Truth is an odd number and death is a full stop – The Pooka McPhelimy
A block long, lit by cold laboratory light’ walls worn by scuffing shoes, greasy hair and random pieces of sellotape used to announce projects long since abandoned due to lack of funds; the electronic boards installed to ensure the smooth, efficient passage of supplicants do not work, so that the frail, faint voices of the general din of the file-clutching masses desperately trying to screw each other over and skip the queue. Pegamequemegusta is here in the ANSES (National Administration of Social Security) to get my social security number. It has not been easy: an hour-long queue snaking down the street has been followed by a – so far – hour-long wait inside, involving several tables and little numbered tickets being issued.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most common ways of saying ‘to queue’ in Argentina is a synonym for getting done up the ass, hacer la cola (brought to my attention for the first time when I asked a girl if she was in the queue, at which point I was shot glares more befitting a lecherous kindergarten teacher). My ticket says i’m number 362 with 362 other ‘customers’ ahead of me. In that case, there must be a customer 0, I exclaim. Yes, says the moustachioed gent in the denim jacket standing next to me. (He’s my queue buddy; we complain about things together; he moved house a while ago so he has to inform this office of the fact in person and with an impressive ream of supporting documentation). “Of course, that’s customer 0, he tells me, haven’t you seen him? He lives here like an anti-Tom Cruise in Terminal: no product placement, no [advance or apparent regression], no inspired rock murals, no escape.”
Then I see him: a man so wizened he looks like you could break off a limb and use it as charcoal; a man, they say, whose old grey whistle it was they used to test; a man who woodlice would leer at like children do poor, unsuspecting priests; a man with such a low red corpuscle count that no blood flows from his innumerable paper cuts; his fingers so covered in ink it looks like he has evolved the siphon common to cephalopods; indeed, he it was no doubt who fought with blind Homer, inspiring the line about wrestling octopi out of their caves
As when the polypus, from forth his cave
Torn with full force, reluctant beats the wave,
His ragged claws are stuck with stones and sands;
So the rough rock had shagg’d Ulysses hands,
And now had perish’d, whelm’d beneath the main,
The unhappy man;
yet this cave he will not leave. He will wander, wander round the room til Odysseus’s 20 years seem like a quick rough and tumble with a sherpa boy. Less clear is what paperwork he came in to straighten out in the first place. Some say he was fired from his job as a stable boy for having the temerity to glance one second too long at the master’s daughter, thus he had to fill out form 4321.7/A*BJ, which attests to a change in circumstances, as well as form 76859345.658/C*NT, which regulates the amount of buttons on one’s coat, despite having lost said coat on some brambles as he escaped the squire’s hounds; others claim he was merely enquiring as to the whereabouts of his social security number, which seemed to have been lost in the post.
Whatever the ultimate reason for Customer Zero’s particular wandering, one of the main reasons for all this sluggishness is central to understanding the Argentines: they’re so tactile. You can see it in their staple foods: emapanadas and pizza, foods which do very well without cutlery; locro, a delicious yet viscous soup with a mass denser than that of a collapsing star; and, of course, stupendous cuts of beef and pork cooked over an open fire to bring an even greater sense of immediacy to the spectacle; any mystery that might come with the closed oven door is dispelled and brought into full view, in all its dripping, sizzling glory.
Although their football players may occasionally be suspected of dissimulation and their politicians of, shall we say, sleight of hand, honesty is a quality that is highly praised in Argentina. “You’ve got to work” is a refrain that frequently greets pegamequemegusta, and not just because it tends to loaf about ‘writing’. Honesty through work, abstract values achieved through physical exertion and penance (what else for a country whose flag reveals a cult to the Virgin Mary?). Whether this is a quality exploited by papá Perón or whether it is a relatively new mind-set inculcated into the nation by said father figure is a matter beyond the scope of pegamequemegusta’s mind.
Nevertheless, the physicality of Argentine life is incontrovertible; it strikes you in the face in the quilombo of Buenos Aires (even their words carry a onomatpoeic weight) and leaves you breathless in the sight of their womenfolk. Even the political protests that ferry down the Avenida de Mayo and other thoroughfares throughout the land every day are characterised by a remarkable inarticular…cy: the cacerolazo is a favourite strategy, yet the downside of banging pots and pans together surely is that it expresses unintelligible rage, nothing more. Howling would be just as effective.
Conversely, and to illustrate how central this obsession with materiality is the Argentine, consider the cases of some of this lands most brilliant exports and the grudging admiration they evoke in their erstwhile common folk. Consider the cases of Borges, Cortázar and Messi, three men who bring the abstract to its apotheosis. The first, despite being one of the finest writers of the past century, nonetheless devoted himself to a world of abstractions aptly described in the ever sensible Argentine phrase nube de pedos (a ‘cloud of farts’). The second, an aficionado of jazz and the tao, of awesome narratives bulging with inconclusiveness and irony, lived in exile; while the third brilliance is inspiration incarnate, an ‘alien’, a player ‘from another world’, who in spite of preserving a thick Rosarine accent 12 years after leaving his native city is still treated as something of an outsider, unable as he is of coining memorable, palpable phrases as his compañero, manager and antithesis, Diego Maradona. All three, despite being Argentinians, are viewed with an accentuated suspicion greater than that reserved for mere exiles, a distrust owing to their lack of Argentinism proper, to the suspicion that they might be more likely to order fish than asado.
Yet dear, loyal, oh-so handsome readers, do not get the wrong idea. Perhaps pegamequemegusta is too long in the Argentine to realise, but eventually the number was mine and such was the rush that the land seemed ours. There’s nothing like the rush of getting your paperwork done. To have that piece of paper in your hand, there’s nothing like it. To feel it between your fingers, its rough to the touch, tangible presence, is to have confirmation, to know truth. It is truth. Incontrovertible truth.
Only a gringo would say otherwise.