I was listening to Francisco Canaro and his 1920s Tango orchestra when I noticed I was running on empty. I pulled into a gas station on Meeting Street, not far from the Charleston waterfront. The sun had set hours before, the sky was deep lavender, and bullfrogs were calling from the marsh. I leaned against the car, holding the gas nozzle, and closed my eyes, moving imperceptibly in time with the music. And then I heard, faintly, another song wafting softly on the humid evening air. I crossed the street, following the song, and turned into an alley just beyond Prioleau Street. I passed through a wrought-iron gate and a cobblestone patio, and came to a black lacquered door with polished brasses. An etched glass transom showed a poised cobra and the words “Hotel Fakir”. The music was louder now, and silhouetted shadows of dancers moved across the glass.
I knocked once, tentatively; the door was unlatched and swung silently open. I entered a candle-lit room. Foxed mirrors and century-old Cunard Line posters adorned the walls. A handful of men and women conversed quietly at bistro tables set to one side. The ladies’ heels and slit silk skirts accentuated their elegantly crossed legs. A lone couple was dancing to Pugliese’s sublime vals “Desde el Alma”. At the back of the room, a Tiffany lamp-shade cast a soft glow over the bar. I eased onto a barstool. Beside me, a bouquet of gladioli, clematis and orchids breathed intoxicating scents into the air. The elderly bartender, grave and formal in starched shirt and tie, set aside a polished glass and inclined his head.
“Welcome to the Hotel Fakir,” he said, and raised an eyebrow.
“Malbec, please. Nice place you have here. What is this?”
“We’ve always been here. Those who love the tango, the true aficionados, they need to dance every day. We feed that need, from late afternoon until early morning. Now that you’ve found us, you’ll always be back.”
I turned to watch the dancing couple as they swept by. Their upper bodies moved as one, and their feet flew in a syncopated rhythm of fast intertwining steps. His hand on her back traced subtle patterns of touch and go. Her eyes were closed, and the expression on her face was dreamy and peaceful. A lady in gilded stilettos sitting nearby caught my eye. She held my gaze, smiled, and took my offered hand. We embraced and swayed hypnotically for a moment, seeking the next musical phrase. The tango poised within us came to life, and we moved fluently from a walk into an ocho cortado, a molinete, and a flamboyant sentada.
Suddenly, from nowhere, cold gasoline splashed over my hands and feet as my car overflowed. The Hotel Fakir, the hypnotized cobra and my ardent partner all evaporated into the night. On the radio, Canaro and his orchestra were signing off with “La Cumparsita”, singing the melancholy words: “Tell me, Senora, what have you done to my poor heart?”
Writer from Charleston in USA