For a stint, I was a letter writer in Buenos Aires. I worked out of the Retiro station which was close to Villa 31, a slum known for its Naipes sharks. So then, I got work writing letters for villeros and for the newly arrived from the provinces. I thought that it would be the best way to lay low, now that the generals had descended from their promontories, drunk and with lust, and were disappearing students, commies, and sindicalistas.
All in all, it was pleasant and entertaining, especially because I could have written down anything I wanted; but, taking advantage of the destitute and illiterate is not high on my list of wishes. So, I did my job with a diligence and care that made it seem as if I was writing contracts or wills. No, maybe that's too much. I did my job with the dedication that one person in trouble would extend to another person in trouble. I helped out the helpless, and for a nominal fee that gave me enough money to eat.
Now, writing letters is not simply transcription. You see with people that aren't accustomed to reading, you have to not only capture the vital information, but you have to compose it in a way that is intelligible, that is that sounds like the way people speak in books. People that read are familiar with the phrases and stems that people use in their everyday speech. But with people that don't read, or can't, it is incumbent on the letter writer to supply those phrases. So it was with me that when I transcribed a letter, I was actually composing it, populating it, with the phrases, nuances, and adages that were in common use. I sometimes thought whether there was a letter reader at the terminus of the letter I was writing that would also ad lib what I had actually written.
Because then, really, it would be like the letter reader and the letter writer having a conversation over the noise of the content of the letter. The process enthralled me, and I got to deal with all types of people, and listen to their stories and try to re-write them in my vein. On a good day, I would write about twelve letters and on a bad day I barely scribbled three. But for the most part it was good work and more importantly, I was helping people out and connecting with them in weird and fantastic ways. And in many ways, I became a fixture in that square just like the commuters and the ambulatory salesmen. I got to know Retiro like my own nose; it was something I studied unconsciously. Before long, people were asking me scheduling questions and I became like one more of Retiro's grimy apostles.
Now, I usually didn't get too many requests to read an actual letter. People living in the city usually had family or neighbors that could read letters to them. But one day, a tall, dark man approached me and asked if I could read the letter he was carrying. He seemed apprehensive, at first, about me getting to jump into his family affairs, but his desire to know seemed more in control. What did he want to know, you ask? He wanted to know whether the reader in his city had read the letter faithfully; he wanted a second opinion on the reader he had payed to read the letter aloud to him. So, I told him what my price was and got straight to work. I usually sat on a sturdy, knee-high stool and carried one with me for my customers to sit on while I did my scribe-ing. Pedro, or Don Pedro I soon found out, was his name and it seemed like he had ridden the train straight for two days; there were rungs under his eyes and his coat smelled of tobacco smoke and kerosene.
Te escrivimos de Buenos Aires para decirte que estamos bien. Hemos encontrado un depto en Once. Yo trabajo en la disqueria Broadway pero por Congreso. Elba trabaja en un kiosko por la Florida y esta de novio con un chico de Flores. Te extranamos muchisimo papa, pero queremos hacer la vida en Buenos Aires y no queremos volver a San Miguel de Tucuman. Esperemos que no entiendas, pero nos parece que es para el bien de todos. Vamos a tratar de mandar dinero lo mas antes posible.
We are writing to you from Buenos Aires to tell you that we are well. We have found an apartment in Once. I work at the record shop called Broadway that is on Congreso. Elba works at a bodega on Florida and she is dating a boy from Flores. We miss you dearly Dad, but Elba and I want to build a life in Buenos Aires and we don't want to return to San Miguel de Tucuman. We understand you won't understand, but it seems like to us that this will be for the good of everyone. We are going to try to send money as soon as we have some money to spare.
Pedro looked me in the eye and asked me what a disqueria was; I told him it was simply a record shop, where one buys records. I said records, you know, and made a circle with my hands as if I were fashioning a record. He looked at me blankly before nodding his head intently once or twice and following it up with five or six tiny little nods. But we both knew something at that minute. If Elba and her sister were both in Buenos Aires and they were sisters and Elba had a boyfriend, then that meant that the author of the letter also must have had a boyfriend.
But she very carefully obfuscated that detail and both of us read between the lines. The other thing we realized was that the Father's visit was a last ditch effort to retain control over his little two girls. You could tell that he had been through a lot, even before he decided to board a train two thousand miles away and not get off until it deposited him in front of their door. Pedro's high cheekbones sunk independently of his pursed lips, and he slumped into a posture of anonymous shame. Even though it had been hours since he had gotten off the train from Tucuman, under these circumstances, Pedro looked just like one of the millions of chewed up and hardened denizens of Buenos Aires.
I pointed the way to Congreso and even though he could have taken the subway, Pedro left on foot as a sort of penance, as if he were about to trample his sins.
A Spanglish blog dedicated to the works, ruminations, and mongrel pyrotechnics of Yago S. Cura, an Argentine-American poet, translator, publisher & futbol cretin. Yago publishes Hinchas de Poesia, an online literary journal, & is the sole proprietor of Hinchas Press.