Mexico City:

“Okay, push!

Paul and I brace ourselves as the subway car screams to a stop and the doors jerk open. Bodies pour out of the car, a thousand clowns from a phone booth. We, thousands more clowns, charge against them to get in.

I reach the entrance; a woman crams ahead of me. The doors slide, scraping limbs, purses, butts. A man on our side shoves the woman’s back so she is almost fully inside; the man beside her nudges his shoe a half-inch; a student sucks in his backpack; fingers flatten, stomachs draw, hips check. One; two; three–four tries, and the doors shudder together.

We, the Left-Behinds on the platform, inch back—a collective out-breath more than a movement—and the train pulls away.

And we stand, a rank impossibly deep and long, at the edge of the abyss, the long, empty steel rails below us whispering: late, late, late.

**

The subway in Mexico City is cheap—3 pesos, 24 cents, to ride anywhere in the city. An illiterate can read the stops: lines are color-coded and numbered; each stop is paired with a cartoon symbol. We are Line 1, Pink; our stop Juanacatlan, symbolized by a butterfly. The schema inside, on the car wall, shows a fat pink line with our butterfly, followed by a cricket (Chapultepec), followed by a bridge (Sevilla), followed by a bell (Insurgentes), etc. Little arrows with the colors of intersecting subway lines are marked above and below connecting station symbols. It’s a great system.

If you can get on it.

The problem is, the greater metropolitan area of Mexico City is home to more than 21 million people. And all of them, from niños to viejos, are required by law to board a subway train between the hours of 8 to 9:30 a.m.

Or so it seems, when you’re trying to force your way into a subway car at 8:30 a.m.

We were in Tacubaya station, (Tan line, an urn) trying to get to the Auditorio stop (Tan line, a cupola) to take a tour bus to Teotihuacan to an archeological dig. That bus would leave at 9, and we didn’t yet have tickets.

Our landlord had told us about the tour bus. He had told us, Walk to the taxi stand, ask them to take you to our National Auditorium, and catch the bus there. But we saw the stop on the subway map. One station on the Pink line; a transfer to Tan, two stops. Simple. We had used this subway; we had tickets; we were experienced New York City strap-hangers. What could possibly go wrong?

**

We check our watches. 8:45. Late, late, late.

**

Mexico City was a complex of massive lakes more than 12,000 years ago, filled with prehistoric critters, from mastodons to saber-toothed tigers. The lakes shrank, and humanity came to the fore. The still-shifting earth below today’s Mexico City is layered with pre-Spanish civilizations. There are ruins that date well before the birth of Christ, built by people whose names and origins have been lost, who came before the Aztec and Mayans—people whose compounds in places like Teotihuacan, on the hem of the city, are now being re-assembled like three-dimensional puzzles.

The Mexico City subway was begun in 1967, and unearthed artifacts—stone idols, tools, bones. There is a northerly station, Talisman (Blue line), whose symbol is a woolly mammoth figure because it has the bones of one on display. I took the train there a few days ago to see it.

I transferred from Pink to Blue at Candelaria station (duck), a huge interchange that is its own pueblo: bodegas, skin care shops, a McDonalds, medical clinic, pharmacy.

The Metro went above-ground. I watched the city pass below–businesses and houses, wealth and poverty, canals and desert–until the train pulled into Talisman (mammoth).

I had to exit the gates to find the mammoth. The area around the station might have once been handsome: two whitewashed entrances faced each other across a busy street. Each was flanked by a small plaza. In one, dirt and weeds straggled between white cobblestones, which surrounded a broken tree stump. Cracked stone benches slumped at the edges, empty.

On the other side of the street, the station’s plaza was a sun-baked stretch of taxi stand with a lone food cart.

I found the mammoth inside this second entrance.

The display was a pit in the small and otherwise empty lobby. The pit was covered by a plastic bubble. The bubble was yellowed, streaked with dirt and caked with dust. I took a picture, but I can’t recognize the skeleton it depicts.

**

A second train screams to a halt, as jammed with humanity as the first.

Paul inhales. “Ready?”

The doors shudder open. Once again, bodies slam into mine. I am forced back into Paul; the back-thrust overwhelms our surge, and we watch, impotent, as the doors close—open, close, open, close—beyond us.

The train lumbers away, a great red aquarium filled with bodies, heads, limbs, backpacks, all compressed, flattened like octopus suckers against the glass.

Again, the futile out-breath.

I am looking, now, directly down onto the tracks.

There is no one lying on the smooth steel, but it must happen. This craziness repeats itself every day, twice a day. How many people fall into the pit?

Yet…we are all still here. All still waiting. All still…late, late, late.

**

After my Mammoth sighting, I backtracked to Balderas station (Pink, cannon) to visit the crafts market there. Back on Blue; transfer to Pink at Candelaria (duck). Ten stops.

At each stop, vendors climbed aboard.

For a mere 10 pesos (80 cents), they announced, we could own: batteries, back-scratchers, magnetized plastic butterflies, souvenir pencils, scented markers, purses, newspapers, edibles, drinkables. And music. Men punched buttons on CD players and ear-rending music mixes filled the car. Ten pesos a disk. A snatch of one song; the next, the next. Each mix a genre: sixties folk; the Beatles; jazz; Mexican ballads; Italian ballads; salsa; old US hair rock.

Some people bought things. Music, especially.

I bought music on the street once in New York. The disk, I discovered later, was empty.

Perhaps vendors are more honest in Mexico City.

**

8:50: 10 minutes before our bus leaves from Auditorio (Tan, cupola), two stops away.

The train halts two feet to our left.

Doors creak open, bodies tumble out, thrust themselves at us. We charge on the diagonal. I grab the doorframe and throw myself inside against the human block. Paul crushes in behind me, compressing my ribs against someone’s elbow.

My head is in a man’s armpit as he grips the bar above; my back flattened against Paul. His arm is outside—crushed, released, crushed by the door—and he pushes harder, knocking the breath out of me. I apologize to a woman whose foot I stomp. She gives a knowing, tired smile.

I can move nothing; my arms are pinned to my side, my legs wedged against legs and low-held backpacks. I am grateful that it is morning and the man whose armpit covers my head has not spent eight hours hefting bricks.

The doors bang shut, open, shut, open—shut. The train jolts forward.

There will be no back-scratchers. No plastic butterflies. No music. There is no room for vending. There will be no thefts; there is no room for hands to steal into pockets.

Nothing can move. Nothing.

But we will make it to Auditorio (Tan, cupola) in time.

If we can get out.