Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Guest-Blogger David Lida's 5 Secrets of Mexico City

Guest-blogging today is my amigo and fellow blogger, David Lida, author of the just-released First Stop in the New World (Riverhead Books), a street-level panorama of the D.F.--- this head-bangingly wacky fabulosity of a megalopolis otherwise known as Mexico City. Adapted from his book, Lida here offers a tips about his adopted home unknown to most tourists--- and even to many residents. P.S. Lida will be doing a discussion and book signing in Washington, D.C. on Monday, June 16th, at 7 p.m. at the Mount Pleasant Branch Public Library, 3160 16th St. NW. For more about the author and his book, check out his web page with its built-in photo blog: Over to you, David!

Five secrets of Mexico City

1. Had your fill of Frida’s house and the Museum of Anthropology? How would you like to go to a cake museum? On the second floor of an enormous bakery called the Pastelería Ideal (Avenida 16 de Septiembre #18, Centro Histórico), there is an exhibition hall in which the very aroma of sugar is so strong that it could send a diabetic to the hospital. There are six and seven-tiered wedding cakes, with green, blue or peach-colored icing. There are cakes that weigh 240 pounds, can be divided into 1,100 portions and cost over a thousand dollars. Cakes that sport spurting, functioning fountains. Cakes that serve as immense platforms, atop of which are staircases comprised of six progressively smaller cakes. There’s a section of white wedding cakes, in the midst of which you feel as if you were in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg after a snowstorm. There’s also a section of cakes for children, with football or soccer fields on top, or with icing illustrations of well-known cartoon characters. A few days after a notable earthquake in 1999, I visited the Ideal and asked if any of the cakes had fallen. “No,” the woman at the cash register said. “They just danced a little.”

2. Continuing in the alternative museum vein, there is a store on the corner of Avenida Insurgentes and Calle Chihuahua in the Colonia Roma called Uniformes Oskar, that has been selling uniforms since the 1970s. The mannequins have not changed a bit since the store’s opening, and as such, are truly bizarre. There’s a chambermaid, for instance, in a striped uniform, with a sad face, long lashes and only one hand. A black waitress has green-painted lips. All the mannequins look like shipwreck survivors, their wigs uncombed and askew. Some are in disturbingly suggestive poses, like the two on top of the showcases inside, who wear nothing more than abbreviated smocks. One, handless and reclining, her arms open in an invitation, shows a lot of modestly crossed leg. The other is bald, open-mouthed and on her knees. Breton or Artaud would be perfectly at home here.

3. If you are the sort of person – or are having the sort of day – where you are willing to have two or three drinks with your lunch, at most Mexico City cantinas you will be served, free of charge, botanas – small plates of food that are the Mexican equivalent to tapas. Served at the traditional Mexican lunch hour (between two and five p.m.) they are enough to make an abundant meal; in fact, in most of them they won’t stop serving until you’ve cried uncle. Among the best cantinas for botanas are La Mascota (on the corner of Mesones and Bolívar in the Centro Histórico), La Mansión de Oro (Avenida Universidad 123, in the Narvarte neighborhood), and La Auténtica (on the corner of Avenida Cuauhtémoc and Calle Álvaro Obregón in the Colonia Roma).

4. Now, to combine the cantina and faux museum themes: Many cantinas are decorated to reflect a passion for bullfighting, with posters of promising corridas and stuffed heads of defeated animals adorning the walls. At La Faena (Venustiano Carranza 49, between Bolívar and Isabel la Católica, Colonia Centro) – the bullfight cantina por excelencia – there are a series of showcases, inside of which are an exhibition of bullfighter’s costumes. Some belonged to well-known matadors, like Juan Belmonte and El Soldado, while the rest are those of forgotten novices. The suits are so decrepit that they seem to be crumbling into dust before your eyes. Some hang by themselves, while others take on the form of the mannequins that wear them (such as the banderillero with the grotesque expression who stands guard on top of the men's room). Connoisseurs of homoerotic art will note that the figures of Carlos Arruza and Manolo Dos Santos appear to be on the brink of a passionate kiss, while a couple of toreros are in what may be suggestive situations with their boyish dressers.

5. Since the crime wave resultant to the peso crash of 1994, Mexico City has taken a terrible rap as being a horribly dangerous place to live. Of course, like most big cities, you have to watch your back here, but there is certain evidence that the perception of peril is exaggerated. While offenses often go unreported, the most reliable crime statistics – in Mexico City and around the world – are for homicides, because you have to be rather ingenious to make a cadaver disappear. According to FBI’s numbers, you are more likely to be murdered in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Las Vegas or Dallas than in Mexico City. These figures are proportionate to their populations. In 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans – which, at the time had only one-one-hundredth the population of Mexico City – had a nearly equal number of homicides.

--- David Lida

--->For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.