We have heard the sound before but known not what it was. Panpipes, but of a shrill nature rather than the sonorous modulation of Peruvian pipes. The scale from A to G and then down to E. Somewhere in the scale the notes sharpen with a plastic lilt. It repeats - and stops - then repeats again. I look across the street, and behind to identify its source. I check the balconies and glance within darkened door ways.
Ahead, a man wheels his bicycle. One of those old ones with a battered black frame and disjointed pedals. The handlebars stick out straight and a side stand leans out towards the kerb. Its owner makes leisurely progress, but seems intent. And then it happens. He lifts small panpipes to his lips and blows another scale. The notes are shrilled by proximity. He looks expecatantly as he passes the hardware shop.
Attached firmly to the cross bar is a grindstone, one of those that are revolved by pedal power. Its surface is both rough and smooth, round but worn, its edges shaved away. As he lifts his cap, a shock of grey hair falls across his eyes, and he shakes it back from his face. I notice that his fingers are those of a pianist, long and slim. He is a knife grinder.
Knives are serious investments here in Buenos Aires, especially those made from a softer steel that quickly take an edge. As Stephanie and I pass the corner shops I pause to examine rows of knives - simple cooking knives, steak knives, long elaborate decorative daggers with leather scabbards. The cheaper ones bear a Brazilian mark; the more coveted are of Argentine make, with engraving and rustic wooden handles.
A grindstone is so diffrent from a steel. The edge is taken to the finest cut, then finished with an oiled stone and then smoothed with a rough cloth. Both sides are addressed, but in different ways, depending on the bevel and the handedness of the user. Sharpness demands that the weight of the blade should be sufficient to cause the cut. I feel for my small penknife attached to my keysafe and conclude that this may not be the right knife. We pass; a customer calls to him; he stops; and we wish that we had our camera.
Photo by courtesy of Knivesgrinders