I am riding in the bus on my way to the MUAC. Like much of the infrastructure in Mexico the bus is worn, broken, operating past its years of useful life. In another, richer country this trolebús would have reached its horizon of obsolescence. Would have been turned into scrap. The hum of the electric motor, more like a squeal, mixes in with sounds from the street: wheels turning, the cries of vendors and children, and horns and engines struggling. Everything shakes and vibrates. It feels as if the bus might fall apart. It brakes too short or too long, depending on where the brake rotors first contact the sticking shuttering pads. It starts in fits and jolts.
Into this a woman walks in. She is wearing clothes that are very particular to this part of the world; facsimiles of North American fashions that just don't seem to fit the person, both in their cut and in their style. She starts to speak in the usual cant of the indigenas who come onto public transportation to beg, or sell cheap wares. I don't even look up from my book. And then I hear this:
I had not seen the guitar. I had looked right through her, in the same way I have been seen through hundreds of times before: when a yuppie threw a nickel in my bag while I rested on the street in San Francisco, when a cop wouldn't let me lie down in a park in Atlanta, when I would get detained by the gendarmes every time I walked into the subway in Paris, etc.
Her voice was deep and tragic. It quivered and broke, but somehow sounded perfect. She stood, legs apart, balancing her weight and voice with the jerks and jolts of the old bus. Her old voice held together. And she changed the interior of this space.
All of us on this bus were transfixed by that voice. Her body seemed incapable of producing that sound. She wasn't slight or frail. It just seemed that her life had dealt her body many blows: drinks and smokes and kids and men and fists and hunger and I can hardly imagine what else. And out of that body, near breaking, came this amazing sound.
She played two songs. A few of us gave her 10 pesos (roughly $.80). The man across from me gave her a twenty peso bill. He smiled warmly; thanked her. And then she walked calmly off the bus.
The transformation left with her. Slowly we all became aware of our surroundings. Of the familiar sounds and smells of the city. But something no longer felt quite the same. We looked at each other differently. Were were connected to each other somehow. The immensity of that voice – the life that it surely carried, and the life that produced it – stayed with us in some way. The world was no longer the same. This is what all of art aspires to reach. And I doubt she knows the effect she had on us. A few cents is not a signifier of her worth.
The ridiculous part of all this: I am crying on the bus as I write this. This city may not be too tough for me. But it might be too beautiful.