In a folding chair on the pavement

by Mauro Libertella

Endlich! (Ausgabe I/2020)

I belong to a category of people that is not appreciated by everyone, but which can undeniably look back on a long tradition: the ageing boys. 

We ageing boys feel safe within the limited radius of a routine. We always get up at the same time, try to go to bed at the same time, have breakfast, do things that repeat themselves like we’re in one of those bad movies that flicker across the screens on Saturday nights, and we even always opt for the same side of the street when we have to go somewhere. Our routine comes dangerously close to an obsession, as if we were prisoners in the dungeon of our own pathology or disease symptoms. But no one is freer than us. No one - as Kafka taught us - can tear down the walls of their prison, who wasn‘t once a prisoner themselves.

We ageing boys stroll through Buenos Aires in a slow but steady rhythm: we love to walk. We mingle with the finely hewn fabric of familiarity, which, ultimately makes up a city, with its children and its elderly - two biological species that populate the streets of a city and which in a sense define it. At the two ends of life are the children and the elderly, and both two ends, perhaps without their being aware of it, even contrary to their own nature, provide the secret rhythm in which the city moves day in, day out. The children and the old people are the music of the city, they shape its character.

The squares and parks of Buenos Aires are the center of gravity, attracting children and old alike. At a certain age, the green spaces offer us exactly what we are looking for: wide views, the absence of police officers and, above all, the possibility to spend a whole night there without spending money. They are the only real cost-free places in a city and therefore they are the realm of all those people who are not yet or no longer working.

Close to my house in the residential area of the Caballita district there is a "Centre for Retired People and Neighbours" on Plaza Irlanda. It is a small and somewhat dilapidated house with faded concrete walls, a tin roof and puny chairs, which seems to have stood there since time immemorial. Old people gather there to chat, play cards or dominoes or just to pass time, which for them is a thick, heavy blanket that gradually covers them and with which they are engaged in an unequal battle, a battle which for those closer death is doomed to failure. This centre offers the pensioners of my neighbourhood a handy little paradise: a kind of shelter that protects them from the rain and from which they can watch, without being disturbed or even noticed, the incessant rush of people running or playing on the green spaces of the square.

Who can just waste time, the way they do?

Sometimes I walk past the centre and watch them with a touch of envy. Who can just waste time, the way they do, free from the brutal constraints of capitalism, the dictate that one must constantly produce something, constantly consume something?

Buenos Aires is a city where old people are a familiar feature on its streets. While tourist adverts have declared Rio de Janeiro to be a wonderful city, Paris to be the city of love and light and Rome to be the eternal city, I could suggest the modest title "city of the elderly" for my city. Look closely and you will discover them everywhere: in the cafés on the street corners, which have resisted the invasion of global chains and brutal gentrification until today, even if they will certainly be flattened by it one day. But they don't just sit in the cafés, the old people, they put their chairs out on the sidewalk and sit down in front of their front doors to watch people pass by, looking as if they were looking out at the sea. They greet the neighbours, listen to the radio with archaic devices, which they hold close to their ears, turned up to the max. They are in buses and metros but also in theatres and the football stadium, in all those places where someone presents a book or shows a new film or performs a show of any kind. Take a good look. There they are.

As my father grew older, his masterful move was to reduce his urban radius to the two or three streets around his home

Perhaps this is why Adolfo Bioy Casares had an incredibly dark notion shortly before his sixtieth birthday, which eventually found its way into his novel "Diary of the War of the Pig". The book tells the story of a Buenos Aires in which the young, as if guided by an irrational, unfocused force, decide to persecute, threaten and even kill the elderly. In a world that tends to make people older and older (I remember the time when it was worth a news item in the newspapers if someone reached their hundredth birthday), Bioy Casares imagined a drastic way out at the end of the 1960s: to kill all those who do not die. As the book goes from one sadistic scene to the next, the boys gradually become aware of what they are actually doing, and finally the inevitable dawns on them: Killing the elderly ultimately means killing yourself at some point.

I am convinced that at some point we all ask ourselves how we ourselves will be as old people. What number will we draw in the lottery of physical infirmities, which ticket will we fish out of the bucket of mental demise. The answer is always difficult to grasp, it remains speculative and vague.

As my father grew older and his body slowly stopped fighting death - he finally died at the age of 61, but seemed much older - his masterful move was to reduce his urban radius to the two or three streets around his home. In his final years, he rarely left his area. From apartment to bar, from bar to greengrocer, from greengrocer to home. He proved to me in extreme form that you can live in a huge city in this way, that you don't need more than these three blocks, just as a library is perfectly adequate when it consists of fifty indispensable books and nothing more. I cross Buenos Aires every day from one end to the other. I take the car, the subway, the bus, a taxi, the bike. I never stop. Some days I stand in mega-jams worthy of a horror movie, which jangle the nerves of every other person, but which I like. I even feel a kind of pleasure in the urban boundlessness. I feel the urge to breathe in carbon monoxide, and I can't stand quiet places without people. My worst nightmare would be to move to the country.

And yet I think that one day - perhaps at the age of 61, which will no longer be my father's, but my own - I will find happiness in the two or three streets, in the 300 metres that will separate my home in old age from the abyss, from that border beyond which there is simply nothing. For the time being this prospect does not frighten me. I'm not afraid of old age, nor of the dystopian Buenos Aires, which in forty year’s time will surely take the place of today’s Buenos Aires. Rem Koolhaas once wrote: "New York is a city that will be replaced by another city." Perhaps we can apply his prophecy to the Argentine capital.

What will I understand about all the stimuli that will surround me in the future? Will there still be perceptible traces of the disappeared city, or will everything be new, different, incomprehensible to someone like me, born in the long gone 20th century?

Maybe I will simply go out into the street, slowly ambling along the distance that separates me from the Plaza Irlanda, and join pensioners to play cards or to talk about old times. Perhaps, if I dare, I will venture into the very heart of the plaza and there, between swings and slides, into the chaos of a children's playground that has been around since time immemorial, I will kneel on the sand to play with the children of the future who will speak a new language and say things that may be worth hearing.

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