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The Dirty Kid
My family thinks I’m crazy, and all because I choose to live in our old family home in Constitución, the house that once belonged to my paternal grandparents. It’s an imposing stone building on Calle Virreyes, with iron doors painted green, art deco details, and old mosaics on a floor so worn out that if I ever got the urge to wax it I could open up a roller rink. But I was always in love with this house. I remember when I was little and my family rented it out to a law firm and I got so upset; I missed those rooms with their tall windows, and the walled patio that was like a secret garden. I hated not being able to just go in anytime I passed by. I never really missed my grandfather, a silent man who hardly smiled and never played—I didn’t cry when he died. I cried a lot, though, when after he died we lost the house for several years.
After the lawyers a team of dentists moved in, and then the house was rented to a travel magazine that folded in under two years. The house was beautiful and comfortable and in remark- ably good condition considering how old it was, but by then no one, or very few people, wanted to settle in that neighborhood. The travel magazine went for it only because the rent was very low for the time. But not even that could save them from quickly going bankrupt, and it certainly didn’t help that their offices were robbed: all their computers were stolen, plus a microwave oven and even a heavy photocopier.
The station in Constitución is where trains coming from the south of the country enter the city. In the nineteenth century it was the area where the port’s aristocracy lived; that’s why houses like my family’s exist, and there are plenty of others that have been converted into hotels or old folks’ homes, or are crumbling to the ground on the other side of the station, in Barracas. In 1887, the aristocratic families fled to the northern part of the city to escape the yellow fever. Few of them came back, almost none. Over the years, families of rich businessmen like my grandfather were able to buy those stone houses with their gargoyles and bronze door knockers. But the neighborhood was marked by that flight, the abandonment, the condition of being unwanted.
And it’s only getting worse.
But if you know how to move around the neighborhood, if you understand its dynamics, its schedules, it isn’t dangerous. Or it’s less dangerous. I know that on Friday nights, if I go down to Plaza Garay, I might end up caught in a fight between several possible adversaries: the mininarcos from Calle Ceballos who defend their territory from other occupants and chase down the endless people who owe them money; the addicts who, brain- dead as they are, get offended at anything and react violently, lashing out with broken bottles; the drunk and tired transvestites who have their own patches of pavement to defend. I also know that if I walk home along the avenue I’m more exposed to a robbery than if I take Solís, even though the avenue is well lit and Solís is dark; most of the few streetlights it has are broken. You have to know the neighborhood to learn these strategies. I’ve been robbed twice on the avenue, both times by kids who ran past and grabbed my bag and pushed me to the ground. The first time, I filed a police report; by the second I knew it was pointless. The police let teenage muggers rob on the avenue as far as the highway bridge—three free blocks—in exchange for favors. There are certain tricks to being able to move easily in this neighborhood and I’ve mastered them perfectly, though sure, something unexpected can always happen. It’s a question of not being afraid, of making a few necessary friends, saying hi to the neighbors even if they’re criminals—especially if they’re criminals—of walking with your head high, paying attention.
I like the neighborhood. No one understands why, but I do: it makes me feel sharp and audacious, on my toes. There aren’t many places like Constitución left in the city; except for the slums on its outskirts, the rest of the city is richer and friendlier—huge and intense but easy to live in. Constitución isn’t easy, and it’s beautiful: all those once-luxurious chambers, like abandoned temples now occupied by unbelievers, who don’t even know that inside those walls hymns to old gods once rang out.
There are also a lot of people who live on the street. Not as many as in Plaza Congreso, two kilometers from my front door; over there it’s a regular encampment, right in front of the government buildings, scrupulously ignored but also so visible that every night squads of volunteers come to hand out food to the people, check the children’s health, distribute blankets in winter and fresh water in summer. The homeless in Constitución are more neglected, and help rarely comes to them. Across from my house is a corner with a shuttered convenience store, whose doors and windows are bricked up to keep occupiers out; a young woman lives in front of it with her son. She’s pregnant, maybe a few months along, although you never know with the junkie mothers in the neighborhood because they’re so thin. The son must be around five years old. He doesn’t go to school and he spends his days on the subway, begging for money in exchange for prayer cards of Saint Expeditus. I know because I’ve seen him at night, on the train, on my way home from the city center. He has a very disturbing method: after offering the prayer cards to the passengers, he obliges them to shake hands, a brief and very grimy squeeze. The passengers have to contain their pity and disgust: the kid is very dirty and he stinks. Any- way, I never saw anyone compassionate enough to take him out of the subway, bring him home, give him a bath, call social services. People take his hand, buy the prayer cards. His forehead is always wrinkled into a frown, and when he talks, his voice is shot; he tends to have a cold, and sometimes he smokes with other kids from the subway or around Constitución.
One night, we walked together from the subway station to my house. He didn’t talk to me, but we kept each other company. I asked him some dumb questions, his age, his name; he didn’t answer. He wasn’t a sweet or innocent child. When I reached the door of my house, though, he said good-bye.
“Bye, neighbor,” he said. “Bye, neighbor,” I replied.
The dirty kid and his mother sleep on three mattresses so worn out that, piled up, they’re the same height as a normal box spring. The mother keeps the little clothing she has in several black garbage bags, and she has a backpack full of other things; I couldn’t say what they are. She doesn’t move from the corner; she stays there and begs for money in a gloomy and monotonous voice. I don’t like the mother. Not just because she’s irresponsible, or because she smokes crack and the ash burns her pregnant belly, or because I never once saw her treat her son, the dirty kid, with kindness. There’s something else I don’t like. I told my friend Lala while she was cutting my hair in her house last Monday, which was a holiday. Lala is a hairdresser, but she hasn’t worked in a salon for a long time; she doesn’t like to have bosses, she says. She earns more money and is more at ease in her apartment. As a salon, Lala’s apartment has a few issues. The hot water, for example, only flows intermittently because the heater works badly, and sometimes, when she’s washing my hair after dyeing it, I get a shock of cold water over my head that makes me cry out. She rolls her eyes then and explains that all the plumbers cheat her, they charge her too much, they never come back. I believe her.
“Girl, that woman is a monster,” she exclaims while she’s burning my scalp with her ancient hair dryer. It also hurts a little when her thick fingers smooth my hair. Lala decided to be a Brazilian woman years ago, but she was born a Uruguayan man. Now she’s the best transvestite stylist in the neighborhood and she doesn’t work the streets anymore; faking a Brazilian ac- cent was useful in seducing men when she was hooking, but it doesn’t really make sense now. Still, she’s so used to it that sometimes she talks on the phone in Portuguese, or, when she gets mad, she raises her arms to the sky and begs for vengeance or mercy from Pomba Gira, her personal spirit, to whom she has a small altar set up in the corner of the room where she cuts hair. It’s right next to her computer, which is always lit up in a perpetual chat.
“So you think she’s a monster too.”
“She gives me the chills, mami. It’s like she’s cursed or some- thing, I don’t know.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’m not saying anything. But around here the word is she’ll do anything for money. She even goes to witches’ sabbats.”
“Oh, Lala, what witches? There are no witches around here. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
She gives my hair a yank that seemed intentional, but then she apologizes. It was intentional.
“What do you know about what really goes on around here, mamita? You live here, but you’re from a different world.”
She’s right, even though I don’t like to hear it. Nor do I like that she can so candidly put me right in my place: the middle- class woman who thinks she’s a rebel because she chose to live in the most dangerous neighborhood in Buenos Aires. I sigh.
“You’re right, Lala. But I mean, she lives in front of my house and she’s always there, on the mattresses. She never moves.”
“You work long hours, you don’t know what she does. You don’t watch her at night, either. The people in this neighbor- hood, mami, are really . . . what’s the word? You don’t even realize and they attack you.”
“There you go. You’ve sure got a vocabulary on you. Doesn’t she, Sarita? Real high class, this one.”
Sarita has been waiting around fifteen minutes for Lala to finish my hair, but she doesn’t mind waiting. She’s leafing through magazines. Sarita is a very young transvestite who works the streets above Solís, and she’s beautiful.
“Tell her, Sarita, tell her what you told me.”
But Sarita pouts her lips like a silent-movie diva; she doesn’t feel like telling me anything. It’s better that way. I don’t want to hear the neighborhood horror stories, which are all unthinkable and plausible at the same time and don’t scare me a bit. At least not during the day. At night, when I’m trying to finish overdue projects and I stay awake and in silence so I can concentrate, sometimes I recall the stories they tell in low voices. And I check to be sure the front door is good and locked, and the door to the balcony, too. And sometimes I stand there looking out to the street, especially toward the corner where the dirty kid is sleeping beside his mom, completely still, like nameless dead.
One night after dinner, the doorbell rang. Strange: almost no one comes to see me at that hour. Only Lala, on some night when she feels lonely and we stay up together listening to sad rancheras and drinking whiskey. When I looked out the window to see who it was—no one opens the door right away in this neighborhood, especially when it’s nearly midnight—I saw the dirty kid standing there. I ran to get the keys and I let him in. He’d been crying; you could tell from the clean streaks down his grimy face. He came running in, but he stopped before he got to the dining room door, as if he needed my permission. Or as if he was afraid to keep going.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My mom didn’t come back,” he said.
His voice was less hoarse now, but he didn’t sound like a five- year-old child.
“She left you alone?” He nodded.
“Are you scared?”
“I’m hungry,” he replied. He was scared, too, but he was already hardened and wouldn’t acknowledge it in front of a stranger. One who, moreover, had a house, a beautiful and enormous house right there beside his little patch of concrete.
“Ok,” I told him. “Come on.”
He was barefoot. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been wear- ing some fairly new running shoes. Had he taken them off in the heat? Or had someone stolen them in the night? I didn’t want to ask. I sat him down on a kitchen chair and I put a little chicken and rice into the oven. While we waited, I spread cheese on some delicious homemade bread. He ate while looking me in the eyes, very seriously, calmly. He was hungry but not starved.
“Where did your mom go?” He shrugged.
“Does she leave you alone a lot?”
He shrugged again. I felt like shaking him, and right away I was ashamed. He needed my help; there was no reason for him to satisfy my morbid curiosity. And even so, something about his silence made me angry. I wanted him to be a friendly, charming boy, not this sullen, dirty kid who ate his chicken and rice slowly, savoring every bite, and belched after finishing his glass of Coca-Cola. This he did drink greedily, and then he asked for more. I didn’t have anything to give him for dessert, but I knew the ice cream parlor over on the avenue would be open; in summer they served until after midnight. I asked him if he wanted to go, and he said yes with a smile that changed his face completely; he had small teeth, and one on the bottom was about to fall out. I was a little scared to go out so late, and to the avenue, no less. But the ice cream shop tended to be neutral territory; you almost never heard of robberies or fights there.
I didn’t bring my purse. Instead I stuffed a little money in the pocket of my jeans. In the street, the dirty kid gave me his hand, and not with the indifference he had when he greeted the people on the subway who bought his prayer cards. He held on tight; maybe he was still scared. We crossed the street; the mattress where he slept beside his mother was still empty. The backpack wasn’t there, either; she had taken it, or someone had stolen it when they found it there without its owner.
We had to walk three blocks to the ice cream parlor and I decided to take Ceballos, a strange street that could be silent and calm some nights. The less-chiseled transvestites worked there, the chubbiest and oldest ones. I was sorry not to have any shoes to put on the dirty kid’s feet; the sidewalks often had shards of glass from broken bottles, and I didn’t want him to get hurt. But he walked barefoot with assurance; he was used to it. That night the three blocks were almost empty of transvestites, but they were full of altars. I remembered what they were celebrating; it was January 8, the day of Gauchito Gil, a popular saint from the provinces of Corrientes who has devotees all over the country. He’s especially beloved in poor neighborhoods, though you’ll see altars all over the city, even in cemeteries. Antonio Gil, it’s said, was murdered at the end of the nineteenth century for being a deserter. A policeman killed him, hanged him from a tree and slit his throat. But before he died, the outlaw gaucho told the policeman: “If you want your son to get better, you must pray for me.” The policeman did, because his son was very sick. And the boy got better. Then the policeman went back, took Antonio Gil down from the tree, and gave him a proper burial, and the place where he had bled to death became a shrine that s...
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