Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep
Dreaming on both.
(Measure for Measure, III, 1)
Where Cucha Cucha Street dies it seems to dissolve in a mass of bare-brick and corrugated steel storehouses, crumbling tenements and muddy alleys extending all the way to the railroad tracks — and spilling beyond. Mounds of rusty scrap metal alternate with burning piles of rubber tires, and vast lots of forgotten coal are said by the locals —mostly scavengers— to be lying there from the time of steam locomotives. The air is not good for the lungs, nor are those alleys safe for the rest of the self. Such was the neighborhood around La Paternal railroad station when I visited it for the first time in my life exactly a year ago. I doubt it has changed much.
The opposite end, the beginning of Cucha Cucha Street, is a different story altogether: I was familiar with it at a young age; every day I saw its nascent bloom on Rivadavia Avenue, when early in the morning I took the subway downtown, to high school, then back early in the afternoon, when, before heading home, we would take a pause for lunch at the pizzeria on Plaza Primera Junta with my buddy Gamboa. We always ordered a slice of fugazza, a thick, greasy, crunchy dough covered with onions, topped with a slice of fainà, the flat chickpea-flour cake loved by Ligurians. If I happened to be with Pérez Pardo instead, we would sit at the café adjoining the pizzeria and order an aperitif: Americano Gancia with its retinue of olives, cheese cubes, mortadella, potato chips, and heaven knows what else. Always the same. Sixty years ago I was already in the grip of routines.
Club Ferrocarril Oeste was some two-hundred meters into Cucha Cucha Street. When I turned sixteen I joined for the open air swimming pool; on Saturday evenings I used to go to the dancing. What a winning combination, the girls au naturel at the pool, and in their finery for the bal—the same girls, yet so different: what a lesson for a boy’s tender heart. But before I go on with my story, I must advise the wary reader who’s likely to check those locations on a map, that in Buenos Aires street names change more often than in other cities, and almost invariably for the worse. Today, the first five blocks of Cucha Cucha Street, from Rivadavia to past Club Ferro (as it is familiarly called), bear the name Federico García Lorca. After which, it is Cucha Cucha all the way to Paternal. Another poet, Baldomero Fernández Moreno, who used to live across the street from my house in Flores, about two kilometers West of Cucha-Cucha, put it sadly in an Alexandrine distich:
“La ciudad está cambiando, dice alegre la gente;
También lo digo yo: mi tono es diferente.”
(The city is changing, people happily say; / I say the same: my tone is different.)
But back to the Ferro swimming pool. I used to talk with a boy my age whose last name was Heras. We sat poolside, under the sun, and he told me of his love for a girl I never saw and whose name I long since forgot. According to him their love was mutual, but her father, who was a teniente coronel (lieutenant colonel) in the Argentine Army, was opposed to their dating. Why, he didn’t know. Had he ever met the girl’s father, or her mother? No, never. I couldn’t understand it: Heras is not a Jewish name. Well, in that case (I asked with the tact that has lost me not a few friends), how did he know that the father’s opposition was real, and not just the girl’s excuse? Heras dismissed my suggestion out of hand. He was quite stubborn, I must say.
This happened soon after Perón was deposed in September 1955. The new military authorities proceeded to remove from the armed forces those officers who had remained loyal to Perón. Among them was my friend Gamboa’s father, a colonel who, when asked by the rebels by telephone whether he was willing to join them, responded: “I respect the Constitution!” Now, the numerous Argentine Constitutions have never been really respected, least of all by the military, so upon the rebel victory Colonel Gamboa was forced to retire from the Army. The same thing happened, apparently, to the father of Heras’ sweetheart, which prompted in my friend an unstoppable flow of angry, revengeful daydreaming. “I’ll go to his house,” he would tell me repeatedly, “and introduce myself. I’ll shake his hand and I’ll say: ‘Heras, teniente coronel’.” This gave him immense satisfaction: I could almost hear his tongue licking his chops, and it was all based on the fact that in Spanish, save for that brief pause at the comma, it sounds exactly like “Eras teniente coronel”, that is, “You were a lieutenant colonel.”
I would be the last person to make fun of such daydreaming. There was this girl who was also a member of Ferro, and whose last name was Amor. I am not making this up: Amor is a common surname among Spaniards and Portuguese. Her family owned a small cosmetics store, Perfumería Amor, on Bolivia 35, adjacent to the apartment building where my maternal grandparents Brodesky lived (2B), my Aunt Sarita (4A), and my friend Carlos Fishbarg (1B), which was only seven city blocks from my house. The girl was adorable. The only other girl I remember from those days of ineffective infatuations who could compete in loveliness with the perfumer’s daughter was one whose name I never found out, a girl Gamboa and I encountered pretty regularly in the morning, while waiting for a train at the subway terminal Primera Junta. She, like us, was headed for school, wearing the white smock of high-school girls impeccably ironed, her blond hair bright even under the dim yellowish light of the tunnel. She was a Nordic beauty. Gamboa and I called her “la rubia del subte”, the subway blonde, and formed a resolution to accost her, even though we never, as far as I remember, agreed on the words we would use. We designated a certain day, say Tuesday, when we would finally go and talk to the subway blonde; we referred to it as D-day, our invasion of Normandy; but Tuesday came and passed, and we would agree that weather conditions were not right, and swear that the following Friday would be D-day, come what may, but always in vain. We weren’t up to it; we were intimidated by her loveliness. Had we dared, we might have ended up like Jules and Jim in the movie, involved with the same femme fatale. Incidentally, Gamboa and I were on opposing sides of WWII: his father, the colonel, was a Nazi from the tip of his visor cap to the sole of his jackboots, as was expected from any genuine Argentine army officer —including of course Perón—, and the son parroted parental lines. I pointed out to my buddy the crimes committed by the Germans and the murder of millions of Jews, and he replied, “Bah, the Russians were ten times worse. And tell me about the Yankees! Their soldiers raped all the German women they could lay their hands on. Imagine a huge bestial negro attacking the subway blonde!”
I blushed. I’m not Black, but I’m a Jew, and there I was, panting with erotic desire for a valkyrian beauty. What business did I have with that shiksa? I felt like an unthinking mass traitor to my ancestors, and that doused my flame. “She’s all yours,” I said to Gamboa when, after a couple of days, he noticed that I had lost all interest in the subway blonde; not that he seized the opportunity, for he lacked the courage. And I am not belittling him: we were barely fifteen, always schooled strictly among boys, and lacked any familiarity with flirting. Years later I learned, through other high-school acquaintances, that Gamboa had married a nice Jewish girl.
Amor may have been my next infatuation, but probably there were others in between; like the poet Rubén Darío I too could say, “Plural has been the celestial story of my heart,” and proceed to fill volumes with it. They’d be terribly boring, however, because it was all in my head, all longing, disappointment, and no action. I would see this girl, Amor, at the Ferro swimming pool, but always at a distance; I would be discussing with Heras about his detested lieutenant colonel, eying the girl with the corner of my eye so as to see when it was safe to look at her with eyes wide open and directly. I never caught her looking in my direction, though. But the stars—especially the moon as it turned out—held for me an enchanted moment.
On Saturday evenings, as I said, there was dancing at Ferro. It started at eight and ended at midnight sharp. That particular evening, the tenth of December 1955, just to pretend I had something to do and to gather the courage to speak to Amor, I took a girl out for a piece, “Memories of you.” She was the opposite of Amor—I don’t mean she was really ugly, but she was utterly unattractive—, and while dancing with her my mind was occupied with imaginations of what I would say when dancing with the other. At some point I would humbly solicit, “May I call you by your surname?” She would smile, I was sure—smile and blush a little—and for the rest of the dance I would be whispering in her ear, “Amor, mi amor...” Or instead, perhaps she would reply, “You’re a little forward, aren’t you?” with a delicious, pretend-disapproval gesture. I was so caught up in such imaginations that I didn’t pay the least attention to my dancing partner, and when the song was not quite over she left in a huff without hiding her displeasure, as we were standing in the middle of the dance floor, under a starry night.
Then the unexpected happened: right there in front of me, in the middle of the scattering dance floor, stood Amor! She seemed lovelier than ever, lovelier than in my most immodest imaginations. And to my surprise, as if moved by some inner spring whose existence I had not suspected, I said to her without a flutter of hesitation in my voice, “Will you reserve the last song for me?” The last song was always the same and always played at midnight: Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.”
Not the slightest recollection of those hours—two or three—spent waiting for midnight. But I’ll never forget the bliss of her cheek to my cheek. Hers was so silky, so tender, so delightfully perfumed, that I couldn’t help feeling that the cosmetics in the family store had some part in it. The moon was out, my mind was quiet, and we never said a word.
So much for my experience of the early, southern stretch of Cucha Cucha. Sixty years passed before I visited the final, northern one, and it was purely by chance. I had to deliver a Spanish translation of Grothendieck’s La Clef des songes to a librarian in the Belgrano district, and by an error caused no doubt by my long absence from my native city, driving north on Donato Álvarez I took a wrong turn on Cucha Cucha. Having reached the end, and ascertained that there was no issue except turning around and driving back, on a sudden impulse I decided to leave the car right there and explore the place on foot.
I must have been crazy. Did I believe the days of my youth were back, when I walked for miles anywhere in the city without fear? Today, unless you happen to live in it (and even so!), no one in his senses walks without an armed escort in such a place. After no more than fifty steps along an alley in between dilapidated warehouses, a dog startled me with a loud bark. It was, it turned out, a black poodle, angry at me for trespassing into its fief. It advanced, teeth bared, but when I lifted my trusted walking stick, the dog stopped dead in its track and reflected, scratching its head. It is worth observing, incidentally, that we humans (and perhaps all primates) are the only quadrupeds who use their forelegs for scratching themselves—not even squirrels or kangaroos do that. Anthropologists ought to consider replacing those hoary definitions of humanity —such as “man is the animal possessing language,” or “man is the animal possessing reason”— none of which is a true definition anyway (as any ass can tell), by “man is the quadruped that scratches itself with its forelegs.”
The poodle, then, scratched itself vigorously with a hind leg, and changed color. The black was only a layer of coal dust, under which lay a white poodle, not too clean though, who now turned its back on me and went back to wherever it had come from. Poor pooch. It must be embarrassing for a poodle to change color while facing an intruder. Continuing on my way up the alley, I noticed that on most of the dilapidated walls there were painted inscriptions, some in big letters, others minuscule. Some were easily interpreted, such as “Pete loves Pupi,” but others required special skills, and beat my efforts. A big sign mounted on a scaffold read: “Superior National Government – Sixtieth Quinquennial Plan.” I quickly computed in my head, then tried to figure out what government on earth has been devising five-year plans for three-hundred years. Given the lay of the land I said to myself, “It shows.” Just to feel cool I said that to myself, not because I’m a laissez-faire doctrinaire. A coal-traced swastika. “Nothing ever changes here,” was my first thought; then I noticed that the cross was oriented wrong, and concluded with some relief that it was the work of some third-rate rabble rouser, not a devoted Nazi. Next this piece of writing: “Go Bohemians” and right below, “Undertakers go under,” baffled my erudition. An exercise in redundancy? A Mafioso command in code? Ah, the Eichendorffian melancholy of knowing that no one in my native city knew me, and that, what’s worse, I didn’t know what they were talking about.
Suddenly a crowd poured from a side alley, carrying above their heads an image of a woman magnificently gowned and jeweled, rays of glory behind, her hair covered by a lace veil. It reminded me of the Immaculate, and of those distant December 8s when I saw the girls and boys walk to or from the church in their peculiar first-communion finery, and I wished I could go with them, dressed up and beribboned like them, until someone told me about a Jewish boy in Bologna: he was taken by a housemaid to a priest who had secretly baptized the boy as a Catholic, and then Pope Pius IX of blessed memory abducted the boy from his family. And I tried to imagine how my parents would react if our shiksa, bless her soul, took me to the church and had me baptized. But back in those days they worried more about the housemaid being a Peronist informer than a stealthy baptizer.
A loudspeaker blared: “Here’s your standard bearer, humble folk!” And the crowd bellowed in reply: “We feel it! She’s here! She’s present!” The bearers stopped, lowered the image a bit, and the loudspeaker chanted: “Virgo atque scortum!” And the faithful repeated: “Virgo atque! We are dignified! We feel it!” The image was lifted, the crowd moved ahead for a while then stopped again while the image was lowered and mournful tones were heard: “Dolorosa deipara! Te opulentes evitaverunt!” Which the crowd repeated, and shouted their anger, and sobbed in unison. Finally, after some more walking with the image high up, everyone stopped, the bearers lowered their idol and at the words, “Jubilate! Iam sedet ad dexteram generalis!”, a wild, joyous cry went up. I had an idea that those were Latin words, but almost none about what they might signify. To think that Fraboschi, my Latin professor in high school with the pockmarked face and manicured nails, did tell my father once that I would be a good latinist. How wrong he was. Years later I heard from old high-school friends (the same who told me that Bengoa had married a Jewish girl) that Fraboschi had been a Peronist informer. Yet, although a poor latinist, I do remember a Latin saw that goes like this: Asinum asinus fricat, meaning that the ass will scratch the ass, something that perfectly fits a great number of people, human beings who scratch with fingers and nails and who hope to curry favor by mutual scratching; but how is it possible, meaning actually, topologically, for two asses to scratch each other with their hind legs?
The parousia procession had vanished like a dream, and of the thuribles’ smoke not even a whiff was left. I closed and opened my eyes several times. On two of those eye openings I captured a couple more inscriptions on a wall: “Read Reclus,” “Read Kardec.” I was embarrassed since I had read none of them. I grabbed a piece of coal from the ground and scribbled on that same wall: “Read Grothendieck.” For after all, if you read a key to dreams, a genuine one written by a great scientist, plus you are gentle and merry with your rowing, you got yourself a key to life, damn it, and you need read no further books. Then I closed my eyes again for a while, and sniffed deeply. Long ago, one of the greatest thinkers who ever was expressed the view that if all things in the world turned into smoke, noses would still recognize and distinguish them. Any child could have told him that noses would not be able to do much of anything, since noses, too, would have turned into smoke. There is in man this silly tendency to except and insulate himself from the fate of all things, assuming that if the whole world went to pieces—si fractus illabatur orbis—he could go on happily watching the sun set over the ruins. Maybe that’s what some philosophers call the transcendental ego; I wouldn’t know. Hitler Youth used to march to the song: Wir werden weiter marschieren / Wenn alles in Scherben fällt, and here in upstate New York you can find lots of crazies who hoard cans of beans and Beef-O-Getti and stockpile survival gear and plenty of ammo and Kalashnikovs in remote cabins, in preparation for the apocalypse.
I sniffed deeply, as I said, and distinguished, on top of the background smells of burning coal and sewage, the cuddly scent of freshly baked bread. This reminded me that I had not eaten since the early morning, so that following the scent with upturned nose I went through winding alleys and leaped over muddy puddles and not a few ditches, until at the turn of a corner I saw a sign: Panadería La Paternal. As bakeries go, this one did not seem very appetizing to the eye: no display windows, not even a solid door, instead a bunch of tufted strips as a fly curtain. It took me a while to get used to the gloom inside, and to discern the counter and the man behind. Leaving aside false modesty, I have an unerring memory for faces, able to extrapolate and jump across long spans of time. Even when over the years the features have changed beyond recognition, I’m able to identify a person once familiar by some idiosyncratic gesture, a twitch of the lips, the arching of an eyebrow, the tonguing of a tooth. Ten years ago, when riding the subway from Primera Junta to Plaza Mayo, I took one look at this old guy and, after not having seen him for almost fifty years, recognized Osvaldo Pérez Pardo, my high-school buddy. Together we had translated the lyrics of the tango Mano a mano into German—no mean feat. He’s died since, the sonofabitch. Sometimes I miss him.
Thus, even though the man behind the counter had changed much, and even though he was wearing a none-too-clean, flour-caked baker’s apron and cap, I could not fail to recognize my dad. “Father, are you you?” I asked, amazed.
“Shh! Shh...” He motioned with his hand to lower my volume. “How can I help you?”
His voice sounded pained, cracked all over, when it used to be clear and resonant, especially as he sang Una furtiva lagrima. But he had always been a smoker, and come to think of it, by now he had to be a hundred-and-three. I hesitated between my hunger for bread and my hunger for news: I had not seen my father since 1966. When and how had he become a baker? Why here? Was he in hiding? He tried to help me: “Have some factura, very tasty. Fresh. Made in the premises.”
Ah, those Sunday mornings spent in bed eating factura, Dad doing the crossword puzzle, Mom pouring maté and darning some socks, my sister and I reading the rotogravure of La Nación: the recollection brought tears to my eyes. “Yes, I’d like some factura,” I said; and out of sudden inspiration I asked, “¿Bolas de fraile?” Friar balls or Berliners are fried dough, nothing suited to my age and stomach; but what the hell, I hadn’t had a friar ball in ages.
My father laughed that dry, sputtering laugh, like a small gasoline engine reluctant to start, of old men having dirty thoughts. “Suspiros de monja” (nun’s sighs), he said in a whisper, and, pointing to a portrait pasted to a back door, he asked me if I knew who that was.
“Enrico Caruso?” I ventured.
“What nonsense. He’s Errico Malatesta, the Italian anarchist who introduced friar balls into our country, and who gave them that other name, nun’s sighs.
The guy was the king of factura.”
While eating a friar ball or nun’s sigh, which was better tasting than I feared and had quince jelly at its secret heart, I mulled on this other change in my father: as far as I could remember he had always been a classical liberal in the tradition of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Herbert Spencer, favorite authors of his; he had never honored an anarchist by pronouncing his name, much less by keeping his portrait on a door. Considering, however, that my father was, above all, a thoroughgoing individualist, maybe a late deviation into anarchism was to be expected. Nor would it have surprised me if he considered himself the king of factura, or the present king of France. There was this sheet of paper we found after his death—yes: we all thought he had died, we all wept, and there is even a tomb with his name at the Jewish cemetery in La Tablada, outside the city limits, southwest, but I have always nourished the suspicion that he pretended to be dead because it was the only escape left from too many and too pressing debts—well, on that sheet Father had written a sort of prosopopoeia, El fósforo habla, where a lit match speaks to the “astonished reader.” “In a few seconds I’ll be no more,” says the match, “but in those few seconds, while there is still a bit of life in me, I can set the whole world on fire.”
My mouth still half full of briar fall, I proffered a question about where had he been and doing what, my dad.
“No. Tell me about you,” he said. “What has your life been, all these years?”
“Ugh, a long story.” Frankly, I didn’t feel like filling my dad in the details. “Right now I coedit a literary journal. Stories, essays, mostly poetry.”
My father seemed pleasantly surprised. “Isn’t that uncanny? You and I end up doing the same thing!”
“Well, you purvey poetry, I sell factura.” And Father showed me his open hands, thumbs up, shoulders slightly shrunk, a gesture signifying that the sameness is so obvious no more need be said.
Ever since, I have spent much mental effort trying to decipher my father’s words. Irony shouldn’t be excluded, of course, but was he humbling poetry to the level of factura, or, on the contrary, exalting his factura to the ranks of poetry? My father was not averse to taking me down a peg or two. Also, he could have been disparaging both poetry and factura as equally superfluous or frivolous, you might object; but that would not really fit my father’s personality, inclined toward megalopsychia if not megalomania. For a year I turned it over and over in my mind, what kind of sameness did my father see between poetry and factura, until a few nights ago I was lying in bed, halfway into sleep, and I suddenly understood. The sameness is there: it is etymological. Poetry, poesy, those words come from the Greek verb poieîn, which means to make, to fashion; factura comes from the Latin verb facere, which means the same. Poetry is the result of making, and so is factura: one in Greek, the other in Latin. As Horace put it long ago: Ut factura poiesis.
The one weak point in the above interpretation is that my father knew neither Latin nor Greek. He knew only Spanish, and a smattering of Spanish-accented Yiddish. But that was back when he lived with us; fifty years is enough time to learn Latin and Greek, plus Hebrew and Chinese into the deal. Which would throw some light on what it was he was doing all that time.