Download pdf: La Felicidad
It all began when Shorty and I were thrown out of our respective homes.
We had, by then, exhausted all possibilities of landing a paid and stable job. Previously, we had started eight different businesses, all of which had failed. The last one had been a photocopy shop in a forgotten street where not a soul was to be seen. By the time we decided to work for someone else, the seeds of exasperation had already ripened, almost simultaneously, in our wives.
The fact of the matter is they lost faith in us, and we were turned out. Shorty moved in with his grandmother, and I was taken in by one of my sisters.
We determined not to see each other again. From then on, we would fend for ourselves and not attempt to go into business together. But a strange thing happened. We bumped into each other quite by accident.
We had both been fired. Shorty from his job as a gas fitter and I from my position as a photographer. Not because we were incompetent, but rather for excessive zeal. Shorty was dispatched to install a heating unit and, in no time, had befriended the lady of the house; he fixed a faulty light fixture for her, drew up a home decorating plan, moved the furniture around, and took apart her noisy washing machine. And, of course, there went his entire afternoon.
As for me, I’ve always been one to invent things, and the photography gig went well at first. But two days into the job, I convinced my boss that snapping ID photos wasn’t going to get us anywhere, and that we could make a fortune come wintertime by installing a solarium. I convinced him to buy a good-sized lot; the plan was to cover it with a glass dome so people could sun themselves during the cold winter months. I figured Shorty could warm it up for us, strategically placing huge heating units throughout the place. We would easily recoup our costs from the Coca Cola and hotdog sales, and the admission fees would be pure profit. The idea took hold. So much so, that my boss lost interest in his photography business and even began to turn down clients. He became taciturn, spending his days by the retouching tables, lost in thought. His wife – as wives are wont to do – began to suspect something when she noticed her husband bringing home less and less money. One night, right before closing, she dropped by the studio. I left them alone. I don’t know what they talked about, but the next day I was fired.
Anyway, three days later, I ran into Shorty on Cabildo. Both of us in the same predicament. We were happy to see each other. Hugs all around. Talk of destiny and magic. I told him about the solarium, and we both lamented some people’s lack of vision.
We didn’t dare admit it, but as we walked along the avenue, we both thought the same thing: it was time to go into business together again. Finally, I couldn’t hold back any longer and began rattling off ideas: a car with sliding doors, a new air conditioning system powered by the sun (it cools when it’s hot and heats when it’s cold), and so many other things. But, unfortunately, we needed money.
We continued down Cabildo, silently, each one immersed in his own dream: I imagined myself in a castle in Ireland with a young, beautiful blonde suffering from tuberculosis and serenading me with a harp; Shorty, who has the spirit of a performer, saw himself dancing in the biggest theaters of Paris, wearing a pinstriped suit and twirling a cane before the Queen of England, receiving applause and flowers from the ladies.
At the corner with Juramento, I noticed something on the sidewalk. A red, flat, rectangular box.
“Look at that,” I said to Shorty. He immediately ran over, picked it up, and tucked it under his coat. Just in case, we crossed over to the other side of the avenue and went around the block. When we were back on Cabildo, we excitedly examined the pair of stockings we had found. They were black, the kind that stretch when you put them on. Neither one of us wanted to keep them for ourselves, so we decided to hold on to them as a sort of good luck charm.
Suddenly, an idea came to me: we could dedicate ourselves to finding things. We looked at each other. It was decided then and there.
“Let me look at the sidewalk,” I told him. “You walk beside me, looking straight ahead and pretending we aren’t up to something.”
On the first block, we didn’t find anything. Same with the second block. That’s when Shorty suggested: “Let’s switch off. One block I look down, you look up. You take this next block. Look at the sidewalk and I’ll look up, making sure we don’t bump into anyone or get run over.” That first day, we didn’t come across much. Just a fifty cent coin, a burnt-out light bulb, two curlers, and a toy gun crushed by passing traffic and dirty with asphalt. But it looked promising, nevertheless.
We decided to meet up again the following day at 9:30am on the corner of Cabildo and Echeverría.
Things went better that second day. Before it was even noon, we had found a barely used pen, an earring, four ten-cent coins, a box of El Jeque brand pins (completely intact), a tie clip and a red watch strap still wrapped in cellophane.
At a café, we put everything on the table and took stock of what we had.
Additionally, on a paper napkin, we noted a few observations:
First: The curb is much more fruitful than the middle of the sidewalk.
Second: Things are more likely to be lost at street corners and bus stops than at mid-block.
Third: The mid-day hour and there abouts is when people lose things most.
To this day, we keep that yellowing napkin in a silver box, together with the pair of stockings we first found. That napkin marked the beginning of our organization, of everything that followed, of everything we are today, of our happiness and our misfortunes.
That afternoon, we rested. Things were looking up and there was no point in marching on that day. We had the experience of eight business ventures behind us: don’t use up all your ammo at the outset.
The next day, once more at 9am, we set off from the café. This time we had set a full day’s schedule: from 9am to 12pm, and from 3pm to 7pm. Each one of us had brought a bag and by noon we began to sense that something strange was occurring in our lives.
At lunch, we didn’t want to be overly celebratory or speak much about it, in order not to jinx it. But we were both on fire. Among the priceless items in our bags were a Parker 51 fountain pen (with gold cap) that Shorty had found, and a kid’s golden ring I had picked up (engraved with the initials R.J.). Gold was starting to pave our destiny.
In the afternoon, we decided to implement a new strategy: we split up.
It isn’t easy to walk several blocks with your head bowed, looking down, with no one looking up to watch out for you. First off, you have the tress: caught up in the thrill of the search for lost objects, you might very well crack your head open. Then, there are the children. Especially little girls. You might run into one and, to avoid knocking her over, you might grab her by the shoulders, and then, inevitably, an old woman might yell out, “Pervert!” Or, “Come over here, little girl.” And then a crowd of people might form around you and the next thing you know you are at the center of a scandal.
But even so we decided to split up. Because our confidence and inexperience made us overestimate the instinct to avoid obstacles when walking with one’s head down.
And it went well. I went along Cabildo and Shorty took a parallel path along Ciudad de la Paz. When we arrived at a corner, whoever got there first waited for the other, and then, standing a block apart, we waved to each other. This may seem childish on its face, but it isn’t. The psychological factor is vital in this profession.
Searching separately doubled our possibilities. By the end of the day, the afternoon’s take (not counting stickers and trading cards, combs, lottery tickets of questionable value, and a brown hardcover edition of Naná in Hungarian (that we were unsure how to catalogue)) included: a penknife with a mother-of-pearl handle; a pair of eyeglasses without a case; a key ring with three keys; two gold pendants; a change purse containing 725 pesos; a handkerchief and a coin with a hole through the middle; a fourth grader’s school workbook, almost new; and a gift-wrapped copper candlestick.
No doubt about it. Our enthusiasm was a thing of beauty. The following day, both of us, without having planned it, arrived dressed in our job-interview suits.
It was time to think of storage. We decided that Shorty’s grandmother’s house was our best option. She had become very excited with our latest business venture and let us stow our findings in a chest. When the euphoria of our early success faded, we realized we had a major problem on our hands: What to do with all this stuff? There was almost nothing left from the salaries of our previous jobs. And so at first we opted for the easiest solution: the pawn shops along Libertad, the used-clothing shops, and the flea markets.
Following the advice of Shorty’s grandmother, we set aside part of our profits to buy dollars and deposit them in an interest earning account. We then took the dollars we earned in interest and did the same in another bank, so that we wouldn’t be beholden to anyone. And that is how we were able to buy the store. But that came later, after we tweaked the organization, dividing the city in seven sectors, and hiring employees. We named the store La Felicidad, but, as I said, that came later, after we purchased publicity and evaded earned income tax. Later, we wouldn’t have to. But how can we not recall, with pride and sentimentality, our 11am radio soap opera, the newspaper contests, and the famous televised dance show, “You, Too, Can Be Happy.”
One day, Shorty’s grandmother went to buy a purging and laxative herbal tea at the pharmacy and, walking by the newsstand next door, she noticed a five-peso coin on the marble entranceway, just underneath the magazine display. She wasn’t able to pick it up (the poor thing can’t bend down) but she returned home with her eyes gleaming. She was practically speechless. We were, at that very moment, dividing the city up into sectors, and when she finally told us what she had seen, Shorty and I looked at each other in silence. A new gold mine had opened itself up to us.
We thought it over logically. Experience had taught us that it was never wise to abandon one success in pursuit of another.
Market research on newsstand entranceways confirmed that the investment was worthwhile. However, it was one thing to pick up objects from the sidewalk, and quite another to do so from underneath a newsstand display. The latter was a riskier proposition. Whoever took it on would have to bend down at an angle and run the chance of being spotted by the proprietor. So we filled the position with my nephew, a sharp 11 year-old who was on school break at the time. My sister was thrilled with the idea. Raulito started off earning 25,000 pesos for six hours of work per day, plus a cup of coffee with milk and two percent of profits. His job consisted of tying his shoes in front of newsstands, purchasing lighter flints, and inquiring as to prices.
Raulito pioneered our newsstand subsidiary.
And so we divided the city in seven sectors and new prospects began to emerge on the horizon. On the corner of Santa Fe and Mansilla we opened a store and hired two employees. La Felicidad started off as a sort of flea market or antique shop. But we introduced a twist that led to our great success: product request forms. We hired a client services assistant who approached customers looking about the store and asked: “What would make you happy, madam?” And the madam might reply: “An antique blue opaline lamp.” And so the assistant would fill in all the information on the forms and clients were notified when we found the object that would make them happy.
With respect to photo and video cameras and tripods, our Urban Trains subsidiary proved especially fruitful. It was run by one of Raulito’s friends, who demonstrated exceptional skill in the acquisition of walking canes, umbrellas, raincoats, books, and assorted packages.
Well, when people began to see that La Felicidad looked out for them, notifying them when the object of their desires had been found and offering it at a reasonable price, they became very happy.
But that also turned out to be the first blow to our morale. No one was ever satisfied. They kept coming back for more, and our client services assistant often took down new orders on a repeat client’s original product request form. Our profits skyrocketed, but Shorty was right when he said, “Look at how people are. You would have been satisfied with the winter solarium and I with the gas business. But not these people. They have everything, but they always want more.”
La Felicidad had that side to it.
But things were so promising that we launched a massive publicity campaign. There was the 11am radio soap opera, the newspaper contests, and the now-famous televised dance show, “You, Too, Can Be Happy.” We evaded income taxes and soon grew bored of making money hand over fist.
We all bought new homes. And all according to our tastes. I renovated an old mansion in Belgrano, with parquet floors, a swimming pool, an Andalusian patio, and a study (a large room with corkboard on the walls and all the modern comforts; it was where I went when I wanted to think). Shorty bought a three-story house in Villa Luro, and converted the entire top floor into his workshop. His Grandma moved into a house in Villa Urquiza, with a small garden in the back where she grew herbs and a modest laboratory where she made teas. And my sister bought a well-located apartment on Cordoba at the 5500 block. We all had our own cars.
And this is how things went: Shorty and I had new girlfriends every month and we had lots of children to carry on with the company.
But were we happier? I don’t know. Our ex-wives came looking for us with all our children, and I do know that they weren’t happy. Both of them had remarried. Mine with a pharmacist; Shorty’s with the manager at the Villa Adelina branch of Banco Nación. And the two returned to us after all these years. But we spurned them. At the time, I didn’t understand why they came back. They had everything they wanted but didn’t have when we were married. Yet, they came looking for us, and even made demands of us, wielding our kids like weapons.
Another woman cleared it all up for me, but too late. She told me that although our ex-wives had everything, they missed us. They couldn’t live without us.
My wife missed my waking her up at 4am to tell her about an idea that would make us rich; Shorty’s wife missed the pedal-powered washing machine he had built for her. They missed our business ventures, the mystery of our latest projects, of not having all the lights of the house turn on when they plugged in the iron. Maybe they missed our happiness.
But we spurned them. We already had many children and intended on having many more. We offered them money, but they refused.
In any event, today La Felicidad basically runs itself on well-greased rails. And Shorty and I can walk along the streets of Buenos Aires without having to bow our heads and look down at the ground.
Translated by Dario Bard from “La Felicidad” as published in Cuentos Anteriores, published by Editorial de Belgrano, 1982, available from El Aleph. “La Felicidad” was first published in 1969.
Isidoro Blaisten was an Argentine writer from Concordia, Province of Entre Rios, best known for his short stories. His characters and the language he employed are typical of the City of Buenos Aires. These porteño elements, combined with his unique humor and touch of the absurd, define Blaisten’s unique style. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 71.