(The tempest, the taxis, and Narigón)
by Terence Clarke, author, journalist and Alma del Tango board member
Weather makes Buenos Aires sidewalks perilous. The city is subject to violent hail and sidewalks become simply un-navigable, almost all of them in bad need of repair. You can’t see anything, you’re usually running in order to get out of the tempest, and your concentration is being scattered by hailstones that are like the globules of cement missing from the sidewalks. During such storms, the rain seems like a driven cataract. This may sound like an exaggeration — and it is — but not much of one, and there are saviors in this city who, for a slight fee, will help you through such torment.
Bea and I had been dancing tango one night in Buenos Aires. We’d begun around 11:00 PM, and we came out of the Viejo Correo club at about 3:00 in the morning. Sweaty, heated, and exhausted, all we wanted was a taxi and bed. We found when we came out onto the sidewalk that the very awning over our heads was groaning beneath the weight of the water coming down. A more or less slick sheet of it cascaded from each side of the convex canvas. I felt we were inside a constantly descending comber at some famous Hawaiian surfing spot.
Out on the Avenida Díaz Vélez, rain battered the pavement, lit by the headlamps of the heavy traffic. There were, as always in this city, numerous taxis, but they all seemed occupied or traveling so quickly that it would be impossible for their drivers to see the blur of an imploring hand waving for attention in the midst of the storm.
It was then that Narigón came to our aid.
The doorman had noticed our plight and whistled for Narigón. He came out of the dark. About 23, he was an over-the-hill street urchin. His name is Buenos Aires slang for “Big Nose,” and there was an Italianate heaviness to his own. His nose was, actually, muscular. In twenty years, it would have the look of a much-used doorstop. He looked like a laborer from contemporary Rome, his broad face already shaded with the beginnings of a dark beard.
At first I was intimidated by him because, although he was only of average height, there was a severe, even angered look in his eyes that made me think he could take a swipe at me with a club when my back was turned, in order to get to my wallet.
“Che, man, ¿taxi?” he said.
He was wearing an old coat, old pants, and running shoes without socks. His voice was arrabalero, a phrase that in Buenos Aires means “of the rough neighborhood,” as though he’d already smoked way too many cigarettes and drunk a good deal too much whiskey. It’s a voice you hear everywhere on the streets of Buenos Aires, and frequently in tango.
I assented, and Narigón ran out into the street. He had to contend with two elements: the tempest and the taxis, both of which seemed to want to run him down. He pulled his coat over his head and raised his right arm, his hand like a splayed flag over his head, waving back and forth. He was able to whistle, very loudly, at the same moment. The rain that pummeled Narigón sunk into the shoulders and the back of his coat, rendering them immediately soaked.
His shoes splashed in the puddles, the water whelming over into them so that his feet were inundated within seconds.
In a few moments, an errant taxi pulled across a couple lanes of traffic to answer Narigón’s request, and as soon as it stopped in front of the club, he was there, at our side, with an umbrella. Where he’d gotten it was beyond me, but he sheltered Bea as she got into the taxi, and then me as I fumbled in my pants pocket for a tip. As I searched my pockets, I considered my admiration of this man. Of course, the effort he was making was for himself. Perhaps he had a family, maybe some children, but even if he had only himself, he was indigent and trying to make a peso. Standing beneath that umbrella (underneath which, by the way, he was not standing) I felt I was in the company of a man of intense values, who was living a hard life, who had found me a cab under circumstances very threatening to his own health.
I pulled the bills from my pocket and handed them to him.
“Chau, señor,” he said, clapping me on the back as I got into the taxi. “Suerte.” This last is a Buenos Aires salutation. It means “Good luck.”
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published on December 1. Titled La espléndida ciudad, it will be available in bookstores worldwide and at all the usual online sites.