La Grava

Mexico City

CORY ZIMMERMAN

 
As a city, it is always compelling. But Everyday in Mexico City, I give thanks I am alive.
— Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu
 
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Swift evening spreads across cdmx. The city lies in dirt in a brown twilight, which smells of charcoal, exhaust and fear. All energy burns hot, like the searing streetlights, but fear mounts like erotic excitement in these chaotic nights. Mexico City waits always for sirens. Policia in action, chasing a ghost, mounted machine guns in truck beds, ski masks and body armor, Policia in action. Sismo alarms, people sleeping away from their homes at night, in the streets, as their homes fall from grace, from bribery, from structural failure, from corruption, and deviations. 

 
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The city seizes to laugh and grows internally sick, anxious, neurotic, Mass trauma. Sirens whale, their long fingers searching the nerves. Nighttime patrols of the great masked men, splashing by on mysterious missions or bound for a taqueria. Motorcades roar by, huge trucks, filled with arm Policia, sirens in full cry, either to visit the taqueria or move restlessly about the city earning a living for their wives. In the market where the fruits are stuff of fable, the scent of food is the mating call. The appetite for food matches that of the appetite for woman, and that is admired. Food and women are the God and queen. 

 
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On the way to the palace stands the angel, the highest monument of all with a sword she slays hunger and lust with abundance and fortune, and liberty. In the markets fertility is gold. When the sirens of the Policia pass, the thrusting shafts of the headlights are replaced by the burn of the bear light bulbs of the food stalls, and the Sirens of the tamale, the sweet potato, and the lady of the night. Reggae-ton and mariachi compete for the air. Motorbikes with strained writers on the edges of the crumbling road, swerving in and out of the constant Jam of traffic. The ladies shelter in the doorways in their fishnets. Their siren is of a tense night. 

 
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The boy girls in the old city, their long hair hiding their Adam's apples, their low gowns reveal their cleavages, their faces are masked with thick layers of makeup, beauty trouble by heavy chins. Locked out of normalcy, addicts of substance, of feigned luxuries, of fading Futures, they wait the night, after night, alongside the women they aspire, tucked... “Chit chit", howl's for attention, they haunt the city's dreams. The Sismo alarm, and they dissolve into the sea of common man, whom flee their crumble towers into the street, for the street is a haven, for lovers, tacos, sirens, liberty, life, music, and fright. A fright so thick one must perpetually transcend the vibration, the hum of the city is within the bones, the mortal coil of dread, howl’s, the cry for attention, The cry for life. They cry feed me. Love me. Save me. See me. Hear me. I am here. We are here. We are afraid. But we are Brave. But we are proud.

 

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Bathing in a crowd that jams the alleyway market between old 19th century buildings, once prestigious homes of a forgotten time and people, with walls of dingy stucco, crumbling, exposing their brick underbellies, dark-haired heads bob through the night under sun eaten awnings, like the sails of a ghost ship. I dunk and weave under bear electric bulbs, staring from side to side, as though searching for someone. 

 
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Behind a stall displaying cheap sunglasses and jewelry stands a tall woman in a little shop full of unglazed ceramics, she wears a tight short dress, heavy makeup, and red mittens on her hands in spite of the heat. She gives me a long stare and winks, her hair has been bleached to a reddish hue. She presses her swollen lips and bats her heavy black eyelashes. Her figure is full framed, curves to die for. Her heels sky high, matching the red hue of her wet lips, which almost disguise the plainness of her face, for if it were not for all the flare, she would not have much character at all, besides her long front teeth.

 
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I'd like to say she has a respectful air, but I respect her nonetheless, and offer her a kind grin of gratitude in return. Her attempts to swoon the güero fall short, as she winks again and jerks her head toward the back of the store, indicating the obvious, her knitted fingers pressed together though in prayer. I carry on, and wish her the best, as I fade from sight behind a loose tarp that flaps in the charcoal scented breeze.

 
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There is a second city that lives behind the outward face of Mexico City, a city-within-a-city, a city hiding in plain sight, a city fed by the hungry. This second city lives and flourishes amongst neglect and darkness, for the bridge connecting these two cities was built strong upon begging, winking, smiling, head jerking, wool mittens, dirty hungry children, and thirsty men.

 
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There is no shame in eyes wide open, but for now let's walk on, and let the shadows of the subconscious, be just that. So I move forward past the smell of something being fried in coconut oil, past the shadows and radio jingles, the laughter of invisible women, past faces fantastic and distinct, and passed the mocking calls of “Hey güero!”. Fading into the Chilango haze, I bathe in this city, I bathe in this night.

 

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There seemed nothing to do now, but retreat to my room and attempt a siesta despite the utter lack of silence of this place. I don't mind my own company as a rule, although I had no reading material, and was not in the mood for my own thoughts, which were ridden with anxiety and dread. I did have a radio, the only chance I had at drowning out the constant roar of jet planes, traffic, horns, bells, whistles, hollers, and the million voices all murmuring at once in my head, but I could not divert my attention by listening to a news broadcast I could not comprehend, and the music, the music seem to sprinkle my anxiousness to full vitality. There was nothing to do but wait it out.

 
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Naked on the narrow bed, I sweat and toss for what seemed, again, like the longest hours of my life. The old dusty ceiling fan did little to cool the stifling cell-like room, which was crudely functional, with peeling yellow walls, a cheap wooden cabinet, one rickety wooden chair I never dare sit upon, and a single thin planed window with a yellow stain curtain overlooking the laundry draped roof tops of Santa Maria La Ribera. What was I doing here?

 
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On the bed beside me lies a sweat stained pillow I thought about hugging, but instead punch with frustration and sweep off onto the floor. I would see the humor of this later, but not now. Suddenly a señorita in a thin red dress appears out my the window on the adjacent roof top, draping her wet undergarments on a clothesline, and arousing my lust. I cannot sleep. I look at my watch for perhaps the hundred time, waiting for the sun to set.

 
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Just as I began to doze off a loud rumbling noise shook the whole building and I jump to my feet, as I always do since the earthquake, but soon enough hear the engine of the large truck driving down the street. I glance out the window but the señorita had left her undergarments alone to dry in the breeze. I curse and try again to shrug off the thick layer of dread, then sink back into bed and doze off to the sound of sirens in my head.

 

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The man reaches out and touches the infant’s smooth brown cheek with one finger, and the woman smiles. He shakes his head, and continues to lean in front of her with an accordion slung over his shoulder. He questions her about her life. She says her husband deserted her soon after they arrived in Mexico City for the US, now she lives how she can, and shares a squat with another trusted street beggar and his woman, also from Guatemala, whom she hasn't seen in over a week. 

 
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The blushed infant begins to cry and the woman loosens the top of her traditional Guatemalan garb. Her smile fades and she nods no, freeing her swollen brown breast which the infant blindly devours. A car speeds by and mariachi pours out its windows into the heat. At the end of the block shadows of comers and goers growing large and smaller in size loom alarmingly or flatten into nothing. 

 
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It took no great detective work on my part to identify her, from where she comes, and her predicament, and I’ve photographed her many times, as I do now, without notice. It is one of many photographs Ive taken of the dirty mouthed child and her mother on the street. I see them everywhere I go, always hovering on the edges of one consciousness, always hungry, and always dirty. The infant blind to reality if not for the searing sun, the hunger pangs, and the broken streets. 

 
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Often she winks and jerks her head back, but usually she just smiles, exposing her neglected teeth, asking for a peso to feed her and her forever hungry child. I've never assumed she was a prostitute, her filth, and the presence of her child doesn't fit, and she always looks up from her squat respectfully. Her rough expression, and although neglected, prominent teeth, remind me of anything but lustful thoughts. She is odd. 

 
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But I am certain any given night, she winks and gives the conspiratorial jerk of the head to the right man of thirst, and with her little girl, in spite of the risk leads him into the consequence of the night, for maybe he could answer her dreams. She stops in the last bit of light and turns to him, pointing to the little girl and then gives the mouth-to-belly sign of hunger. 

 
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A few weeks later, I see her again, I see that she is pregnant. She looks up at me this time with no smile, no prominent teeth within her grin, and she gracefully extends her palm, the universal gesture of the beggar. I put money in her hand, and hurry away without looking back, without taking her photo. She is one of the thousands of such Central America or indigenous Mexican women, trapped and reduced by this capital city. 

 
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Back in my room, I drop my weight on the bed and look at the photographs I’ve tacked to the otherwise bare walls. I focus on the photo of the woman seated, nursing her infant. It is one of the best I've ever taken, touching and strange, her face entirely solemn, and deeply shadowed under the cheekbones. Her offered breast looks ponderous enough for stone, and the sickly infant, its eyes closed appears to be swooning away from the black fruit of the nipple as though from an abundance it cannot bear. Under this picture is a note I’ve pinned, it reads “She is life”. 

 
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And I Ponder, “What is my excessive concern for the poor and why has this woman appeared to have become its personification?” And I realize she also personifies something else, something more complex, The mystery in women. “Is this my dark side, my lonely deprivation, or just the outcome of my devouring curiosity?” I genuinely and passionately hate abuse of the body and neglect of the spirit. Still maybe in all honesty it is nothing more than the fruit of voyeurism. 

 
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But I don't see Compassion or idealism as automatically cancelling when some subterranean stream can be identified beneath. And our current cartoon philosophy, opposites, and even two sides of the same coin, cannot coexist. I prefer the medieval wisdom which says that lust thwarted can become love, and that the barriers to the body can lift the spirit. Civilization is based on whats called hypocrisy whether we like it or not. I tend now to my dignity, and mock neither my passion or my compassion, but ask myself “What then must we do?” But I know the answer…We must give and give, whatever we can.

 

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I woke to find it was nearly dark, the room was hotter than ever, and darkness made the air seem suffocating. Alarm gripped me. I could not understand my dream, but it had given me a feeling of dismal isolation. I squinted at out my luminous Swiss watch. 7:15. I sprang from bed and threw open the curtains, a panel of light from the glow of the city split the darkness in two. I dressed quickly, and hurried for my prison. The low corridors were empty and silent, as was the stairwell. 

 
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An old man in a starched white jacket materialized before me like a ghost, he struggled with each step down the steep spiraling stairs. I walked slowly behind him nervously grinding my thumbnail into the fatty palm of my other hand, as he fumbled with his set of keys, searching with cataract eyes to find the one for the front entrance. I felt lucky there was no Sismo alarm, for surely I would not make it without throwing him out of the way. I braced patiently on the external, while screaming internally. He reached with a shaky hand to slide a key into the lock, but failed. He fumbled more. My heart raced, yet I stood still as stone, not wanting to steal his dignity. 

 
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It was about eight o'clock, well after dark by the time I made it out onto the street. I had taken to moving at night about shadier sections of the city on foot, partly to watch the life of night, and partly my restlessness flirting with danger. Down the alley between leaning buildings under tattered sails of awnings, I was carried in the human river that filled the market from one side of the other, through the thread of bare light from dangling electric bulbs. A heavily built prostitute with oiled, curly hair, and a short cotton dress, was born in one of the eddies and drifted to my side, smiling into my face like a dull school girl on her first date, murmuring her ritual question with maddening frequency, although I shook my head as I always do, no. I could hear her “Chit…Chit” toward the back of my head, as I lost sight of her about halfway along the alleyway. 

 
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I savor these markets, in spite of the chaos, even during my most anxious moments, even during my panic. From the cave like entrance, to the dimly lit faces, the muttered invitations and damnations, the cheap sunglasses, the frying food, blinding lights, square shoulders, black hair, racks of cheap shirts, and the combs, the shoddy array of household utensils, the dark wondering eyes, the jolts of fear, the static faces, the frozen, the dramatic, the constant sensation of fight or flight, the plunge into the savory crowd, flush in any direction from which I had come. The smell of frying oil, shoulders side by side, teeth clenched, unable to run outright due to the press of bodies, the skidding forward over decaying vegetables and pools of blood.

 
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My height gave me the advantage of a view ahead. A group of half-naked small boys played in the entrance of an alley, but inside it is deserted, being a little more than a fisher, it’s only illumination coming from shattered windows two or three stories up. The place was filled with a remarkable stench perhaps from the small mountains of baby swine carcasses, which caused my heart to race. I was dizzy. The hammering of feet echoed off the walls. I was no runner, besides my legs were shaking, and the panic was blocking my way. My back now to the seeping wall, I wanted to laugh, but did not, staring down my green eyes fixed in fear. 

 
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There was no doubt in my mind that I had to fight, without explanations, without hope, yet my anger struggled against some sort of shame, embarrassment, weakness. The intensity of the completely unknown threat filled my nose with fear and dried my mouth like cotton. I couldn’t swallow. I felt vertigo coming on and my hands began to quiver. “What are you going to do,” I asked myself, “die?” Trying to catch my breath, chest heaving, sweat on my face, the whites of my eyes catching the dull light, I reminded myself “The only one harming you is yourself!” Desire, lust, fear and anger, that's the sequence for the sensual man, for all of society. “Now get mad goddammit, get angry and fight.” I grit my teeth until I felt I would shatter my jaw. Then, I said aloud, “You're a fucking nut,” and with clinched fists, I pushed off the wall and back into the sea.

 

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A no man's land of broken ground. Here you come to the attention of scores of eyes. A permanent crowd of vagrants keeping watch over the forbidden gravel, and they can't believe their eyes to see a foreigner going on foot. It was a dismal scene, it seemed many had never moved, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, brown legs and arms dangling like charred branches, dreaming a dream that would soon dissolve into nothing. Others seemed to be wandering without purpose. With my jacket over my arm I walked quickly, my face already sweaty. What street lights there were seemed on the point of fading out. 

 
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Reaching the cracked and potholed highway, humble food stalls of the poor began to creep along its edges, it's traffic consisting mostly of bicycles and taxis from another era, many with cardboard for windows, paper strewn everywhere as they pass by buildings abandoned mid-construction. The highway seemed safe enough as long as I avoided anymore side streets. I knew street hold-ups were common even during the daylight, let alone at night, and that the Policia often would look on and that many of the crooks themselves were Policia, or were dressed as Policia. It was difficult to tell who was who. 

 
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There were fewer buildings now as I moved to the outskirts toward a territory of deeper and deeper darkness. A small man, shirtless, greasy black hair in his eyes, soiled white trousers, appeared out of the darkness before me, failing to acknowledge my presence, he quickly disappeared into the darkness behind me. Then a taxi slowed down beside me, “No gracias” I said, waving my hand, thinking he’d probably love to take me to a quiet place for him and his friends to rob. 

 
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Ahead I could see lights, it was the market for the poor. I walked on the muddy ground beside the highway and along crumbling wall to my right toward the flares in the night, burning with uncertainty. Once I reached the sea of tattered awnings, the condition of the people was revealed. They lived in this wasteland place, a shanty settlement where along this highways cold zone, they had spawned this warm complex hive where they had set up these stalls to sell each other questionable meats, lurid drinks, cheap cigarettes, and nicknacks. 

 
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I moved down the aisles as though at a carnival in an unconscious delight, like a child immersed in gimmick and grim, laughter and misery, carnal nakedness, threadbare nakedness, fear and toys. A puzzling scent, like the smell of heat itself had intensified. It was possibly the cigarettes the poor smoke, mingling with spiced meat being cooked over charcoal braziers. Dark faces floated every which way, lit only from behind by braziers, by flames, and bear electric bulbs. 

 
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To my left I stopped at a stall selling paperback books, an old man behind the table stared up at me. I stared back, neither of us saying anything, the pile of dated novels and a language barrier between us. A plump man stood at the corner of the table in a polo shirt, hairy belly exposed around the waist, staring intently into a thick romance novel under a bare bulb. Refusing to show the uneasiness I felt, I casually walked away. 

 
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A man in a baseball cap turned skewers of meat next to one of the many doorless enclaves that had been constructed sporadically within this maze of delight, rooms so small they were little more than boxes, and could not be stood up in, children’s playhouses, which gave a voyeuristic glimpse into the gaunt private life of the half naked children, dirty, lying limp and bored on sheets of cardboard, playing the game of poverty. Cramped next to them, beside a small table a middle-aged woman, sat on the ground in a battered gown, deep crevices in her face, heating water in a discarded tin can over the small flame of a candle, her broad check bones casting the same deep shadows as the surrounding sorrow, looks up at me with bottomless eyes, black holes suspended in void, a vast darkness where this life had abandoned her bones, her soul sucked dry, her breaths numbered.

 
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I broke free with a gasp of air, yet was suddenly hit with a wave of uncertainty that made my legs tremble, my enjoyment of my adventure was mixed with a nagging consciousness of my isolation as a foreigner, remembering the warnings about sudden hostility and bands of market thieves. I struggled to the deal with my usual way of absorbing whatever misery comes in front of me. I was searching for a phrase to dismiss the pain and the awkwardness that accompanied intruding on another’s way of life, naively assuming that one would feel shame or embarrassment at my presence, but I hadn't a clue. “Why was I here?”, this static question, this simple expression was all that bound us, and that neither of us were aware of the answer. 

 
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I hurried down the aisle, bumping into shoulders, tripping over my own feet, eventually reaching the far end of the cavernous market, and out into open air, where rain had begun to fall onto the threadbare ground, pattering the awnings behind me. Without looking back, I threw myself into the back of a waiting cab. “To the City” I told the driver, whom slowly pulled onto the wet highway, off of a high curb which scraped the bottom of the frame. Soon we were wheeling under burnt out street lights away from the glow of the lonely market, and back toward the city that had pushed these people to the brink, to the fringes, to the fray. 

 
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Sheets of heavy rain now pounded the hood of the car and visibility was sparse as I looked out the windshield down the desolate highway, its potholes now pools, the rims of the tires slamming into them with a bang. For a moment the driver and I made eye contact in the rearview mirror. “Please don't rob me” I insist silently with a glare. But all I saw in his eyes was a concern for the rain. I saw that something so simple as rain can unite, that through all of the fabrics of life there are common threads that can bind us.

 
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