Where Did The Old Man Of Hoy Get Its Name The Paper Pickers of Buenos Aires (Argentina, 2002) Now in Spanish and English

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The Paper Pickers of Buenos Aires (Argentina, 2002) Now in Spanish and English

(Written October, 2002, Reedited and updated, 3/2010)

The Paper Pickers

Of Buenos Aires

(Written October, 2002, Reedited and updated English Version, 3/2010)

In English and Spanish

English Version

I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina four days ago and my first reaction to the paper pickers, as I call them, was ‘be…ee careful’ -it was the same reaction a woman on an elevator in the Hotel who had just arrived had; it was a hotel right off the main street of the city street called The ‘9th of-July named after the day of Argentina’s independence if I recall correctly.

I liked the obelisk between the sixteen-rows of automobile street lanes that one has to cross over to get from one side to the other of this enormous wide street, the widest in the world I hear; I can see the obelisk from our hotel window mirror (later on I’ll go down and visit it, as I will in the following years, or during my next two visits to Buenos Aires, in 2008 and in 2010).

My wife keeps asking me, “What are you looking at…?”

And of course, keep saying, “The obelisk honey, just the obelisk, why?”

“You know by now what it looks like,” she comments. She’s more practical than me, an accountant by profession, and the cutest little thing this side of the Universe, so I don’t want to upset her so I just say a second time, “…the obelisk honey, that’s all I’m looking at, I assure you.” And the truth is, exactly that, I’m simply looking at the obelisk, not any hot chicks passing by, my wife’s the jealous type, ‘A’ woman when it comes to that sort of thing.

When I was in St. Louis, in ’98 (before I met my wife), I had gotten a room with a view looking at the 555-foot famous Arch of the Midwest, and I did the same thing, looked at the arch a dozen or so times a day, to imprint its grandness into my mind. I went to the Alamo, in Texas, and did the same thing, back in 1994, saw it five times in five days, to get its pulse. I seem to need that for some reason.

Anyhow, as I was saying, or about to say, I watched these ‘Paper Pickers’ for a number of days now. I could see them from our 9th story window, and of course as my wife and I would walk about outside the hotel during these evenings, they were always very busy wrapping paper and cardboard into little bundles, and placing these items into big sacks, or on top of one another, roped. They could be mistaken for bums, young ones for the most part, but I’d learn in the next two visits to this South American City, they were also Middle Aged, and one person being my age, sixty years old, with grandchildren, so he’d tell me in a video interview. But they were working, so the bum thing went out the window, they were just caught in a fractured economic crisis of the times, and they were not like their counterparts-those young folks that don’t want to work for a living so they become thieves; these folks I’m talking about were hard working individuals, nothing less.

They knew I was observing them as I walked about, night after night-they had to know, it was too obvious, but they never made eye contact, caught my eye, nor paid me any attention to speak of, or for that matter, paid any folks walking by any attention. They just kept putting paper into sacks, and breaking down boxes, and then putting them onto a wheelbarrow and brought those wheelbarrows across that busy long, very wide street to the other side and down a few more streets, and down an alley, hour after hour, after hour for five hours or more between nine o’clock in the evening and two a.m., in the morning-take or give a few hours.

They were as I had said, stuffing these huge bags full of paper, and tying the cardboard boxes in tight stacks, and some paper pickers even taking apart the motors in appliances left out for the junk man to pick up, like small refrigerates from hotel rooms no longer working I would guess, and so forth, and putting them onto their carts, perhaps to strip the copper out of them later on, and sell it wherever. The old man, said he made two-hundred Pesos a week, about sixty-dollars (in 3-2010, and in 1998, my first visit to the city, the young man I talked to made less than that).

What perhaps looked the oddest to me was that: here I was in a four-star hotel, and here were these paper pickers one-hundred feet away from the hotel doing their laborious work, several of them, independently doing their work side by side, knowing one another of course. As if they had a duty station, as if they were brothers in a fraternity. Other paper pickers roamed from location to location-solo, so I suppose they all had their own preferences-that is to say, if they wanted to work in groups or independently on their own.

The streets after 10:30 p.m. appeared to be the most active time for collecting and sorting the paper, thereafter doing the bundling, stacking and tying of the cardboard and paper-consequently, most of the mountain of paper was visible to the naked eye, right to the side of the street near the four-star hotel I was in.

It was the fourth day (1998), and my Peruvian, and Spanish speaking wife and I stood by the hotel door been watching them. It was about 10:00 p.m., I started walking over to them, approaching the group, although they were stagnated several feet apart from one another, several of them busily working at their job. A few eyes started to stare at us-for the most part, because we were pert near on top of them, and then looked another way as if to avoid us, but Victor whom would speak to me in a moment, he stood a little surprised I caught his eyes and seemingly wouldn’t let go. He was about twenty-two years old. As I stepped forward to greet him, he extended his hand, and I introduced myself along with my wife. He still was estranged, not knowing what my intent was, and surely knowing from my greenish-blue eyes and auburn hair, and light complexion, I was a gringo with something on my mind, with a bronze Spanish speaking wife.

“Hello,” he said in a Spanish, in a kindly tone of voice, he was quite calm and serene, standing there by his cart, half filled with paper mixed with cardboard, his cart a little less filled in comparison to the full carts of the other young men.

“My partner got sick on me tonight,” he told my wife, as we talked about his trade, “and so I have worked alone tonight.” He commented.

I had noticed he rarely made eye contact with me when we talked, but my wife and I kind of forced Victor’s hand. My wife told him, I had several questions I’d like to ask him, if he didn’t mind accommodating me with the answers that is, all related to his work.

(Interlude: Eight years from this date, I’d do the same thing, a second interview, look for paper pickers, and do a movie interview this time, but this time I would select an old man by the Hotel President, a sixty-year old man, nearer my age, by the name of Luis Alberto, and he’d be kindly enough to tell me about his life in the paper picking business, and he was proud to be interviewed and put into a movie, whereas a young man I had asked prior to this second event, eight-years later, was reluctant. Anyhow back to Victor)

As Rosa, my wife, and myself stood there talking to Victor, he explained to me he worked ten-hours per day, going from hotel to hotel, to apartment building and stores, collecting paper and cardboard. Bulking it together and tying it down, then delivering it in black twenty-five-gallon bags he used for storing, where as Luis used a much larger bag seemingly made out of some kind of gunnysack material, perhaps five feet tall, and with a circumference of a small type Volkswagen.

When Victor got enough paper, and bundles and sacks filled, he’d-like the rest of his group-would bring the workload to a truck parked a few blocks away (Luis explained to me it was purchased by the government and put onto a white train, and wherever it was taken, the city only knew), the people would weigh the material at.40-cents per each kilogram [two pounds]. In a day or evening he could or would make four-dollars or so; the Argentine Pesos were very low at this time to the dollar. But he was working, which I was proud to see, not out robbing like so many during hard times.

Victor explained also that plastic was recycled, but they had to bring it to another location.

Victor’s eyes were dark brown, small and round, almost as if hypnotic; a very pleasant laidback kind of person, and graceful in his manners; I’m sure his parents were proud of him, for he was working and not begging, or stealing to get a free meal, and did not blame his hardship on everyone else in the world.

His voice was steady, calm, soft. I pulled out a ten peso bill, gave it to him (Luis, eight-years down the road would get from me, seventeen pesos for his interview). He looked at me as if he was in disbelief, not sure if he should accept it or not. But my wife assured him it was for the information he provided, and therefore was and had worked for it. He looked at it a second time and took it (as did Luis take his money, but said ‘It’s really not necessary” but my wife insisted he should take it also, because he earned it). Some folks are just very honorable and humble, God bless them both.

As we walked away from Victor, I stopped to turn about and saw Victor one last time, he was talking to one of the two guys by him holding the bill with two hands, showing it to them, still in disbelief I would guess, or checking out to see if it was real.

In Spanish Translated by Nancy Peñaloza

Los Recogedores

De papel de Buenos Aires

[Argentina, 2002]

Llegué a Buenos Aires, Argentina, hace cuatro días y mi primera reacción hacia los recogedores de papel, como los llamo, era “Cui…dado” -esta fue la misma reacción que tuvo una mujer en el elevador de nuestro hotel, que acababa de llegar; nuestro hotel estaba en la misma calle llamada 9 de Julio, nombrada así en honor al Día de la Independencia de Argentina, si mal no recuerdo.

Me gusta el Obelisco que está en medio de los dieciséis carriles de autos que uno tiene que cruzar de un lado al otro de esta enorme y ancha calle, la más ancha del mundo escuché; y puedo ver el obelisco por el espejo de la ventana de mi hotel (más adelante bajaría para ir a verlo, como lo haría en los siguientes años, o durante mis siguientes dos visitas a Buenos Aires, en el 2008 y 2010).

Mi esposa para preguntándome, “Qué estás mirando…”

Y por supuesto yo sigo diciéndole “El…Obelisco querida, sólo el obelisco. ¿Por qué?”

“Para ahora ya sabes cómo luce éste”, ella comenta. Ella es más práctica que yo, una contadora de profesión, y la cosita más tierna en este lado del Universo, por eso no quiero que se moleste por lo cual le digo por segunda vez, “…el obelisco querida, eso es todo lo que estoy mirando, te lo aseguro”. Y la verdad es, exactamente eso, estoy simplemente mirando al obelisco, no a ninguna chica atractiva pasando por allí, mi esposa es de la clase de mujeres celosas. Una mujer A cuando se refiere a esa clase de cosas.

Cuando estuve en San Luis, en 1998 (antes de conocer a mi esposa) obtuve una habitación con vista al famoso Arco de la región norcentral de los Estados Unidos de 169 metros de altura, e hice lo mismo, miré al arco una docena de veces al día, para grabar su grandeza en mi mente. La misma cosa hice cuando fui al Alabama en Texas, allá en 1994, lo vi cinco veces por día, para obtener su pulso. Parece que, por alguna razón, necesito eso.

De todos modos, como iba diciendo, o estaba por decir, miré a esos “recogedores de papel”, por unos cuantos días ahora. Podía verlos desde mi ventana en el noveno piso, y desde luego mientras mi esposa y yo caminábamos afuera del hotel durante esas noches, ellos estaban siempre ocupados envolviendo papeles y cartones en pequeños bultos y poniéndolos en bolsas grandes, o uno encima del otro, amarrándolos. Ellos podrían ser confundidos por vagabundos, jóvenes la mayoría de ellos, pero aprendería en las próximas dos visitas a esta ciudad sudamericana, que había también gente de edad madura, y una persona de mi edad, sesenta años con nietos, eso él me diría en un video de entrevista. Pero ellos estaban trabajando, entonces la idea de vagabundo, quedó descartada, ellos sólo habían sido atrapados en una quebrantada crisis económica de los tiempos, y ellos no eran como alguno de sus homólogos-aquella gente joven que no quieren trabajar así se convierten en ladrones; esta gente de la que estoy hablando eran, nada menos, individuos muy trabajadores

Ellos sabían que yo los observaba mientras caminaba alrededor, noche tras noche-tenían que saberlo, era muy obvio, pero ellos nunca hicieron contacto visual, ni me prestaron atención para hablar, o en realidad, nunca prestaron atención a ninguna gente que pasaba. Ellos sólo continuaban poniendo los papeles dentro de los sacos, y partiendo las cajas, y luego poniéndolos en una carretilla que lo llevarían a través de aquella calle muy amplia y atareada cruzando hacia el otro lado, y llevándolo unas cuadras más abajo, y luego hacia un callejón, hora tras hora, por cinco horas o más, entre nueve de la noche y dos de la mañana-más o menos.

Ellos estaban, como había dicho, rellenando estas bolsas enormes con papel y atando las cajas de cartón en montones apretados, y algunos recogedores de papeles incluso desarmando los motores de los electrodomésticos dejados afuera para que los recogiera el chatarrero, como pequeñas refrigeradoras del hotel que ya no funcionaban, etc. supondría, y poniéndolos en su triciclo, talvez para sacar el cobre más adelante, y venderlo en algún sitio. El anciano me dijo que ganaba doscientos pesos por semana, alrededor de sesenta dólares (esto es en Marzo del 2010, pero en 1998, mi primera visita a la ciudad, el joven del que hablé ganaba menos que eso).

Lo que me parecía más raro talvez era que, aquí me encontraba en un hotel de cuatro estrellas, y a unos treinta metros de éste estaban estos recogedores de papel haciendo dedicadamente su trabajo, muchos de ellos independientemente, trabajando uno junto al otro, conociéndose unos al otro por supuesto, como si ellos tuvieran una estación de servicio, como si fueran hermanos en fraternidad. Otros recogedores de papeles deambulaban de un lugar a otro-solos, por eso creo que todos ellos tenían sus propias preferencias-es decir, si ellos querían trabajar en grupos o independientemente por su cuenta.

Después de las 10:30 de la noche, las calles parecían ser las más activas para recoger y clasificar papeles, a partir de entonces hacer los paquetes, apilándolos y atándolos, la mayor parte de la montaña de papel era visible a simple vista, justo al costado de la calle cerca al hotel cuatro estrellas en el que yo estaba.

Este era el cuarto día, y mi peruana esposa hispanohablante y yo estuvimos parados por la puerta del hotel mirándolos. Era cerca de las 10:00 de la noche, cuando comenzamos a caminar hacia ellos, acercándonos al grupo, aunque ellos estaban parados a varios pies uno del otro, muchos de ellos trabajaban afanosamente en su labor. Unos cuantos ojos empezaron a mirarnos fijamente, ya que estábamos casi encima de ellos, y luego miraron en otra dirección como para evitarnos, pero Víctor quien me hablaría en un momento permaneció un poco sorprendido que atraje su atención y aparentemente no lo soltaba. Él tenía aproximadamente veintidós años. Mientras caminaba hacia delante para saludarlo, él extendió su brazo, y me presenté junto con mi esposa. Él todavía estaba extrañado sin saber cuál era mi intención, y seguramente sabiendo-por mis ojos azules verdoso, mis cabellos castaño rojizo, y mi cutis claro-que yo era un gringo con algo en la mente y con una esposa bronceada e hispanohablante.

“¡Hola!” él dijo en español, con un amable tono de voz, él estaba bastante calmado y sereno, parado por su triciclo, medio lleno con papeles mezclado con cartones; su triciclo, comparado con los triciclos de los otros jóvenes, estaba menos lleno.

“Mi compañero se enfermó esta noche”, le dijo a mi esposa, mientras hablábamos de su negocio, “por eso hoy estoy trabajando solo”, él comentó.

Yo había notado que él raras veces hacía contacto visual conmigo cuando hablábamos, pero mi esposa y yo como que obligamos a Víctor. Mi esposa le dijo que yo tenía varias preguntas que me gustaría hacerle, todas relacionadas a su trabajo, si a él no le importaba complacerme con las respuestas.

(Intervalo: Ocho años después, haría lo mismo, miraría por los recogedores de papeles, y haría una segunda entrevista, esta vez grabada en un video, pero esta vez escogería a un hombre mayor trabajando por el Hotel Presidente, un anciano de sesenta años de edad, casi de mi edad, con el nombre de Luis Alberto, y él sería suficientemente amable de contarme sobre su vida en el negocio de recojo de papeles, y él estaría orgulloso de ser entrevistado y puesto en un video, a diferencia de un joven, al que le pedí antes en este segundo evento, ocho años más tarde, se mostró reacio. De todos modos, volvamos a Víctor)

Mientras Rosa, mi esposa, y yo estuvimos allí hablando con Víctor, él me explicó que trabajaba diez horas al día, yendo de hotel a hotel, a edificios de departamentos y tiendas, recogiendo papeles y cartones, amontonándolos juntos, atándolos, y guardándolos en bolsas negras de 25-galones, luego entregándolos; a diferencia de Luis quien usaba una bolsa mucho más larga, aparentemente hecha de alguna clase de material tipo yute, de talvez 1.50 metro de alto, y con una circunferencia de un pequeño Volkswagen.

Cuando Víctor tendría suficiente papel, paquetes y sacos llenos, él-como el resto de su grupo-lo llevaría hacia el camión parqueado a pocas cuadras de allí (Luis me explicó que el gobierno les compraba todo ese material y lo ponía en un tren y sólo el gobierno sabía a dónde lo llevaban), la gente los pesaría y le pagaría 0.40 centavos por cada kilogramo (2.20 libras). En un día o una noche él ganaría cuatro dólares aproximadamente; el cambio del peso argentino a dólares estaba muy bajo esta vez. Pero él estaba trabajando, del que yo estaba orgulloso de ver, no afuera robando como muchos lo hacían durantes tiempos difíciles.

Víctor explicó también que el plástico era reciclable, pero ellos tenían que llevarlo a otra ubicación.

Los ojos de Víctor eran marrones oscuros, pequeños y redondos, casi como si hipnóticos: una persona muy agradable, una clase de persona tranquila y relajada, y llena de gracia en sus modales; estoy seguro que sus padres estaban orgullosos de él, ya que él estaba trabajando y no pidiendo limosna, o robando para tener una comida gratis, y no le echaba la culpa a nadie en este mundo por sus penurias.

Su voz era firme, calmada, y suave. Saqué un billete de diez pesos y se lo di (Luis, ocho años después, obtendría de mi, diecisiete pesos por su entrevista). Él me miró como si estuviera incrédulo, no seguro de aceptar o no. Pero mi esposa le aseguró que era por la información que él proporcionó, y por lo tanto él se lo había ganado. Él miró por segunda vez y lo tomó (como también Luis tomó el dinero, pero dijo que no era necesario, pero mi esposa insistió que lo tomara, porque él también se lo había ganado). Algunas personas son sólo muy honorables y humildes, Dios los bendiga a ambos.

Mientras nos alejamos de Víctor, me volteé y lo miré por última vez, él estaba hablando con uno de los dos muchachos cerca de él, agarrando el billete con sus dos manos, mostrándolo a ellos, todavía incrédulo, supongo, o chequeándolo si era real.

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