By Gabriel Martínez, Mexico (Published in Issue 3)
Darting through a vast sea of neglected concrete structures, of run-down brightly coloured houses and shops; the metro line stretches out, for some of its distance, on top of the north-eastern neighbourhoods towards the downtown barrios of Mexico City.
Slouched in a green plastic seat, I contemplate the desolation of a hot Sunday afternoon through the metro train window. In the distance, in what would seem like a never ending gray horizon, the ‘Torre latinoamericana’ and the ‘Torre Mayor’ stand out as tall silhouettes against a poisoned sky backdrop. A sky now entertained in a sunset as pathetic as the ragged flag weaving from a rooftop of some anonymous house. Tired and still a little hung-over from Saturday’s too many tequilas and crashing at a friend’s house, I have idly procrastinated my return home, until now.
Bored and vexed, I’d prefer to doss-off for the length of the whole commute home, but soon I will have to transfer metro lines and walk through grey corridors towards half empty Sunday platforms. For a moment, I rest my head on the window, as the lights of the city begin to flicker, announcing the end of another day. Only to be startled, almost immediately, by a sudden jerk, as the train comes to an abrupt halt by a hit of the breaks, and the metro is left suspended between stations, meanwhile the hum of the motors dies down. As I lift my head, I see an aeroplane nose-diving towards the nearby airport. I look down from the train window and there’s an interminable delta of yellow and red car lights, interlaced on the avenues underneath the elevated tracks of the metro line.
I wish I was at home sleeping, not stuck in a stuffy train lacking air conditioning, overlooking a grey mass of near and far blurred shapes, jagged lines, amorphous architecture; flickers of moving, intermittent and stagnant lights; figures and grounds overlapping in one chaotic network of sites and configurations, gradually giving in to nocturnal penumbra. Such a massive extension of conglomerated urban space! A space where shantytowns and irregular human settlements, sans urban planning, became neighbourhoods and ghettos.
This is the urban space of deteriorated pedestrian bridges; abandoned and closed down factories and warehouses, council homes complexes and jam-packed Wal Mart parking lots; bars and cantinas with neon façades, entertaining a few disorientated drunks, who started drinking on a Friday evening and will not go to work tomorrow. Stray dogs and homeless people scavenging the back rubbish dumps of closed public markets, kids loitering in semi-deserted streets sniffing glue. I`m stuck in public transportation overlooking an unfathomable mass of “developing” world.
Time-space compression: the faster we move (less time engaged in moving) in a wider stretch of space, the narrower space seems (is perceived).
Looking at the urban space from this suspended, elevated peripheral view; exhausted and waiting for the Sunday blues to kick in at any moment; it all seems rather futile: That rush of the city to get anywhere (geographic and/or social mobility) and the many obstacles you encounter hindering any sort of real sense of completion or communication. This city is too large and the distances it encompasses ever more absurd. Getting anywhere becomes a saga that consumes your patience and your brain. Life dissipates in a wagon bus or car; stuck in the midst of traffic. In the agitation fatigue and acute insomnia that nothing seems to mitigate. It dissipates in the hours of work or leisure spent in front of a computer screen, gadget or mobile, in that other space, cyber-space.
Mobility might seem like an illusion, but the space where such illusions happen seems vital and primordial. One can dissertate on space and its phenomenology as much as one likes; but, when deprived of everything but the very basic; space is something as necessary as food and rest. Space is shelter and the means of survival. It is an incarnated abstract notion worth fighting for. You work for space, engage in its commoditization, you territorialize and de-territorialize. You struggle for it and against it.
Somewhere out there in that urban expanse I have been describing, 40 years ago, my grandmother, finding herself homeless far from her pueblo in the Mixteca mountains, had to clandestinely build a tin shack in a meagre lot of land to make a small extension of space her own. In a time when this was a barren wasteland, and low income families where settling in no man’s land next to rubbish dumps and open sewer deposits.
To appropriate land, if you had no money to buy it, you had to take it by force; and it had to be done in one single night, under the cover of darkness. She was alone, so she had to hire, with whatever money available, three albañiles to build a thatched-roof tin hut. They worked throughout the late hours with my grandmother next to them also building what would eventually become her house and her plot of land. She spent the next day in prison for this; she had to fight of other working-class families also in desperate need for land; she had to threaten civil engineers and the ‘urbanistas’ on shooting at them if they did not acknowledge her piece of land, once urban planning finally came to the shantytowns.
As darkness seems to thicken outside, and the fluorescent light seems heavier inside the train, this prohibits anymore observations and spatial musings. Soon, once it resumes its movement, the metro line will become subterranean, crossing the light and darkness of platforms and tunnels, lost in a sombre unknown of mole-men and sewer rats.
Out of the thick darkness outside, raindrops begin to drum on the windows of the train, scratching delicate water veins as the windows begin to dampen inside. Languidly I get up from my seat and lower the ventilation window closest to me. A soft humid and at the same time, humid breeze, hits my perspiring face. I look out onto the darkness of the sky and for a few seconds feel relief from the heat meanwhile I inhale the polluted air. With a strange shriek and the sound of vibrating machinery, the train resumes movement, this time with a slower pace due to the rain.
Gabriel is from Mexico City and when not spending time with his cat, he likes to write literary essays, fiction and publish short pieces in his blog. He holds a love/hate relationship with writing and literature that has left him with a feeling of disorientation and bafflement. He considers himself somewhat of a closeted cultural theorist.