Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ritual of Purification

I visited Mexico City in 1997, and was immediately robbed, at the very impressive new bus terminal, almost as soon as I arrived. (The first-class bus I traveled in was excellent, state of the art, with air conditioning -- unusual at the time even on US buses -- and even a movie, just like on a plane.) While visiting with a friend, I noticed that all the streets in his neighborhood had gates, manned by security guards. This wasn't simply a "gated community," but an ordinary middle class neighborhood. Every single street was gated, as were many such streets in many other neighborhoods throughout the city. I'd never seen anything like it before, but for my friend it was, of course, nothing special.

Overall, Mexico City impressed me. Much of it is very beautiful. I visited the University, the art museum and also a special museum devoted to the work of one of my favorite artists, David Siqueiros. And at my request, my friend and his father took me on an outing to Teotihuacan, one of the most spectacular ancient cities in the world.

Though I enjoyed my stay in Mexico City, I couldn't help but notice the many signs of truly dire poverty visible all around me. What struck me especially were the large number of what appeared to be homeless boys roaming around the streets. I became fascinated by a group of boys working as windshield washers, a mode of "employment" one step removed from outright begging. I'd seen this sort of thing before in New York City, but never on this scale. What impressed me especially was the diligence of these boys, and the relation between them and the drivers. Unlike New York, they never forced themselves on anyone, never began to wash a windshield without a signal from the driver.

This phenomenon deeply moved me. There was something very touching about the care these boys took to clean each windshield as carefully as possible, and something touching as well about the indulgence of the drivers and their patience with the boys. In New York, drivers are typically irritated when someone with a rag comes up to their car, but in Mexico the situation was very different, possibly because poverty was already so much of a fixture of everyday life that no one was any more bothered by it.

I was moved but also deeply disturbed. On the surface, there was something truly beautiful about it, almost like a ritual, but when I tried to project myself into the mind of one of these boys, continually repeating the same delicate task over and over again for hours on end, it was almost impossible to imagine. On the one hand, there was something Zenlike about it, a form of meditation. On the other hand, it was imprisonment or even torture, a kind of self-flagellation.

Obsessed by images I couldn't get out of my head, I decided to write about it, or more accurately, write my way through it, by producing a kind of poetic incantation. As I began to write what struck me was that, on the one hand, I was creating something almost like an avant-garde prose poem, a kind of minimalist poetry I suppose, but on the other hand, I was reporting as accurately as I could exactly what I had observed. I began with the intention of making this go on for many pages, to convey as real a sense as possible of what these boys experienced day in day out, just to survive. But I didn't get very far. Just writing it was too difficult, so imagine what living it was like. Here's as much as I had the courage to do:
The boy waited patiently for a sign. When the sign came, he lifted the bottle and sprayed. A soapy liquid appeared on the glass. The boy lifted his squeegee and patiently skimmed the soapy liquid off the glass. Patiently he held out his hand for the coin. When the coin appeared he tucked it into his pocket and said “gracias” and waited patiently for another sign. The sign came, but this time from the other side of the street. Traffic was heavy so he had to move quickly. Upon reaching the auto, he lifted his bottle and sprayed the soapy liquid onto the glass. Patiently he lifted the squeegee and skimmed the soapy liquid from the surface of the glass. When he was done, he held out his hand for the coin. But it slipped from his hand and he had to dive down between two cars to retrieve it. The light changed. Traffic began to move. He found the coin and quickly thrust it into his pocket. Patiently he waited for the light to change. A woman signaled him from a red convertible. She smiled. He smiled back at her, then lifted the bottle patiently and sprayed a soapy liquid onto her windshield. Then, lifting his squeegee, he skimmed the liquid from the glass, smiled again and held out his hand. She smiled and handed him two coins. She was pleased. He said “gracias” and smiled again, tucking the coins into his pocket. Then he patiently waited for another sign. But the light had changed and the cars were moving. Quickly he slipped out of their way, looking down the line of traffic for another sign.
Imagine repeating this same thing over and over again, with all the many variations the boy would encounter during a long day's work. Imagine writing it, but more important, imagine living it. Day after day after day for an entire childhood.

I forgot all about the boys, and my truncated "poem," until recently when reading for the umpteenth time about the so-called Mexican drug wars, and it suddenly occurred to me: where are all these boys now and what are they doing? I wonder how many survived, and if so, how. When poverty of this depth and on this scale is accepted simply as a fact of life and nothing is done to alleviate it, then it seems to me this is going to have consequences for society as a whole. We see it now in Mexico and I see it coming in the USA.

David Alfaro Siqueiros -- Echo of the Scream


  1. Nice 2 C U (translation to see you) posting again. As usual, very insightful thoughts and ideas. I would be interested in your input on the new Mexican president's election and how this may or may not alter things economically, both down under and here in the good old USA?

    He has signaled mixed messages about this neverending crazy "drug war." If I heard right, he seemed to be putting pressure on the US and Obama to "curb our demand" for those nasty "illegal" drugs, like a fucking plant. I wonder if this may put pressure on Obama to at least ease up on this nonsense, when in fact, he has only seemed to double down on Bush on this.

    Obama recently came out in lukewarm favor of gay marriage (a no brainer) and also some good yet pandering to the "illegals." I'm wondering if Obama needs to come out for decriminalizing at the very least, these absurd marijuana laws?
    It could I believe energize another voting group he might be taking for advantage, the "youth" vote. I consider myself among that large and growingingly more disillusioned group of former supporters.

    This Loco weed nonsense, going on what, 75-80 years of prohibition, and propaganda, is not only a key economic issue, in many ways, but it could be the key to his victory. I worry about that because I still think there are way too many people in this country who are just plain stupid enough to elect an immorally wealthy piece of crap moron like Romney.

  2. I'm not knowledgeable enough on Mexican politics to say much about the new election, but I will say that I'm very pessimistic that anyone will be able to effectively fight the drug cartels. I'm for legalizing weed, always have been. It's a lot healthier than cigarettes.

    It can be a harmful habit for sure, but many things are harmful when overdone, e.g., the continual guzzling of soft drinks and eating of pizza so many of our kids are now into.

    I'm also in favor of treating all drug addiction as an illness rather than a crime. To me that's a no brainer.

    Unfortunately even if we legalize marijuana and every other drug, that won't solve the underlying problem of Mexican poverty and certainly won't cause the gangs to disband. They will simply find other means of illegally supporting themselves, by e.g., robbing, stealing, kidnapping etc. even more than now.

    Paradoxically, as I see it, Mexico's inability to stem drug trafficking and the USA's unwillingness to legalize it, actually makes things better, because the energies of all these thugs are focused more on business than mayhem. As bad as it is now it could get far worse, if they are forced to go out of business and fall back on pure banditry in order to survive.

    The lesson here is for the USA to wake up and realize that the endemic poverty of our ghettos is leading desperate young Americans in the same direction as the Mexican gangs. Black on black homicide is tolerated here so long as white people can feel safely "above it all." But that can't last.

    There is of course a solution: finding good decent well paying jobs and meaningful training for the young people in the ghettos, but that is not the direction this country wants to go. It's like the Mad Tea Party: "no room, no room, no room." Only now it's: "no money, no money, no money." According to Alice: "Why there's plenty of room." According to DocG: "Why there's plenty of money." Not in "wonderland," apparently.

  3. Appreciate the Alice refs. I think I agree with most of your reply, but you lost me there somewhere in the middle. The truth is that marijuana is about the most benign "drug" that has ever been and will ever be. It is not "addictive." There is no need to "smoke" it either (you can use a vaporizer, or eat some brownies, or even drink some TCH soda pop). I go back to my argument about prohibition. It didn't work then, for alcohol, and it doesn't now for pot, and weed is 1000 times less harmful than alcohol.

    It's actually a medicine. "God's" non-prescription, yet effective remedy for whatever ails ya. And the irony of it all remains that this natural herb grows wild and free and can help so many people with so many different medical problems.

    But there lays the rub. I believe there are two main reasons this simple free plant is at the heart of so many problems which the PTB (including sadly, Obama) don't really want a solution to. One, what would making this legal do to the American "health" INDUSTRY, and especially to the pharmaceutical drug companies? A big drop in profits naturally. And two, I'm of the opinion that weed (when used properly) can open people's minds to an alternative to our dying society and civilization.

    But back down to earth, I really do feel it would be in Obama's best interests (and a second term) if he eased up on this crazy "drug war" (and he's actually made this situation worse than Bush). Especially with the grass. I mean Jesus H. Christ, it's 2012 for cryin out loud, enough with this scofflaw bullshit. I'm pessimistic about this with Obama, but I can hope.

    I think he's been doing pretty good lately in his bid for re-election, but heaven help us all if because he lacks the basic guts to stake out a POPULAR view on any issue (like weed), we get 4 years of Mitt the Shit.

  4. I agree that Marijuana should be legalized, but I can't agree that it's totally harmless. It may not technically be addictive, but it can easily turn into a habit. I have friends who deeply regret what they regard as wasted years, living and thinking in a weed induced haze. All things in moderation sez I.

    As far as the drug war is concerned, I was pointing to the irony of a situation where legalizing weed might put the cartels out of business, but ultimately lead to even more mayhem. Desperadoes are desperate for a reason, and those reasons won't evaporate just because they no longer have a market for their illicit product.

  5. Marijuana has never hurt a soul. Can it be addictive, yeah. Can it lead to stronger and more irresponsible drug use, sure, but that's rare. I find your use of "wasted years" in a "weed induced haze" kinda funny and more propaganda and nowhere debate.

    The ironic fact is that believe it or not, a lot of people, or most, would not smoke, cause they'd find it unpleasant (as I find alcohol intoxication), so WTF, the main point is this "drug war" is like the "war on terror." Ill-defined, and unwinnable.

    My main point remains. What would legalization do to this crazy always present pharmaceutical profit?


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