Out of Mexico's chaos, community

When you live with 20 million people in one airtight valley, it's often hard to see them as people. That's how I feel moving about the chaos of Mexico City, where crossing a street is like picking your way through a medieval cavalry charge. The center is the worst. There, street vendors take up huge swaths of pavement with their rickety stalls, and sidewalk flow is reduced to a shuffling and jostling, not of passersby, but of a mass of competing wants.

I needed a day planner. I had a specific style in mind: leather and small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. But with two meetings to get to across town and public transport to get me there, there was no time to look for one. So it was chance that I passed a pile exactly of this kind laid out on a trestle. I slowed, then stopped, then looked for the seller.

"She'll be back in a minute," said a woman, leaning out from her taco stand.

"I really only have a minute," I said, not unfriendly but firm. A minute could stretch into anything when passed through the mangle of Mexico City.

"She's just gone to the bathroom." As if to reassure me, the women gave a hard look up the street. Waves of fixed-eyed commuters passed, seemingly wanting to drag me along in their undertow. I looked longingly at the metro entrance I'd been headed for.

A butcher stood on his doorstep, a rag in his hand. "She won't be long," he said, giving me a friendly wink.

Silly, my idea of trying to impose ruled lines and carefully numbered squares on a city like this. Despite the brown pall of pollution in the sky, the smattering of refuse in the gutters, it's not an unhappy city. There's convivial banter at the intersections among businessmen, traffic cops, and street kids competing with the grind of traffic. Anyone will gladly stop and give you directions. But the directions are always wrong, and it's grueling to try to go from point A to B in a straight line.

Word seemed to have spread up the row of tattered tarpaulins hanging over the trinkets and troughs of fried food. More vendors were peering their heads in the direction of the alleged bathroom. A woman from a stand across the street was carefully crossing eight lanes of traffic to see if she could help. "Shouldn't be long now," the butcher agreed with the taco seller.

I was watching my beautifully straight line slowly warp under the pressure of this somewhat embarrassing situation. My mistake had been in stopping, I thought. It would be hard to extricate myself now, with half the block mobilized around my pending transaction. But still I waited. Out of the 20-million strong crowd, a day planner exactly like the one I was seeking had been placed in my path.

In fact, the vendor wasn't long. She was an Indian girl, about 12 or 13, with ruddy dark skin, an old cardigan, and long black hair tied back with a cheap bangle. To me she looked just like all the other Indian girls who come from the villages to scrape together a living here. I gave her $2 for the day planner and walked away pleased with myself.

The rest of the block looked pleased with me, too. The girl, perhaps, was unaware how close she had come to losing a sale, but everyone else knew. "Gracias," said the taco seller, almost with relief. "Have a nice day," waved the butcher.

I walked through an arch of smiles all the way to the metro. Suddenly, I realized that these people blocking my way with things I didn't want were also the kindly guardians of the young girl. They were grateful to a wealthy-looking gringo who had waited patiently for her to return. Whether I deserved it or not, I felt giddy as a new sense of community coalesced out of 20 million people.

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