Ghosts on the Subterraneo

Brushing shoulders with the phantoms of Buenos Aires

by Claire McKeever, guest writer

There’s a phantom station on my subway line.

As if there weren’t already enough to contend with each time I trudge down into the veins of Buenos Aires. In a city of thirteen million, it’s always rush hour. I get swept along by a tide of businessmen, students, and grandmothers. Salesmen hawk their wares: “Ladies and gentlemen! The best [socks, pens, chocolate, umbrella], yours for only a few tiny pesitos!” The omnipresent kioscos and newspaper stands mirror their surface counterparts, their slipshod shelves vending everything from pastries to used books. Ragged children tug my sleeve to offer slips of paper, begging for God’s mercy and my monedas.

And now there are ghosts, too.

I live on the A Line of the subte (short for subterraneo, or underground), which is marked by a thoroughly Argentine celestial blue. Its first circuit started running in 1913, making it the oldest subway system in Latin America and the third oldest in the world. The original cars, modeled after both British and Belgian trams, still lumber along daily to and from the Plaza de Mayo at the city’s heart. Despite the chipped paint and faded varnish, their wooden structures lend a workshop aroma to the entire network of tunnels. Anyone foolish enough to take note of the cars’ capacity—forty-two passengers, seated—forgets it immediately upon cramming in among several hundred fellow porteños.

At the time of the route’s construction, it offered quick passage between the congressional chambers and the president’s offices in the Casa Rosada. Rather than fighting common street traffic, the country’s elite could conduct their business with guaranteed promptness (a rare luxury in Argentina). Two of the stations, Pasco and Alberdi, were constructed a mere three blocks from one another. As the twentieth century barreled forward, the operators saw that the delay caused by the two stops weighed heavily on their time-pressed passengers. There was already enough wearing on the country: the prosperity of the early century faded, President Perón and his dear Evita turned the government’s eyes to the working masses, and a Northern Hemisphere locked in the hold of two world wars paid little mind to its distant cousin in the South. Eventually, in another uncommon nod to efficiency, Pasco and Alberdi each closed one platform. With half of a station on either side, the trains now stop at only one in either direction.

The operators may not have foreseen the peculiar effects of this closure. It severed the line, breaking the everyday continuity that had taken root in the subterranean world, and opened up a breeding ground for the supernatural. It is said that workers, their time well past for seeking a new office, report daily for duty somewhere between their former posts. They wait at a nebulous station, dangling their feet over the tracks, for a train that will never stop there again. In the evening, a distraught bride wanders the tracks, across which she sought an ultimate, desperate escape from her ill-fated marriage. Late at night, you can see the last passengers of the day, dressed in their antique finery. They stand patiently on the platform and watch the train pass them by.

And so these phantom dwellers join the rest of the city’s whirling bustle. On my own journey toward the city center, somewhere between Pasco and Alberdi, the lights shudder in their century-old sockets. I grip my bag to ward off probing pickpocket hands and crane my neck to catch the perdidos, the lost ones, at their haunts.

I don’t see them this time, but that does nothing to disprove their presence. After all, Buenos Aires is a city of layers. The tourist’s impression of tango, vino, Borges and cafés drapes loosely over the volatile economy and political unrest. A female president sits atop a deeply patriarchal society. Each new wave of immigrants—from the original Spanish explorers, to the British estancia owners, to the Italian laborers, to the present day flow of lower-class Peruvians, Bolivians and Paraguayans—sweeps in and settles over the rest, creating a new stratum in the bedrock of Argentine culture. With the haphazard way in which people tumble over one another, stack themselves into apartments, and shove into train cars, some souls are inevitably forgotten, heaped in among the rest.

As we jolt through the next stops, I remember a conversation I had with Jolie, my host family’s grandmother. Her husband passed away just over a year ago, and since then she has been trying to sell his treasured collection of books. The apartment where she lives alone, several blocks from ours, has shelves in every room filled with beautiful classics that should be worth a great deal. Yet she is struggling to find anyone willing to buy them. Those that express interest in purchasing the collection will offer only a fraction of their true value, leaving her no choice but to keep them as a reminder of her loss. She recently lent some to a grandson for the set of an antique-themed photo shoot—not to be read, not to be used, simply as a nod to another era. Jolie and her books remain suspended in the nostalgia that gave way to the hybrid jumble of modern Buenos Aires. No doubt she feels the phantoms of that past each time she travels her familiar routes.

We reach my stop, so I extract myself from a stranger’s lapel and maneuver through a tangle of limbs and bodies. I heave my weight against the handles to shove apart the manual doors. Stumbling onto the platform, I do a quick inventory of my belongings, take a breath, and reemerge, squinting into the sunlight. The subte screeches away to the next stop and I take off down Avenida de Mayo. Above, around, and below me, the city teems.

Ghosts on the Subterraneo (PDF)

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