Sin Rumbo & the War of the Transvestites
July 2003—Midwinter in Buenos Aires: It's my first time down here in winter, and it's very different. I am looking out the window at a Buenos Aires that has an unfamiliar brooding quality—gray clouds, gray trees, and gray buildings. People wearing somber expressions and muted winter clothes. It's especially striking since this was an unanticipated (and for the most part unwanted) last minute trip. One day we were baking in Southern Arizona, and the next we are in dripping, cold BsAs—London on the Rio de la Plata. From shorts and flip flops, 295 degrees watching the mountains burning up and frying eggs on the forehead, to a rainy, cloudy, midwinter Ingmar Bergman movie. The only visible energy down here today is because Boca Junior has just won the America ’s Cup in soccer, so the crazies are out. They are racing through the streets again, drinking and yelling from the backs of pickups and waving those pastel blue flags with a picture of the sun in the middle, while the bright yellow and blue colors of Boca Junior team are hanging everywhere from apartment balconies. A few red and white flags of the losing River Plate team are hanging also, but they turn them to face inward in defeat, away from the street.
But not just the weather is different. The quick change confirmed some things I suspected in the past, but wasn't sure of until now: the food really is better and healthier here, the service is also better, and the people, despite their worried distracted expressions, are more open and friendly. It's surprising how nice it is to be greeted again with hugs and kisses by the old milongueros and milongueras. It reminds me of the kisses I received as a child from uncles and grandparents. And of course, I'm instantly reminded that we are back in the Major Leagues of tango.
"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity"
At the end of my 2001 reports I made two predictions. I said that I somehow felt I would never return to BsAs. This turned out to be very false. The other thing I said was I didn't plan to write again for a long time. I'm not sure why I felt it, but it turned out to be true. In some ways, writing is like tango—you either feel the urge or you don't, and in fact, after I left BsAs in 2001 I wasn't really sure if I wanted to dance tango anymore either.
My doubts about tango came to a head last year in Buenos Aires. I was in Nino Bien with Renee and Alejandra one night. I should have been on top of the world. I was with two of the most beautiful women in the city, my partner Alejandra was the finest tango dancer in the world, and the best milongueros in BsAs were coming to the table to ask permission to dance with them. But it was here that I realized that I didn't like tango anymore. The precipitating event was small: tango's heaviest hitter celebrity, and one of the local tough guys (a well known ex-cop and ‘guarda espalda’) were strutting and posing around the floor in their usual way. They accidentally bumped one another, and then began to engage in a smirking, slow motion gunfight as they continued to dance. Something inside me changed, and I realized I couldn't take another minute of it. The whole scene that I had been in love with for several years suddenly seemed dirty and cheap. Too much arrogance, too much stupidity. I saw ridiculous old men posing and primping, and trolling for tourists. Too much smoke, too much alcohol, and everything smelled of vanity—frantic tourists, and women showing off in too tight clothes. In addition, there had been vague threats from the milongueros because I was with Alejandra. And the codes that once seemed a fair way to avoid conflicts in the charged atmosphere of the milonga now seemed like just another tool for a bunch of old men to hold on to their power. I've never been huge on social conscience, but this scene suddenly stood in sharp contrast with my experiences in the events of December the year before. The young ‘cartoneros’ in the streets, and the desperate and earnest Willy Loman like salesman on the buses with their well-combed hair and their slept-in suits trying to make a few cents selling pens was too much. I'd had enough of BsAs tango. Alejandra and I left and never went back to a milonga after that night. We rented a private studio and danced alone for a week ($1.50/ hr), and then we went to the provinces (Jujuy and Salta) for a few weeks. After that we returned to the U.S.
Well, we are back now, for better or for worse as they say. I'd rather not be here, but it's not so bad. I may actually be falling in love with this old city again. The night before last in the milongas wasn't so good, but last night was miraculous. I'll write about it next time, after I answer some of the personal emails.
The entry to the club.
One of my all time favorite opening tango lines goes like this: “Sin rumbo fijo, mi vida va...” It doesn't translate well to English, but essentially it says, "Without direction, without fixed goal, my life goes forward". In Spanish it's great. Sung in Castellano, in the Biaggi vals, “Lejos de Ti” it is sublime. Because of the song, Club Sin Rumbo has existed in my imagination for some time. I pictured a remote place in the far barrios, with some lost, directionless souls dancing sad tango. I thought maybe the name of the club came from the song, but the truth behind the name is even better. 80 years ago a man went to the hipodromo (horse track) and placed a bet on a horse named Sin Rumbo. This is not a promising name for a race horse, giving rise to images of wandering on the track, possibly going the wrong way, or maybe even stopping to smell some flowers. Anyway, the horse must have been a long shot, because when it won, the man got a lot of money. The good part is that the man had some style. Instead of using the money to pay bills or invest in index funds, he opened a tango club. “Club Sin Rumbo, la Catedral de Tango” has the greatest name in tango. It's been in the same spot for 80 years, and I wouldn't be surprised if it looks exactly the same now as the day the doors first opened. The picture below is of Sin Rumbo. It has been transferred to tile, and embedded on the front of the club (you have to look closely to find it, because it's down low near the sidewalk).
Nov. 29, 1919—Sin Rumbo wins!
By the way, my second favorite name for a tango club is “El Fulgor de Villa Crespo”. This name brings a smile to most Argentine faces. It means something like the most wonderful resplendent thing shining with its own brilliance in the Villa Crespo neighborhood (our kids and granddaughter live just around the corner from it}. And it is a great place. Another beautiful friendly little barrio club, and it's the only place in the history of my life where I have ever won anything. As we were leaving, my ticket number was drawn, and I won a glass of whiskey (which I was politely required to drink before we could leave). And outside on the deserted cobblestone streets a small flock of transvestite prostitutes wanders like exotic birds. The first time we walked into the neighborhood on a cold foggy night looking for the club, they somehow appeared in the middle of the completely deserted street. Not a soul, not a car, the pale street lamps stretching into the far distance, and they just appeared; almost dropping from the sky like the colorful peacocks that Fellini once dropped into a snowy scene in one of his movies. They were completely unexpected, and somehow glorious to the extent that they were wearing less clothing than Victoria 's Secret models (thongs, fishnet stockings, micro mini slips) and the temperature was a damp bone chilling 45 degrees. I immediately took pity and wanted to invite them into the club to warm up with a drink, but Alejandra said no, it's not downtown. It's a family place. No way.
Being a country boy, I find this phenomenon of big city prostitutes interesting in an academic sort of way. I decided to do some more research, in the interest of cross-cultural studies. Which means we asked a taxi driver about it. Here's what he said. The well-known main spot for them is a street that is not that far from our house in Palermo. He said you can go at night, but you have to be careful because they will almost climb into the windows of the car. He said we can't go right now, however because of the “Guerra de las Travestis”. Apparently there is a war between the gangs of transvestite prostitutes and the regular women prostitutes that has been going on for the last two nights on that street. Last night, he said, it was so bad that police, ambulances, and even fire trucks with fire hoses had to be called. He said it's not safe now, that maybe it will be in a few days, but that the neighbors are fed up, and the police will soon come in and clean out the area, so we need to go soon if we want to see it.
My mind reels with visions of 6 ft. tall transvestites in high heels and underwear battling ferociously in the rainy streets with knife wielding female prostitutes in mini skirts, ambulances carrying away the wounded, and fireman with high pressure hoses and mounted police trying to restore order. I need to get over there with my video camera.
That's all. This post was supposed to be “En la Buena, y en la Mala”—a story about a wonderful night in Sin Rumbo with 15 of the greatest old milongueras of all time dancing and being honored (which I got on film!), and a small run in with a couple of the big time tango celebrities downtown. Instead it's about prostitutes fighting. Oh well. Sin rumbo fijo, mi vida va.