Friday, September 26, 2008

The Mexico City Metro

Note: This is a guest post from Chris. It’s also an old post – I wrote it in a notebook a month ago, when Matt was in Cuernavaca with the computer, so it covers impressions from my first several weeks here.

22 August 2008.

Matt has been suggesting that I write a blog entry on the Mexico City Metro for a while. Now that I’m a veteran – I’ve been riding it to and from the archives for about three weeks now – I feel equipped. The Metro is one of Mexico City’s greatest accomplishments as a modern metropolis. Its many arms extend to the far reaches of the city. It is clean, it is cheap – 20 cents with unlimited transfers versus $2 in Chicago – and it is relatively efficient. Essayist Alma Guillermoprieto notes that it survived a major earthquake in the 1980s with nary a buckle.

But the Metro also symbolizes the crime and danger of Mexico City. Guidebooks warn against pickpockets and suggest that lone women may attract “unwanted attention.” Women themselves are more explicit. Women from the provinces who have spent time in Mexico City warned me against the subway, because men “touch you.” Between that and numerous warnings to skip the Metro at peak hours, I was extremely nervous about hopping on for my first ride.

So it was a surprise to me that I actually enjoyed my commute. I started riding the Metro before the universities were back in session for the fall, which eased me in nicely – my first week I always got a seat in the car. After that, the subway trains have been more crowded with young people joking loudly, flirting delicately, making out, sleeping, doing crosswords, eating breakfast, and applying makeup.

Like in Chicago, it’s fun to ride public transportation, because you encounter a broader cross-section of people than you would in the small circuit of your daily activities. Unlike Chicago – or, I should say, unlike my narrow slice of weekend red lie rides, the Metro seems to burst with activity, even in the morning when half the passengers are drowsing.

First, outside the stop, you encounter stands selling magazines – including one, prominently displayed, called Tetas (Tits) – and stands with fresh-squeezed, fresh-blended fruit juices and snacks of all kinds. On the first step down, there’s someone selling “Metro,” the tabloid newspaper for commuters. Ten steps down, a girl has spread an array of gum and breathmints and other small candies in the corner of the landing. Fifteen steps down sits an old man, facing away from the entering commuters, holding out a cowboy hat to ask for change. At the bottom of the stairs is the “official” metro stop snack shop, then the ticket window where you throw 4 pesos under the glass and say “2, please,” and the woman slides you two tickets while continuing her chat with her neighbor. You rush with everyone else toward the turnstiles, thrust your ticket in the slot, and rush down another flight of stairs, past some art on display in glass cases.

My stop, Copilco, is decorated with murals, so as I wait for the train I look at the designs on the walls. When the train comes, I jump on and look for a seat. No luck, so I sling my backpack to my front and grab an overhead handrail.

Then, depending on how groggy I feel, I space out out the window or begin to furtively watch the other passengers. A young man in a suit with a bright colored tie looks like he’s reading a legal brief. The woman next to him is grading students’ papers. Oh and what’s that delicious smell? The woman seated below me is quietly eating a tamale.

The train stops and more people get on. One of the new passengers is playing music loudly. “The greatest hits of the seventies,” he cries. “200 songs, mp3 format, 10 pesos. He looks around. Nobody seems interested. He moves along the train car, repeats his schtick. Somebody raises a hand. Another passenger gets the salesman’s attention and points out the potential client. The sale is made.

In Chicago, people have tried to sell me baby’s barrettes or tube socks on the El, but there it just seemed desperate. Here, where there is a rich tradition of “ambulantaje” – informal-sector sales – there is a thriving economy on board the Metro. There are new CDs every day – ranchera; salsa; cumbia; that 70s album which incongruously (to me) lumped the Beatles and CCR and something that sounded like Peter, Paul and Mary; a 90s American rock CD that I wish I had been savvy enough to buy; “the best in French music”… I haven’t heard a genre repeated yet. And while CDs are the most common item for sale, the start of grade school has brought pens and papers, caramel lollipops, gum drops, and other little treats for children. Then there are the performers, less frequent, but memorable: the talented guitarist who played and sang American pop tunes from the 1960s; the blind man who sang so tunelessly that his “performance” was clearly just to draw attention to his blindness; the skinny, dirty young man who chanted incomprehensibly, rolled his body over broken Coke bottles, and finished with a “muchas gracias.” Finally, there are the beggars, and there are few people that actually beg on train cars. One woman cried out in sing-song. “Excuse the bother, but I would really appreciate your contributions for my baby’s milk and the other things he needs.” Another silently handed out cards to people – my guess is that the cards either contained a prayer she hoped to sell, or they told of her plight – either way, I guessed she didn’t speak Spanish well.

The fascinating thing about this world of commerce is that the salespeople on these trains don’t seem to have much in common – they are young and middle aged, male and female, sloppy and neat. A few days ago, a young man dressed in all white tear-away warmup pants and a white jersey – stylish stuff – barely let his sales pitch interrupt his flirting with a pretty girl. Later that afternoon, a middle-aged pitchwoman marketed pens and pencils. A twenty-something woman tried a frantic strategy, saying “Buenas Tardes” to everyone on the train and thrusting something under their noses. It’s not an effective strategy – too invasive.

When the train stops at my stop, I get out, trudge upstairs, through the turnstiles, past the churro seller and the magazine stand and out to the street, to make my way to the archives.


Zach & Hannah Parris said...

This reminds me very much of my daily commutes on the micros (buses) and Metro in Santiago. It's nice to be able to picture you where you are...I love these pictures and the stories...and you!

Jane said...

Chris & Matt,
I hope you are doing well! I wanted to let you know I have been reading your's neat to read about your adventures! Matt is such a good writer!!!
Have fun!!
p.s. My butt got grabbed once on the metro when we were there :-(