A Life in the Day of São Paulo, Brazil

A São Paulo street Norman Normal, a middle-aged expatriate journalist, was awakened as happened every day in São Paulo by a pack of dogs barking. They howled and bayed crazily as they did at several points during the day and, as usual, their owners made no attempt to shut them up. Norman wished the Higienópolis Poisoner who had terrorized dog owners in that district in the mid-90s by feeding poisoned meat to their hounds was still around.

Once up, Normal looked down from his bedroom on the 13th floor at the crossroads where three avenues met and wondered why he had not noticed the location when he moved into the apartment years earlier. Although it was only seven o’clock, the traffic was already building up.

Within an hour it would be at a standstill and the noise level would reach deafening point as engines revved, horns tooted, radios blared and motorcyclists whizzed by, snapping side mirrors, hurling abuse, giving the trapped drivers the finger or leering at passing girls. The sun was streaming down, ensuring an even more hellish start to the day and he knew he would be sweating within minutes of going out.

First, breakfast. Fortunately his wife had taken his teenage daughter to school, leaving a table covered in low-fat yogurt containers, fat-free milk, low-cal sweeteners and other debris, so he had some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, some of the millions of ants who lived in his building had started their breakfast and were crawling over the bread that he had specifically asked his wife to wrap up so that he could get to it before the ants.

As neither of his females ate bread, they were uninterested. As his wife (who had studied biology and never let him forget it) said: “ants are a source of protein and, in any case, are usually only active for about three months in the year so you have nine months of ant-free bread.”

He dumped the bread in the bin and settled for a cup of coffee and the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. The front page listed a scandal in the Senate, a scandal in the House of Representatives, a scandal in the São Paulo state government, a scandal in the São Paulo mayor’s office, a scandal in the foreign ministry, a scandal in the Brazilian football federation, a scandal in the ….oh forget it!

Love Letters

Then he went to the readers’ letters page. One letter called for Lula to be tried for treason because he was too cozy with Venezuela’s dictatorial Hugo Chavez, another called on Lula to invade Bolivia and Paraguay and give those no-good, ungrateful Indians and mestizos a lesson for their ingratitude to ever-generous Brazil, a third called on Brazil to stop licking the boots of Argentina’s president Kirchner while a fourth demanded that governor José Serra should expel all those lazy, good-for-nothing Northeasterners who were making such a mess of the beautiful city of São Paulo.

Other letters described the Estado as: a) the “greatest newspaper in the history of the world”; b) a “beacon of truth and liberty”; and c) the “savior of the nation’s freedom, democracy and interests.” All of this was due to the wisdom, patriotism, generosity and sheer amazingness of the enlightened family which owned the paper.

Time for the other pages. Twelve people killed in a bus crash in Pernambuco in which the driver was drunk, did not have a license and ran away after the “accident.” Police shot dead 16 drug traffickers in a favela in Rio, five of who just happened to be below the age of 10. One state governor is accused of having sex with 15-year-old girls and another with 15-year-old boys.

Ronaldo (aka Ronalducho or Fat Ronnie) has had lipo surgery to remove part of his beer belly while pretending he was having a routine check-up. Xuxa, Adriane Galisteu, Ana Maria Braga and Giselle Bündchen (people who are all famous because they are famous) are pictured together at a reception given by Luciana Gimenez to celebrate the publication of a biography she has written of her pet cat Fifi.

He skims the business section more professionally to see if there is anything new or unexpected there but it’s just the usual collection of overlong news items and long-winded comments by columnists. 

Time to go. Norman leaves the fortress-like condominium in which he lives in one of São Paulo’s middle-class districts. Two large security men in shabby black suits stand by the gate as he leaves. He says good morning to them, the condominium staff and assorted maids arriving for work, including his own, a middle-aged woman originally from Bahia called Lourdes.

While hundreds of thousands of middle-class people like him are traveling across town to their offices, hundreds of thousands of working-class people like Lourdes are traveling across town to clean up the apartments of the lazy middle class. Norman had never had a maid in Europe but his Brazilian wife had made it crystal clear to him that a maid was as essential fixture in any middle-class São Paulo home. Therefore, Lourdes was a part of the family whether Norman wanted her or not.

Moment of Pleasure

A taxi to work from the rank round the corner. A quick peek to check that he will not be trapped with some of the nuttier drivers, like the evangelical who tries to persuade him to turn to Jesus, the young one who worked as a pizza delivery boy in Chicago for a year and likes to practice his vocabulary of American swear words or the hypochondriac who categorizes every complains he has had in his life.

Thank God, it’s the miserable one with the moustache who barely acknowledges his presence and sets off in typical fashion by jumping a red light and almost knocks over a couple of pudgy joggers. The trip takes him through the posh Jardins area with its mansions and palm trees. Norman always feels good at this time of the day as the traffic is still light and he usually manages to see flocks of little green parakeets careening around in the dappled sunlight.

This moment of pleasure does not last long and all too soon he is in the financial district with its glass and metal towers, traffic jams, building projects that never seem to finish, crowds of people, streaming from the metro and bus stops, all heading like drones to their offices. A five-minute wait for the lift which he shares with 20 other people.

Not only does it stop at every floor before reaching the 15th where his office is but he is squeezed between a large-buttocked cleaner, a gangly office boy with bad breath, acne and a Corinthians shirt, and a gaggle of receptionists smelling of soap and perfume.

A blast of freezing air conditioning hits him as he enters the gigantic floor where he works. Some wage slaves are already sitting in front of their screens but most will arrive later. Norman’s client is a news agency which provides material on Brazilian finance and business and his day is spent tracking down information on the movement of shares, commodities, currencies, interest rates, inflation indices and a million items that make the economy go round.

From his office he has a view of a traffic-clogged avenue remarkably similar to the view from home. Not for the first time does he think: “I remember when I was a young ambitious reporter dreaming of becoming a foreign correspondent in an exotic place like Brazil. I saw myself paddling up the Amazon in search of stories about Indians and hidden treasure, flirting over a cocktail at the Copacabana Hotel in Rio de Janeiro with a sparkling-eyed mulatta or receiving the Pulitzer Prize for a hard-hitting series on arms trafficking in border region linking Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

Instead, I find myself in the middle of the world’s noisiest city  trying to find out why soybean prices have suddenly risen by 3.5% or asking economists their views on the latest wholesale price index.”

Time for a Hug

His Brazilian colleagues start arriving. They hug, kiss, grasp, grope, fondle, caress and tickle each other as though they haven’t met for years although only about 12 hours have passed since they were last together. Despite the open affection and love, Norman knows that many of them can’t stand each other. He gets a couple of pats on the shoulder from some passers-by and mumbles a few “tudo bems” to be sociable.

He hopes the office secretary, Flávia, will not be in a bad mood today, her big brown eyes brimming with tears as a result of the latest row with her boyfriend who treats her like a goddess one day, showering her with love, devotion and presents and like an old boot the next, ignoring her, talking to other girls and behaving as if she doesn’t exist. Thankfully, she’s in a good mood, gives him a big smile, switches on her computer and reads her on-line horoscope. “Meu Deus – a new man will enter my life today and sweep me off my feet. Que legal!”

Like most of the younger people in the office Flávia spends most of her “working” day surfing the Internet, sending e-mails and instant messages to her friends or talking very loudly on the phone about her latest diet, visit to the hairdresser and manicurist. Norman is amazed at how blatant they are about their lack of interest in work but no-one seems to care.

If Flávia’s boss looks over her shoulder and notices that she is checking out a new range of shoes or belts, he doesn’t seem to care. If the woman who brings round the coffee starts telling everyone about her grandson who is saving up to buy a motorbike, the whole department stops and listens to her, even the boss.

This doesn’t mean people can do as they please. In fact, the place is a jungle and firings are merciless and routine. No-one ever resigns by giving a couple of weeks notice. There is always the feeling that anyone leaving has been fired rather than resigned and Norman is glad he works as a freelance and not a member of staff.

Ebony and Ivory

Most of the staff are white or almost white except for the cleaners who are almost all black or almost black. There are also quite a few “Japanese” , i.e. Brazilians of Japanese descent around. The ethnic origins make no difference and they are all proudly Brazilian. They are a typical São Paulo mixture of Italian, Portuguese, Spaniards, Lebanese, Germans, Lithuanians and migrants from every Brazilian state.

They have names like Pedro dos Santos Nakamura Baumann, Guido Nascimento Svansbjrg Bechara Domingos and Luciana Pereira Sanchez Pelligrini. There are a couple foreigners like Norman around, including a German and some Argentineans but they are all integrated and can hold their own in conversations about football or the latest gossip.     

He gets his head down and immerses himself in economic trivia that would send anyone else to sleep but he knows that all these statistics and indicators have a value to the investors, businessmen, traders and clients who pay top dollar. After a morning writing, phoning and messing around with his e-mail, arguing with know-all sub-editors at HQ in New York, drinking coffee, yawning and daydreaming, he looks at his watch and heads off for a sandwich in a nearby padaria.

This is another favorite part of the day and he prefers to be alone. He sits at the counter and watches the short-order cook fry eggs, bacon, sausage, chicken, hamburgers, cut sandwiches, clean the griddle, slice and season salad, melt cheese, take cans of soft drinks from the fridge, wrap takeaway orders, write out receipts and memorize garbled orders from four waiters all at the same time. Norman has never seen anyone work so hard or so fast.

Free Lunch

He prefers the counter to the seating area where hundreds of office staff eat their meals. As it is a kilo place where the price depends on the weight, people fill their plates from the huge choice on offer. It’s common to see someone with sushi, spaghetti, chicken, beef, chips, rice, beans, eggs, salad, peas and fish on the same dish.

Afterwards many of them turn the clock back to children days and treat themselves to an ice cream and it is common to see a group of middle-aged men in suits walking back to the office licking their lollies as though were five and not forty-five.

The reason they can afford to eat as heartily as they get meal vouchers as a perk from their employers. Whoever said “there’s no such things as a free lunch” had never been to São Paulo. Like the other freelance and outsourced staff, Norman has to pay his own way. 

He heads back to the office and nips quickly into the bathroom where the Brazilian men – most of whom seem to be called Marcello, Eduardo or Fernando – are preening themselves. They all bring their toothbrushes to work like good little boys and stand in front of the mirror brushing, gargling and spitting.

Some also use toothpicks and dental floss. Others comb their hair and stare deeply into their own eyes as though they love themselves. “If this is what it’s like in the men’s room what the hell is it like in women’s,” Norman mutters as he squeezes past the gaggle of Latin Narcissi.

He spends another few hours at his desk, files his last items for the day and heads off to a nearby college where he gives a presentation on Brazilian politics to a group of students from a famous European business school who are on a trip to Latin America. He tries to explain the complicated nature of the political scene.

A Constitution which is over 300 pages long and needs the approval of three-fifth of the two houses of Congress before it can be amended. A Senate in which three chairmen have resigned in less than a decade accused of corruption. A congressional ethics committee, most of whose members have been accused of unethical behavior.

A country in which public employees can retire in their mid-40s, where criminals who are graduates go to separate jails from common criminals in the unlikely occurrence of them being caught. A president who said white men with blue eyes were responsible for the financial crisis. A system that devotes more educational resources to universities attended by middle-class students than it does to basic education for poor children.

The trouble is the visitors don’t believe him and think he’s making it all up. The questions are often the same – racism, the destruction of the Amazon, poverty, street children, misery and social deprivation. When he tells them that Brazil is a dynamic country and most of the people are fairly happy and optimistic they don’t believe him either. They want Brazilians to be miserable and downtrodden and politically correct like them but Brazilians refuse to fit in with their caricatures.

Homeward Bound

He has also received invitations to a cocktail reception at a fancy hotel for an American economist who won the Nobel Prize and to a speech by the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange but events like this no longer have their former appeal and he decides to head home.

He walks back and when he crosses Avenida Nove de Julho finds himself in the lush piece of paradise in the Jardins he had passed through earlier in the taxi. However, the flocks of parrots have disappeared, the sunlight has headed elsewhere and the wide avenues full of cars.

He passes some joggers, dog walkers and middle-aged couples holding hands. As usual he wonders why they do this. Are they still in love? Are they afraid that someone will steal their spouse? Is it some kind of means of security he knows nothing about?

He passes a one-legged beggar who stands by the traffic lights, hobbles round the cars and is surprisingly successful. Norman interviewed him once for an article and learned that he had lost his leg as a teenager due to some illness which had not gone treated when he was a child, had spent 30 years working as a carpenter’s assistant and now, at the age of 62, was planning to get married.

His fiancée, a gap-toothed, wrinkled, old prune, confirmed that she was to be his wife and partner. She was also a beggar and they had met at work. A touching tale of love and romance which could only have been nurtured in São Paulo. Despite his ragged clothes and seamed, filthy face the beggar earns much more than the minimum wage and lives rent-free in a shack on the edge of one of the main highways. He told Norman that he was quite happy with life and expressed no grudge against the rich motorists he begged from. “They’re good people. They care for me,” he had said.

Oh to Be in Rio!

Soon he was back in his own neighborhood with its familiar shops, smells, noises and people. He wishes he was in Rio where he could walk along the beach front at Ipanema, breathe in the sea air, take off his shoes and socks and walk along the sand. However, this was not to be. Instead he bought some things from a supermarket and headed home. He got a smile from Lourdes, a scowl from his daughter who was doing her homework while watching TV, listening to her IPod, talking on her cellular, singing to the music and admiring her newly varnished black fingernails.

His wife had not yet arrived and was probably stuck in a traffic jam on the Marginal ring road listening to radio reports on how bad the traffic was.  A helicopter thundered above his building sending reports on the traffic to the radio and TV stations.

He switched on the television and flicked through the local channels, skipping the evangelical rallies, early evening soaps and hovering over the action news programs which specialized in covering horrific traffic accidents, bank robberies and gruesome murders.

The lead story on the BBC World service news was about India as always. The second story was also about India and the third about Pakistan. It was as though the British Raj still existed “Maybe one day we’ll get a story about Brazil,” he said as he switched to CNN.

Oh no, it was the bearded bore Wolf Blitzer sitting in his “Situation Room” along with “the best political team on television.” No thanks – goodnight, Wolf.
Outside in the street the dogs were yowling again as they always did at this time of the evening. Trying to ignore them, he skimmed through his e-mail. Apart from routine professional stuff there were the usual pleas for information about Brazil.

“Dear Norman, I read one of your articles on Brazilian politics. I’ll be coming to São Paulo next month and wonder if you can tell me the times of buses from the airport to my hotel in Avenida Paulista.” Another: “Dear Sir, I know you are a journalist in South America. I have fallen in love with a Chilean girl through the Internet. I am thinking of meeting her in Mexico City next Tuesday but I don’t speak Spanish. Your advice would be invaluable. Phone me. It’s an emergency.”

And another: “Is Fortaleza a good place to buy real estate?” There was also a typical message from a friendly local: “Gringo bastard, go home, Bush lover! Brazil hates you!” Delete, delete, delete, delete!

By then it was time for a shower. When he emerged clean, refreshed and feeling on top of the world his wife had arrived and they settled round the table. His daughter had even removed her IPod and they chatted about the day. The meal was interrupted by telephone calls from his sister-in-law, mother-in-law and his daughter’s best friend.

A television station in Washington also called and asked if he could take part in a live discussion program starting in 30 minutes on the Catholic Church’s position on abortion in Brazil. “Thanks but no thanks.” He had learned a long time ago never write or say anything about religion. He was also impatient with the absurdly short deadlines from the broadcast media which seemed to think he was just hanging around waiting for them to call. 

Dog Tired

Around 10 he headed for bed. He put Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis on his bedside cassette player very quietly, picked up his collection of Keats poems and was all set to read “The Eve of St Mark,” which always soothed him. He was settling into the beautiful opening lines and escaping into another world:

“Upon a Sabbath-day it fell;
Twice holy was the Sabbath bell
That called the folk to evening prayer;
The city streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains;
And, on the western window panes,
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of unmatured green valleys cold,
Of the green thorny bloomless sedge,
Of primroses by sheltered rills,
And daisies on the sheltered rills”        

..when the dogs started up their racket, snarling like Furies auditioning for the Hound of the Baskervilles.

The end to another perfect day.

Boa noite, Norman – dorme bem!

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. You can read more by him at his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2009


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