The English Boy From CoghlanFriday, August 25, 2006
In Vancouver, every once in a while, I read my cheap 1938 Thor edition of Edmundo de Amicis’s Corazón. Reading it reminds me of my Buenos Aires childhood and of the mysterious Manrique who packed a 45 under his left armpit. He was a friend of my father’s. I never found out if Manrique was his first or last name. One day he gave me the book.
From 1949 (when I was 7) until 1954 I lived in Coghlan a neighbourhood by the Ferrocaril Bartolomé Mitre train station. My friends from the American Grammar School, on Freire Street close to Coghlan but in the upscale barrio of Belgrano R, did not know I lived there. My mother Filomena taught physics and chemistry at the American High School which was also on Freire. I did not pay for the privilege of attending a private school for children, whose parents worked for General Motors Ford, the Lincoln Library or other agencies of the American State Department. My friends, who lived in San Isidro and Acassuso, would not have know where Coghlan was. I was ashamed of my Argentine imitation jeans. My friends wore the real thing, Levis. They often shared their Bazooka and Double Bubble Gum with me. The advanced Argentine industry had managed to build advanced Pulqui 1 and 2 military jets but could not get jeans right or find a formula for decent bubble gum. I wanted to be a cowboy like Gene Autrey.
My house on 2770 Melián Street, almost corner with Nahuel Huapí, had a long and narrow garden with a couple of tall palm trees, five different varieties of plum trees, a loquat tree, a persimmon my father called a kaki, a fig tree which I could never climb because of its smooth bark and a purple/blue wisteria. The only warm room during the damp Buenos Aires winters was the kitchen with its old gas range.
It was in the kitchen where my father George would converse with his friend, Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. Mercedes Basaldúa, our housekeeper, would whip up Nescafe with sugar and a few drops of water with a tiny spoon. George and Cortázar would enjoy the frothy coffee with their cigarettes. My father smoked Player’s Navy Cut he obtained from his translator’s job at the Indian Embassy. Cortázar hated English tobacco. I was sent to the corner store to buy the locally made Arizonas. One day Cortazár caught me sliding down the banister. He whispered into my ear, “Watch out, when you least expect it, that banister is going to change into a Gillette razor blade!” I never found out, and worse, I was never curious enough to ask my father, a journalist who worked for the Buenos Aires Herald, how he had befriended Cortázar.
My father disappeared frequently. I would ask my mother who would reply that he was locked up at the Villa Devoto prison because he had written something against Perón. Our next door neighbours were peronists. When Perón gave his 25 de mayo and 9 de Julio independence day talks from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, they had their radio at full blast. As soon as Perón lost his voice, his wife Evita would take over. I had no great love for her. On los Tres Reyes (three kings day) Eva Perón gave us all hideous wooden toys. I wanted a Meccano.
The calabreses (Calabresi) lived on the other side of our backyard fig tree. My friend Miguelito and his family, shouted, fought, laughed and ate in the patio. Miguelito’s father, Fernando di Gregorio, was our barber. His shop was around the corner on Nahuel Huapí. He liked to talk. I was rewarded, for my patience, with a balloon. Miguelito and my German Jewish friend Mario Hertzberg (he lived across the street on Melian 2773) and I played on the street. Mario was El Ruso (Jews are always called Russian in Argentina), Miguelito was El Tano for Italian and I was El Inglesito, the little English boy. We played with little round football cards which we threw against a wall. The closest figurita from the wall took all. When it rained, the cobblestone street would flood. We would swim in our Melián swamp. We were very close to the Pirovano Hospital. So beautiful black-lacquered hearses, drawn by four shiny black stallions with black plumes on their head, frequently passed by, empty, on their way to the hospital morgue. We always lingered in the hope of spotting the coffin behind the beveled crystal windows.
During the pre-Lenten carnaval, murgas , costumed marching musicians, headed down Melián to the corso , the carnival festivity on Monroe Street. We kept our distance since the merrymakers like to soak us with their perfumed pomos (metal containers that could be squeezed) of water. On Melián we had a rag man, the ropaviejero , a knife sharpener, the man who reamed our drain pipes, and the horse drawn wagon (with car tires) of the Vascongada that delivered our milk. As of 1952 the ice man stopped coming to our house. We were the first ones on the block with a refrigerator. My mother had bought a used one from a departing American diplomat. The first thing I did was to prepare some lime flavoured Jell-O. Even as a kid I could already discern, like the good Argentine that I was the superiority of American goods specially over our local Gelatina Royal.
Mercedes’s sister, Enilse, lived with us. She worked in the nearby Nestle factory (by the railroad tracks) so we had sweets at home all the time. Her boyfriend Juan was a tram conductor. His Number 35 tram took us from Nahuel Huapí Street to my grandmother’s apartment on Roque Saenz Peña street, downtown. On the way I would spy the crenelated walls and towers of Villa Devoto and I would wonder if my father was in residence. Often Juan would visit in his uniform. In hand he had the special nickel plated tram control handle. In one glorious occasion he allowed me to hold it. Miguelito and Mario were envious.
Before Mercedes, we had Zelia and Abelardo, a married black couple living with us. Zelia was an excellent cook. One day our landlord and neighbour, el Señor Hinch invited me for an asado lunch. I was served an expensive cut of meat called an asado de lomo. That afternoon Zelia offered me a cheap asado de tira. I complained. Zelia removed her apron, told Abelardo to pack the bags and they were gone that evening. My mother gave me a spanking with her Filipino chinela or slipper.
When I was 9, I had my first communion at the Nuestra Señora del Carmen chapel, around the corner on Roque Pérez. When the nuns came to collect our contributions, my father who was drunk, placed a package of Volpi, tangerine flavoured losenges in the basket. I was ashamed. A few months later my father voluntarily left the house. He would come to visit twice a month. In one of those visits he took me to Schubert House on Rivera Street. I remember going up a spiral staircase on the upper floor. A pianist and violinist were playing a tango. My father proudly introduced me to them. I was so blond then, that the pianist told my father, “Your son looks German.” My mother was furious with George when she found out he had taken me to a bar. I didn’t see him for a long time. Of all of my father’s visits I remember best when he took me to the General Paz Theater on Cabildo Street to see Beau Geste with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland.
At the Ideal Monroe I first saw the films of Carlitos Chaplín. But beginning in 1950 (we had to write, on Peron’s orders, on the top right of every page of our school notebooks, “I950 The Year of our Liberator General Don José de San Martín) I liked going to the movie house that was run by Franciscan Capuchine monks and priests. The movie house was helping raise revenue to finish the Virgin Mary of the Angels parish church. After a short sermon, when we were told to be good boys and go to mass, we watched Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismuller.
In December 2004 I returned to my neighbourhood. I returned in the only way I could return, by train from Retiro, downtown. When I passed Belgrano R, I imagined the school where my mother had taught. The little stand, where they sold banana smoothies with milk or with water (my choice), had long disappeared. When the train crossed the Drago station barriers I knew I was almost in Coghlan. Everything was the same. I crossed the old iron bridge from one side of the platform to the other. The 4 blocks to my house felt much shorter. My house was there, minus the palm trees. The barbershop and Miguelito were gone and nobody could tell me where Mario now lived. Everything had changed. But there is one change, which fills me with joy. I once lived in Coghlan and I am proud of it.