The city awakens and the cars pass through the boulevard, breaking the chants from the birds. A thick mist floats in the air: fog and smog. The shadow in the air, a kind of translucent white, is wet and dusty. It carries the odor of burning sandstone with a slight fragrance of salt coming from the bay. The black woman is sitting there, on the metro bench, wearing a red shirt and blue jeans ripped at the knees, talking to herself. She holds a pink phone next to her ear, pressing the buttons as if calling someone. She laughs when the sound of a clucking chicken comes out of the small speaker. A cow, a dog, the chicken, she laughs; a pig, a cat, the chicken again. She looks at me still laughing, and I can see a thin, wet line appearing in her jeans, I turn around. I buy my ticket in the kiosk. I’ve only got cash and the kiosk keeps my change. Where are you traveling? How many children? Are you a student? Too many questions for a simple trip. Buying a ticket could be less complicated but it’s Long Beach, a world-class city with guides on the streets directing you to the cafés and bars, a city with a transit mall and useless ticket kiosks. I turn around, the black woman is gone. I can hear the clucking chicken in the distance, only the yellow stain remains, some liquid drips from the bench creating a puddle down below on the ground. Like back at home, urine is everywhere.
There are too many bums in this city, and most of them wander around downtown, looking up at buildings and at times at the expanding sea. The first time I visited this city, I went straight to the public library, and I found a collection of Octavio Paz’s poems that I liked, a novel by Roberto Bolaño that I had never seen before. I was surprised by their Latin American literature section, it was much more abundant than the one back at home. That afternoon, I went back to Anaheim thinking about Long Beach, its library, Octavio Paz’s poetry, La literatura Nazi en America, and that acrid smell of the black smoke that clings in the afternoon air. I didn’t check out any books, but I took with me the faces of all those homeless.
I dream about the places and the people back at home, in Mexico City, all of them unchanged from when I was part of their lives. It’s difficult to explain. It just happens. I dream about my cousin, when he was ten years old and we played soccer in the street. I dream about him in an Ajax Amsterdam jersey, wearing that ridiculous mushroom haircut. I keep hearing his voice, that clown-like laugh. I see his childish face, those big ears he has. Now, he is eighteen years old, has a one-year-old daughter, we don’t play soccer in the streets, and I’m sure that the Ajax jersey doesn’t fit him anymore. I visited him twice, I’ve seen him in lots of pictures, video chatted with him once in a while. He is a grown man, a father, a full-time chef in a Spanish restaurant, yet in my dreams he is frozen in time. Frozen in my memory. I keep replaying the ten year old, I can’t help it, it just happens. All of Mexico City is a place that’s frozen in my memory. The people, the places, everything is there, frozen, like the last time I was part of it. I dream about going to high school in the metro, paying two pesos for a round trip, holding my backpack tight against my body, getting into a car and letting it take me away from home.
Willow Station. The metro moves with a flowing cadence, as if suspended above water, calm water, without a current, and the wind quietly blowing and pushing the metro forwards in a slow motion. The streets disappear quickly out of my sight as the metro rolls along. I can make out a liquor store, a woman going into it with a baby on her arms. I see a Bud Light billboard, a GET-THIN-FAST advertisement too. I concentrate my gaze into nothingness and I see gray, and yellow, and red, and grey again. I see cars driving opposite to the metro, disappearing faster than the streets and its colors. I’m seating next to the exit doors, in a single seat. An old man sleeps in the seat in front of me, he wears a cap with white paint spatters, his head wobbles, his hands are rugged and sandy, with white paint dots here and there, but his clothes are clean. He wakes up and takes a look out the window, trying to recognize the streets; he yawns, and then he asks me if we’ve passed Willowbrook Station, the green line. I tell him that I’m not sure, that this is my first time riding the metro. He smiles and takes his cap off, the metro stops, the doors open, and the man tells me to enjoy the ride. He gets off. Some people go to work in a good mood.
Metro Pantitlán. The smell of the sewer is what I remember after all these years, that harsh feeling of inhaling the sandy smell of evaporating water. The odor used to hit me on the tongue the moment I entered that elongated street, where the microbuses were parked waiting for people. The sidewalks in that street were always full of thrash and stagnant water, thick and earthy, almost like slime. I remember descending the staircase, entering into a different world, kind of a lawless city, a dystopia. Indigenous woman with their children spent the night there, hiding from the cold and the odor outside. During the day, these women begged for money, while their children cleaned shoes with newspapers. Thieves and drug dealers are a common, security officers or police men a rarity. Suicides jump into the rail tracks: some die of the impact, but most are electrocuted trying to get off the rails when they see the headlights coming. No one cares really, not about the indigenous women, or the children, about the thieves and drug dealers, no one cares if the person next to them is about to jump into the rails. I paid two pesos everyday at 5:30am, walked in the enclosed halls, not looking at the women and children sleeping against the wall. I always got into the third car, the third one behind the conductor’s control panel, held my backpack tight, and let myself balance against the bodies around me, it was like free falling. I travelled 45 minutes just holding onto the bodies around me, until most of them got off at Metro Centro Medico to go to work. They pushed me away and told me to fuck off. Some people go to work in a bad mood.
Slauson Station. The metro moves above the city, I can see Los Angeles, how grey it is, how the sun moves up escalating on the clouds. There’s something about watching a city from high up, it feels as if everything happening in the city is inconsequential, that you, at least for a moment, are not part of its triviality. An old black man listens to music in the middle of the car, he holds a bicycle with his right hand and with the other he holds a yellow Walkman. He dances for a moment with his eyes closed, sings under his breath, shakes the bicycle to the rhythm of the song, and then he stops. I hear behind my back a voice saying one dollar, one dollar, one dollar; the sound is monotonous, and a sense of fatigue hangs on the last syllable as it comes out of that mouth. It’s a black man, a young man, he wears a black hoodie, walks with his back hunched forwards, as if trying to hide within his hoodie. He carries a box of candies, skittles and starburst, and as he walks past me he puts the box near my face, so I can take a close look at what he sells, he says one dollar, one dollar, one dollar. No one buys anything from the box: maybe it’s too early for candy, maybe nobody trusts his candy. He skips past the old man with the bicycle. Once he reaches the end of the car, he sits on the floor and takes out a plastic bag. He’s got marihuana, he rolls a joint. The old man sings under his breath and looks at the man, at his candy box, and then at his joint. They look into each other’s eyes, and then the young black man asks the old man if he wants some candy, the old man says he needs no candy; the young man smiles and the old man dances for a moment with his eyes closed and then stops. The young man grabs his candy box, puts the joint in his pocket, stands up very slowly; the metro stops, the doors open, the young man hands a bag of skittles to the old man and tells him that maybe he does need some candy. He gets off the car. The old man sings for a moment with his eyes closed and a bag of skittles in his hand. Some people make a living out of happiness.
Metro Moctezuma. I used to have a seat by the time I reached this station, most people having got off the metro by then. There were only students going to different high schools, old men and women going to clinics, and middle age women looking for jobs at the Zocalo. It was the hour when there was plenty of space in the car, and yet enough people for the show to start. The shows increased in levels of pity as the hour advanced. First, the candy sellers, one behind the other, all of them selling the same kind of candy; the cheapest one, the tasteless one, and the one that no one buys. If you want to sell candy in Mexico it better have chile on top of the candy; that sells quick, and these guys knew it but it was too expensive. Then, the CD sellers with their giant suitcases full of movies and CDs, all pirated, the latest albums of cumbia, salsa, merengue, and at times the latest music of North American Alternative Rock. Some people bought, but most observed and listened to the seller trying to convince you to get the newest in cumbia huarachera, llevele, llevele, lleve sus discos, they said. More pitiful yet, a young, shirtless man appeared through the metro doors with a plastic bag full of glass shards. The man extended the bag and put the shards on the floor, then lay on them, and rolled his back against the glass shards. Then turned around and rolled his chest, he bled a bit, and finally he stepped on them pressing hard; the money he makes by doing this was always full of blood. And then, finally, came two boys with the clown painted faces. Eight-year-olds living in the streets, niños de la calle, children of the streets, juggling three balls in the air, catching two at a time while the third flew above their heads. One got up on the shoulders of the other and juggled the balls: first, the one on top juggles, then the other follows. They extend their grimy eight-year-old hands towards the people in the car, then move to the next car and do the same, and to the next, and the next, and do it all over again. It was about making fifty pesos a day juggling balls, it was about giving those fifty pesos to the pimp because if you fail to do it any given day you get beat down hard, maybe even die. It was about surviving. The car stopped in the next station and everyone looked down while the boys got off and into the next car hands empty, everyone here knew what it was all about. Some people make a living out of grief.
Wilshire/Normandie Station. The white light coming down from the metro roof gives everything a bleach-like odor. Out the window all I can see is the face of the man seating in front of me, his sleek cheeks, his thin mustache, his hair combed to the side. He holds a newspaper in his hands but he is not reading. He knows I’m watching him through the reflection on the window. His eyes move as if scanning the pages, but he is trying not to look towards the window because he knows he’ll find my eyes and then he wouldn’t know what to do. He keeps pretending. The light gets dim from time to time, as if the acceleration of the metro absorbed the energy needed to light the car. In the seats to my left there are a chunky old man and a tall woman talking. He has a bald head except for the sides of his head near the ears. The woman has long hair, dark with flashes of silver in the sides, and it’s tied up in a thin braid. He tells her that is the gringos’ fault. That if El Salvador is in the situation they are today is because of the gringos, that in the first place he never wanted to be here. She nods and grabs her braid, stroking it with the palm of her hand, up and down. The chunky man burps and puts his fist near his mouth, and then he tells her that it’s the same story all over again, that the same happened to the Chileans, that it happened to El Salvador, and that now it’s happening to Iraq, that the gringos always stick their big, crooked noses where no one wants them. The woman keeps on stroking her braid, picking on the silver hairs she finds. She listens attentively, nodding from time to time. He continues and tells her that if it weren’t for the easy dollars he makes in construction he would’ve been long gone, that money is evil, that it controls everything, but that once he saves enough he is leaving and never coming back. She grabs her purse and takes out a pack of gum, she puts some in her mouth, and while she chews, her head nods from time to time. Some people just want to be listened to.
Metro Cuauhtemoc, There were only a few people in the car, most of them sitting down tense and disgusted as if they had gone to work and back. They had gone nowhere, but this was how the metro got the best out of people after 45 minutes of riding it. The metro ran above the city by now, the view was something special: an expanding mass of concrete illuminated by pale yellow light that was filtered through a thick, grey cloud stagnant in the air. There was a man at the end of the car resting his back against the small emergency door. He had curly hair and wore a neon pink windbreaker jacket. He started to walk over where I was, but as he passed everyone he handed something to them, some ignored him but he was insisting as he placed what he was handing on people’s lap. When he got to where I was he handed me a keychain, it had Bugs Bunny on one side and on the other Daffy Duck. Along the keychain there was a small paper with something written in it:Sordo mudo. Por favor ayuda, lo que sea su voluntad. Dios le bendiga. . I’m deaf, I can’t speak. Please help. God bless you. He handed those key chains to everyone in the car, and then he waited for a while. I didn’t have any money on me other than what I had to buy some food at school, so I passed on the keychain. People read the little paper and looked towards the man with shame, as if they felt guilty that they had no money to donate to the poor man. He walked across the car picking up the key chains or the money. I gave up Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and he continued on walking until he had collected the remaining key chains. Then, a man seating at the back asked yelling to the deaf man how much were the key chains worth, the car was about to stop for the next station, the deaf man turned around and yelled that it was a donation. The doors opened, he walked out. Some people wish no one would listen to them.
I dream about my grandma, her fragile arms, how she wouldn’t hug me. I dream about how red her hair was, like a ripe plum, and that even though she was 74 years of age she wore heels and crimson lipstick on Sundays. I dream about her taking me to the farmers market with her when I was five, and buying me the Lucha Libre action figures I always wanted: El Santo, Blue Demon, Dr. Wagner. In my dreams, I still smell the hand-made tortillas, the pork chops in salsa verde, the red, fluffy Mexican rice she used to make. She died three years ago, and I couldn’t hug her. She died and it feels odd to say that I’ve never been to a funeral, that she is frozen in my memory. To me, she still lives, far away, in that yellow two-story house, because I never saw her die. I haven’t visited Mexico City in some time, and my mind, my dreams, cannot seem to grasp the idea of dying, of an ever changing life. I still think, in a kind of delirium, that the day I go back to that yellow house she will be waiting for me at the door with her market bag, red hair, heels, and crimson lipstick. And we’ll walk to the market, and maybe if I’m good to her, as she used to say, I can get a new Lucha Libre action figure: El Espectro.
There are too many children living in the streets, most of them are orphans, some others ran away from violent parents. The first time I rode the metro my dad took me to the public library, the only one in Mexico City. There, I found a book about whales, how they migrate to warmer waters, trying to protect their calves. That afternoon, I went back home thinking about the library, the whales, their calves, and all the children that had asked my dad for money during the trip. I didn’t check out the book about the whales, but I took with me the faces of all those children.
I’m standing in the middle of the car, feeling that cadence, the flow, how it almost seems as if the metro moved on clouds. The doors open and I step outside, walk towards the electric escalator. I see the people of Los Angeles, sometimes they are faceless, but today feels like most of them have eyes. The hallway is dark, yet the light is white and clear. I see sunlight filtering through a narrow opening; the yellow light illuminates the metro, as if it were a path of golden light that leads into a garden full of flowers, orange flowers. Sometimes, I dream about getting off at metro Pantitlan, walking the thirteen blocks to my house, breathing deep and letting the bright yellow sunlight hit my chest thinking everything moves in slow motion. But today I’m not dreaming, I’m getting off at Vermont and Sunset Boulevard. Outside, while the sun warms my chest and I lift my head to gaze into the clouds, everything moves faster than ever. I walk towards a coffee shop still feeling that floating-like sensation of the metro in motion. A grey-eyed girl smiles at me, an old woman asks me the time, and even though Mexico City is far away from here, I feel like I’m part of something for the first time in eight years. I tell the old woman it’s 9:38 am.