A few days before I left Santa Fe forever, I took a big stack of books over to the best used bookstore in town. I explained my situation to the owner, who offered me some cash and a bit of credit, too, which I used to buy a nice hardcover of Felisberto Hernández’s short stories. After I explained that I was leaving Santa Fe for Lima, D., the bookseller ringing me up, said: “Oh, Gary is from Lima!” Who? Gary, he explained—he’d worked there for a few months and had just returned to Lima. Imagining a turtlenecked sallowfaced poet and instructor at La Católica, I asked the bookseller for Gary’s email address.
A few days after I arrived, I emailed Gary to see if he wanted to meet up for a beer, then I changed my mind and asked if he wanted to meet up for a chilcano instead. We arranged to meet at the Queirolo, which had become my favorite bar in the time I’d spent in Lima over the past few years. There are very few bar-bars in Lima, in the American or Irish-pub style sense. Instead, there are old, fusty places in the centro like the Maury or the bar at the Hotel Bolívar, and there are new, self-conscious imitations like Barranco Beer Company. Most everywhere else is the kind of place where you sit down at a little table, and the Queirolo is perhaps the nicest example of this kind of place. Grim, khaki-shirted waiters—almost all of them middle-aged or elderly men—come and take your order and, all without making eye contact, slam your food or drinks down on their return. It’s a really lovely place.
The Queirolo is best known for their pisco, which apparently used to be kind of passably terrible but has recently—ever since Chilean piscos started dominating the international market—gotten markedly better while remaining quite cheap. The thing to order at the Queirolo is the chilcano.
The chilcano is an object of blissful simplicity; it is the very opposite of the pisco sour, with its unwieldy whipped-egg-white foam and splashy display of bitters on top. Place a few ice cubes in a highball glass, enough to nearly reach the brim. Pour in half or a third-a-glass of pisco, squeeze in half a limón, then coat with ginger ale and stir. If you order a single chilcano in a nightclub, or in the States, the bartender will probably add simple syrup and bitters. This strikes me as superfluous—the ginger ale is both wildly sugary and pleasantly spicy.
The best way to order a chilcano at the Queirolo is by ordering a res.
A res consists of the following:
– one 500ml bottle of Queirolo-brand pisco
– one 1.5l bottle of Everess ginger ale
– a plateful of halved limones
– a big bucket of ice
Oh, right, you’re thinking—so you can make drinks for the table. Well, yes. Only, at the Queirolo, it’s not so unusual for “the table” to consist of two grown men. Perhaps they’ve ordered una media res—half the pisco, everything else the same—or perhaps they are planning on walking home with their half-finished bottle tucked tightly under their arm. Or perhaps—and I have seen this happen—they are planning on sitting there until they finish the whole thing.
The ginger ale alone, I think, marks enough of a flavor difference that you don’t feel crass drinking it, like you do when drinking, say, a piscola, whose worst form, the huacho, involves sawing off the top of a 2L bottle of cola and dumping a bunch of halved limes and an entire bottle of pisco inside.
Gary rode up to the Queirolo on his bicycle. Hardly anyone bikes in Lima; those who do tend to be overweight light-skinned guys in lycra who ride elaborate mountain bikes in low gears. Gary—skinny, lycra-and-turtleneck free—was a surprise.
Gary smiled when we shook hands—another surprise. He is an almost suspiciously—if I’m thinking about this like a Limeño would—cheery guy. His disposition was in stark contrast both to what I had imagined he was going to be and to the way I see Lima itself. Don’t get me wrong. I love Lima. But in Lima, as Sebastián Salazar Bondy wrote in 1963, one’s “love always verges on paranoia.”
Gary is also not Limeño. We bonded over this fact, one of two biographical details—the other being Santa Fe—which led our lives to overlap. We ordered one chilcano each. We didn’t yet know each other well enough for the res. That would come later.
After our drinks arrived, we ordered pejerrey sandwiches. We talked about Lima. I asked him where he got his name. “My mother says I was named after a man on television, Gary Cooper,” he said, “but my father says that’s not right.”
He told me about Huancayo, the small provincial capital where he’d grown up. His childhood memories were marked by Peru’s terrible internal war, the soldiers and students who would stream mysteriously in and out of his parents’ shop and their home, the clandestine pamphlets and records—Victor Jara, Violeta Parra—that his three elder sisters would listen to quietly at night.
He barely finished high school. Instead, his love of literature began with a pirated copy of a minor Vargas Llosa novel, El paraíso en la otra esquina. The day he bought the book, on a whim, on his lunch break, he was so transported by the story—a literary recreation twinning the biographies of Flora Tristan and her grandson, Paul Gauguin—that he never returned to work.
Gary is extraordinarily well-read. And yet, his knowledge of literature is entirely unmediated by the strictures of the academy. Instead, it’s dictated by what’s within reach on a bookstore shelf. He was the one who recommended Roberto Arlt’s travel writing to me; another time, in a letter, he told me that he’d never heard of Clarice Lispector—her books are hard to find in Peru—but that her name made him think of “a beautiful and enigmatic spider.”
Much like our own meeting, his journey to Santa Fe had occurred thanks to dumb luck. He’d met an American woman, S., in Huancayo, when she came into the bookstore where he had found work and asked if they wanted to buy some English-language books she was getting rid of. That day, Gary and S. struck up a friendship. She gave him a little money, enough to move to Lima; then she paid for the trip to Santa Fe where he’d wound up working alongside D.
Shortly after his return to Lima, he told me, he’d gone to visit the Convento de los Descalzos (“Convent of the Barefoot”) on the other side of the Rímac. During the tour, he said, he was moved to tears by the beauty of the convent’s architecture, the baroque paintings that lined its walls. “After I returned, it was as though I were feeling things, asking questions, for the first time,” he said, quietly. In the convent’s small chapel, he was struck by the quality of the light that streamed through the windows. What was it, he asked the guide, that gave the light that texture? The guide turned and pointed at the eaves. The windows, he explained, were made of stone.
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