Postcard from Rio

StoryBrian WaniewskiComment

In the air above the beach at Ipanema, there was a mist. The sun—low and setting—illuminated it, a gold endless glow. People glided past one another. The deeply tanned old man, all belly, legs turned out, shuffling home. The little girl playing secret games with the mosaic stone sidewalks and a stick. American teens giddily nibbling what they had been instructed to avoid: street vendors’ corn on the cob, churros, coconut cuz cuz. The sea surf, softly chuffing. The sea surface, metallic, many colored. Further out, paddle boarders carried on its swell. Rounded rock islands. Distant palms in silhouette. A container ship spotlit pink. And the horizon, finally, the flat line within which the scene unfolded, timeless and in time. In this way, too, I took it in. Which is to say, I felt myself mostly taken in by it, perceived, enveloped. Into slow starring reverie I sank, a stream that warmed and carried me along. For the first time, I felt part of Rio. At last I understood. Months after arriving from New York, I had arrived in the inward city inhabited by the native carioca.

Before this, only the outward signs of that inward city had been apparent. They were: people on the street moving slowly, oh so very slowly. And it wasn’t just the tempo that was starting to get to me, when I had to get to the hardware store fast, before it closed, again, for another holiday in the middle of another work week. There was an obliviousness that went along with it, an imperviousness to alternate notions of time and space proposed by other nearby bodies in motion. Like the man in the grocery store standing between you and the ketchup you need to reach, whom you orbit for some time, closer and closer, expecting him to yield, once you breach a critical distance. But whom you end up pressing your whole body against hard, and who stands there still, planted like a rock. No “pardon me” expected. Things were not helped by the fact that my wife and I had moved to Copacabana, a neighborhood in Rio where one in three residents is over sixty-five years old, and wealthy enough to afford help. Which means, in space-sucking pairs, joined by an unshakable, jewel-studded death grip, granny and maid inch along the already narrow, pocked sidewalks. 

This would never happen in New York. And not just because the aged are warehoused out of the way of faster moving youth. New Yorkers progress with utmost efficiency toward where they need to get, all the time maintaining personal space with machine-like precision. The grid of the city supports it, even requires it of pedestrians, as the green crosswalk signal instantly gives way to a long, blinking red rejoinder to hurry. It is a mode of being so deeply engrained, so totally cherished, that the New Yorker will sooner spring for a cab than have to pass on foot through the gawking crowds of tourists that clot Times Square, for instance. Whole areas of the already small area New Yorkers share are considered off limits, because they have come to be frequented by people whose bodily gestures do not silently proclaim the same gospel of space-time. That gospel consists of a fierce goal-directedness, yes. At its core though is a kind of distance-taking, a first instinct to avoid encounter, to preserve the shield of self-imagery one constructs to cope in a place where everything is felt to be always possible. Which makes what actually is feel like a proto-disappointment, a perpetual diminishment, a betrayal of a million different soon-to-unfold fancy futures. 

In Rio, on the other hand, between two bodies moving down the street, there is attraction. The subtle pull between them manifests physically, inexorably, like the gravity between two planets. When I come up behind someone, moving at a quick clip and looking to overtake, he or she will list in my direction, rather than make way. Two people walking down opposite sides of the street, when they pass, will brush shoulders at least. Equally likely is that they walk into each other, so that they must stop, look deeply into one another’s eyes and start a conversation. I’ve seen it happen. And the mobile phone in Rio is no less an agent of attraction. The distraction into which the ambulant multi-tasker slips is the best possible blank slate to work out the unconscious impulse to bump into some encounter. That impulse is at the heart of the city’s operating system, its people, and maybe deeper, at the origin of human community.

There are apps and games that prompt users to break out of habitual patterns. I know people in New York who use them and have been known to “Go kiss the nearest stranger” or “Tell a friend a scary secret.” In this way, encounters can be manufactured, and we may recover something of the frank exchange with our surroundings that we have given up in order to pursue our goals, toget stuff done with greater efficiency. But the something we recover is never quite the equal, nor the better, of what we have relinquished. What is worse, a division has arisen. The line between people who have traded encounter for efficiency and people who have not is the line between two worlds, two parallel dimensions. Each is unknowable to the other, except through outward signs and other occasions for misunderstanding. And there is no going back. 

So, if you’re ever in Rio, and see me rounding the bend from Ipanema to Copacabana, walking slowly, oh so very slowly, past the vestiges of the fishermen’s village, looking at you and smiling, I invite you not to edge to the other side of the sidewalk. We are both strangers here, fugitives from the future. Come. For once, let the future wait, while we get on with life and get together here, now. Let’s see what happens.