Like me, Pedro had “parachuted” into the university’s economics programme. For the vestibular, he was lucky enough to sit next to an ace student he’d known since childhood. After some discreet but forceful nagging, his friend allowed him to copy his answer sheet. Pedro was not typical of my normal circles. He lived outside the Zona Sul, had darker skin, curly hair and had an athletic build from being a passionate water-polo player. We kicked off a firm friendship with me serving as his passport to Zona Sul parties, while he helped me develop some street cred. Our well-bred colleagues would soon view us as the class’s wise guys, but our popularity would lead us to forget that we were in such a demanding place of study.
In the beginning, we had a great time. The campus in Urca was divided into three faculties: economics and business administration, communications (journalism and advertising) and psychology. Economics – our course – was considered the most prestigious one of the campus’ faculties and, appropriately, we had the most high-profile building that contained the Teatro de Arena, the famous amphitheatre with a political past. Although student activism was hardly as important anymore, the students’ union opened the Teatro de Arena on weekends and transformed it into a popular venue for often great alternative bands. Perhaps because of all this, the economics students regarded themselves as being a cut above the rest of the campus, feeling we were tackling important and intellectually demanding matters, in contrast to the easy and superficial topics of the other faculties.
In response, all the other students viewed us as the campus’ slightly arrogant nerds, though we did command a certain respect. Pedro and I never really accepted these kinds of comparisons and instead made friends with the communications students (they knew how to party) and with the psychology students (they were overwhelming female, many of whom were pretty and seemed compelled to experiment with all sorts of things).
Overall, we were now part of a more senior university crowd who had a social life of their own, and, sure enough, the parties we started to go to reflected our new status. There were many older students, young professors, their girlfriends and their friends all of whom were more stimulating than the kind of people I was used to hanging out with. My guitar abilities worked miracles in getting us invited to the best gatherings, organized by the most prestigious members of the student body and many were in the best addresses in the city. This elite was left wing, and many would go on to enter politics or would rise to senior positions in government agencies or in business. Most of these young and clever people came from wealthy old families, and a few of their parents were involved in the newly legalized opposition parties or had links to returning exiles.
As this was a time of political rebirth – the period of the abertura politica – these circles appreciated the laid back attitude of a street-wise, hippy-like guitar player; a connoisseur of weed and of the alternative lifestyle found in Visconde de Mauá and Trancoso. For a short period, both Pedro and I enjoyed being courted by the student elite, but they soon brushed us aside owing to our poor grades, conventional middle class family backgrounds and to the lack of erudition in our arguments whenever serious topics came up.
The acceptance by the students of the other courses was far more straightforward and more durable. The invitations to parties, the girls, the new and interesting friendships and the jam sessions flowed in. In this situation, it was easy to forget the economic realities hovering around us as well as the academic effort that the course required if we were to hope to make the grade.
Cocaine was starting to replace weed in parties, not yet in the gatherings of the leftist radical-chiques of the economics course, but in the other gatherings that we went. Rio’s powerful drug lords had come to realise that the white powder was easier to transport, harder to track, more addictive and altogether a more lucrative business venture than was marijuana. They created shortages of cannabis that lasted for months while the supply of cocaine remained abundant and consequently cheap. The plan worked and soon pretty well everyone had converted to blow, the downside being that they began to see maconha as something for hippy dropouts from another era – in other words, losers. With more serious money pouring in, drug trafficking also became more structured and more deadly.
”Brizola” – the name of a leading opposition politician and for some reason the name widely used for cocaine – was more demanding, more negative and altogether more harmful than anything we were used to. While weed brought out the fun and the contemplative side of people, cocaine heightened egos. Once it became popular, the traficantes increased the price and made it an expensive habit – and because one had to consume a lot in order to keep buzzing, at a time of economic crisis many people were forced onto paths beyond the law.
At first, I didn’t like the superficial vibe that surrounded cocaine or the ego-driven people attracted to it, but the hype was so great and the high seemed so empowering that my crowd gradually accepted it into their world. As times grew harsher, the illusion of self-confidence that the white lines on our mirrors gave us would compensate for the shock of the severe economic downturn and its serious impact on our everyday lives and futures, which felt like a truck hurtling towards us at full speed.
Outside our sheltered lives, but very much knocking on our doors, was the unforgiving truth that Brazil had become a country struck by hyperinflation, recession, despair and suicide, some of them close to us. There was no way out, and on the ground it was “everyone for himself and God against all” in the words of Mario de Andrade in his novel Macunaíma. For many amongst the wealthy members of society, self-destruction through excess was the escape-valve, while for some of the poor it was crime and violence. Tragic stories began appearing in newspapers, with a surge in kidnapping and murders on one side, and vigilantes killing suspected criminals on the other.
Within my social circle, there was a widespread feeling of despair and hopelessness. Many of us believed that we had stepped out of the system, but when the bad times hit us – something that we never imagined could happen – we realized how entangled our existence was with all that we found wrong in the world.
Ideologically, the 1980s were a rebellion against the rebellion and with the change of tides came the witch-hunt. People who hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of the 1970s economic “miracle”, or who did not take part of the big party either through parental prohibition, through commitment to their studies or through rejection to the way people thought and behaved, were now engaged in private vendettas and rejoicing at their enemy’s disgrace. What had been cool was now frowned on, what had been revolutionary appeared idiotic, and what had been ecstatic became the cause of sexual and mental illnesses. The journey of a generation that had struggled against a dictatorship and then witnessed the return of democracy was disregarded. The sense of brotherhood that had risen from those days evaporated. Everything had changed and seemed to have reversed: what common sense had regarded as being self-serving and obnoxious now became unashamedly the right thing to do.
Everyone sensed that this was only the beginning of a long, dark, stretch ahead. By the end of my first year at university, the effects of economic and social mayhem ran deep, and the reach of this crisis in their personal lives caught everyone by surprise and no one knew how to respond. I tried to convince myself that I could cope with whatever might come my way – that it was impossible for things to get worse. I was wrong.