Follow the adventure from the beginning

Friday, May 14, 2010

Princes and Paupers

Mexico City 

Yesterday I saw a butler walking seven poodles at the same time. It was only eight o’clock in the morning, but this guy was perfectly primped. He wore a short tuxedo jacket with tails, a grey vest underneath, and (get this!) a top hat. Watching him was like playing Clue, trying to figure out where this man fit on Mexico City’s oversized game board. And then I saw the building he’d just walked out of on Paseo de la Reforma. Ah-ha, I thought. The Butler did it! And he used a Bentley to escape from St. Regis.

St. Regis is part of an elite international hotel and resort chain – a picture of opulence and high society. The first one was opened in 1904 by the Astor family (think Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt) in New York City to entertain the East Coast’s booming class of industrial entrepreneurs. Colonel John Jacob Astor IV developed St. Regis’ unique and luxurious style, ushering in a “new era of lavish parties, balls, and suppers previously confined to the private homes of the elite,” just before sailing to his death on the Titanic in 1912.

St. Regis sweats wealth in every direction. The properties have a century-old butler service – as in, wave your wand and a butler comes calling. These sophisticated servants will walk your seven poodles, unpack your suitcase, mix your evening cocktail, and arrange a private tour of the Pope’s personal chapel (welcome to The Sistine) if you’re at the St. Regis in Rome. Oh, and did I mention that if you own an “apartment” at the St. Regis in Paris, for example, you can go to any other St. Regis around the world and stay for free? Sign me up! I want to meet my butler.

“Past and future, rare and refined, there is no address like St. Regis.”

I followed the dog-walking butler for three long blocks. The seven poodles were harnessed to Mr. Butler’s waist and arms with a less-than-graceful-looking apparatus. But the eight living beings managed to make forward progress anyway – one step and poodle march at a time.

Outside one of the seven Starbucks near Paseo de la Reforma, the dogs came to a halt. It was the strangest simultaneous bathroom break I’d ever seen. I almost expected the butler to squat down too.

I looked around and noticed a woman selling bubble gum and Tupperware lids on a bench just a few feet away. She was staring at the poodles too, and called for her children to do the same. Mother and kids started laughing, like a game of charades – can anyone guess what this butler is trying to say? Person, place, or thing? How many syllables? “Ace Ventura!” No. “When Nature Calls!”

The woman’s children were filthy. They had dirty faces and blackened little fingers, and wore tattered pants and shirts. The boy must have been around six years old. He was a head taller than his younger sister, and both seemed comfortable sitting and playing on the dusty concrete around their mother's bench.

I imagined this family in their home. Maybe somewhere near Chalco – one of Mexico City’s roughest slums on the highway toward Puebla. Like many pueblos on the outskirts of D.F., Chalco used to be its own town. But now, it’s been absorbed by the uncontrollable growth of the megalopolis. As Mexico’s rural poor continue to move to the cities, places like Chalco have become harder and harder to govern.

Crime is rampant, and sewage and electricity infrastructure is shaky at best. In fact, the expanding Chalco now even crawls atop one of the numerous landfills that surround Mexico City, making it difficult to breath fresh air.

It feels weird to be in both places at the same time – next to St. Regis and Chalco. And it feels even weirder knowing that I pretend to be more from one than the other, when the truth is that both are past and future, rare and refined. Playing dress up loses some of its charm when you realize you’re just a butler in the heart of Chalco.

And so I took off my top hat, and bought a piece of bubble gum.

1 comment:

  1. It's a treat to have you blogging about your travels again. I look forward to your stories and insights. Thanks!