I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.
I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.
When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.
So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.
Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping. Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.
It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.
How many of you reading this know your maintenance staff on a first name basis? Have met their kids? Been to their house? Joined them at social functions around town? Taken them dancing? Custodial labor exists as a kind of underclass in our collective mental space in the States, and ending up as a janitor at the high school you attended is shorthand, in shows and movies, for total life failure. It was every progressive kid’s first victory at Georgetown to have befriended somebody from the cafeteria (usually, as they smugly related these stories, in the laborer’s native language). Number of cafeteria ladies I saw at those kids’ parties? Yea, none.
This is the trade-off: Lola’s presence takes a couple of minutes from each of our days, minutes that from an American viewpoint are incredibly frustrating, and in exchange, she becomes part of office life, gets to be, with no exaggeration, a whole person to us.
There’s this little ragamuffin kid that comes by the office to sell toasted squash and sunflower seeds most days.
He’s insistent, and young Spanish is tough (mine bounces right off of him, I think because he expects me to not speak it), and bargaining with him, even if I’m trying to explain that I still don’t want any seeds, eats into whatever I’m doing. That sounded ridiculous even as I typed it, probably to you as well as me, but imagine a street kid and a cheese man and a guy with a soft brain who sells juice and two ladies who come by with tacos in a cooler all arriving at your office every day. Great for eating, maybe, but you know you’d start to steam any given hour you had something pressing to do. And whereas a scruffy urchin wouldn’t make it into any corporate or government building outside of welfare, everybody where I work takes the time to chat with him as he does his rounds, and oftentimes they’ve squirreled away some candy or a little toy for him.
There’s a lady in town they call Mayones. It means ‘Tights,’ because she wears tights, get it. She wanders Jalpan, having lost most of her mind in what local legend tells was a lovers’ quarrel. She sets cardboard fires all over the place and spews a constant stream of curses, directing them momentarily at anybody who walks too close. Special opprobrium she saves for light-skinned girls, one of them having run off with her husband, long ago. She’s scary looking, part balding, always covered in a mask of dust or soot or God knows, carrying her amorphous sack over one shoulder. If you’ve lived here for more than a few months, you’ll have been at the counter in a store when she walks in, cussing everyone inside and demanding a donation in cash or in kind from the shopkeep. Who will then ignore the line for a solid five, making conversation and preparing a packet for Mayones. Being first in a queue and unattended may be the quickest way for a gringo to have a stroke.
It’s difficult to imagine at first, knowing Mexico as we do in the US through the news as a land of inequality, narco lords and Carlos Slims walking tall among a downtrodden populace. But in the Mexico I’ve seen, it’s pretty much a bell curve in terms of quality of life, if not sheer wealth or income. A big mess of people in the middle. In a roundabout way, much of the inefficiency we perceive here is the result of a radical egalitarianism of mind that the folks in the middle practice.
The office worker more important than the janitor, the man at the front more important than the line, the employed before the mendicant, the swift walking before the slow, on and on. So much of the hurry-up in our lives boils down to a minutely articulated hierarchy of class and situation. When we sit down at a restaurant, we know we can unload a mountain of shit on the waiter if we want to, although we wouldn’t in the street, ditto the airline counter attendant, the barista. Gentle men will brutalize and feel within their rights when they’ve got the uniform on, we’ll build an unholy rage towards the guy who hits the front of the line at Starbucks and still doesn’t have his order figured out, the lady who pays with a check at Kroger’s. Our day to day is built around this structure that smoothes every interaction into its quickest, most, to our eyes, efficient form.
Here, not so. Rather than have an eleven items or less line that everyone cheats their way into anyway, if I have a basket-full of groceries, the clerk will serve five or six people with one item at the same time that she rings me up. It’s not, in the end, as efficient as blowing through each customer in turn, but after a while, it starts to strike you as more right.
The Second and Third articulated goals of Peace Corps are the introduction of the American people to the host country and the inverse of that, but as you’re doing it, a kind of in-between emerges. You begin to reflect on the defects in your own culture. Since the creation of the nation state, countries have always inculcated their citizens, teaching at base that their home society is the best of all options. After Chauvin and Napoleon’s France, no state has convinced its citizens as wholeheartedly of that superiority as well as the United States. It’s out of the question for a presidential candidate to get away with intimating that the US isn’t the “greatest country in the world,” which is a phrase as meaningless as it is impossible to prove. Only in the USA could the opening scene of The Newsroom create such a stir, reciting as it did a litany of indisputable facts about our standing in global measures of quality of life and government.
Octavio Paz said that the only way to know your culture is to see it from the outside, and for all the other work that we do, this might be the greatest benefit of Peace Corps membership, a rational humility that begins to place the US in a mundane and global context rather than the exceptional one about which we are propagandized to from birth.
Considering our foreign policy over the last twenty (not to mention sixty) years and that it costs twenty times less to keep one of us in the field than a man in uniform, it might also be the best argument for shrinking our populations of damage-doers in favor of volunteers.
 For a while we tried to demur every time she came to do the desks while we were in the office, but she had to take a short leave of absence, and it became clear that traffic on the highway out front was leaving half a centimeter of dust on everything every night