The pressure at home had become unbearable. I decided to leave for São Paulo earlier than I’d planned with the excuse of having to prepare for the vestibular, the university entrance examination. There was no drama, probably because my parents agreed that this was a good idea. As I packed my clothes and other essentials, I felt that I was entering a new and harder phase in life, that from then on nothing would be as it was.
São Paulo was only a six-hour bus journey from Rio and there was a departure every fifteen minutes. If I travelled at night, I would arrive in the morning and would then have the whole day to find the university’s student hostel. Friends had told me that getting a place would be easy, but no one could confirm this information that as it was impossible to get through by phone.
I got to the bus terminal at about 11pm. Although it was quiet, there was still a queue at the stand for São Paulo. I stood in line and out of the blue a well-dressed guy came over to ask me if I wanted a lift to São Paulo. I said no but he insisted, explaining that he had been driving for twelve hours from up north. He was exhausted but needed to reach São Paulo the following day to work in a hospital and he was looking for company to keep him awake. To reassure me, he showed me his credentials: he was a doctor. I still wasn’t convinced but he took me to the car and opened all the doors, the boot, lifted the carpets and the benches to prove that there was nothing strange. There wasn’t, he looked like a doctor, the story was plausible and, as the ride would save me the bus fare, I said, “What the hell…OK”.
In the middle of the journey, the doctor started to say that he was tired and that he had to stop. I responded by offering to drive and showed my driver’s license. He responded by giving me a strange look, grinned and with a gentle voice he explained that he wanted to pull off the highway and spend the rest of the night with me in a hotel. “No sir!” I said firmly, “Gay action was not in the contract!”. From then we engaged in a battle of nagging versus refusal. As this went on, I started to get worried when he refused to stop to let me out of the car. When dawn broke and we had reached the outskirts of São Paulo, he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere with me. He dropped me off at a bus stop on the edge of the highway next to a place that looked like a favela.
The next twenty minutes were to be a crash course on Brazilian urban reality. I had always known that people struggled, but it was still a shock to actually see, first-hand, what life was like.
It was still dark and it was freezing cold but there was already a crowd gathered around the unsheltered bus stop. The ramshackle canteens by here were packed with people having breakfast, the aroma of coffee being the only comforting thing around. It was obvious that most, if not all, of the people here had migrated from the Northeast in search of a better life. Their faces were similar to the ones that I had seen in my trip but their complexions were greyer, the lack of sun, the cold and the effects of life in this huge metropolis grinding them down. Although I was tired, feeling dejected, cold and a bit hungry, as I looked at the people here I couldn’t help but believe that a Higher Force wanted to show me the flipside of my adventures in the Northeast.
When my bus arrived, my fellow passengers and I crammed in like sardines. Without being able to move a finger, we passed by the massive factories of Ford, Volkswagen, Gessy Lever and other multinational companies. As the bus passed these isolated complexes in the periferia of São Paulo, some passengers got off the bus, but most were bound for the city centre. The entire journey that took at least an hour and a half. I could only begin to imagine what life was like for those souls who had to do that same journey every single working day of their lives. At night, they returned home from work in the same bus, enduring the same conditions. All this effort was to gain a miserable wage, to be treated as second-class citizens at work without any prospect of improvement.
I got off at the last stop and after getting lost several times in the city centre’s web of streets and I managed to find a bus to take me to the campus. All I wanted to arrange was a place to spend the night and get some sleep. However, when things are somehow destined to go bad, they only get worse. A strike was on and there were clashes between the students and the police over the dormitory where I was planning to spend my next few months. It had been shut down. Not knowing what to do, I went to the university’s administrative offices to explain my situation and ask for help. Despite my predicament, perhaps put off by my playboy aura and my Carioca accent, I couldn’t convince anyone that I was indeed in trouble.
Lacking any other option, I went to the student’s union. Suddenly luck smiled at me. I bumped into Carlinhos, a friend from Canoa Quebrada, the remote dream-like fishing village that I’d visited in Ceará. I explained my situation and after a few phone calls, he invited me to stay at his parents’ place, a comfortable and spacious apartment looking out across São Paulo’s skyline. His family’s hospitality was overwhelming. They treated me as if I was one of their own: They gave me a room for myself, invited me to eat and to watch television with them. In addition, there was Carlinhos’ attractive older sister, Alice, who I’d met up north. She was glad to see me again, but the last thing I needed was to mess things up by risking making a move on her.
São Paulo was much more sophisticated than Rio. Paulistas were more polite and better dressed. Everything appeared clean and well organized with elevators, buses, traffic lights, the metro system and the shops all working as they should. People were more formal than I was used to and intellectual standards seemed to higher than in Rio. I felt as if I was in a first world country. The people of my age were urban, not like the beach bums of Rio who behaved as though they were the royalty of the Zona Sul. Their trendy British-like punk-rocker styles suited them. In São Paulo, the 1980s made sense.
After a week with Carlinhos, I phoned home and explained where I was and what was going on. As expected Mum panicked and minutes later a wealthy American friend who was living in São Paulo rang up to ask why I hadn’t already looked him up. I knew Johnny from Bar Mitzvah classes and we had studied together at the Escola Americana the main reason for not having called him was that our friendship only existed because when we were kids my mum kept on pushing me as his dad was the CEO of the Brazilian branch of an important American bank.
Johnny had recently returned from Miami. Although his two older brothers had successfully established themselves there, he hadn’t liked the place and now wanted to go to college in Brazil. He was desperate for me to stay with him because in his mind I represented Rio and, believe it or not, his parents saw my presence as positive because they considered me a good student. The invitation had to be accepted because I didn’t want to risk overstaying my welcome with Carlinhos’s family. Both Johnny and I needed to prepare for the vestibular and with my parents’ help we ended up going to the same crammer, the Objetivo on Avenida Paulista, where most of the headquarters of banks and of the big corporations were located and where Johnny’s family lived in their huge apartment. My new situation was excellent. I didn’t have to lift a finger – there were two maids and a chauffeur, I had a room and free food and sometimes Johnny and I enjoyed hanging out together to chase Paulista girls impressing them with our carioca mannerisms.
In São Paulo, even the vestibular was of a higher level than that of Rio. First, there was a general multiple-choice test and a week later, there was a paper specifically focusing on the candidate’s chosen course involving writing an essay. Included on the test were subjects that weren’t in Rio’s curriculum and when I was confronted with four or five questions on Portuguese literature, which I’d never studied before, I knew that was the end of the road for me.
This was my first defeat after a long run of achieving everything that I had set out to do. I considered staying on in São Paulo for another year to try again but, amidst the height of the economic depression, even I could recognise that this was not a viable option. Also, things had taken a turn for the worse at home. Dad had suffered another heart attack and I knew that it was time to go back to Rio to be a good son for once.