Maybe it’s the fact that he was daydreaming when I knocked on the passenger side window. Maybe it’s the way he eases over to the curb on Avenida Escalabrini Ortíz as I ask him about his favorite place to eat. Maybe it’s the pictures of saints stuffed above the drivers’ side door – or the baby photo in a pink frame on his keychain.
Mostly, I think, it’s the fact that his brown eyes mirror the bizarre mixture of fatigue and tension that hangs over Buenos Aires at the moment.
It’s been a rough few weeks in the Metropolis of Meat. Between government-staged protests, massive counter-demonstrations in support of the striking farmers, the Vice President’s vote against the President’s export tax policies, prices that continue to spiral upward, and the stabbing death of a bus driver, the city is on edge, and the general mood is understandably grim.
Marcelo leaves the taxi meter off as we negotiate our destination. Being from Quilmes, a working-class city in the province of Buenos Aires, he rarely comes to the capital during his off hours. Like many taxistas, he doesn’t eat during his 10-12 hour shift.
“There’s a parrilla on Córdoba and Sanchez de Bustamante that’s supposed to be pretty good,” he says.
“According to whom? Other taxi drivers?”
“Yes. Some of them have told me to eat there.”
“OK, sure. Let’s go there.”
He nods in agreement, and we’re on our way.
“Aren’t you going to turn the meter on?” I lean forward between the space in the front seats.
“Not until I have you going in the right direction,” he says, making a series of right turns down one-way streets until we’re heading toward Avenida Córdoba. I sit back, accept his kindness, and ask him how long he’s been driving a cab.
Ten years, he says. Though he was trained as a chemical engineer, he finally had to give up on finding work in a lab.
“In this country, you never know what’s going to happen,” he says, “No one wants to put their money in the bank.”
I listen to him as a dispatcher bellows street names and pick-up points over the CB radio.
“But I watch CNN,” he adds, “I see we’re not alone. There are other countries that are just as screwed up as we are. The problem is that politicians always want a piece. They’re always looking to take a bit of the cow for themselves.”
Before we can venture deeper into politics, we arrive at La Esmerelda (the Emerald), the taxista-recommended parrilla.
I thank Marcelo, wish him luck and walk into the crowded formica and linoleum cafeteria, choosing a table in full view of a poster of an Angus steer.
“Angus – the world’s most efficient bull,” it reads, “He’s big, virile, rugged and sires homeless calves.”
I contemplate the magnificence of Angus as I study the menu. Naturally, having never eaten at La Esmerelda, Marcelo hadn’t steered me toward any particular dish.
Despite the slabs of beef and butterflied chickens roasting on the open grill next to Angus, I notice that no one in the busy restaurant seems to be eating meat.
A toddler runs laps around the table next to mine. A black clad waiter rushes over and tells me they’re out of the lentil stew I was hoping for. I go for meatballs a la portuguesa with saffron rice instead.
The food is unremarkable: the meatballs are boiled rather than browned, whispering garlic when I wish they would shout, smothered in a tomato-based portuguesa sauce that’s one dimensional and sweet. In the meantime, I search for the saffron in the rice, but find only butter.
In the end, I’m only slightly disappointed. Marcelo may have led me to a forgettable meal, but his parting words were a gem that I’ll treasure for a long time:
“This country is like a cow. She keeps yielding milk no matter how badly we treat her.”
Av. Cordoba 3289, esq. Sanchez de Bustamante – Palermo