A private history of Tres Cruces, Montevideo’s main bus terminal
where every day thousands of strangers collide,
converse, grow bored and even, sometimes, get hitched.
Why does Mom always say
we shouldn’t talk to strangers?
The woman who serves coffee in Montevideo’s central bus station is good at talking to strangers. “Sometimes it’s easier chatting with someone you don’t know,” says Raquel Quirque, a stranger to me, and one with no less than three Qs to her name. She has just sat down in one of the waiting rooms in Tres Cruces, Uruguay’s national bus terminal, after three straight hours on her feet in Del Andén, a café right in the heart of this transport hub, where she rolls out “Good morning, sugar or sweetener?” with the casualness of an auntie serving up breakfast. Raquel is blond, Sagittarius, and dressed head to toe in black. Her telephone ringtone is the club anthem for Atlético Peñarol, and she wakes up every morning before five. By that time, her husband is already on the road, driving a bus for the Compañía Oriental de Transporte, whose ticket office stands directly opposite the spot where Raquel serves commuters their coffee. Their son works in the dispatch office for the same company. It’s not a coincidence: it’s called family. Having finished her shift in the café, Señora Q now clings to her thermos of yerba maté. Her husband brings her favorite blend from inland Uruguay, the place he drives the same strangers who approach her every day for a chat. Raquel Quirque’s whole life revolves around Tres Cruces. “I go to a supermarket and instead of asking ‘How much is that?’ I’ll say, ‘Anything else?’ The phone rings at home and I pick up, ‘Café del Andén, buenas tardes.’” Her special brand of autopilot politeness reveals a cheerful sense of fatality: she wants to die serving coffee in Tres Cruces.
“I have a saying: ‘From here it’s either to the BPS or El Norte.’”
The BPS is Uruguay’s national retirement registry. El Norte is the country’s largest cemetery.
“I’ll retire here or die here,” she says. “But look for another job . . . no way.”
On the main door of Tres Cruces terminal is a welcome sign: AN ENTIRE NATION UNDER ONE ROOF. Welcome posters tend to have a demagogic slant. If a foreigner were to arrive one Sunday to the deserted streets of Montevideo, it’s more than likely he’d ask himself where all the Uruguayans were. If he went that same Sunday at midnight to Tres Cruces, he’d find his answer: they’re all there. The human landscape is largely homogenous, but with a hint of a local flavor: gauchos with smartphones, and executives addicted to maté. People rummaging through their pockets for their tickets, or holding onto children with one hand and suitcases with the other; travelers killing time smoking, or dozing in the waiting room, their mouths wide open; college students with tickets between their teeth, running to make their buses; men with suits swung over their shoulders to avoid them getting creased; travelers lugging backpacks the size of a healthy eleven-year-old; women wrapped up in scarves. A tourist with a travel brochure walking a memorized route; scruffy musicians with guitars in black cases; lost youths looking for someone; commuters eating on the go; moms holding dolls waiting for their little girls by the restroom door. Men who still use watches to tell the time, their hands in their pockets, businesswomen pulling carry-ons with grace and panache. A girl with an eye patch concealing a surgical scar. Skinheads skulking about as if someone were following them. Bald children post-chemo being wheeled in chairs. A black man and a white woman kissing. The man who has put several coins into a public telephone and says “hello-hello” in vain. A solemn fireman in a marine blue uniform; one kid in a Grêmio de Porto Alegre T-shirt and another in a Boca Juniors; plagues of old people in baseball caps; hordes of teenagers wearing headphones; families hugging one another as if for the last time. All of them traveling to one of the nineteen “departments” that make up Uruguay, a terrain you can cross in less than half a day by bus, and which is a hundred times smaller than Russia, a square kilometer bigger than the Republic of Suriname, and whose entire population is equal to its neighboring Brazil’s annual birthrate. It’s a tiny, flat country where airline companies don’t stand a chance. The Promised Land for any bus-travel impresario. Almost half of all Uruguayans live in Montevideo. In 2011, the shopping-mall-cum-bus-terminal received twenty-one million visitors: seven times Uruguay’s population. Tres Cruces, “AN ENTIRE NATION UNDER ONE ROOF,” is not a demagogic sign: it’s a theater for an anthropologist specializing in short-distance travel. A laboratory of conversations between strangers.
“When you have a coffee, you tend to have a chat,” says Señora Q. “Maté is more personal.”
Señora Q is an accidental ethnographer. For almost two decades she has observed travelers and shoppers in Tres Cruces, a station that’s been around for some time. She isn’t one to maintain a courteous distance, and her trusting familiarity is infectious. She talks to strangers because she learns more from others. She looks you in the eye when she talks. Del Andén has two locations: the café on the first floor, which is otherwise dominated by ticket machines and waiting rooms; and the second-floor branch, where they sell pastries and cakes among the other stores. Raquel Quirque arrives at work by sunrise and leaves at lunchtime, injecting her thermos with hot water to top up her maté supply in the meantime. The clients order tortugas, little rolls with ham and cheese. They also ask for medialunas, pastries that don’t really resemble their crescent moon namesake. And yet, Señora Q’s real profession is that of observer: seeing what, due to overexposure, we no longer see. Or what amounts to the same: seeing what we choose not to see. Like matters of life and death; all the people who live inland have to pass through Tres Cruces to be cured. The station is close to several hospitals, including one for children with cancer. And Señora Q sees the sick. She sees their parents’ anguish. She sees how the child gradually gets better. She sees when they stop coming. High coffee consumption might get bad press, but Señora Q says that serving coffee in Tres Cruces has changed her worldview.
“What have I got to complain about if I have my health and my job?” she says. “In this place you see real problems. Compare them with my life, and I look like Alice in Wonderland.”
Alice in Wonderland was born in Minas, a slower, quieter city than Montevideo, which is already slower and quieter than every other capital city in the world. The Uruguayans run on a low voltage, their temperament undergoing an explosive metamorphosis when they turn out at Centenario Stadium. This is a tiny country famed for its happy cows, football fanatics, and melancholy. There’s an old Argentinian joke: “Sad like a happy Uruguayan.” Uruguayans spend their lives correcting people who call them Argentinian, just like Canadians spend theirs being confused for Yanks. Uruguay has one of the highest suicide rates in the Americas, the longest and safest Carnival in the world, and one of the oldest and most Spartan presidents in the universe. “As a country, we love our long weekends as much as we love our freedom,” José Mujica once said. Mujica was born the same year the tango singer Gardel died. Gardel was born in Argentina, but ask anyone around here and he was Uruguayan. The president says that his countrymen value “life” in the lowercase, serenity, and signs of affection. In Tres Cruces, there is certainly a lot more affection than serenity.
“It’s fun working with the public,” Señora Q tells me. “Even if every now and then they’re a little overwhelming.”
“People from inland always say ‘please,’” says Natalie Benavides, who once worked in Customer Services. “The city slickers from the capital don’t ask, they order.”
“Inlanders are warmer and arrive in good time,” Señora Q goes on, “They’ve always got a moment for you. People from Montevideo spend their lives dashing from here to there.”
To make out a single face among the thousands who pass by each day and remember one detail. A biography in the blink of an eye.
“People are more aggressive these days,” she says without blinking. “I don’t know. Someone might have more problems than I do, I don’t dispute that. But I would never take it out on a stranger.”
Señora Q looks at you with maternal eyes, the kind you can’t pull the wool over.
“My colleagues say that when I moan at them I put on my stern eyes. I glare.”
One kid who works in the café likes to give her a monosyllable of advice.
The boss of Tres Cruces’ control tower, a man used to resolving the tangled mess of over a hundred bus drivers, doesn’t own a car. He prefers to travel on foot. “The first time I sat down in front of a wheel,” he tells me, “was on a bus.” One early Friday evening, radio in hand, Osvaldo Torres directs the traffic in the rainy streets surrounding Tres Cruces. It’s rush hour. “The station is an enormous jigsaw puzzle and it’s our job to put the pieces together,” he tells me, standing in his rain boots and a bright yellow raincoat. Umbrellas litter the scene. Passersby walk wrapped up in their own worlds, pensive in the rain. The country spans such a small distance that every day thousands travel back and forth between the capital and the interior. The ant nest swells at the start and end of the week. Some days, three buses enter the station per minute. During these times, fellow countrymen and women come into contact, even bump into one another. “I like being among people like that,” says Torres, Mr. Rush Hour. Every Friday, between six and seven a.m., more than one hundred buses enter and leave the forty-one platforms in just one hour. “It’s the most important moment of the week, and we enjoy it,” he says, with a Friday kind of look on his face. “The adrenaline runs high.” He has come down from his humble two-story tower, from which a team of controllers oversee this chaos-on-wheels. Torres has the authoritative swagger of an army general. He could direct the rain if he wanted to.
“I like people who can command a group, who are willing to put themselves on the front line,” the boss says. “People who command and lead by example.”
Torres always wanted to be in the army, but fate kept foisting on him its own ironies and coincidences. He was a tour guide with the Organización Nacional de Autobuses (National Organization of Buses), a transport company with a greyhound dog for an icon, à la Greyhound. He explained all sorts of things to the tourists, from the history of the city, to the morphology of a waterfall. One day they had to move a bus and he happened to be there. Fate always handed him opportunities: an aunt had married a marine who would end up becoming Commander in Chief of the Navy, and as a child he often visited their house. One night, when he was ten and staying over at his aunt’s, he lay out on the lawn in the yard to watch the night sky, and his uncle, the commander of the seas, pointed out a star; the brightest in the Taurus constellation, and today, the namesake of one of Torres’s daughters: Aldebaran. He will never forget that night. “I’m a frustrated marine,” he admits. At one point, it crossed his mind to join the naval academy. Torres is a frustrated admiral.
“Even today I ask myself why I didn’t do it,” he says.
By six thirty p.m., Torres is moving around like a traffic policeman. He rules the road in the rain, zigzagging his way down a tailback of eleven buses. Behind them, you can make out a couple more. The people staring out the bus windows are the very picture of boredom: faces masked behind their breath on the glass, just-woken-up faces, nothing-but-the-music-playing-on-my-headphones-exists faces, please-god-come-to-pick-me-up faces. The buses appear, one after the other, and completely obscure all other cars from view. Some companies have names fit for spies, like Central Agency. Others would be better suited to the coast, like Turismar. Some are named in capital letters, CITA and COT, or geographically like Paysandú. Some are just friendly, like Bonjour. Their buses are emblazoned with classic slogans—“We love to get you there”— or WI-FI. All of them are obsessed with converting their buses into hotel beds. The Chief of the Control Tower makes no distinctions and has no favorites. One time, a driver left his bus in the station for longer than is permitted without reporting in first.
“I overstepped the line a little,” he says, as if by way of apology, “but I had no choice. I told him that from the moment he was inside the station, if he so much as wanted to take a shit he had to tell me first.”
By six thirty in the evening, there is a crowd of passengers waiting to leave.
Men checking their tickets to make sure they have the right details.
Girls with either very floral or very black luggage.
People opening their umbrellas against the rain.
The Frustrated Admiral looks at photos of burning ships as they scroll across his computer screen. He scans through some photos, of his three daughters and grandchildren, of a few quotes he likes to read aloud, of cities like Rio de Janeiro. Photos of women like Marilyn Monroe and Mother Teresa, boxers like Muhammed Ali, singers like Frank Sinatra, and military figures like General Patton. Another one pops up: the storefront of one of the ticket offices in the station. He plans to write an email of complaint to the manager: “One of my jobs is to make sure the stores are in a decent state.” He has a cat called Maika, which he rescued from the street. He’s a fan of Defensor Sporting Club because he’s not interested in clubs that always win. He is into conspiracy theories and remembers where he was the exact day and hour Kennedy was killed. He smokes less and less, but still gets through a ten-pack a day. He smokes more at night. He has friends, most of who he sees at the bar, but one in particular, by far and away his favorite: a first cousin who was a translator for the United Nations, and with whom he talks on Skype. His ninety-year-old mother is called Valkiria and she lives in a retirement home. His wife is a cashier for one of the transport companies. Torres is about to turn seventy, the legal age of retirement.
“No,” he says. “This is where I belong.”
No one dreams of a fire breaking out in the early hours of Christmas Day. On the Twenty-Fifth of December 2010, Torres, the chief of the Tres Cruces Control Tower, was sleeping a hundred and twenty-five miles from Montevideo when someone sent him word of the incident. “It was the equivalent of a captain being told his ship has sunk,” Torres recalls. “You feel completely lost at sea.” The fire had started at three minutes to two a.m., on the mezzanine floor of a shoe store and a sports clothing store. Eduardo Robaina, Director of Operations at Tres Cruces, who had worked every one of the previous twenty-four Christmases, interrupted what was going to be his first holiday off in memory: he was at his mother’s house, in Canelones, thirty miles north of Montevideo. “They called the fire department first, then me.” The flames were making ashes of brand new stores. Señora Q didn’t know about the fire until later that morning. “It was as if my soul had left my body,” she says, and it was two days before she went back to Tres Cruces. “A grim gift from Father Christmas,” says Pablo Cusnir, the Marketing Manager. “We were outside of Montevideo when they woke us up. And my wife was pregnant.” That morning, Osvaldo Torres, who was set to go back to work two days later, returned to his tower and found it transformed into a Situation Room: the president of the board of directors, Carlos Lecueder, the vice-president, Luis Muxi, and the director general, Marcelo Lombardi, were discussing what to do. “These men are either going to have to steer the shipwreck or direct the rescue operation,” Frustrated Admiral told himself. And the director general, who that night had been enjoying a barbeque with over fifty friends, set off toward the station. They never found out what started the fire. The firemen had put it out by seven thirty a.m.
“You get used to situations to which you’re more or less accustomed,” Lombardi says, “But we’d never seen anything like this.”
Fires are common at Christmas, and yet they also belong to the realm of the unexpected. Lombardi believes a firework may have fallen on the roof, or that there was a short circuit in the air conditioning. What the fire didn’t reach was destroyed by the smoke and water. The air was thick with soot and the smell of burning. After the fire, they had to roll up their sleeves. “You woke up knowing it was going to be a rotten day,” Lombardi says. “Every morning, dozens of problems awaiting you.” The working day began at six a.m. and didn’t end until eleven at night. “I went and saw what was left: the wooden benches were still in one piece, but they had become charcoal, and the whole place was flooded,” Señora Q recalls. “The stores had all turned into black holes.” Ana Claudia Casas, who worked at Óptica Lux—one of the new stores that lost everything—recalls from behind her eyeglasses: “It looked like a bomb had hit it. Everything was black. Bent iron girders all over the place.” Lilian Lerena, a local who does her shopping in Tres Cruces, sums it up like this: “I saw a lot of smoke, but even more sadness.” It was a tragedy without any fatalities or injuries, but which clocked up some seven million dollars in losses. “I would keep popping into the shop to find something,” says Casas. “A temple, a lens, I don’t know. I needed to find something just as it had been left.” She had hundreds of glasses there. Sunglasses sold like hotcakes at Christmas.
“And did you speak to your wife on the phone?” I ask Lombardi.
“Yes,” he responds, “But in monosyllables.”
That Christmas, when the Director General of Tres Cruces finally got home, his daughters were already sleeping. So long, vacations. There would be no New Year’s festivities that year. Instead, they would have to come up with some urgent solutions so the bus service didn’t grind to an absolute halt, notify the storekeepers of their losses, and reconstruct the shopping mall. When people get off buses, they just walk away. But to get on, they have to find the right coach; they can’t get it wrong. Departures had to keep running from Tres Cruces. That very Christmas Day they set up an arrivals terminal in a parking lot in front of the Centenario Stadium. They had water dispensers for the passengers, portable toilets, a waiting room on the asphalt, music and loudspeakers, awnings to protect people from the sun, and even a hotdog cart. A station, campground-style. The public was understanding. But back in Tres Cruces, just a few blocks from there, the press had begun demanding an update on the bus services. “An emergency situation demands verticality, and the whole team adapted,” Lombardi tells me. “Decisions were made, not argued over: they were made and followed through.” It called for collective improvisation among locals, authorities, and storekeepers. In one month, by the end of January 2011, the station was back up and running, and in five months the shopping mall had reopened. They had to reconstruct over thirty out of one hundred stores.
“More than nightmarish, it was unforgettable,” Torres says.
Going through a fire certainly helps you to loosen your collar and roll up your sleeves. For Pablo Cusnir, the marketing director, a man of action and sales, going to work with a tie on was a must for any businessman, just like a chef puts on his apron to cook. He had long since buried his past as the shaggy-haired son of a hairdresser with a torso that had never seen a shirt, and feet that would do anything to avoid a pair of shoes. If he wasn’t wearing a tie, Cusnir felt uncomfortable dealing with other businesspeople. In the weeks after the fire, nobody in Tres Cruces worried themselves too much about getting back into their suits. Instead they wore pants fit for tramping around in the fire’s ruins. It was summer in Uruguay, and the fire helped Cusnir grow accustomed to going tieless. Months later, the marketing director changed his cell ringtone. He had begun to detest it. Aside from his wife and mother, he mainly received calls asking him to fix endless issues. From six thirty in the morning to eleven at night his cell would ring with other people’s problems. Now the association between ringtone and interminable glitches had already been ingrained. One day, as he was sitting in a work meeting, the sound of one of his associate’s telephone set his teeth on edge. It was his tune from around the time of the fire. A ghost in the form of a ringtone.
“It was like an abyss,” Cusnir says, “It gave me goose bumps.”
Today his cell rings Rock n’ Roll.
The one man a woman might expect to meet in the event of a fire is a fireman. But there are some exceptions. Two days after that Christmas tragedy, Natalia Benavides, a tall blonde who worked in Customer Services went to the makeshift station in the Centenario stadium to receive the arriving passengers. David Souza, a cashier for the bus company General Artigas, and shorter than Natalia, went along to the same place to welcome his company’s buses as they arrived from Brazil. “I was trying to be nice, so I told him that I spoke other languages, that he could come to me for anything,” she says. “She noticed I had trouble speaking Portuguese,” he says, “and used the opportunity to impress me with the fact that she spoke several languages.” He asked her out; she said no. He asked again; she made excuses. He had never had a serious relationship with anyone; she thought she could never go out with a guy like him. A day before the year came to a close, she offered to give David the number of any of her girlfriends if he agreed to take a friend of hers to buy her cigarettes on his scooter. He said he would take the friend, but that he was only interested in having her number. She never did give him her number; he asked a buddy for it. They went for a maté. They had a child. They met thanks to a fire.
Everybody thinks that Señora Q met her husband in Tres Cruces. Preconceptions dressed up as fantasies: there’s a hint of lyricism and adventure to the idea of meeting someone at a bus stop, and even better if it happens under the rain. But when Raquel Quirque, Señora Q, began working in the Café del Andén, they had already been a couple for nine years and had a little girl together. She had previously worked in a pizzeria in Montevideo Shopping, where she met one of the future owners of the café. In fact, she has worked in all the shopping malls in Montevideo. “A bus station is special,” she tells me. “You get a different kind of person there, a different movement, a different kind of curiosity. I wanted to work in Tres Cruces.” The owner of Café del Andén is a doctor. Back then he was the doctor who visited the houses of the workers of the Compañia Oriental de Transportes (COT) to verify if they were ill. One day he went to her house to examine her husband, who had begun working at COT’s headquarters: he took the buses to the car wash and back to the parking lot. The sick man became a driver when they opened Tres Cruces, and she became Señora Q. To sleep alongside a bus driver is really to ensure they don’t fall asleep at the wheel.
“It’s a huge responsibility, staying awake,” she says, blinking.
Julio Sánchez Padilla is someone who knows his stuff about drivers though she doesn’t sleep next to one: he owns the transport company CITA and is one of the founders of Tres Cruces. There is something patriotic about the way he holds himself, and his biography makes you think he knows a bit too much: basketball referee in the Rome and Tokyo Olympic Games; Guinness World Record holder for hosting the longest-running football television program in the world—Estadio 1, every Monday since 1970, without fail; and heroic survivor of two heart attacks. Sánchez Padilla tells stories full of pregnant pauses, like someone who knows he’s being listened to. Decades of watching televised politics between the good and the bad, decades of living among bus drivers with their cargo and life baggage. Señor Guinness World Record remembers one of his bus drivers above all: a certain Febres. He tells me he was an exceptionally elegant, meticulous, and punctual man. One who has now passed away.
“You don’t get drivers like Febres anymore,” Señor Guinness World Record laments.
“People get down on their knees and beg for a job, then do it with no love.”
Señora Q, who has been sleeping next to the same driver for twenty-five years, believes that there aren’t any drivers like Montiglia, her husband who sits at the wheel of a Scania. She has a son who works just as vigilantly as her husband in the Tres Cruces dispatch office. She has a daughter-in-law who also works in the dispatches department. And she has a daughter who works in a clothes store that’s not in the Tres Cruces mall but who comes to visit her family in Tres Cruces anyway. There are thousands of college students who travel inland almost every weekend, and thousands of them receive parcels from their parents: boxes of food, darned items of clothing, animals. And they go to Tres Cruces to collect these boxes, for the ironed shirt, the casserole their mother made on Friday. They go in desperately searching for that box, to tear off the wrapping. It’s a box connected to the earth: even today, if you send someone a gift or item, you send it in a box. Mom’s favorite dish can’t get there by email. And in Uruguay all the journeys are short-distance. That’s why the casseroles get there okay.
Her son, who works among other people’s casseroles, often sees more animals than people.
“He receives chickens almost every day,’ Senora Q says, “Chickens going back and forth, coming and going in boxes with holes in.”
Her daughter, the only one of the clan who doesn’t work in Tres Cruces, also goes to the station.
“But she comes to see Mom,” Mom tells me.
“What do you talk to your husband about each day?”
“Everything apart from work. He gets all those people from A to B, but I’m the one who talks to them most.”
Some people go home and forget about work.
Others make hard work of forgetting.
Samantha Navarro has a song about Tres Cruces.
It’s not a cumbia. Or a tango. Or a candombe. It’s heartbreak.
The singer’s hair is full and wavy like her songs. Samantha sings:
♫ Terminal Tres Cruces/grayyyyy dawn/take your backpack with you/Don’t want to see you no more. ♫
It’s about a summer fling, a good-bye.
♫ Terminal Tres Cruces/fare thee well/I loved you so/but if I love you now I can’t tell. ♫
Desire, disillusion, doubt.
♫ Now now I’m losing eeeeverything I had/And I hate myself. ♫
The song’s chorus goes:
♫ And I’m bleeding myself dry. ♫ Three times.
Three Crucifixions. Three Crosses. Tres Cruces.
According to the singer, she isn’t the subject of the song, although everyone thinks she is. Rather it’s a character made up of different good-bye stories she’s heard. “I wanted to treat the whole station as if it were a single person,” she explains. “The character I invented thinks she’s never going to be able to love again.” What Navarro doesn’t make up is the fact that Tres Cruces has been as much a part of her life as her three hundred or more songs. When she was a little girl, she would take a bus that passed the wasteland where they planned to build the station. She studied guitar, chemistry, and anthropology. She is a trained sommelier, writes science-fiction stories, sings. When she travels inland for concerts, Samantha Navarro takes the bus from Tres Cruces. As a young woman, she would watch from the window of other buses as builders moved an entire plaza to accommodate the station. Back then she worked as a secretary and studied chemistry at college.
“It was like a place of quantum perturbation,” the singer recalls. “A commotion of machines and things that I had never seen before.”
“The station created a new city center,” Señor Guinness World Record says.
“What do you do when you go to the station?” I ask.
“Just say hi,” he says. “That’s all. Because everyone is on the move.”
Señor Guinness World Record had the plans for Tres Cruces in his possession when nothing was even in motion yet. In 1990, years before the station opened, Julio Sánchez Padilla was Mister Transport in Uruguay. “The station was the main event,” he says. “The mall an added bonus.” Two decades later the fire happened. The Ex-President of the National Carriers Association, the one who knows a thing or two about heart attacks, also understands that a tragedy can be turned into something positive. Today, Tres Cruces is free of bulkheads, construction workers, and noise. What the Singer with the Full Hair used to see from the bus window when she was a young woman is today another song. No longer a noisy racket, it’s an orchestral synthesis, a scene of meetings and good-byes, a labyrinth rehearsal. Some people had opposed plans to build a station there. On the day of Tres Cruces’ inauguration, Sánchez Padilla fitted a golden plaque on a wall in the main hall. Inscribed on it was a well-known saying: “Great works are dreamed up by crazy geniuses, accomplished by born fighters, enjoyed by the happy sane, and criticized by chronic wastes of space.” Any phrase framed in inverted commas is destined to create enemies. Señor Guinness World Record is a fanatic Peñarol supporter—“I can admit that to you because you’re foreign”—and an admirer of Carlos Lecueder, the President of the Tres Cruces Board of Directors who travels the world and comes back with ideas for his shopping malls. Today the drivers’ patriarch hardly ever visits the site. Instead, every Wednesday, his company takes hundreds of kids from Uruguay’s inland areas to visit Montevideo.
“Some of them, the ones who come from far, have never seen the sea,” Sánchez Padilla tells me.
Señora Q has a privileged view of a sea of strangers. And she has a gift: Quirque is a people magnet; and those people tell her things. A fat, blonde woman walks past the waiting room toward us and her smile widens with every step as she realizes that Señora Q is looking at her. For three and a half years, Sandra Díaz Reyes cleaned the ladies’ restroom in Tres Cruces. For three and a half years she earned a salary, but above all she lived off the tips the women would leave her. She was originally employed to sweep and mop, until one day the woman responsible for the restroom in front of McDonald’s didn’t show up for work. From that day on, Sandra Díaz Reyes looked after it as if it were an extension of her own home. With her own money, she bought an air freshener that smelled nicer that the official disinfectant, decorated as if it were her living room during the holidays, and politely encouraged her clients to leave it impeccable. There’s nothing like a restroom line to get to know a woman: “I knew who would leave the cubicle clean from one look at them,” recalls Señora Restroom-Cleaner. That afternoon, in the middle of a throng of passengers moving around the station, both women stopped to talk by the waiting room. As if they had radar to locate one another.
“We see more than what you people think,” Señora Q says. “Our tracking gaze picks up everything.”
She couldn’t remember the surname of Señora Restroom-Cleaner. In Tres Cruces, memory for detail is hazy. You remember major episodes, and forget last names. Your memory is emotive, dramatic, anecdotal. Sandra Díaz Reyes stopped attending the ladies’ restroom at Tres Cruces when she split up with the father of her five children. The job of keeping a public bathroom impeccable requires even more self-respect than detergent. The classic cinematographic stereotype of ladies’ restrooms smells closer to vanity than physiology, to a woman’s perfume than her bodily functions. The Tres Cruces restrooms are not cinematographic: they are defined by urgent need, people in line, impatience. Señora Q remembers a tragic day. It happened the year after Tres Cruces opened. Sandra Díaz had taken a half an hour break and her friend was covering for her. The cleaning woman started to scream and called security: they had found a fetus in the waste bin.
“It was one of my worst days at Tres Cruces,” she says. “The other was the fire.”
Señora Restroom-Cleaner knows that a public bathroom is a theater. There are tragedies and comedies.
“I was pretty hysterical about cleanliness,” she says, referring to her own bathroom at home. “I got it from my mother. And my daughters are the same.”
Señora Restroom-Cleaner believes in supreme cleanliness and the Bible. A cheery Capricorn herself, she doesn’t believe in the signs of the zodiac. She believes in the Evangelist’s God, in work, and in her friends from her old job. She believes in having seven children and in a mother who worked with her cleaning bathrooms in the station and in a restaurant at night. She did her shopping in Tres Cruces; celebrated her birthdays with friends in Tres Cruces; moved in two blocks away from Tres Cruces. When she grumbled about not having a job in Tres Cruces, she went to see her friends in Tres Cruces. She sold clothes in Tres Cruces. She worked in a delicatessen. She worked as a security guard. She cleaned houses. She met her second husband. They had two children and opened a bakery together. “I came from inland, from Salto. Tres Cruces changed my life,” Señora Restroom-Cleaner says. “I learned I could get ahead with my kids there.” Back then she had five children. One of them was a future football player. Luis Suárez, number 9 on the Uruguayan squad, wasn’t yet the boy with buckteeth who made a living out of intimidating the world’s goalkeepers. He was less than ten years old when one day he went looking for his mom in Tres Cruces. His siblings had sent him to ask their mother for money to go food shopping and the boy took the stairs from the restroom to the supermarket. Luis Sánchez would go on to play on his nation’s team as well as for the Dutch team Ajax. He then became Liverpool’s golden boy, with a reputation of making goalkeepers regret being the one to guard against him at the door. The mother of one of the most famous footballers in the world was the public restroom cleaner.
“It annoys me sometimes that people hang around you because of who he is today,” his mom says. “I know how to sniff them out. That’s why I have my people from Tres Cruces. Today, some uncle or cousin I’ve never heard of might crawl out of the woodwork, but I know who’s always been here.”
Señora Q remembers one such man.
“I’ve known him since he fixed the plugs,” she says. “Now he fixes everyone’s problems.”
Señor Fix It All is an imposing title. It almost calls for a bow. But Eduardo Robaina is a bald man who has fought for everything, including his Van Dyke beard. The title, Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets, reminds us of his origins. He pulled out of his three-year studies in engineering to slog away in a refinery. He descended from the heights of estimates and projections to dive headfirst into an underworld of fuel and cement. The work of a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He studied hydraulics, thermodynamics, chemistry, tanks, pumps, logistics. Working in a refinery is like working in a jungle gym of hazards: it means being capable of producing giant works and studying endless details to avoid a catastrophe. That was his school. Robaina entered Tres Cruces officially as a maintenance person, a man who trafficked in electric plugs and nails. Today he is the Chief of Operations. “That big man is just as kind today as he was when he went around fitting electrical sockets,” Señora Q tells me. “But it’s not the same thing going around fixing sockets as having to manage this many people.” Robaina holds the master keys, and with them, a wealth of opportunities to mess something up.
“Our job is to fix problems,” he says, two hundred-plus pounds of man. “And within the advantages of this, we can be humane.”
Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets is a human antenna. To this day there’s a common sight in Tres Cruces: the men, women, and sick children who the Ministry of Public Health funds to make the journey to Montevideo’s hospital. Their getting home is dependent on the spaces limited to the transport companies by law. Sometimes they can stay a whole day in the station waiting to get a ride. Sometimes Señor Plug pays for the food for a mom waiting with her child. Señora Q will catch him rifling through his pockets for money . . . and inside there’s almost always a plug socket, humble and explosive, just like the slots we were prevented from putting our fingers in as children. Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets is never without a radio transmitter in hand. One gets the feeling the man could even fix problems of the heart.
Even Señora Q, who talks to hordes of strangers as if they were family, needs downtime now and then. There’s one patron who mumbles to himself in a monologue and she just looks at him and smiles. There are women who tell her about their problems with their overbearing husbands. “They get to know you,” she says. “Or you get to know them.” You only have to be aware of how far people want to go. Some pour out their life story and then you never see them again. Others give a courteous wave for years and then, one day, move in together, like Pablo Cusnir, the marketing director who began as a delivery boy and would say hello to the pretty girl working for DHL, who is now his wife. It’s not uncommon for Señora Q to come across people from her city, old school mates, childhood friends. In Tres Cruces, she bumped into the nuns from her high school, Nuestra Señora del Huerto. At school, she only ever saw the nuns’ faces. These days she’s allowed a glimpse of their hair.
“Sister Domitila only remembered me when I explained who I was,” she says.
One of the greatest tributes a teacher can receive is to have an ex-pupil stop her on the street years later to say hello. Some turn the other way. Others run to hug them as if the coincidence were a miracle. One day the manager of Ópica Lux came across her history teacher in Tres Cruces. She only remembered his name: Ángel. She spotted him from behind her 0.5-level myopia lenses. Ana Claudia Casas has worked nine hours a day since the station first opened seeing to people who can’t see well. Sometimes, Glasses Girl has to attend to people with perfect vision; cases fit for Oliver Sacks.
“They’d come in to the opticians to ask us for a haircut,” she says, smiling.
She has been looking after one of her clients since he was a boy. He has suffered two retinal detachments and has -31-level myopia.
“Today he installs fiber optic cables,” she says.
Fate is ironic with special effects.
The director general of Tres Cruces, for example, doesn’t park his car in the station’s parking lot: he pays for a private parking space opposite.
“No one gets special privileges here,” Lombardi tells me.
Lombardi, a public accountant who got bored with accountancy, now has plenty of experience fighting fires.
“One day,” he says, “they detected that a member of Al Qaeda had passed through the station.”
Interpol has an office in Tres Cruces. It’s not just an entire nation awaiting you inside.
You see Bolivian women arriving on their way to work with upper-class families.
You see foreigners climb in and out of the nine thousand taxis that pass through each day.
You see rowdy groups of Argentinian, Brazilian, and Uruguayan football fans.
You see Bolivian women returning from their high-class families, mistreated.
“I once saw someone fall from the second floor,” Señora Q tells me. “He just walked up to the handrail, flung his foot over, and threw himself off. A guard from Café del Andén couldn’t stop him. The man flew over the rail as if he was running from himself and fractured his leg twenty feet below. Nobody down on the ground floor noticed that they’d witness a failed suicide attempt. They just asked if he’d tripped.
“You see so many people that you no longer see anyone,” Señora Q says.
Lilian Lerena, a neighbor who works in the funeral parlor, Previsión S.A., says that her clients are alive. Last year she recognized a childhood friend in the station. She hadn’t seen him in more than thirty years. Today he is the owner of a club where they play cumbias.
“We agreed I’d go one day for a dance,” she says, smiling.
Natalia Benavides, the ex-rep for Customer Services, remembers things going missing.
“A gentleman came to ask us if we had found his false teeth. He couldn’t remember if he’d left them in the restroom.”
Then someone found them.
Tres Cruces has a lost and found.
If some time passes and nobody comes to collect their bike or umbrella, the company doesn’t hold onto them. They donate them to Montevideo’s schoolchildren who, with a little luck, won’t lose them. Natalia Benevides still has faith in the human race.
“More people hand things in than don’t,” she says.
“How does the world look from Customer Services?”
“People look deranged,” she says. “Like they’ve got no time for anything. And it’s not just the odd person; it’s everyone who passes through here.
They return our gaze on their watch faces.”
Señora Q is so punctual she’s not punctual: she arrives half an hour early to work and drinks maté in the entryway of Tres Cruces. Two worlds exist there: the one up above and the one down below. She worked nine years on the first floor and seven on the second. These days she’s back in the epicenter. Those who go upstairs are there to buy, wander around, window shop, browse. Those down below are there to travel, to drink maté, wait, and chat. After five or more hours on a bus, arriving passengers are never in the mood to go shopping in Tres Cruces. Instead, they look for a taxi or a hug. Great big hugs are the most natural gesture for its fifty thousand-plus passengers a day. There are also solitary acts. Desperate ones: a man pulls the trigger against his own head in a restroom cubicle. And absurd ones: a man dies choking on a rib.
“Tres Cruces is what the people make it,” Señora Q says. “We spin on its axis.”
Before saying good-bye, Raquel Quirque—three Qs in thirteen letters—blinks. Whenever you have crowds, you can pick out types. One such type is the beggar who tests the limits of our charity: to give or not to give. Sometimes, since she can’t give them anything from the café, she looks for coins in her own purse. Sometimes, when she gives them something to eat, they throw it away. Whenever you have crowds, you also find exceptions to types. Eccentrics. For years, Señora Q had a client who turned up every day to eat breakfast. He was single. He worked in a supermarket and lived in a dark house where he’d gotten into the habit of only putting on one light at a time. For years he searched for the woman who served him coffee just the way he liked it: milky, two sachets of sugar, no foam. He didn’t skip a single morning for years and the one day he did, he called to let them know he wouldn’t be coming. He went to Tres Cruces from the day it opened to the day he retired. She doesn’t wait for him anymore, but the lady who serves the coffee knows just what she’ll say to him when he comes back.
© Julio Villanueva Chang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.