Friday, March 17, 2006

The Purgatory Key and the Missing Empanada

Our apartment in Buenos Aires was located in a nice district, and looked very presentable from the outside, with a covered entryway. We buzzed the apartment and the rental agent showed up a minute later, opened the entryway door, and brought us into the lobby, which was all brass and marble. He showed us around a corner to the elevators.

There were two elevators, each slightly larger than a standard telephone booth. They were equipped with inner and outer manually-operated metal grid doors, which you had to close when you left, or the elevator wouldn’t move for the next tenant who tried to call it to their floor. However, if the elevator was on another floor, you could open the outer door, which was convenient for suicide attempts.

Our apartment was on the 7th floor. It consisted of a small living/dining area with a small balcony, a small kitchen, a tiny laundry room with a tiny washing machine, a hallway with two small bedrooms and two bathrooms. One bathroom was small, the other was ridiculously small. In other words, the apartment was small. But we were only three people, so I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I grew fond of its Spartan efficiency. The second bathroom seemed like a useless waste of space, valuable only if one member of the family was stricken with some kind of intestinal disorder, which I hoped was unlikely.

The rental agent showed us the apartment, how to work the various fixtures and appliances, and gave us two sets of keys. The first thing I noticed was that the keys were radically different from any I had ever seen.


The first key was shaped like keys we use at home, but instead of serrated notches, it had little dimples impressed into the metal. This was the key to the downstairs door. You needed it to get into the building, and you also needed it to get OUT of the building. In other words, if you didn’t have a key, you couldn’t leave. I have no idea what they did in case of a fire.

The apartment key was like a double skeleton key. The door to the apartment had a horizontal oval opening into which you inserted the key. This opening was larger than the key itself, so the key rattled around in there until you found just the right spot, then you could turn it to withdraw the deadbolt. In theory.

When the rental agent left, we unpacked and waited for Norberto and his boys to arrive from his apartment. He rang our apartment bell and I picked up the phone to make sure it was him. Then my daughter and I went downstairs to let him in. They don’t seem to believe in electrically-operated door latches in Argentina. He wanted to see our apartment, so we rode the coffin-like elevators back up, and I discovered to my dismay that I could not open the door with the door key. Norberto gave it a try, and he couldn’t open it either.
The rental agent was long gone, and the sheet of paper with his phone number was inside the apartment. We spent 20 frustrating minutes trying to open that door.

We couldn’t find the building manager, but we did stop a tenant on his way out, and he graciously came up to the apartment with us, and with a simple twist of the wrist, opened the door. We tried to call the rental agent, but he was unavailable, so we decided to go out to dinner. We left the apartment and closed the door. Just for an experiment, I tried to open it again. Of course, it didn’t work. I began to panic, unable to understand this ridiculous puzzle.

Norberto suggested we eat first, then screw around with the door later. We went to a little restaurant nearby, and everybody ordered empanadas, a local type of fast food. They’re available filled with ground beef, cheese, vegetables, chicken, and for some reason, corn. Everyone ordered ground beef, but I ordered cheese. The waiter returned a few minutes later, serving everyone except for me. I barely noticed as I sat there seething in rage at this problem with the key. I was thousands of miles from home, unable to operate one of the most common machines available to mankind. I was stuck in an emotional limbo between hope and despair.

Norberto, seeing my inner turmoil, attempted to calm me down. However, I was contemplating a night of homelessness in a foreign city, and was inconsolable. Suddenly I noticed that the kids had finished eating, and I still had not yet been served. “WHERE’S MY EMPANADA?” I demanded, my head swiveling for the waiter. No apartment, no food, it just kind of overwhelmed me. “BRING ME MY GODDAMN EMPANADA!”

The waiter appeared magically, with my empanada on a plate. The kids were now watching me warily. The empanada was hissing and steaming, nearly the temperature of molten copper. It was inedible, the cheese boiling and oozing, resembling red-hot lava encased in flaky dough. So I sat, miserable and angry, waiting for entropy to drain the heat from my meal, and the rage from my soul.

Eventually, the empanada cooled, we returned to the apartment, screwed around with the key for a little while and soon discovered the magical secret that 8 million people in Buenos Aires already knew. And no, I’m not going to tell you how to open the door. Go to Buenos Aires and figure it out for yourself. Have an empanada.

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