The bars, girls and street characters of Rio.
Despite its fame as the party capital of the world it took me a few weeks to even find the nightlife in Rio de Janeiro, especially in my part neighbourhood, Ipanema. I spent lonely nights trekking up and down well-lit streets that promised to have some action.
Try as I might, I kept finding myself in empty bars or with my nose pressed to the window of busy restaurants where everyone seemed to be having a good time. Cariocas like to get together and share plates of snacks with glasses of beer on café terraces and spend the evening laughing loudly. I ruled these kinds of places out quickly; somehow it’s harder to make eye contact with a group of people sat down at a table. It’s also more embarrassing if a girl brushes you off after you’ve taken the trouble to pull up a seat next to her.
I finally stumbled across the Emporio, a crowded bar with terrible music whose only virtue was that the clientele overspilled into the street at weekends. Most cool cariocas regarded the place as ‘fallen’ (gone downhill) and there were often a handful of tourists that ensured the presence of the predator one step up the food chain: the prostitute. There were only a few of these though and I soon learnt how to distinguish them from the other girls. It was all in the eyes.
I only went home with a girl from the Emporio 5 or 6 times in 6 months in Rio but it was open to 4am and so constituted a kind of last chance option after striking out at the Irish bars. If it sounds like going out was all about looking for girls, it was. Quality of life was purely measured upon one’s statistics and the next best thing to hooking up with a girl was telling the story to your friends the next day.
Brazilians love to party and go out just for the sake of it, although sex is always on the cards too. The deal is to pose, flirt and gossip excitedly whilst spending as little money as possible. They did drink but I hardly ever saw a Carioca drunk – they didn’t need to see double before they felt confident enough to go and talk to someone.
This was the first time in my life I’d dedicated myself to going out on the hunt and generally it was a miserable failure. Often I’d stand there for 3 or 4 hours without talking to anyone and feeling utterly out of my element. The Emporio crowd was as superficial a bunch as Rio de Janeiro had to offer, comprised mostly of rich kids playing bohemian. There were a few ‘gringo-hunters’ though amongst the girls which made things easier. The bar was also close enough to home that I could stumble home drunk, eying the shadows nervously.
Towards the end of my stay the best thing about the Emporio became my friendship with Luizinho, the guy who sold beers out of the back of his car a little further down the street. He was a short, thin man with a pony tail and immensely self-possessed. At 43 years of age he’d been selling out of the back of his car for 17 years and knew just about all there was to know about the street and the people to be found there.
“Good evening! Are you in peace? 2 cans of Skol? Perfectly.” His speech sounded almost as idiosyncratic in Portuguese as in this literal translation.
Luiz was a spiritual guy who began each night with a prayer which he said with his eyes open, scanning the street for trouble even as he quietly asked for blessings. He never drank and was only there to put up with shit from a hundred idiots every evening so that he could take $50 home to his family. I had always read that Taoist masters should be able to function as well in the bustle of the marketplace as much as in a mountain cave but this was the first time I’d seen anything close to it in practice. When a car driven by two bodybuilders twice his size pulled up with the radio on at full blast, Luizinho was there in a moment to tell them to turn it down. He couldn’t afford for the neighbours to get disturbed and make a complaint.
Luiz had people he could call on to sort out any aggression or theft but he was too cool to ever need to. Despite his size Luiz was so well-centred that he had mastery of most situations and was widely known and respected. If some hood turned up from the favela demanding a beer he might hand it over just to avoid the hassle. There was never any issue of pride or ego with Luizinho, he was there to make his money and then go. Period.
I spent entire nights by his car telling stories about India and asking him about street life and the favelas, drinking beer after beer until I was too far gone to speak Portuguese. Meanwhile drunks came round and sat on Luizinho’s car. He asked them not to and they got up for a few moments before resuming their seats. He chased them away again and then someone started to haggle over the price of a can of beer, counting out their centavos in a futile attempt to awaken pity. Then the municipal police VW van cruised by and Luiz would abandon these idiots in a flash, ready to shut up shop in a moment should the cops decide to stop and make trouble.
He kept a plastic bag by the side of the car for the empty cans and he let the down and out’s collect them for recycling.
“You see, Tommy, as much as I could use the money from the cans there are always people who need it more.”
Luizinho was a self-taught expert of practical people skills. I had the feeling that any student of psychology would learn more in a month with Luiz than in a year at college. He pacified the aggressive, uplifted the depressed, entertained the friendly and sympathized with the troubled. Anyone working in the street is exposed to all the social elements and at 3am in Rio all the dregs came tumbling along. Luiz was growing tired of the constant hassle of his job though and was studying by day to become a dental assistant. He hoped that within 5 years he might be able to quit selling beer.
His favourite diversion on a quiet night was to tease his old friend, Josiah, the peanut man. Josiah was a large, black man who stumbled around with the lurch of a wounded dog and was drunk almost 24 hours a day. He had a face so large as to be out of a cartoon and had the look of someone who thinks himself always on a stage. At the slightest promoting he’d burst into song, drawling out “Hey Jude” or “Yesterday” though he knew hardly a word of English.
Josiah carried with him a large tin oven with coals inside to keep the peanuts warm in their paper cones on top. Of course he was generally too pissed to remember to light the coals in the first place and his peanuts were so salted as to be practically inedible but somehow he made a living. His sales tactic was to lurch into the nearest ring of people and begin to gabble incoherently or make dramatic faces, utterly imprerious at to whether they wished him dead.
In fact I learnt to measure people’s character from the way they reacted to Josiah. The shallow or egocentric either brushed him off the moment he appeared or else seemed to be painfully holding their breath until he left. But nothing could dampen Josiah’s spirits, a man who had nothing and whose brains had been permanently dazed by a lifetime of drinking cachaca. The only thing that could ever get a strong reaction out of him were the stories of Luizinho who never missed an opportunity to wind him up. Luiz would wait until he knew Josiah was in earshot and then stage whisper:
“Tommy, did I ever tell you about the time that Josiah got so drunk he couldn’t make his way home for the night.”
“Gaygaygaygaygayhomohomo!” Josiah yelled, leaping in between us. Luiz stepped to the side.
“In fact he was so drunk that he went to piss against the wall and passed out half way through.”
“Gay! Luiz is homo! Luizinho is homo!” Josiah protested, his eyes popping out of his head, simultaneously mortified and delighted to the centre of attention.
“He was so drunk that at 9:30 in the morning he was still lying down on the pavement with his trousers around his ankles.”
“And a bull dog came along and took a big lick of Josiah’s bare ass!”
“Luizinho likes boys! Queer gay homo!”
“Nothing makes me happier than when Josiah starts cursing me!” Luizinho laughed, nudging me in the ribs.
Luizinho is still out there digging around in the ice in the back of his car to sell cans of cold beer to all and sundry. An astute, compassionate man, I couldn’t help but think he deserved better. When I left Rio de Janeiro to continue my travels in Brazil he was one of the few people to whom I said goodbye.