Step onto a bus, train or subway in Buenos Aires and in a matter of seconds you will find a chocolate bar or a pack of gum tucked under your crossed leg or a small tchotchke placed on the empty seat beside you. Vendors as young as five and as old as the hills are constantly walking up and down the aisle, rapidly handing out items whether you want them or not. I try to avoid eye contact and hope they won’t pick me, but they invariably do. But truth be told, dealing with the occasional gypsy vendor is a very minor annoyance in a city as charming as Buenos Aires.
The first time I encountered this clever little marketing ploy, I assumed the pack of Dentyne was compliments of the manufacturer. Oh, how wrong I was. Possession may be nine-tenths of the law in North America but it ain’t here! You do not own these items until you pay for them, and like squirrels in Spring, gypsy vendors never forget where they have temporarily placed their goods. After they’ve made their way to one end of the car, dropping their wares along the way, they turn, retrace their steps, and retrieve either goods or cash. Fewer than 10% of the people I’ve witnessed actually buy what they have been handed, but even at that rate of conversion a fast-moving vendor can rack up the sales.
And who buys this stuff? Well, If your previously screaming kid is now quietly playing with a package of gum or a book of stickers, you might be tempted to hand over a few Pesos to keep the peace. I haven’t been able to tell if the asking prices are common knowledge or if the vendors accept any reasonable offer, but the transactions are handled quickly and seamlessly. To be honest, with cash sales and low overhead, it looks like a damn good racket.
Earlier this morning I was sitting in a café, sipping a café con leche, and chatting with a woman who works part-time for British Airways in Washington. She has enough seniority that she can fly standby for a token amount whenever she wants. These cheap flights allow her to source items from around the world that she re-sells at a DC flea market on the week-ends. She had some great stories and I figured the contrast between her retail activities and those of the street vendors might be worth writing about.
Before I could get her name and contact info, an elderly man carrying a small backpack entered the café and headed straight for our table. The woman quickly gathered her things and made a bee-line for the door, leaving me to deal with the vendor. I had been looking forward to some cheap gum so it was a bit of a disappointment when he placed a small card on the table.
The card was about half the size of a standard hockey card, sans gum. On one side was an illustration of a gladiator holding a palm leaf in one hand, a cross marked “”Hodie” (Today) in the other, while stepping on a crow which is mouthing the word “Cras” (Tomorrow). The gladiator’s name and stats are printed on the flipside. As the text was in Spanish, I can only guess that it was something like: “Saint Expeditus, played junior for Team Armenia, drafted as a Roman Centurion at age 17, converted to Christianity and martyred in 303.” There was no mention of plus/minus, penalty minutes, All-Star Teams or Stanley Cups.
My normal response to the gypsy vendors is “no, gracias,” and there is never an argument as long as the item is returned. This time I decided to keep the card and fork over some cash. When the man returned to pick up the card, he looked shocked to find two Pesos on the table. I’m assuming that Gringos normally wave him off and the deuce was appreciated. But then he might have been thinking, “Rot in Hell, you cheap bastard.” Only in countries with inflation as rampant as Argentina do they still use paper money for a denomination that’s worth slightly more than a dime.
Once the man left the café and I got back online, I learned a few things about good ol’ Expeditus, the patron Saint of dealers, sailors, students, and examinees. There are many theories of how he became a Saint, but the widely accepted version is set in 1781 when a box containing the bones of a saint who was formerly buried in the Paris catacombs arrived at a convent across town. The sender had marked “Expedite” on the case to ensure fast delivery. The nuns assumed that “Expedite” was the name of a martyr, prayed for his intercession, and when their prayers were answered, he was as good as gold.
It’s probably a bit late for me to buy favor with the Catholic Church, but its not worth pissing off an old man over a 10 cent card. You are reminded at every souvenir stand that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is now better known as Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome and absolute Sovereign of the Vatican City State. What they don’t always tell you is that in his younger days Bergoglio (Pope Francis) was employed as a nightclub bouncer. He’s also the first non-European to be elected Pope since the Syrian Gregory III in 741.
In Buenos Aires, anything is possible.