The wet heat of summer had been whisked away by a storm that blew in off the river. Hot, humid air had been routed by a cold front. In the darkness of the taxi, I fumbled for the rocker switch to roll up my window. The driver, I noticed, did the same. The breeze generated by our speeding down Avenida Independencia had been a welcome surprise at first but now it chilled uncomfortably. It had been exciting to feel the inklings of a shiver on a summer night but now I wondered if it wouldn’t have been smart to have brought a sweater.
In Buenos Aires, much of life takes place out in public places: on the streets, in sidewalk cafes, in parks, in crowded buses and subway cars. Frankly, I suppose you could live a pretty complete life just in public if you included churches and telos in your list (telos are lunfardo slang for pay-by-the hour sex hotels). Argentines are charmingly open and quick to drop what little reserve they might have had. Casual interactions are often cemented with a touch: often a pat on the shoulder or back, the rubbing of a passing child’s head or, in one case I witnessed, the patting of my friend’s paunch when he held the door open for a stranger! Even on the streets, it’s hard to feel alone in Argentina.
But while Buenos Aires is a very public city, it has a secret side, a world that is hidden behind those crumbling cement walls. You will never glimpse it from the street. On the sidewalk you see a doorway and ornate metal grillwork. What lies behind that door is the stuff of imagination.
Last night, I was invited to an asado in Boedo, hence the taxi ride and the ruminations about the forgotten sweater. After arriving at the address, I looked at the stainless steel buzzer plate, found the push button for the apartment after realizing that what I took to be the number “1” was in fact an “i” and rang. Of course, the buzzer didn’t work; in these old places they never do. I sent a text message instead. What did people do before cell phones? Yell, I suppose.
But that wouldn’t have done much good here because the building was a warren of long passageways and winding marble staircases up which I followed my guide. You could not hear the city from inside and no way would those deep inside the labyrinth have heard my hollering. Following the priestess-like steps of my guide, we went deeper and deeper into the mystery, climbing now higher and higher through the silent building.
I had never been here before but I began to realize that we were approaching the most sacrosanct geography of Buenos Aires architecture: the rooftop terraza. As we neared, I began to hear voices and laughter and music echoing down the stairwells. The smell of asado perfumed the air. Stepping out onto the terrace, which was open to the night sky under strings of colored lights, I felt myself standing on an urban altar. I knew the faces: some were friends, others I only knew in passing. Perhaps it was the wine or the night or my steamy love affair with Buenos Aires, but I felt myself blessed in a way that was sacred and profane and all-enveloping. As the night wore on I stopped seeing the people on that rooftop as individuals with names but rather as archetypes of the Buenos Aires night. There was The Prankster, The Sorceress, The Weaver, The Builder, The Seductress, The Recluse, The Warrior. And I, milling among them, ever the Passionate Observer, loving them all in equal measure.
Today when I have only the scent of smoke in my clothes to convince me that it was more than a dream, I could tell you more about these gods and goddesses, about their secret powers and their charms. But I’d much rather wish these divine pleasures on you in the flesh. Knowing how Argentines are so very quick to erase whatever barrier divides two human beings from one other, I hope it won’t be long before you too are dragged off the street and invited home.