The Chair


The chair is pink, or rather the seat of the chair is pink. The rest of it is a cold unforgiving black metal. It’s sitting in front of a table that looks like it was made in a 7th grade woodshop class. That’s not to say the table’s ugly, just that it looks like it was made by an amateur.

The chair has probably supported many butts. What a job, to support butts, support them indiscriminately. A chair must accommodate all weights and body types, fidgety children who do nothing but spill on the upholstery. A chair never complains. Well, actually that’s not true, a chair will groan and creak if too much weight is put on it. And it might protest in the ultimate form: It might break. Have you ever been present when someone has sat in a chair and it’s shattered? It’s hilarious. Its hilarity is directly proportionate to how uncomfortable it makes the user feel. For example, if a joker sits in a chair it’s still a little funny but it’s not that funny. But if the swarthy balding man sits in the chair, the one with the permanent frown, and it breaks it’s much funnier. The look on his face as he tries to salvage his dignity. The bewilderment.

When I was young we had some kitchen chairs. I spent a lot of time in them. They were wooden and all of us, or at least my brother and I, liked to lean back in them so they’d be on two legs. We were constantly reprimanded for this. Nowadays I wouldn’t dream of it. My parents still have the same chairs and when I go to their house and sit in them sometimes I think how I used to lean back. Not too long ago I even did it to see what kind of memories it would evoke. It felt downright irresponsible. I suppose this is what it’s like to become an adult: Something ceases to be fun when you know how destructive it is. Then again, we still do many things that are destructive.

The chair is still sitting there in the cafe where I am. Motionless. I would say it’s listening to the music but everyone knows chairs are deaf. And blind. The only thing they can do is feel, and pretty much the only thing they feel are butts. Despite their mind-boggling utility we still take them for granted. For example I’m sitting in a cafe writing an essay about a chair, and I’ve completely forgotten that I’m sitting in a chair. I haven’t even looked to see what kind it is. If I’m brutally honest, I don’t even care. I will not thank this chair for its service. I will not think about it after I’m gone.

But it won’t think about me, either.

The cup of tea however, is a completely different…cup of tea. I have an actual relationship with this cup of tea. It’s going to go into my body, so I pay more attention to it. I can see it and smell it and taste it. It’s a black tea with orange essence. Its temperature is ideal. I drink it, it goes into my stomach, and our relationship ends. If I haven’t eaten and I have too much of it, it can make me nauseous. But the cup of tea is passive. It is acted upon. It only acts upon its user in proportion to how it’s acted upon. In other words, it’s inanimate. Much like the chair. Except I can’t eat the chair.

Or could I? I’ve heard of people eating things they’re not supposed to eat before. Wasn’t there a guy who used to eat model airplanes and things like that? A guy who was slowly devouring his entire living room, piece of couch fabric by piece of couch fabric?

But back to the chair. The chair is still there and will be there all day. Tonight the shop will close and the chair will still be there. Tomorrow the shop will open and the chair will still be there. Supporting butts gives it no pleasure. It does not miss the butts when they’re gone. It is not disappointed if no one sits in it all day, or if someone sits in the chair opposite it. It doesn’t notice me looking at it. It doesn’t look back.

I suppose I could taste the chair, too.

When I get up to leave the chair still does not acknowledge me. It almost frustrates me. It’s rude. But then I forgive the chair. We both have legs, but only mine can take me outside into the big, wide world.

Cafe Time with Flor (Sitting in #8)

Cafe Ushuaia

I’m sitting in my favorite cafe in Ushuaia. It’s called either Babiecas or Babiekas. I like it because it’s in a grocery store; it’s connected to the Carrefour. It’s not fancy, it’s not pretentious, but the product is good and there’s a steady stream of interesting customers.

Most of the customers seem to be older men. Yesterday there was an alcoholic guy who was drinking a liter of Budweiser with his lunch. He would periodically yell at the waitress. “Flor! Flor! Why don’t you love me, Flor? Everyone in this town is a piece of shit.”

I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but that seemed to be the gist of it. Flor was smiling uncomfortably and the man was wobbling in front of her. He had hair that was yellow and white from age and tobacco abuse. I felt bad for Flor. You could see the awkwardness on her face. But I felt worse for the guy. It’s always worse to be the one making someone feel uncomfortable than it is to be the person uncomfortable. Just as I think it’s worse to be the person breaking up than it is to be the one getting broken up with. Getting broken up with or rejected is painful, but it’s a clean pain. It’s a cleansing pain. It’s like standing under icy water. Breaking up with someone, however, is just confusion and self-doubt. It’s hot water. It’s like being in a hot tub and knowing you should get out but being too lazy and cowardly to do so. When you finally do get out you’re shriveled and fatigued.

My lunch comes. It’s pastel de papa, which is basically shepherds’ pie. Outside the mountains look cold and foreboding. They’re capped by clouds. I need to get into nature. I need to spend some time in the elements, feel the cold. I will walk up into the mountains today and gaze down on Ushuaia from above. I will think about the last few months, the upcoming week where I won’t blog at all, and the upcoming two days where I won’t write at all. I feel drawn to the mountains. Something about their inhospitable indifference. Their contrast with the shepherds’ pie in front of me. With the warmth of the cafe. With Flor. With the customers sitting around me, enjoying their lunches.

Welcome to Ushuaia

ushuaia hostel

I get to the hostel where I’m greeted by a woman named Mercedes.  She’s gregarious and instantly makes me feel at home though I’m mildly intimidated by her, too.

In the kitchen I meet a gaggle of hostel-goers.  It’s the typical group.  There’s the token “dude who speaks to you in English even though he hears you speaking Spanish”; there’s a Brazilian girl who periodically yells at no one in particular; there’s a guy whose accent is impossible to place; and there’s Chema, a guy who gives me two sandwiches, is drinking wine, and turns out to be my roommate.

There’s also a group of young Argentines here looking for work.  One of them, Luciano, later invites me to drink mate.  It’s a wonderful ritual.  I love mate.  There’s something about sharing drinks.  About putting your lips where another human’s lips have been.  When drinking mate, you have the dude who’s serving the mate, armed with a thermos full of 45 degree Celsius water and every time it gets passed he tops it up.  If you say “gracias” after drinking it means you don’t want anymore.  You only say gracias at the very end.  This is a mistake many foreigners make.

After mate I go looking for the skatepark.  It’s covered in frost and slimy mud because it doesn’t see the sun for months at a time during the winter.  The sun barely rises above the mountains, hovers for most of the day, and then in the night slowly dips.  In a nearby park I roll around and do one switch 180.  I buy a converter so I can charge my phone.  I notice on the way home how rough the asphalt is on the streets.  All the cars have studded tires, so they tear it to shreds.

Back at he hostel I talk to my Chema, my Spanish roommate.  We somehow start talking about Couch Surfing.

“I don’t know, it seems pretty shady,” he says.  “Seems like it’s just a bunch of guys looking for chicks.”

“Totally,” I say.  “Creeps.”

Chema’s been in Ushuaia for almost a month.  He tells me some of the stuff there is to do.  He loves hitchhiking.  My ears perk up when he tells me he’s going to Bariloche the next day.  I hear Chema snores.

In the evening I head to a café called Xpresso that’s tastefully done and has a passable Americano with beans imported from Brazil.  I also get a ham and cheese croissant heated up.  The whole operation costs 78 pesos, or $5.48 USD.  Ushuaia is significantly more expensive than Colombia.  From what I hear, it’s significantly more expensive than the rest of Argentina.

Outside there’s loud drum music playing.  I thought the huts in the middle of the street were food stands but it turns out there’s actually some kind of laboral protest that’s been going on for weeks.  My croissant is delicious.  It’s hot and the cheese and is melting and it’s roughly the consistency of a wet kiss.  I leave and head out into the night and it’s cold.  I run home to make the trip shorter and also to warm up.  I really need to buy warm clothes if I’m going to linger in Ushuaia.

Wednesdays with Natalia

Photo via Pixabay.

“Do you want to go to Juan Valdez or Kaffe Florida? At Juan Valdez we can sit outside but Kaffe Florida has better product.”

“Wherever you want to go.”

“OK. Let’s go to Kaffe Florida.”

I don’t know much about girls. But there’s one thing I’m realizing: You have to do whatever you want to do. If you try to make them happy you’ll fail — that’s a given — so the only thing you can do is try to make yourself happy. At least that way one person is happy.

Natalia and I walk to Kaffe Florida. I came here last time. One of the servers was cute. I didn’t get coffee last time because it made me anxious. This time I’m getting coffee. I want to see if there’s anywhere in Manizales that has even remotely good coffee. The other day at La Vieja Escuela was an abomination.

“The eggplant a la parmesana looks delicious,” says Natalia.

“So why don’t you get them?”

“Too expensive.”

“Natalia, this is on me.”

“No, I feel bad.”

I go inside and order an americano for myself and also a chocolate brownie with ice cream. For Natalia I get a chai tea and also the eggplant a la parmesana. I’m being cute. It will be nice to surprise her. She’ll like it. This is what you do when you like someone.

To give a little context, I’m in Manizales visiting my friend Natalia. We might like each other. It’s still not clear. Sometimes it seems crystal clear, but other times it’s opaque and muddy, like water in a puddle. The one thing I can say is I feel more comfortable than last time. Last time I was a wreck. “Does she like me? Does she like me? Waaaaaaaa…does she like me?”

Today we’re going to the hot springs. Last time at the hot springs was also kind of a disaster. I was trying to be charming and seductive and dive-bombed. I was like an F-14 whose thrusters have gone out somewhere above the Indian Ocean. And the jerks didn’t even have the bottom pool open. Plus it was night so there were 6,000 people. How can you be charming when you’re surrounded by 6,000 people? Today we’re going during the day. There will be no people.

“The eggplant for who?” the server says when she brings out silverware. I point at Natalia. She makes a face. Awesome. I try to do something nice and she makes a face. Wonderful.

My brownie comes and it’s piled decadently with ice cream. I want to drown myself in this ice cream. I need this chocolate.

Natalia is happy about the eggplant. She keeps talking about how delicious it is even though to me it had the consistency of a bike tire. The brownie with ice cream is good, though. The americano is not good. What is wrong with these people? We are literally surrounded by coffee plantations and the coffee they serve is shit. They don’t even know what good coffee is. You give them good coffee and they think it’s bad. And then you give them the same shit they’ve been drinking their whole lives and they think it’s delicious.

Breathe, Mark.

I’m thinking about a guy who might hire me. He works in Brooklyn for a startup or food magazine or something called Taste. His name is Carter. The problem is this: I just booked a flight to southern Argentina. And here’s the thing: I need to go there. I need to go to this place. It is written. But whenever I make a commitment to something, whenever I start to get my life together bogeys start approaching from all sides threatening to throw me off the path. I’m like the F-14 again, this time being approached by Russian MiGs. Goose is my copilot. Things are going well. We’re following orders. Or rather, we’re not following orders, but we’re the stars of the squadron. We know we’re doing the right thing. All the sudden orders come over the radio to change course towards Somalia. We know we shouldn’t do it; if we do it, some of our squad members will die. Most of the time, though, we follow orders. We’re afraid of getting chewed out. Plus, the orders coming in are logical. But those assholes are also sitting on an aircraft carrier 500 miles away. They’re not up in the sky with several tons of missiles between their legs in a little steal box surrounded by Russkys. Do you see what I’m getting at? This is my life. I always know the right thing to do. But I listen to other people. I don’t follow my heart.

I know I have to go to Ushuaia. I’m going to tell Carter I can be up in Brooklyn for the job in a couple weeks. That will have to do for him. Don’t try to talk me out of it. It is written.

Back at Kaffee Florida Natalia has finished her eggplant. I’ve finished my brownie and my shitty americano. I’ve had a good time. In general, I’ve had a good time with her on this trip. I’ve enjoyed seeing her. I like her because she pushes me intellectually, because she’s sarcastic. Too sarcastic, sometimes. But at least she’s not boring.

I go inside and pay and we take a bus home. We ride the bus leaning on each other, arm in arm. It’s nice. It’s like having a girlfriend. We get back and I sit alone on the porch looking out over the finca. The view is incredible. You can see almost all the way to the Pacific coast. In the far mountains, lightning dances in the sky. A thousand crickets sing. I breathe in deeply.

I look out into the night.