“Stop giving the girl material, you’ll make her go crazy.” I don’t know what contours the expression on my face took on as the table filled up with papers, but it was evidently good enough for them to literally take a picture of me as I stared, almost panic-stricken, at the small typewritten sea. So that snapshot is going into somebody’s album.
This is a world full of coincidences, but it did seem curious — to both me and the gregarious actor who arrived on a motorcycle to have tea last night — that he should not only have exactly the same name as a man who appears on Santiago’s list of friends, but also recently had a role in a local theatrical production as, of all things, Silvina Ocampo’s butler. In any case, when I called him on Sunday and began asking questions about a butler who came to Buenos Aires in 1936, he was surprised but intrigued by the coincidence. I was already halfway through my very-sorry-to-have-bothered-you spiel when he insisted on trading contact information and meeting up with me; I agreed, on the off chance that he might talk with his parents and discover that this other man was a long-lost cousin whose documents had been carefully preserved.
This turned out not to be the case, but he was enchanted by what I told him about Santiago, and slightly aghast at the coincidence of my having called him. As is often the case with people who run into me, he seemed worried about the fact that I was on my own, and started mentally rifling through his Rolodex. A Borges expert; a scholar of heraldic history; the director of the play about Silvina Ocampo. I explained that Borges was an important literary reference in understanding Santiago, but they never met, that Santiago’s heraldic scholarship was amateur at best, and that he could tell the director about Santiago if he liked, but I’d feel a bit awkward calling her up.
“But I think that the director would love to hear about your project. And she works very closely with Norma Aleandro, who might be interested as well.” The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it; he saw my confusion. “Like the Argentine Meryl Streep!” he offered. I wasn’t sure how the Argentine Meryl Streep might help me with my contacts, but I thanked him. On the way home, the name suddenly rang a bell, and I realized that it was, of course, the star of La historia oficial, among other things. I had to laugh when I remembered that not only did Norma Aleandro not figure amongst Santiago’s catalogue of film stars, but he mentioned seeing the film on a visit to Buenos Aires in the 1980s. “Fui al cine Concorde de la calle Lavalle para asistir la película argentina premiada en el Oscar de Oro de este año, “La Historia Oficial” que, por cierto, deja mucho que desear. De tan “buena” me dormí.” If I do happen to meet her, I don’t think I’ll mention this to the Argentine Meryl Streep.
Buenos Aires is a city that lives off its past to a not inconsiderable degree. Over the course of several hours traipsing around downtown, I passed countless windows decked with the trappings of Ye Olde Buenos Aires, black-and-white photos of elegant porteños from the 1930s and 40s, Gardel’s sad smile, and a number of gauchos for good measure. But the places where Santiago trod have not been spared the ravages of renovation and change. At least, I think so; in most cases I couldn’t be sure if I’d found them.
Using Santiago’s diary, memoirs, and a guide to Buenos Aires high society from the 1930s, I culled addresses of nearly all the families he worked for over the course of his ten years in the city and plotted them on a map. The truly chic addresses in the city being confined to a relatively small area, it was walkable.
Paraná 700 — the rough address of the boarding house where Santiago stayed when he first arrived in the city. Apparently it was meant for women only, but Santiago’s friend Juan Suárez was a friend of the owner (the boardinghouse was near his place of work) and wheedled a room out of Lola, the striking Spanish matron, whose Andalusian mother gave Santiago a token of Nuestra Señora de Pompeya as a parting gift. I realized that the odds of anything remaining of the boardinghouse were astronomically low, but paced up and down several blocks of Paraná anyway, peering in at each narrow doorway and scrutinizing façades to see if they looked plausibly old. This is a busy commercial area (now as then), but with few remnants of that era. I passed kiosks, hotels, and a store devoted entirely to selling remote controls, but saw nothing of the humble pensión. I might have walked right by it, but there was no way to know. Continue reading
Today’s object of head-scratching study: postcards, exchanged between Santiago and an acquaintance from Sunchales, both of them amateur philatelists, as well as between the acquaintance and Santiago’s mysterious and highly significant friend Ignacio Osuna Páez, who split his time between Mazatlán and México D.F.
At center: the Good Neighbor liner that brought Santiago to Rio in 1956; at left, partial views of the Pentagon and the Franciscan monastery on Quincy Street in Washington; below, Jesus. The postcards, as one might expect from an epistolary relationship based on the exchange of stamps, are disappointingly terse, but with revealing flashes.
Estimado [X], a través de este grandioso ‘desierto’ de agua le envío mi sincero saludo. En alto mar, May 20, 1956. Att. S. Badariotti.
The sparsely furnished studio where I’ve set up camp has glass doors that open onto a little terrace, affording a broad view of Palermo, and also presumably affording Palermo a broad view of my victory dance (even sweeter after the rejections of the weekend) when successive calls won me a conversation with more nieces and nephews in the province of Buenos Aires, and a contact within the massively well-off family that Santiago’s brother worked for. Of course I haven’t actually received anything or learned anything new yet, but I’m convinced that the sweetest words in any language are, “I kept all the letters.”