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Waiting in Line at the ATM During the Argenitine Economic Meltdown

Thousands of toddlers-turned-adults were roaming the streets of Buenos Aires one beautiful sunny summer day.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Everyone has heard the expression, “it’s like taking candy from a baby.” We hear this phrase all the time, but does anyone ever think about the “baby” that is spoken of? I once denied a baby candy, and I can tell you, that was one pissed off toddler. Now what if the baby was all grown up, and instead of taking away candy, you took away money? This could be a problem.

Thousands of these toddlers-turned-adults were roaming the streets of Buenos Aires one beautiful sunny summer day. It was February 2002, just two months after Argentina President de la Rua’s resignation from an administration that just couldn’t handle a country in one of the biggest recessions in international history. Since the late 1990s, the unemployment rate had skyrocketed, which needless to say, caused great political and social unrest throughout the country. The economy was in such disarray that three political heads came and went since the resignation, each not knowing what to do to save the country some money. In a panic, the only thing they could figure out was to curb bank withdrawals, which is a pretty ballsy thing to do if you ask me.

Under these circumstances, an Argentine bank wasn’t exactly the place I wanted to be, but of course with my luck, I found myself in Buenos Aires without any cash to spare. As I wandered around the cosmopolitan metropolis with its European-influenced architecture, I figured it might not be so bad going to a bank; most of the riots and protests I heard about on the news were probably just exaggerated by the media, as protests usually are. As I walked around, there were no yelling protesters to be seen; all I saw were carefree and beautiful people – most particularly the women. And boy, did I have a weakness for Argentine women.

I had my American Citibank ATM card on me and decided to give it a shot at a Citibank near the Plaza de la Republic and its towering obelisk. Inside, there was a long line of about a dozen Argentines, each eager to see if the single ATM would spit out some cash. It was sort of like a slot machine where, if maybe you got lucky, you’d win some money. One by one people would go to the machine, put in a bank card, push in a PIN number and “Withdraw”, only to receive nothing but a receipt. This was followed by a grunt or a sigh, and the occasional banging on the machine. The routine repeated about three times before it was the next person’s turn to play.

As I was standing on line, an attractive Argentine woman in a sundress with blonde hair and great legs approached me. She probably assumed I was a fellow South American with my Hispanic-looking, Filipino-American façade and asked me something in a barrage of Spanish that went fifty miles per hour. Little did she know that I was a total gringo and before I could tell her that I didn’t know what she was saying”“Uh, no…“”she left and went back to the end of the long line before I could finish the sentence off with “…entiendo.”

I patiently waited some more until I was the next to use the machine. Suddenly, the attractive blonde in the sundress came back to me. This time I got my sentence out completely.

“Oh, you speak English,” she said in her sexy Argentine accent.

“Si­,” I told her. I love answering in Spanish when someone asks me if I only speak English.

“Would it be okay if I can go in front of you?” she asked me. “I am in a rush and I am not going to take any money out,” she pleaded at me with her beautiful Argentine eyes. If there was anything I had a weakness for more than a beautiful woman, it was a beautiful woman with a great set of eyes. I melted in her alluring gaze, like a marshmallow in a microwave, picturing us with roses in our mouths, dancing the night away in a tango bar to the vibrations of a seductive violin, which would make our hearts swell so big that the only way to quench their desires was to make wild monkey love.

My daydream was ended abruptly when the ATM was suddenly free and the woman jumped at the opportunity to seize the machine. She was, in fact, trying to take out money – $300 US to be exact – which never came out. Like everyone before her, she tried over and over like a Vegas slot machine, thus holding up the line even more. Everyone had seen that I unintentionally let her go in front of about twenty people, which made them really angry. Soon people were shouting at her in fifty-mile-per-hour Spanish and then starting shouting at me in fifty-mile-per-hour Spanish, and suddenly there was a small riot brewing in the little vestibule. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and say, “Uh, no entiendo?”

Wild monkey love this was not.

With all the yelling, the woman eventually succumbed to the pressure to leave. She stormed out, finally leaving the ATM for me. I approached the machine with all eyes on me from behind. I could feel their looks piercing through my head, judging me, mocking me, killing me. I put in my American Citicard and entered my PIN. Fifteen seconds later, two hundred pesos in cash spewed from the dispenser with no problems at all. It was as easy as, well, as taking candy from a baby.

But the babies weren’t exactly happy. Like infants screaming their heads off needing to be burped at three in the morning, the bank patrons let loose all frustrations that had been built up for months, and directed it towards me. Don’t cry for me, Argentina! Papers were thrown, and there was loud yelling and a lot of use of the word “pinga.” Rather than continue my two-word gringo vocabulary “no entiendo,” I left that scene in a mad dash and didn’t turn back once.

So the next time you think about taking candy from a baby, think twice. Babies these days; they grow up so fast.

Justin Pushman