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for the week of June 20, 2011

Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived. The idea occurred to me in Brazil, where I was visiting a city in the south for two days. I couldn’t really understand why I’d agreed to go there, not knowing anyone and having almost no idea about the place. It was afternoon, it was hot, and I’d been walking around looking for a park about which I had almost no information, except for its somewhat musical name, which by my criterion made it promising, and the fact it was the biggest green space on the map of the city. I thought it impossible for a park that large not to be good. For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, where the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

The day before I had attended a literary conference, and when it was over I walked through the plaza where the local book fair had been set up, in one of the city’s historic districts, I assumed, though many relics or older landmarks now seemed definitively missing. People were walking slowly, crowding the thoroughfare because of their numbers. I must have been the only solitary walker that day, which luckily no one found strange, because families, groups of friends, or couples went on with their business as I strolled about. Earlier, as I was waiting in an empty room for the conference to begin, I’d read in the newspaper that every year, when the book fair takes place, the regular artisans move their stalls and tables to the adjacent streets. I don’t know why that information seemed important to me, and even more, why it stayed etched in my mind. (The following day, a few blocks away from the plaza, I discovered the artisans’ temporary location, where they’d organized themselves by craft, as if protecting themselves from some danger.) Later, at the end of the panel, I didn’t ask any questions; I was, in fact, the first to leave the room, in search of a quick exit to the street. I rode down a glass elevator that looked onto a spacious interior garden, and when I finally left the convention hall, which seemed to have been an old government palace, I had no choice but to join the steady stream of people, like a fugitive trying to blend in.

The layout of that plaza was, as I said, in the old style: a rectangular block with two diagonal and two perpendicular lines that meet at the center, where there’s a statue. Despite such a simple design, all the same the moment soon arrived when I felt lost, probably because of the multitudes, to which you’d have to add the dense foliage and the nighttime shadows. I found myself stationed from time to time in front of the same booths; in reality there were only a few offering any titles that aroused my curiosity, which was weak in any case, and only after peering at the tables between the shoulders of an army of onlookers did I realize that I’d already been there, and had of course stopped in front of the same books. But though I sensed a few areas remained to be covered, I wasn’t sure which ones I’d already visited. And so I joined the throngs once more and let myself be carried by the flow. I remember that as I walked, the repetition of the strands of incandescent lights made me feel drowsy, just as in some movies. At the rear of the plaza, keeping in mind the orientation of the central statue, and on a short passageway that led to several public buildings, the food stands for the book fair had been set up, and these were also mobbed. Depending on the breeze, the odors from the burners, generally of fried foods or rancid oil, wafted over; at times when I raised my eyes I could see columns of smoke billowing through the strands of lights and the fringed edges of the awnings. Anyhow. I should say that it was this sensation of being hemmed in by the incessant swarm of people that led me to think of the existence of a park I’d like to visit. It would be just compensation, I thought.

One consults the map of the first city that comes to mind and everything seems accessible: one needs only to obey the street plan. But on the afternoon I’ve been talking about, reality, as is almost always the case, turned out to be different. The retaining walls of the elevated streets, the access roads and overpasses, the ramps for pedestrians or those exclusively for cars—all of them prevented me, at each moment and in different ways, from leaving behind the point I’d chosen downtown for the sole purpose of continuing onward to the park. On the other hand, if I tried to take the long way around, I’d risk getting lost or, even worse, would spend the rest of the day meandering through indistinguishable and unavoidably sad streets; for if the map had proved useless in showing me the shortest way, it was absurd to follow it in taking a longer one.

On one side I had the grounds of a gigantic hospital, like those of years ago, with enormous pavilions and endless gardens. An overpass rose before me, with ramps and streets that didn’t seem to go anywhere in particular. And on the other side, an express lane cut the grid of the streets in two. I was, nevertheless, alone in my indecisiveness in this part of the world, because the rest of the people were coming and going, sure of their direction and moving with remarkable ease. I noticed that the more I looked at the map, the less I understood it; what’s more, because my eyesight is poor and my glasses aren’t strong enough, I must have looked pathetic, since I had to put the map practically against my face in order to see it above my eyeglasses. Every now and then I raised my eyes to the street, hoping to find some point or street sign that would orient me, but I immediately understood that the effort was in vain and I looked down again, spending more valuable time trying to find myself once more on the map. I was like this for a good while. I realized that my sense of direction, which had always been a secret source of pride, and was, in fact, almost the only thing I could brag about, had suddenly abandoned me as well.

And curiously, due perhaps to the never-ending flow of people at my side, no one stopped to offer me any help or to ask if things were all right. I felt invisible, as if I had hidden my face and didn’t want to talk to anyone. Then someone went, “Psst,” toward where I was standing. It was a street vendor who had to pick up a heavy load and put it in a two-wheeled cart, the kind you push. I thought he was calling me and I looked at him, half-curious and half-hopeful: he probably took pity on me and was waving me over because he didn’t want to leave his merchandise unattended. But it turned out he was calling another person, a young man passing behind me, whose help he wanted to lift the load. So you have to ask for help, I thought . . . I began to imagine the aerial view of that part of the city, probably similar to what was depicted on the map, my silhouette motionless while people and cars continually passed beside me. I don’t know why, but that physical image of my solitude or helplessness made me lose patience. Moved by an unjustifiable impulse, I began to rotate the map in order to see it from another angle, and even turned it like a set of handlebars; maybe that would clear things up, I thought. The aerial observer was circling, I supposed, and that’s why the map revolved as it did.

On my walk at the book fair the night before, I only began to feel alarmed when I found myself, for the ninth or tenth time, in front of the booth for the local historical society. But what worried me wasn’t that on each new turn I felt the same innocence as I had initially, that is, an anxiety to discover an important book, one that perhaps I’d been dreaming of for years without realizing it, that would allow me entrée to a rather difficult and half-guarded store of knowledge; no, what alarmed me instead was that the repetition I had yielded to no longer exasperated me. Even when I looked upward at the sky, seeking to find something simple and clear to dispel my confusion, I discovered, for the most part, columns of smoke that were rising quickly from the grills, and hardly anything else, nothing that could be found consoling or inspirational. Another booth that had by now become rather familiar to me belonged to the publishers’ association, as had one for a bookstore that offered an assortment of popular titles. I wanted to forget the reason I came to the city, and was even tempted by the idea of forgetting my own name and trying to be someone else, someone new.

That touched off a long train of thought that’s not worth summarizing. I’ll only say that being someone else meant not so much a new beginning or a new personality, but rather a new world, I mean, that reality and everyone in it would lose or cast aside their memory and admit me as a previously unknown member, a recent arrival, or as someone with no ostensible ties to the past. Later on, as I was saying, when the crowds began to tire me, I decided to get a map of the city as soon I could, to see if it would confirm the existence of that great park, one that was fairly large and that would measure up to my expectations.

By that point I’d almost given up when a fairly obvious idea occurred to me, which under those circumstances seemed providential: it would be best to find my way through the streets by attending to the relative position of places, rather than plotting an exact path or following a sequence of street names. The streets drawn on the map showed routes that were not only impossible, but also unverifiable; on the other hand, the spatial organization of the area could hardly be wrong; it was, at most, approximate, which was, in any case, advantageous, and would save me from needlessly lengthening my journey. By then I was dragging my feet due to fatigue and the sensation of having paced up and down the streets of the city far too long, ever since I’d left the hotel in the early morning, when it was still cool. More than once, after walking along the same block two or three times—unintentionally of course, I’d done so because of chance and disorientation, or frankly, lack of interest—I’d been led again to the same block: and more than once I thought I’d seen looks of surprise, or maybe simply curiosity, at this outsider who was acting strangely and kept reappearing.

For me, wandering has become one of those addictions that can mean either ruin or salvation. I acquired the habit in childhood, when in the aftermath of an illness I stopped walking. I would sit in the doorway to watch the people and the cars pass by. At that time, using my legs had become a remote and elegant anatomical ability for which I was unprepared, who knows the obscure reasons why, a gift that enabled one to to cover distances. A year later, a new medical report authorized me to stand on my feet again, and to me it seemed that thanks to the word, I’d recovered a physical skill, as if a god had delegated part of his freedom to me. At that early age I could only go to the corner or around the block; but from then on, as successful people say, nothing could stop me. Even before I could understand it with any certainty, in all likelihood I sensed that the main argument in favor of walking was its pace; it was optimal for observation and thought, and furthermore, it was the corporeal experience with the best syntax to accompany one in life. But I’m afraid I can’t be sure.

It’s true that many things related to walking have changed, some of which I’ll refer to in a moment, but the same habit, which I’ve kept even in times of misfortunes or of ups and downs in general, supports the idea I have of myself as the eternal walker; it’s also what’s definitively saved me, in truth I don’t quite know from what, maybe from the danger of not being myself, something that tempts me more and more, as I said just now, because to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity. The actual habit itself thus helps to sustain that version, because as soon as I arrive in a city, the first decision I make is to go out; I want to become familiar with the surroundings, to permeate it by means of the simplest, handiest, and most convenient act, which is to walk.

As soon as I returned to the hotel, I asked for a map of the city at the reception desk. Given the late hour, and maybe because the staff had gotten in the habit of seeing me come and go all the time, greeting them at every turn and asking questions or making banal remarks, this request took them by surprise. And so I waited a good while, leaning my elbow on the counter. I can’t say I could remember having ever had a similar experience, because in truth I couldn’t remember anything in particular. But I had the clear conviction that I’d been in that kind of situation before. Standing expectantly at hotel counters, the odd world, half-clandestine and half-disjointed, that one steps into when waiting for something at the reception desk. Suddenly a map was placed before me, the sort that folds eight or twelve ways and carries ads for important businesses. My first reaction was to look on the map for the green blotch. It didn’t take me long: I saw it whole, almost round, like a barely contained ink spill. I felt relieved to know I’d immerse myself in it the following day. After that I wanted to locate the hotel, something that took more time and that I finally managed to do, thanks to the help of a receptionist. Then I set about planning my walk, which in fact didn’t require much preparation; it was only a question of preparing myself mentally.

Though I’ve enjoyed long walks throughout my life, and continue to do so, to the point of feeling they’re an essential part of my true life, a habit without which I couldn’t recognize myself, for some time now walking has been losing its meaning, or at least its mystery, and sometimes all that’s left is my old enthusiasm, which usually dissipates within the half-hour like a cloud of smoke. I’ve often thought that the cities themselves are to blame. The visual and economic uniformity, the large chain stores, the transnational fashions and styles that relegate the unique to a secondary level, to a hazy background of faded colors. Finding distinctive features in the streets takes some doing; and even when I do find distinctive features and recognize them, it’s as if the local idiom had fallen silent and the signs of a practical and omnipresent language had been imposed, a well-known language, one that’s indistinct, even unnecessary, and lacking manners of its own.

But it’s also possible that I myself am to blame; for various reasons, when a certain moment arrives, I can only see what’s repeated. I’ve even begun to notice, to my own mortification, that the breath of adventure—or in any case, intrigue, which has always accompanied me on my endless excursions through the streets of every new or familiar city or locale I visit—gives way more and more often to tedium, short-lived interest, or straightaway to confusion. I walk blocks and blocks, I begin avidly and enthusiastically, I observe everything, not letting the smallest details escape me, let’s say, but little by little I’m invaded by a sense of lethargy and of surfeit in advance.

It’s a feeling of uselessness and imminent boredom. The day seems endless; I think of the hours that stretch ahead as I walk and walk, blocks and blocks, one after the other, congested traffic, noisy corners, crowds, etc., or the opposite: abandonment, solitude, order, or neglect. And I assume the surprises won’t be important, genuine surprises, but will rather be of little importance; on the other hand, I know I was never hunting for surprises, the word “surprise” has always produced rejection, if not downright fear, in me; I understand that my traveler’s sensibility, in the private language of thought, admits certain impressions that border on surprise, a state of satisfaction before an object or before a new or unnoticed event, whatever it is, a connection between the past and what’s new—and at times a bit exotic—found at that moment in the unfamiliar conglomeration of the blocks in question, etc. The truth is, I’ve stopped searching for surprises because I believe it’s become too difficult for me to find them. And so from my old yearnings I retain a basic mechanism, a kind of physical and at the same time social tic, which is the long walk.

Once I left the reception area I went to an Internet lounge, also located on the main floor, to see if I could check my email. Because it was late, I managed to find a computer that was available. The day before I’d learned that you should go to the Internet lounge during those hours, I mean, late at night, because if you went in the early evening, you’d find people, and likewise, if you went later on, when it was early morning, you’d find insomniacs. I opened my email and was intrigued by an anonymous message, or rather a message from someone who most likely wanted to hide his identity—unsuccessfully, if that was the case. The message had one or two lines, I believe only one, and with an ironic tone, it suggested that I open a link whose content I’d find very interesting or beneficial—I don’t remember what it said all that well. I had no reason to doubt it, and so, curious, I followed the instructions. The link opened to a review that had appeared in a newspaper a few days before, about a novel I’d published some months earlier.

The review was rather negative; it said the book was a failure whichever way you looked at it. I pondered the arguments and judged them weak. Then I responded to the sender in two lines, wrote other emails I had to send, read the news from Argentina for an unnecessarily long time, and went up to my room. In all likelihood the anonymous messenger had sought to mortify me, thinking I’d collapse or would give up literature because I’d published failed novels, or novels that aren’t novels, I don’t remember my exact thoughts. It was strange, because even though I should have been sad that someone wanted to humiliate me and had easily found the tools he believed would be useful for achieving his goal, I was above all comforted by the fact that I’d come across a person evidently worse than me, because that idea would never have occurred to someone better.

For various and complicated reasons, at that time I was fairly dissatisfied with my writing; that hasn’t changed, and I can say I’ve become even more dissatisfied since. While riding the elevator I thought about what had just happened, and a moment later, as I opened the door to my room, using my shoulder because the door seemed stuck, I realized that the anonymous messenger was the product of my own fiction. That my novels, good or bad, had created resentful beings who were condemned to an equivocal servitude. Even I could be one of them. I turned on the television and dimmed the screen so that I could pretend it was a radio. Then I put a book in my small backpack, a notebook for writing, my ID, money, a camera—one of those compact models—made sure I had a pen, and so assembled all I’d need for the walk the following day. I still had the map in my hand, which I unfolded on the bed to study carefully.

The television must have been tuned to a local station, that’s why it was broadcasting a program about the benefits of soy, its great return on investment, and the care required for its cultivation. Then there was a mini-program about vegetables and their transport. Meanwhile I devoured the map, trying to memorize something that was almost entirely unfamiliar and devoid of meaning for me, for none of the names of the avenues or the arrangements of the streets recalled any hierarchy or visual landscape. Thanks to the map’s legend, though, I was able to identify the key locations, numbered 1 to 15. But even these critical points were somewhat unforthcoming, because I obviously had no idea what they stood for.

I thought the only thing holding the map on the bed before me was the great green blotch, as I called it. The sovereign park that soaked up the city’s presence and radiated energy all along the streets that came to an end there. I studied the map for quite some time, wanting to glean some valuable idea, a kind of preview of the trip, and while deep in concentration I saw a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park, a number no larger than any of the others, the convention surely a great injustice to the city’s main sustenance and ultimate justification, and yet the number had a paradoxical effect on me, the reverse of what was intended, for it strengthened my resolve to visit the park the next day, after a foreseeable, or rather, obligatory tour through the center of town and its surroundings, which I had also planned.

In this way, then, my days are dramatizations of a tramp at leisure, of a charmed life spent out in the streets, like the dandy dropping in on a strange world, where he nevertheless fails to find the hoped-for escape. This is perhaps connected to the passage of time, to whose effects we all succumb—though in different ways of course. Every task is cumulative; and if a certain weariness sets in after years of walking up and down the streets, it’s logical to think it’s caused more by time than by habit. Hour after hour, like a robot, morning and afternoon, like a misfit. I was stupefied by sunsets, at the mercy of a kind of hypnosis by which anything at all made me curious and simultaneously apathetic. A desire to know would animate me just as I sank into aimless drift. Any detail would distract me, though generally for a mere few seconds: the lights of shops, the models of cars, the makes of buses. All but people, because my robot-like walker’s inertia kept me from focusing on anyone.

When I come to think about it, my evolution as a contemporary walker—my ideal state being somewhere between curious and skeptical—got sidetracked into my present state as a disappointed and at times infuriated walker, by a process that has dragged on for years. This all started when I began, at the time unawares, searching through urban landscapes for traces of the past. It was a great and irresistible weakness to which I finally succumbed. Conceivably, European cities, and my many walks through them over the years, may have had an influence. These cities, as we know, are famous for venerating their history, or their heritage, and they raise the curtain on a fortunate, bountiful present as an extension of a socalled living past—a past thus revealed as benign. I allowed myself to be carried away by clichés of living ruins and well-preserved artifacts, and the experience must have left me with the kind of sensibility that is conditioned, I suppose, to search wherever I’m walking for traces of forgotten days, even when finding them is rarely worth the effort. Because elsewhere, outside European cities, the traces are of a distinctly different order: they aren’t visible as such, or are of a different class, or else there is, quite simply, no apogee to celebrate. Whatever the case, I was defamiliarized, that was the elusive lesson of European cities, which may explain why I go looking for things that can’t be found, are basically invisible, or don’t exist; and that don’t satisfy me when I do find them, since I can’t take them seriously. And so my walks have turned into tortuous rituals, driven onward by the indifference that comes from years and years of behaving the same way.

That’s why almost everything is leading me to abandon my walks: what I search for, impossible to find, as much as what I discover, practically nothing. And yet an urgent, contradictory force is driving me forward; I cannot renounce walking or stepping out into the street. When I arrive at a given place, my curiosity is triggered at once: it may sound naïve and somewhat vitalistic, but I long to steep myself in the life and customs of the natives, to immerse myself in local habits and idiosyncrasies. A reading to discover, a story to live. But in my mimetic passion there quickly comes the point, which, moreover, arrives sooner and sooner, after I’ve walked no more than a few blocks: it’s the aforementioned weariness, distraction, something I might call “walker’s malaise”—a mixture of rage and emptiness, of thirst and rejection. From then on I act like a zombie: I see people as if I weren’t seeing them; the same applies to the façades of buildings and the far reaches of streets or avenues. I’m capable of appreciating certain details and recognizing worthy specimens from decades or centuries ago, ambiguous on the whole and fairly deteriorated now, even if well cared for, along with cityscapes and social mores and tics that awaken my curiosity and are unique, etc. But as if I’d ended up consumed by the blind traction of my automaton’s stride, intent solely on devouring the pavement until dusk, I instantly forget what I’ve just seen and taken note of or, rather, I toss it all into a jumbled corner of my memory, where everything piles up at random, with no hierarchy or organization.

So though I’m capable of remembering intersections, scenes, episodes, and generalized small bits of reality, I cannot put them in a sequence, let alone provide any reasonable context, any point of reference. What I saw two blocks earlier is on the same level as anything I saw yesterday, for instance, or a few months ago. Nonetheless I keep walking, propelled, or rather drawn onward, by my sense of ambiguity, by the malaise I spoke of earlier. Perhaps experience, strictly speaking, may be nothing but this; I mean, so much walking has diminished my capacity to feel admiration or surprise: the first block of any city triggers memories and comparisons that undermine the illusion or the confidence one normally places in the totality observed. Things cease to be one of a kind and are revealed to be links in a chain.

An interview program was just starting on the television during which recognized figures from the countryside would talk about their beginnings, about their families, or about the customs of yesteryear, as they put it in the lead-in. It was high time to get ready for bed, I thought. I headed to the bathroom and was yet again impressed by its impeccable lighting, like an operating room without shadows. As I came out, a man was speaking whose intonations suggested he was getting on in years. He said that even though he had lived his entire life in the country, he’d never gotten over his fear of the dark, and ever since his childhood had thought of a day’s labor—not only his own, but everyone’s—as an attempt to avoid or postpone the coming of the night. He was known, the woman interviewing him said in a fawning tone, for his conversational gifts. I couldn’t tell, however, whether this was more an invitation for him to keep talking than a compliment. The fearful gentleman was silent while he thought of an answer; at first that’s what I supposed, but when several minutes had passed and he still hadn’t spoken, I assumed the program had ended abruptly. In the meantime I went in and out of the bathroom again, folded the map, put it in the backpack, got into bed and turned out the light. My last physical act, that I can remember at least, was turning off the television with the remote control, in case the sound came back on.

As I listened to the deep droning silence of the nighttime street, I naturally started thinking about the following day’s walk. On one hand, I was excited about getting to know the unknown; but also, as I intimated earlier, I felt I had the right to feel disappointed in advance. I thought of the man on the TV program and his fear, which he had been unable to overcome despite having spent his life in the country, where, as we know, one lives with the deepest, and most threatening darkness, so that he’d been subject time and again to these crises, and must necessarily have had infinite opportunities to conquer his fear. The last thoughts I remember having were about the route I’d be taking in the morning. I had high hopes for a perfect day, perhaps because of that I preferred not to visualize the city in advance; nonetheless something pulled me in the opposite direction too, a growing disappointment, unmistakable and hard to counteract, the result of my single, insistent certainty; namely, that my morale as a walker had been in a bad way for some time.

The reasoning that follows may seem a bit abstract, so I’ll expound on it in a few words. When I walk, my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me, one governed by overlapping windows. I say this not with pride but with annoyance: nothing worse could happen to me, because it affects my intuitive side and feels like a prison sentence. The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links, and this isn’t only true for the objects themselves, which are generally urban, part of the life of the street or of the city as a whole, shaped precisely and distinguished from their surroundings, but also the associations they call to mind, the recollection of what is observed, which may be related, kindred, or quite distinct, depending on whichever way these links are formed. On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several, and these in turn summon other memories or connected thoughts, often by chance, etc., all creating a delirious branching effect that overwhelms me and leaves me exhausted. I’m
a victim, that is, of the early days of the Internet, when wandering, or surfing, the Web was governed less by destiny or by the efficiency of search engines than it is today, and one drifted among things that were similar, irrelevant, or only loosely related. Until one reached the point of exhaustion over the needlessly prolonged Internet journey, with an ensuing loss of motivation to delve (or in my case, walk) any further, and then the moment of distortion would arrive, or of parallel nature, I don’t know which, when I would notice that every object had essentially turned into a link, and its own materiality had moved into the background, whose depth was virtual, peripheral and free-floating.

The Internet isn’t to blame, that’s obvious, but I carry the scars of having passed through that stage of absurd, free-floating links, when surfing the Web was an exercise in fickle relationships. At first it was an apt metaphor for my behavior during these urban strolls, as I sometimes call them, as well as for the associations that come to mind as I stroll, but then the typical slippage or contamination took place, and the metaphor ceased being descriptive enough to capture its correlative and itself became a symptom. It’s impossible for me to know how different my old-time, pre-Internet perceptions were; they probably were, in diverse ways. Before the Internet, my sense of a city was organized differently: my first impressions were stamped with their origins and the specific times, as it were, of their formation; they were bounded by the passage of time and by new experiences. And, in the resulting sedimentation, each memory retained its relative autonomy. But after the Internet, it happened that the same system formatted my sensibility, which ever since has tended to link events in sequences of familiarity, though these sequences may be forced and often ridiculous. Those sequences of familiarity lead to groupings that are more or less volatile, it’s true, that nonetheless tend to leave what’s unique to each impression on a secondary plane, diluting in part the thickness of the experience.

So that afternoon, when I was just about to give up on getting to the park, the idea of paying attention to the relative location of places, rather than to their literal position on the map, was an especially inspired one, though I can’t say if it was due to my reviled free-floating Internet sensibility or to a sudden distracted impulse. I looked the map over one last time and folded it—but didn’t put it away, in case I’d be needing it soon—said a mental goodbye to the mechanical uproar that was the street corner, and set out for the park. To get there I proceeded fairly straight on a pavement that was at first hidden, disappearing from time to time under highways or elevated structures. To one side was a medical school, aged buildings of a few, but high-ceilinged stories, clearly paired with the hospital pavilion I mentioned earlier. Further on, the path turned into a broad paved platform where crowds that grew increasingly larger gathered to wait for buses. There were several clusters of passengers, each group evidently waiting for a different bus. In one of the clearings between bus stops I saw the street vendor again, the one with the two-wheeled cart, now asking for help in unloading the merchandise I’d seen him pack up earlier. The man sold women’s clothing along with spare electrical parts and batteries. I supposed the weight was in the spare parts and batteries. That’s how I began to think about street vendors . . .

That morning, my first thought had been about the man from the countryside. I’m not sure on which river of sleep I’d beheld him during the night, but I remember that just as I was about to wake up and start the day, in a half-awaking that seems like a half-sleep, both states habitual to me, I thought of the man who was afraid of
the dark. I couldn’t tell if it was daylight yet, but I imagined that if it were still night, and if I were that man, I would be afraid. Then it occurred to me that the word might have been misused in the program. “Afraid” often needs qualification because it can be interpreted in various ways. Maybe he was referring to a kind of uneasy anticipation, as when one says “I’m afraid it will rain,” though the word can also refer to something more primal and uncontrollable.

When I opened the curtains I saw the beginning of a splendid spring day. Just below the window and across the street was a building under construction, and above it, since the land rose in that direction, one could see, through a row of leafy, evenly-spaced trees, the dome and the neoclassical spires of what seemed to be the cathedral. I turned on the television to listen as I got dressed. A voice that sounded different to me recited the price of seeds and said grains would be coming up next. I remembered how at the book fair the previous evening, each time I passed the booth for the local historical society I saw titles dealing with agrarian subjects, which of course reminded me of Argentinean culture in its rural, pampean, primary-school dimension, I’m not sure what to call it. I wanted to have a quick coffee and head out to the street, so I finished putting my things in order and went into the bathroom.

Once I was in the downtown of another city and saw a street vendor being robbed. I suppose he had just begun to set up or was about to leave; in any event, he was leaning over some cardboard boxes with his back to the merchandise. A passerby noticed he wasn’t paying attention, moved closer to the table, and carried off a bag of scarves or pashminas, whatever they’re called. That caused me to reflect that street vendors are at their most vulnerable, or simply at their weakest, when they’re setting up their goods or stowing them away. The street was busy, with people on all sides; and yet I was the only one who noticed what had happened. Even the victim himself, when he turned around, kept arranging his things as if nothing was wrong. A moment later he sensed that something strange was going on because his display had changed, things were missing, though he probably wasn’t sure, either. This tempted me to tell him he’d just been robbed, but I held off because I couldn’t explain why I’d taken so long to say something to him. So I looked behind me, as I always do, and above the mass of pedestrians I saw, a block away, the person who had taken the bag, a rather tall man who every so often glanced sideways as he went down the street, in case there might be any danger in pursuit.

As I’ve seen on other occasions, some vendors never stop unpacking and setting up their stand for the entire workday. They’re the ones harassed by the police. They lay their merchandise on the ground or on a flimsy tarp, or hold a lightweight board in their hands, and are more on the lookout for a warning signal than for the approach of the unlikely customer. The police, in their zeal, can be quite meticulous. Several days before the one I’ve been recounting here, as I stood on a downtown corner in another Brazilian city, I watched three or four policemen chase off a vendor, who, in his haste, left behind a wooden horse he’d clearly been using to support the board that held his merchandise. It was a solid horse, which resisted the kicks one policeman was giving it with all his might. Another policeman intervened and propped it diagonally against a tree trunk, so as to split the wood more easily. A strategy of no use either. Finally, as I was walking away, I saw two policemen jumping up and down on the horse, trying to break it up while the other officers looked on, engrossed by the operation and no doubt intrigued by the object’s resistance. I could go on with my reminiscences on street vendors . . .

For instance, while living for a time in a provincial city I encountered, on a daily basis, a woman who sold embroidered tablecloths and napkins. She didn’t use a table, chair, or any other support, but stood on her perennial corner for hours, from midday until dusk, holding her goods in her arms and draped over her shoulders. She stepped forward timidly when she thought that a passerby, usually another woman, might be interested in her merchandise. Otherwise, she preferred to stand still, from time to time moving in circles to stretch her legs, I suppose. Seeing her walking like that I was reminded of those picketers in the United States, usually few in number, who circle round and round in the same spot, as if their protest were a kind of punishment.

Now and then, this woman was joined by another woman, who sold flowers from a bouquet, one at a time perhaps, since no other bouquet was visible. She stood against the wall, as if sinking into it, and looked as if she were waiting for someone who wouldn’t show up. The two of them made me wonder if some intermediate category existed to describe them, something between a street vendor and itinerant peddler. I remember that as I passed them I tended to think of tango songs, the stories and scenes described in their soap-operaish lyrics, perhaps a line at most, or I would think of movies recounting the lives of long-suffering people, set in another century or another era. People punished by poverty, victims of society and their neighbors, with no means of self-defense and survival other than their dignity. Pathetic, humiliating, and tragic stories. These belonged to a long era that I had, I suspected, for the most part missed, though it was familiar to me, depending on how one defines “familiar”; anyhow, it was a cultural era that I’d experienced, though only at its tail end—which might explain the flurry of songs and movies with such motifs—and in such a way that it had no deep or direct influence on me. And why hadn’t it touched me more? Because I’d been privileged, I thought, that’s why. The waves of evil and the world’s tragedies, multiplied by the number of people who had suffered them and suffered them still, had ebbed, along with their sentimental effects, before they reached me. It was as if at that moment an inner voice had declared: “This guy”—me—“is spared.” The misfortunes of the world didn’t touch me . . .

If I compared myself with those two women, I would be relieved and somehow consoled, and my sense of well-being confirmed, though in truth my well-being was quite modest, and not all that far-removed from the state of both women. And even though I’d experienced my own share of ups and downs, and suffered mishaps, failures and humiliations, this didn’t change the nature of my situation. Whenever I contemplated lives like those two women’s, I was mesmerized by I don’t know what kinds of memories and fears, and I would compare myself with the most wretched, the most unfortunate, the dregs of urban humanity. From one angle, these comparisons were an obvious comfort; from another, they were hugely disturbing. At my age, to worry about stupidities conceived at the margins of history and of each life’s coordinates, mine in this case, exposed the same obscene abundance to which I was accustomed and that I’d naturalized to the point of considering it obvious and guaranteed. Nonetheless, it also showed the quicksand on which everything rested.

No other street vendor made a greater impression on me than those two women, about whom I knew nothing, neither their situation nor their nationality, let alone their names, or whether they had families, husbands, or children, though I assumed they did, and that they, too, were going through hard times. I could imagine
these women getting dinner for their families with the little they brought home, the ensuing meals that were shared in a silence fraught with repressed anger and massed reproaches. Or the opposite: the carefree, optimistic joy of scarcity, the good fortune of living in the moment. It’s very likely that on the days before or after I saw the women, and more than once during my stay in that city, since I was there for a long time, I crossed paths with people who were still worse off, true outcasts and exiles from human society, with no family and most likely, no identity, who faced tremendous physical challenges, etc.; nevertheless, not even the most wretched individual elicited a fraction of the anguished compassion that the floating presence of these two ladies inspired in me as they tried to hide the fact that they were selling fairly superfluous merchandise.

No need for anyone to think much about why. The women affected me deeply because unlike other street people or enterprising sidewalk vendors, they were, in their shyness and solicitude, and even in their modesty, an image of myself; that is, I would have behaved the same way if I had shared their fate. I thought: They’re not good at this, and I wouldn’t be either; they’re there because they have no choice, circumstances forced them into it, as they might have forced me as well; they feel ashamed, probably unjustifiably so, but uncontrollably—just as I would have.

A sample from Sergio Chejfec's
My Two Worlds

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