The Best Cab Driver in Buenos Aires

When I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I learned quickly that some things are best left to a professional. Thus, taxis were my preferred mode of transportation. I never drove in Buenos Aires.

My time in Buenos Aires was a magical journey to a culture unfettered by those twin gods of efficiency and sanity which rule in the United States. That such a beautiful city could exist when the spirit of anarchy simmered barely beneath the surface was amazing to me. Of course Buenos Aires was named prior to the invention of the automobile.

I was there on business for seven months in the early ‘80s, near the end of their long stifling dictatorship. The exuberance exhibited by the people was infectious. It seemed no one but me worked hard and everyone rarely slept. One only stopped eating to dance, to meet friends, to eat “parilla,” drink wine, sip a coffee. The mass transit system is world class; these trains ran on time, at least until the dictatorship ended.

The primary diet of the average Argentinean is “parilla,” their style of barbecued beef, the best in the world.  Coca cola, coffee and ‘American’ cigarettes follow closely in popularity. I once met a friend at a local café and, arriving on time, was surprised to find him sitting at a table with four empty coke bottles, a coffee and an ashtray filled with half a dozen cigarette butts. He said he was ten minutes early and just “passed the time.”

The Argentinean “waiter” is spectacularly indifferent. He waits to acknowledge you. He waits until you are really hungry to serve you. The restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 9pm. A fast food restaurant in Buenos Aires, is one where, by the time you get your food, you feel you’ve been on a fast. Restaurants in Argentina are designed on the DMV model. But the food is better.

In Argentina, if you haven’t eaten beef in the meal, you haven’t eaten. It truly is the best meat I’ve ever eaten. The hotel I stayed at served beef as its main course nightly for the seven months I stayed there. Everyone cheered that night the maître‘d stated that we were serving “Escallopes,” until we realized that the dish was scalloped beef, not seafood.  Even the “vegetarians” I knew there ate beef. It was okay because the cows ate grass.

Buenos Aires is said to have more psychologists per capita than anywhere in the world, even Vienna. But I’m told they are all starving because, for the price of a cup of coffee, literally, you can spend the day discussing your troubles at the local café or pub. That’s where all the psychologists hang out. Everyone is very sympathetic. If you ever need cheap advice, buy an Argentinean a coffee.

The traffic there is legendary. According to the American ex-patriots I knew, the freeways were so snarled because “they forgot to put arrows on the lane markers.”  Lane markers are only a suggestion and are never taken seriously. If a car can fit between two others, “Presto! A new lane!” To escape freeway gridlock I saw some drivers charge up the embankment, uprooting small trees to find a surface street unclogged by smoke spewing Citroens and Renaults. Left turn lanes are unknown. Three right turns are saner than attempting one left turn into oncoming traffic.

Jaywalking is an invitation to suicide. Running the bulls at Pamplona is safer.  In Buenos Aires the pedestrian never has the right of way. Even the sidewalks are not a safe haven.  A pedestrian hit by a “collectivo” while standing at the curb doesn’t evoke surprise. They should have known better. They should have seen the bus coming. The buses are painted ornately, each route having its own unique style. The sting of death is diminished considerably being run down by a circus wagon.

Residential streets are unpredictable. Often, in neighborhoods with palatial homes, the streets would be unpaved wallows that Americans would only brave with a four-wheel drive. Yet those stalwart Citroens carefully pick their way through the puddles and ruts. Those little cars made of corrugated tin look like miniature Quonset huts on wheels.

Stop signs are little understood relics. No driver worth his machismo would submit to a brightly colored sign. It isn’t his mother. “Non!” Rather, at each intersection a modern reenactment of the medieval joust plays out with armor on wheels and horsepower under the hood. The polite but impatient “rolling stop” known as the “California Roll” in Los Angeles, would be sneered at as effete in Buenos Aires.

The most an Argentinean driver expects or gives on approaching a stop sign is a slight tap on the brakes; the automotive equivalent of a slight nod. This ensures the brakes are still operative, should they actually be needed and is never interpreted as a genuine effort to slow down. Proof being, an aggressive gunning of the throttle always follows that brake tap lest anyone doubt their resolve. Any hesitation is rewarded with a flurry of horns from outraged drivers en route to a vital cup of coffee.

After the junta lost their grip on the country, even stopping at a red light, in some neighborhoods was an invitation to be robbed. Clean streets are one thing but free enterprise will out.

It was into this maelstrom that I made my daily commute. The cab drivers were… survivors. Eking a living from those streets for twelve or more hours per day takes steely nerves. Everyone drives aggressively and these drivers are pros at gaining ground and holding it; sometimes inches at a time. These men have the best reaction times in the world. They always drive faster, stop quicker and see opportunity better than anyone else on the road.

It was not enough to gain ground but also to keep anyone else from making better headway. The analogy of being a passenger on a bumper car ride is not a stretch. The drivers I rode with were excellent and we never got into an accident. The cab driver is the modern day gaucho and equivalent to the cowboy of the American West. Those squeals and impacts I heard were always behind us. But even with confidence in the driver, I always spent the ride watching every move, anticipating every maneuver.

The day I left Buenos Aires, en route to the airport I had the best ride ever.  This driver kept a moderate speed. He didn’t cut people off and always signaled his intentions.  He left several car lengths in front of him. It was a long ride to the airport and I actually dozed at times. I felt so confident of my security in this man’s car. I couldn’t believe my luck at getting this driver, a man who ensured my ease and comfort. Yes, it was all a myth that every driver in Buenos Aires was either crazy or incompetent. My driver was world-class and could drive anywhere with grace and professionalism. He didn’t pretend interest in light conversation. My driver was all business and watched the road intently. My driver was the best.

When we arrived at the airport he pulled up to the guard shack and gate. The car purred quietly. He spoke to the guard. The guard pressed a button and the gate arm rose, allowing entry. We sat there.

The guard spoke to my driver. My driver was waiting for the gate. The guard pointed to the gate arm, already up.

Then my eyes were opened. When my driver squinted and leaned forward attempting to see the gate, I realized he was nearly blind. The world seemed to stand still.

He thanked the guard and eased forward. We made it safely, the last hundred yards to the terminal. I paid him, tipped him well, and gratefully got out of that death trap. I almost kissed the ground.

That last hour, my driver, a blind man, had chauffeured me through Buenos Aires traffic. But safely! It was the most relaxing ride of my whole trip.

Years later, in one of those filler news items in the L.A. Times, I read of a taxi driver in Buenos Aires arrested for driving while blind. Arrested? They should give him a medal. His condition should be mandatory for cab drivers there.

Or is it?

I felt glad that the old man had made it that long. I salute him. Long may he ride.

Confessions of a critic

I was a critic.

I know. You are thinking “Who are you to criticize?” It is a good question; a mite critical but a good one nonetheless. Trust me, I’ve heard it.

This all happened in college. I was really enjoying the superior point of view and doing verbal target practice on unwitting subjects. One of the best lines from my review of a concert by the school orchestra was: “Then came the intermission, which is always good.”

I didn’t start out to be a critic. I wanted to tell stories, to be a writer. As with teachers, I think many critics fulfill the adage “Those who can’t write, write criticism“.

I took a writing course and discovered that the dominant view in the class was that stories were too passé for words. It had all been done after all. My low brow ambitions were dashed on the jagged talus of S-T-Y-L-E.

Style was the rage. So long as you had cartloads of style there might not be a crumb of story in the whole…uhm, story and you could still shine. Once a student, the star of the class read his piece. It was an impressive jumble, devoid of character, plot, or even point of view. A stylish word salad. You should have heard the purring and cooing from the teacher and other students. Boy, was I in the wrong class.

The French author, Alain Robbe-Grillet (even his hyphenated last name was Avant Garde!) was brought in to speak. He was one of the perpetrators of the Nouveau Roman (French for ‘new novel’) characterized by long descriptive passages of inanimate objects and punctuated with no emotional content.

You know, ‘new’.

Take those descriptive passages out and you would barely have enough to fill a tract being handed out on Hollywood Blvd. on Saturday afternoon.

And that tract would be more interesting. Characters? I don’t need no stinking characters!

Did I mention redundancy? Much of the length of his typical novel is made up of repetition of previous descriptive passages (with just the slightest variations to see if you are paying attention). His novel that I read was dominated by the repeated description of a crumpled, blue cigarette pack rising and falling on the swells of the tide breaking against the sea wall at a Mediterranean resort. It was riveting. I think they were Gitanes.

One of the saving graces of his speech was that it was completely in French. I do not know French. He spoke for an hour or so to an uncomprehending audience and finished to resounding applause. Of course there was a translator who kept up with him and she did a good job I am sure. Even translated, what he had to say didn’t make much sense to me. But I’m just a rube from the wind swept steppes of Minnesota.

Before becoming a writer, Monsieur Robbe-Grillet worked as a machinist. He was famous in some circles for writing the screenplay of a movie called “Last Year at Marienbad”. It is a classic of the era, perfectly predicting the unraveling of Western culture that loomed then and by which we are now swamped.

It is a classic tale of a guy in a casino attempting to make time with a woman he may or may not know. (“Haven’t I met you somewhere before?”) She may or may not remember their supposed tryst (“last year…”) or care.

The sheer volume of meaningful glances and pregnant pauses can only be explained by thinking the production company was trying to save money on expensive subtitles.

This cat and mouse game is played out at stupefying length, with innumerable flash backs which may or may not have happened. Need I go on? It is the existential saga of man’s eternal search for… oh, never mind.

What I mean to say is the most stylish description of a cool glass of water will still not quench my thirst. Let’s get real, words is words.

However, I discovered something after the publication of my above mentioned review of the classical concert. What made me lose my taste for writing criticism was not the letters sent to the paper threatening to kill me dare I show my face in the music department.

Stylish pretention notwithstanding, I discovered the limited entertainment value in ridiculing someone else for their honest efforts. A good story needs more than that.

Party town U.S.A.

A couple friends of mine, Bill, Chuck and I drove up to Mardi Gras together. We took turns driving and sleeping in the most uncomfortable car ever made.

New Orleans, or at least the Vieux Carre was beautiful. It was strange to me though, to me to see people asleep on the sidewalk or on stone steps, drunk and oblivious to people walking around them. They could be dead and no one bothered about them. The Spanish moss and the above ground cemetery was appropriately gothic.

Down by the waterfront there was a tourist cruise ship flying the flag from the Soviet Union. That red field with the hammer and sickle seemed incongruous in the midst of all the decadence, but maybe not. There was a Navy cruiser docked there too, which was giving tours.

We spoke with an old black woman sitting in her little fenced in yard facing the square. She wouldn’t believe a bunch of white kids were sleeping in the car. While we were talking, a kid came by on a mission. He had a brief chat with her that seemed laden with subtext about “getting her stuff from the store”. It was loaded with code words and odd emphasis like when parents are discussing Christmas plans and start spelling certain words when the kids come in. The urgency of it and the guarded language suggested she needed something other than the latest issue of National Geographic.

We ate in restaurants attended by sinister waiters. Everyone was frantically, desperately having fun but no one seemed to be looking at what was really going on. A million people cannot party without a whole infrastructure of non-partiers making it all possible. I never thought Disneyland just happened. Someone maintains that illusion at considerable trouble. This wasn’t just a gigantic party, there was money to be made.

The night of the big parade was surely crazy. All along the main thoroughfare people jammed between the hotels and into the street. A female cop demonstrated her skill with a baton up side some drunk’s head. She didn’t think he was showing her appropriate respect.

I wanted to see New Orleans as it really was, not how it dressed up for the tourists.

I made my way back into the Vieux Carre to take pictures of the colonial buildings illuminated only by streetlights. It was eerie to see the square so deserted when a few blocks away there were millions of people all watching the big diversion. It was so quiet for such a busy season. Was everyone at the parade?

I took my photos using only ambient light and then became aware that I was being watched. There were two or three men, dressed as mimes, (white face and striped shirts, really!) peeking from behind trees and around corners, pretending they didn’t want to be seen. One would call out, getting my attention, and then another would whistle from another location. They were hiding but being obvious about it. It didn’t make sense. I tried to ignore them. What next, a fifty dollar bill at the end of a fishing line for me to chase?

A man in a suit approached me as if he just wanted to pass the time. He was dressed as if he were just out for an evening walk. He asked me if I was a cop. “No, I’m not a cop. I’m just a tourist.”

“You must be a cop. Look at you. You’re not in costume. You can’t be a tourist or you would be watching the parade”

I said I was a photographer and wanted to capture the beautiful city when there weren’t crowds around.

“No. I think you are a cop” It finally dawned on me that he didn’t care if I was a cop. He wanted me gone. My photo session was over.

“So you think I would like the parade better?” He nodded. “The parade that is over that way a few blocks?” He nodded again. I thanked him for re-directing me and made my way back to the throng.

I was unnerved by the implied violence of the conversation. What if I hadn’t “gotten” the point?

I realized that everyone but me knew not to leave the parade. The crowd was the only safe location. I was in the biggest tourist trap this side of Disneyland. Why would I suspect it was not safe to walk around alone? I had peeked behind the curtain and glimpsed how it all worked. I wanted to capture New Orleans ‘in the wild’ but hadn’t gotten permission from the head baboon.

I remembered in school I was always the ‘new kid’ and had discovered that kids always thought I was either the drug dealer or the cop. I was neither. Their definition of me was determined by their own orientation. If I wasn’t with them I must be against them.

The rest of the trip was spent in a fog of confusion. I was exhausted and there are only so many gaudy beaded necklaces one can catch. New Orleans came to represent the epitome of the emptiest place. It was the most malignant, corrupt and decadent place I’d ever been.

What a great party town!

Once upon a time…

In the beginning was the word. And the storyteller took that word and ran with it, and ever since has been trying, like a kid walking in his Daddy’s shoes, to conjure a world as tangible as God did.

That is not a recently discovered fragment from St. John’s Gospel but a summary of mankind’s urge to create.

Most people have heard Rene Descarte’s statement “I think, therefore I am.” Fewer know Ambrose Bierce’s “I think I think, therefore I think I am.” I would add, “I tell stories, therefore I am”. This implies that if I ever cease telling stories I will cease to be. That may not be true for me personally but I think it is certainly true for us as a species.

Story telling has the unfortunate reputation for being nothing but telling lies. Everyone has heard, or told a fish story. Mark Twain maintained that any man who can’t lie or curse deserves no respect and gets none. I’ve known enough Texans to have observed that when one of them prefaces some fantastic account with the words “true story” they really mean “I’m about to tell you one hell of a whopper so listen up.”

Let me clarify that by ‘storytelling’ I do not mean ‘jokes’. Storytelling and standup comedy may be related but only in the way that you are related to that oaf of a brother-in-law who came in the same package as your spouse. The shelf life of most jokes expired before anyone ever told them.

Someone like Richard Pryor may be known as a standup comedian but he was a storyteller, not a joke teller. Few could create characters with the depth and poignancy that he did. His hilarious and horrific account of his heart attack left me gasping for breath not only from laughter but also cringing with horror and empathy too. The man could wring every possible emotion from one of his stories. No joke.

Now the so called social media via twitter has reduced human communication down to what, 140 characters? Can you imagine what epic story could be told populated with one hundred forty interacting characters?

The truth is we all love to hear stories and tell stories and retell them. We can’t help it. It is human.

Storytelling is one thing that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There are many good stories about animals. But I’ve honestly never known any animal who could tell a story worth a damn. On the upside, most animals are terrible liars and for the most part they abstain from that dubious practice. Only as animals approach humans in appearance and intelligence do they begin to practice deceit. Dogs are known as man’s best friend because they are generally more trustworthy than other men.

We gain a sense of identity from stories. They put flesh on our daily passage. Without them we would plod through our lives like specters – not knowing where we wander, or why. They give our lives context.

Regardless what else we may leave behind, those stories of us, retold by our survivors, serve as our memorial for but a generation or two. Some reckon their immortality by this measure. As immortality goes, memory is a short yard stick.

Like the arrow that hits its mark, the truth and integrity of our stories is what compels people to repeat them. Do you know any stories about a great uncle or your Grandmother? Why do you think people still tell them? Our Founding Father’s stories live on because they resonate with us. They are good stories. They are true, not just in fact but in essence.

Of course the best story is one that lasts not mere generations, nor centuries but is measured by the millennia it has survived.

And that is the Truth.