Mexico City has three major department stores, each of which began as an importer from a different region: Liverpool, Sanborns, and El Palacio de Hierro. Some of the latter two feel truly-old school, like how I imagine the American department stores circa 1960. They’ve got doormen, they’ve got fine chocolate sections, they’ve got restaurants, and they’ve got bars separate from the restaurants. (El Palacio de Hierro also provides me with the only way I can consistently make locals laugh: “Soy Totalmente Palacio” jokes. Interestingly, all those brash ads belie the store’s deep frumpiness.) For my purposes, they’ve got bathrooms. Reliable public facilities being hard to find in el D.F., I see those red Sanborns owls or that huge cursive “PH” and feel sweet relief a-comin’. Though I’d assumed that the nickname “Sanbaños” would have entered common usage decades ago, I find I may actually have coined it. (On the internet, anyway.)
Speaking of, most of the upscale-ish bathrooms here employ an odd faucet design: you push a stick that pokes out of the spout in any direction, and only when you hold it down does water come out. I’ve asked if this has to do with water conservation or something, but most people just act surprised that these faucets don’t exist in the States.
While making the long, winding, often M.C. Escher-ish walk between two connections in a subway station, we found ourselves at the head of a parade. Encircled by a squad of federal police, a section of UNAM’s marching band celebrated some sort of victory by making serious noise in the cement corridors. (For the recording enthusiasts out there, late-sixties subway stations offer a very “live” sonic environment indeed.) This immediately and simultaneously struck me as “something you wouldn’t see outside Mexico City,” “something that makes me want to live in Mexico City,” and “something that would get irritating if I did live in Mexico City, but not if I could keep a fresh perspective on it.”
The streets of el D.F. provide unusual, fascinating, or just surreal things on the street each and every day. Alas, according to the unflinching principle of yin and yang, it also serves up a number of horrific sights. Madelaine expressed a kind of disturbed awe (or awed disturbance) at the sight and sound of a battered-looking and drugged-acting woman warbling karaoke on the subway for money, portable amplifier and dazed young son in tow. “Don’t look at her,” she insisted to me. Later that night, we also had to pass through some sort of glue-sniffer alley to get out of the Insurgentes station (also known as the site of Total Recall‘s JohnnyCab chase). If it’s any consolation, glue-sniffers aren’t dangerous; they just sort of slump there and stare at you.
Farther down Insurgentes — and, need I add, in broad daylight — I paid a visit to the previously mentioned Condominio Insurgentes, a grandiose condominium tower dating from a previous era of Mexico City prosperity now reduced to a squat by damage from 1985 earthquake and various ensuing fires. It looks exactly like the pictures, and the dead husk of living spaces really does sprout from a reasonable healthy ground floor (“planta baja” en español) of all kinds of shops, including a sushi bar. Madelaine didn’t seem to want to go upstairs, but from what I saw of the inside, holes pepper the entire building. I guess it’s too extensively damaged to repair and too big to remodel at a reasonable cost. See also my Marketplace of Ideas interview with Daniel Hernandez where, at the very end, he describes attending a rave on the top floor.
Not to get too grand about this, but I would submit that Mexico City offers not beauty, and not ugliness, but a kind of flamboyant a-aesthetics that goes beyond beauty and ugliness. Mexico City either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what’s aesthetically appealing and what isn’t, and I find that refreshing.