Shortly before five, the figure on the wrought-iron bench begins to stir. She sits up and tightens her headscarf, then drops a hand to check that her woven plastic bags are still on the ground by her feet. A bus hurtles past on one side of the spacious traffic island on which the bench is located. This strip bisecting Avenida Alvaro Obregón in one long green and cement declaration is her home.
Local businesses have yet to open and most of the Colonia Roma remains in shadow. The figure, severely hunchbacked and in a long brown leather jacket, slowly moves from the bench to the 24-hour shop across the street for her dawn cup of instant coffee. She rarely says a word but the employees know who she is: Margaret Aberlin, a 65-year-old German woman who has been living on the streets of Mexico City for the past four years. Sometimes, when the temperature drops, she arrives even earlier and falls asleep standing by the coffee machines, leaning against the metallic counter until her legs give way.
She lingers for an hour until other customers start to arrive, then leaves in as much silence as she entered. Her next destination, six streets away, is the Sagrada Familia, a church on the corner of Puebla and Orizaba.
A soft pinkish light is starting to touch the tips of trees and buildings as she continues on her route, which for over four years has never varied: off Alvaro Obregón she turns into Orizaba, past dormant cars and shuttered entrances, then makes her way across Plaza Río de Janeiro. The plaza too, with its great trees and giant statue of Michelangelo’s David, has yet to awaken. Grand old houses, built in French style during the Porfiriato, huddle round, their occupants still asleep. The air is chilly. Margaret Aberlin quickens her pace as she passes the bed of dark green cacti that rise from the soil like sinister fingers pointing at the sky.
The street of Orizaba, which continues on the other side of the Plaza Río de Janeiro, brings her directly to the Sagrada Familia. This neo-Gothic and Romanesque church with its blue spire and large rosette window is the point of departure for the Procession of Silence, which takes place once a year on Good Friday.
The heavy wooden doors are being opened. Margaret steps into its luminous interior, brightened by three chandeliers. A hesitant light sifts in through the stained glass windows. She settles into the last pew, near the confessional, and falls asleep.
Her presence never fails to be registered by the caretaker, a frail man who sleeps in a tiny room at the back of the church behind the altar, with no family or loved ones apart from the saints and evangelists adorning the walls. He often notices flowers sticking out of the woman’s bag, but reassures himself they’re different from the white ones in the vase arrangements.
Seated on the wooden pew, hard but more comfortable than the metal of her park bench, Margaret naps until eleven, when the church closes until evening. Someone, either the caretaker or the sacristan, must usually tap on her shoulder to wake her.
Out she shuffles, often pausing to receive some coins from the faithful, who are used to the sight of her. With some of these donations Margaret heads to the newspaper stand to one side of the church, its owner perched on an upturned crate, and buys two Tomy caramels and two Tehuanos, among the cheapest candies available.
She has a very clean, sweet smell, the newspaper man notes, unlike another vagrant woman who used to sit outside the Sagrada Familia. When that woman died, he recalls, the ambulance workers had great difficulty lifting the stretcher, astonished at how much she weighed. They shook the folds of her filthy skirt and out poured hundreds of coins.
From the church, Margaret Aberlin heads back down Orizaba. By now the streets have come to life, animated by the high sun and the hum of commerce. At the hair salon at No. 27, a woman sweeps up the curls from one customer and starts combing out the tangles of the next. At the taquería at No. 29, two bodyguards spoon salsa onto their tacos while the man they protect lunches across the street. A courier fixes his bicycle outside No. 31. The shop two doors down is closed since its owner has been unwell. Margaret stops at No. 35, a simple restaurant with a red awning she visits daily. She finds a seat in the corner and eats her usual ham and cheese sandwich, hunched over her food with her back to everyone.
Afterwards she moves on to La Bella Italia, an ice cream parlour on Orizaba furnished with retro tables and chairs and a jukebox that lights up whenever a song is played. Unless it is occupied, she always takes the same little round table by the window. In her four years going there she has never ordered ice cream, only one espresso daily, into which she empties two sugars. She pulls a pack of cookies from her bag and dips them in the coffee, then spends over an hour flipping through magazines. Sometimes she disappears into the bathroom and emerges in another set of clothes.
Over the years, the employees have come to know her story. At first they were surprised by her Spanish, fluent with a German accent, and then learnt she also spoke French, English and of course German – ‘High German’, which sounded impressive though they weren’t certain what it meant. They call her Margarita.
Some days she doesn’t speak at all, on others she asks the time, saying that any day now they’ll be coming to fetch her. Who is coming, they ask. My husband and daughter, Margaret replies, they will arrive on a private plane from Germany and from here we will fly to Buenos Aires and from there to Hawaii. They abandoned her whilst on holiday in Mexico, she explains, but will be back any day.
When speaking, her blue eyes light up and she smiles. The employees at La Bella Italia often try to imagine what she looked like when she was young, but for some reason it is impossible.
From there, Margaret Aberlin walks to her favourite place, a bookstore called A Través del Espejo, or Through the Looking Glass. The owner knows her and expects her arrival at around the same time every afternoon. Stacks of books extend in long rows to the far end of the shop. The shelves lining the walls also brim with books. Wherever one turns, more and more books, following little apparent order or logic.
Here too, Margaret has her routine. She sits on a stool and places her bags on the floor beside her. First she leafs through a large stack of National Geographic magazines, some issues from over a decade ago. Once she is done, she organizes them in chronological order. Then she reaches for some books and once she has finished looking at them she organizes them by publication date. Sometimes she points at the books and says to the owner, These are my books. Sometimes she waves her hand and says, This is my bookstore.
Whenever she comes across the issue of National Geographic with the iconic photograph of the Afghan girl on the cover, she holds it up and tells whoever is there that it is a portrait of her as a girl. Because of the similar light eyes, people often believe her. Every now and then she puts aside a novel or a collection of short stories written in one of the languages she knows. The owner lets her have the book for free and in return Margaret presents him with a flower from her bag.
After the bookstore she drops by the local florist to replenish her collection. She doesn’t buy much but she knows what she wants. She prefers simple flowers, rather than gladiolas or birds of paradise.
Once she’s paid she drops the flowers into one of her plastic bags and continues on her way back to the traffic island on Alvaro Obregón, which is now much busier and noisier than in the morning when she left it.
The avenues have corners built at 45 degree angles, wide enough for carriages to once comfortably turn, and are graced at intervals by fountains with sculptures from Greek and Roman mythology. Some buildings have been handsomely restored, many remain in disrepair. Yet the neighbourhood’s decaying elegance, the result of devastating earthquakes and bad city planning, seems lost on Margaret Aberlin, who is always looking down.
If ever there happens to be someone seated on her bench when she returns, she asks the person or persons to leave. She sits and closes her eyes. The minutes pass. Often her rest is punctuated by the sirens of ambulances pulling up to the Hospital Obregón across the street, fronted by a strange statue of the famous Mexican comic Cantinflas. Fortunately, despite medical attention being literally at her doorstep, she has never needed to go there.
In the late afternoon she heads to another restaurant for her main meal of the day: chicken broth with rice and a bottle of dark Bohemia beer.
Afterwards she returns to her bench, gathering leaves and bits of garbage along the way. She stuffs them into her bags, where she also carries old newspapers, clothing and a pair of shoes.
From the first floor window of a building on Alvaro Obregón an ageing jeweller, who lives there with her unemployed son, has been watching Margaret Aberlin for the past four years. She is deeply intrigued by this bent-over woman, who she sees rising in the morning, returning to her bench during the day, then lying down at night. She herself is wasting away from an unidentified disease and hasn’t left home in nine months. Her son brings her food and things to read, wheels her from room to room, but has no idea that his mother follows the comings and goings of another ageing woman below. Were she to look up, all Margaret would see from the street would be a gold lamé dress hanging in the window. At night, the dress is brought in and the window is closed.
In the early evening, Margaret Aberlin returns to the Sagrada Familia.
As she crosses Plaza Río de Janeiro she walks past an organ grinder, a relic of a dying breed. Like most barrel organs in Mexico, his was made in the early twentieth century by an Italian named Frati based in Berlin. As he sits polishing his instrument on a bench near the fountain, Margaret stops. Her eyes widen. He realizes she is gazing at the gold lettering on the side:
SCHOENHAUSER ALLEE BERLIN
She stands and stares, silently clutching her bags, and eventually continues on her way.
Shortly after they reopen the Sagrada Familia, Margaret Aberlin is back, ready to reclaim her spot on the last pew. She remains in the church until it closes at nine.
Back down Orizaba, through the darkened Plaza Río de Janeiro where shadows congregate round the fountain, she heads towards a mini supermarket for her supper: instant Maruchan chicken noodle soup – to which she adds coffee instead of boiling water. For all her meals she uses the same plastic spoon, which she pulls out of a bag and disinfects with alcohol and a napkin. After eating she stores it again.
By eleven, Margaret Aberlin is back at her bench and ready for bed. Bags tucked away, she lies down, resting her head on a folded sweater. Her thick leather jacket shields her from the cold. Cars continue to rush past on either side but with the hours the traffic diminishes.
Along with the ageing jeweller, she is often observed by a street kid who has taken up residence somewhere beneath the nearby underpass at metro Insurgentes. On some nights, however, when the underpass gets too rowdy, he too sleeps on a bench on the Alvaro Obregón traffic island, and it is then that he has witnessed Margaret bathing in one of the fountains. He is the only one to have seen her long, straggly hair, released from the headscarf and falling to her waist. It is a strange sight, the silhouette of this deformed figure alongside the classical statues, and he watches with fascination, hoping they’ll somehow merge.
One morning the jeweller hears voices rising above the traffic. She looks out the window and sees a commotion engulfing Margaret’s bench, where a crowd has gathered. Two men are trying to lift her. She resists, clasping a side of the bench with both arms. But they are stronger and eventually wrench her free and push her into a car. Her bags get caught in the door and they have to manoeuvre them in at an angle. The door closes and the car drives off.
The jeweller’s son, who turns out to be very informed indeed, tells his mother over dinner that this woman has been taken away to be “repatriated.” Earlier that month a leading newspaper had published an article about a German woman who lived on a bench in the Colonia Roma – She sleeps standing and adds coffee to her soup, ran the headline – and, thanks to this, the German Embassy was alerted to her existence. After a few weeks of tireless research, a consul was able to track down her family in Germany. Most of her story, it turned out, was true: four years ago, Margaret Aberlin had been abandoned by her husband and daughter whilst on holiday in Tepotzlán.
After two weeks at the migratory detention center in Iztapalapa, where she declined all phone calls and visitors, Margaret Aberlin was released at seven in the evening and driven to the international airport of Mexico City, where she boarded Air France flight 439 to Paris. She refused to bring any of her bags along. Her brother would be waiting at the other end to take her to their hometown of Bad Oeynhausen.