The Upside Down World News

"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" - Eduardo Galeano

A Soviet Sign on the Roof

By Pedro Lemebel
Translated by April Howard

So, didn't take too much to live hung up in a cage of cement, where the jumble of neighbors made up the family, a salsa of people who live by threes and fours, exchanging their pains and hopes in the gossip of the hallway, and above all when they arranged a meeting because a big company offered to put a sign on the roof of the building. Just as big as the glow of Manhattan, just as spectacular as those neon billboards downtown. With enough light to illuminate the dark corners of the street, and so that the low-lifes couldn't go on slitting people's throats. A super-warning that was going to be the envy of the whole neighborhood, because the girls that went door to door to get the authorization of the neighbors promised the moon and stars provided that they could put the sign up on the roof. They said that, if everyone agreed, the company would also consent to illuminating the hallways, fixing the roof for winter, making a yard with a jungle-gym for the kids, putting up bars over the windows to fend off thieves, paying a monthly something to every house for the idea of publicity, and to replace all the missing window panes. They assured that they were going to dress up the façade of the building and they were going to keep it so clean and pretty, like one of those condominiums up-town where the rich people live. That they were going to organize a decoration and maintenance committee to get rid of all the trash that the grandmas piled up on the balconies, and moreover, they weren't going to allow the hanging of underwear on the railings because it made a very bad impression, that they were going to toss all of the jars, pans, chamber pots and teakettles where the old ladies grew cheap plants, those cardinales and suspiras, those mantas de eva, those spiny plants that survive despite the piss of the druggies, the chinitas and the crude shrubs, all that vulgarity of the scraped-together garden was going to disappear, and the same for the street dogs and the pigeon assassinating cats, all was going to change thanks to the sign they were going to install at the head of the block.

It was then that the first bad looks emerged, the suspicion on the faces of the elderly because they were going to change their habits, their clever habits of making due with the shabby misery, their stubbornness in not fixing the roof and putting a pot down for the winter dripping, their sacred devotion to the cardenales that flowered enduringly, their love for the breedless mutts, loyal to the death. And at last, the drop that broke the glass was the announcement that they were going to paint the building a single color. And what color?, everyone asked.

Well, said the girl from the company, it has to be red because it combines with the publicity of the advertisement. And then the hell broke loose, and one two three the meeting turned into a brouhaha. And why red? Asked a policeman's wife, it's going to look like a communist hide-out. And what do you have against communists? They really got it from the soldiers while you were cheating on your husband and he went around beating people up. You want to paint the block green so it looks like a jail, sure that would look pretty. And why not pink, or sky-blue or grayish so that the grime doesn't show, because the people here are such slobs. You're the slob, lady, throwing the dishwater down to the first floor like you do. Oh, and you? Playing dumb about all the marijuana your son sells. Stay out of my son's life, bitch, you're the one whose daughter's working in a strip club. That I'm not going to take, you fucking slut. And they grabbed each other by the hair, beating on each other in front of the twitching eyes of the promotion girls who ran out snatching at the explosion of papers and files flying over the women tangled up on the floor.

The hope that they could change the building out of its mangy fur didn't last very long, because the girls never came back to insist on their publicity proposal. And months later, the huge Soviet Jeans poster appeared on the roof of the other tenement, where the people are more orderly and decent. They're almost all public employees and have their little cars that they wash like babies on Saturday, said the policeman's wife, somewhere between anger and resignation. And you were right, neighbor, with so many bars it does look like a jail.

So every family in the building painted their apartment the color they wanted, slices of orange, chunks of yellow, calypso walls, in the end, a brilliant mosaic in all of its variety. Another way to keep in check the uniform modernity of the city-lite, the boring city, all similar in its habit of mirrors and cleanliness. The hypocritical city, like a little Miami, full of signs and neon lights that hide with their splendor the misery rusting on the fringes.