1950s Archive

South American Journey


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“No hotel food,” said Uncle Willie. This was almost a rule with him. “We'll try La Cabaña.” He called a cab and gave an address. “Calle Entre Rios 431.”

“You've been here a lot before,” I said.

“An old man gets around. His relations don't want him. His blood and kin hide him in corners, so he travels.”

When Uncle Willie feels sorry for himself I always take out my wallet (well, almost always). I said, “How much do you need?”

He took fifty dollars and began to talk of jewels. “You want to buy real stuff, I'll get you a cat's-eye. Or a tiger-eye.”

I smiled. “That's only quartz or something.”

Uncle Willie bit his lower lip, tightened the ends of his waxed mustache, and left me to pay off the cab at the restaurant. We had a fine almuerzo, as they call lunch, starting with cold cuts and a salad, fiambres con ensalada, followed by a perfect vermicelli soup, flavored with dill, and a fish in sauce. Then we had a carbonada a la criolla, a stew of beef and peaches and pears. Uncle Willie ate well and I tried to keep up: it was good food. We drank our first yerba maté, the native tea. It's sucked up through a silver straw. I never became fond of it, and neither did Uncle Willie.

“The hell with it,” he said, “Waiter, the wine list. We'll try the local Bianchi Cabernet, some Casa de Piedra, and Fond de Cave.”

“All of them?” I asked.

“Have to. Two out of three native wines aren't good enough to bathe a dog in.”

In the end we gave up on the native still wines and ordered local champagne at forty pesos a bottle. A peso is worth about three Cents, but Uncle Willie got more on the black market.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, and the local press drank our brandy and interviewed me. The recent trouble in the country was evident There were some burned-out buildings in the center of town; some churches had been damaged, and armed, helmeted troops patrolled certain streets. The press wanted to know how we had taken their ‘little troubles.’ I said I hadn't read much about it, which was true, as I hadn't seen an American newspaper in seven weeks. They invited me to visit some interesting low dives with them. I said sure, someday.

I was tired so I took a nap. Uncle Willie, a game one and a live wire, went off with the press to explain what a fine artist I was.

I was dreaming, in poor Spanish, that I was younger and wiser and richer, and with a girl who has been dead twenty years now, when the telephone rang and I came awake, staring at the gold stars in the ceiling and at the red drapes in the wide window moving in the wind. I picked up the telephone. A brisk voice, wood-smoked, from the sound of it, said in fair English, “ 'Ello? Lolita, what you call Mollie, Valez calling. You hup?”

“I'm hup—I mean up.”

“Valez Gallery, that is me. I show your pictures. I picks you up. Twenty minutes American style on the spot, what you call on the dot. Hokay?”

I said hokay, hung up, took a shower, and put on my Beverly Hills sport jacket and my Las Vegas tie.

Mollie Valez turned out to be dark, handsome, and very brisk. She had studied American business methods in books and English with phonograph records, and I liked her. She was plump and alive on her two-and-a-half-inch heels. She took my arm. cooed, and then said briskly. “You look like an artist. You got hair, teeth; hell, we sell lots of pictures. I get car.”

Mollie drove a small, low Italian car as if it were a bronc, and we plunged across the beautiful city, whizzing past a Iot of marble buildings and great lumps of bad public statuary, all the ladies nude and well-chested, all the men generals and mounted on bronze horses that looked as if they had once pulled beer wagons. Mollie's gallery was modern, small, and well lit.

“Chic, baby, no? Very much chic and avant-garde. I hang Picasso, Rowlandson, Guys, Dufy (the good brother), and now I hang you.”

I said this called for a drink and I was buying. We went to the Bidou Bar, where the local artists and the talented bums and the writers and the music lovers hang out. I ordered Scotch, then native wine, then a local brandy. We sat and kicked art and life around in Spanish, English, movie American, and broken French. The next three days, before my show opened, were fun. I got to know the city from the viewpoint of the native creative artist, who is just as much the enigma in Buenos Aires as he is any place else. I grew very fond of Mollie and heard the sad and wonderful story of her career as an art dealer. She lived her life on high heels, in smoky bodegons—the little corner joints—and in the confiterias—the smart and fashionable teashops.

I went often to the Banco de la Nacion to cash checks to keep my end up. I got to know everything one is supposed to know in Argentina. I got us guest cards in the English Club, and avoided the Auto Club and the Y.M.C.A., at Reconquista 439. I cabled my American gallery to ship more paintings, and Uncle Willie won 3,000 pesos at the pari-mutuels at San Isidro track on a horse named Knockneed Pablo the Three. And we all got drunk at a fashionable wedding.

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