D.F. Work

July 27, 2017

Pyramid of the Sun

 

My purpose for traveling and touring is to revive my sense of being uncomfortably located in the world and mix it with pleasure and some proximity to risk. Each of us has our own equation to determine distance, novelty and danger. More than merely traveling without an umbrella, it’s an attraction to experience places where I don’t feel at home, or even altogether safe. This spring that’s D.F., Distrito Federal, the capitol city of Mexico. Mexico City, has always seemed monstrous to me. There are over 21.2 million people in approximately the same space my current hometown, Houston, uses to house 2.3 million people. To me they all appear to exist in and out of locked spaces jammed and piled on top of one another. The streets and traffic twist on relentless, broken and crowded, and at the same time it feels ephemeral, like being in someone else’s dream, because it is.
For eight centuries, it has endured invasion, all manner of human sacrifice, colonization, political intrigue, corruption, competing cosmologies, calendars, and assassinations. Originally it was built by the Mexica people on the site where an eagle landed on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak as Tenochitilan in the 1300s, it has been invaded by Aztecs, destroyed by the Spanish, then rebuilt by the Spanish expending the lives of generations of “drafted” laborers, it was invaded by the US in 1847, and shelled during the Mexican Revolution. At the beginning of the 20th Century the population of Mexico City was merely 500,000. When the 1985 earthquake struck, nearly half of all industrial jobs were in Mexico City. By then D.F. colonias had spread down the valley nearly to Teotihaucan, and the abandoned pyramids the Aztecs found in amazement. The results of the earthquake collapsed the government and sent the largest spike of immigration to the United States, as well as autocratic internal disbursement of part of its population to other Mexican municipalities. Throughout all of this, D.F. has continued to grow and rebuild the dream of itself out of prior dreams of itself. When I ask directions, I know I’m lost walking through at least five worlds at once with only fragmentary maps of any of them.
The first Sunday I wake up in D.F. I look for coffee. My hotel room is juxtaposed between two radically different neighborhoods. Derecho is the Krystal Hotel on the corner of a tree lined section of La Reforma avenue. Surrounding it are flat glass and marble business towers (I think it is the news and media district), guarded apartments with night managers and nearby work out facilities. Esquierda is a littered street with periodic tarp awning tents set up in front of shops selling bundled newspapers to men who will sell them to cars stopped in traffic. Others sell hot etole, and sugary café con leche to accompany yesterday’s pan dulce. There are rows of men in hooded sweatshirts and cheap down vests eating pan and sipping coffee waiting for the next bundle of papers. A man in a ball cap gives me a choice, café con leche or café Americano, one size, no foam. Veinte pesos. I walk on. I skirt past a man sleeping soundly on the sidewalk next to the subway entrance. Half a block over in the middle is the door to Convento San Ignacio. As I cross the street I notice private guards in black suits holding unslung machine guns scanning the street I’m crossing. There are eight of them and they have the sidewalk blocked in front of the door. There are two black GMCs idling at the curb, the chauffeurs are thick men wearing sunglasses. Laughing precedes three women in formal gowns and their escorts in tuxedoes leaving the Convento. I try to determine if they’re leaving last night’s soiree, or heading to a morning reception. I think the evening wear means the former, but the guards aren’t pleased with me contemplating the details. The aggressive focus of their attention moves me along, down the block where I find the panaderia responsible for the day-olds.
I pick up a tray and tongs and go about selecting my breakfast. There are two women behind an empty glass counter stacked with baked goods. The shop is filled with the sound of the women steadily, rapidly wrapping each pastry in waxed paper. Skillfully they flip and twist the four corners bringing enough pressure to keep the twist, but not damage the conchas, horns, oreas, the ojos. Rip. Twist. Flip. Slide. Rip. Twist. Flip. Slide. Its own music. A knuckle of cookie covered in dark chocolate is what I bring to the clerk. “Veinte.” is all she says. Anything is veinte here. It’s still too early for coffee at the hotel. The twenty-four hour store doesn’t open until seven. The derecho side is dark, gated, and guarded. I return to the calle de periodicos, pay for a café con leche, skip over a pile of opened pharmaceutical samples and head into the hotel lobby.
That’s my level of pleasure wandering between worlds and landing on the cheap. Too sweet coffee and stale baked goods. I wouldn’t do this at home. There my breakfast is healthy, green tea, toast, oatmeal, each item specific, and predictable. I don’t even have to put on shoes until I leave for work. On my sidewalk people take their dogs for morning walks carrying plastic bags for doggie doo. Little dogs, rescue dogs, ill-mannered dogs yanking their owners along. In DF dogs leashed or unleashed don’t bother anyone unless they appear to have food. They seem composed, at ease in their territories. If they don’t have a leash, they have fleas. Tienes pulgas, is an invective that seems to apply only to idioms. No one seems to cares; no one seems angry.

It’s not unbar the front door time, but the few spaces usually occupied by waiting cabs are still given over to parked cars. Taxis don’t go down street unless they’re taking a shortcut to the Marriot. “Proximo” is what our pesos got and we hauled equipaje. This morning the clerk recognizes me. We nod Buenas Dias. In traveling I pay for familiarity. There are fees understood. The bellman is carrying a carton of groceries to the kitchen. Someone seems to be carrying, dragging, pushing, wheeling something constantly. If a restaurant is empty, the meseros stand outside talking the customers in. Unknown items wrapped in blue plastic tarp keep moving through the city like a type of mitochondria. Earlier I watched a man force eight of them into a taxi so filled the driver could only see ahead. I doubt they look behind anyway. People carry groceries in small plastic bolsas. Workman carry lunches in knapsacks. Women carry shoes in large purses. Schoolkids carry their worlds in mochillas. Things are sucio. Everyone’s clothes get sucio. The buildings are sucio. The air is sucio. Someone always appears to be washing something.
These are obvious. The extraneous. What I discover in the safety of early dawn, or from taxi windows. I have no idea what goes on inside the four million kitchens surrounding me. That’s my failure to discover, also part of the price I pay at the hotel for breakfast included. A forced morning smile from a person in a starched uniform disguising the labor that has already gone on to produce the coffee I instantly require.

She will produce a puzzled lenguaje to soften my brutish Spanish. It’s the real communication we both use to discuss our common existence. I can’t ask her about her trip to work, like me she has traversed the pre-dawn streets, but I imagine hers to the opposite kind of travel. I have traveled around as an outsider; she has traveled inside a tunnel. It’s the path workers make from our home to work. We develop a private galaxy of landmarks and habits that allow us to be blind, to ignore what surrounds us and what it may mean other than how it effects our travel. That there is a car wreck means little to us other than prurient distraction and how it changes our route. We ride the freeway or subway of assumption all moving things are either in our way or traveling on our path.

On my commute I care no more about that fellow human being in the Toyota going 64mph when we could all be going 70 than I care about the disposition of the conglomeration of asteroids that used to be called the planet Pluto. We all have to go somewhere we don’t want to go. As much as by some hypnotic sense as anything else we go to our jobs. Perhaps we turn off a car radio, or leave in our earbuds for a few moments as we clock in, we regard our last moments of private freedom before we become that other. The sold one, the rented one, the one in a starched blouse, a uniform, a dress code, a hierarchy of fashion that identifies our value as capital. Our common limited language won’t allow me to share with the woman earnestly presenting me huevos La Revolucion that she’s serving me in my escape from serving someone else, or that her task is linked to a series of pictures of this hotel on Expedia that met my budget and aesthetic to forget where I arrive during the working week. Or that we are in similar routines. Regardless of how mangled my pronunciation, or mumbled my suffixes we manage enough commonality to get the task done.
That’s the language most of us speak, most of our conscious hours. A creole of idioms, slang, stylish slogans, business-speak, and lies that allow us to get a pay envelope. It’s a servile style of speech, no one speaks in their home. A language that says nothing of love, or beauty, or suffering, or poetry, or prayer. It’s the sounds we have to make to survive when we are less than human. Every morning for thirty years I’ve tied a tie around my neck and tethered myself to work. I’ve signed public decency clauses, and more recently public disclosure clauses in my contracts. Once I felt secure seeking tenure, hoping I could have that job for the rest of my life, as my father did his, now I work at the pleasure of an administrator, and accept other duties as assigned. The words have changed, but the meaning remains. Wage slave. It’s what I came to Mexico to forget, to have moments of vacancy, a vacation. What I find instead is a panorama of labor.

Simple labor carrying or dragging bundles, unlocking the doors to the 24 hour store, walking into a service entrance, carrying a uniform home from a night shift, peering out a partially opened door with a machine gun and cigarette, whistling to traffic, tasks flowing like blood in an old man, maids pushing a cart of towels and small soaps, men in drab jackets chiseling paving stones, bored waitresses staring at an empty dining room two hours before closing…the ever present curved broom. This is what makes the world, what made the world.

The next morning, my friends and I travel to Teotihuacan. We’ve hired a driver to get us to the pyramides before the tour buses and package groups. He does. As tourists, we’re as immune to the lost language of the architecture, as we are to the hieroglyphs that surround us. We recognize images of divine Jaguares, or perhaps a were-jaguar, north/south orientation, and guess the rest with the pleasure of puzzling a mystery novel. We join the eons of travelers who began up the ceremonial stairs to summit the Pyramid of the Sun. But we climb with growing ignorance of its purpose, of it’s past. The stair steps weren’t made for climbing, but standing. In its day it would have been a living hierarchy of their world. Splendidly blending all of their knowledge of the worlds of life and death into a ceremony of detailed perfection. Their holy days should have kept their civilization in balance forever; but they didn’t. This “Calazada de los Muertos” was rediscovered by the Aztecs, who named it Teotihuican, Valley of Gods. They arrived understanding perhaps more about the symbology or meaning, but must have been, like us, in awe of the labor. The work.

The hauling, digging, stone shaping man hours to raise an edifice that would slowly blot out a mountain as you approached it. Or move 40 million cubic feet of stone over the legendary cave of the origin of life and then reach to hold the flooding sun twice a year. It was the beginning and end of the time, and on some unconscious level we recognize some of this…maybe even more than the bilingual explanatory plaques. But soon we don’t care. What matters is the act of climbing. The knee aching labor of gasping and looking only ahead to the next stair, and the next. Whether we are climbing or descending is meaningless, if we wear sunscreen or feathers, we’re simply in motion, and in that action in communion with the disappeared people who built the world we are traipsing through. We travel irreverently, at different paces, some of us limping, or laughing if we have breath for it, and periodically most of us facing a crisis of exhaustion.

All that matters is the next step. We are immersed in what Kant called “das Ding an sic”, the Thing in itself. We push our muscles and lungs as much as our bodies will allow to climb the dawn painted stairs. We leave one another behind now pointlessly competing to be the first of the day to reach the pinnacle. Our traveling companionship dissipates. I left my wife below. I look for the safety of my friends for an instant, try to breath deep, then climb towards the sun. As Rilke described the Archaic Torso, I turn my gaze downward, breathing the fiery breath of the cosmos into my legs feeling like marble. If the originators of these pyramids, made sacrifices, cut off human heads, or tore out hearts, I don’t care. My task has no morality, only the tunnel vision of labor. When I arrive, I share that single emotion, a momentary glow, private triumph over time and for being part of the rare line of others who preceded me in uncounted yesterdays.
What I find are workmen.
Their morning ascent started an hour before ours. They carried bundles of rebar and tools on their backs. Their tool bags are already open, steel chisels and sinks spread out near them on stones. As the sun rises they are using five pound sledge hammers to drive long rods of rebar into rock. Plain work, steady effort and focused skill. My father was a foundryman, he called his sledge hammer the idiot stick. His hope was that I would be spared using it to earn a living. He wanted me to wear a shirt and tie like the managers and supervisors who divided his labor into dollars and half cents per hour, who measured his lifetime with a time clock. As the sun rises the Avenue of the Dead echoes with the solid sound of a well struck hammer on stone. I may never know why, but I believe I understand how we climb the pyramid one step at a time.