“Esto es un lugar muy peligroso,” says our driver,self appointed minister for tourism, as he pulls his cab away from the Terminal del Norte bus station, making a left toward Mexico City, or irrevocable change as I like to call it, the flat city, the largest land mass of people of any one city in the world city. “This is a very dangerous place,” he adds redundantly.
It is nighttime. Black and white time, with hues of grey. The three hour bus journey from Veracruz had been plagued by homosexuals contemplating the ring tones of their mobile phones, and a strange, disjointed conversation between the three of us concerning female anatomy and whether one should focus on the camel toe in public.
CALEB: “It’s a wonderful invention.”
ME: “What’s that? The television?”
CALEB: “No, the laughing Danny.”
BEN: “He had a machine in the back of his house that would rattle loudly in the middle of the night.”
ME: “Is it camel toe or camel foot?”
BEN: “It’s a dehumidifier.”
And so on, to the accompaniment of polyphonic bursts of the Village People performing YMCA.
Our introduction to Mexico City is a commentary from the taxi driver on life having no value, as well as good advice on all the “places to go for a murder and a mugging.” Life has no value, life has no value, he repeats in the mannered way a lunatic will attempt to qualify his sanity. Life has no value life has no value but our purpose is to reach the Hotel del Angel in the busy social area of the city known as Zona Rosa, the “pink zone,” pink representing gayness of the safe kind and the colour of many of its buildings. This is our destination, but our driver instead takes us ten blocks north of the Zocalo to a dead land known as Tepito.
If La Santa Muerte had a holy land, Tepito would be its bruised and bloody shame. Ben, who has visited seventy two countries, has never seen anything like it. Not even in Rio de Janeiro, he says.
This puts Ben in mind of Rio de Janeiro and the curiously agitated cop who stopped him there two years earlier for a routine search, a strange affair that comprised nothing more than Ben having to take off his shoes and socks and place his feet in the lap of the noble officer for a ten minute shakedown of the toes.
“He was clearly getting his jollies,” Ben recalls of the cop with a big 10-4.
But Tepito is not jolly, it is a wasteland exhibiting the kipple of a burned out planet with bleak streets that converge for an 8PM curfew on the vecinclades, the temporary shelters that spilled over and became permanent homes with rent fixed at one cent a month. The economy of Tepito has grown and collapsed with black market trade, a seismic shift that has had a more devastating impact on the cultural landscape than the earthquake that tore through it two decades ago.
Economy now of course is drugs and some of the vecinclades are replaced with apartment blocks whose rotten cramped dwellings with paper thin walls breed psychotic neighbours with howling dogs. The authority in Mexico City conveniently ignores Tepito, as it ignores the trash that is piled knee high beneath the extinguished street lamps. The only illumination is the timorous beam of our dipped headlamps as they bore a lonesome path.
Ten murders a day in Tepito and a police force not willing to respond to a single one of them, not since the riots in November 2000 when the police where forced out of the neighbourhood by a mob refusing to let them haul away the stolen electrical goods and handguns that had been confiscated that morning.
And then — el conductor del taxi está loco — the driver stops the car.
He cab driver sweeps his hands as if to signal that we have arrived and have to get out. This isn’t what we expected of Zona Rosa, the safe, predominantly gay inner sanctum of Mexico City where our hotel is located. We don’t believe that this is Zona Rosa at all. In fact we know it isn’t but get out anyway when the driver produces a gun, surveying the scene with its black barrel.
My only desire is to see lucha libre, a Mexican wrestling match, you cunt. How do you say “you cunt?”
There is no protest song, no choice but to give it up, to leave the horses and continue the climb on foot. Making no sudden moves the three of us are out of the old Chrysler Le Baron and out on the streets of dread, where not a true soul can be seen but maleficent threat hangs in the air, a fetid fog. In 1945 this barrio was marked as one of the worst places to live in Mexico, and if there has been any improvement since we are going to have to get on our knees and claw beneath the shit with our fingers to find it.
“Have a good life, my friend,” says Cal as the cab pulls away with our 700 pesos tip. Quick-draw McGraw is travelling so slowly through the rubbish it would be easy to wade through it and reach the vehicle and question him about Tepito and whether it has seen change for the better over the years. Perhaps even indulge in a little chaos and violence, if we were foolish and so inclined.
The first rule of travel is to travel with purpose in one’s stride. Striding with purpose is how we had travelled through the Terminal del Norte bus station, a bleak place but not as bleak as Tepito, arriving purposefully at the glass front of the desk that dealt with the sitios taxis, the legitimate taxis.
The desk was empty and remained empty, causing a queue of people requiring transportation to form that signalled to the wolves on the periphery that fresh tourist meat was about. We wanted not to be around when any strays from the pack got gobbled up and so sought an alternative route.
Andres at the Bartola in Veracruz had warned us to be careful in Mexico City and the Internet said always take the right kind of cab. The tail lights disappearing into the night ahead of us this minute belong to one of the wrong cabs, a Chrysler Le Baron with beat up paint work that we skipped the queue at Terminal del Norte to find outside on the street.
I am wishing I had a leather-coated mind when considering safety in numbers is merely an illusion. This isn’t happening. Where the night breathes the precise sound one would expect of a Third World sprawl that spans one hundred and twenty blocks, up and down the streets only debris. Above us a terrible sky this isn’t happening.
“Well, I’m safe,” I suddenly decide of our predicament. “I have the heart of Santa Muerte on my chest.”
Sure enough that heart is now also bleeding, having been cut into my flesh only this morning. Itching and bitching, too, Luis and Andersson. Itching like a bitch.
We begin to walk with purpose towards the first exit we can find, luggage on our shoulders, the Tepito death rattle vibrating in our souls. Only true delinquents accept a life here, everyone has a gun and anyone who doesn’t have a gun performs their hold ups with a rabid pit bull on a short leash. Cal is a betting man: he wagers that we don’t make it out alive, but he is proven wrong and we do make it and Cal loses the wager, what comes next in Tepito is the strangest sight we will ever see.
Through streets that police and even whores will not tread, in and out of shadow a young woman sweeps lightly towards us holding a baby to her chest. She has been transposed through this time from another, of this we are certain. She moves in a flowered blouse unaware that she has faded from her beautiful place and arrived in this one.
Our paths touch fleetingly.
“¿Está bien usted, el fallo?” asks Ben. “Are you okay, Miss?”
“Un pequeño animal que encoge sus hombros muy muy lejos un más grande uno uno uno,” she says without stopping, not smiling and not sad and not making sense, simply moving toward the dangerous epicentre of the dangerous city from whence we came.
“A small animal shrinking its shoulders very far away a larger one one one.”
From nowhere to nothing, alone with the infant she clutches tightly she is gone in a moment, into the maze of tragic housing, her words trailing behind her. In search of meaning, in search of space, in search of place, who knows? If we could stop her and tell her to go back we would. Not unlike Elvis down at the end of Lonely Street however, it is too late for that. Not that way, Miss. That way is only heartbreak and misery, keep away from it. Come with us.
And when we make it to the other side of Tepito we are alive, find the exit and beyond that is Zona Rosa and the Hotel del Angel.
Nothing can hurt us now. Nothing can hurt us anymore.
And so begins our ascension.
At 4:54AM Cal paints a picture of the events surrounding his balls, but first the staff in the hotels of hate and lucha libre.
A passport is not a requirement when checking into a hotel in Mexico, so if one ever commits a murder, Mexico is the logical place to run to and hide. We contemplate friends that may benefit from brutality back home and then dismiss the idea on the realisation that nobody running the hotels in Mexico likes us very much, and would gladly give us up to the police. In Mexico City the people running the hotels detest us with a passion. Here in the flat city, we aren’t able to leave our room without the electronic key code being changed to prevent our re-entry, which more often than not results in harsh words and gestures. It happens so often during our two days at Hotel del Angel that we are forced to arraign the receptionist at every available opportunity. It really isn’t worth our time to take the elevator to the second floor to check the state of the door to our room because the door to our room will be locked. The night watch receptionist, so stoned he literally doesn’t know what day it is and cannot remember how to find out, suffers the worse of our indignation when we return from the VIP gentleman’s club early one Saturday morning.
“By Cal’s crushed balls, you’ve changed the lock again!” we yell at him the instant he buzzes us through the entrance.
We flip the plastic credit card size key onto the desk with a flourish that suggests we come from Tepito but we do not belong there. A bounce takes the key into the air and as it descends so collapses the rapport we have been systematically destroying with the Hotel del Angel. The receptionist goes insane and curses blind that we should have died in that taxi and furthermore our mothers enjoy sexual pleasures from rabbi dogs, a hostility symptomatic of the hostility we encounter from Mexican hoteliers in general, hating us not because of who we are but who we are not. We are not you, we appear to be saying to them, we gringos are the opposite of your hard working selves with the money to prove it and you would like to be us.
We are gringos, if a little less gringo than the American gringos, who belong to a genus as removed from us as it is from Mexicans, but we are gringos all the same.
We decide to celebrate this new understanding with cigars from Cuba.
Down a road that takes us in the vague direction of Arena Coliseo where lucha libre — the wrestling — can be found on any given Sunday we come across a man with Cuban cigars. In a bright yellow “athletica” t-shirt but looking like the one least likely to succeed he pulls back his lips for a grin of big gums when Cal shows an interest in his wares. Ben wades in immediately, able to smell blood, and starts to haggle over the established price of five cigars for US$30. Ben will haggle over the wind and the rain and anything because he hates to feel as though he is being ripped off, which he claims is what everyone is about when it comes to money, his or ours. He can’t help himself, something to do with three years in law school and a voracious appetite for fat sex. Snatching pennies from the smashed souls of paupers is a disposition of the inhuman, we tell him. But still it gives us pleasure to watch Ben at work, so effortlessly does he do the snatching.
The haggling has been going on for fifteen minutes.
CIGAR SALESMAN: “Hangover. Hangover. My head hurt.”
BEN: “Really? That’s why it’d be better if we gave you twelve dollars; that way you could go home and buy a cure for your hangover.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “I tol’ you. I no want to rip you.”
BEN: “You do! That’s your main aim!”
MR CALEB: “We’re Puma fans as well. We’re Puma fans.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “I tol’ you, I tol’ you—“
BEN: “If you sell us this for twelve dollars the Pumas will win on Saturday.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “Let’s make a deal: twenty three.”
BEN: “Twenty three? Twenty three! Is that how you treat all your friends?”
And so it goes until the cigar man with gums wants no more a part of it and gives to
Cal a box of five Cuban cigars in exchange for a quart of tequila and a ten dollar bill.
Six girls we later meet in a club called Cortesia tell us they cannot understand why we should want to go to see lucha libre. To them lucha libre is something of an embarrassment and they cannot understand. Big men in face masks throwing one another around is a thing of a generation past, it is old Mexico from which they are distanced, being modern people with internet access. Lucha libre has yet to reach a state where it stops being what it is and becomes what it is to understand irony.
Inside the Arena Coliseo it is a capacity crowd and the excitement is mounting. We have good seats, we have good seats four rows from the front in the stalls, next to a young mother with a three month old infant on the one side of us and on the other side a girl of eighteen, but probably twelve, about whom I should say no more advises Ben.
Given the cheers, rattles and air horns all around, it is a relief that the delicate ears of the infant are protected by delicate infant ear plugs, which we would have noticed sooner had we not been held up by police.
The police found us easily in the market square, three gringos bothering fish selling tradesmen for directions to the Arena Coliseo, and they made a great pantomime of checking our papers, as if to show to the world that everything in Mexico City was under control now that they were checking our papers.
“Nobody laugh. Or run,” Ben whispered as the police signalled stop with a leisurely left hand and beckoned us over.
He meant it. These cops were young and moved effortlessly through people that feared and hated them, their mirror shades representative of the worse kind of hate filled eyes.
They carried enough weaponry to immobilise a tank in a military coup and it did not bring us joy to have our passports looked upon as if guilt was waiting to be found therein.
Your papers are in order, the cops said with a simple nod of the head. Now go.