Tuesday, February 28, 2012

apres moi la deluge, de nouveau

Stag beetles are everywhere. I’ve never seen so many in my life. I mean, in my entire life I probably haven’t seen 1/8 the amount of stag beetles I’ve seen in the past two weeks. I’ve seen a few live ones but most of them are dead. I see their black husks in the park where I eat lunch on the weekdays, I see them Retiro on the weekends when I’m going to read and relax and I see them everywhere between, in every park, in every green median, in every rain sodden tree planter the carapaces of beetles, like desert scarabs carved from obsidian glistening with the poisonous fog of fertilizer and Fiat exhaust. These beetles are the life beneath Buenos Aires and they have ascended to die.
My coworkers tell me that the beetles come up before the stormy season, that they are indicative of approaching rain. Since they have appeared it has been raining interminably. During the day the weather has been warm, sometimes a little humid, but usually clear. When the sun sets over the western portion of the city, down in the great beds of the major avenues coloring the sidewalk tiles gold and the iron balconies cadmium, the sky grows dyspeptic; it can be heard rumbling in the failing light, as if the sun itself weren’t just setting but actually crashing down into something, gradually but powerfully, its great mass scudding into the Andes.
The storms have been diluvian, they trail on the edges of the murky light and the sound of far off mountains crashing apart against the surface of the sun. The lightning wisps up from the river, from the great domed ceilings of the train stations and from the lifted white marble hands of the park statues. The static crash of it breaking into the roiling sky follows quickly after the riveting light itself. The lightning bolt is the split between two frames in a continuous picture, the thunder is the sound of the projector crashing to the floor. The rains bring the darkness and blur the edges of the scene being restored. All across the city the stag beetles are scrambling through the loam and detritus to rip through the roots of the planted grasses. There is a sound like sod being pulled up from the ground. The streets flood and turbid water chokes the storms drains and blows back into itself; a great churning as the water seeks out its level. Apartment building doors are open and the hallways rush with water. The leaves are pulled prematurely from the trees, newspapers and cardboard boxes are macerated and the basement at the theater where I work floods.
It was actually already flooded by this time. A day earlier the pump assigned the task of riding the basement of fetid water broke down and there was a rush from the pipes as they sluiced this brackish mess out across the tile floor. I was down in the basement when this began to happen and, unaware that there was a rotten flood rising at my feet, thought that some putrescence had surged through the pipes below, like a slaughterhouse and a chemical factory had dumped some equally noxious stuff down into the pipes at the same time and the result was bubbling under my feet. I heard a trickle, and I realized that while the character of the smell may not have been as bad as previously imagined, it was certainly much more impending. As I looked up from my book, I found that the black and white floor tiles in the places around the drains on the floor were magnified and the light on them was refracted. The drains had begun to flood. Being prudent, I picked up my book and made my way out of the room, closing the door behind me. In the next room, I found again respite for reading and finishing my lunch, which I admit, I no longer had much appetite for. Hardly a few minutes passed before I began to notice the sensation which is not quite a taste nor a smell but nonetheless originates from the sinuses somehow. It is something like the sound of a smell, like the first jarring note in a symphony of stink. The sensation grew into a fragrance, then an odor. It began to thicken the air and swelter in my nose. It was like crack smoke, raw and insubstantial, but heavier than air. The smoke streaked and eddied, it rose and ran and lie flat under my palate and behind my tongue and began to coagulate. It was like a DNA stand, made of only a few simple elements but twisted together in an endless chain of combinations. I heard the trickling again and began to think that it smelled so bad that the smell had developed a sound, but it was only the plasmic water tentacling out from under the door I had so recently closed on it. I put down my lunch and went upstairs to tell someone.
That was two weeks ago. I went into work today to find that the water remains to where it eventually groaned, broke and flatulated to the bottom of the stairs where it seethes about eight inches deep. What was once a ghastly odor has become a rotten ulcer of decomposition, a rancid gastrointestinal scream. I have watched the water at the bottom of those stairs swell and stagnate until it impregnated itself with its own horror and gave birth to a sobbing miasma. The color has deepened from teak, to burgundy to banshee black. The water is a darkness so complete it could extinguish stars. I dare not think around that water for I know it would steal my dreams and drown them, as it does the rats that are unfortunate enough to be found in it, only briefly. I think about its oily, pestilent darkness when I see the rains coming on again. It is the darkness of those dead and dying stag beetles, the seeds of the rain, planted in flooded basements to rise grimly to the surface only to die.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

¿Que mas, niño?

Everything has a certain imperceptible nature. There are such nuances in daily life that cannot be properly recorded. While, at times, my life feels somewhat quotidian here, I only have to look back over its individual episodes to see that it remains endowed with the same unflagging tempo as always.
La Boca is not the kind of neighborhood for casual strolls—it can be downright rough in some spots. –Lonely Planet, Argentina guide.
On the phone Sebastian is telling me about a party of some kind in La Boca. I’m only half-listening to him because I’ve got that sticky sunburned feeling all over my body and I woke up at six o’clock in the morning to try to get in as much relaxation as I could since my Saturdays have recently, after returning to forty-hour work weeks for the first time in years, become important to me again. I press my hand to face and feel the warmth there. There is a sticky sound when I pull it away. I feel like a child covered in hot syrup after eating my pancakes too fast. Even my eyes have a dry sticky feeling to them.
“Jona?” Sebastian must’ve asked me a question I missed. He calls me ‘Jona’ has since we met. I have no idea why. Perhaps my nasally Midwestern dialect produces an /a/ sound in place of /i/ and I’m unaware of it. Maybe everyone hears ‘Jona’ but they all just call me Jonny anyway.
“Yeah,” I respond, “I’m still here.” Sebastian has just gotten back from Ecuador where he’s from. We’re both foreigners in Argentina, but in totally different ways. I’ve always liked hanging out with foreigners from non-G-8 countries when I’m abroad. They give you a different perspective on wherever you happen to be. Who cares about the local’s perspective, you can observe that. It’s interesting to talk to Iranians in Armenia, Mexicans in Morocco or, in the present case, Ecuadorians in Argentina. They may be able to explain certain elements of culture that you don’t notice. You discuss how your home countries are dissimilar with wherever you are in different ways.
“So there’s a party tonight later in La Boca. We can go there later.” I have to admit this invitation sounds interesting. I have only been to La Boca a handful of times walking down from San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. I have never been there at night or gone into any of the colorful homes of that neighborhood, which everyone is constantly warning you not to take too many liberties exploring. Still, I don’t anticipate that I’m actually going to get anywhere near this party. While biking has increased my mobility, it hasn’t made me anymore awake around three AM, when parties or other youthful social events tend to begin around here. If anything, biking around makes me more tired by midnight and I’m usually in bed by one, no matter what I set out to do. It’s a fun idea and since I haven’t seen Sebastian in a while it’d be nice to go out and do something instead of the usual beers and Youtube music in his apartment, although I’ve got to say that we’ve had some pretty great times listening to obscure French pop and making up our own dances to it.
“Alright,” I tell him. “We’ll see what happens when I get over there.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, knowing what that means, but for once he turned out to be wrong.
I couldn’t have stayed at the party a minute longer without blatantly falling asleep on my girlfriend’s shoulder, which probably would have caused her to topple over since by then she was asleep, too. Fighting to keep my eyes open, and noticing that her’s were already closed I decided it was time to go, regardless of the fact that I had no idea where I was, or how we were going to get home. It was around three AM, so naturally the party was just beginning.
We may have been able to enjoy a little more of the party, in fact maybe we could have enjoyed a lot more of it, but, for one thing, I’ve gotten very entrenched in the habit of getting up early lately and two: well, I’d gotten up even earlier than usual that day to go to the nature preserve for a bike ride before the place go too crowded. It’s hard to get up and get there so early on a Saturday, but it’s worth it. I had a thermos full of coffee made by seven and we left about half an hour later for a tranquil ride under the overhanging trees, acacia plants that bloom in large white flowers and the flocks of screaming parrots.
We came back from the nature preserve (I have to call it that to distinguish it from all the other, much more urban ‘parks’ around here, that are often just fugitive plants and trees hiding behind some large building or other) in order to eat breakfast, which on Saturday consists of potatoes, peppers, tofu and bread, mainly, all other days of the week it consists solely of coffee. After breakfast we rode up to one of the aforementioned ‘parks’ a rather nice one that has the most realistic grass I’ve ever lain in, although at times the ants arise out of it in great plagues and bite at your extremities for sheer malice. It was in this park that I got the bold idea that I could lie there and read in the bright sun for well over an hour with no resulting complications. Such was my boldness that even as we rode away toward Chinatown for our weekly purchase of tofu and jalapenos, which can only be bought there, I felt nothing more than the after-effects of a nice afternoon in the park. In Chinatown, I noticed that Gina’s face was slightly reddened around her nose and cheeks and concluded that mine probably bore similar if not worse evidence of ill-protection.
After we got back from Chinatown we were too hot and sticky and sunburned to make dinner. Usually, dinner is all we talk about after 6 or 7 o’clock, but this particular day it didn’t even occur to us until we were about to leave for Sebastian’s house, whereupon we ate whatever was in the fridge, which, at the time, was black beans and raw carrots.
On the way to Sebastian’s, slightly addled by the fresh darkness and the lack of sufficient digestive material in my stomach, I got confused on subsequently annoyed by the location of his house, a place we had been to many times before. I calmed down after we got inside, had a beer, listened to a few bad songs that I sang along to with due aplomb and after I smoked about twenty cigarettes. Fueled by ungainly amounts of nicotine, vitamin D and general disregard for my own condition we left for La Boca around one AM. I stopped on the way for more cigarettes, which luckily were awful so I wasn’t as tempted to keep stoking the fires to my own eventual demise. In defense of my, at times, excessive smoking here in Buenos Aires, I blame the lack of readily available good coffee. If there are other Latin American countries that have such bad coffee, I suggest that they warn anyone planning on moving there, perhaps before issuing visas, especially if they are highly regarded for so called ‘café culture’ who cares about ‘café culture’ if the espresso tastes like burned carpet?
So now we’re leaving the party. Due to the ill-conceived design of most residential buildings here one would have a hard time slipping out of a party unnoticed, or escaping a burning building; not only do Buenos Aires building require a key for entrance, but also for exit. As the door to our apartment locks automatically, we have often mused about the horrible purgatory that would await anyone who got locked out of the apartment, as they would find themselves, at the same time, locked in the building with nothing to do but wonder around a moan like some pitiful wraith.
We have to track down the girl whose birthday it is to be let out. By Argentine standards we are leaving impolitely early, or at least that’s the impression I got by everyone’s face, or perhaps they had just seen me sleeping and though that I was trying to make some kind of comment about the inability of parties in Argentina to compete with those of my native US; of course I would know nothing about this, never going to parties in the US anymore. It seems to be a stupidity that I save for different countries.
The birthday girl especially has a hurt look on her face, which is hard to take because she’s got one of those faces that’s good at showing subtle disappointment. She is not overtly condemning me, but rather just radiating her eyes in my direction, eyes that belong in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, eyes that have never seen the ocean but are tied to a mind adept at imagining entire worlds underwater. Even though she didn’t know me she let me out of her house as though I were the only guest at the party that mattered.
Of course, we weren’t let out the door without due warning as to just what we undertaking as foreigners attempting to walk around La Boca at night. Many offers were made to call cabs but my pride an empty wallet turned them all down and within a few minutes we were out in the suddenly very dark and echo ridden streets of La Boca trying to get our bearings.
At first we walked quickly, not daring to speak our course native tongue aloud. A few people stumbled around, muttering to themselves and others, in groups cruised down familiar sidewalks. I recalled once riding my bike to the 103rd street in Chicago and after seeing block after block of nothing but young men standing around how relieved I was to finally see a woman, and how terrified I had been when she yelled after me ‘where the crack at?’ But I remember all the subsequent times I had been in supposed ‘bad’ neighborhoods since then, Detroit on Rosa Parks, West Philadelphia, the hill district in Pittsburg and how no one ever bothered me in any of these places. The law of this sort of thing seems to be ‘if you want to avoid being mugged, go where everyone tells you that it’s inevitable that you’ll get mugged there. Of course, I couldn’t help but to think how much my sunburned face stood out, but luckily I didn’t have a backpack with me and I think my haggard look would have made any potential robber think twice about potentially wasting their time on me, which they would have done, given that I had nine pesos on me, the equivalent of about 2.25$.
Eventually, Gina had enough sense to suggest taking a bus, knowing that I would’ve just kept walking by all the stops until we got home, since, for whatever reasons, taking buses annoys me. After what seemed like hours we got back home. The next day I did not get up very early, which was fine because I was still sunburned and it was pretty hot out again.