Street Sense

Armed only with a Meyer Grant, an English major decamps for Rio de Janeiro, where she digs beneath the city’s exported public image in an attempt to find its true self.

Dona Carmen’s young granddaughter leads me down the stairs to the first floor of the apartment building at 1500 Rua Almirante Alexandrino and presses the buzzer of apartment number 3. Inside, a muffled telephone conversation comes to a slow stop, and a shirtless old man opens the door.

“What a shame,” he says, and sets me down on his couch.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

Having performed her duty, the little girl returns to her grandmother’s home up on the third floor. I had met Dona Carmen, the landlord of the building, just 10 minutes ago, even though I have been subletting from one of her tenants on the second floor for more than two weeks. I had buzzed her apartment from the street below because I had lost my key, a key that I was not supposed to have in the first place, and after I explained my predicament, she let me in and directed me upstairs. I found her standing in her bright, gray living room, arms crossed.

“Fabricio is renting to an American again? He should have told me about you,” she tutted. “Well, you all get robbed, and it’s his fault.” She then told me to go see Nicanor.

Nicanor is the shirtless man in Number 3. After letting me in, he slumps into the couch and asks me if this is my first time in Brazil. I tell him it is my first time in Brazil, my first time in Rio de Janeiro, and my first time in Santa Teresa, the bohemian quarter carved from a mountainside overlooking the Guanabara Bay. From Santa Teresa, one is afforded views of both the bay below, with its bright beach resorts of Copacabana and Ipanema, and the ridge of Desterro Hill above, which is accented nicely with a 120-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ. In between sea and sky, clusters of stacked concrete homes, Rio’s infamous favelas—slums—smear the white cityscape with tones of dusty brown.

The view from Nicanor’s veranda reveals the backside of our apartment building, and he takes me out to show off the mango tree that hangs its branches over the railing. He has fashioned a mango picker from a tin plate secured to the end of a broomstick, and he demonstrates the gentle process of loosening the mangoes from the tree and catching them on the plate. He retrieves a few for effect. Scraps of old peels and bread lie on the edge of the wall: food for the monkeys, which Nicanor also likes to lure from the tree. He shows me his storage closet and says something that I cannot understand about the puddle of water on the floor, and we return to the living room.

While Nicanor prepares coffee, I survey the room: a couch with zebra-print pillows, a table covered with Brazil’s popular daily newspaper, O Globo, and a large watercolor of two lovers copulating in front of a giant sunflower. On a table next to the couch, he has several framed photographs and a telephone, which has already rung several times since I have arrived. He has told a number of callers that, yes, he will attend someone’s birthday party on Sunday; he checked with Dona Carmen about when the locksmith will arrive to change the locks (in case the robbers know where I live and try to use my keys to enter); and told everyone he spoke to about the events of my day.

“Yes, she was just out walking, right here in Santa Teresa, right around noon . . . the ladrões took her bag and drove away.”

I think about Luiz, whom I have also met in the past hour. He was five paces from me when the car pulled away; he told me that he would have yelled at the man, but since I was obscured from his view by a telephone pole, he hadn’t figured out what was going on. I was wary to trust him, but he was older, and said, “Nonsense! I live right here. Come in and have a glass of water.” A quiet girl with dark skin was doing dishes in his kitchen, and two small white dogs ran around and peed on the pink wooden floors of his porch.

Luiz let me use his office to look up phone numbers and call the Visa card people and Fabricio. Visa answered; Fabricio did not. Piles of math textbooks and exercises written in English covered Luiz’s dark mahogany desk. He told me he was a math professor and offered to drive me back to my apartment. Along the way, we scoured the back streets for my bag, since Luiz thought the thieves might have tossed what they didn’t want. I was positive that he was in their gang, their gang mathematician, and that he was driving me to my doom. He dropped me off at my front door, wrote down his phone number, and told me to stop by sometime for a beer.

After coffee, Nicanor serves me bread, cheese, and a smoothie made from his collected mangoes. He sits me down at the head of his kitchen table, and we page through the newspaper together. We discuss articles about preparations for the upcoming week of Carnaval (Nicanor will not be attending; he cannot stand the barulho—noise) and rising crime rates. He recounts, one by one, every robbery he has ever witnessed or experienced. My favorite is his story of the omnibus. He was sitting in the back of a bus when a man boarded, waited until they were moving, and proceeded to make his way down the aisle, quietly gesturing with a gun and demanding that passengers relinquish their money and valuables. Nicanor knew that the driver was helpless, and no one was going to stand up to this man. When the thief got to him, Nicanor told him very calmly that he had a cell phone and had called the police, who would be waiting for him at the next intersection. The thief debarked immediately, and Nicanor ends his story in a fit of triumphant laughter. He had been lying to the man; he doesn’t even own a cell phone.

“You have to be careful these days; you always have to pay attention.” Nicanor has lived in Santa Teresa for decades and assures me that it has not always been like this. “Nothing was as dangerous as it is today,” he tells me; “I used to go to the favelas for churrasco, the best barbecue I ever had. Nobody had bars up in front of their doors back then.”

Maybe he’s right. Along Santa Teresa’s steep cobblestone streets, bright mansions and mosaic-tiled staircases of yester-century alternate with modern apartment buildings, all with tall, spiked, wrought-iron gates protecting their front doors and potted plants.

Santa Teresa has recently undergone a bohemian overhaul (the New York Times called it the “Anti-Rio”), and its main drag has all the classic symptoms of gentrification: sushi bars, small storefronts displaying psychedelic art and furniture made from found objects, German barbecue, smiling proprietors. But in the gaps between these beacons of renewal, tarp-covered stoops shade the entrances to small concrete homes and long staircases into the favelas below. When I walk home each evening, knocking my knees against blue-plastic grocery bags filled with mangoes, eggs, and beans for my dinner, I know I walk a fine, porous boundary between safety and danger. But I have no idea what that danger is. Will an iron gate really protect me?

A few vistas on the way up the steep streets offer wide views of the city below, where favelas climb up from behind the white resorts at sea level to Santa Teresa’s perch 600 feet above. After several sightings of fireworks blasting up from the crowded, piled neighborhoods, I had asked Fabricio why everyone was celebrating all the time. He told me that the flares could mean one of three things:

One. The drugs have arrived.

Two. The police have arrived.

Three. Another gang has arrived.

The latter two often result in a troca de balas, an exchange of bullets between gang and authority or gang and gang, although I gathered from many apathetic Santa Teresa residents that there isn’t much difference between the two. Nicanor seems to feel the same way. “Awful, just awful,” he says. “Não agüento mais.” I’ve had enough.

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