A Seat on The Sidewalk

Roberto Arlt

Translated by: Stephen Slessor

Artwork by Anonymous

Then came the nights of seats on the sidewalk; of families blocking the doorways of their homes; they came, the nights of love lives sought with a neighbourly “good evening, señorita,” or the solicitous politesse of “Don Pascual, how are you, sir?” And Don Pascual would smile and stroke his moustache, knowing full well why the young man was asking him how he was. Then came the nights …  

I don’t know what it is about these barrios of Buenos Aires that’s so sad under the daylight sun and so beautiful when moonbeams spill across them. I don’t know what it is about them; whether we’re reprobates or intellectuals, idle or industrious, we all love this barrio with its garden (site of our imagined sitting room) and its girls, always the same and always distinctive, and its old men, always the same and always distinctive too. Mafioso charm, humble sweetness, cheap hope—what do I know what it is about these barrios! These barrios of Buenos Aires, sprawling, all cut from the same cloth, all similar with their lousy little houses, their gardens with the palm tree in the middle and half-blossomed weeds smelling as if the night were bursting forth for them with the passion that girds the souls of the city; souls that know only the rhythm of the tango and of “te quiero.” Poetic tawdriness, it’s that and something more.    

A bunch of brats playing with a ball in the middle of the road; a half-dozen idlers on the street corner; a crotchety old woman in a doorway; a young girl sidestepping the corner with the half-dozen idlers; three landlords dodging the numbers in statistical dialogue in front of the corner store; a piano oozing an old-fashioned waltz; a dog who, suddenly seized by a fit of epilepsy, circles, gnawing to death a colony of fleas around his tail bones; a couple in the darkened window of a sitting room: the sisters in the doorway and the brother adding to the half-dozen idlers vegetating on the corner. That’s all and nothing more. Poetic tawdriness, penniless enchantment, an étude by Bach or Beethoven alongside a tango by Filiberto or Mattos Rodríguez.

This is the barrio porteño, a barrio profoundly ours; whether we’re reprobates or intellectuals, it’s a barrio we all carry deep in our bones like a sorcerer’s spell that cannot die, that will never die.

And next to a doorway, a seat. A seat where the old woman rests, a seat where the old man rests. A symbolic seat, a seat that slides thirty centimetres to one side upon the arrival of a visitor worthy of consideration, while the mother or the father says: “Niña, bring out another chair.” 

A neighbourly seat for the door to the street, to the sidewalk; a seat of friendship, a seat where one builds prestige through civic courtesy. A seat to offer to the homeowner next door; a seat to offer to the young man who’s ripe for courtship; a seat offered up by the smiling girl with an air of the lady of the house to show that she’s really a woman; a seat where the summer’s night stalls in a voluptuous languor, in a pleasant banter, while the woman across the way gets all worked up or the one on the corner spreads gossip.  

A seat where the weariness of summer drags on; a seat that with some others makes a circle; a seat that forces passers-by to step down into the street, while the señora calls out: “But, hija! You’re taking up the whole sidewalk.”

Under a ceiling of stars, at ten o’clock at night, the seat of the barrio porteño affirms a civic way of life.

In the sighs of fatigue, borne throughout the day, it’s the trap many want to fall into; a seat of deception, of captivation, the siren of our streets. 

Because if you came by, came by to see her, nothing more; but you stopped. Who doesn’t stop to say hello? Why be so rude? And you stay a while chatting. What’s wrong with talking? And suddenly, they offer you a seat. You say: “No, no. Don’t put yourself out.” But, what? The girl has already flown off to bring you a chair. And once the seat is there, you sit down and keep on chatting.

Seat of deception, seat of captivation. 

You sat down and kept on talking. And you know how those conversations end sometimes, my friend? At the Registry Office.

Be careful with this seat. It’s alluring, delicate. You sit down, and you’re well placed, especially if there’s a girl next to you. And you’d only come by to say hello! Be careful – that’s where it all starts.           

Then there’s the other seat, the gossipmonger’s, the seat of the Italian and Galician old boys; a seat woven from thick straw, a seat where former street sweepers and city workmen engage in two-bit philosophy, all sporting t-shirts, all with pipes in their mouths. The moon pauses over the receded hairlines. A bandoneon groans out jailhouse jeers on some patio. 

In a doorway whitewashed like a convent’s, they’re there. He’s from the Riot Squad; she’s a laundress or a seamstress.

The old boys, functionaries of the cart, the spade and the broom, ramble on about “Yrigoyenism.”[1]  Some young fugitive ponders on a doorstep. Some fat criollaza thinks bitter thoughts. And this is the other side of this barrio of ours. It hardly matters whether “Cuando llora la milonga” or the “Pathétique” is playing. The hearts are the same, the passions the same, the hatreds the same, the hopes the same. 

But watch out for the seat, my friend! It hardly matters whether you’re from Vienna or woven from the wild reeds of the Delta: our hearts are the same …

[1] Hipólito Yrigoyen was president of Argentina from 1916-1922 and 1928-1930.

Roberto Arlt
The son of German and Italian immigrants to Argentina, novelist, playwright and short story writer Roberto Arlt was perhaps most famous for his column in the Buenos Aires daily El Mundo. Known as aguafuertes (etchings), his articles were earthy, ironic vignettes of life and politics in the Argentinean capital and elsewhere. Una Silla en la Vareda” appeared in El Mundo on December 11, 1929.

Stephen Slessor

Functionary by day, opera singer and translator by night, Stephen Slessor holds an MA in English literature from Montréal’s Concordia University, and plans to begin doctoral work in literary translation in September 2014. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.