Vignettes

Buenos Aires: Paseo Colon, May 2011 

I had a very pleasant experience at the passport office. It was totally the opposite of what I would have expected from the Argentine government: it was clean, ultra-modern with Samsung screens directing you everywhere, quiet, and most importantly, ordered and efficient. As I walked out of the office with my new passport in hand, I was upset, embarrassed, and angry at the old-school family networking that got me in there. 

I was South of the city-centre, but still in the downtown area, so I decided to walk to my aunt’s studio that was just a few blocks away on the Paseo Colon—a scenic avenue that runs from the Casa Rosada (the Presidential Palace) south to the Parque Lezama. I started my walk in the area called San Telmo, a refuge for artists, tango, antiques, and bohemian life broadly, which is where my aunt lives and works. As I turned onto the “Avenida Paseo Colon” and left behind Carlos Calvo (the street of the passport office), I stood looking at the University of Buenos Aires Engineering Building. The building looks something like a modern Parthenon: a huge, imposing neoclassical façade with some of the largest doric columns I have ever seen. It’s a beautiful building, and it was the place where my paternal grandfather had gone to school fifty years ago. Just where the streets begin to take on the names of liberated American countries, “Estados Unidos”, “Chile”, “Venezuela”, I turned onto the street where my aunt has her art studio, “Mexico”. There were a few hooligans, which in Argentina are derogatively referred to as “villeros,” causing a ruckus on the street, so I tried to get inside and out of the way of trouble as quickly as possible. I had a coffee and a cigarette with my aunt, saw some of her latest work, and said goodbye to make my way back north along Paseo Colon. 

I made it to the end of the Avenue, where the southern façade of the Casa Rosada was being repainted to replenish its pink vibrancy. I couldn’t help but sneer at the building because of the person who was inside running the show. As I walked North through the Plaza de Mayo, there was a man screaming obscenities in the center of the plaza. It is the site where Argentines have rallied since 1810 as the seat of revolution and reform. Now in a country that is plagued by catastrophe and corruption at every turn, I felt bad for the crazy person screaming obscenities, but really I was nauseous for being the heir to a tradition that had stratified and polarized the country into the curses that this man was screaming.

Los Angeles: Pasadena, Summer 2013 

We drove. I remember the Los Angeles warmth. It felt divine in those first few days after having had my hair freeze practically instantaneously every morning in Hanover. There’s something about that air—I can’t really describe it, except to say that there’s nothing like it anywhere I’ve ever been. It strokes your face and massages the lungs. Breathing it in connects me to a certain ease of life, a tranquility of thought. Self-awareness through habitual comfort. I think it’s just the California way. My mom, me, the California air blowing the swaying palm trees, reminiscing, discussing, riding down Pasadena’s historic Colorado Boulevard. 

Shorts and flip-flops on bronzed legs and feet, an Urban Outfitters tank creates a particular tan line; Gold-rimmed Clubmasters, a novel in hand, we park and walk towards Starbucks. My mom and I bond over a love for coffee. A need for certain coffee. The rules are as follows: Pour just enough cream so that the coffee is my complexion (my meaning hers because she doesn’t like too much cream—just enough); Pike Place blend is unquestioningly nasty; and absolutely no “froofroo” drinks. Ever. 

A grande bold—Christmas blend during the holidays. An Americano, or a Guatemala from the Clover machine if we’re really savoring the flavor. This time, a grande Americano for us both—obviously a triple shot, with room for just enough cream. 

The barista asks me how school’s going back up in the northeast, Dartmouth, right?—yes, cold. Sunglasses back down over the eyes. Step out on to a courtyard patio; lush arrangements: cactus in terracotta, brick underfoot, umbrellas overhead, jazz in the air, the sun, warmth, book in hand: Alexandre Dumas. 

The soothing breeze moves her caramel hair around her shoulders. You look really hipster with that haircut. Thanks. What’re we doing for dinner? You want In-N-Out? Obviously. Like, honestly, I could eat double-doubles all day long. Remember when you tried to be vegetarian? Yeah, was a fad. Remember that nasty Kombucha juice stuff you always got at Whole Foods? That stuff was awful. …I still have my Kombucha, boy! I drink it after I run after work! I need to get back into my yoga practice. The hot yoga place down the street is really good. I don’t like all that sweat though, I just need some nice relaxing yoga. But momma, like, you don’t get it. You feel so good after. Mhmmhmm. I need to do this reading. Yeah, me too. 

Chicago: Wellington and Clark, December 2013 

I’m sitting at the Caribou Coffee where my father used to buy me two chocolate-covered graham crackers a few times a week before day camp. I won’t claim that I was immediately transported back through the years as I bite into the graham crackers I’ve purchased as tribute, but I did feel childish eating them—as if adults couldn’t enjoy a graham cracker and a coffee on a sunny winter afternoon in Wrigleyville. 

I sit down to work in a long central table. Before long, three men sit down next to me with a timer and a chessboard. The game they’re playing, a timed chess variant, is coiled through with grace and also nervous energy. They survey the board, twirl their chosen piece gingerly into its spot—and whoosh out a hand to smack the timer, unwilling to squander an instant of their timed reserves. Most games don’t end in a familiar checkmate, with a rook or queen pinning a king to the corner in studied intellectual mastery of the opponent. More often, somebody just runs out of time. When they make a hasty error, they groan.

It becomes clear after watching a few games that the two older black men play a bit more expertly than the fiftysomething white man. The best player keeps steady verbal commentary coming as the game progresses—“you think that’ll trick me?”, or “so you’re going for that, huh?”—and he’s quick to pick out the crucial move that shifts the game. The younger guy is self-deprecating. He even asks for advice sometimes, which impresses me, and he quickly admits his inferiority when a fellow spectator approaches the trio. 

Paris: the Tuilleries gardens, March 2014 

A group of 10 or more men—not linked at all by race, age, or class, as far as I can tell—lob their metal bocce balls into the air one by one. Some float high and lazy, the marked sphere rotating slightly and bouncing close close closer—gutdropping overshot!—to the smaller ball. 

The well-dressed thirtysomething, wearing what looks like an Italian suit even, throws alone. He’s practicing the defensive art of firing a ball into another to push the original ball away from the target, just like the cueball in a game of pool. When he zips his ball into the one currently closest to the target, the move either ends in a satisfying ping or a long hike to chase down the missed shot. As he collects his failed balls, relics of finished practice games, he walks slowly, purposefully so, shaking his head to demonstrate how far he has fallen from the bocce standards of excellence to which he aspires. 

Finally someone accepts this Italian suit man’s implicit offer for a game. Seems close, if I’m following the rules right. “Merci,” says my man when the other man opts for a low-flier that pitters far away from the target. “Très bien,” says the other, as his opponent underarms a fastball, just like he had practiced, only it lands way in the grass somewhere. 

I like that when they mess up—when the ball plops onto the dirt and loses its intended momentum or skitters down the gravel stretch they’re using as a court—they glance at me to see if I smirk. I don’t, but I’m a participant-observer now. My gaze affects the game. When my favorite player, the Italian suit guy, wins, I don’t dare to wink at him, but I wish I did. 

Louisville, CO, May 2014 

City planners in the ’90s placed orders for thousands upon thousands of mass-produced river stones to provide some sort of visual texture between the street and the sloping sidewalks, a low-maintenance substitute for Boulder's grassy medians. I was told that it isn't the suburbs if there are sidewalks. It was a working-class town of Italian and Irish immigrants that became a working-class town of Mexican and Peruvian immigrants that became an outrageously white bubble municipality in the dotcom boom.

It took another fifteen years for the town to be fully subsumed by the bourgeoisie-bohemian fungus of Boulder. The shitty strip-mall Safeway was torn down when I was in high school to make way for a Sunflower, “like Whole Foods but less corporate.” The 1960s post office downtown was sold to a trendy pizza restaurant and an even trendier ice cream parlor, the kind of place that has flavors named after Tao Lin and Dave Eggers.

The main-street Italian restaurant was opened in 1919 by the pansy-ass brother of a coal miner, the brother who'd rather do woman's work in a kitchen than inhale black dust. It has been on the brink of collapse for at least the last decade. The menu proudly declares that the recipes have stayed the same for the last 95 years, and its primary advertising strategy is the presence of "Good, Reasonably-Priced Food." They've been hawking the same watery, flavorless pasta sauce in mason jars since time immemorial—rumor has it that the town has never had an e. coli outbreak because a 1970s kitchen renovation at the restaurant somehow continues to introduce enough asbestos into the air to kill any bacteria within a startlingly large radius.

And maybe this is just a push against the annoying parts of Boulder infringing on whatever my idea of home is. Granted, the food at the trendy pizza place is pretty good—way better than offensively bland fare at the nonagenarian Italian restaurant. But I can't help but feel like we're losing something every time I drive past this restaurant’s empty dining room, the tight acidity of pureed tomatoes billowing out of the kitchen exhaust fan. I doubt they'll make it to 100.

Buenos Aires by Nico Preti, Los Angeles by Noah Smith, Chicago and Paris by Charlie Rafkin, Louisville by Mac Simonson