By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
To read Part 15, click here
Despite the early hour, the bus to Monterrey was nearly full. At least half of the forty or so passengers were dressed in various uniforms of a blue-collar variety, employees of the vast factories that dotted the landscape of Mexico's temple to capitalism. I recall seeing several with LG and Sony identity tags, and one with a Magnavox logo on his shirt. I wondered how I could get something like that, as this seemed like a pretty good way of bypassing the interests of the soldiers at the checkpoint I knew we would be passing through shortly. I hadn't thought about this barricade until after I had bought my ticket, and had spent the majority of my time waiting on the arrival of the bus rehearsing my legend.
I needn't have worried. For reasons that I never fully worked out, individuals traveling the highways and byways of Mexico with American identification were given far less scrutiny at such checkpoints than actual Mexicans. It was as if the entire defense apparatus of the state didn't want to bother with diplomatic matters. I suspect that the situation would have been different if I hadn't looked so obviously American, but I don't really know for certain. When we arrived at the same small base we had passed through two days before a soldier with an M-16 diverted us between several lit traffic cones. A sergeant boarded the bus and asked us to step outside. We were asked to leave our belongings on our seats, with our bags open. As we waited in a small crowd under the bored eyes of several machine gunners, three men searched the bus. Finally, these same three men disembarked and asked us for our ID’s. Most were asked questions about destinations, though not, I noted, those wearing the corporate tags. As soon as I produced my counterfeit American driver's license, the soldier standing in front of me looked once at my face and stepped to the right. Amazing, I thought. I would pass through hundreds of these checkpoints over the next year, and never once did my foreign ID fail to save me from questioning. The sun was just asserting itself in the east when we were allowed to board and continue on our way.
The massive terminal at Cuauhtemoc had not changed in the last 48 hours, and, I suspected, it never would. It was simply an infection beyond any antibiotic to clear up. I came to view it as the center of a vast scamster-victim-indifferent bystander Venn diagram, a thousand and one ways to get fleeced before you had even made it out the front door. I paused for a moment before wading into the crowd to adjust my satchel, but mostly just to watch and plot my course. Women who were obviously prostitutes worked the constant flow of incoming humanity with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm. To my right, a preteen girl wearing a whisper of a skirt bounded up to a man carrying a duffel bag and quickly attached herself to his arm. I wouldn't have thought there was much of a market for Dickensian chimney-sweep pin-up girls, but apparently I was wrong. She was not the only sex-minnow swimming in this sewer, and for a moment - a very brief one - I wondered why the cops didn't do anything about this. My cynicism soon saved me from my idiocy.
The lighting was tricky in the terminal. Tired halogens sputtered in places, alternating a piercing brightness with shadow; it was hard to say which was worse, seeing the decay or merely imagining it. Near the windows a yellow tinfoil light seeped in over the grime, illuminating the myriad food stalls and vendors of cheap wares. The smell emanating from the food court was overpowering, and this more than anything else had me moving forward. Near the restrooms a man nearly stumbled into me, lost in the neurological dryer lint of some drug. I pushed him off and kept walking, checking to make sure my wallet was still in my back pocket. Near the door a zaftig woman with an overly optimistic faith in the power of spandex tried speaking to me before she looked into my face. She quickly shrugged and pivoted to call to someone behind me. I swear, if the world were a body, this station is where you'd stick the enema.
I doubt anyone before or since has claimed the air of Monterrey to be sweet, but it seemed that way to me as I stepped outside the automatic doors of the terminal. The slow swaying of the bus had shown me just how tired I was; I had barely slept the night before, and was running my engines on a mixture of fear and more fear. Still, those first few steps into the city elevated me for a time. For the first time in several months I was relatively free. No one here knew me; everyone in my environment was but a walk-on cameo in the drama of my solipsism. I had nowhere to go, no one to have to be, no expectations to have to guess.
Around me the city pulsed; it sobbed in sirens. I began walking, roughly following the massive, eight-story tall edifice of the elevated train system. Tall buildings blocked my view of the mountains that ring the city, but every few blocks I would catch a smoggy view of their jagged peaks. El Centro was the grimy heart of Monterrey, a buzzing, teeming metropolis of several million souls. I rejoiced in the crowds. There were no people here, only statistics. Blink twice, and everything changed.
Within a few blocks I began to flirt with the outer fringes of one of the largest mercados in the country. To call it a market almost does it a disservice; this thing was its own city, its own world, a sort of creeping organic growth that slowly took over city block after city block, advancing from barrio to barrio. It engulfed buildings, and soon they were the market, too. Ropes were strung between structure and city street light from which tarps and stalls and alleys grew. I have no idea how large it really was, save that I walked it for hours that day and never came even remotely close to the opposite side.
The market in Cerralvo had impressed me; this place showed me how provincial I had become in a few short months. On all sides, sometimes hanging over me, were clothes of every sort and fashion, from the cheapest hand-me-downs to Armani – both genuine and fake. I saw cars, stolen and legal. I saw guns and real estate, millions of pirated CD’s and DVD’s, guitar makers, bakeries, taquerias, cell phone vendors, sellers of new and used electronics equipment of all sorts. At every angle you can think of and some that you can't, men and women and children tried to force upon me souvenirs or hats or medicine or jewelry, anything, anything, everything. All you can do is put on your sunglasses and pretend you have somewhere important to be.
There is an organizing principle to these places, one that requires an overseeing body, a guild, which I would hear about but never see. Pretend the market is a castle. Nearly all of the stalls, shops, and stores containing items of value are clustered in protected bubbles near the center, blocks and hundreds of long, winding, poorly lit alleyways from the edges. Thousands of stalls selling the cheapest of goods ringed these areas, like a moat. Where a city street bisected the market, the lower-price, legal shops again proliferated. On the rare occasions when the police would stage a raid, these outer proprietors would see the government SUV’s coming and would stage several hundred misfortunate "accidents" all at the same time. I saw this with my own eyes twice. A long display of oranges or mangoes would tip over, and the man at the next stall would trip over the mess and drop a case of clothes or stumble into a table, scattering a stack of CD’s. It was like a long chain of dominoes, people and goods flying all over the place. It would snarl the police up completely, giving the heavies in the center of the maze time to drop illegal or dangerous merchandise into long trenches cut into the concrete or into safe rooms carved out of the city's sewage system. By the time the cops arrived, only legitimate and apparently confused businessmen were left, each shaking their heads in surprise and consternation that anyone could think that they had been up to no good. Each of the stall owners that had participated in manufacturing this chaos would be given better wholesale prices on their goods, or given a location a little bit closer to one of the central zones. After five or six such hops, they could also begin to sell much higher-price items. It was a system that rewarded those who were brave and devious, and helped to create the very people who stood to benefit most from a laissez-faire view of economics. It was hard not to love the market a little, even if it was a totally ruthless and amoral place.
After a few hours of wandering the mercado, I was completely, wonderfully lost. I began to feel hunger and was surprised to see that it was not even 10am yet. Food stalls proliferated like mushrooms after a good rain, and eventually I selected one with a long counter and a set of about a dozen stools. The place was more or less permanent, with concrete embankments and several televisions suspended from heavy metal poles that once might have been power lines before the tarp ceiling grew around them and forever sealed their tops from view. Such taco stalls are sometimes referred to as agachados, from the Spanish word for "stooped" or "leaning forward," since you basically have to lean over the counter so the tacos don't drip onto your clothes. This place was nearly full, with only two of the stools untaken; the men seated there looked like market pros so I theorized that this meant that the place was pretty decent. I took a seat and waited to catch the eye of the proprietor.
He was a very odd sort. He had a nasty scar on his left forearm long enough to qualify as a mile marker, but his rough appearance was totally offset by the neatness of his workspace. It was as close to spotless as you would find in the market. He also continuously bathed us in a low, friendly stream of chatter as he scrambled eggs, diced tomatoes and sausages, and sliced huge chunks of meat off of a pork belly kept under a bright heating lamp. To the right of the cash register hung a chalkboard sign that listed the prices of the day. In large letters next to this read, in Spanish: Buy one beer for the price of two and get a second beer absolutely free! It took me a moment to work this out, and I smiled when I had finally gotten there. The grillman noticed this and shot off some sentence that completely missed me. I merely pointed at the pork belly and then at a bottle of mineral water sitting alongside several other bottles atop the register.
The tacos were ridiculously good, the best food I'd eaten in months, though my arteries probably began to wave a white flag before I was halfway through with my order. I don't think I've ever actually licked my fingers before after dining but I did that morning. The cook kept up his monologue; few of the men responded in any way the entire time I sat there. In fact, most of them seemed to be of Don Julian's opinion that verbalization somehow equated with morbid self-absorption and left as soon as they had finished their meal. I totally understood why they would put up with the oral assault, however. The food really was excellent. The cook noticed my hunger and asked if I wanted anything else.
"No thank you," I said, shaking my head. "Of all of the animals that have passed through death and fire and wound up in my mouth, that was some of the best." He didn't understand me, but that was okay. Our relationship was fine as it was: I spent a little money and the taco man liked me. If only my other connections had been so simple.
The television closest to me was set to some sort of late- morning political show. I couldn't understand all that was said, but the motif was familiar: politicians continuing the tradition of producing political ephemera without, lamentably, suffering the fate of being ephemeral. "Los politicos son pendejos," I said, handing over some cash to pay for my meal. The cook agreed with me, pointing at my head and then saying, I think, that there were things growing on his tortillas that were more intelligent than the political class. This made me smile, though it wasn't exactly the thing you want to hear coming from the guy that had just cooked for you. He quickly returned to the grill, and I left him there, talking to no one.
After another hour or so I emerged from the market. I was surprised to see the elevated train again, as this meant I was leaving from the same side that I had entered; I had believed that I was coming out on the other side. I took the escalator to the station and bought a pass. I spent the next two or three hours riding around and around again, just taking the city in. It was huge, but I managed to at least get a basic idea of the layout after awhile. After this I transferred to the subway, and spent another hour or so riding it through tunnels lined with advertisements for products no one needed yet somehow were needed. Mostly I watched the people, trying to figure out what made me so different from them, what I was supposed to do next, and why I felt I couldn't stop moving or I would suffocate.
I picked an exit at random and kept walking. I purchased a cup of nopal juice at a corner stall and sat on a bench in the shade of a high-rise apartment building. Clouds were rolling in over the mountains, making the sky look like a papered-over window. Across the street sat a two-story warehouse of ancient vintage, the dark brown brick facade crumbling gracelessly down onto a weedy, overgrown yard. There was a small but steady stream of people entering and exiting the front entrance, people dressed almost entirely in black. They wore chains and lots of jagged metal jewelry and had dyed black hair, sometimes with bright red or green spikes. I was numb. I don't think I could have found curiosity with a map and a GPS device. I went into the building simply because I had nowhere else to go.
Inside was a massive underground space, set up by the government of Nuevo Leon to incubate small businesses. In this case, the subterranean ambiance had attracted the heavy metal/Goth community of northeastern Mexico, and they had completely taken over the ground floor and the two underneath it. Most of the stalls sold hard rock CD’s, band t-shirts, stickers, jewelry, and other symbols of non- conformist station. Sprinkled amongst this lot were tattoo parlors, head shops, and stores selling all variety of instruments. The place was pungent with the smell of marijuana to the point that I felt I could have written "wash me" in the air with my finger. I saw several "rockeros" and "darqueros" smoking a bong in one of the head shops and I moved away from them. Loud speakers blasted an angry audio assault on passersby, and all of this noise mixed into a confusing cacophony that made it hard to think. My head started pounding. Everything was gray concrete and scratching static and skin painted whiter than my own, an echo of every dystopian book I had ever read. Lacuna Coil's "Heaven's a Lie" had me rubbing my temples and I soon stumbled back upstairs to ground level. I bumped into a man on the stairs and he pushed me away, shouting. Before I knew what I was doing my knife was out and pointed at him. He lifted his hands and slowly backed away down the stairs. I was cracking up, I knew, so I ran. I took a few deep breaths upon reaching the sidewalk. Several people looked at me curiously so I started walking again. A contact high stalked me for several blocks.
Mostly I followed the traffic, letting it carry me along. After another ninety minutes of walking I came to the Macroplaza, a roughly 100-acre green space in the center of the city. Rising in the middle of this park is a 230 foot tall rust red Obelisk called the Faro de Comercio. I had seen this purposeless yet grand object from a distance when we had passed through the city on our way to Aldama. My head was still pounding so I sat on a bench near a fountain. Young people held hands and hung out, oblivious to the world around them. This was an egalitarian place, everyone mixing easily. I felt like the only imposter. After about fifteen minutes a woman and her young son sat down on the bench next to me and ate sandwiches and pastries out of a thermos. I remember that he was wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap and I wondered if he was aware of the meaning or if he just liked the logo of the bird. The mother took his hat off and he lay his head on her lap. I got up and left.
Extending west from the south end of the Macroplazq is a ten-block pedestrian zone known as la Zona Rosa. Some of Monterrey's best restaurants, cafes, music shops, hotels, and boutiques line this thoroughfare. There is always a healthy crush of people here, and it is as good a place as I've known for watching the various iterations of our species. I picked a bench near the Liverpool department store and sat for a while. Rich people smiled at the American as they carried their large bags from boutique to boutique. Around 3:30 pm a massive foghorn blared, sounding like a ten-story tall cow. I figured this must be some sort of signal for a shift change at one of the factories, but I never really figured out which.
A group of Baptist missionaries was testifying on the street corner across the way. From what I could tell, they were mostly ranting about Catholic idolatry, pretty much the definition of a thankless task in a nation more than 90% Catholic. One of them handed me a flyer and asked me if I knew "el Senor." She must have only been 16 or 17, and wore a sundress. She reeked of freshness and light. I told her in a monotone voice that I had always thought it interesting that if god showed up out of the blue and explained himself, the vast majority of the world would necessarily be disappointed. The girl looked confused for a moment, but she must have seen something awful in my eyes because she blanched and quickly walked away. The way she kept looking back at me made me feel even more hollow so I left.
I took a bus. I took a second bus, then a third. This last was painted in a garish scheme, all royal blue and yellow. Decals of a tiger adorned every flat space and streamers hung from every window. I deduced from this that the Tigres were one of the two professional soccer teams in the city. In a deadpan voice the driver informed us that budget cuts had made it necessary that only the tires on the right side of the bus were new, so to please lean that way in the curves. I got out at the end of the line and walked to sit in the shadow of a huge Famsa store.
Across the highway was a hill. Built on top of this rise was a shantytown, row after row of tiny structures built out of cast-off wood and block, with roofs of tin or plastic. Many in the first section looked like they had been hit by a bomb, with their front walls peeled away. They looked oddly like dolls' houses, with a few random pieces of derelict furniture left out for display. People - hundreds or thousands of them – mulled about, engaged in acts that distance and experience made impossibly mysterious. A few children ran about in the dust, kicking some sort of plastic cube. They wore almost nothing. Even more obvious were the flies. They buzzed about in the millions, making the entire scene look like some sort of fucked-up pointillism straight from the mind of Thomas Robert Malthus. I had heard of the extreme poverty in the country. I had thought that I had witnessed this in Cerralvo, but I had never expected this, this crystallization of utter ruin. Upon seeing Antarctica, American explorer Admiral Richard E Byrd said "this is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies." He was wrong. It will look like this slum.
The world swirled down the drain, to a symphony of yawns and quickly averted glances. I felt everything inside of me collapsing, and I, too, collapsed, and I fell into cool water. I've done this from time to time since I was a child. I still do, just burrowing down when the surface becomes too sandblasted to deal with. When I came out of it night had fallen. The lights of the city reflected off of the pollution in the air and bathed everything in a diffused orange glow. A plastic bag was caught on my leg by the breeze. In English, it thanked me for my business. Maybe this is how god punishes the bad, I remember thinking: he lets you live. "What further horror could match this?" asks the chorus in Medea. They had no idea.
My head was clearing a little and I stood up to stretch my legs. My rear end was sore from hours of sitting on the concrete. I stood there for a time, still unable to look away from the hill across the highway. I had been aware on some level of the extent of the life I had wasted, the gifts I had not taken advantage of. Now I understood this in an entirely different way. Any one of the thousands in the slum - every single one of the thousands in the slum - would have done a better job of living my life than I had. I couldn't have explained it then, but something in the bedrock of my soul cracked and shifted that afternoon. I filed formal divorce papers with my pride, for starters. The rest wouldn't be clear to me for some time, years even. I eventually made my way by bus back to el Centro, where I rented a tiny room in the Law Vegas hotel, a place that gave "shithole" a new benchmark. I stayed there that night and the next, and then bought a ticket back to Cerralvo.
I've often been asked by people why I didn't run further into Mexico or South America, that if I had, the chances of the police ever finding me would have been virtually zero. I have a hard time explaining how, in that moment, staring at the hill, I had given up. I was too much of a coward to go back to Texas; I wasn't going to make it that easy for them. But neither was I going to make it hard. The best that I can say is that everyone must come out of exile in his own way. I guess this was mine, where it all started.
To be continued....
Thomas Whitaker 999522
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351