'First Stop' Captures Lurid, Vibrant Mexico City

'First Stop in the New World'
Federico Gama
First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century
By David Lida
Hardcover, 336 pages
Riverhead Books
List Price: $25.95
David Lida i i

David Lida also recently published a Spanish-language work about Mexico City called Las llaves de la ciudad. Federico Gama hide caption

itoggle caption Federico Gama
David Lida

David Lida also recently published a Spanish-language work about Mexico City called Las llaves de la ciudad.

Federico Gama

Home to the world's richest man (telecom monopolist Carlos Slim Helú) and to some 12 million people who live in poverty, Mexico City is, in its complexity, an economist's dream and nightmare.

It takes only a tour of the neighborhood of Santa Fe — half corporate headquarters and condos, half "perpetually unfinished" shantytown — to reveal the megalopolis's peculiar bipolarity.

And even an anthropologist would struggle to concoct a unified social definition of the city, which occupies the unique position as both a nation's and a hemisphere's cultural navel. Instead, there are — like Slim and his bottomless supply of pesos — many, many anecdotes.

Representing the largest existing demographic data set in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico City offers the chance to peer into the theoretical future of global and human development. First Stop in the New World expands on that conceit, with author David Lida's reportage and contemporary folk tales combining to form a vivid pointillist portrait of a dry UNESCO concept.

Lida's Mexico City — neither gilded Dubai nor squalid Dhaka — is a terrarium of humanity that begs to be observed; the extremes tantalize, the points between amaze, and interactions among them predict and instruct.

Lida's journalism is personal and, at times, biased. He immerses himself in his subject, whether visiting a jail that, according to one knowledgeable inmate, makes stretches in Georgia's penitentiaries feel like "cakewalks"; chatting as he hurtles through the night with a happily crack-addicted (it's under control) gypsy cab driver; or interviewing an alcoholic Irish expat painter.

Fortunately, Lida's is a rangy, democratic and sometimes luridly detailed viewpoint, his portrait of the pulsing capital as vibrantly rendered as paintings by Seurat or Signac, as informative as Rand McNally, and as entertaining as the "Escapes" section of The New York Times.

Excerpt: 'First Stop in the New World'

First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century
By David Lida
Hardcover, 336 pages
Riverhead Books
List Price: $25.95

Onions

Calle Balderas was deserted at one in the morning, except for the odd taco eater at the white-painted puestos, lit by bare bulbs. The taxi driver picked me up and began to hurtle down the street at great speed. I tried to fasten the seat belt, but it wouldn't budge from the wall. He began to complain about his fellow drivers:

"You don't have to worry about the drunks until about three in the morning. These people in front of me may have had a drink or two, but that's not the problem. The problem is that they're tired. A lot of people know how to drive, but they don't really know how to handle a car. They don't know the difference between driving at night, and driving during the day, driving when it's dry, driving after it's rained."

As he expounded, he tore down Avenida Cuauhtémoc, switching lanes with abandon, missing the cars at his sides by inches. "They don't know how to stay awake," he went on. "Me, I've been driving for, what?" He looked at his watch. "Forty-nine hours. I've only stopped to eat and to bathe, and to drop off my money at home. I don't like to have a lot of money in the cab."

I turned to get a good look at him. He appeared to be about forty years old, with his hair brushed back, a trim mustache, and huge bags under his eyes.

"I'm not on drugs, either," he said with a smile. "The longest I've ever driven is eight straight days, from Sunday to Sunday." I tried once more to maneuver the seat belt, to no avail. "I have to bathe every twelve hours or so. I have very sensitive skin. If I don't bathe, the collar of my shirt gives me a rash on my neck. But the real secret to staying awake is eating. I eat a lot." He was of a normal body type, not at all running to fat. "In the last twenty-four hours, I've stopped to eat six times. You need to eat for energy. Our bodies are like these taxis. If you don't fill them up, they won't run.

"You know what the real secret is?" he asked, now with a manic look in his eyes. "Onions. If I eat a lot of onions, I can go on and on. At this hour, I usually get some beef tacos at a stand on Calle Bolívar. They know me, and they always pile on the onions. No cilantro, just some extra cheese and a heap of onions." He must have noticed an incredulous expression on my face. "Look, I can't give you a scientific explanation. I've never looked it up, and frankly, I don't care. Try it and you'll see for yourself."

Reprinted from FIRST STOP IN THE NEW WORLD by David Lida by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2008 David Lida.

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