I found and rented a apartment in Rio de Janeiro after only one afternoon of looking around. The ad had been put in the paper by a little old lady called Eunice and she rented me a small studio in Ipanema for $200. The bedsheets and paintings on the wall could only have been chosen by a 65 year old lady but, once they were safely hidden away, it wasn’t a bad little den.
I was on the 5th floor of 8 in the building and I almost never saw the same resident twice. Some sensational looking girls in gym clothes paraded in and out but the elevator ride was too short to start up a conversation. I fantasised about it getting stuck one day. The outer door to the building was always locked at night and the doormen always checked they knew your face before letting you in. How they ever got to know the residents of 150 apartments and their families I’ll never know.
The life of a porter seemed a pretty dreary one, opening and closing the front door 1000 times a day; not to mention having to deal with all the demands and petitions of cranky residents on the intercom. The porters were all from the poorer regions of Brazil and made around $150 a month to work 60 hour weeks. I quickly realised that a few dollars in tips every now and then would go a long way and they began to like me.
Altruism aside it’s not a bad idea to be on good terms with your doormen. They can solve a million and one little problems and you never know when you might need their help. From silencing a noisy neighbour to receiving a parcel from home, a lot of power was in their hands. They only really felt relaxed with me though the first time I brought a girlfriend home. Not only did it give them something to gossip about but they knew I wasn’t gay.
The walls of my apartment played acoustic tricks with the ventilation shaft to the effect that the bathroom of the apartment below seemed to be in my kitchen. I’d hear someone coughing up a night of mucous and turn expecting to see a retching Arab by the stove. That much I could live with. Also of more amusement value than annoyance was the man in the apartment block facing my window who broke into five minutes of wailing opera every afternoon. I think it was also him who shared raucous commentary on the football game on TV with neighbours on the opposite block.
What really killed me were the alarm clocks that people left on long after they’d woken up and gone out. It was like a perverse Chinese torture. The bleepbleepbleep entered my dreams and I woke up crying “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!” One of the clocks sounded like the escaped prisoner alert at the concentration camps. It rendered sleep such an impossible prospect that I found myself prowling the corridors in a murderous rage trying to locate the apartment that had caused me to wake up at such an ungodly hour of the late morning. When I found the culprit I left polite notes but I fantasised about slipping families of cockroaches under their door or gluing up the locks.
Being a bachelor of 26 my kitchen swiftly became a no-go area. It was a tiny cubicle space and the sink soon took on such a sinister aspect that torching it would have been the only possible redemption. I took a strategic retreat and resolved only to enter again if I ever saw anything actually moving inside. Worse was the refrigerator. It made such an irritating hum and shudder each time it turned itself off that I disconnected it the first day. I plugged it in again only when I had beers to chill or store the odd bit of hummus. I must have spilt a bit because before long the inside of the refrigerator took on an unwholesome smell and armies of mould were campaigning for civil rights. Finally it was out of the question to even open the door and I had to buy beer already chilled.
Paying the rent for the place was like a mission of mercy. I’d go to visit Eunice and she’d pull every trick in the book to get me to stay for as long as possible. She spent her day watching trivia shows on the TV and the scurrying off to the library to look up the answers.
“Who invented the lightbulb?” She asked me, notebook in hand.
“Ah, Edison, I think. Eunice, I really need to get-”
“And which countries are in the G-8?”
“Well, England, France, the US and er..”
“Would you like a piece of cake? I made it myself.”
Then while I munched she launched into a 20 minute discourse on Brazilian history, talking about all the Portuguese monarchs as though they were infamous neighbours of hers. When in need of a moment’s security she turned to her cuddly toy dog, Robson.
“I’m so lucky to have my puppy to keep me company! We had to give you a bath yesterday, didn’t we, Robson?”
But for all that she was on the ball with business and when I left I let her keep the $30 deposit to hire a valiant cleaner. We arranged to meet on the day I left at the apartment to hand over the keys but I couldn’t imagine how I was going to explain the sink and refrigerator. Finally, I bottled out and moved the day before. I left the keys, a little extra money and a humble apology on the table citing a mix-up with the dates.
I only hope she had Robson with her when she opened the door of the refrigerator.