today in great things

There is Bus TV in Mexico too, on the Metrobus, and one of the features I saw yesterday was a little segment entitled “¿Y Mis Zapatos?” (What About My Shoes?), where the screen is filled with flying shoes and then a sort of Powerpoint presentation takes you through the different kinds — high heels, platform shoes, etc, with a brief definition for each type. It was very educational.


poor leopoldo

After a few days of the film crew setting my schedule, following me around with a tripod and asking me to look pensive in a variety of places (I watched flies zip around in a restaurant from the 1920s, across from the American embassy, and tried to envision it “occupied by the troops of the American diplomatic corps,” as Salvador Novo put it), today was a welcome return to my solitary routine, complete with long walks, bureaucracy, and laughing to myself.


My destination was the Hemeroteca Nacional, the El Dorado of historical newspapers. Mexico City has a vast transportation network, but, as my host-friend put it, “nothing connects up,” so to get from point A to point B involved a walk, a bus ride, two subway lines, a Metrobus, and another walk. With my talent for such things, I managed to make the last stage stretch out over 2 hours by picking the wrong Metrobus line and being booted off at the final stop, several miles away from the Hemeroteca. But I had the whole of the UNAM campus before me, and the day was warm and sunny, so I cut across central campus, using my iPhone as a compass, walking past colorful Día de los Muertos displays. Princeton’s architecture is Gothic and our gym looks like a castle; the UNAM gym could have easily passed for an Aztec temple, which was both aesthetically pleasing and considerably more appropriate.

The Ciudad Universitaria, unfortunately, was shot through with gated complexes, which forced me to loop in a huge circle around a number of schools and an ecological reserve, feeling silly as I tried to avoid being trapped in parking lots. For most of the time I was the only person on the sidewalk, but the space felt good and the landscape was stunning. The UNAM campus was the first place I’d seen the mountains as anything other than faint, smog-blurred figures.  Finally the Hemeroteca came in sight. Continue reading

cuidado, piso mojado

On my second day in Mexico City, a hurricane with an unprepossessing name was passing over. I’d decided to make my debut on DF public transport, but this involved walking a mile through what turned out to be increasingly angry, thundering rain over to one of the nearest subway stations. I hunched down under a comically small umbrella and thought dark thoughts as my jeans were slowly soaked, from cuffs to knees. The route took me past multiple cemeteries, passing through the little barrios that spring up around them, organically formed commercial complexes of death: a coffin store here, a florist there, street vendors selling bouquets.

I found the Metro station, dashing across a street and mentally daring the speeding trucks to splash me, and descended into a dripping cave. Línea 2 is quite close to the surface, and so everything was wet: not just the stairs and the floor (a vendor inside the station was pushing a squeegee around), but the ceiling as well, dripping and oozing from the most unlikely corners. I slid my way through the turnstile.

Next to the platform, rain poured down from a street-level grate, falling on the replicas of indigenous statues. A Chac Mool reclined under the falling water, staring balefully out at the empty tracks, holding out its platter to receive not a fresh heart but the unending cold gush. The Carlos Fuentes story about a living Chac Mool had been one of the first texts we read in Spanish III, and it was almost like meeting an old friend. No, I decided, it was too cliché for me to see a Chac Mool on the subway, least of all in the pouring rain. I turned my back on it. But the trains crawled slowly through the deluge, and the tracks were still empty. I inched closer to the yellow safety line, feeling the statue’s glare.

in case anyone is stumped for halloween ideas

imageAn Aztec cranial mask at the Museo del Templo Mayor: the front section of a skull, the teeth duly filed and eyeballs duly inserted, all ready to pop on your face and be the sensation of the costume party (or war ritual, or sacrifice, or what have you). The Museo wasn’t around when Santiago was in DF — and, for that matter, most of its contents were still underground. For centuries the Templo Mayor was believed to be directly underneath the city’s cathedral, making its treasures irretrievable; but in 1978 construction workers unearthed a massive stone tablet as they were digging on a nearby corner, and since then several shattered layers of what was once a temple taller than the cathedral in Sevilla have been carefully dug up. I filed this outing under “things Santiago would have done if he’d had the opportunity,” a category too ridiculously large and vague to deal with but handy when I feel like stepping out of the itinerary indicated by his memoirs.


staring down the barrel of a camera


What to say of a documentary about a documentary that spawns a book about 25,000 pages that in its turn spawns another documentary? The whole thing sounds insufferable, I know, stiflingly meta. But there’s something about Santiago that seems to spark people’s creativity. I met up with friends of friends for coffee the night before last and told them a bit about my continent-spanning obsession, and the next day they met me at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, ready with a camera, tripod, and questions.

We walked around the echoing temple that is the Palacio, with its tons of white Carrara marble sinking imperceptibly but fatally into the city’s swampy soil. The murals that line the central space were nearly all new when Santiago arrived, massive compositions depicting the brutalities of colonization, or the world wars, or capitalism, some of them almost unbearable to look at. This was a stop on the tour because Santiago had indicated it in his memoirs, the fourth chapter (or “movement”) of which reads more like a tour guide to Mexico City than anything else. That is to say, I know that, according to him, one should visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes, but I don’t have much more of an idea of what he did there. “So what are you getting out of this?” I was asked, reasonably, and I struggled to answer. Of course I’m carrying out more traditional research at the same time, pestering relatives of Santiago’s friends and bombarding embassy employees with emails, but I felt as though it would be an affront not to respect the itinerary he’d glowingly written up.

So I stood in front of Diego Rivera’s mural — the one that was too Communist for the Rockefeller Center — and talked about Santiago as the chronicler of the horrors of his time, about the Middle Ages, about compulsive writing and Funes el memorioso, looking by turns at my “interviewer” and at the camera lens creeping ever closer to my face. I tried to be as natural as possible, but when I made some observation about Santiago as we walked through one of the galleries where photography wasn’t allowed, the director winced slightly and then asked me to repeat what I’d said once we were out by the murals again. Take two. Continue reading

the waiting room

It’s raining hard in Mexico City, and all I can think about is a short story I heard a couple years ago. It was on Radiolab; they broadcast readings of excerpts from David Eagleman’s book Sum, which imagines a number of possibilities for the afterlife — some playful, some less so. “There are three deaths,” he writes in one vignette.

The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

Having passed through two deaths, you bide your time in an echoing waiting room until that last utterance of your name. The famous, of course, have a long wait ahead of them. Others have only to hang around until their last loved one passes on, at which point they are released — and their loved one, tragically, arrives just on their heels. Some are condemned to wait not out of any real notoriety, but because they’ve become footnotes to history, minor but destined to be referenced long past their time on earth (Eagleman imagines a frustrated, long-dead farmer whose lands were turned into a university campus and whose name is intoned by tour guides on a daily basis).

I have a list of names on the desk, about twenty lines deep: these are all the friends from across Mexico that Santiago mentions in his memoirs and correspondence. Some I know are long dead, some only recently so, most without children or close relatives (that I can find). Some even evade Google’s grasp. And so, coupled with my frustration as I comb archive after archive, typing in permutations of the same name and sending out messages into the ether, I can’t help but imagine that enormous waiting room. If these people are truly gone, with no-one to tell me who they were, can I be the only one left repeating their names? Better to let them rest.