Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wash ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em


My life here in Buenos Aires is a little bit in a bubble, I will admit it. I live in a posh neighborhood, as a friend and former BA resident mentioned on Facebook to me in regards to my last post. Living here was a deliberate move. Before this, I lived in San Telmo – the gritty, über urban enclave of hipsters ensconced in stunning, old buildings that once housed the working class settlers of Buenos Aires.

Anyway, a Paco problem (kind of like crystal meth) drove me north to my tree-filled, breeder-ish hood of first world light. This neighborhood, with its' lovely little specialty shops for cheese, wine, underwear, and delicious imported treats tucked in the corners. No paco. Non-native English is occasionally heard on the streets with the thick Argentine accent that can’t quite grab the right vowel.

Many of these people who don’t care how much anything costs- they have the housekeeper, the trainer, the cook, the nanny- you name it, Third world elites. They don’t just exist here in BA, they exist all over the third world. Want someone to wait in the maddeningly long lines everywhere for everything? Hire a personal assistant. Why do anything yourself when you can afford for someone else to do it?

I chatted with a South American friend about it. What is the reason for this? He thought maybe it had something to do with power – money equals power and if you have it, you can hire people and tell them what to do. He also thought it was also part of the traditional classist and racial hierarchy in Latin America, which is strong here in Buenos Aires.

I also thought it was about the system. For example, I once read a story in the New Yorker about the way of life in Lagos, Nigeria – a giant third world city where people will do anything for money - even wash your feet! In a place where there are not a lot of jobs, people make their own jobs and force you to pay. This is one of those places.

For example if you want to park on the street, often there is a guy helping to navigate the traffic for you. He doesn’t ask, he just does it. As I walk down the street to the gym, I often see the same group of guys outside a hulking church and sprawling private Catholic school complex. There are three or four of them who sit on plastic containers turned upside down, chain smoking and talking amongst them selves and waiting. Waiting. Waiting is the classic posture of the service class.

When a car comes creeping slowly off the hyper-trafficked Luis Maria Campos onto the calmer Maure, they often spring into action. They furiously wave their yellow rags to direct the drivers, standing in the street with an air of authority more like a crossing guard than a cop. Sometimes they wash the cars too, earning a few extra bucks.

Work is work, I suppose. Especially in this economy, right? Guess washing cars in Buenos Aires is better than washing feet in Lagos.

3 comments:

Donigan said...

Thanks for making me feel even more guilty.

(Also last lived in DC, now BAires)

Jill said...

Sorry Donigan... I suppose I am a guilty as you!

Alejandra said...

Waiting reminds me of the 'hood back in Tucson. Except they don't really spring into action all that often. Americans are far less likely to pay, or tip, for a service they never asked for to begin with (hello window washers at stop lights!) making this type of stuff so much less profitable here. There though...Americans (as tourists) have first world guilt so we give them money out of pity. I would consider them the ingenue of the streets vs. entrepreneurs, yes?