The following was written on June 6th, 2013 in Buenos Aires. I have made some stylistic and grammatical changes since then.
The always broken escalator of the Castro Barros subte stop
Not long ago, I decided to take a little trip around Buenos Aires. I had been reading Paul Theroux’s railway epic The Old Patagonian Express and had gotten the idea that I could learn a little about the city and its people if I took a trip along the city’s subways lines with no real intention or destination in mind.
Theroux wrote in the aforementioned book that “travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered.” Without the pleasures, comforts, and security that come with companionship, a person is best able – in his mind – to take in his or her surroundings without another’s subjectivity clouding their senses. He continues that in order to best see, hear, and feel the things that inspire us to write, “what is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in my private mood to be special and worthy of interest.”
While waiting at the Humberto station of the H line for the train to my connection at Once (OHN-SAY), I had great deal of time to take in the sights, sounds, and unfortunately the smells of a bonaerense subway stop. As I left the tunnel that connects the Jujuy station of the E line to the perpendicularly running H line, I was surprised by the nature of this new stop. Unlike the quaint stations that line the city’s other five routes, this one was large and modern with right angles and glass dominating its large, open space. It gave off a vibe not unlike that of what one would imagine seeing in Washington or New York, rather than the crumbing pre-war Paris feel that much of this city gives off.
I therefore assumed, wrongly, that the line would run with a more North American sense of order and promptness. When I walked down to the platform, I was not all that surprised to see it filled with people. It was, after all, rush hour and the H line ends at the Once railway station at Plaza Miserere, where tens of thousands take trains and buses in order to commute between the city center and the outer reaches of Greater Buenos Aires.
On the other side of the tracks, there were only a few people. Most notable among them was a guy of about twenty in a Nirvana T-shirt air guitaring along to music that I could not hear. His fingers were pinched around an imaginary pick that he held between his thumb and pointer finger. I sat and watched him play, and in my ignorance of musical techniques began to debate with myself whether or not he was playing the guitar or in fact the bass. I concluded that as he was bearded, dressed in dark clothing, and lacking in the flair that I associate with a front man or guitarist he was playing the latter.
I turned away for a bit in order to let the man continue his ballad in solitude.
Not far from me was a girl standing at the edge of the platform peering into the dark tunnel, seeking a ray of light that would tell her that the train home was on its way. After she lingered there for a few seconds gazing into the black, she put her hands in her pockets and fell back onto her heels, backing away.
Above her head was a television showing images that are meant to entertain commuters. I saw her look up and smile. It was a pretty smile of bemusement that comes with resignation to things that otherwise would prompt disappointment or outrage.
Playing was a clip that as I saw did its job in entertaining, albeit not in the way the municipal government probably had envisioned.
It was a video of the opening of this very same station that had happened recently. There was some government official speaking about how the new and modern station would promote development in the historically underdeveloped southern neighborhoods of the city. The opening was a grand affair with music, tango demonstrations, and suited bureaucrats. All this elicited smiles and chuckles from the mainly working and middle class crowd around me.
As I continued to watch, a man of about 50 was walking in my direction with his arms outstretched and a large grin across his face. He gestured to the screen and called to his friend who was beside me. The men embraced in the traditional Argentine way, a kiss on the cheek and a hug. No masculinity was lost.
“How long have you been here?” the newcomer asked.
“At least a half hour,” he responded.
“Es un quilombo,” he remarked.
Quilombo, the African inspired word that is the Argentine equivalent of a shit show, is never what one wants to hear where he is trying to get home.
Only a few others were talking, though the tapping of feet and the checking of watches were rife. The impatience was infectious and I too grew antsy despite the fact that I had little right to complain. I had put myself in this situation and my curiosity to ride a line I’d only crossed had intrigued me. I had no real destination, besides home. This was, of course, just another day in B.A. What more could I expect.
A train finally rolled in to break the silence and the people of the station awoke from their despondence and edged towards the track. Their hope and newfound cheer quickly eroded as it became apparent that the cars were full and there was only space for a few brave souls to fight their way inside.
I was not, however, in the mood to struggle and squeeze. Someone else in this crowd surely needed a spot more than I. There were meetings to catch, kids to pick up, mistresses to visit, and games to see. They could have it, there was always another train. And I was perfectly content to read my Theroux and catch a few glances at the pretty girl twirling her hair.
The Nirvana boy was still strumming along uninterrupted. He was really starting to get into the music now. His arms were outstretched and I could see his face was squeezed in an introspective look of determination.
I once again began debating the guitarist/bassist conundrum. Before I could make a definitive conclusion, a train pulled into the station. Remarkably, it was much more empty than the last and I was easily able to enter a nearby car. While the station itself was new and clean in both its design and appearance, this car was anything but. It was, I could only assume with its wooden fixtures, glass headlamps, and faux-laminate seats borrowed from the older E line.
It was, as with so much of Argentina, an anachronism in the modern time. Like the Marxist worldview still used by many academics here, the antiquated train was a relic from the revolutionary era of the 1960s and 70s that has all but disappeared from the States.
Argentines, though, like to hold onto their past. If the adulation given to the Perons is any indication, one needs only walk down any street and keep an eye out for one of the million little stickers and placards that remind you that Las Malvinas – or The Falklands – are, have been, and always will be Argentine.
After switching to the A line at Plaza Miserere, I exited the subterranean at Castro Barros, my final stop. As I climbed the steps to the pockmarked sidewalk as the escalator was in its third month of immobility, I was struck by how the seeming chaos of this wild city seemed somewhat subdued. The choked up traffic was still impenetrable and the masses of people still swarmed the sidewalks going in every direction. Yet, I can’t say this frustrated me has it had before. Rather, I came to see that without this chaos I would have been unmotivated to carry out this little anthropological study in the first place.
In essence, what I found most vexing about Argentina was, I suppose, what I found most alluring: its unadulterated madness.
14 January 2014