Sunday, June 23, 2024

Beggars, vendors, acts of derring-do: it’s never dull at Mexico’s stoplights

Wherever you travel throughout Mexico, when roads form a junction an opportunity is created for both commerce and compassion as well as a bit of entertainment.

Busy streets with traffic lights provide a captive audience for an elaborate form of panhandling or the sales of a multitude of objects that changes with the seasons or the simple act of begging for a benevolent handout.

In the summertime, the intersection vendors have ice-cold agua de coco (coconut water), limonada (limeade) and jugo de sandia (watermelon juice), along with a variety fresh fruits. Hand fans, sweat towels and UV protection sleeves appear during the dog days of summer.

When mosquito season arrives, which it seems to do every few months, intersection vendors are offering battery-powered bug rackets. They look like a child’s tennis racket with a triple-layered, electrified mesh that gives off a satisfying snap and sizzle whenever you score a hit. For the killer price of 150 pesos, our household always has a couple on hand.

Recently, I have seen a breakdancing group of five young men at an intersection, all wearing ball caps with the bills pointing everywhere but the front. They clap and kick in unison for a few seconds, then one steps forward and does a few one-armed, spinning handstands. The next one up does a complicated spin routine while two walk between the stopped cars with ball caps held out for a few pesos. It must be somewhat worthwhile; I have seen them on a number of occasions.

Breakdancing youth at a traffic light in Mazatlán
Breakdancing youth at a traffic light in Mazatlán.

The low startup cost for becoming an intersection windshield washer has made them ubiquitous throughout Mexico. Many of these entrepreneurs do a quick and efficient job improving your visibility. There are also, however, the few that attempt to clean your windshield with a filthy rag and not enough water, smearing the dirt and bug guts across the entire glass.

I have heard a story about one of those less-than-meticulous window washers confronting a nervous gringo. A Mexican friend who was riding with the gringo related this story to me. They came to an intersection notorious for pushy window washers when a rather seedy-looking fellow headed their way. He had wild eyes that looked chemically dilated. Before he could be stopped, he attacked the windshield with a muddy rag.

After rendering the glass a murky mess, he went to the driver’s side and thrust his head through the open window and demanded pesos. The nervous gringo put a Taser to the man’s forehead and pushed the button. I have been told that since this stressful event, the gringo has purposely avoided that intersection for several years.

Some intersections have a spacious and shaded median between the lanes that allows a larger staging ground for vendors with large items. A couple of years ago, it was at one of these types of intersections that a vendor had a number of inflatable Donald Trump effigies set up. They had weighted bottoms that would return them to an upright position after each punch.

This vendor would place the blow-up bunko artist in front of the stopped traffic and have his 12-year-old son pummel it with a piñata stick — continually and ruthlessly.

Many cars on both sides of the intersection would honk their horns during this display while applause could be heard echoing off the facades of the nearby buildings. This man had two other helpers selling the deflated Donalds — just add hot air — to people waving their hands filled with pesos.

Trump punching bag
At one point, these punching bags were a hot item at a Mazatlán traffic light frequented by the writer.

One intersection in our town is infamous for the human blowtorch, who can be seen most nights. His routine is panhandling on steroids — combined, of course, with a death wish.

He has a small stick with a kerosene-soaked rag on the end that he lights up with a flick of his Bic. He then lifts a plastic jug to his mouth and fills it with kerosene, which he then blows across the flame of his torch.

This act of madness produces a two-meter fireball into the night air with an audible roar.  He expels three fireballs before going car to car with a cup in one hand and his torch in the other.

Over the years, this intersection has always had its human blow torch, but the person changes every year or so. I can only speculate that the early retirement is either health-related or due to spontaneous human combustion.

Try as I might, I can’t wrap my mind around just how destitute a person would have to be to decide to subsist on the negligible earnings from this slow-motion suicide.

About 12 years ago, I saw an intersection performance that could have been, or should have been, a one-off. It was Christmastime, and the streets were teeming with potential patrons.

When the red light stopped traffic, a long-haired and bearded man clothed only in a crude loincloth began by waving his hands to draw attention. He quickly spread a blue tarp between the cars, then covered it in shards of broken glass from a ratty burlap sack. I need to clarify: these were not pieces of sea glass or flat pieces of plate glass but the jagged and curved glass of broken beer bottles — a lot of them.

With only a couple of minutes left, he lay on the broken glass, first on his front, then on his back. His routine was well-timed; with about 20 seconds left before the light changed, he popped up and walked between the cars with his hand held out.

I handed him a 20-peso note and watched his bloody back recede in my mirror.

When I find myself at the front of the line at el semáforo (stoplight) in somewhat heavy traffic, I will always wait about three to five seconds before taking off. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a speeding bus, car or fool on a scooter run the red light at the very last second.

I was heading home late one afternoon and the sun was in my eyes as I sat at the head of the line at a red light. There was a bus to my right, which blocked my view in that direction, and when the light changed, I did my three seconds before hitting the throttle, which was exactly when a man ran out from in front of the bus and ended up with his face planted on my windshield.

Since then, I have waited for the vehicle on my right to move first.

The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half-wild dog. He can be reached at [email protected].

We imagine you’ve seen some version of these activities going on at traffic intersections in your city. What’s most popular or unusual where you live? Do you enjoy the spectacle or see any convenience in it, or do you simply find it annoying?

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