Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Buenos Aires Subterranean

You will see all slivers of life from down here. Here, when you descend twenty steps, thirty steps, an escalator wide enough for one, the sun disappears, the wind does. You are enveloped in artificial light. In tiled walls: royal blue and sun yellow, and always these dirty floors. Last night it was the blind man who came on, eyes squeezed shut, baby strapped to his chest. He was young, younger than I am, and he sat on the portable speaker he carried and sang into the microphone. His girlfriend took the mike, she asked for coins. He’s blind, she said, and then he took the mike back and went on singing. She was so pretty, her hair so long and fine, her eyes so wide while she went around with the plastic cup in hand. While he bounced the baby on his knee and crooned.
            There is the man who squeezed into the car last week, just before the bell rang and the doors shut. A drum, he had, just one big drum, a tribal one stretched over with skin where his hands slapped and pounded, scratched. Meanwhile, he whistled, he clicked his toungue; meanwhile, he hummed, so that it was as if a dozen people were making music and not just one. Meanwhile, we stared—the woman across from me with the wide-eyed baby on her lap, the man who sat with tapping toes and folded hands, the group of teenagers who were, for a few moments, silenced. When he leaned his drum against the train’s doors and went around with a felt hat turned upside down, everyone dug in their pockets for coins.
            There are the boys with high, sweet voices, who sing, unashamed, without accompaniment. There are the Europeans who come on with guitars and clarinets, flutes, an accordian once. There are the old men who play tango from ancient stereo systems, singing along, and there was the little girl, that spring afternoon, who sang in such a clear and unfiltered voice that she brought tears. These are the people who bring the music onboard, hauling their instruments and coin-cups on and then heaving them off again, filling their pockets with two-peso notes and fifty-cent pieces, other people’s bus fares, other people’s useless change.
            There isn’t just money to be made in music, though, and there will always be something to sell. These men, the ones with dark skin and clean clothes and swift hands, swift feet, drop pens into our laps, or packets of bobby pins, or plastic cases that hold needles and scissors and thread. They lay pairs of socks down, or paperback guides for all the city’s buses, or leather passport holders. Once bicycle pumps. Some try: You'll never find a price like this, they'll shout, and hold the pen-highlighter combo high. But most don't speak, just take the things from boxes and lay them down. It isn't an easy job; you've got to hustle, because the stations come up fast. We pick the objects up and turn them over in our hands, but mostly we give them back when he comes around again. Of course, there are the guys who offer us something we need, something we’ve been meaning to buy, and on those rides we pull out our wallets and pay.
            Then there are the ones without the music or the black-market pens. They haven’t got instruments, they’ve barely got voices: they’ve got wilted hair and sallow skin from all those hours underground. There is the homeless person with the long, matted dreads, whose gender you cannot decipher. This person has bare feet that move silently up and down the cars, and loose, dirty clothes that fall from thin shoulders and slap against the jutting bone of hip. This one moves past the seated rows of us, dropping a scrap of old newspaper into each of our laps. This person mumbles, head down, placing the papers down with care so no one will be missed. When they come back for the scraps, we hand them over as if they are pens, or socks, or leather passport holders. Poor little one, the woman beside me says, and then the doors open; this is the end of the line.
            You could ride the Subte all your life and never see it all. There are the ones who know these lines better than the trains themselves, and there are the ones who look beneath their mattresses one morning and find that they have nothing left. They’ll sling their guitars over their shoulders, or else they’ll only bring their voices or their clean and open hands. They’ll squeeze onto the train with all the rest of us, and somehow they’ll make their voices heard. It’s sad, a friend tells me, but I shake my head. It’s life, I say, and here there is no shame in living yours. Ten pesos gets you lunch, gets you wine; twenty gets you a bed for a night. In summer, the windows to the trains are open wide so that the black air rushes in. The cars in the heat of the day are filled with music.

The same blind woman sits at the base of the same flight of stairs all the time. As commuters and tourists rush from 9 de Julio to Diagonal Norte, she calls out the same refrain with a plastic plate in her hand. I am blind, she tells us, eyes shut tight like the man with the baby and the microphone. Please, a coin, for I am blind. She listens for the sound of metal clinking on the plate; she listens to the footsteps that hurry past. She sits without seeing, her voice mechanical by now for all of the times she’s sang this tune. Please, a coin, for I am blind. Thank you, a coin. Her voice never wavers, her eyes never open. Her hand holds the plastic plate out, and you never see her pocket the coins. Please, she says, as the crowds crush past. I am blind.

No comments:

Post a Comment