Why go to Mexico City?

One of the great things about Mexico is that it retains its identity. American cities can be generic and hold small pockets of attraction. They are sometimes so clean and orderly they are just bare collections of sidewalks and skyscrapers. Even when they are trying to be bare collections of sidewalks and skyscrapers in Mexico, they do not succeed. If you have enough sidewalk space, you will have people swarming it. If there is no public transportation, they rig some, and people will pool and eddy in and out of vehicles and buildings. Said sidewalk space will get squatters: stands will flourish, mysteriously acquiring electricity, supplied with propane. Food will arrive on motorcycles, onions will be diced, salsas set forth, cooking will ensue and smells allure. Women will mix cornmeal, men will scrape the griddle and shift steaming vegetables. The cooks will never make eye contact, but they will call to you: gorditas, flautas, huaraches, gringas, tortas, tacos, que se le ofrece? Churros are common nowadays too. What’s next, empanadas? Friers will bubble and mounds of onions steam and sizzle. That sidewalk will be transformed into a tourist destination.

You don’t want to eat at a stand that has no running water, of course. Oh they have ways to get water, but if you don’t have natural immunities, you should only smell and see. How they all manage to be brightly illuminated, where they store things overnight, how the propane tanks are safely delivered, let alone all the perishable food, remains sometimes a mystery. It would be interesting to stalk one of the vendors and see how they do it. Perhaps it comes from a nearby indoor market, because you can always find everything–including the roadside stand–in there.

Speaking of how it all works, you know what a garbage truck is? Cab, compactor body, back end where the trash is loaded? They have those in Mexico, just they turn them into a complicated warren of trash activity. The cab has decorations and looks sometimes like a living room, the back is a platform where you can see guys sitting inside of it, besides all the others hanging on in the more usual fashion. You have bags hung all around, an actual tunnel through the truck behind the cab is to be discerned, along with a person manning it. The whole things is more like an ambulating trash processing platform than a means of swiftly gathering up the trash. The vehicle has to park, not just pause. What exactly ensues, how much of the trash gets compacted, when the compacter even runs is a mystery. I doubt very much that a closed bag is ever deposited inside. Nothing is hurled. All is gently received or gathered, opened, examined, sifted with almost meditative care. I bet someone could do a whole documentary about it. This is just one example of Mexican appropriation of something we do otherwise.

One of the strengths of Mexico is that they have a cult of plants. I doubt there is a greener city in all the world than the old central districts of Mexico City where at unpredictable angles tree lined avenues with middle, shady walkways connect the splashing fountains in the chaotic roundabouts. And they have so many parks. And they have so many fountains. And they have so many shaded walks down the middle of a busy avenue, accentuating in the busy traffic the imperative of leisure. And they have so many places for people to linger, and so many people to do the lingering at all odd hours. What I don’t understand is why there’s not more grass, but what there is plenty of is shade, shrubs, trees of all description, palms, cascading leaves, park benches, etc. Nowadays the thing is even to fill the lower stories of newer skyscrapers with walls of growing plants. Much more interesting than glass! There are hot and dusty places you can go in Mexico City, believe me, as long as its not raining. But if you are there, you might think of moving over a street or two and going beneath the shade of trees and by the hanging leaves of growing things, even if the sidewalk is more narrow.

And birds. The mornings before 9AM when things start to happen seem to be loud with birds. Before the birds, there’s silence in the residential neighborhoods. Then come the birds around dawn, then people start walking through, perhaps around 7, bundled up against the chilly air. At 8 employees start preparing for the opening of the day, which takes place at 9 or so, and then the surge of untamed traffic. The pace of Mexico City is not the pace of American cities. They start late, they have lunch late, and they stay up late. Seldom will you see somebody rushing, except that they are slow to stop for red lights. Often you will see people waiting. Waiting in the fine weather by a splashing fountain on a park bench not far away from where they need to be . . . eventually. Or waiting in a long line at a place of official reckoning. It is a good place for slowing down, especially since they love restaurants and are rather exuberant about food. No shortage of options: traditional places, chains, foreign cuisine, upscale, down market, street food. Just the coffee shops run the whole gamut. And in Mexico City the cafés and restaurants have taken to spilling out of small spaces onto the sidewalks in a big way. The weather lends itself. Even for some reason Starbucks, which is really geared toward people rushing to work, manages to thrive there. I have the feeling Mexicans appropriate it in far less stressful ways. I never tried it, I went to a few of the many alternatives crowded into all kinds of interesting buildings, bookstores, courtyards, and of course sidewalks.

Waiters never give you the bill until you ask for it. They are prompt with everything else: taking your order, bringing it, bringing extra things, jumping solicitously, whisking finished plates away. But they will never suggest that you should ever leave your table. I watched a group do lunch and then supper, from about 1PM through 9 or 10 or so at the same table at a popular and busy restaurant. There was a restaurant where boardgames were provided, along with a full menu.

And there is where the other contrast with all the other leisure taking place in Mexico City lies. People doing food work quickly, deftly. People serving food walk briskly and are as efficient as it gets. That is where the pace picks up: in the service. That is how they run things. The service is never substandard, because there are always those standing by to take the laggard’s place. High unemployment has that effect. As well as the effect of vendors all over the sidewalks, accosting the outdoor tables, calling out constantly. And the sounds of those who solicit funds otherwise: roving musicians. There are parts of the city you can walk from the overlapping sound of one street musician to the next, on and on.

Go to their markets, go to their restaurants, go to the museums, go see the shop-lined streets. Go on the double decker bus, go on the double-jointed bus, go on the modern electric trolley bus or the antique, dingy subway, just get a taxi, or rent a bike or a scooter. They put the stamp of their identity on it all. Everything is characteristic, even the way a flagger stands at what would otherwise be an ordinary gas station, waving people into the bays. It has to be one of the best cities on this planet, and it costs nothing like what our northern cities do.

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