Buenos Aires: Juan B. Justo

Tall, thick-leaved trees try to rebelliously separate themselves from the concrete as we walk by. The subte rattles, an old woman coughs, and a shopkeeper pushes open the front door with a familiar jingle. We are on our way to Damián’s childhood home on Avenida Juan B. Justo and my head is full of sounds and expectations.

Juan B. Justo. I have loved this street from the day I saw it written on his Argentinean identity card. At that time, I had incorrectly translated it in my mind as something like “Johnny Be Good” and it stuck. I wouldn’t mind growing up on Johnny Be Good Avenue, I had thought. People probably rode shiny, new bikes there and owned big, friendly golden retrievers. Yet the reality is a long way off from my 1950’s fantasy.  Buenos Aires is more of a city that can abruptly spit in your face.

We ring the bell of the apartment complex and Damián’s mother has to come down to open the door for us. At first, I assume the buzzer is broken, but later on, I will see this ritual played out enough to know that it’s the norm. Damián explains that nobody can buzz anyone in from their apartment. Forget what floor you live on; you have to come down to the lobby to let your guests in for security reasons. I feel naïve. This is the first country where I come to understand the elevated importance of the doorman, which extends well beyond just opening doors.

“Johnny Be Good” feels more like a pension than a home. There is a television in the living room and a view of telephone wires and towers from the balcony, but hardly any clues to help me understand who lives here. I guess I was half-expecting the stereotypical North American home, where you are literally assaulted with family photos and “conversation pieces” the moment you walk in the front door. I didn’t know how to begin in a place like this because I was so used to walking into homes and admiring the first handicraft or family photo I saw.

People probably marvel at artwork in wealthier homes, but in Wisconsin, it’s always handicrafts and embarrassing family photos. Perhaps a holiday wreath you made from beer cans or a piece of Great Lakes driftwood that you picked up and converted into a nifty little shoe rack. Or even worse, that ridiculous family photo taken at Disney when Mom insisted that everyone wear blaze orange hunting vests in order not to lose each other in the crowd.

Still feeling hopeful, I ask to see Damián’s baby photos, but his mother tells me she has them “tucked away in an envelope somewhere.” Her love for her sons is palpable, but culturally, I can’t understand why she hasn’t chosen to manifest this love in the form of scrap-booking the shit out of their childhood photos. Who knew there was another way? I had been looking forward to pouring over family albums with her and laughing at Damián’s awkward teenage years, but I would have no such luck.

Paradoxically, this lack of photos only adds another layer of cool to my partner in crime. He is like some kind of incognito Johnny Depp – with the power to appear in the press only when he wants to. If he had had awkward teenage years, he had already paid all the right people to make sure it would never be made public. I stare suspiciously at his mother. How much was she making off this deal?

Regardless of any pay-offs, Damián’s mother loves her children fiercely and from the moment she sees me, I feel included in that circle of love. We are all gathered in one room, talking excitedly about “finally being here”, but my shyness shakes me in the knees as I try to steady myself in my Castilian Spanish. My words hang ungracefully in the air, like one who clutches a steaming hot coffee mug for too long because nobody has offered a coaster. The conversation moves on, but I stay behind, mentally cataloging a whole new Argentinean-Uruguayan vernacular and deciding where to put it. I am experiencing a full-on sensory overload –  o sea, no entiendo ni un pomo – and this imaginary coffee cup is definitely burning my hand. And so another journey begins.

Por dicha, over the next few days I come to realize that I have grossly misunderstood Damián’s sense of home.  Buenos Aires is a city that beckons to be lived in; everything else is just a place to sleep.  Its concert halls imitate living rooms, its Recoleta cafés make for chic dining halls, and the Bosques de Palermo and El Tigre can rival any wealthy elite’s backyard.

Buenos Aires is home. Who you are is never defined by four walls, but rather by the collection of neighborhoods, plazas, schools, and parks where all the tiny pockets of the world have come to stake their claim in this magnetic city. So if I wanted to know anything at all about its denizens, I would need to cover some concrete.

– Ashley

La Boca, Buenos Aires

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