This piece hails from the vault. It is a true story peopled with some colorful characters from the Argentine cultural scene: an artist who used to hang out with Andy Warhol and built a Parthenon entirely out of books (as well as an obelisk of pan dulce) and an impresario who lived in a glam church. It also hails from a time when three pesos still meant something.
Marta Minujin, dressed in a gold suit like a post-modern maharajah with spray-painted boots, ran out into traffic and forcibly blocked a passing taxi. Ignoring our protests she bustled us in, gave directions to the driver that I could not make out and waved us off in a mix of salutation and dismissal.
Where the hell are we going? I asked.
“We are going to see Bergara Leumann.”
“But who is he and where does he live?”
We arrived on the doorstep of the Botica del Ángel, Bergara Leumann’s home, as supplicants, which is as it should be: the Botica, once a church of the common sort, is now a church of a most uncommon sort. People still come looking for something, but in its latest incarnation, they seek not only enlightenment and mystery, as always, but also celebration, chaos, the unexpected.
In our case, we were seeking three pesos. Marta had hurried us into the taxi without time to go for wallets or other possessions. While we waited for someone to open the door, I glanced nervously at the taxi driver idling across the street. First a woman and then a man asked us who we were through the grumblings of an intercom, but no one had come to open the arched steel door painted, like the entire façade, in silver.
It took forever for someone to open the door. We did not know then that behind that steel door wound a twisted and lovely labyrinth of one man’s wild dreams; stairways lead up and up, wrapped around, got lost and got found again. It is all very metaphorical – but not very practical if you forget something upstairs.
We waited on the doorstep while someone went to fetch our fare deep inside the Botica. Simple things are not so simple, in the Botica; while complex wishes, it seems, are easily granted.
“I owe you three pesos,” I gushed when our savior had arrived.
“Not me. You owe Bergara Leumann.”
Bergara Leumann was an actor, television host, and above all, outsized personality. He was a pioneer of the cafe-concert scene in Buenos Aires, that magical setting where musicians and devotees gather in intimate communion and delight.
You might say that the Botica is a converted church – but converted to what? You could say that it is like a museum filled with art or a theater filled with stages, but that implies something stagnant waiting to receive when there is nothing more life-filled than the Botica. Through its interminable passages covered everywhere with paintings and murals and photos and sculptures and writings and phrases, we went up and up. There was a spirit there, intense and mischievous drawing us upward, taking control of our senses, but as yet unseen.
Eventually, after many passages and many stairways and patios, we arrived in a sort of audience room. The impresario reclined like a big overstuffed pillow covered in black silk on a throne with one leg resting on an ottoman. A bright scarf twisted around his neck as if he had just descended from a bi-plane or an open motorcar. On his lap lay a small black leather purse from which, no doubt, our three pesos had reluctantly been drawn.