March 4th, 2010, 9:55 a.m. in the bedroom of my Brooklin apartment.
I pace across a gleaming white tile floor gripping a Sony cellphone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. I pause in front of the open window then shut out the soundtrack of Brazil’s most powerful megalopolis, São Paulo, as it permeates through the thick, smoggy air.
I dial my friend Flavio hoping that he’ll have the information I’m looking for.
Carmen Joy King: Oi Flavio, are you busy? I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor?
Flavio the Bass Guitarist: No, no, just putting the final touches on some songs for the new album. What’s up?
CJK: Well I’m trying to put together a story about São Paulo and I need a main character, like a symbol. I was thinking about doing a story on the Morumbi neighborhood where the balconies of the super wealthy look out onto the massive slum. You know, something to capture the essence of the city, the contrasts.
FBG: Oh, hmm, a symbol? Well I suggest you consider Ibirapuera Park.
CJK: Interesting choice. Why?
FBG: It’s the heart of the heart – everyone is there. If you go on a Saturday you can see rich joggers, some northeasterners, half-naked samba dancers, Capoeira players, families with dogs, people from the favela. If you go there at night you’ll see a lot of gays and prostitutes and cops.
CJK: Heart of the heart. I like that. Thanks for your help.
“Go to your bosom: Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” – William Shakespeare.
12:00 p.m. at the Blue Tree Hotel on Avenida Berrini.
I’m giving an English lesson to André: a partner at a hot, young marketing firm based in Rio. He’s in São Paulo for a monthly meeting. I ask him what he thinks about the largest city in South America.
André: All the headquarters are here and it’s the most important city in Brazil in terms of capital, but still, I don’t like coming here. The traffic is really horrible and there’s no beach.
Carmen: So in other words, it’s a “work city”?
André: You could say that. People from Rio, us Cariocas, we have the beach in our backyard and it forces us to slow down and enjoy. But for Paulistanos, people from São Paulo, there’s no such thing as down time.
Carmen: Many Paulistanos I’ve spoken with believe that São Paulo is the heart of Brazil- that it keeps the economic and cultural blood flowing to the rest of the country. Would you agree with that sentiment?
André: I mean, Cariocas may be lazy but we’re probably happier! And, well yeah, I would have to agree that São Paulo is the heart. Though I read a statistic a few months ago that the richest 10% of Paulistanos own 74% of the wealth.
Carmen: I guess that would explain all the gated communities.
André: Yes exactly. This is the reality of Brazil’s ‘heart’, as you say.
18:45 on the 637 Pinheiros Bus traveling down Avenida Santo Amaro to Avenida Faria Lima.
I leave the apartment in tranquilo Brooklin, cross Avenida Santo Amaro and jump on the bus. I go to the back and sit down on a high seat that overlooks the sparsely populated carriage. A few minutes into the ride, a young guy appears in the aisle next to me; he’s about 19 and dressed in a red hoodie with a soccer logo on it.
He glances at the seat beside me then chats to two female companions. He sits down and pushes his back to me. I move closer to the window as he boxes me in. One of the women, wearing a psychedelic-colored T-shirt and looking spun on meth, holds the bar above us creating a screen as the young man turns to me and speaks in Portuguese.
Robber: Look down at my hand. Do you see the gun under my shirt? Okay, now stay calm and quiet and give me your cellphone.
I stare, completely frozen, at the square object under his sweater, then at his eyes, then at the gun…
Robber: Hey lady did you hear me? Just give me your cellphone, just the phone.
I reach into my bag and with a trembling hand, pull out my phone and hand it over. The bus stops and the robber and his two female friends get off the bus and run in separate directions. I sit in the seat for another 30 seconds as my heart thumps loudly in my chest.
The bus pulls away and I think, “Shit, I can’t call my husband” then finally get to my feet and tell the cobrador, the man who takes your money, that I’ve been assaltada: robbed. I sit down in the seat in front of him as a few other passengers started to point at the two women now on the run down the street and search for a long gone Paulistano.
20:00 in Intermediate English Conversation Class at IFESP- Institut d’ Études Françaises.
Carmen Joy King: This city is nuts! Have any of you ever been robbed?
Janaína the Concert Pianist: Yeah, I was kidnapped last year. I was coming out of a bar with my boyfriend and the robbers were waiting at our car. They put a gun to our heads and we drove them really far out of the city where they eventually dropped us off in a dark alley. I cried for days afterward. I had to take two months off work.
CJK: Did you consider leaving São Paulo?
JTCP: No. Never! I love it here, I couldn’t live anywhere else! I live on Rua Augusta and it’s always happening. Everything happens here…even the bad stuff.
March 5th, 2010, 08:00 in the kitchen of my Brooklin apartment.
I wake up to the smell of coffee brewing on the stove and the swoosh swoosh of the iron. There’s a lovely, peaceful quality to the air. The streets seem to be silent, though they bustle. My husband sleeps beside me, snuffling a gentle snore, his arm wrapped tight around me.
I gently peel off his arm, kissing his hand on the way by, and lift my feet onto the white tile floor. I shuffle to the kitchen to greet Manoela who’s standing in the laundry room.
Manoela Silva: Good morning, my love. How was your week?
Carmen Joy King: Good morning, Manoela. It’s been a typical, heavy Paulista week! We’ve been busy…and I got robbed on the bus yesterday.
MS: Oh no! It’s not true! Oh how terrible. What did they take?
CJK: Just my phone, so I was lucky I guess. And how about you? How are you?
MS: By the grace of God, we’re all fine. You know dear, this is not a fair city.
MS: Yes, unfortunately, it’s unfair, very unfair. But we have each other, right? And everything we do, we do with heart.
CJK: Funny, all day this “heart” theme kept coming up in my conversations with Paulistanos.
MS: Yes, it’s the heart, dear, that makes all the difference.
Carmen Joy King is a freelance writer and Canadian expat living in São Paulo. You can read more by her here: http://thenewbrooklin.blogspot.com/