In the tango world, you only step off the dance floor in the middle of a song set under the gravest of circumstances. Unless you’ve twisted your ankle, you’ve suddenly fallen ill, or the place is on fire, the so-called practice of “interrupting the tanda [song set]” is generally frowned upon.
No matter how bad his breath, no matter how incomprehensible his lead, no matter how racy his compliments, most women (including me) will brave 3-4 tangos with a less than desirable partner rather than set off the wave of whispers and curious glances that are the inevitable result of leaving the dance floor in mid-tanda. Besides that, the gesture can really hurt a dancer’s feelings.
For similar reasons, until Friday, I’d never interrupted a tanda with a taxista. No matter how difficult the dance, no matter how funky our connection, no matter how bizarre our destination promised to be.
No, nothing grave or unfortunate happened on Friday. But after two failed attempts to get cabbies to share their food secrets with me, I concluded that it simply wasn’t my day to tango with taxi drivers toward anything delicious.
Taxista #1 (a.k.a. That 70s Taxista) picked me up near the train station in Belgrano. After I gave him my can-you-please-take-me-to-a-good-place-to-eat pitch, he emerged from his pot-induced haze and told me that he was from the province – and that he didn’t like to go into restaurants where men were dressed in suits and ties (Incidentally, he was sporting a cream-colored peasant blouse).
“But there are plenty of places here that aren’t so formal,” I said.
“I know, but I just don’t like to eat anywhere en Capital. You know where I like to go? There’s a great little parrilla on a hillside out by the airport. They have everything – steaks, pasta, fish. They even have a playground for kids.”
When I realized that neither my pesos nor my faith would endure the 45 minute cab ride to the hillside parrilla, I asked That 70s Taxista to drop me off.
Eager to shake off my disappointment, I hailed the first cab that passed and soon discovered that I had no desire to follow Taxista #2’s lead either.
“Look, I don’t know any places in this neighborhood,” he said, “How about Puerto Madero? Or Las Cañitas?”
The suggestion to take me to two of BA’s trendiest and priciest neighborhoods was nothing out of the ordinary.
“No, señor. Just the opposite, I want go someplace simple and cheap. Someplace you’ve been where the food is good.”
“What? No, Puerto Madero is where you want to go. Cabaña Las Lilas, Bice…Maybe Happening…”
“Have you eaten at any of those [crazy expensive] places?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, then I don’t want to eat there, either. Isn’t there someplace you usually have lunch?”
“There’s a parrilla in Parque Patricios where you can eat all you want for 16 pesos. The chinchulines [intestines] are fabulous.”
I like to think it was the fact that my small change wouldn’t cover the fare across several neighborhoods to Parque Patricios – rather than my aversion to chinchulines – that interrupted the tanda with Taxista #2.
I took it as a hopeful sign that Taxista #3 was munching on something when he picked me up on the corner of Libertador and Maure.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said.
“It really is. Do you have long to go before you can enjoy it?”
“You could say that.”
“Did you just start?”
“Nope, but I’m not close to finishing, either. I’m in the middle of a 24 hour shift.”
“24 hours?!” I exclaimed, “How do you do it? Do you drink coffee? Tomas mate?”
“Nope, I just lean my seat back and take a little nap after I eat.”
There wasn’t a single note of self-pity in his tone as his eyes traveled to the last few bites of a sandwich in a bag on the passenger seat. I didn’t have the heart to ask him where he’d gotten it.
“How many days a week do you work?”
“Seven. Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 15 hours. Friday, 24 hours. But I only work 6 hours on Sundays.”
“And how long have you been driving a cab?”
“Twenty years. I started working like this when I first got married – I had to constuir una casa, you know? Then the kids came – I have four kids now – and I had to keep up the rhythm. I’m the only one working. What else can I do?”
“And do you make enough money to live?”
“Let’s just say I don’t have anything left over at the end of the month.”
And I didn’t have anything left over at that point in our journey. I asked him to stop on the corner of Libertador and Sarmiento and gave him all the small change in my purse.
No, he hadn’t led me to some fabulous culinary discovery – and we hadn’t embraced in the literal sense. And yet and still, I would compare my ride with Taxista #3 to the best tangos I’ve danced in Buenos Aires. The journey had been just as heart-wrenching, the connection just as fleeting.