Of Dead Cities & Of Living Ones
In recent days I have come to the realization that some of the cities of my memory, cities in which I lived have died.
The first city of my memory was and is Buenos Aires. It was and is a city of trains and subways, of smells of brake lining dust rusting in railroad tracks. Of smells at noon of meat being roasted in the pits by the window of downtown restaurants. Of smells of mate and café cortados and medias lunas.
My mother who had a keen sense of smell said I smelled of an Englishman and that coming back from trips abroad Buenos Aires had the smell of meat being roasted as soon as she walked on the tarmac of Ezeiza.
In that second city of my life my mother said that it smelled of tortillas being heated on comales. The unwashed masses in buses she said had the scent of catinga (an Argentine word for the smell of a horse).
Then there was the city of Veracruz which was a combination of humidity, sewer water and ship bunker fuel mixed in the port and that whiff of salt from the sea and the nearby vegetation during the powerful nortes.
There was Nueva Rosita, Coahuila which was not a city so my mother could not identify any particular smell to it. She never went to visit me in Austin so that small city did not register with her sense of smell.
It was at the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City where I met the second Canadian of my life (after my Rosemary).When Dorothy Barkley found out I was going to Vancouver (she was in Mexico to visit a friend in jail) she poetically described Vancouver as a city of mountains, rivers, bridges and the sea. She was right. She did not tell me that Vancouverites were as cold as their pure tap watter.
To me Vancouver smells (there is a hint of it in my nostrils!) of that pure tap water, something that Vancouverites might take for granted.
To me a city has to be part of my life. I could never live in Lillooet like my oldest daughter. I could not live without theatre, dance, art, music and the noise of big city. To me a city is a repetition of the Greek concept of the City State. To be part of a core of humanity you have to live in a city.
I am shortly going to the city of my youth. As soon as I check in to my “hotel de mala muerte” (a sort of refined flee bag) I will be one block from the Subte. Within seconds I will be able to go anywhere without getting lost. Like a bird going south I will know where everything is.
Las calles de Buenos Aires
ya son mi entraña.
No las ávidas calles,
incómodas de turba y de ajetreo,
sino las calles desganadas del barrio,
casi invisibles de habituales,
enternecidas de penumbra y de ocaso
y aquellas más afuera
ajenas de árboles piadosos
donde austeras casitas apenas se aventuran,
abrumadas por inmortales distancias,
a perderse en la honda visión
de cielo y de llanura.
Son para el solitario una promesa
porque millares de almas singulares las pueblan,
únicas ante Dios y en el tiempo
y sin duda preciosas.
Hacia el Oeste, el Norte y el Sur
se han desplegado–y son también la patria–las calles:
ojalá en versos que trazo
estén esas banderas.
— Jorge Luis Borges
(de la edición 1969 de Fervor de Buenos Aires)
Buenos Aires, more than any other city of the world, is a city that has been blessed and defined by the tango. Americans and their jazz cannot argue about that. And Jorge Luís Borges, more than any poet that this literary amateur can boast about wrote at length of Buenos Aires and of definite and defined city corners. It is impossible to walk up Calle Corrientes without running into the ghosts of tango and Borges.
My soul is in the streets
of Buenos Aires.
Not the greedy streets
jostling with crowds and traffic,
but the neighborhood streets where nothing is happening,
almost invisible by force of habit,
rendered eternal in the dim light of sunset,
and the ones even farther out,
empty of comforting trees,
where austere little houses scarcely venture,
overwhelmed by deathless distances,
losing themselves in the deep expanse
of sky and plains.
For the solitary one they are a promise
because thousands of singular souls inhabit them,
unique before God and in time
and no doubt precious.
To the West, the North, and the South
unfold the streets–and they too are my country;
within these lines I trace
may their flags fly.
Translation by Stephen Kessler
In recent days I have come to the realization that some of the cities of my memory, ones in which I lived have died.
I cannot return to Mexico City or Austin. Mexico City is the second city of my grandmother and mother, of my Tía Fermina and Tío Luís. They are dead. It was the city of Raul Guerrero Montemayor, my friend, mentor and godfather of my youngest daughter Hilary. I saw him two years ago weeks before he died. As I left he had tears in his eyes. I did, too knowing that his death would be the death of a former city I had loved.
Austin, the city in which the Roman Catholic Brothers of Holy Cross made me into a man and gave me an education that still dazzles me with its death is dead. My religious mentor, friend Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. died a few weeks after I last saw him two years ago. Nearby in a house by a damn my friend Howard Houston died last year.
I cannot return to Austin or Mexico City . Certainly not alone. I might visit with my Rosemary or with a friend and show them around. But alone would be like visiting a cemetery. In fact at the Assumption Cemetery on one side of St. Edward’s University are little white crosses, all in rows marking the remains of Brother Edwin and all those other brothers that indelibly marked my life for the better.
So I return to my Buenos Aires, a city with trains, with cooking meat, a city with a subway, a city with family and friends, a city that unlike Vancouver is still recognizable of its past even though it is populated by ghosts like my father, uncles and aunts. When I walk up Corrientes Piazzolla will be in my inner ear full of melancholy and the adventure of the dissonance of the big city. Perhaps I might even pass through the ghost of me from my past or of my Susy, now dead
I will be happy, before soon, I, too will be part of a dead city of which I will no longer have a memory for. And some visitors, perhaps one of my daughters or granddaughters the city will be alive if I am part of their memory.
On my last days in Buenos Aires I will be wondering how I see Vancouver, my city now. I will be wondering when my Rosemary picks me up at the airport what my olfactory enclined mother would say my city smells of. Certainly not of French fries she said all American cities reminded her of.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.