dollars in my sock with the rest of my money and chewed some of the dried rosemary after I climbed into my bunk. I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus and kept looking through the book, up past the rafters of the room into the sky. I kept thinking about the pale field of lights I had seen from the plane. It was disorienting to imagine how I was now down in what had previously been two-dimensional. I stared up at the ceiling and thought about how great it would feel to leave. To go back to the airport in the morning and buy a ticket back. It wouldn’t be too bad, I’d lose a little money, but no big deal and then I saw the ragged box in the corner, almost macerated by gripping hands and tarmac rains. There was no way I was going to drag that bike all the way back and I wasn’t going to leave it here, not after I’d dragged it halfway through Oakland and San Bruno. The next day, I’d put it together and maybe that would give me a little more ballast.


The first month it rained almost constantly. August, it turned out, was a lousy time to move to Buenos Aires. I put the bike together, but I only rode it once. It had no fenders and sprayed water all over my legs so that my socks got soaked and, even wrapped up in a plastic bag, my money got wet and I had to take it out and surreptitiously dry it by wrapping it in toilet paper in the bathroom. The drizzling rain was more conducive to walking. I walked downtown, past Nueve de Julio and the art deco confiterias along Rivadavia Avenue. I wandered through the Abasto and Once shopping districts, past the Carlos Gardel murals where tango dance steps had been painted in hectic profusion on the sidewalk. I walked into the city’s crowded gardens on Sunday in the Rosedal. Sometimes, I rode the subte home if I walked too far, but I had so much time, I usually walked back, too. I read about free museums and tours, but I didn’t want to do any of these things alone. I never went into anything. I’d pass nice-looking cafes and think ‘I’ll go there with Gina when she gets here.’ I was waiting before I tried to enjoy the place. But it was going to be a long wait. Gina was still in California, working to earn more money before coming down. At the airport, with the cumbersome bike finally resting against a row of chairs, she’d said goodbye to me and cried with enough enthusiasm that it wasn’t necessary for her to explain how long it would be before she came down, if she ever came at all. As I wandered up and down Corrientes, I wondered if she was back in California, gradually forgetting about me.

Every day I went looking for work, but I wasn’t finding much. I’d gotten a terrible job teaching private classes once or twice a week at an institute that was so small they frequently asked me if I minded just taking my student outside for his class since there was no room
Jhonathan from Caracas and I were always out sitting on this bench Wednesdays, passing a notebook back and forth. He had a family and I liked hearing about how they’d all left Venezuela together and were now trying to make it here. He must’ve not been too happy with the class, though. We only met three or four times before I got word he wasn’t going to be coming back.

Carlos and Nelson were the only people I really got to know around the hostel. I gradually met most of the others in the kitchen, but other than exchange greetings, we didn’t talk much. Other than a kid from the Misiones province of Argentina, I was the only non-Brazilian. One of the girls who lived on the first floor was short, wore with very round glasses and had a very maternal air. She was always trying to tell me the most obvious things about the city or the language like “In Argentina, ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘sh’” I thanked her for her help, but after a while, I started avoiding her for fear that she would next explain to me how to tie my shoes.

There were others. A rocker who ordered pay-per-view on his computer to watch the Metallica show live when they came to town. The big guy who lived on the roof who always had a nod and a smile for me when I saw him in the kitchen. He was the only one who woke up as early as I did. Another guy named Raphael also lived up there who had a little amplifier he plugged his guitar into. I didn’t see him much, but I frequently heard his playing through the door. He did some technical stuff and sounded pretty good.

My dormitory had six beds, but it had been just Nelson, Carlos and I for the first month. They were both waiting for something. Like papers to come through or classes to start; I don’t remember, but they were always around. Usually they sat on their bunks. Carlos was a reader and Nelson was such a sociable guy, he seemed to think it was unthinkable that he and Carlos should be separated. So he hung around the dorm, too, but he was much more energetic, walking in and out of the kitchen, seeing who was there and what they were eating. On rainy days, he made tea for himself and Carlos, carrying it back to the room like a proud grandmother bringing tea to her studious and introverted husband. Nelson talked to me all the time, but not in an annoying way. He never tried to follow me anywhere and when he could see I was reading, he knew enough from Carlos not to interrupt. Carlos, on the other hand, hardly spoke at all. The only thing I remember him saying was not to touch his head after I’d made the mistake of giving it a friendly rub after he’d shaved it. He told me he never had his head touched. It was where the spirit entered the body.

The only time Carlos and Nelson left the hostel was in the evening to go to the Spanish classes the Argentine government provided for free for immigrants. Once I lamented that I had no such class to attend. Carlos looked at me blankly for a while and asked ‘do you want me to invite you to come with us?’ He was like that, very forthright. But he wasn’t a bad guy. I told him I’d like to go but that I probably needed some kind of paper or something. He looked at me with the same intense look. ‘Do you think we have any kind of papers?’ I asked if it wasn’t some kind of MercoSur thing. He laughed. ‘Like they’d do anything for average people.’ Carlos was really down on governments. He was kind of an anti-Hobbsian. He told me I should come with them to the class.

We had a teacher named Ruth who was really sweet, but it was immediately obvious the teachers picked for these classes had been the same ones who had been working in the elementary where they were held all day. The planned our lessons as they went and they tended to underestimate the ability of their pupils in order to make planning a little easier. The class was also wildly diverse in terms of proficiency. Carlos, Nelson and I spoke and understood quite a bit with our similar indo-european linguistic backgrounds, but the other pupils, an old man from Korea and two diffident girls from China barely spoke a word. The teachers frequently complained about them, referring to them all as chinos the same word they used for the bodegas scattered throughout the city which were often owned by Koreans.

In the midst of all this apathy, Ruth was an exception. She did her work with a clean kindness like a nurse or a nun who believes in it and has made it her life’s mission. Her lessons weren’t complex, but she made herself available to us as a local friend. She invited us to her quinta and even after she changed schools and could no longer teach the classes, she asked me if I could meet her in the Abasto food court and do a language exchange once a week. She wanted to learn English, she explained. Feeling bad for not going to her quinta (I’d had to work with Jhonathan that day) I told her I’d love to. I never got to teach her any English. We always did the Spanish portion of our ‘exchange’ first and it always ran too long. Whenever I tried to offer the English portion she’d repeat my homework assignment and pack up her things, saying she had to get going, that she had another student to meet with.

After our classes, we all walked back to the hostel together practicing our new Spanish words. Carlos and Nelson being in high spirits with some fresh air in their lungs. They spoke a little faster and smiled more often. We’d laugh at Nelson who would be so excited he’d continually mix up his Portuguese and Spanish. He could never seem to remember the ‘entendes?’ of Spanish and was always asking something that sounded like ‘intengi?’

It became my ritual to stop on the way back to the hostel and pick up a beer to drink on the roof. When I stopped at the chino, even though it was just around the corner, Carlos and Nelson waited for me. I could never tell if they felt a responsibility for me or if they were just being polite. They never came into the store with me and neither or them drank so there was nothing I could casually buy them to thank them for their friendship.

The roof was my favorite place in the hostel. It was usually quiet up there, Raphael’s guitar and the sound of wind-flapped laundry were the only sounds. There was really nothing to see, but it was the best place to think. With my beer, I’d stare out over the rooftops into the slate-colored sky and think about Gina and the months we’d lived together before I’d left for Argentina. I’d think of the little house we’d had together and the horses that we could see from our window. I’d think about the times we drank whiskey in her kitchen and went to the bar to watch lousy local bands. I’d peer so hard into these memories sometimes it felt like I could lean forward in my chair and fall into them and be there with her. But the illusion was hard to maintain and the little chimneys and those metal spinning things that look like crowns would gradually break back into my field of vision and I’d be looking at the back of a billboard, hearing the sounds of Raphael’s guitar seep from under his door.

I picked up more work. After Jhonathan left, the institute gave me classes at a local vinyl label factory. I taught classes at three different levels, occasionally helping the staff translate things about adhesives or vinyl into English. One of my students was a musician. After asking me to help him with the pronunciation of the lyrics in a New Order song they were covering, he put me on the VIP list for their show. I went, but it was one of those situations where I didn’t know anyone and they were all speaking rapid Spanish. I drank too much, trying to compensate for not speaking to anyone and woke up to the next drizzly morning feeling anxious and lost.

I had the day off, so I decided I would walk downtown and see if the English-language library I’d discovered earlier that week was open. I’d been out on Sundays before and while the streets were always much emptier than they’d be in any North American city on a Sunday, today the city on the other side of Nueve de Julio looked post-apocalyptic. The streets were all empty save a few cars that looked like they’d been there overnight. The shutters had all been pulled down on the buffet places that served hideous flan in chafing trays to the office lunch crowd on weekday afternoons. The parillas with their tourist hawkers in fake gaucho clothes had all receded back into the anonymity of their uniform gray metal covering. The train still rolled through the stations underground, but infrequently and the warm morning breath of the tunnels coughed out of the steel grates by the Carlos Pelllegrini station as I walked past, scattering the papers that had been left behind by someone sleeping there. Even the McDonald’s was closed.

The library was as dark as the rest of the street when I arrived. I tried the door, just in case. From somewhere in the twilight of the place, an old guard emerged. When he saw me, hands cupped on the glass, peering into his world, he tipped his pointer finger back and forth like the needle of a deliberating scale. I gave him a thumb’s up and he nodded, completing our silent dialogue. We’d obviously both been satisfied by the unexpected humanity of our interaction, each of us materializing out of an empty world to exchange a few gestures and disappear again. I imagined him returning to his creaky rounds, walking back through the dim stacks of books, the compacted yellowed pages functioning like refrigeration coils and cooling the air immediately around them to drafty pockets.

I was so occupied with this thought, I didn’t see the kid come out of the alley ahead of me until I nearly ran into him. Although he’d been watching me and hadn’t made any movement to get out of my way when we had the entire sidewalk and even the street to ourselves. I made an awkward movement to step around him and muttered ‘permiso.’ He tensed. I could feel his nervousness even as I passed it. It must’ve been his first time, or an early attempt because he gave himself away by glancing around as he sidled back up to me. “Tenes plata?” He asked. I continued walking toward Nueve de Julio, the border of the empty downtown and the rest of the living city. On the other side, there were cafes and a few people out enjoying the morning. I kept walking, outpacing him again. “No,” I called back, rounding the ‘o’ to the short, almost curt sound it had in Spanish, like the amplified sound of blowing a smoke ring. Walking made it awkward for the kid, but there was no one around. He strode quickly back alongside me. “No tenes nada?” He asked. The last word bent a little by an impending whine. I shook my head, using as little verbal language as possible to not give myself away and echoed back ‘nada,’ trying to repeat the word exactly as he’d said it.

I kept walking, he took a few more steps after me, but then decided against it, turned back and disappeared down one of the gray alleys. It started to rain. I went into a place on Uruguay and Sarmiento, got a small, thick coffee and stared out the wet window wondering where the kid had gone and if he’d gotten any money.

My socks had gotten wet again and I knew I’d have to dry my money out with toilet paper in the bathroom so it didn’t get moldy. Carlos and Nelson were both in the dorm. They never went out on Sunday. Carlos sat at the table in the middle of the room eating some steaming noodles and reading. Nelson was on his bunk with a laptop on his chest on a Skype call with a girl whose ebullient voice pranced all around the male fug of the room..

I put my wet backpack down and went out to the elevator shaft courtyard to call Gina. I’d been in Argentina now for three weeks and she still hadn’t bought a ticket—she hardly mentioned coming anymore. I walked back and forth, looking down at the potted plants down in the courtyard, listening to the phone ring. She answered just as I was about to hang up and said how it nice was to hear from me. It was obvious I’d woken her up. I talked her into her own Sunday morning. I went to the kitchen and we made coffee together and I watched the drizzle fall through the dull light of the afternoon. I didn’t ask about her tickets even though it was on the tip of my tongue the whole conversation. When we hung up, I went back into the dorm, feeling much better about living in a dim and cramped area with guys whose socks were hanging up all over the place. I tried to read on my bed, but each word flew off the page into a tangled thicket of free association and soon I was asleep under the galloping sound of the increasing rain. The best thing about Carlos and Nelson was that they were never loud.


The next morning was the first clear day since I’d arrived. I woke up early and had plenty of time to review my lesson before heading out to the label factory for classes. I had been warned about the neighborhood around the factory and, after my encounter with the kid on Sunday, I kept a stern expression on my face and walked quickly, despite the beautiful weather. A stretch of dog park ran along the highway ramp by the Constitución Station, a ragged strip of green, ribboned with a broken macadam bike path. Crumpled trash blew freely through the shaggy and crushed grasses of the park. Tires left by the highway traffic, were lying in the tall grass. After the rain, visible clouds of young mosquitoes hovered just above them. In the winter, I hadn’t paid much attention to the trees that ran the length of the area. When they were bare, they’d looked dead, choked by the tires and highway exhaust. I saw now that they were all alive and budding. The smell was pale, faint, but unmistakably the sugary smell of lilac. I maintained my stern expression the best I could while surreptitiously standing next to one of the trees and inhaling deeply.

On the way home, I decided to miss my usual stop of Pasteur and get of at Pueyrredón. I did this sometimes. The hostel was nearly between the stations and it allowed me to walk from a different direction, past the synagogues behind concrete blocks and old confiterias with gold leaf painted on the windows. Once was a market district divided into sections, depending on product. Some streets were dominated by costume shops and balloon stores, others displayed nothing but paper in all shapes and colors; there was even an entire block dedicated to wigs. My walk down Sarmiento was dominated by toy stores, most of them dichotomous, blond dolls on one side, black machine guns on the other. The store were small, some no more than stalls and the products spilled out into the street in mural displays of boxes. But there were few children around to admire the garish colors and dimensions of the packages which had to be walked around, Dangling helicopters, tied up with string, had to be ducked.

Approaching the hostel from a different side, I didn’t recognize it. A group of people were standing around and someone was coming out on a stretcher. I started to cross the street to avoid the scene but I recognized the residents of the hostel among the crowd and realized it was my building. A few of them were being interviewed by police. The maternal girl with round glasses was standing there crying. I crossed the street, went up to her and asked her ‘que paso’ but she waved me away and started crying harder. I shifted through the people and the cops standing around the door and walked into the building.

No one was downstairs. The courtyard was empty, even a few plants looked absent. I climbed up to my room. On the stairs, I passed one of the women who cleaned the place, Ramona. She was spraying vanilla air freshener and crying. I ask her what happened. She stopped and said ‘el murió’ before shaking the tears out of her eyes and continuing down the stairs before I had the chance to ask who.

I was happy to find Carlos in his usual spot reading at the table in our room, looking as imperturbable as ever. He was the only one around who seemed completely unaffected by whatever had happened, but when I asked he stopped reading and told me in measured tones of practiced Spanish how Raphael from upstairs had hanged himself over the weekend and the cleaning ladies had found him about an hour ago. It took me a second to remember who Raphael was, but while I was trying to recall his face or the sound of his voice, my mind was busy putting together the disparate images of the stretcher, the police uniforms and the air freshener. Before I could remember who he was, I smelled him. Carlos seemed relived that I’d noticed before he’d had to mention the smell, and asked if I minded closing the door.

I felt like I should sit and talk with Carlos for a while, but there was nothing to say. I’d only talked to Raphael a few times. I remembered that he’d given me a bag of pan felipe rolls once, but other than hearing his guitar seeping from under his door on the roof, I’d never had any other interaction with him. “He was a nice guy,” was all I could think to say. Carlos nodded, but didn’t look up from his book.

I climbed up into my bunk, lay there and felt the gloom of the place close around me. The dorm was dark at all times of the day, but it was always the darkest when the lamplight was dispelled by the meager light of late afternoon. Two kinds of light, rather than penetrating the dark together were more readily absorbed by it. The only sound in the room was that of Carlos steadily turning the pages in his book and the smell of death and vanilla drifting down from the ceiling less than a meter above my face. I lie there thinking that this wasn’t death, but its wake, the ripples following the event. Death had passed unnoticed Saturday or maybe Friday when the sun had been shining down into the elevator shaft courtyard and everyone was cooking dinner in the communal kitchen or making plans for the weekend. The moment had passed and lying there, I felt this one, too, passing. Each one rushing by, fait accompli, like they’d been constructed somewhere else and were only brought here to be lived through. Nothing could be done to alter them. All we could do was squirm through them, like kids climbing through those plastic tubes on a playground.

Someone downstairs was still quietly crying, someone who knew Raphael better. I interrupted Carlos’ reading to ask if he knew Raphael well. Raphael was also Brazilian. “Not really,” Carlos responded laconically and went back to his book. I stared up at the ceiling and tried to imagine what it had been like for him up there, in that little room on the roof. I wanted to empathize, but it seemed horrible to do so. I started thinking of all the absurd Dostoevsky characters pacing around in their freezing garrets, no furniture, gun in hand, wondering if they should do it or not. I shook the image out, it was too much in this dark, late afternoon dorm. I jumped down from my bed and went into the kitchen. I boiled some water and put some pasta on, retreating to the farther table so no one passing by would notice me eating at such a time.

When Nelson came back, Carlos came and got me and we went to our Spanish class as if nothing had happened. All through class, as Ruth asked us to conjugate irregular past tense, I was waiting for someone to tell her about it—we often used our daily lives in our exercises to make them more relevant—but no one mentioned it and on the way home, Nelson talked about how his girlfriend was probably coming to visit and Carlos told me about this umbrella dance that was typical of the northern state he was from. I couldn’t think of much to say other than my standard ‘interesante’.

I debated on whether I would even tell Gina about it. I think I wrote about it in an email and she responded, but the next time we talked on the phone, I forgot to mention it and the event faded from relevance.

I got more work teaching office workers downtown and Gina called one evening a few week’s later to tell me she’d bought her ticket for the end of the month. I took the bus out to the airport holding a single rose—it was a long ride and I worried a bouquet would start to droop, besides, I didn’t want her to have to carry a bunch of flowers back home.

Right before she came, I’d moved out of the hostel and into a bare, wooden apartment with a clawfoot tub and scratchy tango music drifting up from the courtyard in the evening. We lived in the Once neiighborhood about a year, climbing through the plastic tubes of each moment, drinking Quilmes, eating those smooth avocados that taste too ripe and walking to the obelisco and back each night.

I meant to invite Carlos and Nelson over for dinner, but it took a while to get back to the hostel and by the time I’d gotten back, Nelson had already gone off to live with his girlfriend who’d moved down and Carlos was also about to move out with some other Brazilians. I invited him over, but we didn’t make a date and when I went back again, he was gone, too.

By the time I left Buenos Aires, even the hostel wasn’t there anymore. The couple who’d owned had gotten divorced and, gradually, or all at once—I don’t really know—everyone had left the place.

Sometimes, when we went for bike rides down Sarmiento, I’d point the place out to Gina, but we hardly ever went that way and there was nothing to really see on that street anyway, just an unmarked door and a sidewalk littered with old newspapers.