Rock the Casbah

I half close my eyes as I walk among mariachis in search of a gig, matrons shopping for groceries, stone-faced indians wearing huaraches -sandals- made of discarded tires, youngsters in Chicago Cubs shirts and caps, with only the faintest trace of a moustache, trying to look tough in spite, or because, of that.

– Apúrate buey, que el Chuy dijo hasta las diez!

Chiara walks with me, looking criminally attractive in loose jeans and a black top that makes her white skin look whiter. She wants me to hurry up.

I’m a little slow and dazed after spending the best part of a long weekend in front of a workstation full of screens, buttons and keyboards. We hardly slept at all, trying to meet an absurd deadline of 3 or 4 films subtitled by Monday morning.

Chuy is one of Chiara’s many contacts in the Guadalajara underground. His particular line of work has to do with pirated movies. There’s a cousin somewhere in California that FedExes him the latest releases. Chuy’s job is to have them subtitled as fast as possible, and then making hundreds, or thousands, of copies, for distribution throughout Mexico.

So we arrive at his booth inside the massive San Juan de Dios market, which boasts of being the largest in Latin America; it may well be. It’s a city within a city, a human beehive made of many levels and thousands of cells, booths, holes in walls. There’s dark alleyways, and brightly lit food patio areas, where fat men and aproned women cook and serve mountains of rice and beans, big platters of carnitas and chilis, where the smells of seafood and fried sweet dough, churros, mix in the air with the dizzying aromas of the meats that will end up in tacos, each portion carefully doled out on corn tortillas, with their garnish of chopped onion, cilantro, slice of radish, and lime: tripe, cheek, udder, brains, liver, testicles, flank, tongue.

You can buy and sell pretty much anything at San Juan de Dios: shoes, Chinese junk, secondhand clothes and toys from El Norte, plants, pills, tools, live animals, computers, sombreros, porn, sugarcane, papayas. There’s whole sections dedicated to software, music, and films, some of it legal, most pirated. The market has its own police station, where you can stop by to pay your weekly bribe. After a certain time in the afternoon, when the clothes and produce stands close down for the day, you have to be careful where you go: you can get a quick, cheap blowjob from one of the very old or very young whores plying their trade around semi dark stairs and restrooms; you can get stabbed so someone runs away with the 5 pesos in your pocket and the brand new counterfeit sneakers you just bought; you can meet drunks, preachers in search of souls, runaway young women who dream of becoming actresses, young men who want to be pimps, or bullfighters.

Chiara and Chuy exchange a few businesslike, quick sentences, and he gets the masters, the tapes that we slowly, painfully, translated over the weekend, taking turns in front of the console, asking each other for help when the meaning of a word, or a string of words, escape us, laboriously typing the yellow letters at the bottom of the screen, that will give Spanish speakers meaning to the story. Unremarkable stories, unremarkable films – car chases, explosions, aliens, mild and cliché love scenes, unfunny humor, predictable, typical, lame Hollywood fare. Lame or not, the world can’t get enough of it, so Chuy is happy the masters are ready on time. His dark, round face wears a grin as he beckons an errand boy – there’s an errand boy service at San Juan – and sends him off to the production warehouse with the package. He will pay his bribes later; he’s not worried about that. Besides, his main profit will come from the boxes of copies he sends to smaller, provincial markets, not from his storefront here. In time – say two, three weeks – the orders will dry up, as the resellers copy the copies themselves. But it doesn’t matter. By then, the cousin in California will have some brand new titles ready to send, and the cycle will start anew.

Chiara pockets the roll of money, and we stagger towards a favorite food joint inside the market. We order cervezas and huevos rancheros – it’s still morning, after all. We survey the scene around us as we wait for the food sitting at a table covered by a stained plastic tablecloth. We chat a bit, and agree this place is the closest thing to Blade Runner we’ll ever see. We both love that film. After polishing off our breakfast, we order another round of Pacíficas, and agree we need to crash, soon. She opposes some resistance at first, talks of purchasing a few more grams, of finally shooting that homemade porn video that she wants to do with me on her Sony handycam. But even youth has its limits, she is forced to admit, when I discreetly kick her under the table as she’s falling asleep over the greasy plates. We somehow make it back to her Buick in the murderous midday sun, and drive away towards her flat near the cemetery, dodging old men pushing carts, and kids playing  futbol in the middle of the street…

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