The Subway Show
John Farmer, KF14, Mexico City
So this morning I get on the northbound subway leaving Ermita, heading to Chabacano. This is the Blue Line, heading from middle-class southern part of town toward the bustling center of Mexico City. There’s one seat, but the people around it are sort of spilling into it, so I stand.
Less than a minute into my ride, it starts — the beggars and vendors. The show can be pretty entertaining. In the first act, an indigenous woman walks through the car with a bunch of little cards, each one saying something to the effect of “Please help out by giving me a few coins.” She places them in people’s laps or in the hands of those that accept. I’m about two feet taller than she is, so I look straight ahead and pretend not to see her. After they’ve had time to read and consider, a girl who looks ten but is probably sixteen collects the cards and any change that people give. Not everyone is heartless — some give.
Next I hear percussion: one-two, one-two — a blind man is shaking a bucket with a few coins and shuffling very slowly down the aisle. A few more are added to his collection, and I ponder the precision of his pace. Faster, and people wouldn’t have time to feel the need, dig into their purse or pocket, and toss the coins into his bucket.
Timing is everything in this business. A few weeks back I was in Guatemala, having breakfast with a well-traveled friend. A little girl tried to sell me a bracelet, and I let her know I didn’t need one. She stayed by the table. “Buy something. Give me a coin. I’m hungry…” She didn’t look hungry, but she was very cute and persistent and patient, and after nearly ten minutes I gave her about ten cents. “Shame on you!” said my companion, and I knew he was right. I almost never give to beggars.
Next comes the Kleenex saleswoman. Two travel packs for forty cents. I love the intonations she uses, rising then falling, nasal, steady, almost droning, yet barking: “Cinco pesos le cuesta – cinco pesos le vale.” Then another blind man. He has the timing all wrong, walking way too fast, hat extended too high for the seated passengers to drop anything in. I’ll bet he doesn’t clear anywhere near what our other friend does. Then there’s a guy singing and holding a boombox. He’s awful, and part of me hopes no one gives him money. Maybe he’ll change careers.
At Chabacano I detrain to head toward Patriotismo. Walking through the station, there are the people collecting for the Red Cross — I wonder if they really are? Why do they feel they have to dress like nurses? Then a policeman is trying to wave people with backpacks over to a scanner. Almost no one pays attention to him. Why does anyone? I walk right past — I can always play the “stupid foreigner” card if I have to…
The show has been fun so far, but here there are a lot of serious-looking people waiting for the train. Two trains heading the other way go by. Very few people get on or off. Everyone wants to go west. After an impatient eternity of three minutes a train comes. It’s packed. A fraction of our crowd gets on. Five minutes and two more eastbound trains later, another packed train arrives. I push my way in, but in isn’t quite in. The doors can’t close. Several of us give up after pushing and go back to waiting.
The platform is eerily quiet. Mexico City is a noisy place, and the silence amazes me.
The third train stops with a door right in front of me, and I’m the first one in. Inside, it’s really tight. Every part of my body is touching someone, and I regret that I didn’t button the pocket where my wallet is. I am very alert. I have my backpack in my left hand and am pushing with my right against the ceiling for stability. One of the men from the platform is right in front of me, face to face, and smiles at me. How odd!
I have the sensation that someone is stroking my hand. He is! The smiley guy! Guácala! Gross! I change the backpack to the other hand and cover myself with it. There is no hope of moving away, but he seems to have received the message. This is the last car of the train, and those are famous for, well, that sort of thing. Maybe I am a stupid foreigner, but this is early morning, and there are grannies and students and businesspeople here.
No vendors or beggars though — no room for them.
Smiley guy gets off at the next stop and stands on the platform facing the train. Most people walk toward the exit or another train, but he just stands there with his arms crossed.
John Farmer is a Kiva Fellow at CrediComún in Mexico City. He is amazed to still be alive after navigating the subways, buses, sidewalks, bike lanes and taxis there, and as a result still makes loans through Kiva.