The Southwest and the YMCA , by Ricardo Nirenberg.
Polo got his first two-wheeler when he was seven, brought to his bedside in the dead of night by the Three Magic Kings. Nothing special, just one speed, with calliper brakes. A handlebar bell of course, a hand pump, and, best of all, a dynamo driven by the front wheel which powered a headlight. By the time he turned twelve the bike was too small for Polo, but it was all he had and there was no money—kein a stuckn’ geld, his mother would say when he inquired. And so he rode the old bike to more and more distant places, knees awkwardly sticking out. He must have cut a ridiculous figure, for he noticed people staring at him, smiling or laughing outright.
The idea of going North, or East, of visiting the nice neighborhoods, never crossed his mind. He is not interested in the whole city but only in the Southwest, the poorest and most miserable quarter. Truths are to be found there, although Polo has no idea about what sort of truths. Any place name or street name having to do with the Southwest seems fascinating to him, powerful and toxic. At first, his ideas about the Southwest were inadequate and vague. He knew, for example, that there was a southwestern district called Nueva Chicago, because bus number 155 carried that sign, but he had no idea that the name was a euphemism for Mataderos, the slaughter houses where thousands of cattle meet their death daily, skinned while still alive. Of the vast fields where the refuse of the city is burned, he had never heard, because there is no bus or street car going there and those garbage fields are not acknowledged in the maps.
Before each ride, Polo prepares a sandwich: on a baguette split length wise he spreads tomato, olive oil, oregano and garlic. No compass, no map: just a bottle of water and the sandwich. A few blocks from home Polo makes a detour, he turns left into Pillado, an almost-nothing sort of street only a few blocks long, where he tries to remember which of the low, modest houses belongs to Uncle Gershom, Aunt Miriam and cousin Sofía, called Pochola. Uncle Gershom used to work for Polo’s father at the lingerie shop on Calle Carlos Calvo—blusas, mañanitas, enaguas, deshabillés. Polo has vague memories of playing with Pochola among the crates and boxes overflowing with satin, vague memories of sharing secrets with her. He remembers clearly only this: one morning Uncle Gershom told Polo in a confidential and distinctly proud tone of voice what his job description was at the shop. “Soy jefe de expedición,” he said—meaning he was in charge of shipping and receiving. Uncle Gershom and Aunt Miriam had not talked with Polo’s parents ever since Papa’s businesses took a sharp downturn, and so much time has passed that Polo isn’t even sure that they still lived on Pillado Street. But that word, “expedición”, which his mind associates to expeditions to the Amazons, Antarctica or the Himalayas, has left a powerful impression, and now Polo cannot imagine Uncle Gershom without a cork helmet on his head. That’s why Polo got into the habit of taking a detour into Calle Pillado before setting out on his own expeditions. He feels that first of all he has to pay his respects to the Uncle, the Chief of Expeditions.
In the map Polo had found that Calle Lafuente is the only street going, without cuts or interruptions, all the way down to the Riachuelo, the stream at the southern border of the city. Lafuente turns out to be mostly paved with rough cobblestones and covered with asphalt only on a few stretches: a pain in the tokhes when one travels by bike. Once the houses are left behind and the naked pampas begin on all sides, an amazing landscape opens up: those are the fields where the garbage of the big city is burned. The place is called La Quema. Polo returns there many times, fascinated by the huge piles of garbage, like mountains—or rather like volcanoes, with plumes of smoke rising everywhere. Old Neapolitans speak of a poetic profusion of yellow ginestra growing from Vesuvius’ old lava; here, though, in the blackened garbage, there are no flowers, just flies. Polo is amazed that people live in holes in those mounds, a mysterious tribe called cirujas. Since the cirujas have a reputation for wielding fast and murderous knives, he thinks the name could be a humorous reference to the surgeon, cirujano, and his scalpel.
As Polo is riding along one morning, a ciruja girl comes down one of the mounds of refuse and stands by the road, watching him go by. She seems to be about Polo’s age, but it is hard to tell, she’s so incrusted with dirt. She is thin-legged, thin-armed, and Polo suspects she must be hungry. He stops and looks at her. She looks at him, and neither says a word. The idea occurs to Polo that he should offer her the sandwich—or rather, like Saint Martin with his cape, a fair piece of the sandwich. But how? Does she speak Spanish, or only some dead language, some subterranean dialect?
They are standing on opposite sides of the road, Polo holding his bike and the girl holding something like a cracked enamel spitoon, and so they stand silently for a while. Polo remembers having read that aborigenes are eager to get from the explorers all sorts of trinkets, glass beads, iron nails, what have you. But what does he have? Besides the sandwich and the bottle of water, only the hand pump, hardly a trinket. Polo makes a mental note to bring his marbles next time. The girl does not stop staring at him, and, not willing to lose face, he looks intently at her, too. He imagines he detects something familiar in her face, and suddenly the idea hits him: this girl must be his cousin Pochola, who is looking at him because she, too, detects something familiar in his face. The idea that Uncle Gershom and his family have descended so low after Papa went bankrupt fills Polo with pity and horror. From expedition chief to ciruja! But presently a woman gets out from a hole in the garbage and calls, “¡Elena!” The girl turns around and runs back to her hole.
In time, and after some twists, Polo arrives at the southern limit of the city, the lazily flowing Riachuelo. As soon as he can see the filthy water, he gets off his bike and looks upon the landscape ahead with something like the pride of a conquistador. Beyond the horizon lies the vast Province of Buenos Aires, extending all the way to Patagonia. The Riachuelo is not much of a stream: no ripples, no eddies or whirls; the water looks motionless. Polo of course knows that theoretically it flows east, toward the Río de la Plata. But how can you tell? Even when you get close, it is impossible to tell which way it is flowing, or if it is flowing at all. Another question pops up in Polo’s mind. When it comes to Spanish suffixes, in particular the suffix -huelo, which denotes puniness, why is it that Rodolfo Ragucci, the author of El habla de mi tierra, Polo’s seventh-grade Spanish Language textbook—why is it that Father Ragucci does not give this obvious example, Riachuelo, puny river, a name familiar to everyone, instead of the ones he does give: judihuelo, hebrehuelo, atehuelo—puny Jews, Hebrews and atheists?
The banks of the Riachuelo are slippery: it is the black mud of the Pampas mixed with sewage and sludge from the nearby factories, meat-packers and tanneries. Polo seems to be the only thing alive. Downstream, he can see the skeleton of a burnt-out vehicle lying just at the edge of the water. It looks like a bus of a sort which was in use before he was born. Not far in the opposite direction there is the carcass of a dog, with only two legs left, stiffly pointing to the sky. He takes a good look around this waste, inhales deeply, and smells what seems to be the essence of the uninhabitable wild. Dissonant and stressful, but its beauty is not less intense for that. Driving through the New Jersey Amboys you may catch a whiff of something vaguely similar.
Had the Riachuelo been a clear-water, gurgling stream with grassy banks sprinkled with colorful flowers, Polo would not have found the place more beautiful. Flowers are an obvious example of hypocrisy in nature: what are those brilliant colors, those sweet smells, if not a brazen attempt to seduce the insect or the bird, with the selfish purpose to spread or fertilize the seed? What he has been reading in science books leads him to think that, just as in physics there is always an increase in entropy or disorder, Darwin’s evolution consists in a constant increase in hypocrisy for sexual purposes. Hypocrisy is the peacock’s tail, hypocrisy the high heels, rouge and mascara of the human female. Hypocrisy, yes, hypocrisy are Papa’s silk neckties and Momma’s wedge slippers, not to speak of Papa’s categorical imperative and hidden condoms and Momma’s unremovable wedding ring. Even Martita, Polo’s neighbor and friend, even Martita, at age thirteen, is well on her way to becoming a hypocrite, as Polo discovered one day they were all in Papa’s car, driving somewhere in the country, and Polo looked at Martita, who was sitting right next to him on the back seat, and he noticed that she was looking through the window and that her face was fiercely red. Immediately he discovered the cause: what one saw through the window was a horse with an erection. Martita pretended to be busy fixing her hair so she could twist her head and go on looking through the window. The horse too was a hypocrite, Polo thought: a hippic hypocrite, a hippocrite. On the banks of the Riachuelo there is no hypocrisy that anyone could sense: not even the river pretends to be flowing. And not a sign of life, which is only death, after all, for life, as he once heard Papa say, is only death strutting its stuff.
Now Polo hears, from far away, a rhythmic splash. Before long, he sees a boat approaching, and hears a voice yelling, “¡Che, pibe! Hey kid! Yes, you, I’m talking to you!” It is a loud voice, rough, deep and resonant, and it comes from the boatman, an old man to judge from the long, thin, white beard hanging down from his chin, mandarin-ike. As he comes near, Polo feels a shiver of fear: the only thing mandarin-like about the boatman is his beard; for the rest, he looks like a very strong and beastly fellow, capable of knifing you just to prove that his knife is sharp enough. He is wearing a large hat, a dirty, holey undershirt, and something like bombachas or gaucho pants. His boat is a wonder to see: no one could have believed that such a rusty, rotten piece of junk can float. “Che pibe, cómo te parecés a Gardel”, “Hey kid, you really look like Gardel,” he says as he lands his craft.
Polo’s hair is dark and stiff with brilliantine, but no one has told him before that he resembles the idol. He feels intensely flattered. Being told that one resembles Gardel is not only being accepted as an Argentine, it means being taken for the very essence of Argentinity, even though, as everybody knows, Gardel was born in France. “Believe it or not, I was once a good-looking kid like you,” the boatman says; “I was not always this old and filthy, no, I used to have a stall at the Mercado del Progreso, facing Primera Junta. I sold fowl, and there was no one who could slit a throat and pluck a bird as fast as me. But one day this chick appears and turns my head. She bamboozles me with pretty verse, she comes from a noble family, or so she says, but actually, you know kid, they were a gang of thieves, all of them, her father was serving time. She plucked me clean, and fled. Well, with time, I managed somehow, I raised my head again, worked hard, and after a couple of years I had a neat little shop in El Once, selling toys. Then I married a nice, honest girl and settled down. Magic-Kings eves are the busiest times for the toy business, but that particular Magic-Kings night I ran out of toys, so I pocketed the money, locked the shop and went back home. I arrive, and what do I see? You’d never guess, kid. My wife in bed with my best friend. I shot the both of them. In the face. You think I should have learned something after that, kid? Nothing doing. After a few years, as soon as I got out of jail, I fell in love, head over heels, with a cabaret dancer. I took her to the altar, I offered her my name, and all for what, kid, tell me, for what? I’ll tell you: after three months, after I had bought her a mink coat, no fake, the real stuff, real mink, she went back to the cabaret. The leopard will not change its spots. Only one woman is loyal, kid, and that woman is Momma. All the others are whores. Never forget it.”
Polo asks the boatman what has brought him to the Riachuelo. “Se me murió la viejita,” “My old mother died on me,” he replies. And seeing that the boy expects a more explicit account, he adds, “So here I am, fishing for turds and used condoms.”
Polo leaves the old man with a heavy heart. While he’s biking back home, he does not give much thought to whether what the old man said about women is true or false—the question seems farfetched and Polo does not have enough elements for judging—but he is trying to decide in his mind whether the boatman, too, is a hypocrite or not. Can a man who has given up all hope be a hypocrite, logically considered? Well, maybe he hasn’t really given up all hope. Maybe he secretely hopes to find, in the Riachuelo, something of some value to him, or has already found something to make him feel good. Feeling good, when all is said and done, looks very much like feeling superior to all others. The very thought of himself having no hope while everybody else is entertaining all kinds of foolish hopes might actually be the old boatman’s way of feeling superior and good. Floating on the Riachuelo he soars, in his own mind, above the multimillionaires who live in the Belgrano district or on Avenida Alvear.
Polo often goes in the opposite direction, eastward to downtown, but never on his bike. Long before he started high school, he took bus number 155 downtown three times a week, the same bus which, in the opposite direction, goes to Nueva Chicago, the slaughterhouse. Three times a week he’d go to the YMCA on Calle Reconquista, for basketball, swimming, and gimnasia or aerobics. It is 1951 and Polo is bored with that routine; he wants to be able to hang out in the salón sociales, a big room on the fourth floor where kids play ping-pong, chess and checkers, but he can’t, because the salón sociales is exclusively for intermedios, kids between twelve and seventeen, and Polo is a cadete. To stop being a cadete and become an intermedio he’s got to be thirteen, but he’s only twelve. There are two possibilties: Polo can wait until he turns thirteen, or he can lie and maintain he’s already thirteen. He opts for the second possibility. Since they want to see his ID, his cédula de identidad, he changes the last digit in 1939, the year of his birth, into an eight. It’s a poor job, and they don’t fall for it; they phone and ask to talk to Polo’s mother. He tells Momma what he has done, and she tells him not to worry. On the phone, Momma tells the YMCA guy that Polo’s year of birth is indeed 1938, how dare they not take his word for it. Polo feels very grateful: from now on he is an intermedio, and he can spend hours playing chess instead of having to jump around trying to throw a ball through a hoop, something at which he is no good. Chess is something he’s good at, roughly as good as Papa, who has taught him. Some of the kids in the salón sociales are weird, although Polo never formulates it that way. It is a curious and even funny thing: “judío,” “maricón,” “bruto,” “estúpido” and so on, are concepts generally available in Argentina, and “goy” and “goyishe kop” are current among Jews, but they lacked the general concept “weird,” so useful and so widespread in the U.S.A.
Polo often plays chess with a boy, Stering-Carmona, who talks slowly, solemnly, and is always dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit and tie, as if he had already adopted the style and demeanor of a corporate lawyer. With another boy, Urruchúa, who’s older, about sixteen, they play chess and also talk. In many ways, Urruchúa is the opposite of Stering-Carmona: squat instead of lean and tall, with curly, unkempt hair instead of flat and well trimmed, an old jacket on top of a crumpled shirt. Urruchúa’s face is eroded by pimples and pustules; that, together with his dishevelled looks, give the impression that there is an enormous outward-directed pressure from the magma underneath, that is to say from his brain. One day Polo tells Urruchúa that the famous Miguel Najdorf has signed his board, and Urruchúa wants to see it. Polo promises he will bring the board to the YMCA some other day, but Urruchúa insists that he wants to see it right away, so Polo takes him home with him.
How Papa got to meet Najdorf Polo doesn’t know, but he remembers there was some vague talk about partnering to do some business or other. In any case, as Polo tells Urruchúa while they are riding bus #155 West, Najdorf had dinner at home, and he talked at length about his efforts to learn about the fate of his relatives in Poland, almost surely killed either by the Poles or by the Nazis. He also talked about his on-going rivalry with Reshevsky, his fellow Polish Jew who ended up playing chess for the U.S.A., and about Mikhail Botvinnik, the Soviet aparatchnik and current World Champion, whom he had famously defeated in 1946. Papa did not have to urge the grandmaster to grant Polo the privilege of an after-dinner game; Najdorf himself invited Polo to play. The thought that he was about to play against the man who had defeated the World Champion and who held the world record of simultaneous blind games (a total of 45, of which he won 39), had Polo more than a little awed. If you have ever tried playing a single game of chess without looking at the board, you can perhaps imagine what it must have been to play 45 of those at the same time!
Urruchúa admits that playing blind chess is hard as hell, and he reminds Polo that after the incredible feat Najdorf had to spend some time recovering at a rest home or mental hospital or some place of that sort.
Polo modestly assures his friend that Najdorf was in no need of such cure after playing against him. Polo was in the living-room looking intently at the board and thinking as hard as possible, but Najdorf was at the dining-room table, having coffee and cookies and chatting with Polo’s parents, and he would call out his moves. At some point, he was kind enough to tell Papa that Polo had a winning move, which actually was quite obvious, and so Polo found it. Najdorf let him win, oh yes, there was no doubt about it. He then asked Polo if he wanted another game, to which of course Polo said yes, and this time Najdorf beat Polo real fast. After some compliments he signed Polo’s board, writing his name with a Parker ’51 on a white square. And so that little match between Najdorf and Polo ended in a draw, imagine—one win each! Urruchúa is really impressed. He can’t wait to take a look at the grandmaster’s signature on Polo’s board. (Ending in a draw was characteristic of Najdorf when he played friendly games. After playing with Polo he went on to play with Perón, with Khruschev and with Fidel Castro, and in each case he would offer a draw at an early point in the game. The only world personality who refused the offer was Che Guevara, and as a consequence, Najdorf said, “I had no alternative but to beat him.”)
Once at Polo’s house, Urruchúa takes a dutiful look at Najdorf’s signature on the board, but becomes immediately interested in other things. He searches the record albums and wants to listen to a Tchaikovsky. It’s the Fourth Symphony, and as soon as Polo puts the first record on and the introduction is heard —bassoons, horns and tubas playing a fanfare with tragic undertones, not at all intended for the common man—Urruchúa goes into a kind of trance. The boys are sitting in the living room, opposite each other, with the Scott radio and disc player cabinet between them. Urruchúa leans back and closes his eyes, enraptured. Then, suddenly, he gets up and begins gesticulating crazily. Partly as if he’s grandly conducting an orchestra, but partly, too, he thumps his chest and looks toward the ceiling like a religious fanatic proclaiming his guilt. When the first record is over, he sits down, but resumes his standing schtick as soon as the second record goes on. By the end of the first movement he is sweating, exhausted. Polo had never seen such unbridled musical passion. “Ah, the Russian soul, the Russian soul!” Urruchúa says as he goes over his face with a handkerchief. “Ruslan and Ludmilla, Prince Igor, Ivan the Terrible, Boris Godunov!”
Wanting to impress Urruchúa still more, Polo says, “You know what I have? The complete works of Dostoevsky!” And he shows his friend the leather-bound volumes of Ediciones Aguilar. Urruchúa turns the pages with awe, while he murmurs the titles as in a prayer.
“You have a treasure here, an immense treasure,” Urruchúa says. He stops at a certain place and exclaims, “Ah! Look at this! The Underground Man! Have you read it?”
“No, I haven’t read that one,” Polo says, unwilling to confess that as yet he has read no Dostoevsky at all.
“There’s this guy here, you see, this Underground Man. A real anarchist, a true Russian soul. He won’t accept authority. Outwardly, like in the office, he may follow orders from his boss just so as to keep his job, but really, inside himself, he doesn’t give a shit. He has no respect for laws, whether state laws, moral laws, or the boss’s laws. This guy is his own law. Whatever he wishes, that’s his law. Whatever his whim happens to be, that he’ll follow. Would you believe it, he has no respect even for mathematical laws. Two plus two equals four? He couldn’t care less for two plus two equals four, and you know what? He sticks his tongue out to ‘Two plus two equals four’! Two plus two will be six, if he so wishes. Isn’t that something?”
Polo considers it for a moment. “Not a very good guy to play chess with,” he says. “He would invent his own pieces, and he would try to move a pawn as if it were a queen.”
“Actually I don’t know if this guy played chess,” says Urruchúa. “But he is a true Russian soul.”
An hour later, after he has borrowed the Tor edition of Borges’ Historia universal de la infamia (which, incidentally, he will never return) and as Polo is showing Urruchúa to the door, he stops, grabs Polo by the arm and says, “Hey, I know what the Underground Man would have done if he played chess. He would have kicked the board. That’s what he would have done. He was a true Russian soul. Yes, the Underground Man, you see—not Alekhine, not Botvinnik, not Bronstein—was a true Russian soul.”
Polo’s acquaintance with Urruchúa, for some reason, makes swimming, gymnastics and basketball at the YMCA seem fresher and more attractive. When he is at the pool, lined up with the other boys at one edge, he can see Benítez, short but muscled, who can swim very fast spinning his arms like a windmill, and he can see Vitale, tall and slim, long arms and legs, long muscles, who moves slowly but powerfully, and most of the time will beat Benítez at free style. On the opposite edge, Filippone, the instructor, stands with his feet in black slippers, and Polo can see his muscled calves and his big hairy toes. One day, to his utter surprise, Filippone tells Polo to backstroke the length of the pool to show the others his excellent form. Polo suspects he has done it so a poor swimmer like him might feel good for once; all the same, it is one of the proudest moments in his life. His excellent backstroke. In another such moment, and no less surprising to him, Polo is named chieftain of the Cherokees, one of the four tribes who compete in all sports, the other three being the Sioux, the Charrúas and the Guaranís. Now Polo carries the brown crossed axes of a Cherokee chieftain lovingly sewn by Momma on his gym shirts. Yes, all those activities involving the body—the muscles and the bones—come as a great relief after having to listen to so much stuff about the Russian soul. Or the Argentine soul, or the Jewish soul. It makes no difference, all talk about the soul is exhausting, frustrating, and it leads nowhere. Instead, when it comes to swimming, you know quite well what your body can do; if you are training, you know how much time it will take you to swim a hundred meters, say, with a precision of plus or minus one second. There is something profoundly satisfying in such precision. It shows that you, or at least your body, is something real, objective, constant, recurring, opposing a certain resistance to change. Try to think of your soul, on the other hand, and suddenly all becomes mushy, uncertain, fluid and viscous. The only non-bodily, spiritual activities Polo can think of where you get the same kind of satisfaction about precise results is chess and mathematics. Polo doesn’t care much for mathematics. But when he looks at the YMCA logo, the triangle with the words Alma, Mente, Cuerpo—Soul, Spirit, Body—on each side, he thinks it is wrong and stupid to have chosen an equilateral triangle. Those things are not equal, not at all. They should have chosen a right isosceles triangle, with Body and Spirit on the two equal sides, and Soul on the irrational hypotenuse.
Polo never mentions Benítez, Vitale and Filippone to Urruchúa. Needless to say, he never mentions Urruchúa to Benítez, Vitale or Filippone. And to none of them does he ever mention his expeditions to the Southwest, to the Riachuelo and the neighborhood around the slaughterhouse. It is clear to him that those things are better kept strictly and secretely apart, in complete ignorance of each other.
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