Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Squeegee People

The neighborhood where we stayed in Buenos Aires consists primarily of apartment buildings, most 7 – 10 stories tall. However, one block away was Avenida Santa Fe, which is a bustling shopping district, similar to Fifth Avenue in New York. The streets are fairly narrow, although Buenos Aires boasts the widest avenue in the world, Avenida Nueve de Julio. You could land a 747 on the median.

The narrow streets form a canyon effect, so street noise is a bit of a problem, but you get used to it very quickly. Once you’re off the main avenue, the streets are fairly quiet, with occasional restaurants, taverns, bakeries, and my personal favorite, the “Locutorio.” A Locutorio is a little store where you can buy candy, cigarettes and soft drinks. They also have a few phone booths where you can make an international phone call for reasonable rates, and a few computer terminals where you can check your e-mail, write a letter or do your homework for about 15 cents a minute. But the keyboards are Spanish. They need room for the upside-down question mark, the upside-down exclamation point, the N with the little wiggly line over it, and more. So they left off the “at” sign (@). This means that anybody in any Spanish-speaking country who sends you an e-mail had to press ALT-64 to insert the “at” sign in your address, so give them credit for perseverance.

Every morning, I’d wake up at my usual time while my wife and daughter slept. I’d go out to the street and walk less than a block to the nearest panaderia (bakery), which was called the “Cafeteria Sudamerica” for coffee and fresh pastries. They have a few tables in there for the customers who like to sip their coffee and browse the newspaper before heading off to work. The first time I went in there, I stumbled through the order, because I didn’t know how to say “to go” in Spanish (“para llevar”). The owner was very patient with me, and we eventually came to an understanding. I ordered 3 Cafés con Leche, and a half-dozen fresh rolls, usually “medialunas,” which are the Argentine equivalent of croissants, but more chewy and honey-glazed. From that first day forward, whenever I entered the Café Sudamerica, the owner instantly sprang forward to begin preparing my order without my having to say a word.

When my order was complete, the owner put the three coffees in a plastic bag so I could carry them back to the apartment. The coffees tipped and dripped in the bag, so it was a bit of a challenge. Nowhere in Argentina did I see anyone carrying beverages in one of those fold-out cardboard carriers. I also never saw a soft drink fountain anywhere, not even in the soccer stadium. When you order a soft drink in Argentina, you get a bottle, or the drink is poured into a cup for you from a bottle. If you use this information to make a fortune, please remember where you found out about it.

We’d sip the delicious South American coffee and munch on the pastries while my wife and daughter slowly regained consciousness. It was the nicest part of the day, in my opinion.


As I strolled around the neighborhood, I noticed that the city sidewalks are different than those they have in the U.S. They’re composed of paving blocks, not concrete. This is because the water, sewer and electrical lines run under the sidewalk, not the street. To avoid noisy jackhammer operations, paving blocks are used to ensure that the noise of repairs are kept to a minimum in those residential neighborhoods. This sounds like a very civilized solution, but of course, it’s got a major problem.

Bright and early every morning, all over Buenos Aires, business owners and building managers come out to the sidewalk carrying a hose and a long-handled squeegee. They then hose off the sidewalk in front of their establishment or residence, and squeegee the water into the gutter. This fastidious behavior, while praiseworthy, seems unnecessary, because the sidewalks simply don’t get that dirty in 24 hours. Yet somehow, some enterprising squeegee salesman has convinced an entire city of 8 million people that they NEED this gizmo. The problem is that every day, those sidewalks are doused in water, which seeps between the paving blocks, and erodes the earth supporting them from beneath. The sidewalks look beautiful when they’re first completed, but over a little bit of time, some of the paving blocks start to rock unexpectedly when you step on them, threatening to pitch you into the gutter. As more time passes, the blocks sink or break until the sidewalk resembles a military obstacle course, and every day, some moron squeegees it off.

This concept of unnecessary cleanliness appeared all over Argentina, in very unlikely places. When we were visiting the city center, we saw a guy up on a ladder washing the traffic lights. In the central train station, I saw the owner of a newsstand dusting his magazines with a feather duster. Dude, if you have to dust off your magazines, maybe dirt is not your biggest problem.washinglights

No comments: