He doesn’t sleep at night.
Mostly he silently navigates through the three-story house, washing dishes, picking up cups. Often he lines them up according to color: blue, purple, red, orange, green. There is always something for him to tinker with: a broken stove-top, a loose door hinge. Or a mess for him to clean: shattered glass to sweep, a spill to mop. Methodically, he moves through the house, pausing to relax for only moments a night. He sits, still, alone, outside on the dark patio, waiting for the doorbell to ring, for foreign students to come home. He seems to belongs to the architecture of the house; at once inside and outside. Not quite a member of the household, but a fixture of it. Lighting up a cigarette, he sips his intensely caffeinated coffee. Alfredo works as a nightguard from 21h30 to 7h00 at a residence for European and American study abroad students from Kultur Studier and NYU Buenos Aires, respectively.
The few times he circulates through the residence in the daytime, it is an anachronism. From afar, he looks like a time-warp from the 1970s. He uniformly wears T-shirts with acid-washed jeans. “My pant size has not changed since my eighteenth birthday,” he claims, not without some pride. His wardrobe, while limited, is always neat and clean. Physically fit, of medium height, he carries himself well. However, when interacting with others he hunches over, his head down in a sort of Asian submission. This seems to put the other person at ease. He always wears glasses to see. Dark curly hair (no grey) rings around the bottom of his neck and his face barely betrays any wrinkles. His voice, however, sounds older than his 53 years. It almost whistles like an old man’s. Several of his back teeth have fallen out, although no one would ever realize it because he fervently hides the fact. He first introduced himself as unable to speak any English. Though eventually it comes out that he understands more than he initially lets on and has an extensive vocabulary bank at his disposal.
A man of few words, Alfredo always has an ear to lend. Students stumble upon him in the middle of the night to practice their Spanish. Patiently, he listens and softly corrects their mistakes without making them feel inadequate. “He’s dependable and caring,” says one female student. “Alfredo is one of the most humble, sincere, kind, amiable and hard-working people I know,” his employer Eduardo observes. At over 6 feet tall with dreadlocks down his back, Eduardo stands out. He, along with his brother Christian purchased Pichincha 1033 five years ago and renovated it from the ground up, providing housing for the mostly Scandinavian study abroad students. Alfredo has been employed by Casa Pichincha for two years.
Alfredo’s schedule operates as follows, seven days a week: he returns home to Constitución from work every morning at 7h30 and wakes up his family, all of whom live under his roof. Together, his wife, his two daughters, his son and grandson eat breakfast together. His wife Dina and their twenty-six year old daughter go off to work, his twenty-year old son heads to the gym and his daughter and grandson walk to school. His son, who resembles his mother in looks, aspires to be a “personal trainer”. Funnily, this is the only term Alfredo speaks in English. When revealing his son’s dreams, Alfredo’s tone alters slightly as if he sounds regretful. Perhaps he wonders where his son’s afternoons spent in the gym will take him. Alfredo himself remains very preoccupied with his health and productivity. Sometimes, the thought of aging persecutes him. He is not afraid of dying, rather he is concerned that injuries or old age will prevent him from supporting his family. After breakfast, alone, Alfredo retires to his bed, sleeping until 14h00. By then, his wife has returned from work to prepare a lunch for the two of them. The romance has worn off, he remarks, now their partnership has evolved into one of a “brother and sister”. Afterwards, she returns to work and he relaxes during the afternoon. He will half-heartedly watch television but he prefers logging onto the internet café to communicate with the world outside Argentina. Over the many sleepless nights in Casa Pichincha, he has struck up enduring friendships with international students. When he started working at the residence, he had never turned on a computer. Now he is fluent in Facebook and even lists his favorite sports-player on the site as Mohammed Ali. He thoroughly enjoys assisting former students practice their Spanish and more over, connecting to a world outside of his own, outside of Constitución, outside of Argentina, outside of South America. He has never left the continent, only once left the country to go to a beach in Buzios, Brazil.
Alfredo Blanco was born in 1957 in the Buenos Aires barrio of Constitución. Two years earlier, the military staged a coup d’état which saw the charismatic populist president Juan Peron exiled to Venezuela. Pedro Eugenio Aramburu was leading the country. Alfredo’s parents were impoverished but hard-working with immigrant origins, like many other Argentines. Alfredo’s facial features give away his European roots. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Spain, while his mother’s family hailed from Italy. “It was difficult,” says Alfredo of his childhood in Constitución, “a place where people come and go. Nothing is the same”. Today is it a barrio infested with crime, drugs, prostitution and poverty. His father labored in a Palmolive factory for 35 years. His mother, whom he still cares for at the age of 81, stayed home to raise Alfredo and his brother. She adored tango music, her son recalls, and all day sorrowful male voices wafted through the house. Alfredo does not like tango at all and never learned the legendary Argentine dance. He does not have much to say about his early years, other than the fact that they were hard. He was raised Catholic but quickly adds that he rarely attends church services and is not a fanatic. He attended school. From his mother, he had inherited a love of music. He taught himself how to play the drums, he loved the Rolling Stones and Racing Club.
By his early teens, however, he longed for freedom and independence, out from under his parent’s roof. In his early teens, he quit classes. Today he admits the fact with a bit of shame. “I worked various jobs,” he remembers, anything he could find, anything he could do to make money. So began one of Alfredo’s lifelong struggles: to be a productive earner. Unemployment has plagued Alfredo at different times. When he finds a job, he works hard. Eduardo, his current employer, explains, “People like Alfredo have nothing grand to offer society, so he feels good when he is useful”. Eduardo first hired Alfredo two years ago as a minor repair man. Within several weeks, he had combed over the entire building, becoming totally acquainted with the water and electricity systems. Eduardo says, “He takes every opportunity he can to learn, and he does it with a smile”. Even today, when a plumber or an electrician or any other sort of speciality repair man visits Pichincha, Alfredo follows him closely, picking up the tricks of the trade. He strives to make himself invaluable to employers in order to avoid the hardships of unemployment.
In 1969, he met Dina, his dark-haired vivacious next-door neighbor, the girl who would eventually become his wife and life-long partner. They have been married for 29 years, and they have known each other for 42 years. She is her husband’s opposite. According to a family friend, Dina is “loud, brave, happy and always laughing” but most of all, “madly in love with Alfredo”. They married in 1982, the same year as the fall of the military dictatorship.
During the years of the military dictatorship in Argentina, Alfredo kept his head down and worked diligently. He claims that he was not immediately affected: none of his family members nor any of his friends were “disappeared” or tortured. “Maybe a friend of a friend of a friend…” he trails off. Yet 30,000 people vanished. He explains (as many others do) that only after the fall of the Junta did the extent of the horror become clear. Some people refuse to accept this as an excuse, but it is the answer he gives. In fact, Alfredo reticently reveals all political or negative opinions, perhaps a scar from the oppression his country has suffered. “What I don’t understand,” he says quietly, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, “is how this country has all the conditions to be a better place but still it doesn’t improve.” In the recent presidential elections, Alfredo voted for Alberto Rodríguez Saá, a diplomat distinguished by his commitment to limiting personal political power, environmental protection and social economics. He finished fourth with little more than 7% of the votes. “I did not vote for Cristina Kirchner,” Alfredo shares, “The amount of power she has is alarming. No one person should have so much power.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Alfredo cultivated his love for rock music, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the like. He doesn’t read and would always rather listen to music than watch films. He has been numerous Rolling Stones concert and two Eric Clapton concerts. In March, he plans to attend a Roger Waters concert.
In 1985, his eldest daughter Melina was born. “The happiest moments of my life have been the births of my children” he beams, “And when Racing Club won 10 years ago,” he adds. His son was born in 1991 and his youngest daughter was born in 1995. His first grandchild, a boy, was born to Melina in 2005. His greatest wish, he says, is to be happy with his family and to be able to give them a better life.
In 1987 he began driving a taxi at night. For twelve years, he drove all over the corners of the city. Nights have always suited Alfredo; driving the taxi was no different. The work complimented him and when the national economic crisis hit in the early 2000s, he was lost the car.
With luck, Alfredo found a kiosco in the sophisticated neighborhood of Palermo which he began renting. The business was a family affair. His wife prepared various snacks to sell and everyone took turns manning the cashier. The nocturnal creature that he is, Alfredo elected to work the midnight shift. One very early morning, before dawn, a tall drunken dreadlocked Argentine stumbled into the kiosco. A car down the street had just been broken into and this man was looking for shelter. This man’s name was Eduardo. In stark comparison to most kioscos open at night, Eduardo recalls, Alfredo’s put up no bars. “This is symbolic,” emphasizes Eduardo. It was open to anyone. The two began discussing the security situation over some beers. Conversation turned to music and they ended up talking until after sunrise. From then on, Eduardo made sure to stop by the kiosco before and after wild nights out. Then, one day, he noticed the kiosco had closed.
Money had run out and the Blancos were forced to close shop. Desperate, Alfredo had found work at a garage across the street. But the business was paying him pennies and abusing him. It was a low point in his life during which Alfredo was tormented with feelings of inadequacy. He felt old, useless and he fell into a depression. Finally, he sought Eduardo’s help who gave him the job of handy man at Pichincha. Now he has been employed by Casa Pichincha for two years.
“I really admire his work ethic,” enthuses Eduardo, “he takes pride in his job and he becomes at expert at everything he does. He knows every facet of this house. And he always does more than he is asked”. Indeed, Alfredo enjoys working. He has no down time, no weekends, in order to provide for his family. For Eduardo, enriching the lives of local Argentines forms a major component of their work ethos. He assures that Alfredo will always find work with him. “I love him,” Eduardo pronounces, “He is what he is”.
That is not to say Alfredo is perfect. Bad blood festers between and the other pillar of Pichincha, the cook and housemother, Banessa Esteche. His quiet presence unsettles her. An extreme stubbornness also marks his character. Laura, Banessa’s mischievous thirteen-year old daughter, defends her mother, insisting that Banessa attempted to reconcile their friendship, but Alfredo obstinately rejected the opportunity. Eduardo and Alfredo have clashed, as well. Curiously, Alfredo has consistently refused the free English lessons Eduardo has offered. In addition, he is a vicious smoker. At one point, Eduardo issued him an ultimatum: quit smoking or quit his job. Since then, Alfredo has reduced himself to a pack a day but has no intentions of giving up the habit completely. Aside from the stubbornness, Alfredo’s worry over aging occasionally borders on self-consciousness. Initially, he told students he was born in 1977 when in reality, he was born twenty years prior. Most believed him, regardless.
On 2 December, Alfredo turned 54. Although he kept the fact to himself, most students were notified via Facebook. To celebrate, the residents bought him red wine and a birthday alfajor. They played his favorite Rolling Stones songs on the loudspeaker system.
“Did you have a good birthday?”
“Yes,” he answers, “my daughter baked me a delicious cake. There was only one candle, because there wasn’t enough room for 54,” he chuckles. “I made three wishes.”
“I hope they come true,”
He smiles, “Me too.”