Megacity Lockdown: An Introduction by Kathleen McCaul Moura
Coronavirus has thrived in megacities, determined to make it in the big smoke of the world’s densest urban hubs. In was industrial Wuhan, now the most infamous megacity of them all, where tightly packed tower-bock residents first showed signs of a new lung infection. New York and London, superstar cities, meccas for tourists, became epicentres not of culture but sickness. In the new megacities of the developing world, where millions live in urban poverty with little infrastructure or ability to socially distance, the virus was most unforgiving. Responding to the unique challenges Covid-19 has posed for megacity locals, authors from the new anthology Megacity describe life under lockdown in the world’s biggest cities.
Here, Deigo Gerard describes a ghostly Mexico City where no-one wants to drink Corona beer anymore.
Dead-still Mexico City.
The open window lets in a breeze of polluted air.
Over my desk, a clutter of notes meant to be arranged into a novel, a Magical Realist response to the growing number of missing young women and men in the country. But I feel like a ghost of myself these days, a vanishing shadow in this studio apartment.
The view out the window confirms it all. We so seem eerily spectral at times, us Mexicans—how easily we vanish. Surely this lockdown won’t help.
Only a few sounds from the street. The resilience of the taco-stand on the corner—the hiss of its frying, the fumes of burnt oil steaming into my flat.
On the street come nighttime, the dark silhouettes of stray dogs endlessly scavenging.
My dinner. The final mash-up of a week’s leftovers.
The daily nighttime ritual, eating while being briefed by the news—the rising virus death count, an attempt by the government to infiltrate minds via propaganda. An animated Super-Heroin comes to life: Susana Distancia, (a word play alluding to a healthy distance) dressed in the Tepito version of what Wonderwoman would wear, and whose superpower is, of course, social distance.
Before bed, I make a note on one of those dog-eared scraps over my desk: can cartoons coerce public policy?
I wake to what seems like a Magical Realist morning. My notes over the desk as I left them—the novel will not write itself.
Magical Realism in the Mexican tradition: mythical time is like a carousel, the past swings by more often than not.
Dead-still Mexico City.
The open window lets in a breeze of polluted air.
All the food has fled the fridge.
I dress, put on a handkerchief over my mouth in the style of a Wild West Villain, and head out.
On the street, the few people who are out make a great effort to dodge me and avert their eyes from mine.
Don Abundio is setting up his taco stand, kicking at the strays sniffing his buckets filled with food. He sends me a jovial wave, a wink of the eye.
It takes only two blocks to find full billboards with Susana Distancia on them—on one, she is surrounded by a bubble two yards in length, while on another, she is inside her bubble again while a man sneezes in the vicinity, the sprays of his mucus fluttering short of the bubble.
Arriving at the market at La Nueva Viga, surreal throngs gather at the entrance. Someone dressed in a Susana Distancia suit ushering customers in. Inside, the crowds are thicker and mashed together. Are these scenes the only microcosm left of the city before it all struck—a city teeming and bestial, too monstrous to bring to a halt?
The lack of a bubble like Susana’s makes me spin on my heels, up the empty streets, straight for Don Abundio’s stand.
He greets me with another friendly wink of the eye, insists on an elbow bump which I can’t find a way to refuse. That’s how they want us to greet, don’t they?
No contact would be better. Have you not met Susana yet?
He sniffs out a sardonic laugh, then with an open palm directs me to one of the stools of his ready-made counter. On the hot plate, the boiling oil darts every which way. What will you be having, then? He points to the three different taco options, his index finger lingering on each as he speaks—stuffed pepper, zucchini blossom, the much obliged chicken smothered in mole.
One of each, I tell him, my voice muffled behind my handkerchief. And I’ll have a beer if you still have them out back.
From a hidden Styrofoam cooler he pulls out a dripping bottle of Modelo, dries it with the rag that rests on his shoulder. I assume you won’t be having Corona, he says. No-one’s having it since the virus took its name.
I have a long, gassy gulp while he preps my tacos. Enjoy that while is lasts, he adds. There’s a ban on booze coming. With the lockdown and the heavy drinking, more and more cases of domestic violence.
I try a nonchalant nod, but he immediately slaps a frayed newspaper in front of me, along with my tacos. What catches my sight is Susana’s glossy smile at the top right hand corner but Don Abundio directs me to the headline in question with a greasy index finger. The piece about domestic violence also points to how less and less police forces can respond to such calls, as all those policemen and policewomen who are obese, hyper tense, diabetic, have been sent home. There’s also a picture of people in a frantic dash to stock up on beer—Montejo, León, Victoria, Modelo like mine. Corona stays in the fridge.
Priorities, right? Don Abundio says.
I nod and finish my beer, hand him payment for my food. You’ll be sticking it out?
He nods and sniffs. People like me, he says, what other option do we have?
I’ll be coming by, I tell him, and begin the walk up the deserted street.
You still writing that book? he yells out, and I turn to him void of gesture. Look around you, he adds, Very Rulfo, isn’t it? Even the ghosts are locked inside.
Another Magical Realist morning.
Dead-still Mexico City.
A breakfast of old fruit with spots of black.
The open window lets in a breeze of polluted air and some of Don Abundio’s fumes.
Can the haze blurring the scenery come from the city’s food stalls? Is it enough to make the buildings in front of mine wobble despite the provisional stillness?
Is breathing this air an underlying condition? Are our lungs already scarred?
My desk throbs, but I have no words for the novel left inside me.
Thus I try to gage actuality through the screen—the news of the sure economic collapse. Our President speaks of his new plan for the country. What he calls Mexico´s Great Fourth Transformation, abbreviated for purposes of populist catchiness as La 4T, is no longer a feasible goal—there will be no funds to complete a social project based on country-wide austerity after the pandemic sweeps through. Our leader has met the fact mostly with denial. Immediately after imposing social distancing restrictions, he headed out to public meetings, delivered speeches to packed crowds overlooking the health crisis and shook people’s hands, landed kisses on children’s cheeks. He was even pictured greeting El Chapo Guzman’s mother by hand, both a citizen well within a risk group and mother of the criminal whose hands are forever stained with the blood of the country. On the top right corner on the screen Susana Distancia has arrived to stay, glossy smile across her face.
The political narrative of the country—a surreal tragicomedy in endless acts with trauma as the condition that invariably takes center stage.
Switching the channel lands me on scenes of lootings at Wall Mart and Costco. CCTV scenes of a man in a pickup plowing through a department store to take his urgent needs—Plasma TV, hardware supplies, a fountain in the shape of a Greek goddess, but not all that much canned food.
I turn it off, head out for a lengthy walk through empty streets and parks and listen to the fewest sounds this city can produce—the occasional zip of passing cars, the wind blowing through the trees, sounds that are always there but that we normally filter out.
I come full circle, famished, straight to Don Abundio, who provides the bracket I missed on the news while fetching me a beer which he opens with his molars. Did you know the first infections were imported from Vail, Colorado? —and in a private jet no less.
I shake my head as I take a fizzy gulp and order the same tacos as yesterday.
Like back in the days of conquest, he says. Cortez and small-pox, the greedy and wealthy bringing the scourge to the natives. He swiftly hands me over my tacos. And now the deaths are coming thick and fast. Blame will fall on diabetes, Coca-Cola. The most obese country in the world, isn’t that right?
I nod this time, while downing voracious bites.
That’s why you must come to Don Abundio’s, take in the vitamins of my healthy foods.
I eye him, then my taco, then the pool of used oil that gathers in the corner of his hotplate.
Fear not. Life won’t stop turning here at Don Abundio’s.
Today I wake to something more akin to the dreamspace, to the world that constantly evolves behind the lids of my eyes.
The city, yes, it’s dead-still.
The news, yet again focused on the rising death count. No, not the virus. The drug war, the feminicides. Our ever-present epidemic.
38 daily deaths related to organized crime in the month of March—making it the most violent month in 13 years.
10 daily feminicides for more that one year.
The chart drawn with the number of violent deaths does not flatten, does not bend, there is no plateau to be reached—it’s one ever-rising rogue wave.
My novel begins to gather motion in my thoughts again. The Pandemic might be done with at some point, when we get a vaccine, while our real epidemics won’t.
A story comes on of how mothers search for their disappeared children during lockdown, without the aid of the police forces. They search down wells, waste lands, clandestine pits. What is life to them? How long can a second stretch? This virus does not mean a shift in paradigms. Not here. While we stay home in an effort of containment, not everything out there can come to a halt.
I type down their stories. I slant their truths.
When I step outside, the dreamlike quality of the day thickens—Don Abundio is behind his stand dressed in the costume of Susana Distancia, headband and all. He can’t avoid a smirk when he sees me. The hotplate fumes into the sky.
I sit on the stool farthest from him, eye him up and down, smiling.
One must do what one can, eh? To lure them customers in.
It’s one thing to adhere to regulations, I tell him. But this?
He fishes out a beer from his cooler. Corona. Last one, he tells me while fixes my daily order. Enjoy.
As I eat, the strays approach the stand. They sniff the fallen remnants of my tacos. I turn on a half swivel, looking down at them, waiting for them to have a bite. Hesitantly, they sniff, Perro no come perro, I say, to who I don’t know, and they look up at me as if to confirm, Dog don’t eat dog.
Don Abundio gently pushes the strays with his foot in the direction of the food. Finally, reluctantly almost, they clean it off the street.
I place the cash on the counter. Thank you, Susana.
When I wake we are deeper in the midst of it.
It keeps on taking its toll.
There is no breakfast. No will to write fictions that fall far behind the current truths.
On the TV the news has gone to commercials, and shows scenes of the deserted beaches of Acapulco, the empty gardens and parks in Cuernavaca. Is this what a tourist brochure of mythical Comala would look like?
Susana is still locked in her bubble in the top right corner of the screen, smiling, jovial, why, nobody knows.
I turn it off.
The city, dead-still.
The strays, they scavenge.
Outside my window, Don Abundio and his stand are nowhere to be found.
MEGACITY brings together twenty-two individual, creative responses to the megacity, infiltrating some of the densest, most difficult corners of the world today. From the tightly packed slums of Delhi and the violent favelas of São Paulo, to eye-watering London property prices and Chinese megacities constructed seemingly overnight – if you boggle at how anyone negotiates today’s rampant, unchecked city growth, this book is for you.
Pre-order your copy HERE