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I was staying at a place a couple of blocks from the main pedestrian thoroughfare downtown. It was a noisy, hectic scene. All day long money-changers hungry for foreign currency chanted cambio, cambio...dolares, euros, reales. Shoppers, many of them new members of Brazil’s middle class, joyfully pursued holiday spending spree dreams. I was in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Along the pedestrian strip venders boomed out their catch phrases. One guy bellowed: tomaaatee loco, selling what he proclaimed as the new craze in toys - tomatoes made of squishy gelatinous plastic. You could throw them and they would splat and stick to the ceiling or wall, then slowly peel off without leaving a mark. I had a snake made of similar stuff as a kid.
For a few blocks either side of the retail focused peatonal, the pavements were chock-a-block with drawn-faced office workers; tooting taxis and groaning buses dominated the narrow roads. In contrast to the sensory overload of the day, night was quiet apart from the cartoneros going through black rubbish bags looking for recycling. Due to the streets being tightly packed in by buildings, wind eddies formed and scattered rubbish spiralled around until trampled down by the morning rush...which didn’t come that early.
Not the greatest part of the city to stay perhaps, but I liked the hostel itself: the receptionists Mariano and Johnnie Fresco were interesting to talk to, broke and always up for a drink. One evening I went down to the first floor to get a beer from the guest fridge and came across a white-haired Argentine man of about sixty.
Would you like to have a drink with me? He asked holding out a bottle. He found no other form of introduction necessary.
Sure, I said.
The bottle, a half full litre of quilmes, was the very same beer that I‘d come to retrieve. I’d been going to offer some to Mariano, who liked to drink beer out of a green-plastic tea-mug as he manned the reception - but there wouldn’t be enough for him now.
Mariano had dubbed this beer thief the Professor, because he claimed to have been once been employed by a university. The hostel, Mariano told me, usually had at least one vagrant-style guest, that somebody had allowed to check in against their better judgement. After our initial meeting, I often saw the Professor alone on the balcony in the early evening staring into space. He was a man whose thoughts could take him far away. He had a room ‘sin baño’ on the second floor. An early to bed type, he would reappear around midnight shuffling off to relieve his aging prostate. Stop, shuffle, stop again, as if he kept forgetting where he was going.
No doubt many have met eccentrics proclaiming to be important or remarkable in unbelievable ways. However, this incarnation of the mad professor eccentric was plausible. What had me on his side was his appearance: no bowtie or tweed coat, he dressed in worn pale-coloured shirts and dress trousers. On trying his glasses, I found they really were for the near blind. He had a battered black-leather case that he sometimes opened to pull out remnants of a life broken and irrelevant. The Professor profiled himself as a physicist who’d worked at some prominent universities both in Argentina and abroad. The problem was, for one reason or another; he no longer had many of his marbles. One evening he cornered me and told me with tears in his eyes how sorry he was.
Sorry for what?
For what I’ve been saying, I say foolish things when get confused.
I hadn’t noticed.
It is this thing inside my head – a kind of receiver – they send me signals…I hear a buzzing in my ears and cannot control what I say. I make such a fool of myself that I have to stay in my room for days.
He wasn’t joking.
Eventually he got turfed out of the hostel, he hadn’t paid for his room for over two weeks. Where did the Prof end up? I had visions of him becoming a cardboard collector and sleeping on the street. I wondered how the other homeless would treat him. Any romantically tragic end seemed possible for the Professor. I even wrote down a kind of suicide note on his behalf - an odd outlet for my creative energies.
Before this hostel I’d been up in Palermo feeling bored and much like a sheet of wallpaper amongst the good-looking, confident party crowd. I was offended at people having such a good time. They drank to have fun and it worked. The hooked up with who they wanted to and it worked. They had their projects which were moral. They could go to bad neighborhoods, talk to locals and be much less scared than I was. Some lesser mortals were happy just to rub shoulders with these types - I felt depressed I had no way to cast them out of heaven.
About a week after the Prof had been chucked out I ran into him on the street. Paler than ever, it took a moment for him to react to my greeting and shake my hand. A man who hadn’t spoken to anybody much for some time I reckoned. He was staying at another hostel, they weren’t as generous with unwanted food. I arranged to have dinner with him that night. We would meet up at the same street corner.
We ended up eating at an Egyptian-themed dive on the corner of the Pellegrini and Juncal. The walls were covered in murals featuring Nut, Anubis, Horus and others, but the menu consisted of the same pizza, pasta and sandwiches as everywhere else. The Prof, not one for making things easy, first said he only wanted a glass of wine, and when I ordered him a sandwich, promptly changed the order to what he’d originally wanted...pizza. We shared a mozzarella pizza, with one bland olive per slice, a plate of greasy fries and a bottle of red wine. After a few good mouthfuls, the Prof put down his knife and fork and a faint smile touched his lips. Seeing that smile all annoyance his dithering had caused emptied out of me. He gulped down half a glass of wine, the blood rushed to his face and his movements became less jerky, almost flowing.
How long is it since you last ate? I asked.
And after another glass he was drunk, sitting back in his chair relaxed and smiling widely. It was great to see. Never one to let an opportunity to sentimentalize pass by, he produced two photos from his wallet. Important they must have been, because he had scant other reason to carry a wallet.
My mother, he handed over a black and white portrait of an austere looking woman. The other photo was of the Prof at twenty-six looking as vague, sorrowful and formal as ever, staring off into eternity no doubt considering some great scientific problem. His gammy eye was more evident than usual as his thick glasses had been put aside for the picture. This photo had been taken when he was studying at a university in Finland. To back the story up he still had his Finnish student ID card.
As we were about to get up from the table and go our separate ways, I handed him twenty pesos, here you go - some money for food.
Thank you, he said with emotion, I prayed that he wouldn’t start to cry.
I told him to come round to my hostel the next night after the cleaning lady had gone home. I thought maybe he’d be too ashamed to show up, but no, he rang the doorbell with a bottle of wine under one wing, so much for the grocery money. That evening he had a great time, even finding another guest, a woman close to his age to chat up. Way past his usual bedtime he was well-oiled and didn’t want to leave, but I sent him off with ten pesos. I acted annoyed with him; playing parent persecutor in his script. He must have had many persecutors over the years, taking on the role of that undoubtedly strict mother I’d seen in the photograph.
Eventually I let the Professor down, it had to happen. He wanted to apply for a visa to Australia. What he planned to do over there, how he was going to pay for the visa...let alone the airfares, I didn’t ask. I knew the explanation would be long and ridiculous. So I just said yea OK, when asked me to go with him to the embassy. The Prof thought as Australians were my people (or near enough) I’d be able to help him get a visa. On the appointed morning I didn’t get out of bed on time as I was hungover. The Prof, dropping by the hostel to fetch me, was too polite to wake me. Certainly he wouldn’t have wanted around to wait long - as he still owed money to the hostel. He left a note, basically saying thanks anyway.
Mariano, who handed this note to me, added that he had something to talk to me about later. It turned out that Mariano had found a room up in Almagro. He couldn’t afford the rent by himself. He asked me if I wanted to share the room...can hardly be worse than the hostel, and cheaper too...Well, there was an offer I couldn’t refuse. As for the Professor, I never saw him again.
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