Antipodes: The Shamrock

Looking back on the months of March in 2004, 2005, and 2009, didn’t I spend an almost inordinate amount of time in Buenos Aires inside the Shamrock? Why, yes I did.

Spent properly, those hours could’ve been devoted to visiting vineyards west towards the Andes or even venturing south into Patagonia. There, I might’ve investigated cities along the South Atlantic coast and waited to witness whales breaching the ocean’s surface.

But urban creature as I most surely am, and one who traveled alone then, louche comforts lured and guided me.

Perhaps “louche” a harsh judgment for the Shamrock. Let’s direct that upon its clientele.

Never in my life did I believe I’d frequent, much less enter, an establishment that catered to all kinds of nationalities on the make. Inside the facilely-themed Irish pub, caroused all sorts of ex-pats homesick to hear forsaken accents. Amid this boozy swirl of foreigners who’d come to Argentina, made its rigged system work for them, and needed to celebrate this achievement with easily impressed crowds who’d appreciate the achievement rather than any locals who’d most assuredly resent their country’s exploitation – unless they themselves were doing the reaping.

In the end, the patrons I most admired were peso-poor Argies who survived the gauntlet. They had to be cagy-enough to passe doble past the discriminating door personnel. Security often blocked their fellow Argentines dismissively. Humble Porteños as well as prospective patrons giving off the stench of being broke were without fail denied crossing the portal.

Unless the reject could coax a customer who passed muster to allow accompaniment beyond the entry curtain, then he or she needed to mine satisfaction from the snippets of merriment escaping outside. Perhaps had I been more aware of such desperation I might’ve better noticed the bargains reached.

Instead, I only heard about them afterwards. Say one thing about being a norteamericano, Americans aren’t good at making those perceived as inferior grovel or flat-out abase themselves. South Americans? Europeans? Those from the Old World or whose cultures hew closer to such regimes than ours, they must be ingrained on the molecular level with this ability to impose and exploit inferiority.

Speechify as others do regarding egalitarianism, Americans commonly demonstrate the trait. I know it makes us appear naïve in the eyes of older, more established societies. Yet doesn’t it also make us their superiors?

Not so much in ’09 once the word had apparently spread globally about where Yanquis visiting Buenos Aires reveled, but in the first two years opportunity, exploration, and frolic availed aplenty to us relative few North Americans who dropped below the Tropic of Capricorn. During the earlier aught years when the attacks remained fresh in memory; when much of the world still sympathized with the West’s Great Colossus.

My travels permitted me to meet, no, interact, with fellow vagabonds, the sort who would’ve remained unknown to me here Stateside. Funny the chances one takes away from home, away from those with whom we are acquainted.

Are we other people beyond the familiar? Or does becoming untethered allow us to become who we truly are?

Mick. When wasn’t Mick at the Shamrock? Or so he claimed.

A British subject, originally, he’d served Her Majesty in the Falklands. The Queen, not Margaret Thatcher. Years later Thatcherism propelled him off that sceptered isle into a years-long circumnavigation ending in Argentina of all places. And no, he never mentioned his prior visit to the South Atlantic region. At least never to the Argies.

His ingenuity formed in an unreceptive Britain, Mick’s ambition found outlets in Argentina. He’d transformed the desire to improve into a business which reaped him hand-over-fist money. Midas amounts that provided him utmost luxury and comforts.

Mick tried not being contemptuous of the locals, but his inner white man among the Argies seeped out. Of course if I hadn’t been a black American he would’ve also regarded me with that same contempt. But his admiration of the noun erased the adjective.

Enjoyed the same sort of occurrence nearly 25 years earlier in England and then-West Germany. I still met deadlines as a reporter then.

Ran across several white South Africans before anyone envisioned Mandela’s release. The way they treated me, their matey behavior, made me wonder whether they were so racially tolerant among their black fellow South Africans. Fuck no! If those countrymen weren’t niggers then they were kaffirs.

Most jaw-dropping of all these encounters was the one with the colonel serving in the South African Army. Not only did we swap beers, but his sincerity towards me reached the depth of an invitation to his farm. Seeing me as a journalist, I surmised he thought if this decent, no, civil, um, no, damned civil black reporter might only visit deepinthehearta South Africa and witnessed how Boers and blacks actually got along in their master/servant relationship it could start counteracting all the otherwise biased reportage emanating from the Cape of Good Hope.

Declining his offer never bothered me. Know why? Although curiosity alone should’ve had me venturing into the heart of subjective darkness, what prevented the (mis)adventure of a lifetime had been his description of a vehicle his unit used to “hunt blacks.” The colonel described that beast so lovingly I almost envisioned him applying clear coat with a chamois after washing off its veldt grime in his driveway.

While in his beloved country, what guaranteed the military man always emphasized the noun and not the adjective of his visitor?

I liked Mick because he called this spade a spade right off the bat. That he did tested me. That his usage of 50s and 60s Blighty slurs didn’t send me careering butt-hurt away from his table confirmed his initial facile judgment. My familiarity with 50s and 60s Brit angry young man dramas – Richard Harris and Albert Finney are easy; idolizing Rita Tushingham is hard – may’ve swayed him more so than shrugging off his casual bigotry.

If bluntness was charm, then Mick had plenty of both. Any kind of provocation turned his crooked grin into a sloppy sneer. Years under the Southern Hemisphere sun hadn’t burnished him at all. Listening to his accent, looking at his complexion, an observer could’ve believed he’d just stumbled off a holiday-maker flight from London.

Happy to let cash translate for him, Mick only bothered speaking grudging Spanish.

The man had done well in Argentina. So well he owned a Benz. A big black one. A model Kato would’ve chauffeured for the Green Hornet. A big Benz Mick always somehow managed parking in front of the Shamrock when visiting. I imagined such a prime spot involved alerts through telephone calls and traffic cones having been set out beforehand.

One night, one night, what year, who can remember, a sudden whim struck Mick. He suggested we acquire a couple of girls and drive down to Mar del Plata. Mar’s one of Argentina’s most popular beach towns. No particular reason. Not even the usual ones of craving sea food, skinny-dipping with cha-cha’s, or coitus with same on the beach during sunrise. Not that these needed mentioning because upon his suggestion I’d already fantasized about the possibilities.

However at the moment we lacked the necessary elements – two girls.

With a lazy hand wave so magisterial it could’ve embodied lethargy, Mick’s gesture pulled a pair of lolling, falcon-eyed Porteñas off a perch. Like almost every Argentine woman inhabiting the Shamrock each was lean, tanned, dark-haired, and borderline feral. Their practiced spiraling then alighting at our table amid the room’s clamor let me admire the condor in them.

With them Mick skipped any pretense. He told them what their fate was with us. Their assent was foregone. Obviously if anyone required anything it would be bought on the ride out of town, or off some exit on Route 2, or in Mar itself.

Unanimity ruled. We climbed into Black Beauty. Mick eased us out of Buenos Aires. Before local streets became highway and the tempo rose, I recalled Mick describing what the car’s glove compartment contained. A horse choke roll of pesos for any incidents involving police and a sidearm for highway banditry.

The secret, Mick confided, was making certain the right interruption received the correct response.

Indeed. And no, he didn’t punctuate his remark with a wink.

How did Jemma land in the Shamrock? Shouldn’t she have been sitting on a tuff in one of the nobler Buenos Aires boîtes on Avenida Alvear? Among us there I believe she was slumming. What else could her purpose have been?

Another Briton, another one then living and working below the Tropic Of Capricorn, though based in Australia, Jemma represented a bank. In Buenos Aires on business, she loved Porteño hours. Quite fluid and generally late in every aspect of life.

Jemma stood out in the Shamrock. I imagine she did so throughout Buenos Aires. Again another Briton immersed in the southern latitudes yet apparently immune to tanning. Not wide-eyed certainly, she also lacked Porteñas’ readiness to go gimlet instantly.

Ranginess added a few inches to her height and conversely compressed her upper carriage. She lent the undeserving easy smiles.

Jemma’s clearest distinction from the majority of women patrons inside the Shamrock? Other than being somewhere near either side of 30? Her hair. Long, thick, extending until it brushed her narrow shoulders, even a straight man noticed the luxuriousness of her auburn cascade.

Her slightest head movement set off bands of light along her hood. Stuck with locally produced hair products, tended to by less adept hair technicians, even the most attentive Argentine woman couldn’t attain that sort of brilliance without either traveling internationally or importing the right goods and skilled personnel.

How did I meet her? Jemma sought … something. She’d cast a wide net. The randy kind.

Well, as I later discovered. Initially she gave off that vibe making men in the Shamrock wary and women there catty.

Jemma sat by herself at a table. Normally the place’s boys playing men besieged good-looking women with their swerves. Rarely the best swerves. I think a lot of them went with the throw everything and choose whatever stuck theory. From the laughable to pitiable gamut. Maybe given her straight-backed bearing, the eye contact that became staring contests, and an ability to summon harried waitresses in soothing flawless Spanish, Jemma might’ve come across to youthful still feeling their ways adults as “too cool for the room.”

Meaning too cool for them.

Nothing like deducing and dissecting a situation to conjure an opening. I swooped in and settled my bottom into an empty seat beside her. The brazenness surprised her but she recovered quickly. We exchanged names. Before either of us had time to think, I spoke establishing the scene.

I complimented Jemma on the way she carried herself. Her rule the room manner kept the riffraff at bay. By not averting her eyes, by letting whatever subject she focused her brown peepers on, she winnowed the curious guys from the half-hearted PDQ. And finally, from what I’d heard her Castilian could’ve intimidated the servers with its lisping refinement, but being generous with the tips assuaged their fears as well as kept them attentive as far as this table.

Pummeled by observation, Jemma laughed. The response I’d intended. While she regathered herself, I gained a server’s attention. Another Quilmes for me and I wondered whether Jemma wanted a fresh cocktail or different concoction. She chose more of the same poison.

During the wait for our hooch, she asked the obvious questions. Women who appeared unsure invited the attentions of likely unsavory boys on the make. Bold miens challenged. Shy ones don’t. Only after sitting beside her did I learn the color of her eyes. Moody as the Shamrock’s lighting was, no matter how eagle-eyed no way someone could’ve picked out a feature as obscure as eye color without nearly pressing flesh. Making a facile reference was a quick way to either impress or disarm the person of interest.

As far as her Spanish, she didn’t speak it like someone who learned in Latin America. She spoke with a native Spaniard’s lisp. Descendants living in colonial Spain’s possessions flatly enunciate by comparison.

Hearing her Brit English, I simply surmised she’d received lessons from a native Spaniard or teachers taught and imprinted by native Spaniards. And since for the most part Britons holiday in Spain, not in the Caribe, Central or Latin America, they’d unconsciously ape what they’d heard.

When our drinks arrived, I guaranteed her if she relocated for a time to the Spanish-speaking New World, she’d shake the Old Country manners and acquire an inflection that would have her sounding like a Mexican or Puerto Rican in short order. More laughter. Jemma’s. While she recovered, I practiced what I preached, larding our server’s platter with silver – a nice tip. Through this habit the Shamrock would run out of booze before our drinks ran dry.

Alone again in the crowd, she congratulated me for reading her like a book. Unfortunately for me it was the only party trick I knew. Pouring my fresh Quilmes into a clean glass, I told her everything else demanded me being hands on.

Before we touched glass rims, she asked, “Did you say ‘handsy’? Or ‘ballsy’?”

Her picking up the game made me feel real swell about the evening’s prospects. She beat me to the punch inquiring about my profession first. Telling Jemma what kept me in groceries then didn’t jibe with whom she thought sat next to her. That’s when I proudly confessed having been a journalist once … for years.

Jemma asked why I’d forsaken being an ink-stained wretch. Getting ahead of me she wondered aloud had my new profession’s advantages, i.e., more money, lured me away. I made as if a stack of Bibles piled beside my left side, raised my right hand, and gazed just above her pretty head.

Channeling Elmer Gantry, I swore to Jemma that I’d believed in facts, in truth, in styling language too strongly. That belief frightened my editors. They were flimsy white men – and a fat token black woman – who adhered more and more day by day to the Pharisees than the sacrosanct A.P. Style Manual. Opposed to the new screed of larger fonts, smaller news holes, and profits uber alles, I was defrocked then cast out from the newsroom.

Oh? Do I have newsroom stories? Certainly. The uncomplimentary and disparaging kind.

I lowered my hand and again leveled my sight with hers. And by now she was quite a sight. Jemma admitted she didn’t know what to say after that recitation. I did. I asked what kept her in high fashion.

That guess was intended as flattery. For all I knew she could’ve been wearing K-Mart specials. Lulled, here’s when she revealed her profession and purpose in Buenos Aires.

Jemma asked if I’d been downstairs. A basement supported the Shamrock. Beneath our feet a DJ booth, stage expansive enough for live performances, and dance parquet which from my brief reckoning must’ve gotten jammed in a hurry. Yes. I visited downstairs. And I pirouetted back upstairs before having gone too far.

Essential reconnoitering disclosed the belowground party place lacked another exit. Meaning in an emergency panic would crowd the steps. That could only further fuel the frenzy of any street-level escapees.

Buenos Aires had recently suffered a big nightclub calamity. The usual culprits – poorly displayed emergency exits, the doors either blocked, locked, or opening in rather than out – consigned dozens of revelers to fiery deaths. After the hue and mourning subsided, and improved safety standards recommendations had been codified, nothing much happened. This being Argentina, a few show trials convicted a scapegoat or two, and fines served as the extent of the vigilance promised after that tragedy.

Forget Inspector Maigret. Even Inspector Clouseau would’ve discovered little had changed. Detritus and stock still clogged egresses that should’ve been clear, hardware that reversed the direction exit doors’ opened remained uninstalled, and doors which had been chained shut probably had yet to have been freed.

The event had increased my precautions all the more. In a packed good-sized place like the Shamrock I always explored which avenue ought have offered the quickest, easiest escape. This even before the still fresh September attacks that devastated America several years before.

I told Jemma my crisis route out of the Shamrock. First, a chair through front window pane; second, follow seat through hole punched in smashed glass. That was my plan behind rapid escape. Something life-threatening erupt in that room and the first item to vanish would’ve been any orderly departure through its single door.

She wanted to laugh but the gravity of the potential situation trampled her urge.

Afterwards we spoke of more pleasant subjects. One, which I’m sure alcohol fomented, was differentiating between Social Distortion and Smithereens. I must confess. That evening’s Shamrock playlist heavily tilted towards Mike Ness and his bandmates.

Nature and Quilmes demanded I shake a leg. To and from the men’s room I liked how the evening proceeded and entertained certainty regarding how it would elide into morning. Actually what I hoped was somehow scheming we retire to her hotel. Let’s face it, beside and stride by stride with Jemma would likely be the only chance I’d ever get to voyeur a hotel room anywhere near Alvear.

Drink high tea there, too.

That possible peeping was stillborn.

Shouldering through the crowd, I saw two new occupants then filled what had been our sole glen. Once I sat down, Jemma introduced a pair of men. Two Frenchmen. Two scruffy Frenchmen. Any scruffier and they should’ve been wearing Breton sweaters and bogarting badly rolled handmade smokes.

Distance in years now allows me to appreciate fuller how Jemma proposed an adverse idea. No doubt climbing a multi-national bank’s ladder had smoothed her ability to render the distasteful palatable. What she suggested so reasonably might’ve made someone weak feel awful about having dismissed it out of hand.

Of course someone less agreeable also might’ve taken that moment to throw a chair through one of the front windows and run screaming into the night.

What Jemma wanted, and I hope to present this correctly, was a ménage à quatre. Had the balance been tilted towards female participants, oh, who couldn’t have seen me pig-wallowing in that? However, Jemma’s ratio offered too many disagreeable elements. Among them, one pair too many of familiar loose, fleshy, capricious male parts. That and those two French fuckers looked hairy.

Were the author Nelson Algren alive, he would’ve added “hairy guys” to his “Mom’s,” “Doc,” and “sleep[ing] with anyone worse off than you” list of life’s avoidances.

I excused myself as gracefully as circumstances allowed.

Best attribute about the Shamrock? Okay. One of the Shamrock’s best attributes? Even at 3 in the morning one knew the likelihood of it roaring for three further hours.

Fish teemed in that sea. Plenty of time to net another one. Moreover, at 3 the night’s last Happy Hour began. Even inexpensive Champagne became more affordable then.

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