Why you should care

Because bohemia isn’t as romantic as you might think.

Devon Van Houten Maldonado is a writer and artist based in Mexico City, where he stumbled into a career in journalism. Originally from Boulder, Colorado, he developed an endurance-running habit atop the Rocky Mountains.

I was too busy basking in the real and imagined cultural riches of my adopted bohemian megalopolis of Mexico City to see the obvious. Immersed in the counterculture and my work as a journalist, I never imagined my across-the-hall neighbor was a lady of the night, until I had her Wi-Fi password.

One day, when Democracy Now! wouldn’t buffer with my laptop pegged against the kitchen wall closest to my neighbor’s apartment, I crossed the third-floor landing, where exposed wires and graffiti decorated the walls, to reset the modem. A hazy curtain of incense and marijuana smoke enveloped me as I passed through her doorway. The drapes were drawn and the apartment was filled with a damp red light, which somehow still didn’t tip me off.

Tune in Tuesday at 11/10C for PBS’ new late-night series Point Taken to see OZY co-founder Carlos Watson moderate a spirited debate on the legalization of prostitution.

On her kitchen table, I noticed a puddle of black candle wax, incense, figurines and a stack of tarot cards. She offered to read my fortune and asked if I wanted to be her roommate. She said she could get me a job as a stripper. I imagined myself gyrating in a banana hammock stuffed with grimy pesos and laughed out loud. Her heavy Argentine accent made it difficult for me to understand everything she said, but we managed to complain at length about the relentless water shortages that left the building high and dry and smelling of raw sewage for days at a time.

Suddenly it all made sense — men in cheap suits calling for the “señorita” at all hours of the day and night …

During one of these awkward visits, we exchanged cellphone numbers, strictly for Wi-Fi business. Her explicitly pornographic profile picture raised an eyebrow, and then I noticed her status: Solo por dinero (Only for money). And suddenly it all made sense. Men in cheap suits calling for the “señorita” at all hours of the day and night, her ungodly hours of operation, the fact that she always seemed to be home, the inappropriately loud telenovelas and, of course, the smoky red light beckoning to the streets below.

There are as many as 250,000 women and underage girls working in the sex industry in Mexico City, where the local government has set up official “tolerance zones,” according to Publimetro and a study by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s unclear how many are forced into sexual slavery, and how many turn tricks by choice, like my onetime neighbor.

It was impossible to guess my neighbor’s age. Rounds of plastic surgery had made her ageless and, as far as I could surmise, her breasts, butt and face had all been upgraded. Before noon, wearing sweats and without makeup, she looked at least 40, but then she began a daily metamorphosis into a work of art.

I became accustomed to her routine through casual observation. She started the day with a joint, pungent incense and meditation. Droning chants and smoke seeped around her door and into the hallway. Then she’d eat at the fanciest of several restaurants below our apartments, while I ate at the cheapest. I wouldn’t see her again until the late afternoon, installed at the hair and makeup salon around the corner, where she began to morph into her nocturnal form. Once, as I was returning home around midnight and she was heading out into the city, I didn’t even recognize her from across the street, but I do remember thinking she looked beautiful.

Another late night, I came home to find my apartment ransacked, the lock picked and everything of value gone. Of course, no one had seen or heard anything. There had been the usual deafening noise — jackhammers, honking, whistling, sirens — throughout the day, the neighbors said. The usual suspicious characters had been hanging around the construction offices upstairs, they said, and it must have been one of them. As a foreigner and a reporter — Mexico is among the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist — I worried about getting thrown into an unmarked van and disappearing. I decided to leave Villa Bohemia ASAP.

I suppose she’s still there, doing her thing. Smoking Marlboro Reds, wrapped in that dim red light or in the salon being primped and preened, transforming into a butterfly in the night. Solo por dinero.

Comment

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.