I’d spent weeks trying to convince my wife that we couldn’t live without this set of four kitschy, used lawn chairs and one round metal table I’d found on Mercado Libre. After months of debates over which color pillows to accompany her grandmother’s sofa and other arguments I thought I would never have, we were putting the finishing touches on our first apartment. We left the patio for last, but with summer on the way we needed a place to host asados, drink iced tea and toast our freckly virgin skin. So she gave in, and within a few days the white beauty had arrived.
To our disappointment, the table – as bird-shit free as it was – wouldn’t fit through the stairway leading to the patio. After one failed attempt to hoist the thing up over the roof using some old telephone wires and shoelace, we decided our only choice was to take the monster apart. But we needed a monkey wrench.
Our downstairs neighbors – Juan Carlos and Elena– are the kind of porteños that give Argentines a good name — they’re considerate, helpful, polite and friendly. When I accidentally dropped a big hunk of dried cement into their yard one morning while cleaning the roof, Elena said not to worry, instead of the expected “Hijo de puta tené cuidado!” They also have any tool you could possibly imagine, so when I asked to borrow a llave inglesa Saturday afternoon, Juan Carlos cheerfully obliged.
Following a struggle involving 9 stubborn screws, some paint thinner and a bit of vegetable oil, I had at last tamed the beast. “To the patio with you!” I said, then realized how silly it was to be talking to a table. 15 minutes later our table was reassembled in its rightful place next to the bougainvillea in full bloom. Summer had officially begun, and it was like heaven without all the naysayers.
I sat down with a newspaper and a bowl of strawberries, settled into a comfortable sitting position . I admired my patio, with its chaotic variety of plants, its string of colored carnival flags, and the funky birdhouse we’d picked up in Tigre. It struck that delicate balance between charming and hippy, and it was easy on the eye.
Not everyone agreed.
“Hola? Si. Hola?” he said, as if testing a microphone at a high school dance. I raised my head and looked over to see who it was, my eyes squinting under the midday sun.
“Ah…this guy,” I muttered to myself.
It was the neighbor in 401 B, a squirmy, nervous architect whom we’d nicknamed cara de orto or “anus face” in Argentine Spanish. This was not the first time we had crossed paths with cara de orto. A few months before that he had approached us in the hall of the building with this phony awkward smile, requesting that we remove the recently installed water tank he said was blocking his view. As we had just moved into the apartment and had no control over the matter, we advised him to talk to the landlords. A few weeks later, he again pressured us to remove the tank or paint it a more agreeable color, at which point we just decided to ignore him.
We were not the only ones who had gotten into tiffs with cara de orto. He had apparently acted extremely rude to another elderly couple in the building, complaining about their tendency to hang clothes out to dry on Sundays. Others had reported incidents in which he complained about the size of their dog or the genre of music they listened to. This weird, smug little nerd would not stop until the whole world had adjusted to his narrow-minded ideas of good taste. Now he stood before me, anus-face and all, trying to call my attention from his balcony across the courtyard.
“Hola” I said, really wishing I could just enjoy my strawberries and new furniture in peace.
“Si, hola. Che, mirá…do you mind if I ring the doorbell so we can talk about this tranquilos? It’s just well, you know, so we can talk face to face. I think it might, you know, be better that we and we can, well,” he dribbled on. I assumed it was about the tank.
“Lemme just…ok, I’ll be over in just a sec. Just open up for me, ok? Great, OK, I’ll be right over,” he insisted without giving me time to answer.
It was time to put my foot down.
“Che, mirá. I’m really busy here and I really don’t have anything to discuss with you and…”
“Pues…solo un minuto. OK? Bueno I’m on my way.” Relentless!
Just then, a pair of blinds burst open in the apartment above cara de orto’s. It was Ernesto, the same elderly gentlemen that cara de orto had pestered about the clothesline. Ernesto had arrived to take a stand, to tell this wanker to mind his own business and let people live their lives in peace. This is a concept Argentines across the social spectrum adhere to – the complete freedom to do as one pleases, for better or worse.
“Ah this little shit…No le des pelota!” Ernesto yelled over to me. This was futbol slang meaning “don’t pay attention to this guy.”
“It just that…the patio. It’s the…I just don’t think it’s fair…the banderitas,” stammered cara de orto. He was referring to those little carnival flags we’d hung up on the wall a few days before. We thought the wall could use a little color, and they had this kind of perpetual birthday quality about them.
“Ay no me lo puedo creer…For Christ’s sake I can’t believe you’re still on those goddamn flags! Give it a rest, pendejo!” Apparently cara de orto had complained about the flags during the last council meeting, arguing that they were “in bad taste” and an “invasion of privacy.” Why he figured he had the right to tell us what to hang or not to hang on our own patio was beyond me, and apparently the whole building was on our side.
Another window slid open: Patricia in 401 D. Soon two more heads appeared to see what the commotion was. It was like a large scale version of Whack-a-Mole.
“Che boludos, I’m trying take a nap here. My husband’s watching the partido. Have some respect!” yelled Maria Lusa in 401 F.
“Pero pará un poco…dejáme hablar! Listen, these flags really just…they don’t…viste?” Cara de orto was getting frustrated and anxious. Ernesto waved his arms, making old obscene Italian gestures, while my wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads. How could a harmless string of carnival flags cause such a quilombo?
Cara de orto’s wife appeared, a real ballbuster type who may very well have been the cause of the entire ordeal, but she said nothing. Neither did we, despite the fact that it was our patio being disputed.
“Nahh…vos sos un pelotudo. Why don’t you just let people live their lives? These kids have complete right to hang some flags if they want…It’s better than nothing! Dejame de joder…”
Meanwhile, a baby somewhere started crying and a loud bang could be heard. I’m not sure if this was related, but it added to the chaos of the moment. In Buenos Aires silence can become sheer ruckus faster than you can say pancho.
Just then Juan Carlos and Elena called out to us from the other side of the wall surrounding our patio. It seemed everyone had to have their say.
“Que es esto?” Juan Carlos asked. “Is it that nosy pendejo again? No me digas!”
“Yeah,” I replied. “He’s at it again.”
“Ay por dios…why doesn’t he just leave the other tenants alone? What does he have against your banderitas? Nobody’s telling him how to decorate his patio!” He shook his head and furrowed his brow in disapproval.
“Claro pues, we don’t have any problem with the banderitas,” explained Elena. “At first I thought they were your panties hanging there or maybe they belonged to the Peruvians next door, pero a quien le importa?! It’s your patio and you can hang panties or flags or chorizos if you want and nobody has the right to tell you you can’t!”
My wife wasn’t really sure what to make of the panty observation, but it seemed well-intentioned at least.
“Ay ay ay…este pendejo,” said Juan Carlos, shaking his head. “Who does he think he is, huh? Us folks have lived here for 42 years. Ernesto’s been here since before Perón, saw two wives come and go. Maria Lusa spent her childhood here, dios mio! And here comes this little shit, who I’m sure is living in that apartment thanks to mommy and daddy, telling everyone what to do! No le des pelota, che…No le des pelota!”
The whole situation went on like that for another 10 minutes or so, everyone but the doorman having their say in the matter. In the end the banderitas maintained their rightful position, and cara de orto retreated into his apartment like a misbehaved poodle. When he does strike again (and I can assure you he will), it’s good to know I’ll have a cohort of indignant octogenarians on my side, ready to put him in his place.
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Featured image by Hannah’s Online Journal.