Saturday, August 27, 2011

Winter Lights

Due to the nature of the bottle I assumed there was no alcohol in this Fernet con cola. The price 4,25 pesos or about 1.00 $ also had me convinced that it was a soft drink version of the popular café and bar beverage, usually served in glasses that tintinambulate on marble counters in the dusk of south America, green liquor and yellow lights all refracted, magnified by the brass rails and amber beers. Where one would drink Fernet and Coke there would usually be a short of plashing feminine laughter and loud but dis-unctuous male voices, that is, those unencumbered by a in hefty Germanic or Slavic tongue.
The sounds heard from the cafes here are distinct from those in Aleppo or Sofia where the languages are forever crashing into one’s consciousness, plowing into peripheral thoughts like oil tankers on quiescent seas. Here there’s a swoon in the language, it doesn’t seem to fight against the calm of the evening, but rather it goes along with it, lapping around the stones of the great buildings rather than trying to tear them down.
So, my Fernet con cola did have booze in it. I bought the cheapest thing in the store because I was thirsty and ended up with a giant cocktail in a one-liter plastic bottle. I drank it on the walk home. It was somewhat necessary as I had just left my bike, the one that I had hauled, boxed up for the flight, from West Oakland to the BART station, from the San Bruno BART station to one of the shittiest motels I’ve ever stayed in, worse even than the brothel of Tashkent. Then back to the San Bruno BART, and then across all kinds of SFO travellers’ traffic. The box stood there, on a courtesy cart, while she cried, and later I wheeled it over to the international departures where I cried. As the bike, or at least the box, was stained with my sweat and tears, probably blood in there too, somewhere, I wouldn’t want to have it stolen. The bike shop waved me away when I asked for a receipt.
I walked back down toward Corrientes without really knowing exactly where I was. Luckily, Buenos Aires seems, so far, like a difficult city to get lost in. I have wondered all over the place, but thanks to a few crucially placed and familiar west-to-east thoroughfares, I’ve been able to reorientate myself even when I stop paying attention and just walk toward what looks interesting, as I am prone to do on long walks, especially in big cities.
Corrientes was frenetic with rush-hour traffic, which is supposed to be cataclysmic here, but it doesn’t seem any worse to me than in most other developing countries where everyone walks like they’ve got nowhere to be and drives like they’ve got a woman in labor and a fiending junkie in the car with them.
In the Republic of Georgia they drove the worst; I guess it was some kind of contest, a test of masculinity. The Nivas and the Ladas with the gas tanks under the back seats, ripping through sheets of rain, passing on blind corners around semis from Iran going about 35 miles an hour and belching out tufts of black smoke. The first time I went to Batumi, with Davor and Paige, I think the bottle of vodka was all that kept us going as the marshutka went up on three wheels over and over again, just barely skirting head-on collisions. I wouldn’t ride a bike in Georgia, at least not on the road, but here, contrary to what everyone says, it doesn’t seem so bad.
Heedless of the traffic, I continued down Corrientes. I’ve walked it enough now that it already feels familiar. I walked down it to find the Armenian neighborhood, just off Cordoba; I walked it to go out to the botanical garden where they have some beautiful, explosive specimens of Washingtonia Robusto. And since, I’ve walked it every day to get just about anywhere, to last Sunday when I had to walk about 10 blocks to find a plastic cup of coffee, to yesterday when I walked it to get to a job interview in Micro Centro that was a partial bust, like everything else, offering me mercurial part-time work.
So far, Buenos Aires has been just this, Avenida Corrientes: a busy avenue in the twilight, the smell of baking pastries and cigarette smoke, motorino buzzing, the metronome-like sound of stiletto heels pacing off the blocks between here and home and a plastic bottle of Fernet con cola, that was actually pretty good, even though it was warm.
The streets are going dark, the street light pools, unlike a liquid, where things rise and crest rather than where they run shallow. The bumps and whirls in the blacktop stand up like illuminated jetsam on a dark and turgid river. The river is open, still and expectant for eight lanes, waiting for some ill-fated craft to attempt to ford it. The tar is poured so think on Corrientes it looks like a current, in some places draining into the gutters, rising up over the concrete sidewalks, the painted white lines take on an aspect of movement, something coming from the horizon directly to your feet in a second. The paint and the street are all the same material, the same composition. In this sense, when you stand on it you are standing on all off it on the part that is where you need to be and the part where you are, only you are separated from the former by gloaming city blocks, rising up, to vertiginous heights in the dark, so that you don’t even follow them with your eyes. At the base of buildings in a big city the height is often assumed. You are walking along at the roots of things, believing yourself to be at the top.
There is a pneumatic shriek, very subtle, but the sound of one ton of city bus moving by without slowing. The buses with the flat grills and windows that seemed to have designed to displace the air around them, leaving vacuums, or whirlpools where they once were, and the echo of that haunting sound, the auditory equivalent of a cold breeze in the middle of a warm evening, a chill that comes on very suddenly. After the bus taxis troll along, like drunks staggering down an alley. They pull over and stop for a while, leaning against a lamppost, singing idly, door opens door closes, the taxi staggers away again. In a haze of confusion and a purpose unlike everything else on the road, the taxi isn’t trying to arrive anywhere. It is a bottomfeeder, scouring the sidewalks for those left behind by the buses and cars, a bright anglerfish with its libre sign aglow on the roof, luring riders into its fetid interior.
The scooters and the motorcycles are parasites, clinging to the backs of buses and vans on a straightaway, and then cutting out from behind and moving through the veins of blocked traffic, their analgesic loosed in the blood stream. Their riders, the darkest of all in that their human form is discernable but it is covered in the plastic and glass of the auto, behind the visors and padded jumpsuits these people look as if they are becoming their environment, gradually changing into jumbled wire, oil and rubber themselves.
The traffic is light where you begin, with a bike to find your way home. Down side streets on Friday the traffic is lined up in gleaming rows on the shoulder, not moving. Down on Santa Fe it comes alive again: a frenetic blur of light and sound. The only thing that can really be done is to ignore it, mostly. To listen and watch too closely you would be paralyzed, a deer in headlights, a bird struck by the eyes of a snake. You put your head down and begin to pilot your raft down, down where the roots of building curl, where the taxis drunkenly wag their doors and trunks, where the buses hurl themselves over the rip currents of oil-darkness on light, where motorcycles clog the arterioles left between the larger vehicles. Luckily for anyone riding a bike down this blacktop river, the gift of the Lethe is the absence of memory.

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