On Desahogo: Defiance and Despair in the Mexico City Viaduct

by Alan Page

Mexico City traffic is a looped catastrophe, a rope that frays and frays but never snaps. Several years ago, hopelessly stuck in an utterly paralyzed Viaduct, it occurred to me that of all things made by man, our peculiar brand of traffic most resembled the Weather in all its unpredictable force and magnitude. It elicits the same kind of speculation, the same panicked scrambling for shelter.

What is most puzzling is that you can actually get used to something like this. And you do. You begin to associate sundown itself with the endless string of breaklights, the rasping of engines. We have all suffered this misery. And it’s strange, because after a while in this category of traffic, you know something inside you is hurting, you just don’t what it is. Added insult, (¡faltaba más!): there is something about this kind of suffering that is entirely incommunicable. (In this, it is similar to getting roiled by our homebrewed strain of bureaucracy.) Example: a close friend called, spitting with exasperation, after having to cross the city on a holiday weekend, Friday payday: 3 hours, as they say, at the speed of a turn of the wheel. And as he raged about how impossible it is to blablablá in this city, I did my polite damnedest to get him to stop, or shut up, or change the subject. It wasn’t that I was unsympathetic. Not in the least. But it wasn’t sympathy he as asking for, it was a call for empathy – for me to try to feel with him what he’d been through. And I’d rather sip hot tar.

I have been that call, and I have heard my interlocutor’s voice go slightly limp. And that’s when I know I will have neither redress, nor company, nor consolation. I submit to the members of the board: there is something the citizens of Mexico City know about traffic, something essential about it, about what it does to the human soul. And it is a knowledge so asphyxiating, so utterly noxious, that we expend a great deal of energy trying to white it out.

1. Postcard from the Second Floor

Let’s say 2003, mid-downpour, in a D.F. summer thunderstorm. Out the driver’s window is a ditch so deep, it’s unclear whether it’s rising water or the lack of light that’s seething inside it. This is a downhill stretch of the Periférico. What was once a ten-lane speedway is now reduced to six – less in some parts – and a gapless succession of taillights is winding its way up to the next hill. The entire tract is studded with stray rods. To the right, the construction itself: pillars hulking over girders that hold overhead the mammoth platforms that will one day make up the second floor to the Anillo Periférico. Curtains of water are pouring off the platforms. The whole thing looks like whalebone and feels like circulation for circulation’s sake. The interminable train of cars is hugging the divider, shying away from the yawning ditches like anxious cattle. A few weeks ago someone drove in. They haven’t found him yet. There might be music playing in the car. I can’t remember.

This was the construction of the infamous Segundo Piso, the Second Floor to the Periférico. It was Ernesto P. Uruchurtu, head of the Government of Mexico city at the end of the 50’s that began construction on the Anillo Periférico, the Peripheral Ring. It was intended to be a highway that would run around Mexico City, somehow marking the city limits. It was never fully finished until a few years ago, and soon enough the city stain began to seep past the periphery. Mexico City eventually grew to have a ‘peripheral ring’ around it that is not a ring, and is not around it. It has, instead, a broken outline in its center, commemorating what once must have seemed like a plausible idea. One fine day, the traffic in Mexico City got so bad, that city government decided it needed a second floor. The second floor, in the thunderstorms – I have never experience traffic of that magnitude in my life.

Let’s call it the innocence of Uruchurtu. To a citizen of Mexico City today, the thought itself, that it could be done, can now only seem like a stupid joke. You can imagine it, this mythic peripheral ring as a kind of ledge, a vantage point, where you could squint the city into the palm of your hand, or feel it teeming beneath your feet. The Segundo piso came to provide that sense of vista, but never do you feel as if you’re bounding around the outskirts of the city. As you drive along the Segundo Piso, you fly past apartment buildings, offices and living rooms – some of those buildings now close to worthless. There’s not much of a market for penthouse apartments with a speedway tearing past the bedroom window. Such are the casualties of increased flow.

2. Amsterdam-Sonora

It seems strange that traffic can cause one such anguish. You are couched in a relatively comfortable seat, windows up, perhaps with some of your favorite music with you, maybe even lucky enough to be able to condition your own air. And yet, no matter who you are, no matter how souped up your hummer, 3 hours on the exit to Puebla will make you hurt. Traffic is the great equalizer, and gives the lie to the fantasy that as long as you have your ipod with you, you’re safe.

I have been blessed? with an excellent spot for observing traffic. My apartment, one floor up, overlooks the intersection of Avenida Amsterdam with Sonora. It’s a problematic intersection. Sonora, once it crosses Amsterdam, feeds into a much larger and important vein, Avenida de los Insurgentes. So of course, there is heavy flow on Sonora. And to compound the matter, the stoplights at Sonora-Amsterdam, and Sonora-Insurgentes, aren’t synched. It’s like trying to feed a waterfall into a plastic cup before you pour it in the river. Sonora gets backed up, blocks the box at the intersection, Amsterdam can’t pass and the stoplights start cycling. Commence pandemonium.

Nothing like what leaning on a horn for two full minutes says about the anguish of a human soul. But what is it that is actually happening? I’m trying to figure out what triggers fury in the scene. The scene is essentially a deadlock. So. Let us posit two hypothetical cars in our tangle: A and X. The scene is: A, on Amsterdam, watches the light turn, and a small spurt of cars fills the antechamber to Insurgentes. A watches it fill, and now it is full. There is left only a small corridor for Amsterdam, and A, to pass. Enter X. A will watch X nudge forward and try to be the last of the fortunate members of the antechamber, those who will be spared another stoplight’s worth of this mess. But there is no room for X. A knows this. We all know this.

The part of traffic that cuts is this game of suppositions. A supposes that X knows, as he knows, that he will not pass. A supposes X must know he will obstruct. And at that moment, X has come to occupy, for A, the place of a very specific specter of the Mexican psyche. He is ese hijo de la chingada, a quien le vale madres / that son of a bitch that doesn’t give a fuck. He is the obstruction, the impediment, and in the speech genre that is cursing in Mexican traffic, it is not uncommon to follow an initial insult with por eso no avanzamos. This is why we can’t move forward. This man, this other car, is he who plugs flows. Mr. Stopper. Don Tapón. These exclamations have some of the force of the language of proverbs in them. This metaphor for the impediment to collective flow applies across the spectrum. He, this hunched figure in another car stands for everything interrupting the smooth flow of progress. He is that part of us that will forever impede modernization. He is the gravel in our shoesoles, the stick in our spokes, the spot on our lungs.

It is important to note, also, that A always thinks he knows that the reason X did this, is out of pure, nasty enjoyment – a strange kind of enjoyment born from petty defiance – infinitely small, and impossibly resistant. This little thrill is the ground for the smug look, and that certain carriage of the chin and shoulders that follows the inevitable, odious inching forward. Every time this happens, it’s like the same scene being played over again, X that same Mexican: the impotent, arrogant, petty, dominant, X.

But does A really know this is X’s intention? It seems impossible that every single instance of obstruction is born from that same impulse. And, indeed, I’ve seen many an instance where someone made an honest mistake, was forced to change lanes, or was simply asleep at the wheel, and the response is always the same frenzy of klaxons. It reaches the point where some otherwise harmless Mexican motorists will drive with their blood frothing in their veins just to punish mr. X, to cut him off, to do anything that resembles retribution. Though if you saw said harmless motorist in his mission for justice, you probably would confuse him for yet another X.

3. On Desahogo, (sputtering, choking, drowning…)

Every now and then, when Amsterdam and Sonora gets especially turgid, they station a traffic cop under the stoplight. He has a whistle, which he blows in two tones, repeatedly, and waves cars on. He waves them on and he waves them on, quite independently of whether they’re able to move or not. The gesture is repeated so insistently, it soon loses all relevance to the surroundings. The harried tamarindo looks as if he’s alone, waving in space.

This traffic cop’s job is to desahogar, a Spanish verb which has a similar use and extension to the English verb to vent, except venting usually entails air, or gas, and puts one closer to metaphors of ventilation. Desahogo, though, would literally translate into English as ‘unchoking,’ or ‘undrowning.’ Desahogo can be refer to unclogging congestion, but it can also be used to talk about the motions and plumbing of the heart. When you go to desahogarte, you go to let it all out, get something off your chest, let off steam, vent your frustrations etc. It evokes a weepy barroom confession scene, or a tirade in heavy traffic.

What I particularly enjoy about desahogo, is that the verb seems to have that X, the obstruction, built into it. I imagine it as: 1. Cuando te estás ahogando, when you’re choking – and X is what you’re choking on – and desahogo comes as a timely Heimlich maneuver. This Heimlich maneuver is a common traffic fantasy, where something would pick up, shoot out, or cough up the obstructor, sending him flying. Or 2. This brings a stranger image to mind, where the life of the emotions were like an inner liquid coursing through the body. It would seem possible that there are times when the tides of the heart rise and one becomes ahogado, drowned, or one chokes-up to the point of asphyxia. It is as if there were some feelings capable of saturating the drainpipes, requiring immediate desahogo. Here, that which is desahogado, that excess to be pushed out, is not so much an object as such, but an obstruction born from saturation, from congestion. The clogger here is made from the very stuff that circulates.

A word on desahogo and cursing. There are a couple of features common to most traffic curses. The first is naming. To curse the culprit you must name him, both to expose his guilt in the public court of a solitary car, and in order to find an appropriately insulting way to refer to him: Grandísimo pendejete… / ‘You humongous shithead…’ The second component to the curse though, seems closer to a prayer to providence: …Ojalá que se te ponche una llanta y te embistan / ‘may your tire burst and another car gore you.’ Or some such thing.

The first part of the curse is addressed directly to the culprit. The second though, is not. Ojalá, comes from the Hispanic Arabic law šá lláh, which means si Dios quiere, or Godwilling, and it is followed by que se te… may your… A brief explanation of my point through a digression: the situation reminded me of recently losing more money than I should have at blackjack. I sat there the whole time quite conscious of the fact that what was at play was pure probability, and that I had no say in what card would come next. And yet there was this nagging sense that, if I was doing badly, I was overdue for an Ace, or if I was doing well the streak would end. I couldn’t help trying to anticipate what fortune, the dealer beyond the dealer, wanted for me. She was obviously allotting all the players their patches of fortune, like good weather. It is this spontaneous personification of the will for what’s to come that seems to me to be the addressee of the second part of the traffic curse. We ask that a true authority, a dumb deity or whatever administration oversees this mess, redress this injustice. As if Tlaloc and a small flotilla of vengeful traffic angels were perched on the mythic, peripheral ring, looking over us, ready to pounce, drown, redress.

4. Without a Chance, or Spar, / Or even a report of land, /To Justify Despair

I am not claiming that this fury of carhorns is particular to Mexico City, though. It was another experience that caught my attention. I had been asked to substitute teach a class at the Universidad Iberoamericana, which is located in Santa Fe. It is a detestable neighborhood with perhaps the most glaring economic disparity in all of Mexico City. Office buildings and skyscrapers stand at the top of a hill surrounded by dumpsters and housing developments crumbling in poverty. One is apparently supposed to know that one does not try to descend the hill from Santa Fe at 8:00pm. I did not know this, and did just that. It is the pitch of mayhem in transit. The Toluca highway reduces lanes, siphons off, and merges into a three-lane street at one point. Funnel of funnels. And so the Toluca flow and constant injections of homebound college students drip into the crusher.

The first sight, coming up a small hill, of this degree of confluence is paralyzing. You are struck by the knowledge that you will be where you are for only God knows how long. And then begins the slow process of gently pumping your breaks as everyone descends. But there was one thing different here: the entire procession was absolutely silent. Not a curse, not a beep.

Something from the Amsterdam Sonora effect is missing here. The traffic, here, is clearly worse, with the chance to direct it completely foreclosed. But it is, I think, precisely because something has become so excessive as to have been lost, that I think the horns grew quiet. What is lost is the box. That small gap that will give whoever nears the frontlines of his pack the hope that he won’t have to suffer another trafficlight, that he might get to guard the frontrunners rear, instead of being the captain of the stragglers. That small space will harry you with thoughts of what might have been had you chosen lanes better, if he hadn’t cut you off, if only Mexico City weren’t like this. But in the descent from Santa Fe there is no space. I was reminded, perversely, of the beginning of an Emily Dickinson poem:

From Blank – to Blank –
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet –
To stop – or perish – or advance –
Alike indifferent –

This is the senseless pumping of brakes, that tiny, multitudinous staggering forward that feels not unlike a parking lot on a conveyor belt. One moves from spot to spot, stuck between one significant part of your life and the next. Nothing else. Once lived, this is what you work hard at forgetting. We know it all too well. This is the despair of inhabiting congestion. Put on a song. ‘When you’re up to your neck in shit, the only thing left to do is sing.’