To sit streetside at that restaurant on Friday night was to sample the Rio experience.
As dusk fell, a fight broke out a half a block away from the restaurant. Police cars flew in from all directions, sirens wailing. As that scene calmed, two men rushed out of Princesa Mercados, a market on the other side of the street. Four soldiers in jungle camo bearing long guns rushed after them. The two men held their hands up. The soldiers questioned them, let them go, then stalked toward the beach.
At the other end of the block, two men sprinted from a bar and ran, flat feet slapping the asphalt loudly, around the corner as another man chased them. The waiter cautioned against leaving a cellphone within reach of the street. He mimed a thief grabbing it and running.
Later, as the Opening Ceremony began northwest of the beach, a mass of humanity treated this like any other Friday night. There were beach volleyball games, paddleball games and a musical entertainer at each of the many bars along the boardwalk. One played the Oasis hit “Wonderwall” expertly and with a Brazilian accent.
There were signs of the Olympics — a few sets of rings that served as photo backdrops, and intricate sand castles incorporating the rings and Brazilian flags.
Above the rooftops you could see the favelas, the hillside slums so infamous they are the subject of tours. You can see the Miami Beach-like stretch of hotels, some dilapidated, some luxurious.
At the south end of the beach on Friday night there was a large television screen. Early in the evening it played feel-good Olympic scenes. When the ceremony began, the TV was not turned on. No one could be seen complaining.
In front of a seaside bar named Globo, a handful of people, one with a microphone, protested loudly. A large contingent of police officers stood nearby, looking bored.
At the restaurant, a young man in a white T-shirt walked around a table to reveal these words scrawled on his back: “Stop Coup in Brazil.”
To find anyone paying attention to the Opening Ceremony, you had to walk to the other side of the beachside road, to bars with large-screen televisions — although not large by American standards.
The question for American journalists is how much to make of Rio’s problems. The city and country are in the midst of corruption and recession. The Zika virus remains a problem, although winter and strong winds seem to have lessened the prevalence of mosquitoes this week.
There was a report on Friday that a kayaker was capsized by a submerged couch during practice. Is the story true? What is most telling is that is it highly believable, given Rio’s inability to clean its waterways in time for the Games.
None of the warts scars the city’s raw beauty. This is a beach city, a jungle city, a mountain city. It is lush and atmospheric. Imagine if San Francisco had Malibu Beach.
There is no doubt that Rio is corrupt and perhaps broken. Have you heard of Chicago politics?
There is no doubt that, although the beach is pristine and the outer suburbs seem like any others, Rio is filthy where it should not be. Which is remindful of Times Square as recently as the ’90s.
Rio’s roads are glutted (Los Angeles?) and its economy is flaccid (America during the mortgage crisis?), too many of its citizens live in poverty (any major American city) and its construction for these Games does not inspire confidence (a major bridge fell down in Minneapolis).
The Olympics shouldn’t be used to whitewash Rio’s problems, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the view.
Most of the people on the boardwalk during the Opening Ceremony didn’t seem to be worried about missing it. They didn’t have trouble entertaining themselves on a Friday night in The Marvelous City.