Bar talk

Brazil can’t really be called a surveillance society… talk of surveillance is just science fiction. It doesn’t mean anything to the people at the bar.

Back at the bar last night I got talking with the regulars – in the limited way I can manage to in Portuguese – about all sorts of things particularly the upcoming carnival – I’m invited – and the football: Brazil beat Italy yesterday in a friendly match. But it was how these ordinary guys – one is a factory worker, one works in an office, and another runs his own one-man business that seems to do anything and everything to do with IT – talked about fear and danger, security and safety, in the city that really interested me. We got talking about where they lived, and the centre of Sao Paulo and how they felt in each place. I told them what I had been advised about not going out at night here, and despite the fact that we were all out at night, Milton, the IT guy, a chunky black man in his 40s, agreed that this wasn’t bad advice for the centre. The area, he said, was full of thieves and drug-addicts, and whilst anyone would be safe amongst friends (and here he gestured expansively to include me and practically everyone else at the bar), even he wouldn’t want to spend much time alone. Milton is from out east – he’s a Corinthians fan; the centre-west is Palmeiras territory, and the red Metro line goes from one to the other – and in his own neighbourhood he says he doesn’t have much to worry about, although of course he has security. Everyone has security. You have to. Joao, the fat, slightly lugubrious office worker, nods in silent agreement.

I tell them I’d quite like to talk to some women. This prompts laughter and a lot of nudging and punching of arms: of course you do, don’t we all? No, no, I mean I’m interested in what women think about all this – what about her? I ask, gesturing to a handsome black women probably about the same age as Milton. Carla? No, you don’t want to talk to her. Not without paying. Open your eyes! (he makes an eye-opening signal with his right hand). Of course I could see that Carla wasn’t just here for fun. And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to her. She agreed with the guys about the danger, but added that it was much worse for her, not because she was working nights, but because she was black. Being a black woman in Brazil is not good. Everyone, she said, pinching the skin of her forearm, just sees the colour of your skin. especially if you are on your own. With her white friend, people don’t care. I told her that some people think that Brazil isn’t racist or dangerous for black people. She laughed and not in a happy way. Those people didn’t know her life. I asked her if Lula had changed things – it is something I try to ask everyone at some point – in particular with the Programa Bolsa Familia since Carla had told me she has three kids, one grown up and two still at home. She shook her head. No. Nothing. Nothing has changed. It may be pessimistic or cynical but it’s what everyone seems to be thinking apart from the government and the World Bank.

All this bar talk might be casual and fueled by beer (and it is often difficult to understand exactly what people are saying) but it is a useful corrective to the formal interviews and other research I am doing here. It also tends to add to my growing certainty that Brazil can’t really be called a surveillance society at all in terms of how people experience their lives and relationships with the state. Talk of surveillance is just science fiction. It doesn’t mean anything to the people at the bar. The reality is all about danger (not risk in the bland sociological terminology, but actual danger) and security.

(All the names in this piece have been changed…)

Finding my feet and losing my head in Sao Paulo

It is my firm belief, yet to be disproved, that any urbanist worthy of the name can find a decent bar within 24 hours of their arrival in any city on the world, and preferably less. Read Ernest Hemingway’s Paris: A Moveable Feast. It’s Chapter 1. No-one knew bars like Hemingway. In Sao Paulo, as in Paris even today, it would be impossible to fail this challenge. I found mine this evening right next to a more famous bar at the corner of Sao Joao and Ipiranga which has started to believe its own mythology and therefore lost everything that once made it a bar worth celebrating in song, and I settled in to watch and learn.

I’ve already got so used to joking with barmen and concierges about my poor Portuguese that it’s almost like an icebreaker. The bar was haphazard, white tiles, and giant freezers which got the beer down to an appreciably glacial degree of cool, decent salgados and two grades of chili source to accompany them (hot and really hot – no-one has the first choice, of course).

Bars are human sociality at their most basic, their most primate-like. I once worked on a zoological expedition studying monkeys in Kalimantan, and there is very little I’ve seen in bars that I haven’t seem being done by other primates (apart from the serving of cold beers, which explains most of what happens in bars that you don’t see in monkey groups). The forced-together bonhomie, the silence amongst the mostly male clientele as some particularly fine example of the female of the species walks by (and that happens an awful lot in Brazil), the arguments about sport and politics, the group-dominance by alpha-males – at least in the absence of any alpha-females – it’s all there and it’s all – excepting the beer and the salgados – monkey.

It makes one depressed and optimistic at the same time. You know that anywhere that humans go, somewhere in the universe, there’s going to be a bar just like this. And yet, it makes you wonder whether we will ever manage to solve the enigma of cities, a solution that will bring in those shadowy figures who lurk just beyond the reach of the bright lights of the bar – the stick-thin figure of the beggar-woman who passed me twice this evening, the guy selling lottery tickets at the last minute, the prostitutes and thieves who have been driven to these ends because of the city, because their existence and the existence of the city don’t quite seem to coincide in the same way, the same spacetime. There’s a reason good urbanists need to find a good bar. It isn’t always for the same reasons as everyone else.