“If hard fate’s not to hem us in
Neither must we hem ourselves in by fact.
Be our setting changeless or bleak
Happy chimeras are not ours to enact,
Only to think—for i’ faith we’re free now
If but we more be of imagination compact.”
—A Living Poet, Still Largely Unknown.
Any building in São Paulo will appear more beautiful if you begin by looking at its upper stories. Above, there are balconies, wild plants, linen curtains; there are jeweled tiles, scalloped decorations, streaks of paint. Someone may even be standing at the window, taking advantage of the open air to pin up laundry or enjoy a coffee. If you allow your eye to drift, however, it will eventually make its way down the levels—passing more familiar urban markers to reach finally the building’s base with its inevitable metal gate, its buzzer, its slightly bored porteiro waiting to let residents in and out.
No public estimate is currently available regarding the number of porteiros in the city. In 2008, there were 414,000 reported; but with a greater metropolitan population soon expected to surpass 20 million and an equivalently rapid rate of construction, the figure now is surely much higher. The average porteiro sits enclosed in his box nearly all day, longer than the New York City doorman or Cambridge University porter. It would be impossible to attempt a survey of his thoughts during this time—impossible even to guess what lies behind the strange look of one in particular, half triumphant, half terribly resigned…
When he received the news from Ouro Preto that his uncle had died, a man unknown to him until then, seventy-three cars had passed his gate since morning. The light had begun its slow slide from sidewalk to lanchonete door: not smoothly, but in sudden tiny movements. Half an hour before midday would come the biggest jump, off the floor and onto the wall. It was this he was waiting for when the postman stopped.
No one else in his building received letters. All the residents were either quite old, past contact with the outside, or quite young, without the need to communicate by hand. The postman’s cheeks were very smooth, and they picked up lines as he pressed against the gate, perspiring a little, to hand over the envelope—“Tudo bem?” With friendly efficiency he pushed off to the next set of flats without waiting for an answer.
With the lawyer’s note in front of him, his first thought was what he might do with the money. It was, he acknowledged dreamily, a staggering sum. Perhaps he would go back to school, or move out to the countryside somewhere cool—Santa Catarina or Rio Grande do Sul, a plot of land closer to Argentina where they said there was snow. His feet would find a home on the living room table, and a boy on the farm would bring in coffee each morning. Spanish language papers would compete with Portuguese headlines, and he’d suck maté from a metal spout. Through the sheer donning of baggy trousers, his everyday “você” would shift without effort into the more aristocratic “tu.” Lost in these dreams, he didn’t hear his wife buzzing, and was forced to suffer her most creative abuses as she wobbled under five grocery bags to the lift.
He really could do anything. And yet the idea when it arrived was not original in the slightest. One copy of every available book in the world, translated into every language, would be available in the bookstore. The premises would be open to all. It was an idea impracticable but necessary: like building a railroad across the vast and infrequently traveled expanses of Brazil.
To begin was easier than he’d anticipated. He staked out a location in an abandoned galleria, hired architects and contractors.City officials were consulted to ensure their pleasure at his progress. Deliberately he avoided the Brutalist architecture in vogue, with its concrete, steel, and angular geometries, seeking instead organic affinities with the environment.