Hotshit Latin-American film director pulls up in front of my six-room pension in a massive SUV. His Nicaraguan wife breaks once from her cell phone to ask if I brought a jacket as we drive into Condesa, a shiny district that could be South Beach, the Meatpacking District, etc. We go into a lounge: all white décor, beautiful people, gold earrings. Hotshit tells me how Subcomandante Marcos has been rebuked for criticizing the new leaders of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution). This makes him happy. We take a table and I start rolling a joint. Hotshit’s wife, dressed all in white, matching the bar, comes back from the bathroom and sits down. She stares hard at me and says loudly so the table next to us can hear: “When a lady returns to the table, it is classy to stand up until she sits.” Then whispers something nasty about me in Spanish to Hotshit.
I’ve got to take it because I’m alone and a guest in their city. I try and resume the conversation with Hotshit, but wife keeps up the evil whispering. She expected me to be a bourgeois writer from New York. She wanted someone she could show off around town.
“Let’s go outside,” says Hotshit.
We walk onto the patio. Elvis is blaring over the sound system. Everyone is wearing Ralph Lauren, Versace or Von Dutch. Hotshit says, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re really very American. You’re coming off to my wife as too much of an American.”
The irony here is fucking unstoppable. These people are trying to recreate every stupid American magazine on the rack. But I am an American. I eat macaroni and cheese and think it’s great. I grew up on Black Flag and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I drink tequila, smoke pot and get overly enthusiastic about dogshit and bubblegum.
Hotshit nervously asks me to stay as I say adios. I take a cab back to the hotel and drink mescal in my room.
Humming 7 Seconds, “Walk Together, Rock Together” on the way to Mercado El Chopo, the rock n’ roll street market where the Mexico City youth go to trade CD’s, dig clothes, and get down with each other in this gloomy homogenized world. Come to a massive Wal-Mart. Every local business around it is dead and gone, same as in the States. Go inside and it’s the same glut of products, aisles, and white noise as America, except the people aren’t fat. I hit the pharmacy and ask for Valium. White coat gets off on telling me that Valium is now a controlled substance in Mexico. He’s real proud, like Mexico is on the rise now because Valium is no longer available over the counter.
Mercado El Chopo is on a dirt road behind Buenavista train station. Masses of disaffected youth in dark colors, the scenes within the rock subculture demarcated like back in high school: goths with dark eyeliner and white make-up, freakers with Metallica shirts and ripped jeans, punks wearing Exploited t-shirts, skinheads with suspenders and sideburns.
Mexicans make good rockers: blood maroon streaks in straight black hair, facial piercings that bring out the Aztec, bodies skinny from not having too much. That said, a group of skinheads is sitting on a station wagon, arms crossed, with a Nazi flag draped on the hood. I go up to the big skin wearing no shirt and red suspenders to get the low down on this bullshit: “Que pasa con la swastika, vato. Soy de Nuevo York, tengo muchos amigos judios. Entiendes?”
The kid gets all nervous and tries to explain that the swastika doesn’t mean for them what it means for everyone else in the known world. The swastika, he tells me, is their way of showing that they reject society. I tell him that it’s fucked up and he should put it away. He’s a dumb kid with misplaced energy, but 2005 has enough sewage.
Come to a group of punks passing out info on Chiapas. I give them 30 pesos for their free newsletter, then sit on the curb and start reading. One punk wearing a Subhumans shirt comes over and sits next to me. I say “Mickey Mouse is Dead/Got kicked in the head” from an old Subs tune. We talk about the EZLN. Most things are secret, poor people’s lives are on the line. I brought with me an old punk compilation that I trade with him for an issue of his ’zine. On the cover it reads La Vida es un Sueno, Pero Debes Alquiler. Life is a dream where you have to pay rent.
I follow the smell of food onto a street and come to a woman standing over a frying pan lit by a fire in a sawed-off trashcan. The woman fries me up a chile relleno and wraps it up in a fresh corn tortilla. Needless to say it’s fucking great. But I am now in a sketched out neighborhood. A dude with stringy black hair is coming toward me. I try to step away, but before I can he spits at my boots and says, “Es Mexico, PUTO!” Fuck it. He’s right.
There are at least 10 thousand people in the plaza outside the Metro station. There are so many people in this city. The sheer mass makes me feel insignificant. The subway car is sweltering. I sit down on the floor next to an indigenous dude no taller than 5 feet. Everyone is staring at me. I’m wearing a black wife beater. Two dipshits in cowboy hats make fun of my tattoos. The stream of people selling batteries and crap is about the same as in New York. I buy a candy bar and a little girl with no shoes puts her hand out. I give it to her.
I get off in San Angel after a 40-minute ride. This is an affluent colonia. I feel like I’m in La Jolla. Go into another massive Wal-Mart, ask where the Plaza San Jacinto is and get scrutinized by the sales clerk for being unkempt. Priceless. Pass by a Blockbuster, then a Starbucks, then a Volvo dealership. Get to Mercado Sabado in the Plaza San Jacinto. Winding alleys, alfa romeos, cobblestones, the whole 9. I am in an upscale arts and crafts market: day of the dead skeletons, fancy tequila glasses, silver from Taxco, artists selling paintings meant to hang over dinner tables. This is where rich people come to buy shit for their homes. Lots of beautiful women with perfect ankles and thin leather sandals. Good-looking men wearing expensive watches with their sleeves rolled up. I overhear a couple getting excited about new wine glasses for their dinner party. A gay couple is talking about a party later at the W Hotel.
There’s nothing to do here but shop and play at being well-adjusted. After ten minutes I get bored and leave.
I’m doing push ups on the floor of my hotel room. 100 with hands at different angles, dips using two chairs, then crunches. I’m getting pumped for La Lagunilla—a.k.a. the “The Thieves Market” where they sell back to you on Sunday what they stole from you on Saturday. This is the city’s largest. The hotel owner told me not to go. The travel books guarantee rape and murder.
I take the metro to Plaza Garibaldi. Street level there’s traffic, cars honking exhaust, kids pulling at my pants for money, stalls selling used wrenches, underwear, goat meat, the basics. The market goes on for 30 blocks, maybe 100. I have no idea, I can’t see beyond five feet in front of me. People cram in tiny little alleyways between the stalls. I’m constantly having to fight for position. The tarps above each stall are for shade, but make it hotter. I feel a jab in my back. Check to see if there’s blood, nothing. A tug at my pants pocket. I can’t handle this without alcohol so buy a beer from a dude selling them out of a shopping cart. He dumps my Bohemia into a plastic cup filled with red chili powder. I ain’t no gringo, but it’s like drinking straight Tabasco sauce. I hear Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and go toward the music.
There is an extreme goth—skirt, platform boots, black lace—sitting on a crate surrounded by black t-shirts with Aztec designs. I offer my Tabasco sauce. He takes it, smiles and invites me into his stall. While trying one a t-shirt, I tell him about the bullshit in Condesa, about the boring yuppie market in San Angel, about how America feels like a tomb, how we’re all waiting for something to happen….I’m sick of art, politics, activism—nothing feels original. Nothing is dangerous. I don’t need any more information. I’ve come here to find hope. Esperanza. I know it makes no sense.
He makes like he’s smoking a joint with his fingers and points to the back corner of his stall. We sit next to each other, knee to knee, and pass the joint back and forth. I’m tired of struggling with language. I say, “Lenny Bruce.” He says, “Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.” I say, “George Bush is a piece of shit,” and we both nod our heads.
He shows me photos of his artwork. Small portraits of average people on metal wrapped in barbed wire. Dents and rust make the people looked warped. The barbed wire reminds me of my father in prison.
We sit quietly watching the masses roll by his stall. Time moves and fractures with the waves of people.
“It’s a fuckin’ nightmare,” I say in English. And am surprised with where my head is at.
The smog is bad today. I was at Teotihuacan earlier, the largest pyramid complex in Latin America. Now I’m at the 7-11 across from the hotel, sitting next to the coffee machine, drinking a beer. I was going to go to the Frida Kahlo Museum, but I’m not in the mood.
The pyramids at Teotihuacan were impressive, but the society was stratified as hell. I thought of the tradesman who must have kept looking up at the priests atop the pyramids muttering to himself: “Fuck those bitches.”
Here at the 7-11, in this bad air and sick heat, we are as far away from the gods as you can get. The clerk is sneaking a Smirnoff Ice behind the cash register. The construction workers are tearing up the street. Jackhammers going off, dirt in the air, Cortes wiping out the Mesoamerican civilization with 508 horses and 18 men, El Norte chewing up meat, trees, oil and souls.
At Teotihuacan I climbed 218 steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. I stood there and closed my eyes. I could feel the dark history of North America rise up through the pyramid. The sadness of the human condition is that we know we’re mired in death, but can’t do anything about it. From Teotihuacan to Manhattan, it’s been the same shit since day one.
We are all in our own personal wasteland. I could walk out of this 7-11, step in front of a bus and it would mean nothing in the grand scheme. But I think of Emiliano Zapata, rising up from the farm to demand his dignity. I think of Subcomandante Marcos choosing a life of hardship to stand up for what’s right. There are people who have set the darkness on fire.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.