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.
At around eight in the morning, many porteños have breakfast at their neighborhood café: a big white cup of café con leche and three skinny lard croissants, medialunas de grasa, a shine of sugar glaze on top. A newspaper quickly scanned, a cigarette or two, then it’s a bus or the underground to work. But increasingly, there is no job to go to. The café now becomes a refuge for spending all morning nursing a lone cafecito, going through the want ads with intense concentration.
With the desperate economic debacle of the last year, 22 percent unemployment rates and millions of people going hungry, Argentina has become a country of paupers. The Paris of South America now has small children begging at every corner and armies of the homeless that come out at night to scavenge in the garbage cans of the middle class apartment buildings. And the proud, traditionally arrogant porteño middle classes are feeling the crisis, too. There are many who can only afford one cafecito at their favorite place; no more thin sandwiches coming out from under the line of bell jars on the café counter. No more ginebra or grappa shots to chase the chill of the humid winter day. The brutal economic weather is making the old cafés even more melancholic, fewer old boys with grey hair pomaded in place scattered over increasingly fewer tables, closer to the TV set and the gas heaters on the walls.
And yet, somehow, Las Violetas, an old fat lady of a café that sat forever on the corner of Rivadavia and Medrano Avenues, closed since 1998, opens its doors three years later with its lavish stained glass domes restored to former glory. Its posh bakery, off to one side of the café, does a brisk business of selling bombons and Danish and designer breads.
Somebody told me about this billiards bar in the residential neighborhood of Devoto, which made me eager to check it out. So, on a Sunday morning, my best friend Martha drove me to the corner of Sanabria and Varela, in the neigborhood of Devoto. Her daughters Marina and Fía led me to the discovery of the Club Eros. That day Martha and I discovered the Café de García and its owner, Rubén García, the happiest man in Buenos Aires.
Traditionally, a proper café is made up of two rooms: the bigger, main bar y café, and the Salón familias, a smaller area cordoned off the billiards and occasional cards and dominoes so that clients could bring their wives and children without necessarily having to interact with the less proper activities going on in the bar area. The tables of the Salón familias are covered by decent cloth even to this day, when the distinction between salons seems dated and dainty.
The Café de García has a spacious bar area, with two pool tables, a TV set high on a wall, and a brigade of pomaded old friends sharing the best tables, the ones by the windows. A bronze National cash register made in Dayton, Ohio probably a century ago sits next to an antique Italian espresso maker on the counter. Behind it, a bald man with heavy-rimmed glasses dries his hand on the apron he’s wearing and then extends it towards you to introduce himself: “Rubén García, Café de García’s delighted owner for fifteen years.”
He herded us to the Salón familias on the side, and we stepped into a room crowded with so many antique café objects we don’t know where to look first. Our cortados got cold on a table while we moved from corner to corner, Rubén telling us the story of each basket, each swan-shaped wine bottle, each blue seltzer sifón, and how he came to find it. He loves the fact that everyone comes to his café: the men he affectionately calls his “bums,” who come in daily for their lengthy fix of caffeine and camaraderie, those like us, who have been told about this outpost of grace which he presides, or others, as a team from a school of architecture in Boston that couldn’t take enough pictures of his place.
My pilgrimage also took me to the corner of San Juan and Boedo, the gateway to the Southern Buenos Aires of tango. The Café Homero Manzi has been remodeled to within an inch of its life, and it’s almost too much, too precious, trying too hard to be like the café of yesteryear while advertising its sophistication along with nightly tango shows. The young waiter who brought me my cortado in a cup rimmed by a line of music notation bursts with pride.
“Doesn’t the place look wonderful?!”
“It does, it does,” I told him.
Do I remember it from before? I do. And I wish the new owners had just washed the grime off the old place’s face, without the cutesy touches. But it is better than a done-up pizzeria…
The impoverished government of the city of Buenos Aires has been trying to preserve these places. This means I have quite a few more to go back to, places penciled into my notebook to rush to as soon as I’m in Buenos Aires again. Borges, a man of the Café Richmond on Florida himself, said that he though of the city as eternal, like water or air. These old haunts where porteños stubbornly meet to read the paper or shoot the breeze may well prove to be as eternal as water, air, or Buenos Aires itself.
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.