Time Zones: Mexico City

Need a Parking Spot? Viene, Viene!

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 16, 2006

MEXICO CITY

It is 10:30 a.m. Grimy green Volkswagen taxis grind forward, arms punching from drivers' windows to wave away pedestrians.

Horns screech. Somebody screams, " Muevete!" -- Move it!

A man jumps frantically out of an ancient, exhausted Toyota and tries to edge it to the side of the road. Behind him, handcarts piled high with stringy green onions seem to lurch and stop on their own, levitating amid the chaos, the drenched men who push them hidden by mountains of produce.

Gridlock.

Nothing moves.

At the edge of El Mercado de la Merced, Mexico City's sensory feast of a downtown market, the tangle is getting ridiculously tangly. But somehow, above it all, two magic words ring out: "Viene, viene!"

The meaning, in Spanish, falls somewhere between "Come on!" and "He's coming!" But everyone in this spectacular morass knows what it means: A parking spot has opened.

Juventino Villegas Alvarez, 65, his jacket slung cavalierly over his shoulder, blows his whistle and shouts again, raspy and loud: "Viene, viene!"

Somehow, impossibly, order is restored. Villegas sternly halts one of the edgy taxis with his outstretched arm, pulls away an old crate and waves a brown sedan into a parking space. The driver steps out, greeted by Villegas's outstretched palm, and dutifully hands over 10 pesos, about $1.

Villegas is a "viene, viene" man, one of thousands in Mexico City. It is nearly impossible to park on public streets here without sliding a few pesos to one of his brethren or their counterparts, the "hombres del trapo rojo" -- red rag men, so named because they draw parkers by waving a red rag.

Their work is not officially sanctioned. No government entity grants them domain over their street corners. But they are universally accepted. Some get by on their charm, their rapid-fire shtick. But there also is a sinister undercurrent to their street-level economy: People who don't pay often return to find their windshield smashed.


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