Dances with Subways

I’m an urban creature, as only someone forced to grow up in the countryside can be. I figure out new public transit systems the way Grizzly Adams reads bear tracks. Shortly after arriving in Mexico City, I was happily jumping off Line 3 at Hidalgo to switch to Line 1 towards Pantitlán, without a map. My overly cautious Footprint Guide gives dark warnings about tourist muggings, but I found the Mexico City metro cheerful and efficient. Little cardboard tickets cost a flat two pesos. Unlike the New York subway, there are few endless escalator descents and mile-long tunnels. You pop your ticket in the turnstile, and the train is right in front of you—they arrive every 90 seconds.

Inflight entertainment is supplied by hawkers. On the Tasqueña train, a man behind me intoned a bizarre mantra.
    “Ámame. Plázame. Te quiere.” (Love me. Please me. He loves you.)
This went on, until he came to ‘Submarino Amarillo’, and I finally twigged that he was reciting the songs on the Beatles Greatest Hits CDs he carried in a cardboard box.

Blind singers of varying talents stagger up and down the train, holding their change cups trustingly. Today’s biggest hit was a book of salad recipes for four pesos, which was snapped up by the passengers who boarded at Central Market.

Lulled by my metro mastery, I was surprised to find the platform jammed five-deep at 7.30 on Friday night. The atmosphere was menacing, though I couldn’t work out why. I was being stared at more than usual. Where were the women? A full train arrived, and the men hurled themselves with frightening force at the passengers trying to get off. Mosh pit.

The women, it turned out, were at the other end of the platform behind a barrier guarded by police. After dark, the men are separated from women, children, and the disabled, and the air gets ugly. I scurried into the women’s pen, where as usual I was the only gringa and a head taller than anyone else.

The segregation felt odd. Some men leered over the barrier, like long-term lags on a prison bus passing a convent. Three trains arrived and left, so packed I couldn’t get on. When I finally squeezed on, holding my breath, I was glad that only women’s bodies were pressed against mine. The women were mostly quiet, tired-looking after a week’s work, and patient with the heat and the crush. I felt safe and grateful for their company. But it was a quick reminder that I am no longer in Giuliani’s Manhattan, which always felt as safe as Disneyland, even at 3 am.