This post was written several weeks ago on a trip back to Mexico City.
I’m sitting at a sidewalk café in Polanco, with my MacBook open. It’s a balmy 75 degrees, and the moment itself is almost perfect. I’ve been practicing my rusty, broken Spanish for a few days now, and I feel a bit overly proud of myself for showing off my mad cappuchino-ordering skills. But I can’t help but catch the smile playing at the corners of the waiter’s mouth as he nods patiently.
Polanco. This is definitely not the kind of place I would have hung out in when we lived here several years ago – this place is much too posh – much too fresa. I hate myself just a little for enjoying it. Has five years away changed me so much? Have I turned so fresa?
Thankfully, I am distracted from this uncomfortable thought by a young, long-haired Mexican guy wearing a tie and carrying an instrument case and a chair. He carefully places the chair in front of my table, sits down and slowly removes a cello from the case. I stare down at my laptop quickly, pretending not to notice. There’s a fairly high chance that this will be a terrible musical experience – and I don’t want to accidentally encourage him too much.
But when the instrument begins to sing I forget my writing. It becomes impossible to concentrate – the vibrato of the strings mingles with the street noise, the hum of talk and the clattering of the dishes in the cafe. The combination – the symphony of the noise – is perfect. It draws me away. I find myself enjoying the music. The place. The city. The slant of the sun in the late afternoon.
And this kid- he knows it.
When he gets up to leave, I am surprised that he doesn’t hassle me for change. He doesn’t even look over. So I call him with a “Joven!” and he takes a few shy steps toward my table and smiles. I realize with a start that his face is smooth and that there is a light in his eyes – he really is a joven. Perhaps he is a high school or college kid out to make some extra money tonight. He’s obviously new to this.
The city hasn’t broken him.
It gives me hope.
He leaves and I am once again alone with my thoughts. Well – as alone as you can be in a city with 32 million other people.
The bouganvilias across the street are blooming along a volcanic rock ledge, as they do almost all year round here. There are two flower shops down the street, and I swear I can smell the fresh stems lining the sidewalks all the way from here, at my perch at the cafe. Every window and door along the street have been thrown open wide to welcome in the cool late afternoon air. There are no barriers between the inside and the outside here, other than roofs for safety and rain. Air conditioners and heaters just simply don’t exist.
I find myself becoming nostalgic about the years that we spent living here. Even about things that don’t make sense. About the way the late afternoon light still filters through the poisoned, smog-filled air and down into the street. The haze diffuses the sunlight in the street softly – and somehow its romantic.
My lungs and eyes thoroughly disagree with this assessment, but I purposefully ignore their complaints.
Because the smog is part of a memory. It’s part of the story that I remember – combined and mixed with other memories. Like the sound of the street and the way that the sun prickles your skin due to the proximity of the equator. Like the smell of guayaba and pineapple along with the lightheaded feeling of adjusting to life in a city that is 8,000 feet above sea level. Like the swish of a handmade stick broom and the sound of the tamale man riding his bike through the neighborhood blaring the crackling “Tamales Oaxaquenos” recording. All of these things just simply fit together. They belong to each other… and I have a feeling they always will.
The thought is comforting.
Even though some things have changed about the city in the past five years, the little everyday things – the things so mundane that they are probably almost imperceptible to locals – these things won’t change, because they are part of the essential fabric of the place.
Almost every five minutes, someone shuffles by my table to try to sell me something… a footstool, a bracelet, some cigarettes, an iPhone case. If I look up, I give them the quick head shake or the finger-wag. Students from the UNAM taught me how to do that, and it works. Of course I am well aware that I look like an easy target – a foreign looking white girl, a güerita, sitting here alone with my MacBook and my cappuccino – in Polanco. I’d try to sell me something, too.
I find myself thinking – hoping – that I can still lay claim to being more chilanga than fresa. I’d sure like to think so. I know the taco stand where you can get the best al pastor in DF. I’m not afraid of the big markets and I know how to haggle. I’m fluent in street slang and I’ll gladly jump onto a pesero. I’ve hung onto the outsides of plenty of them coming down the mountain in Ajusco. I’ve shouted out the grito in the Zocalo on Mexican Independence Day and I’ve stayed up all night in a graveyard on Dia de los Muertos. I’ve spent time ruminating on life, death, religion, Che Guevara, and capitalism with philosophy students at the UNAM. I’ve been to a Mexican boda and a quince años party. I know how to flush a toilet if there’s no running water, and I can sing the words along to more than a few Mariachi songs.
Most importantly, I also know what it feels like to live in the kind of city that is big, beautiful, loud, lively and gloriously chaotic – and at the same time frightening, lonely, dangerous and heartbreakingly sad.
The city is all of these things.
The eyes of the street kids are the hardest – glassy and vacant. Desperation haunts their faces. As they pass by you can see how young they are, and you can smell the alcohol. Something dangerous and toxic clings to their skin and soaks their clothes. Whatever they have been huffing may kill him within a matter of years or months – perhaps even days.
I am reminded that this city represents both the best and worst of human life. I am reminded about how difficult it can be to live here – how difficult it can be to try to reconcile the beautiful with the ugly. To make sense of the vast disparity. To even consider trying to make a difference. To see the unimaginable wealth next to devastating poverty. To see the bright light of human spirit through music, art, dance and culture – alongside the darkness of struggle against mental, physical and spiritual captivity.
This corner of the world where I am sitting in Polanco – it is such an unbelievably tiny drop in the ocean of life. Mexico City is like a big experiment on a massive scale, a giant petri-dish of a valley, swarming with 32 million people – all struggling to survive, struggling to work, struggling to live. Struggling to define meaning and purpose. Struggling to find truth. Desperate to know real love.
Just like all of us.
How can even I begin to make a dent in trying to wrap my head around a city – a need – so enormously overwhelming?
The first step, I think, is leaving this comfortable spot at my Polanco café. It’s a wonderful dream, and a nice place to think. But it’s not a place to live. The road is where I belong. The city. The chaos. The life that can be found in stepping out from behind my computer, out from behind Facebook – out from behind every calculated wall that we’ve built. It is here – in the real, gritty, day-to-day trenches of human life – where we can truly encounter and connect with one another.
Because truly, there is nothing that separates me from the richest man in the world or the loneliest dying street kid under a bridge. We are each of us connected already.
It’s easy to avoid thinking about. It’s too easy to make excuses and stay comfortable.
But love was never supposed to be easy. I don’t get to love only the people who will love me back. Love is not passive. Love can’t be crowd-sourced. Love doesn’t sit behind a computer at a café. Love doesn’t just throw money at a problem. Love is intimate, personal, and active. It digs wholeheartedly into someone else’s life and gets its hands dirty. It’s hard. It’s heartbreaking.
And it is the only thing that will ever truly matter.
So, then. It’s about time I got up and left this little Polanco cafe. I’ve lingered here too long.