One of the Cunard Line posters that used to adorn the Hotel Fakir tango salon showed the RMS Aquitania, a luxurious ocean liner launched on the eve of the First World War. Aquitania’s towering black hull and four red funnels loomed over gliding tango aficionados, evoking an age of civility and culture that has no place in today’s insular informality. The Aquitania was built by Scots in a Clydebank shipyard and was christened by Alice, Countess of Derby, who served at the time as Queen Alexandra’s Lady of the Bedchamber. Ignatio Quiroga, bartender at the Hotel Fakir, a highly-decorated but somehow disgraced Argentine general exiled in Charleston, and himself a skilled tanguero, once mentioned that both Alice and Alexandra had been avid tangueras. Max, a college professor whose bacterial physiology lectures were popular with the few medical students who still came to class, and a frequent visitor to the Hotel Fakir where he sipped Malbec next to tropical flowers that Ignatio refreshed every day, was intrigued but skeptical.

Months after the disastrous fire, by improbable chance, Max came across the framed Aquitania poster in a run-down rural thrift-store on Johns Island in South Carolina. The glass bore sooty mementos of the gas-fueled inferno that had consumed the Hotel Fakir. On the back was a pasted book-plate depicting a poised cobra and the words “Ex Libris Ferreyra, Buenos Aires.” More improbably, while buying the poster, Max noticed behind the counter a well-worn bandoneon in a faux-leather purple-felted case. Fingering the ivory buttons inexpertly, he coaxed out a few bars of an Astor Piazzolla song. The storeowner’s pubescent daughter, bored and eager for diversion, flipped switch after switch on an ancient electric piano keyboard, and finally elicited a synthesized tango rhythm. Max thought back to the days before DJs when a bandoneon, violin, and piano trio played the crowded Fakir. The air would be permeated with the heady fragrance of ladies’ perfumes, fine wines, cigarillos and tropical flowers. Added to this potent mix were emanations of intense personal dramas driven by desire, jealousy, unrequited love and Tango.

All this was a far cry from the Gullah everyday on Johns Island. Max bought the bandoneon but passed on the synthesizer, earning a glance of reproach from the incipiently beautiful daughter. Installed in his study, visible through the open door from the hall, the Aquitania forever set out for the high seas, a tango orchestra in the great ballroom on the first-class deck faintly audible as he passed by. On a baby grand below the poster, the well-worn bandoneon languished next to a guitar and a clarinet. All four instruments once defined his musical ambitions, and now testified mutely to their abandonment. But all was not lost. Ignatio Quiroga, a man of unchallenged wisdom who was ever ready with Max’s favorite Malbec, had confided in him the key to Tango.

“Embrace your partner with care, confidence and love, and let the music pick the lock.”

The Hotel Fakir

I was listening the other night to Francisco Canaro and his 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. I moved imperceptibly in time with the music. And then I heard, faintly, a different tango song wafting softly on the humid evening air. I walked across 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 crossed the threshold into 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 seductively sublime vals “Desde el Alma”. At the back of the room, a Tiffany lampshade 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.
“Tiza 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 try to 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, and 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?”