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Things We Lost in the Fire, The Dirty Kid (1)

The Dirty Kid (1)

The Dirty Kid

My family thinks I'm crazy, and all because I choose to live in our old family home in Constitución, in 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 wanted. I never really missed my grandfather, a silent man who hardly ever 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 law firm a team of dentists moved in, and then the house was rented to a travel magazine that folded in less than two years. The house was beautiful and comfortable and in remarkably 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. But not even that could save them from promptly 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 Constitución station is where trains coming from the south of the country enter the city. In the nineteenth century, the port's aristocracy had lived in Constitución; 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 mini-narcos from Calle Ceballos who defend their territory from invaders and chase down the countless people who owe them money; the brain-dead addicts who get offended at anything and react by 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 muggers 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 alcoves, 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, check the children's health, distribute blankets in winter and fresh water in summer. The homeless in Constitución are more neglected, and help rarely reaches 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 with her son on the sidewalk in front of it. 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 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. Anyway, I never saw anyone compassionate enough to take him out of the subway, bring him home, give him a bath, call social services. People shake his hand, buy his 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 bed. The mother keeps what 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 one Monday, 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 place has a few issues. The hot water, for example, only flows sporadically because the heater is busted, 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. Then she rolls her eyes 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 yells as she burns 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 accent 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 she gets mad and 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 something, 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's no such thing as witches. You shouldn't believe everything you hear.”

She gives my hair a yank that seems 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 neighborhood, mami, they're really…what's the word? You don't even realize and they attack you.”

“Stealthy?”

“That's it. 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. 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, if I'm up late to finish a project, and everything is silent 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 at the street, especially at the corner where the dirty kid is sleeping beside his mom, both 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 nights 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 let him in. He'd been crying; you could tell from the clean streaks down his grubby 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 were afraid to keep going.



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The Dirty Kid (1)

The Dirty Kid

My family thinks I'm crazy, and all because I choose to live in our old family home in Constitución, in the house that once belonged to my paternal grandparents. Mi familia piensa que estoy loco, y todo porque elijo vivir en nuestra antigua casa familiar en Constitución, en la casa que alguna vez fue de mis abuelos paternos. 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. Pero siempre estuve enamorada de esta casa. 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. Recuerdo cuando era pequeño y mi familia lo alquiló a un bufete de abogados y me molesté mucho; Extrañaba esas habitaciones con sus ventanas altas y el patio amurallado que era como un jardín secreto. I hated not being able to just go in anytime I wanted. I never really missed my grandfather, a silent man who hardly ever 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 law firm a team of dentists moved in, and then the house was rented to a travel magazine that folded in less than two years. The house was beautiful and comfortable and in remarkably 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. But not even that could save them from promptly 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 Constitución station is where trains coming from the south of the country enter the city. In the nineteenth century, the port's aristocracy had lived in Constitución; 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 mini-narcos from Calle Ceballos who defend their territory from invaders and chase down the countless people who owe them money; the brain-dead addicts who get offended at anything and react by 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 muggers 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 alcoves, 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, check the children's health, distribute blankets in winter and fresh water in summer. The homeless in Constitución are more neglected, and help rarely reaches 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 with her son on the sidewalk in front of it. 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 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. Anyway, I never saw anyone compassionate enough to take him out of the subway, bring him home, give him a bath, call social services. People shake his hand, buy his 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 bed. The mother keeps what 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 one Monday, 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 place has a few issues. The hot water, for example, only flows sporadically because the heater is busted, 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. Then she rolls her eyes 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 yells as she burns 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 accent 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 she gets mad and 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 something, 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's no such thing as witches. You shouldn't believe everything you hear.”

She gives my hair a yank that seems 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 neighborhood, mami, they're really…what's the word? You don't even realize and they attack you.”

“Stealthy?”

“That's it. 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. 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, if I'm up late to finish a project, and everything is silent 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 at the street, especially at the corner where the dirty kid is sleeping beside his mom, both 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 nights 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 let him in. He'd been crying; you could tell from the clean streaks down his grubby 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 were afraid to keep going.

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