One of the best vignettes in Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury is about the old Colonel. The kids in the book simply call him the “time machine” because of the long list of war stories he tells them from his sick bed on warm summer afternoons. In this final scene the Colonel sneaks in a phone call while his nurse is out and begs the man on the other end to simply “hold out the phone.” The receiver of the call tries to resist, explaining that the Colonel’s nurse has strictly forbade these clandestine conversations for the sake of the Colonel’s heart, but in the end he’s persuaded and holds the phone out the window so the Colonel can revel in the sounds of Mexico City.
Mexico is a loud country. And Mexico City is its loudest, drunkest son, singing love songs outside window sills at 4 in the morning. No one visits our fine city without asking as least once “What’s that noise?”
And so I wanted to collect a few of our most common sounds for your listening pleasure. For everyone that has ever loved the city, get ready to feel nostalgic.
Quite possibly the city’s most famous soundtrack are the junk vendors that roll slowly through each neighborhood calling for “estufas, lavadoras, microndas…” (stoves, washing machines, microwaves) or any old metal you might be interested in selling. This recording can often be heard in stereo as the pick-up truck down the street and across the city play it simultaneously or in a call and response to each other over the lanes of traffic. It’s so ingrained in our mutual soundscape that hipsters started making t-shirts with the text of it and selling them for 20 bucks a pop. According to this video, the call was recorded by a father of his 10-yr-old daughter in the middle of the night over 10 years ago. He wrote the words and had her record it as a marketing ploy to call attention to his junk collectors.
Lesser known but just as ubiquitous is the angrier junkman, who’s more urgent call sounds like this:
Cousin to the junkman are the newspaper collectors that come about once a week to see if you have any old ones to sell. They speed walk through the neighborhood and so you have to really be listening to catch one:
My father’s personal favorite is this guy:
Another automated recording, the tamales Oaxaquenos sellers pedal through Mexico City’s streets starting at dusk and long into the night selling warm Oaxacan tamales wrapped in sweating banana leaves and hot atole from giant Gatorade coolers. Mostly young men, the tamal guys always seem a little lonely to me as they pedal through the streets to this nasally theme song.
The contrast to the slow, melancholic tamal song would have to be the fruit vendors who come in their pick-up trucks from Mexico State outside the city selling whatever fruit is in season and therefore cheap — bags of grapes for 10 pesos, a handful of guyabas for 5. These guys do their own calling, like auctioneers. It amazes me that even after a single day they would have any interest in ever speaking again. But there they are, day after day, talking fast and rolling slow, trying to convince you that you need 15 bananas for less than a dollar.
The sweet potato whistle is a killer. Always fascinating to visitors when they hear him, he’s the vendor that you walk past as quickly by as possible so as not to get stuck next to him when the whistle goes off. And yet I can’t help but love him a little. On dark fall nights you can smell his woodsmoke stove from blocks away and it enchants like the Pied Piper, leading you to the makeshift camote stand and its tin smoke pipe whistle…. wait for it…
There are sounds in the city that vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. The city’s trash collection is remnant of the past and completely inefficient. Trucks saunter down neighborhood streets in the middle of the afternoon heralded by this noise:
and residents are expected to be home that very minute to take out their trash to the street and hand it to them. They then sit for about 15 minutes to sort and organize the area’s trash into sellable and non-sellable piles. It’s a mess and ridiculously inconvenient, even for people who work from home, but the trash guys always have big smiles on their faces and have become like yet another set of neighbors for me.
You can also set your clock by the water and gas guys out on the street every morning, calling outside front stoops and the up through the airshafts of old buildings. You get to know the exact pitch of your particular block’s vendor pretty quickly.
Despite the city’s efforts to take all the fun out of the metro by booting the vendors, there is still a decent amount of auditory overload to be had. Vendors still sell their earphones and other trinkets:
Blind men still play their banjos:
And the warning tone for the closing of the metro doors continues to remind passengers they have only 5 seconds to make it through the door before it snaps on the back of their shirt:
Imagine all these noises combined with dogs barking, horns blaring (chilangos love to blow their horns), a bike bell and the breathing sounds of 20 million people and you have a pretty good idea of what a day in the city sounds like. It’s not the sound of silence, but it’s a music that you grow to love. Tell me your favorite Mexico City sound and I will do my best to capture it and add it to the list.