Friday, 14 September 2007

Street life of Calle Florida



27 Jul 2007


Calle Florida runs across the heart of the city centre. It is a pedestrian shopping street crammed with life. Everyone who lives in or visits Buenos Aires walks this street at some time. Here is all manner of life. The shops do brisk business, whether the expensive ones of Galleria Pacifico, an elegant, period covered block of shops, restaurants and the Borges Cultural Centre (housing galleries and the Argentine tango and ballet schools of Julio Bocca) or the small kiosks placed precariously in the centre of the street around which the hordes of shoppers heave, urchins beg and thieves check bags. But today I am here to see the traders and street performers.

I start my journey of nearly a mile of shops from Plaza San Martin, where a warm breeze tousles the fronds of the fern trees and a translucent outline of the moon is already visible in the afternoon sky. As I cross the square the 152 bus to Olivos and La Boca thunders into view, distinct with blue and red livery and the sign 'Emp Tandilense SA' painted exotically on the side. This is the city's most intriguing coach company, festooned with bevelled mirrors and velvet sunshields. Its suspension hisses at each bump and lurch and its horn whoops at those who dare to get in its way. I enter the smart end of Calle Florida where the better hotels are located, and the afternoon sun manages to drench the first 20 metres of the street. Here the shoe polishers gather in the afternoon, catching business men and tourists as they make their way through the city. I sit on the tall stool and offer my Argentine tan leather shoes for a polish. The price seems to depend on the cut of ones suit or the quality of the leather to be cleaned. I am getting a 'silver service' it seems for 5 pesos, whilst a simple, brass lustre could cost as little as 2.5 pesos elsewhere. At over 6 pesos to the sterling pound this is still a good deal. My polisher hands me the local paper to read, which I take. He places inserts around my ankles to protect my socks and the process begins. First, the polish, liberally spread from a jar and rubbed into the leather. Then the wax, buffed into every crevice and into a fine bloom. Then the final polish with two large brushes moved like pistons over the sides of the shoes and finished with a soft cloth. The effect is dazzling to the eye, but more important, lifts the spirit. It is a private deal between two independent men both needing each other, me for the shine, him for the income. With the exchange of notes comes the smile through broken teeth and the handshake, and I am off on my way along Florida.

Still within the sunshine is the first performer. He is in his early 30's, dressed in a dark coat with his black hair down to his collar and plays classical guitar. The sound is superb and rich, enhanced by his portable amplifier, but to a subtle degree. Yet to draw a crowd, a small group of tourists loiter both to enjoy the sun and the sound. His position is guaranteed by the better hotels, outside which he plays. There too symbiosis. He is a professional and the hotel doormen realise the added value he brings to their frontage. As I progress, the bearded balloon man passes, sporting a fur hat, his mass of balloons rising on the gentle breeze. He pauses to make a sale and waves to his guitar playing friend. I am now passing from the winter sunshine into the calle. The height of the buildings on both sides screens the street from direct light at this time of the afternoon, but this seems to affect neither traders, performers or shoppers. Next I discover a young soprano dressed in a grey body warmer and sneakers. She is giving a spirited rendition of an aria which I should recognise but have temporarily mislaid. That matters not, as she paces to and fro performing actions as well as song to the delight of a small crowd. Further is more classicality. We are now outside Harrods. Once a replica of Harrods London, it now lies empty awaiting rebirth. Through the stained windows you can still discern the walnut and mahogany fittings and heavy bevelled screens. Is this Beethoven? He stands on a box covered in red crushed velvet, dressed in a red velvet jacket, bottle blue waistcoat and fawn breeches. Atop is his white full bottomed wig framing a white painted face. A few centivos brings him to life from his statuesque form, to conduct soundless music with his little white baton. A little further and we make the transition from the classical end of the calle to the bohemian. Our next performer is a bandonneon player. He wears a thick grey coat with white neckerchief, his elegant grey hair swept back. His music is as sad as his demeanour. An old performer who has fallen on hard times. A lone woman stands before him and claps, with tears in her eyes. She turns and rummages into her capacious bag, retrieving some notes which she places into his hat, and her handkerchief with which she dabs her face. Yet further is more sound of tango. Now outside Galleria Pacifico I see a group of young tango performers, wearing black suits trimmed with white edging and black hats with white bands. These are here at their appointed time most days. The boys look like students from the National School of Dance Folklorique, but the sole female dancer is a traditional street performer. She wears a daring red velvet dress cut to the highest point, revealing her fishnet covered legs to great effect. Their act is more of pastiche than performance, but worth the two minute wait and possibly a peso. Behind them is the almost limbless violinist, his trousers tucked up into his wheel chair so that they do not tangle with the wheels. He plays tuneful laments which mingle with the tango to form a suffused mist of sound. Then the puppeteer. She is slight with razored hair. Her single puppet performs rock music either at a piano or holding a microphone. For some reason she attracts a huge crowd who seem fascinated and spell-bound by the puppet's life-like antics. I think she will eat well tonight. As will the fallen angel. I say fallen as he is the only seated mannequin I have seen. He almost leans against the booth, his silver wings folded to each side and his silver hands ready to hand a small gift to those who place money in his bowl. People queue as if waiting for a blessing (which he probably gives for a peso), and for some reason children seem to love him. When not responding to alms, he sits motionless and godlike. To the side of him, by way of contrast, is the tarot card reader with green baize table and cards already spread for the next prediction. As I reach Lavalle, I encounter the painters, one painting with his feet, one with spray cans and another sketching portraits. Across is the photographer with classical pictures and tempting tango shots. At one side a trick seller demonstrating the impossible to an animated crowd of youngsters and to the other side a small child, aged perhaps 6, playing an accordion, the tune barely discernible amongst the hubub of the street. We are now but half way. The street is thronging and more delights lie ahead, like Jose Carlos' fabulous tango dancers pictured above but they must wait for another day.
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