Once there was a writer who lived in Mexico City who despaired of his calling. Most days he rose toward noon and went for a coffee in Roma or Condesa and wrote. In the week preceding he had sat in a number of cafes in these neighbourhoods drafting a story of a few thousand words about a writer who lost his livelihood over some past offence newly come to light. Soon he was convinced the piece was drivel, heavy-handed, self-righteous, dare he imagine self-exculpatory. Moreover, he had stooped to satire when his task was to inspire a love of life and nothing less. By Thursday he was feeling fairly disgusted with himself.
Each day after his labours he would take a walk to clear his head. On Monday having shut and stowed his laptop he set out to make some laps of Avenida Amsterdam, however many it took. And though the point had been to walk in circles beneath the foliage, so that he would never draw too far away from the station where he caught the bus home, he soon found this exercise oppressive, claustrophobic. He experienced nausea passing the other güeros in dark sunglasses walking expensive dogs, eying the girl in the sports bra who breezed past him once, twice, three times, finding it easy to loathe those with whom he shared much. He boarded the bus on Insurgentes in a state of agitation greater than that in which he had left the café.
On Tuesday he went down to the university campus at the southern extreme of the metropolis. A sprawling midcentury affair designed by men given over to the perpetual preeminence of the automobile. He sat in the stacks of the main library for a few hours writing then went to sit in the commons smoking, anticipating a guard coming over to tell him to stop, though nobody came. He set out north across campus between the glassy structures towards a colonial hamlet since swallowed up by headlong urbanization. The village was traversed by a secular arroyo crossed in turn by centuries-old stone bridges now littered with styrofoam and beer cans. The hushed vicinity was wealthy and otherwise well-kept and he walked the dried bed of the stream in the direction its waters had once flowed, admiring the flora on either bank and the villas.
At Avenida Universidad, he proceeded north past the baroque chapel whose grounds were now circumscribed by great flows of traffic and he passed through the portal into the Viveros and continued in the direction of the city centre through the latticework of tracks and shaggy pines. He came out the other side of the park and followed Calle Madrid past the ample properties to where the street intersected Centenario. He turned left and after passing under the viaduct he came upon the first of the bike shares where he took out a bike and set out again towards the centre. He rode the bike within a minute of the forty-five-minute allowance and when he dismounted he was in the city centre in a zone dedicated principally to the sale of musical instruments and amplifiers where he was engulfed in a whorl of metal riffs and bachata beats and reggaeton beats.
He walked past a taquería then turned and came back and ordered three tacos de pastor and an agua de jamaica and sat at a table with his back against the wall gazing at the wall opposite. From here to the university library, it was some fifteen kilometres and he faltered now speaking to the young waitress. After paying he crossed the street to a stall to buy a cigarette and a piece of chocolate. He lit the cigarette with the lighter hanging from a string and ate the chocolate quickly before the cigarette could burn too much. Then he went into the theatre down the block and bought a ticket for a film about an Austrian gigolo working in a shabby resort town on the Adriatic and he feared it would be uncomfortable watching the sex scenes in the company of certain of the other viewers but the hard cuts to middle-aged cunnilingus mostly elated him.
Night had fallen when he exited the theatre and the earlier downtown clamour had fallen away. Cars bounced infrequently over the quake-addled streets casting their beams over the shuttered storefronts and the odd pedestrian made for home drawing on a cigarette. The quickest route back was by metro but having just sat for two hours in the dark of the small theatre the idea of another cramped space repulsed him so he set out on foot. It occurred to him as it normally did in such circumstances that should he be robbed he would lose everything on his hard drive. He would have to be pretty unlucky for that to happen. Even if the neighbourhood he would pass through on the way home was not the best.
He made his way past the dilapidated colonial buildings of the popular neighbourhood passing the bright food stalls and convenience shops that sprung up amid these ruins and few locals so much as looked at him. The most immediate peril took the form of the dog turds that dotted the sidewalk in alarming quantities. In one converted storefront which he took less than a second passing a spin class was underway, some fifteen female attendees bobbing to the pulse of the music shoulder to shoulder in a space not much larger than his bathroom.
Wednesday he rose and read a chapter of the Hobsbawm he was working on and drank a cup of instant coffee. He had the notion to write in Roma that day so he took the bus south and got off at Jardín Pushkin. He found a Brooklyn-style café where he paid fifty pesos for an americano, which would have seemed a great deal had he not considered the ecological toll of the coffee industry, and set a timer for four hours and wrote. This was before he realised that what he was working on was not worth a damn, even if he was starting to get a not-great feeling about the piece. He left the café a little foggy-headed from the aftereffects of the caffeine and lack of food and made his way back toward the bus station on Avenida Cuauhtémoc. The thoroughfare marked a sharp boundary between Roma and the Doctores neighbourhood of which many had warned him. He crossed the avenue and continued east. The station map on the bikeshare application which he now checked was as sure an indicator of bourgeois demography as any and he saw that the barrio was devoid of stations.
He passed tiendas where Mexicans hawked wares which perhaps three people in as many million might be inclined to purchase. The things were arranged on tarpaulins on the sidewalk too. Yellowed rancid clothing, battered compact discs, faded pornography, and sundry electronics of dubious functionality. A shop stuffed floor to ceiling with coils of rusted metal which he could not identify. The sheer entropy of objects contributed to his dizziness, the desperation, what appeared to him to be desperation but which was more likely some alien state. There was dog shit here too and abandoned cars with the wheels removed and a burning plastic smell. Within earshot duelling recordings of the young girl who was now almost thirty crying out for mattresses, drums, refrigerators, stoves, washers, microwaves, or any other old iron items for sale, this umpteenth rendition causing him to reflect on the fact that in some unremarkable Mexican household one day or evening eighteen years prior the girl had actually stood belting her proposition perhaps waiting for dinner and now the vast reproduction of her child’s breath between cries seemed an unspeakable profanity and wanting for food and water and doubting his vocation he grew a little maudlin.
As before he made it home without incident. He slept ten hours and when he rose he had the thought that he had not spoken to anyone save the odd barista in five days, then shrugged mentally and set about deciding where he would write. He settled on Condesa where it adjoined the bosque. A bunch of cute coffee shops in there. Having slept late he didn’t want to waste any more time showering so he threw on a ballcap and made for the train. When he got to the café he ordered an americano and set a timer for three hours and wrote, drinking another cup in the meantime. By the time the alarm sounded he was wired with an empty stomach and if he had held out hope for his story before he was now fully convinced it was trash. He paid and packed his things and set out for Chapultepec across Constituyentes. He made two laps of the wide promenade then exited by the metro station bearing the park’s name. Outside the station he ate two brisket tacos though he had little appetite then he went down and boarded the eastbound train.
The train approached the station where he transferred to get home and he did not get off. Five minutes later they reached the stop near the Zócalo and he did not get off there either. He rode to the last stop at Pantitlán and he got out with everyone else. The idea occurred to him to walk to the airport from here and buy a ticket someplace but the badness of his story did not seem to warrant that.
He descended the platform into the neighbourhood that abutted the airport. He had made the mistake some months ago of taking the train here to catch a flight, getting off and walking the half kilometre to the terminal with the strap of his duffle slicing into his shoulder after a few wrong turns, navigating the rancid puddles and stray dogs and grisly taco stands, and he’d gotten a good enough sense of the area then to know better. Now the sun was going down and the haze above the barrio was like some admixture of pus and blood and the dogs trotted towards him down the alley. He proceeded past them up the callejón which was lined with shanties where laundry blew like tattered pennants and dark children leant from the sills and scuffled a ball in the dust and refuse piled in drifts along the sidewalks. It was like this for miles through Nezahualcóyotl and beyond into the State of Mexico, and he asked himself could it truly be said that this was the same place where he had drunk coffee earlier beneath the luxuriant ficus or had he happened upon some other demiurgical lobe of this city which made no bones about its apocalypse, the lake filled, the temple burned.
The descendants of the survivors persisted and nowhere more so than those locales where nothing green was. In a doorway a man with braces wearing a polo by a brand popular among American adolescents. Funky Town blasting from a clothing shop hung to the ceiling with articles fabricated by workers herded in from the night to churn out a few pirate batches. A cloaked figure encased in glass beneath a streetlamp.
He walked long enough for his self-consciousness to subside, at which point he discovered he was hungry. The sun had set and the air was cooling quickly. He retrieved his fleece from his backpack and put it on then continued toward a brightly illuminated eatery on the right. A few plastic stools had been set out in front of a stall set up in the storefront, the metal counter set with some dozen paper bowls each containing a different salsa. Given the neatness of the assorted fixings and the absence of customers, he guessed they had just opened. A young girl stood against the wall with one leg crossed over the other and she ran in when she saw him approaching. At the counter, a woman called him joven and asked what it would be. He ordered a gringa and a burrito, both de pastor, and she relayed this information to her husband behind her at the comal. She asked if he wanted a refresco, as there were also refrescos, and he told her no gracias. He took a seat on one of the stools which was a bit low for him and rested his chin on his clasped hands and watched the two small boys at the arcade games at the other end of the room who yelled motherfucker when they made a kill and no mames when they got killed. The girl brought his order then skipped away. He squeezed a lime over the gringa and burrito and spooned some salsa verde onto his plate and ate.
The large meal left him a little drowsy and he bought a cigarette from the woman and lit the cigarette and went out to shuffle back towards the main thoroughfare to the train that would take him home. The evening cool was pleasant and he had a sense of having passed through the gauntlet unscathed. He looked forward to bed.
Reaching the avenue he turned right towards the metro. He’d gone some hundred meters when a café bike pulled off the avenue in front of him from which two riders dismounted without removing their helmets or lifting their visors and strode up to him one pointing a gun between his eyes and the other going around to remove his backpack and then they were back on the bike howling up the avenue through the gears.
The day following he lay in bed a time before rising to fix a cup of coffee and climb to the azotea to read his Hobsbawm. At the end of the section he descended and traded his slides for shoes and went down to the street to the nearest paper shop, where he purchased a spiral notebook and a pack of ballpoint pens. When he got back he set the stuff on the table and sat down and opened the pens and notebook and spent the rest of the day writing and the story he wrote was this one.
Theo Czajkowski is a Guest Contributor for Panorama
Theo was born in Michigan and now lives in Mexico.