Mariano accepts an assignment with his friend Jorge in the underbelly of Buenos Aires, on the promise of steak for dinner; by Frank Beyer.
How's it going Mariano? Glad you're trying this place out, a classic round here!
Jorge! What are you up to? Mariano replied, his smile genuine.
Jorge glanced around then locked eyes with Mariano, Listen, you busy? Want to make two hundred pesos?
What's the gig?
I need somebody to back me up. Half an hour on the bus to get there tops... not great neighbourhood, but I've got a good connection. Afterwards we can go to Siga la Vaca... my treat... Man! You been there? Got everything in the way of meat... bife de chorizo, lomo, vacio, morcilla, chinchulines... Jorge suggesting this restaurant surprised Mariano, Siga la Vaca was a bit touristy for a virtual local, but he wasn't going to argue. The deal was all you could eat with a bottle of wine thrown in... a bottle each! Mariano, mouth watering, couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten meat, it would be awesome. Ah! He did remember. A couple of weeks ago his buddy Pablo invited Mariano and four others to have a BBQ on roof of his house in Almagro. Pablo collected fifteen pesos off everyone and went down to a butcher in Balvanera. Pablo was ever the cheapskate. The place was subsidised by the government. The meat really looked OK, Pablo apologised, they switched it on me when I wasn't looking. He'd brought back a bag of gristle and bones, much to the disappointment of his near famished guests. This disaster brought to mind another time when Mariano went to celebrate the 18th of September in Parque Sarmiento... in a bit of hurry he ended up buying chorizos down by the train station. When put on the BBQ they spat and sizzled suspiciously, turning out to be pure fat. He'd almost cried. Wasn't this country a meat paradise? Maybe better luck today.
At the intersection at the end of Avenida Saenz the two men waited at pedestrian crossing. The paint was worn away so that the white stripes marking the crossing were barely visible. It was doubtful that they'd get repainted in this part of town. Cars and trucks hurtled through from all directions; hard work to get across. They crossed with a couple of middle-aged Paraguayan ladies who knew what they were doing. Safely on the other side they passed a small parilla, where several unsavoury characters sat gazing at Mariano intently as they ate choripanes. The eaters in turn were stared at by a couple street dogs. The choripanes did look delicious and Mariano lamented having only a single empanada inside his stomach for the mission.
Since hopping off bus Jorge couldn't stop blabbering, This will be a easy... look relaxed... these guys will buy the stuff no problem. We just need to play hardball on the price - no less than 2500... let me do the talking.
Turning a corner they were confronted by stairs leading up to the Alsina Bridge. And on their left loomed their destination, Villa 303 - the bare brick of a shanty town instantly recognizable. The Alsina Bridge connected the neighbourhood of Nueva Pompeya to the Provincia. Whether in the capital or the Provincia, the riverside had a bad reputation as a dangerous area of shanty towns or 'villas' and industrial wastelands. An urge gripped Mariano to go up the stairs and take a look at the view - to see across the river and what he imagined to be the endless villas flanking it. Didn't sentries from the villa watch out for people crossing the bridge and send groups out to rob them? Crackhead under eighteens with no fear of going to jail. This area looked exactly the kind of place for this to happen. Then, he saw a girl walk down the steps from the bridge, cackling into an expensive phone. The spell was broken, he laughed at his own fear.
Jorge, let's check out the view up there, I've never seen the river. We aren't in any hurry right?
Nooo, go down to La Boca if you want to be a tourist.
Come on, let's do it, I'm not going to come to this part of town again I don't think.
OK capo, if you insist... but we aren't here to fuck around.
They walked up the fifty or so stairs and out onto the bridge. Jorge, in pretty bad shape, started wheezing straight away. There wasn't much of a view on their side of the river: Villa 303, warehouses and barbed wire fences. On the far side vacant lots, rundown looking apartment blocks stretched towards the horizon, inspiring neither fear, disgust, nor admiration in the pale autumn light. Jorge struggled to light a cigarette in the breeze. Beautiful eh? he shouted with a broad grin... villas and train stations, the zones of instant robbery if you believed TV; places filled with youths in tracksuits, sporting Reggaeton haircuts and brows with multiple piercings. Mariano did see a couple of guys on the roof of the highest house in Villa 303, a place of three-storeys. They were smoking cigarettes and facing the other way from the bridge.
Jorge, impatient, turned back about a third of the way along. Mariano, satisfied, hurried to catch up. From the bottom of the steps it was half a block to the entrance of Villa 303, where a few kids were playing football in the dirt in front of brick houses. Several mangy dogs sniffed the feet of the newcomers.
Hey, kid... Nacho here? Jorge addressed a skinny boy of about twelve.
Yes, I'll get him. Smiling, the kid ran off quickly and disappeared into a house. Mariano couldn't help noticing that he had something wrong with his hips, but the way he ran suggested that he was unconcerned about the problem. The Villa was OK so far, atmosphere relaxed - the hair on the back of Mariano's neck wasn't standing up. It wasn't like they were going to gut him or anything.
A squat man in a Boca shirt and jeans emerged from a house, the kid was right behind him, wonky hips and all. The man approached Jorge, smiled and offered his hand, all business:
How are you, I'm Nacho. You must be Jorge? Gustavo called me about you. What have you got for me?
Jorge took off his backpack, rummaged around and produced two iPads, an iPhone and two digital cameras. Nacho, thumbs stuck in belt under generous beer gut, offered a faint smile. Jorge handed the devices one by one to Nacho, who then passed them on to the kid - who took off his shirt and placed it on the ground so he could lay the items out for inspection.
Great, and the chargers?
The chargers? ehhh, I don't have them...
Well how do I know they work? None of them have any battery.
Don't you guys have chargers? Thought you dealt in stolen goods.
We sell stolen phones, Nokia, Motorola, Samsung we've got it all. But we don't have chargers for cameras, iPads or iPhones. Look like we use iPads down here? You want to sell - bring the chargers... steal or buy them, I don't care. I can't buy a camera which mightn't work. We don't go in for iPads normally, no wifi down here. If the kids get on those things, where's the next football star coming from eh? Haha... I can give you 500 pesos for the lot.
No way man you're crazy.
This was one of those moments Mariano realised: you didn't know if you were being conned or not. Didn't know what was going to happen if you called the con bullshit. You needed money. Maybe you had to accept the price, because you were desperate and wanted to get out of there safe.
500 pesos, take it or get the fuck out of here!
Nacho again smiled, he had many smile lines. Mariano thought this not necessarily a good sign. Way Mariano saw it, now they had been given permission, there was nothing to do but get the hell out. In that little corner of planet Earth it was preferable not to start an argument. Something bad could happen here like Nacho turning into a smiling assassin. Mariano turned around, stepped off the dirt of the Villa area and back onto the paved ground of the official city.
Jorge hesitated, not liking to leave anywhere not saying much... he looked at Nacho, raised his eyebrows, on the point of making a big fuss, but in the end clumsily bent down to gather up the goods. Jorge trotted up the road breathlessly to catch the younger man.
Fucked by not having chargers... can you believe it... These guys are small time... idiots.
Mariano gave a sympathetic grunt. He wasn't really surprised that his dreams of gorging on red meat had been thwarted again. It had been good to believe for a while. A journey with no reward, but interesting; Jorge had said Villa 303 was pretty tranquil and was right. Good people, a bit of harmless trafficking of stolen goods. Worst thing about the place was the pong from the river. Too bad they hadn't got any money - why couldn't Jorge have gone to one of those shops on Libertad that buy and sell second-hand electronics? Much easier. No chargers? Great con, simple way to lower the price. Jorge was quiet, obviously furious with himself for having been lost for words to argue his case. A cool wind ran down Avenida Saenz. They trudged back to bus stop. Reaching the plaza they could see uprooted trees, the result of a recent storm. Someone had chalked the outlines of bodies next to the trees - had people died there? As far as Mariano knew from the news nobody this far up from the river had been killed, only a couple of people down in the riverside villas. He searched his pockets for coins... Jorge didn't have any. Once Mariano counted as low as his five centavo pieces there was enough for two fares. On the 188 bus he couldn't help stare at a baby girl with a cleft lip on the shoulder of her mother. The child snored, eyes open. The crowd on board wasn't good looking, it would improve in appearance as the bus got further along its route towards more affluent neighbourhoods in the north. Finally Jorge broke his silence:
Look, I have 35 pesos, let's buy something to cook at the hostel... it's your shift this afternoon, right? We can get a couple of bottles of wine too...
Sounds good, said starving Mariano.
They got off the bus in Balvanera and went straight to a butcher to buy chicken thighs, then to a Bolivian grocers for some sweet potatoes and tomatoes and finally to a Chinese supermarket for two bottles of red wine, stock cubes and rice. It came to less than fifty pesos. Jorge kindly put in thirty. And I'll buy you a bottle of fernet for your troubles... when I have the money. Hardly the same as the two hundred pesos and dinner at Siga la Vaca, but never mind... something decent to eat and a few drinks. Chicken wasn't what Mariano had his heart set on... but it was good value for money.
Life not too bad then - always something happening at the hostel: maybe some girls would check in and want to party or a guest would check out and leave behind half a bottle of vodka. Broke but they didn't need money - if worst came to worst they could always steal some beers from the hostel fridge later in the evening. As they entered the hostel, Jorge was just finishing one of his silly stories. The one about how, as a young man, he'd had sex with the Italian ambassador to Argentina's mother. It was the third time Mariano had heard the story:
Last time you told that story she was eighty not seventy.
An eighty year old, get out of here!
Laughing, slapping each other on the back, they headed to the kitchen behind the reception. Obscured from view by two saloon style swinging doors, it wasn't for guests to use, only staff, most of whom, Mariano included, lived onsite. Jorge wasn't strictly allowed - but things had got a little lax lately.
Let's open this wine.
Great... Jorge looked in the top drawer for the corkscrew. Then he opened a cupboard. Hey what the fuck?
Mariano looked - the drawer, the cupboard empty. Fuck, I'm going to kill her.
This had happened before. The cleaning lady had fucked them. This personality, who lorded over the hostel and the receptionists like a dictator, had taken away all the pots and pans. She'd locked them in the upstairs office because she wasn't satisfied with the cleanliness of the kitchen. Mariano went back out to the reception in search of an explanation. Johnnie Fresco was working on reception. He spoke, without even taking his eyes of his playlist on the computer screen. She said Andres didn't clean last night... saw a cockroach... threw a hissy fit and hid the stuff again, bitch, no?
Yeah... what a witch.
Jorge was already over the disappointment and had put some toast on using the bread which was supposed to be for the guests' breakfast. Now he was concentrating on getting the wine open with a knife. Mariano, not bothering to wait for the wine to be opened, took a Heineken from the fridge. Bloody Andres... the guy only has to do a little bit of cleaning on an eight hour night shift. Not that there weren't distractions for a young man. Andres' nickname was Green Eggs because his favourite food was fried eggs cooked in marijuana butter. Perhaps last night he had been whipping up some eggs or a batch of hash brownies? Or maybe a pretty girl had been down in reception pouring her heart out to him and he'd found it necessary to give her his unwavering attention. Alternatively it could have been that he'd got engrossed watching the Two and a Half Men all night omnibus. The result was no cooking until the cleaning lady calmed down and put the pots and pans back. No chicken tonight. Microwave chicken?
Jorge, leaving his struggles with the wine bottle for the minute, looked over at Mariano and asked:
Hey you want some tomatoes on toast?
Wasn't quite what Mariano had originally been hoping for - but yes he did want some, thank you Jorge...