It’s the Hard-Knock Life


“Instead of treated, we get tricked.” ~Annie”

I’ve lifted my next strategy for slowing down from the elderly. Starring in this post is a half-dozen elders who have, in their own unique ways, helped me with my current exploration of living at a more leisurely pace:

1. I never met the grandmother who owned our first apartment. But I credit her for inspiring my thesis on the city, tentatively titled “Buenos Aires: the Juxtaposition of Beauty and Decay.” I also thank her for introducing me to the old truco porteño, a popular pastime here, so early on in my stay.

Buenos Aires: the Juxtaposition of Beauty and Decay

Although I must give some credit to my no-research travel strategy, I felt slightly tricked into renting this abuela’s apartment. But after mastering optimism in 2011, I now welcome trucos as roadblocks that force me to slow down and catch all the things I used to miss. And what I caught from this truco was my first glimpse of the juxtaposition of beauty and decay that for me captures this city. The owner’s former art studio, the apartment embodied beauty. The location, however, groaned of decay.

Granny had led us to believe we would be living in a beautiful and safe neighborhood, “located in the downtown” where “you can walk to theaters, art galleries, stores, etc.” But in our two months there, I never saw a theater or an art gallery. And although a homeless man selling puppies from a shopping cart on the main avenue inspired quite the Halloween costume, the only store that ever seduced my patronage was the supermarket. Called Disco, the grocery store was also the area’s closest thing to nightlife.

Local "art gallery"

Our months here went like this:

September: Upon arrival, a few new friends informed us that our apartment was located in a dirty and loud neighborhood with little social offerings that is mildly dangerous at night. I wasn’t sure what one of them meant when he called the area “heavy” until he pointed out a bullet hole in the glass above our lobby. My safety was never threatened, but I quickly considered relocating after witnessing three separate acts of public excretion by three different species during an introductory stroll through our new ’hood. Within a five-minute period, a pigeon pooped on my sweater, I almost stepped in dog shit and I saw a small boy urinating openly in the street.


October: The half-hour bus ride six to eight times a week to and from areas of the city where there actually were theaters, art galleries and stores only cost 30 cents per ride thanks to generous government subsidies. But the sightseeing was pitiful compared with Salta and Jujuy. Instead of mountains of beautiful colors, we passed mountains of cheap goods being hawked from blankets on the sidewalk. Although it amused me that each one usually offered a strange pairing, like underwear and sunglasses, that combination’s only helpful if you plan on dressing as Tom Cruise from “Risky Business” for Halloween. And after stumbling upon a mini shopping cart, puppy earmuffs and four barking toy dogs with evil, green, flashing eyes at a Chinese toy store, I was already sold on going as the homeless puppy salesman.

November: Our street made the news twice in one week when a building collapsed and a bus-car-fire-engine accident killed two. A 2-inch black cockroach also selected when I was lying on the floor doing an ab workout to make his grand debut, scuttling across our room several feet from my head. The final nail in the coffin was when a gypsy responded, “Qué feo!” when I told him where we lived. You know it’s bad when a man with dreadlocks and dirt caked on his face thinks you live in an ugly part of town.

2. When Jess found a new house two days before we needed to move out that had a room we could share, our own balcony, a rooftop terrace, cheaper rent and an apparently great location – I still had no idea where I was – we thought magic realism was at it again. As an added bonus, the landlady, Maria, a sweet elderly woman, even looked like my grandma.

But as we moved in, the girl moving out informed us of – classic Buenos Aires ­­­– the decay that came with the beauty. Apparently, sweet old Maria was a crazy old liar. The house also had a complex equation to represent its exponential decay – nightmarish news since I cried the first day of calculus class in high school.

Little Orphan Annie

  • 1840 = Our house number. Also likely the last year the house got a proper cleaning. Unlike in the United States, cleaning services are so cheap here that nearly everyone hires one weekly. Except Maria. Blind as a bat and missing half a thumb, she preferred to do it herself.
  • 11 = Seconds required to turn the kitchen faucet before any water came out.
  • 6 = Tenants.
  • 5 = Hours it took the washing machine to complete one cycle.
  • 2 = Settings on the washing machine that worked, both which ripped your clothes, “so it’s best not to wash anything but towels, sheets and pajamas.”
  • 1 = Number of functional showers. So much for having two.
  • 3/4 = Bathroom faucets that worked.
  • 0 = Guests we were allowed to invite inside the house. Of any sex. Ever.

Looking at each other in horror, Jess and I realized we had again fallen prey to the ol’ truco porteño. We agreed we’d stay only for the month while looking for a new place.

Why we wear shoes inside

And so Jess and I returned to where we first met: dorm life. We wore flip-flops in the shower and kitchen, lived in our bedroom, lugged our own toilet paper and shower supplies to the bathroom and locked the door to our room when going up to the roof.

Unlike in our old apartment where everyone shared everything, we learned we couldn’t use the pots and pans in the cabinets, which belonged to the other roommates, or the ones under the sink, which were home to a thick layer of dust and the occasional intrusion of cockroaches. When Maria left us a plastic bag outside our door with some kitchen goods, it incited more excitement than my Christmas morning here.

“Santa Claus we never see. Santa Claus, what’s that? Who’s he?” ~“Annie”

We unwrapped each precious item one by one. Jess and I were now the proud owners of: one pot, one bowl, two plates, two knives, two forks, two large spoons, two small spoons/shovels, a metal cylinder we surmised was used to heat water and four glasses – six if you count the miniature plastic cups with Teddy bears and “Feliz Cumpleaños” printed on them that Maria so generously filled with Coke for us on move-in day. It was straight out of “Flight of the Conchords”:

Makeshift drying rack

Thus began our door gifts from the stork called Maria. We text her with the basic necessities we are lacking, she responds in illegible Spanish and the goodies appear outside our door. After not sleeping in 95-degree weather in an un-air-conditioned house with a fan that acts like a 2-year-old with a new baby sister – it only behaves when you pay attention to it – we demanded a replacement. The next day, I opened the door to find a fan twice her height. I’m still trying to figure out how she lugged it up the steps, especially with only half a thumb. After living in darkness for two days, we found a parcel with two bulbs for the four holders in the overhead light. Only one worked, and it died the other day. If it weren’t for my lamp, we’d be living like the end of that clip.

New pot: caught silver-handed

But while a new cup tormented Jemaine and Bret, it was the new pot that vexed Jess and me. After a week of returning from the kitchen with mysterious silver paint coating our hands and forearms, we settled on the pot as the culprit. The detective work evoked the thrill of childhood rounds of Clue – “Mrs. White in the kitchen with the lead pipe!” But the fun faded when we considered the likelihood that we now had lead poisoning. Asbestos has always been a hazy concept for me, but I imagine that’s lurking around the house too.

As are cockroaches, ants and spiders. I made the mistake of looking up at the ceiling in the kitchen the other day. A spider was housing more tenants in its web than Maria was in this house. David Sedaris would have been in heaven. Me, not so much.

But usually it’s Miss Hannigan AKA Maria who startles me, as – legally or not – she enters the house whenever she pleases. I once opened the roof door to hang laundry and was shocked at the shadow that confronted me with the sun bursting around it. It was Maria, just standing there, wearing the same outfit from the day before. While I was hanging the laundry, my reverie imagining her locked up there like Doug from the “The Hangover” was interrupted when I then spotted her down on the opposite street corner staring up at me. Our eyes locked, and she scurried away.

Still trying to find out what this giant tub is for

Now when I hang laundry, though, I am too distracted by the water dripping down on me to play “Where’s Waldo?” with Maria. Each washing machine cycle takes just two hours these days, but that’s only because the centrifuge broke and the clothes now emerge sopping wet. This is the only time that I’ve been grateful that my sheets don’t absorb water.

“Cotton blankets, instead of wool.” ~“Annie”

Cotton would be a luxury. I’m not sure what material our sheets are made of, but they feel like the squares of wax paper that restaurants here try to pass off as napkins.

Showering outside in the rain with the pot.

I’m also not sure why the flow of water to the house is controlled by a light switch. And not even a light switch in a secure, guarded place, but on a row of other light switches in the hallway that people frequently touch to turn on and off lights in the house. While the tiny piece of clear Scotch tape holding the switch on is surely a strong deterrent, one accidental touch and you’re showering out in the rain on your balcony because you don’t have water.

What we can’t leave on all the time is the lever that controls the gas. We recently realized that even when the stove burners are off, they still emit gas unless the master lever is turned off too. The other day when Maria came to “clean,” she left this lever on. Since I can’t figure out how even her fake cleaning process would necessitate the opening of the gas lever, I maintain she did it on purpose to asphyxiate us. If I find any bodies, my bet for the Clue envelope contents will be Maria in the kitchen with the gas lever.

"Next week on 'Hoarders,' meet Maria ... "

Some more active people would fix these problems themselves or move out. But the more time I spend here, the more I’ve come to understand how that decay seeps into a beautiful city with a mountain of potential like Buenos Aires, where graffiti mars breathtaking architecture and trash sits even on the steps of one of the top five opera houses in the world. Initially, we couldn’t figure out why Maria would let a house with so much potential slowly fall apart. But after spending time in this environment, I find even myself asking: If no one else is going to fix it, why should I? If others accept it, why put up a fight? If nothing happened the first 100 times we informed Maria the washing machine was broken, why waste the breath? If I made it through yesterday without a light, why not today, tomorrow?

“Don’t it seem like there’s never any light? Once a day, don’t you wanna throw the towel in? It’s easier than putting up a fight.” ~“Annie”

Waking up to Iguazú Falls in the kitchen

On a brighter note, living here has enabled me to implement a fresh phase of Operation Optimism. I recently received a Facebook message from my friend Meghan that said that I always had such a positive outlook that she emulated it. For a former pessimist like myself, it was the modern-day equivalent of a soldier receiving a love letter from his or her sweetheart back home while sitting in an Army bunk overseas. With this note tucked into the left-breast pocket of my fatigues, I now view the many repair pleas with Maria as a way to practice my Spanish. When Jess woke me one morning because the kitchen was flooding after the faucet knob fell off and water was spraying everywhere, we figured that at least the floor was getting a proper cleaning. Between this and the water that leaks down the walls from the terrace when it rains, we also crossed Iguazú Falls off our list of places to visit.

Annie's turn to eat out of the pot

It’s also hard to complain about eating out of a pot because Jess and I alternate our use of our lone bowl after reading a news article about family members in Democratic Republic of Congo forced to rotate the days they eat. Moreover, I reason it’s making me a more empathetic and educated editor to live closer to the issues our reporters cover. As I wait for cold water to emerge from the kitchen faucet, I am 11 seconds closer to understanding the frustrations felt by the people in the stories I have edited about water shortages in Ghana, Nepal and India.

3. I also got closer to a story our reporter based in Buenos Aires wrote on the difficulties of living in the city with a disability when a blind senior citizen asked me if I could help him cross the street. As I slowed down my gait to let him use my shoulder as a guide, it was another lesson on slowing down from the elderly, this time a reminder of the opportunities to connect with others and the world around me when I don’t speed walk through life.

4. I had learned this lesson on my first day in our new neighborhood when an old man walking past me slowed down to offer me assistance because, per usual, I looked lost. When I asked him where the closest fruit stand was, Daddy Warbucks not only gave me directions to the one in the neighborhood with the best prices but also insisted on walking me there, introducing me to Paco, the proprietor, and waiting to make sure I got everything I needed.

5. The downside was that these generous exchanges left me too trusting of old men who approach me – making me a prime target for the ol’ truco porteño.

At a recent tango class, a small and unassuming elderly man asked me to dance. You always dance with partners of various ages during class, so I found his invitation only semi-strange as opposed to outright outlandish. Not wanting to violate tango etiquette, I politely followed the 70-year-old to the dance floor.

I then either received a one-on-one tango lesson from a seasoned professional or was molested by Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” – I’m still trying to figure out which. 

The tango instructors had taught us during class that partners can choose from three arm positions depending on how close you feel comfortable being. Grandpa insisted on No. 4 – clutching me so tightly that our cheeks and hips were glued together. He said we had to move as one. This seemed to make sense for the tango – a slow, sensual dance – but positioned my legs uncomfortably close to the septuagenarian’s nether region. When he hit me with a swirly get-low move, I decided that being polite did not require me to serve as this predator’s stripper pole.

My grandma had left me a voicemail one summer in college when I had to do community service at a wheelchair community, saying, “Watch out for the senior citizens – they can take advantage of you!” Before, I thought she was ridiculous. Now, I knew what she had meant.

Before fleeing his wrinkly grasp, I thought about setting the skeezy geezer up on a date with Maria. After all, Cher got better grades after helping two lonely teachers find love in “Clueless.” Perhaps we’d get a new washing machine if Maria had a date for Valentine’s Day.

6. I had originally – and I suppose inhumanely – been wishing for a “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” denouement. Maria would make an excellent Mrs. Sturak, the wicked 90-year-old babysitter who dies in her sleep, leaving the kids (AKA Jess and me) to a summer of freedom.

But this didn’t seem so funny after my Pop-Pop died at the beginning of the new year. With his subtle, special way, my Pop-Pop left me with the most powerful lessons for slowing down and appreciating life and the many blessings in it.

He was one of the first people who gave me a mechanism to catch all that was going on around me. But instead of a truco, it was through my first reporter’s notebook. I was 8, and he took me to work for the day – a ritual he had with each of his grandchildren. From the moment he handed me the notebook from the supply closet at the county sheriff’s office, I recorded every nanosecond of our day together – from having chocolate milk for breakfast to mozzarella sticks for dinner.

Readers, you were doomed from then on, as 15 years later, I still can’t keep my posts under 2,000 words. But I will always be grateful to him for helping me to sharpen my eye and find my voice. He also became one of my most loyal readers, even if he didn’t always agree with my views.

My grandparents at my college graduation in 2010 (*Note a cuter version of Maria on the left)

At my brightest, White-Swan moments, he also helped me to hit the brakes to enjoy my achievements that came as a result of this neurotic note-taking. When I wondered whether my academic accomplishments were worth the work and worry, the visible pride on his face at each of my graduations helped me slow down and savor them too.

But unfortunately, it was at my darkest, Black-Swan moments that I received the greatest lesson in slowing down from him. The last time I saw my Pop-Pop was the day before I embarked on this grand adventure to Argentina. My family went to spend the afternoon with my grandparents at their house in New Jersey. But instead of savoring this last day with him, I rushed my mom through dinner, through dessert and through goodbyes because I still wasn’t finished packing. I want to shrivel up and die like the cockroach we found in a kitchen drawer last week for operating so unconsciously.

I said goodbye to him on his deathbed via videochat. It was the perfect anecdote for a sociology article on the strange ways in which technology is changing the landscapes of even the most sacred rituals of our lives. But now a certified optimist, I was just grateful for the opportunity it provided me to tell him I loved him one last time.

Lil T in the recording studio with Jay-Z

He was already in a coma, but we think he could hear what was going on around him since he waited until his final child made it to his bedside and his beloved Giants beat the Cowboys to make it into the playoffs before dying. I can still feel him around me, as exactly one second after I typed that last sentence, the following New York Times email alert arrived in my inbox: “Giants Edge Patriots to Win Super Bowl, 21-17 … scoring a touchdown in the closing minute of the fourth quarter.”

Born during the Great Depression, he would probably laugh at my tales of the hard-knock life. Not because he would think they were funny but because he’d think I was ridiculous for finding an iota to complain about in my most blessed life.

I can’t change that last day I spent with him, but I can ease the guilt that wracks my insides for the way I rushed it by remembering every day forward the lesson to slow down and appreciate the people and world around me. In this way, I can hope to:

“Flow infinitely like the memory of my [Poppa Genie]. Baaaaby.” ~Jay-Z


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