"Argentina 2002-03" story # 4

Bariloche, Rio Negro           December 23, 2002

While I was waiting tables third-shift at Steak Nī Shake in Michigan recently, a teenage couple tipped me seven dollars just for bringing them two Frisco Melts and some milkshakes and doing a bad Australian impression to entertain them. Not a bad gig, eh?
     My, how the times have changed ...

Since Iīve returned to live in Bariloche, Argentina, itīs been about ten days.
     Itīs an obsessive challenge of mine to sustain myself as well as possible in the countries I visit as I get to know them. Thus, I can fit into the community and also learn what it takes for the locals to bust out a living. But, perhpas more importantly, I can prove that Iīm not just a privileged dollar-waving Westerner and that a determined person from any country could travel the world. And, also, Iīm cheap.
     Mini french bread loafs and orange marmelade or a thick, milky caramel spread, and also rice which I donīt know how to cook but sometimes try anyway, have the highest calorie-to-cost ratios in the Argentinian supermarkets, so thatīs mainly what I eat. The carpeted living space I rent costs 180 pesos (US$51) a month and is a mile from downtown. In the time I have left over from eating and sleeping, I check the restaurants, bars, hotels, and chocolate factories for work. Mmmm, chocolate.
     Some new friends have made sure I fit in some fun between my marmelade and carpet and chocolate factory-sniffing. Ichimango is in his early thirties but enjoys himself like a teen-ager; he plays the drums - very creatively; tapping wood to spice up his solos - and sings and slams his very long, curly hair around voraciously in his band of twelve years. A seventeen-year old named Ruth from poor, upper Bariloche took me to a high school party in a warehouse, where young, drunk, running-around "chicas" (girls) forced me to dance "marcha" (a hyped-up, dizzier version of salsa).
     But, you canīt consume if you donīt contribute! I headed into a discotech called "OrangePub" last week to look for work ...

On my last night waiting tables in Michigan, I brought a poor, lone girl waiting for her friends some hot soup and a diet coke and called her "my little swimming mermaid" to make her feel at home, and then called her "my beautiful dolphin" when I brought the table itīs meal. For this, her table left me seven dollars.
     My, how the times have changed.

At OrangePub, the friendly spectacled owner said, "Buen curriculum" (Good resumé), to me, and told me I could work there the coming weekend. "Pagamos veinte-y-cinco pesos por la noche." (We pay twenty-five pesos a night.) Which works out to about US$7 for the whole night. maybe I shouldīve pointed out to him the part of my "curriculum" where it says I have a college education?
     Friday night at eleven, I showed up, "listo para trabajar" (ready to work), like it said on my curriculum. I was to be a bar-man, along with three or four other Argentinians. Yago, a short-scrappy-haired, young bar-man in psychedelic shades, explained me the wall of weird liquors and a dozen of our duties in racing castellano spanish, and I caught on to a couple things he said.
     There were already about ninety people there, from a high school graduation pre-party. Boy, I speak and understand spanish very poorly to be in this position, I thought. And the loud Brazilian pagode ("pop" samba) music didnīt help, nor the dim lights.
     Walls of the wooden, rectangular discotech, and some of the floor, were painted orange. Our bar ran the roomīs long length. With my yellow-dyed, shoulder-length hair, in the black-and-bright-orange t-shirts we bar-men wore, I stood out as a funky giant.
     A Patagonian snow-bank of sweaty, thirst-looking people stood before the bar, on their mark to do the worst thing possible, and that would be to ask me for something. It was like standing beneath a teetering rock on a mountain; for the time being, things were beautiful, but there was that nibbling, uneasy feeling that at any moment the avalanche was about to begin, and you were going to have to run for it.
     A kid came to the bar. I couldnīt run; not if I wanted to be an Argentinian hardy labourer. And I wanted. I jumped in front of the other bar-man and heard: "Dame una cerveza." The kid wanted a beer. Easy enough. I brought him the one-litre local Quilmes cerveza and some cups, and collected the three pesos and fifty centavos from him.
     I quickly brought two more beers for two more kids. And I served a few more people, who pretty much all wanted beers, before this pre-party ended. At twelve-thirty, the doors opened for the real nightīs event. Relaxing Argentinian rock music started things off. By one oīclock, fifty people were in the club. By two oīclock, one hundred. By three, the place was full and hot and humid with two-hundred-plus people and still filling.
     Marcha music bounced off the walls. Many people danced, but many others leaned over the bar like tight, herded cattle. We bar-men ran around, pleasing the people. 97% of the people I served wanted Quilmes, or if not Quilmes than Brahma beer or Quilmes Negra or Heineken. Or perhaps they had a ticket entitling them to a small can of beer. Easy enough. If they wanted a popular Vermouth drink, or when a personīs spanish sounded to me like: "Gaba-dop, dee obba-doo!" I usually pointed them to someone else.
     The worst part, though, was the endless shuffling of the dozens of Quilmes beers we sold, trying to keep a hundred bottles cold and available and in the right coolers. It was tough work ...

One night in Steak Nī Shake, there was a nice, very drunk girl who called me "honey", and to her table I brought three Eggs w/the Works and some coffees. For merely this, I earned seven dollars.
     My, how the times have ...

Navigating through the dense, smoky dance-floor, I clutched to my stomach and gripped between my knuckles nine or ten empty Quilmes bottles. All of these around the club had to be found, collected, and stored. "Quilmes," incidentally, you pronounce, "Kill me." yeah ...
     Pagode music became trance music briefly became American pop and hip-pop became rock (The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival, Dire Straits) became merengue became house. The mob of people finally started dying down at six, and I left at seven-thirty. Twenty-five pesos richer ...

One night, I had a table of four, and as I laid down their meals, I said, "Hereīs your fried chicken salad, my little tiger pup," to one of the girls. Later, I called the other girl "my little trooper" because a ketchup bottle dropped and hit her on her shoulder, and she didnīt even wet her lashes. The girls asked why the guys didnīt get pet names from me, so when I passed by the last time, I called one big guy "my little millionaire." Which was awkward. But funny. That was all I did. It! Thier tip: seven dollars.
     My, oh my.

Twenty five pesos?
     On the negative side, this was much less money than I would make in only an hour of work in the United States. But, on the positive side, thatīs more money than most Americans make in their whole lifetime ... in Argentina.
     The following night, I returned to OrangePub. Things were the same as on Friday, except they sucked more. By the time seven oīclock had reached, I honestly thought it was ten a.m. and weīd just stayed open late. And still there was another hour-plus of work to go.
     Once weīd closed my hands had over a dozen cuts from moving around and opening sharp-capped bottles. In general, I was proud of my labor, and I think only one or a few customers were disappointed by my Argentinian bar-man abilities.
     Alas, however, Iīd only been working this weekend to replace a guy called "El Pollo" (The (food) Chicken). The friendly, spectacled owner didnīt invite me to come back again. That four-eyed jerk! Essentially, I was told I didnīt taste like chicken. If you will. You know, I really wasnīt that sad to not be a regular employee there. That job was tough!
     Twenty-five pesos more. What American would work for such? Not a member of your bourgesie, thatīs who!
     Twenty-five pesos. I ran it through my fingers. It was all colored; it didnīt even feel real. Twenty-five pesos. I could barely even afford to hitchhike with that money.
     At least I got the number of the cute coat-check chica ...

One night, looong ago, two young kids came into Steak Nī Shake and just kept eating. Hamburgers first, then cheesy fries, onion rings, soft drinks, refills. Anothre kid came in and sat with them and wanted his food served QUICK ...
     Those lousy punks didnīt tip me nothing!
     Huh ... maybe Argentina is the right place to be working. $7. Those $17,000 college loans are gonna to be paid off in no time!

Later. - "Olī Moneybags" Modern Oddyseus

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