El Afilador: On the Cutting Edge

Knife sharpener, Buenos Aires, 1870. Source: Archivo General de la Nación Argentina

Listen to the story:

Bonus: Two afiladores announcing their services, Buenos Aires, 2023:

I have my own pantheon of local gods. At the center stands the sage taxi driver. Then comes the vegetable stand proprietor, the fellow at the newspaper kiosk, the street sweeper, and several other odd characters without whom this city would be a lot less satisfying. They are put there for different reasons: one for pithy wisdom, another for bringing the countryside into the city, another for always knowing which bus to take, and still another for tidying up after the rest of us.

But there’s one more whose acquaintance I made recently though his pedigree is certainly as ancient as the others: El Afilador or knife sharpener.

The Buenos Aires knife sharpener is distinguished by two features. First is the contraption he uses to do his job. These days it is a bicycle of sturdy construction with two grinding stones set between the handlebars. A belt connects these wheels to the rear hub. When the sharpener is at work, he props the rear tire off the ground with a special stand. Then he sits astride his bike pedaling slowly while he works the knife back and forth over the stones.

But before you ever see El Afilador you hear him. This is because of his other distinguishing feature: his pan pipe. The knife sharpener uses it to advise people that he is coming and is ready to grind. Hearing his pipe, people with dull cutlery know to make their way onto the street. The sound is bright and cheerful like a dawn bird in Spring and even if you do not need his services it is a comforting sound.

“Music is only a tool for El Afilador so he keeps it short and to the point, like a paring knife.”

However music is only a tool for El Afilador so he keeps it short and to the point, like a paring knife. He’ll make a quick swipe up the scale. He may linger a moment on the last note. But that’s it. Melody is forbidden. Variation as well, apparently. That’s it… over and over and over again. Like a species of bird, they have their tell-tale musical phrase and they stick to it. You could say it’s their mating call.

In my neighborhood, Luis has been keeping knives sharp for 17 years. Dressed in a crisp blue short-sleeved shirt, he exudes all the well-being of someone who spends his days outdoors. The sharpeners work neighborhoods and the key, as in so many of the routines of this city, is to make friends with the porteros or building superintendents so that they will let you know when someone in their building needs the services you are proffering. This tends to be mutually beneficial and porteros get perks.

I knew the manager of a building in which one of the apartments had a regular traffic of gentleman callers. In exchange for looking the other way, you can imagine what he got for free. Luis’s buddies just end up with some very sharp knives.

While Luis works, he pedals leisurely along, the rear wheel spinning aimlessly in the air. He isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. He holds an unlit cigarette deftly in his fingers as he works. Gesturing to the bike, he says, “It’s my fourth and it’s time to change this one too” indicating the places where the frame has rusted. But there is no urgency in his words and I don’t imagine he’ll be changing the bike anytime soon.

Does he work for meat markets or parrillas where keeping knives sharp would be essential? No, Luis says shaking his head as if remembering a bad experience: “They’re too finicky.” Households, it seems, are a lot less demanding and clearly more suited to the leisurely life that he has chosen.

After Luis finishes his job and delivers the knives to his client, he leans against the wall in the shade and begins to careen up and down the scales, hoping to draw another client out of one of the nearby buildings. When no one appears, he bumps his strange contraption off its stand and mounts. With the pan pipe in one hand and the bars held rather precariously with the other, he weaves his way woozily down the street, pan pipe blazing, its shrill, joyous notes echoing like a rare local species flitting from branch to branch through the canyons of the city.

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