Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: Excerpt #1

Below, the opening pages of Brian Winter’s Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina are available. Winter skillfully introduces the reader to El Tigre—Winter’s initial dance instructor and larger-than-life Argentine gentleman—and the Buenos Aires nightflife, circa 2000. My fuller review of the book will appear on Wednesday. A second excerpt will be posted on Thursday, and an interview with the author will be featured on Friday. Enjoy.

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A few months before the supermarket riots started, I had asked El Tigre to give me my first tango lesson. He looked me up and down, his eyebrows wrinkled with disdain, his eyes halting on my mud-stained tennis shoes. “I don’t traffic in miracles,” he sighed, knocking back the rest of his double-malt whisky, the color slowly returning to his weathered face. “And that’s obviously what’s needed here, so you’d better start praying to whichever god you prefer. I make no promises. But, if you meet me next Thursday at midnight outside the door at the Niño Bien, I’ll give you my best effort.”

The following week, I dutifully did as told, and I even managed to borrow a freshly buffed pair of black dress shoes for the occasion. At a quarter till one, El Tigre finally materialized out of the shadows and into the copper glow of the streetlight, his colossal frame practically floating down the sidewalk. He had a grin on his face, and his fingers were twitching with nervous anticipation. “To war,” he whispered with a nod. We bounded up the marble stairway of the old Leonese cultural center two steps at a time, paid our five-peso admission, and turned the corner into the Niño Bien’s grand salon.

Inside, the girls were swarming like honeybees. El Tigre was already just a bit too drunk to swat them away as we fought through the crowd, struggling to make our way to our table. Waitresses with gold teeth, the bar girl in her wine-speckled blouse, the dancers in their delicate fishnet stockings—they savagely elbowed each other out of the way, kissing him hello on the cheek, hanging from his knotted arms, giggling at his every compliment. It took us half an hour just to sit down.

Nobody there knew his real name; at tango halls around the city, El Tigre was known solely by his nom de guerre. He claimed to know nothing of its origin. “I was just walking down the street one day and this girl from the milonga saw me and said, ‘Hey, Tiger!’ That’s the truth. She said the other girls called me that.” He shrugged, flashed a devious grin, and added, in a rumbling, theatrical growl: “I can’t imagine why.”

“Do you get a lot of girls?” I asked him as we settled into our chairs.

“That’s not important. I come to dance the tango. If I go home with a beautiful woman, then that’s fine. But it’s not why I go out.”

“But do you get a lot of girls?”

“Oh yes,” he said quietly, solemnly. “El Tigre has had many women. But I’ll tell you a secret,” he said, leaning in and whispering into my ear: “If it weren’t for the tango, I wouldn’t have gotten laid since 1985.”

El Tigre was about sixty years old—”No true milonguero ever reveals his exact age,” he admonished me—and he had variously led the lives of a professional tango dancer, a budding film star, and a self-proclaimed man of the world. His black trousers sagged under a slight paunch, and a halfway-unbuttoned maroon silk shirt draped over his chest like old stage curtains. He wasn’t outwardly handsome, and he was missing some of his front teeth, but when El Tigre smiled, a web of well-defined, friendly lines fanned out across his face, making him look a bit like a good-natured comic-book gangster. He claimed (somewhat dubiously) to be of mixed Italian and Spanish descent, and his accent was markedly lower class, the product of a childhood spent in Dock Sud, the rough-and-tumble port area of Buenos Aires.

“It was the Bronx of Argentina,” he declared grandly. “It was where all the new immigrants came off the boats and lived first. We had blacks from Cape Verde, Italians, Spaniards, Chinese, Polish…. There were even a couple of English sailors who came through there. When we were kids, we’d run up to them and yell the only English we knew: ‘Delta Line! Blue Star Line! Royal Bank! Good morning!’ Most of it we learned from reading the crates on the ships that came in.”

“Was it a good place to grow up?”

“Sure it was!” El Tigre boasted, smiling. “Argentina offered all sorts of possibilities back then. Lots of people went on to get rich and do great things. Sort of like the Bronx, right? Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are from the Bronx, aren’t they?”

I told him I wasn’t sure.

“Well, if they had been from Argentina, De Niro and Pacino definitely would have been from Dock Sud,” El Tigre concluded with a proud nod.

All conversations halted as a young woman of about twenty rose confidently from her table on the other side of the room and, improbably began strutting toward us. Her curly, Goldilocks-blonde hair was yanked back violently into a bun, and her body was graced by a black strapless dress that seemed to cover progressively less of her body as she drew closer. I spotted her the second she got up—and so did everyone else in the room, as if they had been secretly spying on her all along. The men stared shamelessly, and the women jealously glared out of the corners of their eyes, picking apart her every move. In a country where people love nothing more than to stare and (better yet) be stared at, she confidently crossed the length of the room and, yes, oh my God, she really was walking toward us. Her lips parted to unveil a teasing smile as she sat down unabashedly in El Tigre’s lap.

“Hello, Tigre,” she cooed, wagging her finger at him. “You never called me.”

El Tigre let her twist in the wind for a moment before rewarding her with a tight-lipped, self-conscious smile, subtly concealing his missing teeth. “Hello, dear,” he rumbled in a much deeper voice than I had heard him use, one apparently reserved just for the ladies. “I’d like you to meet my new friend.” He gestured toward me with a broad sweep of his giant hand.

She noticed me for the first time. I managed to hold her attention for exactly half a second. “Hello,” she said politely, but her brown eyes had already focused back on the old stud as she shifted around in his lap, her hips burrowing deeper into his. Admired from close quarters, she looked much bonier, even malnourished. But she retained an alluring aura that suggested experience, and lots of it.

“It has been so dull around here,” she sighed. “Did you go last week to The…”

“Would you like to dance, dear?”

She beamed with euphoria—jackpot. “Of course!” she blurted, jumping to her feet and extending her slender hand.

“But I have to answer a few more questions from my friend first,” El Tigre said, apologetic but firm, the consummate gentleman. “I’ll come looking for you in a few moments, dear. I won’t be long.”

And, just like that, the beauty was dismissed. Her smile vanished, and her upper lip stiffened for a moment before she nodded, slowly turned, and walked away. At the surrounding tables, the whispers about her picked up in volume and cruelty as she crossed back to her spot in the dark, anonymous far corner of the room.

“That’s really not necessary,” I said, bewildered. “We can finish later….”

“Nah, it’s good for them to suffer a bit.” He grinned, leaning back triumphantly in his chair. “That way, they don’t expect anything.”

“Oh… oh. Are you two….”

“I’ll never tell,” El Tigre cut me off severely, frowning. “It’s not gentlemanly.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Of course we’re together!” he cackled, his lie of a frown gone, the lines on his face deepening mischievously. “Look at her! She’s like a dog in heat! No commitment, though,” he said, pounding on the table for emphasis and turning deadly serious for real this time. “No commitment. A tiger does not allow himself to be trapped under any circumstances.”

We chuckled at that until Luis—the club’s owner, who actually did bear an unsettling resemblance to Al Pacino, circa Godfather II—cautiously approached our table. “Can I get you gentlemen anything to drink?”

El Tigre frowned and turned to me, all business. “You’re paying, right?”

His bluntness caught me off guard. I recovered quickly. “Sure. My pleasure.”

“Johnny Walker black label with a splash of Coca-Cola.”

The blood drained out of Luis’s face. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “We’re temporarily out. Problems with… the crisis. But I can offer you something else.”

El Tigre gave Luis a dismissive wave of the hand and sighed in disgust. “Should we start my lesson now?” I asked.

“Rule number one,” he boomed, his baritone brimming with verve. “Whisky, then tango. While we wait, though, I suppose you would like to hear how I came to dance a little tango with Madonna.”

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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