Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Veggies, Milady?

One of the cultural differences between Mexico and, say, the northeastern United States is the degree of “in your face-ness” of… well, everything.
Dime la verdura...

People stand closer to you, talk more loudly, interrupt each other, cut you off in cars or on foot, ring your doorbell asking for money or donations, and offer unsolicited advice. The streets are alive with the sound of music, from the throbbing rhythms of reggaeton to the Lady Gaga techno vibe. From time to time, there is a two-man marching band that comes parading up the street playing the drums and some kind of trumpet… a kind of ambulatory concert. The two musicians are gaunt and old, holding out a hat for donations.

It’s all there, especially in our neighborhood, which is tucked behind a busy street full of shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants with white plastic tables and chairs.

I have no complaints about the music. In fact, I love it. Turn it up!  Louder!  My foot is tapping to the beat while I work. We jammin’!

The other stuff… oh gosh. Not so much. Being a cold northerner, I require more than a 10-inch radius of personal space to be comfortable. I like real conversations and I hate it when people interrupt each other and talk over each other without listening. I feel invaded when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door five times in one month, especially when they try to get me involved in their apostolate. Seriously, people. No means no. Also, it seems to be a kind of Murphy’s Law that as soon as Baby Olivia is sleeping, the doorbell rings.  

Aside from my gripes about the things that drive me crazy, there are little delights that charm me to pieces.

For example, the vegetables truck. And to a lesser degree, the gas truck. And also the guy who does laps around the block, selling “Galletas de Xiiiiiiiiiicoooooooo!”

I was familiar with the expression “vendors hawking their wares” but if you grow up in suburban America, you don’t really have many chances to hear the hawking firsthand. In a middle-class neighborhood in the middle of a Mexican city, you do. Oh baby, you do!

So. First, the vegetables truck. JC and I love it, and we pause reverently when it comes by. It’s a reddish-orange pick-up truck loaded with vegetables and fruits, covered with a kind of tarp canopy. The truck does a few laps in our neighborhood, while the driver intones the Litany of the Vegetables on his bullhorn.

It’s not a recording, mind you. It’s the real deal. Mr. Veggies is reciting a list of about 30 vegetables from memory, in a wonderfully nasal, sing-song voice. He sounds delightfully bored.

“Jitomaaaaate, ceboooollllllla, aguacaaaaaaate, jitomaaaaaaate, calabaciiiiiita, platano maaaacho, platano ratannnn!” he intones.

It’s magical. I don’t know why, but we love it and sometimes, in the middle of lunch or at a quiet moment in bed, one of us will start the litany and the other will continue it with gusto, relishing the rhythm and the nasally intonations.

“Verdura frescaaaaaa, verdura barataaaaaa!”  he adds. Fresh vegetables, cheap vegetables! 

But then, the best part is the little encouragement Mr. Veggies offers over his bullhorn to entice the housewives out of their kitchens. His voice drops a bit and becomes positively sultry (this didn’t come out so well in the video because he was self-conscious with me standing there taping him).

“Algo de verduuura… jefaaaaaaa.”  Some veggies… my laaadyyyy. The “jefaaa” resonates over the whole neighborhood, like the Pied Piper calling all the wives to himself. It sends a little shiver up my spine. I almost want to buy some tomatoes! 

The gas truck is also a delight. In Mexico, you don’t get your gas piped into your house via underground tubes. You have a tank behind your house, and you have to call the gas company to come and bring a refill when your tank gets empty. To make things easier for you, they drive around all day so that you can just run outside and flag them down like a taxi. And, to make sure you know they are there, they have their particular jingle playing nonstop over the loudspeaker.

There are four different gas companies, and each one has trucks with particular jingles. My favorite is Gas Express. The song is so cheerful, like a party on wheels. When I’m on international calls over Skype and the gas truck goes by, the other person inevitably asks, “Are you at the circus?” or “What’s that music?” One woman (a Latin American living in the States) even told me that she finds it very relaxing.

Then there is the garbage pickup bell. The garbage truck comes by almost every day during the week to pick up the neighborhood trash. About 30 minutes before the truck arrives, a very dirty man walks down our street vigorously ringing a cow bell. Dong-a-long-a-long-a-long! 

Five minutes later, the neighbors emerge from their homes, hauling bags of trash which they unceremoniously dump on the corner, much to the interest of the homeless dogs on our street. After a small mountain has accumulated, the trash truck arrives and three men jump down from on top of the truck, where they are riding on top of the garbage. The truck smells terrible, especially in hot weather, and those men have no machine to compress the trash for them. Instead, they open the bags, searching for cardboard boxes or soft drink cans, which they neatly stack or compile in a special area of the truck. Then they toss the rest in the back.

I feel so sorry for those men (and their wives)—there must be a special reward in heaven for them after such a hellish job, especially in the heat when everything becomes rank and putrid. And yet, the times when we have passed by while they are working, I see them smiling and cheerful, shouting at each other, tossing up the bags with energy, working as a team. JC greets them and they give him a cheerful salute.

And of course, they have a great stereo set up in the cab of the truck, so the bass is thumping and the dance groove is on to liven up the job. And it’s not discreet background music. It’s the soundtrack to their job. It’s a soundtrack that the neighborhood shares.

So… life brings these noisy little treats that proclaim a carefree joie de vivre to the four winds. At least, that’s how I experience them. The music, the Litany of the Vegetables, the Gas Jingle, the two-man bands… The neighborhood is messy, but alive.

And if you look a little closer, you notice something else. Behind the colorful banners of sound and song, these are mostly poor people trying to make a living, marching or driving in circles on a hot, sweaty day. I can only imagine how the typical Entitled American (including myself) would react. Most likely, we would project another kind of music, loud and long, to the four winds.

There are some things in Mexico that I will miss when we leave… and this is one of them: music, joie de vivre, and the down-and-dirty humility of people who do the worst kind of work with a smile. Or at least… with a one-of-a-kind twist.

Algo de verdura… jefaaaaaa…


BettyDuffy said...

I love em!
They're so much better than pipes and payment stubbs.

Trish Bailey de Arceo said...

I want to clarify (lest the first paragraph give the wrong impression) that I have also met a lot of AWESOME people here in Mexico, and have appreciated the warmth and love that people pour out so generously. The griping part was not meant to be universal...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - said...

It sounds so colorful! In the north, you get endless phone calls that have that faint buzz in the background that you only realize after you have said hello (which you immediately regret), that it is the roomful of people making calls asking for money or trying to persuade you to vote for a particular political candidate. It's so intrusive -- whereas the trucks going by playing the lively music, provide entertainment (with the Doppler effect, no less!) and if you want what they are selling or the service they are providing, then it is your free choice to make the move; and if you don't, you get to hear the sounds of everyday life in the village, and know that all is secure!

Kris Livovich said...

As an american who grew up in Mexico (found you through Betty Duffy), I'm enjoying your perspective. You just described the music of my childhood! Ah, the nostalgia.

Claudia Garrido Montero said...

Buenisimo Trish!!! Y el gaaaassssss!!!