Thursday, September 15, 2011


I’m lying in bed. Outside the door I keep hearing Lily, the woman who does the cleaning, say Lunes, puede ser en medio dia. I think “Oh, god. Not that long.”
De Lunes would make it four days. That would be four mornings and four nights that, in some terribly perverse way, we shared each other’s company. That is Rafael and I would have been on the roof together, only Rafael would have been dead.
I’ve been at the hostel here now for almost a month. I came on the morning of August 19th. I remember it was a cold and grey day. I was tired from the long flight from San Francisco, but not exhausted. Initially, no one answered the door. It was nothing that looked like a hostel. Just a door on what looked like an unimportant street in an unremarkable city. Just a gloss black painted door, taller and less wide than most American doors. The sidewalk was made, piecemeal, of different types of flagstones, some in discernible patterns, others just collection of bricks and pieces of slate pounded together in bed of sand. Some of them where broken, some were loose. The pattern, when there was one, changed over 10 feet or so. All the stones that were once white had that typically urban black and smeary patina on them, which reminds me of homelessness, as exposed skin too long in the city looks and smells much the same. There have been a few occasions when my ankles have taken on the same marbled and dirty tone.
It didn’t occur to me to keep knocking and ringing the bell when no one answered the door. I just resigned myself to waiting until someone came back, with all my stuff on the sidewalk. Luckily, the taxi driver was a little more resilient, because he would’ve felt bad leaving someone who was such an obvious foreigner in such a place with, what looked like his whole life on the sidewalk. He continued to bang on the door long after I had given up hope. I watched with detachment, already cultivating the external apathy necessary to get by as a foreigner in a large city. I’m sure I lit a cigarette, but I can’t remember exactly. At some point Diego, the proprietor, came to the door, looking bedraggled. It wasn’t too early, but it wasn’t too late either, especially for such a cold and grey day, when, I’m sure, most hostel owners aspire to be in bed covered with a few blankets.
Luckily Diego was the forgiving and amicable type. He welcomed me to the courtyard where I took a flimsy plastic chair, leaned back and, here I can be sure, lit up a cigarette. He told me about the rules of the hostel in good English, which I insisted on frequently interrupting in horrible Spanish with questions and clarifications. It was my attempt to ingratiate myself, luckily for me Diego was enough of a nice guy to put up with my clumsy attempts.
After I had a bad cup of coffee (the first of many here), I smoked another of my precious American cigarettes, alas long gone by now, and went to lie down on my rented top bunk in a dormitory with two Brazilians, one sullen and the other loquacious as hell. Initially, I could understand neither of them and we communicate with vigorous nods mostly. After a day or two, however, the one who appeared sullen began to warm up to me a little and reveled that he had lived in Ireland for a while and spoke Fluent English. To this day we both stubbornly continue speaking Spanish to each other, except when absolutely necessary to clarify something, but like most conversation, between two people living in a hostel, we usually don’t have much other than incidental things to discuss, all of which can be easily conveyed in a language that neither of us know very well.
Later that day I met some other people around the hostel and I began to notice that the place had a more communal feeling than any other hostel I had ever been to, precisely because it was not a hostel, but more of a temporary residence, since I’ve been here I’ve only known one person that stayed here less than a week: a Peruvian who came solely for work and seemed to spend almost all of his six days here in bed, day or night. Everyone else lives in this place, more or less, and the people that were here when I arrived are almost all still here. There have been a few events, organized by different people in the hostel. Once we got together for a movie, food and drinks in the large foyer next to the entry courtyard, another time some of us went to a festival way out on the west side of the city. There have been other events, and, like anywhere else, different groups have formed, and, I’m sure, they go out to do quite a few things that I’m unaware of.
I guess I’ve been here most of the time, considering that I sleep here, but I’ve also spent a lot of time out in the city. When I first arrived, before I had any work, I spent a lot of time out looking for it and going to see a few places I was curious to see, La Boca, the Recoleta Cemetary, the Armenian neighborhood in Palermo. I’ve also spent a lot of time just wandering around, much after the fashion that I have adapted anywhere I have ever lived. When I would come back from these perambulations I would usually be quite hungry, since I never really eat out anymore and always neglect to bring any food with me. Due to the different eating habits of the Argentines I never had to contend with too many other people in the kitchen, once or twice there would be someone else in there heating up some water for mate or frying some eggs, but I didn’t usually have fight my way onto an open burner or a clear space for my cutting board.
As the days and weeks passed, I was introduced to more people at the hostel. Eventually, I reached the point of knowing everyone here, if not by name at least by face. I’d say that was about two weeks after arriving here. I’d come in the front door and say hola to those gathered around the TV and computer in the lobby-like area by the front door and repeat the salutation to those in my room and in the kitchen. It was about this two week mark when one of the residents here told me about the roof.
Form the kitchen I had noticed a stairway going up another flight, but I had never taken it, as I assumed it was just more rooms, and therefore nothing of interest to me, besides, I wouldn’t want to incur suspicion by prowling around rooms that weren’t mine. I think it was Saturday. I remember it was sunny and I didn’t have anything to do, so now, in my slightly over-worked state I can’t help but to think it must’ve been Saturday. I was hanging around on the ground floor patio, probably reading, when someone came out and asked me why I was always out in this particular area. I replied that I liked the sun and probably pointed up for emphasis. This kind person told me that there was a lot more sun up on the roof. Right away, I think I guessed that the entrance to the roof was the only set of stairs I had not yet attempted in the hostel. (It’s not a big place, there are only two sets of stairs.)
Like any rooftop in a big city this one pervaded something of a sanctuary. After I first discovered it I have been returning a few times every day, most frequently in the morning, when I occasionally am able to watch the glow of the rising sun gradually replace the lengthy shadows of the city’s semi-obscured night, and also at night, when the glow of the apartment windows and parking lot lights frequently fades into beautiful visions of the many other places I have watched the sun go down repeatedly: 27th street in Arcata, the slight mountainous ridge that separated Yeghegnadzor from Getap in Armenia and any number of apartment windows. I never do anything up on this roof. In the morning I drink coffee and stare off into space, in the evening I drink beer and stare off into space. All this staring is a skill I can say I’m quite proud of having developed. When I was younger, I felt that I always had to be doing something and I actually looked forward to the days when I would just be able to relax. I was also very afraid of this when I was in my early twenties. The idea of sitting on a roof and doing nothing would have seemed too much like some kind of abandonment, but now I know that it’s preferable to stare into the sky than to try to stay inside and struggle to create your own sky, if that makes any sense.
So, there are some rooms up on the roof. All the singles, to be precise, the rooms with just a single double bed and little room for much else, of course I recognized everyone that lived in these rooms as well, even if I didn’t know what all their names were. What I remember most about Rafael was that he frequently had his door open and loud, bad metal music playing, which always comforted me because most people I know love bad metal and it was something I never got to hear in Armenia, hearing it here made me feel a little closer to home. Once, I remember seeing Rafael in the morning playing his guitar with a little amp hanging from the strap, his black leather jacket on and a cigarette between his lips while he wailed away on that thing. At 10 am on a Sunday it was pretty comical looking.
When I came home from my classes today there were a few people standing around the door of the hostel, I passed them by on my way to buy some bread. When I returned there were a number of police with them. Diego was outside. I asked him what happened and he just kind of politely waved me inside. In the lobby-like area a large number of the hostel’s residents were sitting around, mostly just looking down and quietly talking to each other. I could tell something bad had happened. I asked. They all kind of looked at each other, as if trying to collective decide how to explain it to me, each of them vainly searching for the one kid who lives here who speaks both Spanish and English. I decided that I’d find out eventually anyway and just told them that I was assuming it was something bad and that, for the present that was enough information for me. The drama of the room was annoying me and I was hungry. I walked in my room and began to take my food out to take to the kitchen when Lily came in and asked me if we could cancel our English class for the day.
I just smoked one of those tasteless cigarettes that one is forced to smoke when the sinuses are blocked with snot. I feel at once despondent and full of life. After Lily told me that Rafael hanged himself in the room up on the roof next to where I smoke, drink coffee and contemplate the day I went back out into the streets of Buenos Aires and found the pace of life strangely unaffected by the suicide of a 24 year-old kid. Maybe I just feel closer to him, knowing that he and I shared the same space for a while, both while he was alive and after he died. They said Lunes and its Thursday today. That’s three mornings and three nights that we held a strange communion, unknown to either of us, up there in the silence of the ignorant and uncaring city, separated by a thin wooden door that’s now sealed with police tape.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sleeping Sickness

Early in the morning there are the sounds of an unattended car alarm: a lost and recalcitrant ambulance circling the block. No one is going to turn it off anytime soon. Even at 9 am, most of the city is still asleep. The alarm plays to a deaf audience. I, who still don’t have my selective hearing back to major metropolitan standards, am forced to listen the shrieking morning alurum amidst the sound of my still sleeping roommates.
I woke up a little over an hour ago and went up to the Coto supermarket near the Abasto shopping center. I wanted to buy another 500 gram bag of these horrible cookies they have their, some of the only cookies I’ve found in this country that don’t have the dreaded grasa vacuna in them. Almost none of the prepackaged cookies here have milk or eggs in them, but almost all of them have beef fat, which, in a red meat country like Argentina, I guess makes sense.
I’m not sure when the Coto opens. In fact, given that it is Sunday, even though they are by far the biggest grocery store I’ve seen here, I expected that they may not open until 10, and I only knew they’d be open by then because I went there last week, almost gravitated you could say, as on Sunday morning I knew a massive supermarket would have the best chance of being open. I decided to repeat the ritual this Sunday because those awful cookies go well with awful coffee and I have absolutely nothing else to do on Sunday morning.
The morning is slightly cold. There are a few people out, newspaper vendors and a few anomalous people that could either be leftovers from some crazy foray well into the abysmal hours of Saturday night, that somehow left them wandering around dazed and possibly lost on this dawning Sunday morning, or just people who have not quite woken up yet, either way, most people have a disheveled and glossed-over look to them, including myself. The block I live on of Sarmiento is dappled in sunlight and cold marble shadows. Later on in the morning one side of the street will catch most of the sun, warming even the cold exteriors of the buildings, but now it’s too early and the sun too low for there to really be any substantial difference from the temperature last night.
I’ve taken my coffee with me on the walk. I have no lidded cups of any kind so I walk around the city with an open mug; sometimes, I wish I had a good bathrobe to couple this, especially on Sunday mornings when the neighborhood is still desolate enough to feel like it could be my backyard, albeit a backyard of broken flagstones, dog shit and car alarms.
The supermarket open at 8:30, earlier than expected, but I’m still 15 minutes too early. There’s an old lady waiting outside, looking through the circulars that are posted by the doors, contemplating the various items on sale this week. Near her is an old man, a liter beer bottle in each hand. I contemplate waiting with them. I still feel kind of tired and I know that no matter where I go at this hour everything is bound to be shuttered and still. But waiting in front of the supermarket is too depressing, especially when one is only buying a bag of cheap cookies. I take a 15-minute walk through the neighborhood eventually stumbling on the legacy of Argentine nightlife.
Thus far I have probably been out no later than 11 pm. I don’t really have much desire to go to a bar alone, when I would be just as happy sitting on the roof of the hostel with a cheap beer, contemplating the moon and the coruscating window lights in the upper reaches of the apartment blocks to the north along Corrientes. I have been out once or twice, but it seems that nothing really begins here until around 2 am, and I really have desire to stay up that late just to see what it’s like. So, thus far, I have seen nothing the revered nightlife here, until this morning.
Coming around the block from my waiting-out-the-supermarket walk, I noticed a few people standing in front of a building. The sickly sweet smell of spilled cocktails and various stale body sprays was hanging in the air, light at first, but then growing heaver as I approached. I suddenly became aware of music, a muffled bass, coming from somewhere inside. The people I walked by didn’t glance up, but it was clear what they were: the sons and daughters of Bacchus, the revelers of Dionysian rite. Surprisingly they looked very awake and, well, sober. Each had a can of a Red Bull-like drink they have everywhere here called Speed, maybe the same stuff that was forced to change its name in the states, or was that an energy drink named Cocaine?
It was almost 8:30. I had gone to bed the following evening around 11:30 and still waking up, stumbling around the neighborhood, trying not to contemplate the sounds of endless car alarms. I had a mug of coffee in my hand, when I passed this group of the indulgent. It was like a rip in the fabric of time had somehow taken us both out of our rightful time and placed us together here in an uncertain limbo, where neither of us really belonged. I didn’t directly contemplate them, nor they me, but I’m sure in some small disquieting place, we were both totally aware of each other and the impossibility to have anything two different ways.
The encounter lasted only a minute, and I was in the supermarket, walking back home from the supermarket, my hand deep in a bag of cheap cookies, a vague bassline to an unknown song echoing vaguely in my head.