Several Ways to Die in Mexico City: An Autobiography of Death in Mexico City
“. . . thank Kurt Hollander for leading us through a city in which many would not have the heart, lungs, stomach, or street smarts to survive.”
In the mid 1950s Jack Kerouac took a room on Orizaba Street and from a rooftop vantage point, looked out over a sprawling, chaotic metropolis and spontaneously composed a poetic masterpiece.
The opening lines of the “113th Chorus of Mexico City Blues” read “Got up and dressed up / and went out & got laid / Then died and got buried / in a coffin in the grave . . .” The city before him spoke of immediacy and hedonism, yet shrouded beneath this urban effervescence lay a somber nihilism, an age old preoccupation with death.
The author, photographer and filmmaker, Kurt Hollander arrived in Mexico City in the summer of 1989. He grew up on the mean streets of 1970s New York, where as a teenager he carried switchblades in his pockets and nunchaka sticks inside his jacket: “To survive you had to walk the walk and talk the talk.”
During his time in Manhattan, he created and edited the Portable Lower East Side, an acclaimed staples and ink literary magazine with a pithy proximity to the city streets. Not only was Mr. Hollander accustomed to the feral city, he also had an eye for artistic beauty in urban decay.
The Portable Lower East Side championed the “oppositional culture that existed in the neighborhood” publishing the likes of Times Square “creep” and legendary Beat storyteller Herbert Huncke; the writer, artist, activist and former hustler David Wojnarowicz; and punk innovator Richard Hell.
Having now lived in Mexico City for over 20 years, Kurt Hollander is an incisive tour guide: the outsider with a developed insider view. Several Ways to Die in Mexico City is, like the city itself, a strange and captivating beast.
Part autobiography, part urban history, part medical record, and part meditation on death, Several Ways to Die is at risk of offering up a frustrating gallimaufry of ideas. Not so with Mr. Hollander’s writing. Reading Several Ways to Die is akin to looking at a megacity from above: We are aware of the conflicting ideas, movements and emotions extant on each and every street—forces powerful enough to bring life to a standstill—and yet viewed from a distance, urban mass is one coherent body.
The author pulls together diverse interpretations of Mexico City, from personal and historical accounts to statistical analysis, and makes them work in unison. In short, Kurt Hollander makes the chaos of Mexico City make sense.
Several Ways to Die discusses how a city inhabits its residents. The author notes: “Having eaten the food, drunk the water and alcohol and breathed in the air in Mexico City almost every day for over twenty years, I have incorporated a microscopic Mexico City inside my body.”
Author Hollander goes on to examine the many malevolent invaders bombarding the immune systems of chilangos, as Mexico City dwellers call themselves. He does so in chapters titled “Air,” “Water,” “Food,” and “Alcohol.” Each chapter presents a thoroughly researched history of the city from its very beginnings.
For example, in “Air” he reveals how breathing in Mexico City is the equivalent of smoking “a pack or two of cigarettes” each day. The chapter also gives the author a platform to discuss the history of the tobacco trade, the industrialization of the Mexico City Valley, and the pollution caused by motor vehicles.
Mr. Hollander also discusses other threats specific and nonspecific to the Mexican capitol, including but not limited to road death, crime, and natural disaster. He also demonstrates how a preoccupation with death has loomed over the city throughout its existence, discussing the early Aztec death cults to the relatively recent emergence of Santa Muerte worship, a syncretism of Catholic and Mesoamerican beliefs.
Delicately woven into the narrative is Mr. Hollander’s own confrontation with death while living in Mexico City. The author contracted salmonella, a precursor to his lifelong battle against colitis. The sense that Mr. Hollander has conceived this book while confronting his own mortality is highly palpable.
Like Kerouac, perched on the rooftop of his Orizaba Street apartment, we feel that Kurt Hollander, too, has looked out over one of the most dangerous and polluted cities in the world and watched death approach. He has envisaged his city as the most deadly of assassins and set out to examine its methods and motives.
And yet, as with New York’s Lower East Side in the 1970s and 80s, he finds beauty in Mexico City’s urban darkness: “There still exists an incredible biodiversity” and “a great racial diversity.” Here, too, is where he found love and where his children are happy.
Mr. Hollander is a self admitted product of the megacity. He is aware that the metropolis may be the death of him, yet it is in the city streets where he finds life at its most incandescent.
Several Ways to Die in Mexico City is written by a born urban explorer, and we can only thank Kurt Hollander for leading us through a city in which many would not have the heart, lungs, stomach, or street smarts to survive.