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Skyscrapers

In 1972, my family and I migrated from Argentina to the United States to escape the military dictatorship and poor economic conditions of that country, and to avoid the Dirty War, an unofficial civil war waged by the military junta against Argentine citizens. It is estimated that twenty to thirty thousand Argentine civilians were tortured and killed during the Dirty War.

 

The first time I revisited Argentina after emigrating in my youth was on a business trip as a young professional at age thirty-five. Between meetings, I arranged to meet with my uncle, whom I hardly knew, and my cousin, whom I had never met. They were as curious to see me as I was to meet them. Surprisingly, my cousin with pale skin, a large nose, dark hair, and a five o'clock shadow looked quite a bit like me, except he was much younger, ten years my junior. I didn't bother commenting on our physical resemblance because I knew that in his youthful eyes, I was just another typical American businessman.


"What do Americans think of Argentinians?" my cousin asked. I noticed that his crooked smile is the same as mine. I didn't have the heart to tell him that most Americans think very little of Argentina. It is not a country they are curious or interested in. Whenever I tell an American that I hail from Argentina, the usual reply is, "What language do they speak there?"

 

“They think very kindly of Argentineans," I told my cousin. He smiled. Pleased.

 

The last time I revisited Argentina, after emigrating from that country in my youth, was on a vacation trip as an old man at the age of sixty-five, embarking on a nostalgic journey. Francesco accompanied me, and we planned it as a vacation to celebrate our tenth anniversary. While this was the pretext for the trip, I had a secret mission in mind. I wanted us to spend at least one day exploring Olivos, a secluded suburb of Buenos Aires where I had grown up.

 

On the fourth day of our exhausting trip to Buenos Aires, after visiting numerous museums, having many meals with barely known acquaintances, and exploring typical touristy attractions (Mercado de Pulgas, San Telmo, La Boca, Palermo), I informed Francesco that we would be taking a cab to the suburbs, specifically Olivos.

 

“Why there?” he asked timidly, afraid to contradict my plans.

 

“Because it’s where I grew up." I told him. "I want to touch, feel, smell and scratch the soil of Olivos at least once more in my life, before it fades from my memory.”

 

He laughed, accustomed as he is to my romantic melodrama. “I suspected all along that you had planned this hometown excursion. But the next time I take you to my rustic village in the outskirts of Florence to explore every unknown nook and cranny where I spent the lazy days of my youth, don’t you dare complain.”

 

I had envisioned that the distance between downtown Buenos Aires where we were staying, and Olivos, would be immense. As a child, the trip from the suburbs to visit my grandparents in the city always took hours. I told Francesco that we would need to find a cab early in the morning to tour my old suburb while there was still daylight. Francesco doubted my exaggerated calculations of the travel time, but he indulged my panicky madness.

 

“Why are you so nervous?” he asked me, while holding both my hands firmly. "You've traveled almost every continent, on business and for pleasure. I have never seen you so tightly wound and nervous. What's going on?"

 

“Never mind,” I told him, shaking him off. “Just humor me.”

 

When we hailed a cab, I asked the driver if he knew how to get to Olivos. "It's seventeen kilometers from here," he informed me.

 

I requested the driver to drop us off at my elementary school, Saint Andrew’s School of Scots, or El San Andrés, as most people call it.

 

"Of course, I can take you there. We can take the expressway.”

 

I was unaware of a highway between the city center and my old neighborhood. It must have been built while I was in exile. The cab driver proudly said there would be no traffic backups because tolls were now being collected electronically. "They started it about four months ago, a great improvement. They should probably do the same thing in the United States." I refrained from explaining that the E-pass for highways was introduced in the United States decades ago.

 

Thinking I was a dumb American tourist, the cabbie insisted in warning me of the unspeakable evils of using Uber. "Those drivers have no insurance, so if you as a passenger are in an accident or anything like that, you are out of luck. It's a pest to have to deal with those Uber drivers. Do they have them in the United States?" Again, I refrained from pointing out that Uber was invented in San Francisco. It seems that Argentines know as little about Americans as Americans know about them.

 

Despite his manias, the cab driver was a fairly gregarious and chatty character. We banted back and forth about politics, families, and the quirks of life. He was surprised by my accent. “How do you speak Spanish so well?” he asked.

 

I chose not to tell him that my family and I always spoke Spanish at home in America and that the Spanish language was the essence of what kept us anchored to our culture and our past. I could have mentioned my university degree in Spanish literature, but I preferred not sharing my life story with a cab driver. We can talk generalities, but I don't share my intimacies with strangers.

 

“I was born and raised in Argentina,” I told him. "But I left more than fifty years ago.”

 

“Ahh,” he responded. “But you still have a strong Argentine accent. Good for you. Some things never fade.”

 

The cabbie suddenly hit the brakes to avoid a young woman who unexpectedly jumped into the middle of the street, startling me. Francesco spilled his coffee all over me.

 

"¡Qué mujer más idiota! (Stupid woman)," I exclaimed, annoyed by the delay and my now-stained clothes.

 

The cabbie remained calm. "She's just a young woman," he explained, referring to the girl he had almost run over. "We all make mistakes. There are some wipes in the back if you want to touch up your shirt."

 

While Francesco used the wipes to clean the coffee spots on my coat, the cabbie fiddled with the car radio, tuning in to a sportscaster recapping a soccer game. “Do you like football?” he asked me.

 

"No, I'm not a great fan of it."

 

"Me neither, but it keeps me entertained."

 

“How long have you been driving a cab?”

 

“About six years, ever since they let me go from my old job. I used to be the manager at a Ford factory. I loved that job, supervising sixty people in my unit. But I suffered a small heart attack, and the doctors convinced me that I shouldn’t do that stressful work anymore. I begged the company to give me a non-managerial job, but they told me I was too old for the assembly line. So here I am, every day, battling the traffic.”

 

“That must be stressful for you,” I inquired. “Doesn’t that put too much pressure on your heart?”

 

He looked at me through the rear-view mirror. I could see the color of his grey eyes, and I noticed a bit of cataracts and a touch of jovial sadness.

 

“You know,” he said, “I’m a married man, and my wife is brilliant. She taught me how to meditate in all conditions. That's why I put the radio on the football channel. It lulls me into tranquility, and I can ignore every bloody mess that surrounds me. Calmness is bliss."

 

“Does your wife work too?”

 

"She used to, until last year when someone ran her over with a car while she was crossing the street. The car didn't even stop to help. Now she can't walk.”

 

"Ahh," I said to myself. Here's why he keeps a vigilant eye for meandering pedestrians who run into traffic.

 

“Hence my calmness for when someone steps in front of my cab," said the cabbie, as if he had read my mind. "And hence my calmness for driving you to Olivos. We have arrived. El San Andrés is on your right."

 

I had lost track of the route while talking to the cabbie. I had expected that we would be crossing through wide avenues lined with gardens and entering the school grounds of Saint Andrew’s amid fields. Instead, the main street into Olivos (Ave. Libertador), once a stretch of sprawling large houses, was now filled with skyscrapers and car dealerships.

 

"Wow," I said to the cab driver in my surprise. "I hadn't realized that my neighborhood had transformed from old mansions to modern city buildings.”

 

The fields I had imagined surrounding Saint Andrew’s were gone. The school remained next to a train station, which had been empty and abandoned in my day. As a child, I would walk home along the railroad tracks, a secret my parents never knew. They would have panicked. Now, the train station hosts a bustling commuter train that the locals take from the safety of their secluded suburb in Olivos to the bustling center of downtown Buenos Aires.

 

The crop of skyscrapers that has sprouted next to the school is inhabited mostly by elderly ladies in retirement, living in well-maintained and guarded buildings. I resented these high-rises. Where did they come from? How could they have emerged so quickly in these last fifty years? They were an intrusive reminder that life without me in Argentina had moved forward. It was an affront to my memories.

 

The school remained the same in many ways, except for the guarded gates that did not exist before. Armed watchguards sat at the gate entrance. This was to protect the children of well-to-do families attending this school. Currently, Argentina has a poverty rate of forty percent, with most of the remaining sixty percent barely making ends meet. Saint Andrew’s is where the families of the remaining upper-middle class congregate. I couldn't see beyond the guarded school gates. I couldn't see the field where I used to walk endlessly during recess and lunchtime. I had been a loner at Saint Andrew's. I was neither gregarious nor handsome and seemingly had nothing to offer to my peers. I remember envying the other boys who wore the same uniform I wore, except their uniforms were always crisper and brighter than my disheveled version. The other boys had better shoes, better shirts. I was a misfit, socially and economically.

 

My visit to Saint Andrew’s coincided with lunchtime. The students weren't obliged to eat in the school cafeteria, as I used to. Instead, the boys and girls (for the school is now co-ed) could be seen in the nearby streets buying their lunch. Almost universally, the young students were thin, cool-looking, tough, and alluring. Cigarettes dangled from their lips or shirt pockets. They aspired to portray a rugged NYC street look (like I used to see in Spanish Harlem when walking from the George Washington Bridge to Columbia College in my days of college poverty). They seemed unaware that their well-groomed hair, expensive shoes, and acne-free faces (courtesy of modern medicine) betrayed the look they aspired to. The girls wore their plaid skirts extremely high, exposing everything. Their faces were pouty, their eyes unfocused. Perfecting that chic cover-girl look must have taken a lot of time. I would never have managed it, neither then nor now. I would still qualify as a misfit in Saint Andrew's.


I didn't go inside the school. I could have asked the guard to let me in, explaining I was a former student. However, it dawned on me that I had no desire to reconnect with the memories of being inside Saint Andrew’s. Instead, with the help of Google Maps and my fuzzy memory, I decided to trace my way back by foot to the neighborhood and the house I had lived in. 

 

Once known as "El barrio inglés" (the English neighborhood), many of the houses in the neighborhood were grand, fashioned in faux Tudor style. Ours was an exception—a sixties-style bungalow with a cheap nod to Danish design. As a child, I perceived it as sizable, but returning as an adult, its smallness became apparent. At first, I did not recognize my old house because it was now gated, like Saint Andrew's, with iron railings obstructing the view of the patio and the garden. We had no such gates as a child.

 

I peeked through the gates of the house. The owner came out, an older lady, probably fifteen years my senior. She was curious and cautious, not opening the gates but peeking at me through the iron bars. I tried to calm her down. After all, this is still a dangerous country.


Señora, no se preocupe por favor,” I said. Please don't worry, madame. "I lived here as a child and I was curious if the house was still standing."


"When did you live here?" she asked.


“Ages ago. A lifetime ago. Fifty years ago.”

 

"You were a large family, I think," she observed. "My parents bought this house fifty years ago. I moved my family here when mom and dad passed away. I always told my children that a large family must have lived here once because the bathroom had six placeholders for six toothbrushes. Was that your family, the one with the toothbrushes?”

 

"Yes," I acknowledged. "That was us."

 

“And where did you all sleep?” she asked. “I wouldn’t think this house is large enough.”

 

"I don't know,” I answered, remembering that Argentines are not great with subtleties. “Somehow, we managed."

 

¿Querés entrar?” she asked. Do you want to come in? “Mi nombre es Inés.”

 

Surprised yet pleased, I accepted her offer. “Yes, thank you, Inés. I would love to come in if it doesn’t bother you."

 

Inés lived alone. Whatever children she raised in this house had long moved out. Instead, she had three dogs and four cats. They accosted me as I walked into the entrance hall. I noticed the smell of old ladies, a mixture of lilac and toothpaste. I also noticed that the house was full to the brim with poorly stuffed Victorian furniture, much too large for the house. Inés made excuses. "I know the furniture doesn't fit, but it's what I inherited from my Nonna. I can't bear to part with it."


"Nonsense," I replied with a lie. "It looks beautiful."

 

“You will notice I have not changed a thing,” said Inés. “It’s the same as the day my parents bought the house when your family moved out. The only thing I changed was the oak floor in the living room. I replaced it with ceramic tiles. It's easier with the animals."

 

I didn't trust that she had not changed anything. In fact, the house had changed quite a bit. Though the bungalow was the same size when we lived there, it had the benefit of being new and clean back then. And it was sunny. There were no gates and window bars around the house in my days. Now, this added security measure gave the house an appearance of darkness and gloom. It didn’t help much that the weather was cloudy and rainy, casting long shadows upon us.

 

“Why did you add these iron bars?” I asked her. ‘They seem to take away the light.”

 

Inés was heartbroken that I made this remark. She was proud of the gates she had added to the architecture. "For safety reasons," she explained. "There are only old ladies on this block, and for a while, there were a lot of burglaries. At first, a few neighbors hired a contractor to set up one of those private guard houses you see every few blocks, staffed by a young man with a gun, a pen, and a notebook. From the start, I told the private security company that no one would pay them, and they wouldn't make any money from setting up a guardhouse in this neighborhood. We're just a bunch of elderly ladies relying on pensions and dwindling assets. I proved to be right. After two months, the few paying clients the security guard had lined up stopped paying for his services, so he pulled out. I decided instead to add these gates. It makes me feel safe."

 

"I'd like to see the kitchen and the room next to it,” I say to Inés.

 

“What room?” she asks. “There is no room next to the kitchen.”

 

I point out the door next to the kitchen eating area. “That space,” I tell her.

 

She is surprised. “That’s not a room. It’s nothing but storage space.”

 

She unlocks the door for me. In it, she keeps her sewing machine and craft materials. She uses it as a closet, but originally it was the maid’s quarters. This is evident by the small bathroom with a small shower next to the room.

 

“I never realized it was a maid’s quarters,” she tells me. “We had no use for that.”

 

We had a maid for a few years, but when things became financially tricky, as the Argentine economy worsened and the dictatorship intensified, the maid was let go, and the two boys (my brother and I) were given a bunk bed in the maid’s room.

 

I had adored the maid. I was infatuated with her dark skin and sturdy legs. Lucinda. Lucinda La Linda, I had called her. We had moved to the Danish bungalow in Olivos in 1966. This was the same year General Onganía, a dictator, had closed the Congress and shuttered publishing houses. My father, a member of Congress, had lost his job. He sold our larger house on Ave. Libertador and moved our family to the much smaller but chic rental in Olivos. A few months after we moved into the bungalow, the maid was let go.

 

At the time, I had asked Mother why she fired Lucinda La Linda. She told me the maid had been caught stealing. Now, in retrospect, I suspect this was not the real reason.

 

In those days, Mother kept warning us that we "must tighten our belts," meaning we would not be eating beef and pastries but pasta and rice. My parents argued frequently, and Mother complained about money, emphasizing the sacrifices made to send us “to the most expensive school in the country.” I never had the heart to tell her I would have loved to be pulled out of Saint Andrew's, as it would have shattered her last claim to middle-class status.

 

Such are the unspoken truths that parents keep from their children. It all appeared normal as a child, but now, as I see in person where I lived, the small and cramped bungalow, the smallest house in a good neighborhood, I see it all differently. As an adult and a parent myself, I've faced financial stress and depression that I've shielded from children. Now, standing in this bungalow with Inés and her overstuffed furniture, I realize that I had not been the only misfit in our tiny Olivos society. Mom and Dad were struggling to fit in and survive, and though they had never told us, I had sensed it in my bones.

 

“Have you walked around?” Inés asks me. “I bet the neighborhood has changed quite a bit since you lived here.”

 

“How so?” I ask her.

 

She sighs. “Well, you probably remember how this neighborhood used to be all two-story homes, right? Now, the authorities have been letting people build three or four-story houses. They gladly turn a blind eye if you slip them a little extra.”

 

"I was wondering about that," I tell her.

 

“Yes, it's a bit disheartening,” she says. “They've been tearing down the old houses and replacing them with these massive structures. The charm of the neighborhood is fading away.”

 

I don't know what to say to her. I want to tell her it's the same everywhere, all over the world, but I don’t want to make her feel worse.

 

“And it's not just here,” she says. “Libertador and near Saint Andrew’s have seen even more drastic changes. Developers went crazy, tearing up the fields and putting up residential skyscrapers. It's like they're transforming the entire landscape.”

 

I shake my head.

 

After a while, the conversation with Inés runs dry. Francesco captures a photo of Inés and me inside the house, standing next to a wooden cupboard that is too large for the space. I smile for the photo, as if she and I were old friends. She seems glad for the visit, but I am dying to leave. I thank her profusely and bid goodbye, forgetting to exchange our contact information. She cannot hide her disappointment that we have left so quickly. "I'll be back," I promise. Both of us know that I'm lying.

 

From the sidewalk, I steal one more glance at the patio behind the gates that had once seemed so immense.

 

“Don’t turn on the faucets,” advises Francesco. “I know you want to cry.”

 

“Not really,” I tell him. “I’ve developed a thick skin for stuff like this.”

 

“What’s next on the agenda?” Francesco inquires. “Did you make plans for us to visit with your uncle and your look-alike cousin today?”

 

“No, they have left Buenos Aires. They moved to Berlin last year, where my cousin’s dark-haired children speak to him in perfect German, and he answers them in Argentine Spanish.”

 

“Well then,” Francesco suggests, “should we keep walking, Eduardo? Do you want to soak in some more memories of your youth?”

 

“No,” I answer. “Let’s go." I am a skyscraper in this neighborhood. I don't belong. I have outgrown this place, and it has outpaced and forgotten me. In the shadow of towering glass, in these streets that we navigated today, that were once so familiar to me, I am an outcast.


Ernesto Beckford

December 25, 2023

© Ernesto Beckford 2023


Links to the Collages Used in this Blog (Click on the Picture):


Red Hood

Ripples


Drowning

Discovery

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