Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking in B.A.

It's been said by the band Missing Persons that "only a nobody walks in L.A.," which is after all DF's native city. But this admonition about loss of identity is pretty LA-specific, and does not apply at all to my city of current residence, la Cuidad Autonoma de Buenos Aires (oft abbreviated as "CABA").

On the contrary, walking here happens often and with a robust flair that says much about the city itself. For one thing, the timidity of LA walkers (who will stay on a corner for a red light even in the absence of any discernible traffic, out of justifiable fear of jaywalking citations) stands in razor-sharp contrast to the unadulterated brazenness of Bonaerense walkers, who purposefully jet into busy boulevards at pretty much any time that they're not going to be taken down by an oncoming vehicle.

This photo epitomizes the aforementioned brazenness:

The gentleman in the picture is crossing the street immediately beneath a clear (and, so far in my experience, truly unique) sign reading "Pedestrian crossing prohibited." I had actually extracted my iPad to take a photo of the person crossing the street underneath the "don't cross the street" sign before him, who was a frail old lady (but I remain slow on the draw in terms of using my iPad as a camera, due to its bulk and to my tendency to keep it securely locked away in my bag at all times out of concern for theft).

(It is not my fave image epitomizing Bs As-ian street-crossery. This was an elegantly dressed woman, clearly some sort of professional, who wandered out into a crosswalk against traffic, all the while talking on her cellphone. In the middle of the crosswalk, traffic began to swirl around her, with cars and even a bus coming within mere feet of her. She calmly talked on her cellphone while the traffic maelstrom happened, and then when it passed, finished crossing the street. I was too mesmerised to even think about extracting the iPad for photo purposes.)

Nor does the locals' enthusiasm for rampant jaywalkery slow traffic, because if there is a rule that Bs As drivers have to defer to piatones (pedestrians), it's certainly not observed. Cars whizz through crosswalks as though they didn't exist, and walkers seem unfazed by this. On one of my first day here, I was crossing the street (with the light, obvs.) when a car suddenly came from my right rear and crossed in front of me by only a yard or so. Stunned, I looked around to see if others had registered my near-death experience. Looking back, I am not surprised that they didn't.

I've since happily embraced these less restrictive, and far more exciting, street-crossing norms. Now I have a sense of comfort with the much greater proximity that people and cars have (he said, realizing this was a scary act of fate-tempting or possibly even negative foreshadowing), as well as its analogue when driving in a bus or cab (where vehicles drive quickly only inches from one another, and with no apparent difficulty or road-rage).

This is all consonant with another overarching theme of my time here, which is the much more lax approach to rules and law that Argentines appear to have. Several locals have, sua sponte, lectured me about how their country is not honest. This is usually about government corruption, but also has individualized analogues, such as the prevalence of pickpocketing and the generalized fear people have of having their bags or valuables snatched from tables. (When you're at a cafe and you go to the bathroom, you have your compatriots put your bag or iPad on a chair next to them. Leaving a bag on an empty chair--even with other people at the table--is considered an invitation to theft.)

This laxity in rule enforcement is an apparent sticking point for Argentines everywhere. People do bad things all the time, and no one gets punished, really, so people keep doing bad things, whether kinda bad (petty theft) or really awful (high-level governmental corruption). In comparison, the Argies have said, Americans seem naive. Example from a local: In the US our newspaper machines on public streets allow you the chance to take all the papers after paying a quarter (or whatever--and do these machines even exist still?), but people are generally honest and take only a single paper. My compatriot explained that in Argentina, everyone would take all the papers immediately and without any compunction. "It's just not an honest country," he said, "You get away with whatever you can."