Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien

A Yanqui's Missteps in Argentina


By Brian Winter

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After moving to Argentina on a whim, Brian Winter, a young American reporter, embarks on a crusade to learn that devilishly difficult dance that demands both discipline and passion: the tango. While he dances the night away in the milongas with the fiery denizens of Buenos Aires, the country around them collapses, gripped by inflation, street riots, and revolution.

In a book that is part travelogue and part history, the author evokes his immersion in a dark underworld. He visits old dance salons, brothels, and shacks on the dusty Pampa, searching for the tango’s shady origins in the hope that understanding may help him dance better. Along the way, he discovers that the tango, with its tales of jealousy, melodrama, and lost glory, may hold the secret to the country that is inexplicably disintegrating before his eyes.


For Erica

Fall in love, fall in love. That's my only advice.
It can be with a girl, or with the music, or with the
dance. It doesn't matter. But, whatever you do, fall
in love. And, if you do this, then the tango, with all
the bullshit that you'll go through along the way,
will have been worth it for you.

A popular Argentine joke goes:
Q. How does an Argentine commit suicide?
A. By jumping off his own ego.
Thus, to protect the inflated (but very, very fragile) self-esteem of friends and acquaintances in the world of the milonga, where reputation is everything, I have changed some of the characters' names and identifying characteristics in this book. The chronology of some events has also been modified for storytelling purposes.

part one
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 conversation 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 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' 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."
Eduardo Ayala—not yet baptized El Tigre—started learning tango on street corners when he was about thirteen. There were no formal classes back then, just a bunch of guys practicing—with each other, "obviously." The only women who casually danced the tango in Dock Sud back then were prostitutes. At one neighborhood social club, between jitterbugs to Elvis and the Beatles, the DJ would play intervals of tango, and only then was it possible to dance with a "decent" girl. It was there that Eduardo witnessed the man he considered the greatest milonguero of all time, a crippled old man with a metal screw in his hip. "When he walked he had this horrible limp, but when he danced, nothing," he recalled breathlessly. "I have never seen anything like him since. He was the master. We all watched for hours and hours, desperate to learn."
During the 1960s, the tango had entered a long era of decline, so there were only a few, very elite Argentines who could make a living by globe-trotting and dancing. Eduardo, who had dropped out of school after the sixth grade, answered the calling of a child from the port and put out to sea. He worked for three decades as an engine repairman for the merchant marine, steaming to ports of call all around the world, visiting every continent except the one closest to home: Antarctica. Faithful to his true passion, he did whatever he could to dance tango wherever possible.
"You would be shocked at some of the places where you could go tango. In Japan, for example, you would say those people have nothing in common with us Argentines. But they're tango fanatics! And very orderly and polite when they dance, I should add. I went to Iran once, and you can't dance there. But in Algeria, you can. Finland, that place is crazy about the tango. They have their own music and everything. Isn't the world marvelous?"
One night, somewhere out in that marvelous world, someone with an eye for talent asked Eduardo to teach him a few steps. The old sailor must have worked wonders because soon, in between dwindling assignments for the merchant marine, foreigners were buying him plane tickets to Paris and Rome so he could give classes there. This might have surprised a more humble man, but Eduardo, like all great Argentine tango dancers, knew quality when he saw it—in the mirror. "People watched me, they liked the way I danced, so they started asking me for lessons," he said casually, like it was the most natural thing in the world. "Teaching pleased me."
"Didn't that seem strange at first?" I pressed.
"Not really. I was very good. People liked my style."
"Who was the first person to ask you for a class?"
"I don't remember," he shrugged. "But that was when I started to become El Tigre."
Left to focus on his first and only true love, El Tigre—no longer Eduardo, mind you—lived the high life teaching repressed Americans, Germans, and Norwegians how to be Latin and visceral, if just for a day.
Some people simply lead charmed lives, while others are left to make their own good fortune. El Tigre liked to present himself as the former—for some reason, Argentines always believed it was better to be lucky than good—but it was clear that El Tigre had spent a good deal of effort, over the years, putting himself in the right place at the right time. Such was the case in 1994, when a purportedly random casting call for tango dancers in Buenos Aires turned out to be a search for extras for Evita, the movie adapted from the Broadway musical about Argentina's most famous first lady, Eva Perón. Madonna played the title role. One evening, the cast and crew went out for a night on the town in Buenos Aires, and everybody got a little boozed up. El Tigre claimed to have "accidentally" found himself tangoing with the Material Girl herself. "She was very nice, very simple," he said. "Her Spanish was quite good."
"Did she dance well?" I asked.
El Tigre gagged, choking on the ice at the bottom of his cheap, locally made whiskey. He stuttered several aborted replies before exploding into nervous, uncontrolled laughter. "Who cares? I danced with Madonna!" he bellowed. It was the only time I would ever see him uncomfortable. He chuckled, gazed into the bottom of his glass, and muttered to himself, "What else could you want?"
By this point we were both on drink number three and had long since given up making eye contact when we spoke, mutually content to focus instead on the never-ending hordes of gorgeous women flowing mercilessly into the dance hall. El Tigre heaved a deep sigh, his heavy shoulders finishing lower than before, as if a new burden had been placed upon them. "Madonna was very pretty," he said softly, "but I'll tell you this: she had nothing on these spectacular Argentine women."
"You're a man of the world," I said. "Is it true what they say about the Argentine girls?"
"Oh yes, certainly," he blurted, more sure of this than anything else he said that night. "The argentinas are the prettiest girls in the world. Of that there can be no doubt."
"Why do you think that is?" I asked. "Why are they so pretty?"
"Why? What kind of question is that?" El Tigre retorted, genuinely offended. "Why? No, no, no. This has always been a spectacular country. Argentina is superlative. Period. Don't ever forget that. Think about all the marvels this country has."
"There's the Pampa," I offered, hoping to redeem myself.
"And the splendor of Buenos Aires!"
"Lakes and deserts," I added. "Mountains and forests."
"Oil, silver, and gold!" El Tigre exclaimed, nearly shouting now. "Soy, corn, and wheat!"
"The widest avenue in the world!"
"The best carne in the world!" he cackled. "And I'm not talking about the cows!"
El Tigre pounded the table, making our empty glasses shake with each strike, quaking with laughter. Tears streamed down his cheeks. I craned my neck and motioned to Luis for another round. When I turned back to El Tigre barely a second had passed—but he had abruptly stopped laughing. His mood had gone from day to night. I followed his gaze and saw that he was fixated on the blonde waif in the black strapless dress, who had apparently given up waiting on El Tigre and was now out on the dance floor, blissfully tangoing in the arms of another man.
He shook his head in disgust. "It makes you think, doesn't it?"
"How can a country with so much wealth, with so much beauty, end up like this?"
He downed what was left of his whiskey and stared hungrily at the girl, supporting his huge head with his hand. By now, it was well past 3 A.M., peak hour at the Niño Bien, and the cacophony of laughter, flirting, piano, and guitar was almost deafening. As the minutes ticked by, something about the music and noise seemed to thaw El Tigre's melancholy, and a tentative smile returned to his face. "What the hell," he sighed. "I think the time has come for your lesson to start."
"Okay," I said. "So what should I do?"
"Well, you go dance, boludo!"
I tried to stand up, but my head was spinning so badly that I collapsed back into my chair.
"But remember rule number two," El Tigre whispered, looking vaguely proud of me all of a sudden. "Only dance with the pretty ones. That's what the tango is for. Otherwise," he concluded, a smile illuminating his gangster's face, "you might as well just stay at home with your dick in your hand. And that's not why you're really here, is it?"
THE NIGHT BEFORE I BOARDED THE PLANE SOUTH, A FAMILY friend exclaimed: "Oh, so you're moving to Argentina! Are you going to learn to tango?"
Well, no, I thought. I'm going to eat steak and have adventures and meet beautiful women and visit Patagonia, and then I'll go spectacularly broke and probably starve and limp back home and sell a kidney, and then I'll finally start my "real" grown-up life.
Sure, I had other, ever so slightly more profound, reasons for wanting to move to the end of the world—but tango certainly was not one of them. Back home, what little tango I'd seen seemed like more of a silly parody than an actual dance. It was performed only in Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, the sort of thing mere mortals would never in their wildest dreams think to try. The tango seemed to consist of: a man in something like a zoot suit, a woman in a sequined leotard, cheeks pressed together, roses clenched in teeth, lots of kicking and jumping, and clownishly pained expressions. It looked overwrought and stale and not like very much fun. For someone like me with zero natural dancing talent, the tango seemed utterly inaccessible, better left to the likes of Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and El Tigre's hero, Al Pacino.
Instead, I thought maybe I would find a job teaching English. Maybe I would work for an American corporation. Or maybe I would simply end up back home in six weeks, hat in hand. In truth, I hadn't really thought the whole thing through. There seemed no need to. I had come of age during a time when seemingly intelligent people were saying that war and the business cycle and perhaps history itself were things of the past. Whatever problems remained in the world, globalization would surely soon fix. Everybody I went to college with was receiving jaw-dropping job offers from dot-coms, and the only question that seemed to matter during our last semester was, "how big is your signing bonus?" At our graduation ceremony, the keynote speaker actually congratulated us for finishing our education rather than accepting a lucrative package with one of the local tech start-ups. It all seemed rather unreal, even then, but there was no tangible reason to think it would ever end.
My classmates spent those signing bonuses on plasma TVs and immediately began working sixty-hour weeks out of the airport Hilton in Chicago or Kansas City. This made some of them very happy. Yet, I had designs on becoming a journalist one day, and the most momentous news event so far in my very short adulthood had been a blow job in the Oval Office—not exactly the sort of thing that had forged Hemingway. I was seeking something simple but elusive—experience—and I felt, as if propelled by some kind of magnetic force, that I had to go as far away as possible to get it. I wanted to go someplace where the stars in the sky were different. Though I would have never phrased it this way at the time, I suppose I wanted to measure myself as a man by putting myself in an extraordinary situation, just for the hell of it.
Put another way: I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I wanted to go somewhere that I could have an adventure, where things still happened. Latin America seemed like just that sort of place. Perhaps the days of midnight coups and banana republics had forever passed, but at least the history there was recent, like a fresh coat of paint. And who knew? Maybe I would get to see some kind of hiccup, a last gasp of a troubled, more dramatic era. As for Argentina, I knew it had great grass-fed steak; that Evita had been a whore; that fugitive Nazis had found it rather hospitable; that the water went down the toilet the wrong way; and that was about it. Argentina appealed to me primarily because of where it was on the map: at the very bottom. It seemed to be the anti-Texas. Meanwhile, I had spent a semester abroad in Spain (hadn't everybody?), so I believed the language wouldn't be a problem. So, two months after my college graduation, with an open-ended plane ticket in my hand, about $2,000 in savings in my bank account, no job, a free place to stay, and precisely two telephone numbers for friends of friends of friends who lived in Argentina, off I went.
On just my second day in Buenos Aires, I had been wandering, still strangely unaware of my new surroundings, through a street fair outside the Retiro train terminal when I heard a tinny radio playing. I was on a quest to buy an alarm clock, hoping in a rush of blind optimism that one day I might actually need one to wake me up so I could go somewhere important. Retiro was where newly arrived immigrants had once left the port city for a promising new life on the Pampa, but these days, most trains had stopped running; the operator had gone bankrupt, and Retiro was now mostly a place to buy either suspiciously cheap trinkets from China or even more suspiciously cheap super pancho hot dogs from God knows where. The terminal's ornate façade, which had once been a convincing replica of the station in Milan, was now covered with soot and graffiti. The street merchants let the clock alarms go off all day to show they weren't pirated fakes (you always had to be careful in Argentina), so that the whole market sounded like a nest of shrill, beeping baby birds. Amid the awful din, someone had thoughtfully turned on this old radio, and the unmistakable sound of tango crackled through the blown-out speakers.
The voice, incongruously happy and bright, sang:
The world was and always will be a piece of shit,
This much I know.
In the year 506, and in 2000 also!
There have always been crooks, backstabbers, and suckers,
But that the twentieth century is a spectacle of insolent evil,
No one can deny.
A bespectacled middle-aged woman behind one of the booths watched me pause to listen, and she noticed the expression on my face.
"You like that?" she called out to me in a smoky baritone. "That's our national anthem, you know."
"What's it called?"
My Spanish was already passable in those days, but the word was new to me. "What does that mean?" I asked.
"Cambalache?" the woman repeated, caught off guard by the question. "I don't know . . . Cambalache means . . . cambalache." She put down her newspaper, took off her bifocals, and a wry grin crossed her face, as if she immensely enjoyed having something new to roll around in her head. "Hugo!" she yelled across the sidewalk. "Hugo, this young gentleman here wants to know what 'cambalache' means!"
Hugo was hunched on a wooden stool peddling yellowed literary magazines and Marxist propaganda. He looked like he had been in the exact same pose for the last thirty years. He regarded me severely for a moment before his face brightened. That day, just like every other day for the next four years, I couldn't avoid looking obviously, painfully foreign. But in Buenos Aires, uniquely among places I'd visited, being foreign almost always made people treat me better— even if they eventually found out I was from Texas.
"You're traveling?" Hugo enquired with a knowing smile. "Wandering about a bit, are you?"
"In reality," I said, "I just moved to Argentina. I'm living here."
His eyebrows raised. "Why would you do that?"
"I don't quite know."
"How strange," Hugo mused. "All of us are trying to get out of Argentina, and you come here! But that's fantastic. How lovely. Welcome."
"Thank you."
"You'll discover that Argentina is a marvelous country—too bad the people are such shit."
I could think of no adequate response to that, so I pretended to leaf through a copy of Juan Perón's book Latin America: Now or Never while I listened to the final verse of the strange song on Hugo's radio:
Twentieth century, cambalache
Problematic and feverish!
If you don't cry, you don't get to nurse,
And if you don't steal, you're a fool....
Nobody cares if you were born honest.
It's all the same:
If you work day and night like an ox
If you live off others
If you kill, if you heal
Or if you live outside the law!
With two final, emphatic crashes of the piano, the radio went silent.
At that very moment, as those almost inconceivably cynical and bizarre lyrics echoed inside my head, I think it finally dawned on me for the first time that I was five thousand miles away from home in a strange country I knew next to nothing about.


On Sale
Mar 4, 2008
Page Count
336 pages

Brian Winter

About the Author

Brian Winter lived in Argentina for four years until 2004, but he is still a pretty hapless tango dancer. More recently, he was the co-author of The Accidental President of Brazil by Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He now lives in Washington, D.C.

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