This essay about my frame of mind in Buenos Aires is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
All the Tatty Wreckage
The once-resplendent atmosphere that inspired someone to name Buenos Aires “the Paris of South America” now resides only in the town’s toniest neighborhoods and luxury hotels. Sitting on a sidewalk in a working-class part of town is a raw experience compared to what the wealthy travelers see when they check into the city’s four-star resorts. My less-than-stellar view encompassed an ornate pizzeria that must have been sublime in its heyday, a distinction that hadn’t fit for at least a century. Inside the dusty marbled expanse, a grizzled man in baggy clothes was so tired and old it appeared to physically hurt him to contemplate the cafecito on the table. As he took a drag on a cigarette and tapped the ashes into the dregs in the cup, words floated through my mind to describe the scene: grime, bitterness, decay, hopelessness.
I’d never seen so many broken things—balustrades, pediments, and tiles swirling with once-beautiful motifs that proclaimed Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences washed over this city like a wave when they were the hottest trends in Europe. Fanning out around me was a circular pattern created by red granite bricks that would have felt the click of elegant heels when they were freshly laid. Now they were little more than cracked pieces of masonry—all gracefulness gone. The traffic, which made the city throb, was overwhelming at times. The vibrating declaration of unrestrained mufflers growled before being forced to stop, the aggressive reverberations petering off to mild irritation as the traffic light turned red.
It was the height of summer and the sky was heavy with clouds that oozed moisture, which beaded on the skin even in the shade. I looked at the gray horizon and realized I’d unwittingly manufactured my mood, the copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on the table an instigator with its pulse toward suicide. Sentences like “The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life” ran through my mind. It was as if the narrative had been composing itself while following me around town for several days.
There was only one vigorous form of life that I had been able to find in the Argentine capital. Ironically, it existed in dim dance halls called milongas. Within these spare salons, old couples glided during the afternoons, powder spilling from the women’s shoes; and young couples battled it out into the wee hours of the morning, their stances sharp and biting. The locals chose to practice tango’s poses in smoke-filled basements, while the tourists kept to the famous buildings that paid homage to the uniquely Argentine dance. These marbled examples of puffery rose like quirky time capsules buried during the 1920s, still coated with a tinge of the maudlin as tango music moaned into the street. The strains of the bandoneon drew in the sightseers who fell for overpriced classics like skirt steak and chimichurri served with watered-down glasses of Malbec.
In La Boca, the place where tango was born, the Rio de la Plata reeked of sewage. Not even the hyper-colorful layers of paint that had been daubed onto every surface in that part of town could trick the mind into ignoring the stench. My pen lifted from the page as I finished the word stench, my concentration broken by a little boy who shouted, “Hola pajarito!” to a darting pigeon. How unlucky does a scruffy bird have to be to land in a town where even its highest pecking order is forlorn?
I watched as its ragged wings carried it to a building a few doors down, the exterior clad in silver-flecked black marble. The wrought-iron-and-glass door was impressive, its undulant grid pattern and gold knobs both pretty and protective. One of the nicer façades around, it was the type of building in which once-wealthy women clung to their faded interiors and their waning dignity. With sentiments like these filling my notebook, I couldn’t help but feel I was betraying the people I had come to know in town.
They were so beautifully kind, but they are no less put upon than the strangers I saw going through the motions of life: sadness leaked from every fissure and from every wrinkled face. A writer must tell the truth, I chided myself, at least in the rough notes on the page. If candor couldn’t exist in the marginalia that may forever remain a footnote, what’s the point in recording reactions to anything? Up until this point, I had been resistant to jotting down my most intense experience, which took place during the cooler hours of the morning in La Recoleta Cemetery. It was time, I told myself—nothing would be spared from examination.
I wasn’t surprised that the mausoleum-filled graveyard I visited echoed the city in its intermingling of beauty and neglect. Faded plastic flowers and love notes were taped to Evita Perón’s tomb with its palmette-patterned metal door. The grandiose plaques fastened to the marble exterior continued the charade of her overblown importance, which was such a fascist ruse. I was studying them when I spotted a black cat sitting motionless at the top of the steps of a crypt across the alley. The sepulcher had been neglected for so long, the unkempt darkness beyond the spider-webbed gate frightened the senses deep into the soul. What horror wheezes there? the mind cried while hoping an answer didn’t present itself. The feline’s eyes glowed golden and its ears quivered as if listening to the incessant whispers of the spirits murmuring around it, unrest we humans are not allowed to hear.
Finding myself completely spent from considering so much upheaval, I put my writer’s notebook away and slid The Bell Jar into my purse beside it, leaving behind what Plath would call “all the tatty wreckage.” I moved in a ghostly mood toward the dim recesses of the apartment I was calling home, which I knew would not improve my disposition. Distracted, I stood too close to the edge of a plaza ringed in metal traffic barriers that looked like old war torpedoes. I felt the force of the bus and the air pulsing from it just as the gentleman behind me pulled me toward him by the back of my shirt, saving me from becoming another piece of tatty wreckage littering the streets.
Tatty Wreckage in Buenos Aires © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.