When we left the first gross house, we moved to a 15ish-bedroom mansion in Chapultepec, a trendy part of town. Known around town as Casa Vidrio, the house was clearly something amazing in the 1980s. I could picture fancy parties full of cocaine and shoulder pads, legs in high-waisted bikini bottoms frolicking in the still-functional pool.
The owner is a guy in his 30s who has used it as a semi-famous party house and become trapped in that phase of his life while living off the rent of the 20ish people who live there. El Chango actually knew about the house from going to these parties.
The house was more of a small city than a shared home, which didn’t become obvious to me until I realized everything I left in any room outside our padlocked room was free game. Even our groceries weren’t safe if we didn’t eat them immediately. All inhabitants had already learned not to trust the kitchen. The lights were burned out, the outlets ripped out of the walls, basically the building was a fortification against the outside world within which the inhabitants distrusted each other but were free to make their rooms more liveable spaces. Many of the fortunate ones had their own bathrooms, and some, including some lucky European DJs who had an apartment on the roof, had their own kitchens.
The backyard was covered in dog poop and we’d see the owner wandering around in the backyard in a daze, seemingly permanently hungover, indifferent to faeces squishing beneath his sandals.
The owner’s brother lived under the balcony, and his cousin Charly had a cot in a walled-off area under some stairs by the kitchen. Charly was addicted to Clonazepam, a hardcore tranquilizer you can buy on Calle Hospital, the street where hospital staff make extra cash selling prescription medication.
The backyard also had a semi-functional washing machine, but it was in use 100% of the time as Charly would use it to wash clothes that he planned to sell for drug money at the market, but he was too high to remember what he’d washed and what he hadn’t, meaning the laundry was never really done. We wondered where all the clothes came from until El Chango’s swim trunks disappeared when they were hanging out to dry on our balcony. They were old and covered in ink stains it soon became clear that no item was too worthless if left unattended.
Our room was a corner of the balcony in the backyard, where two shaky plaster walls had been erected to close it off. The walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, so we always had a mosquito coil burning to keep them out.
The bathroom was right below us. The owner told us he would get new solar panels for the hot water before we moved in, but obviously wasn’t the type of guy to get around to it. Often the toilet didn’t work either, and Charly would keep using it and adding to the problem because he was too high to notice.
I showered once in the icy water before deciding to get a gym membership down the street and shower there instead. Determined to see the bright side, I figured I might as well work out each time I showered, so I at least got back into decent shape during my time at Casa Vidrio.
We kept our room padlocked with a chain threaded through the broken windows in our door. Our pit bull was always starting shit with the dog downstairs, so we had to keep him shut inside when we weren’t around. In any case, he was so scared of the unstable spiral stone staircase leading down from the balcony (so was I, too be honest), he had to be carried down it, trembling and grimacing, when we took him for his walks.
We spent most of our time huddled in the room, as the rest of the house was semi-open and freezing. There, El Chango worked on a tattoo on almost my entire back. When I couldn’t take the pain any longer, Charly proved useful by selling me some Clonazepam to get through it. It was an experience, but not really a pleasant one. I didn’t really know what was going on and tried to follow the plot of the Tomb Raider movie while El Chango continued on the tattoo. At one point I spun around, wiped my hand down his face and slurred that he was so handsome.
“Can you not spin around like that while I’m tattooing you?” he asked, reasonably.
I was even too high to get down the spiral staircase to the bathroom. I can see why Charly never finishes the laundry.
I quickly started to feel the effect of noise saturation, or whatever you’d call it when people like me feel exhausted by the constant sound input in a Mexican city. Our next door neighbours were always playing the same five reggaeton tracks at full volume, one of our roommates was always listening to New Rules by Dua Lipa on repeat and Casa Vidrio was still the location of frequent all-night backyard parties on random weekdays.
Charly would also stand under the balcony and yell at El Chango to give him a free tattoo at all hours, even when El Chango wasn’t there.
“No está!” I’d yell back, exasperated, when I didn’t feel like pretending to just not be there.
The problem with living in a cool neighbourhood, is that’s where the professional thieves go because they know their victims are more likely to have money. The problem with living in the barrio, where we were before, is that’s where the thieves live. Fortunately, your Mexican boyfriend can befriend the worst people in the barrio, meaning they won’t give you problems, but in the cool neighbourhood, you’re on your own when it comes to defending yourself. So, it sounds backwards, but better neighbourhoods can be worse.
To deal with thieves a couple months earlier, we had gone to the Tianguis Cultural, a sort of hippie market that happens on Saturdays where you can buy cool t-shirts, hats, and handmade jewellery, pipes, weapons, and inexplicably, Nazi paraphernalia (it’s just one stall, but so out of place). I picked up a Spanish version of Ciel años de soledad and a flashlight chicharra, aka a taser, but let’s call it a chicharra because that’s a fun word.
We’d take the chicharra everywhere we went. The way it works is it’s a flashlight, but when you insert a pin into the bottom, a special button can activate the electric charge. After two guys tried to rob us with an ice pick outside the 7-11 down the block, I started keeping it activated in one hand, walking our pit bull with the other.
The guy who worked the night shift at the 7-11 at the end of our block said he had been the victim of armed robbery at work four times in the last five weeks.
“There’s no way 7-11 pays you enough for that to be worth it,” said El Chango.
“I guess I should probably look for another job,” he said as though he hadn’t considered it until now.
Naturally the one day I forgot the chicharra at home was the one day we were robbed at gunpoint. We were going for pizza around the corner from the house and I realized I didn’t have it as we closed the gate. I imagined going back through the giant house, through the yard, up the wobbly staircase and opening the combination lock on our door, pushing the pitbull into the room as he tried to escape, looking for the taser and then doing the whole thing in reverse.
“Whatever, we’re going like two minutes away,” I said, foolishly.
We had pizza, which was good, at least, and as we walked down the street, a car pulled over and an older teenager jumped out, pulling a gleaming 9 mm on us.
“The chicharra,” I whispered to myself. El Chango had a homicidal look on his face I had never seen.
“Tus teléfonos,” the armed child ordered.
He looked nervous. I glared at him. I could beat him in a fair fight, I thought to myself.
“No tengo,” I said, in my worst Spanish accent, feigning confusion. I did have my phone, but my photos weren’t backed up and there’s a small idiot samurai part of me that would sooner die than have one more thing stolen. The robber didn’t like this.
“Come on, do you want to die?” he asked, thrusting the handgun at my face.
“I don’t have a phone though.” I know, I know.
“Come on man, she’s clearly here on vacation and wouldn’t have a phone that works here. Just take mine,” said El Chango, handing his phone over.
“Hurry up!” the driver yelled. The kid looked back at me, at his friends, then jumped back into the car. El Chango chased the car down the street, then turned, trying to cut them off where he figured they’d be driving. While he sprinted away, I ran into the house, furious.
A bunch of roommates were watching something on the broken TV.
“We just got robbed at gunpoint!” I gasped. All the men stood up and sprinted out of the house, Charly leading the way, screaming that he would kill the thieves. Naturally the culprits were long gone. El Chango couldn’t stop obsessing over the chicharra, about wanting to go back in time and tase and murder the guy who put a gun to my head. I felt it too, this weird urge for violent retribution, but at the same time, knew that we were both the type to attack with the taser and that scenario could likely have led to one of us getting shot, so maybe the stars aligned for me to forget it that one time. At least thinking it made me feel better.
We used Find my iPhone to send a vague, threatening message to the screen of the stolen phone: “You have no idea who you’re messing with” in typical narco jargon with the callback number 666. It was a small gesture of hostility but the best we could do.
Back at the house, El Chango was in a rage and I was despondent for missing a unique-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tase someone who wronged me. Our roommates shared their own armed robbery stories to commiserate. The roommate who was always listening to Dua Lipa told us about how someone tried to mug him in the street when he had his $5,000 dollar camera, his prized possession and source of income, and he just rolled away down the sidewalk clutching it to his chest and screaming no. Everyone tried to calm El Chango down from the frustration of not being prepared for once, reminding him how many dead people we all see in the newspapers who tried to fight back.
I suggested we send a contract killer we knew out in El Chango’s mother’s colonia; EL Chango had given him a cheap neck tattoo and he owed us a favour I thought I would never want.
“But how would we even describe este pendejo to him?”
He was right. It would be equally as useful as telling the Mexican police.
A few days later, as the irony of all ironies, someone in the house who I can assume was Charly stole my theft defense, my chicharra (although the activation pin was still in our room, so really, he stole a glorified flashlight, which I suppose is still a better score than used swim trunks).
A few more days later, El Chango and I went for fancy pizzas at a different pizzeria called Perro Negro, whose pizzas have cool themes like chilaquiles. This time we brought a new taser we’d bought at San Juan de Díos. I bought an extra pizza to eat the next day, deciding to splurge a bit after so much misery. The next morning, the pizza box was empty in the fridge.
I was starting to feel major exasperation for having no control over my things, safety or even time, since showering and using the toilet often involved their own expeditions, ones that involved run-walking to the gym with a taser in my hand.
Fortunately we found out we had a cool roommate in the city-house named Miriam, who was kind enough to let me use her personal shower, which had an electric shower head to heat the water. She also had two kittens and fast internet so her room became my new favourite place. She hated Casa Vidrio (Charly once stole and sold an entire load of her laundry, including some vintage clothing that belonged to her mother) but had resigned to stay there until she figured out her work situation.
If I’ve ever had a day in my life where I earned a vacation, it was the day before we left for Sayulita. It all started when El Chango got a Whatsapp message on his new phone from someone saying he had found El Chango’s phone. El Chango was immediately suspicious.
“Great,” he said, “Meet me next to the police post on Chapultepec.”
The texter didn’t want to.
“How do you even know my number?” he asked.
“Yeah, just from your phone, you know. But I just wanted to check it’s your phone. When I turn it on you should get a text from Apple saying your phone has been found. So just tell me where I am and I’ll know it’s yours.”
Suddenly we remembered some weird texts El Chango had been getting that day, saying “Your phone has been found. Go here to locate it:” followed by a URL. I went directly to the Apple site and saw no sign of the phone being found, so we had ignored it. This time I went to the link. It was clever, a perfect image of the iCloud site and the url was something like Apple.44.icloud.com or something and looked legit if you didn’t look hard. There was a space to enter your iCloud email and password. I used a whois site to look up who the page was registered to, and it was some random guy in Brazil. The operation to unlock the phone was impressive, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t apply their creativity to more gainful employment than selling used phones, sometimes just for parts. I typed “fuck you’ into the password box and submitted it.
“Look buddy,” snapped El Chango, leaving a Whatsapp voice message. “I know that’s not the real Apple website, it’s registered to some random guy in Brazil. You have no idea who you’ve messed with,” he said, using the vernacular of the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel. “You should really be thinking about your daughter, and her well-being.”
The idiot thief had a picture of his daughter as his Whatsapp profile picture. The guy called immediately.
“Look man, I don’t want any trouble,” he said, nervous. “I just found the phone and am trying to do a good deed.”
“Bullshit. You picked the wrong fucking guy. My people will be looking out for you now, you better watch your back.”
It went back and forth a while with the guy begging to be believed and El Chango threatening him while I stifled my laughter. The other guy changed phone numbers shortly thereafter. We didn’t get the phone back, but at least we knew one guy out there would now be sleeping with one eye open waiting for the Jalisco Nueva Generación to come for his daughter, similar to the feeling we would now have regarding thieves whenever we walked anywhere in our neighbourhood. It’s only fair.
Then that night when El Chango was out tattooing, our dog fought his nemesis in the yard and stupidly, I tried to pull him off so they wouldn’t kill each other, receiving a bite in the leg from Tomás. Miriam took me to the hospital, where the doctor made fun of me for not knowing if my roommate’s dog had had all his shots and my nurse disappeared after someone yelled into the room about a 7-11 run so I eventually wandered out without paying. We then went to another hospital to see if I needed shots, and fortunately, I did not. Then, in the even-worse neighbourhood next to ours, our phones died before we could call an Uber home, and so Miriam and I ran back to the house, laughing deliriously at the type of day we were having, me clutching the taser. Just a few more hours and I’d be on a bus to Sayulita, where I could enjoy the safety of a touristy beach.
Whenever I see the scar on my leg, I can at least feel fortunate that I am no longer living at Casa Vidrio.