I wrote this series way back in 2002, when Argentina was in the midst of its biggest economic and institutional crisis in a century. I had just started thinking of myself as a “real” photographer, somebody who made images with artistic intent rather than snapping pictures while traveling. I had traveled to Buenos Aires with a Yashica Mat TLR, my first medium format camera, and a big amount of film. At the time, the old cafés of my childhood were already disappearing and I wanted to document as many as I could. Since then, I have photographed the cafés in Buenos Aires on every trip. One lovely difference now: My goddaughters, now grown and analog photographers in their own right, bring their own cameras along.
Honestly, I come by this love of cafés. My mother would meet her colleagues and friends from the Magnasco School for Deaf Girls (where they all worked) at the gloriously dusty Café Los Pollitos, sitting at the corner of Avenida Las Heras and calle Austria. The waiters would act as go-between among the young teachers working morning or afternoon shifts, passing on messages and teacher’s visual aids. Sometimes, they would complained about these “girls” putting too many tables together so that they could all fit in, and lamented the fact that they all spent so little and tipped from miserly teachers’ salaries.
My Dad, a high school principal, would dash across Rivadavia Avenue to drink a strong espresso at his corner café, La Fama—a neighborhood dive with an enormous U-shaped bar made of top-notch dark wood. I smoked my first cigarette at one of its tables, like a cliché out of the tango.
Just like Dad’s and Mom’s hang-out place and mine are now lost, too: Los Pollitos torn down and replaced by a Starbucks; my Giralda was recently face-lifted into a hip, with-it music corner that makes me want to weep; and La Fama has become a massive restaurant. A website tells me that more than 700 Buenos Aires cafés have been remodeled in the last few years.
Luckily an older, wiser La Giralda still remains open 24 hours a day on Corrientes Avenue. It is a place famous for its hot chocolate and golden churros as well as for providing sanctuary to the intellectuals coming out of Cine Arte, the art movie house in town, after the late night double. The walls are white tiled and the marble-top tables ancient and crowned by huge sugar jars, the kind with a metal top that slides back to let a stream of sugar out. The back wall is lit green by the unusual presence of neon, scripting La Giralda’s favorites: paper-thin tostado sandwiches, hot Toddy and the renowned chocolate con churros.
On the table next to mine on this Tuesday noon, a serious man reads Diario de Poesía, a poetry periodical in tabloid format. There are weighty texts on almost every table, underlying the definite intellectual bent of the Giralda patrons. In the ebullient and militant early 70’s, La Giralda and most Corrientes Avenue cafés were hotbeds of political discussion and utopian dreams. Most of the other cafés de Corrientes, the Ramos, La Paz, the Politeama, are glorified pizzerias today. Corrientes is strewn with the recent arrivals from the global village—Mc Donald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s—which are full of the young. La Giralda remains white-tiled and tinted with soft green from the neon script, a thing of timeless beauty.
On a Friday noon I’m in the heart of Jorge Luis Borges’ mythic Palermo neighborhood, picking up my goddaughters at their school to take them out to lunch.
“Where to?” I ask, their small hands in each of mine.
They steer me four blocks to a magical discovery. On the corner of Uriarte and Honduras, an ancient social club, the Eros, has an old-fashioned restaurant that 8-year-old Marina and 6-year-old Fía love. The white-haired waiter asks them if they are going to share a milanesa and a pop today as usual. Fía remarks contentedly that “we are the only women in the place.“ So we are, surrounded by taxi drivers, house painters, and blue-collar workers that eat lunch at the Eros every day.
On the table there’s a plastic basket of fresh bread waiting, a can of olive oil and a small bottle of vinegar for dressing salads. More men file in, smile in our direction and sit down under giant fans. The girls’ milanesa, a thin breaded veal cutlet, is so big that two thirds of it sit outside the plate, like golden wings. The waiter brings me a cafecito and a small dish of home-made flan to die for. Marina wonders what it is about the coffee cup that makes me want to photograph it. I can’t thank these two enough for bringing me to the Eros. I can’t tell them how much their pleasure in this disheveled place fills my heart with delight.
The third part of this series will be published next week! In the meantime, here’s the first part.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.