Customer Zero, with distasteful references passim

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

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.

Asado argentino

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.

Jorge 'Nube de Pedos' Borges

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.

Tintin, Argentina and the Land of Black Gold

Fans will be allowed to bring mobile phones, cameras and 500cl bottles of water. Yet if that water bottle is one centilitre over, not a chance, and God help you if it’s made of glass. Lighters will be banned as will belts! Are all the extra police being posted for suicide watch? They may have to be: the traditional hotdog, hamburger and empanada vendors have been banned from the stadium for the game.

“In Cutral Có, Neuquén the city of black gold, petrol, the Selección have arrived for their match against Haiti. A city of just 35,000 people, tickets have been retailing at $200 for the chance to see Maradona’s ballet. Alianza’s ground will be full, they’ve added extra seats. And the police have said that no-one carrying a thermos and maté will be allowed entry.”

So begins Olé‘s article, entitled Blue and White Gold, on the friendly between the Selección local and Haiti, a match organised to raise money for the poor Caribbean nation devastated further by an earthquake in January. This apparent contradiction of a national team consisting solely of locally-based players has been one of the projects most forcefully insisted upon by Diego. It hearkens back to an earlier age, a purer one, they would no doubt say, when Argentina could field a brilliant team featuring the idols of the teams they followed with such distinctive passion and pageantry each week. All but two of the 22 members of the 1978 World Cup winning squad was made up of players who plied their trade in the grandes equipos of Buenos Aires, such as Racing, River, Independiente and Huracán. Today, however, the situation is much changed for obvious reasons.

In pegamequemgusta’s opinion, only a sizeable chip on one’s shoulder and blind nationalism could make anyone believe that the current standard in Argieball bears any relation to that era of Argieball. Nevertheless, a couple of good performances in Primera have been known to suffice for a call-up to Diego’s squads over the last year and a half. And although those call-ups have been shown to be pretty cheap, with players discarded after barely a few minutes and others retained after shambolic performances (Dátolo made his début against Brazil, scored a screamer and never appeared again). Although Diego does seem to take these things seriously enough as auditions for the first team (Palermo, for one, has real chances of going to South Africa), it must be admitted that at this stage they are only played for cash. At least this time, the cash will go to a worthy cause.

The Haiti squad, undiminished despite the January's terrible earthquake

At least this is what the organisers are claiming as they gouge the Patagonians for seven times more than it would cost them to go see the players play in a normal league match. Bizarrely, these fans could still be paying for the novelty in six months time as a payment plan has been designed for those with limited cash flow (about 90% of the population in pegamequemegusta’s experience).

Police man the streets in expectation of a violent outburst by the irrepressible Captain Haddock

Another unusual aspect of the game is the hefty police presence. For a game, a friendly match, which the Haitian coach, Colombian Jairo Ríos, has described as “a relaxation exercise, like taking a pill”, it seems excessive to bring 380 police officers. One hundred and thirty of them will be brought in specially from Neuquén Capital. For crowd trouble? Well, they’ve clamped down on what can be brought. Fans will be allowed to bring mobile phones, cameras and 500cl bottles of water. Yet if that water bottle is one centilitre over, not a chance, and God help you if it’s made of glass. Lighters will be banned as will belts! Are all the extra police being posted for suicide watch? They may have to be: the traditional hotdog, hamburger and empanada vendors have been banned from the stadium for the game.

Alianza's Colossos, which holds 16,500 people, where la Selección local will take on Haiti on Wednesday

Pegamequemegusta was surprised upon learning that the match was being played in Patagonia. Then, in a condescending bout of big cityitis, decided it was nice for these mountain people, Sly’s peons and others crushed under the heel of the United Colours of Benetton, to be able to see real legends like Ortega and Palermo in their country’s colours in their home town. Sure it costs way more than usual, but Buenos Aires is a long, long way from Cutral Có. Plus the adventure fits in with the federalist vision propagated in the venues chosen for the Copa América 2011.

On further thought, though, pegamequemegusta wonders what powers are behind this apparently benevolent gesture. Who pulled the strings to have this game played here, of all places? Could it be a similar occasion to the utterly forgettable friendly with Belarus in 2008? Why are there so many police? If the match is to raise money for the Haitians, why is it being played in such a small venue? Is this not a vanity project for some powerful men down in oil-rich Patagonia? Dear, loyal, oh so handsome readers, this is a case for Tintin: Argentina and the Land of Black Gold.