TV and I have been estranged for years. It is an ailment, I believe, that is common to my generation, an entirely meaningless distinction that I contracted by accident. This is how it went: little by little that box communicated to me its worthlessness for anything I held to be important, until one day it was the most natural thing in the world to simply acknowledge that I had quit watching it. I suppose you could say I outgrew it, like I outgrew Nintendo and baseball cards.
But the Internet. God help me if I didn’t have the Internet.
Almost anywhere you go in Mexico, the web will be there. Even in towns of dirt roads and saddled horses, chances are you will find that cramped room with a bunch of old 486s, adolescent boys flashing looks at each others’ screens and yelling to one another, a solemn-faced woman tapping out something with determination. Even in this room, the experience is overpowering: once you sit down and the screen is all yours, it is very much the same experience you remember from your home country.
To an American living in Mexico, the Internet is like a great shadow in the shape of those united states. Sometimes the coziness is a little too wet—for instance, when you are reading about the latest actions of your President W—and at these times you begin to scrape around for a way out from under this shadow; then at other moments you luxuriate in this ease of accessing things that remind you of home. It can be a crutch if you want it to. It was surely addictive.
In those first months in Mexico the ready access to facsimile America turned me into a voyeur of my former life. This experience was the exact opposite of those photos that travelers are encouraged to bring with them to castrate homesickness’s longing: photos provide a tangible, tactile experience that can unlock deep emotions, but they are worthless when it comes to perpetuating a lifestyle. Great at nostalgia, they are seldom useful for personal voyeurism for they speak only the past. The Internet though, the most effervescent medium ever invented, it is completely sterile for purposes of nostalgia (even TV would better stoke those fires), but is a belching engine custom-made for spinning out your lost present and making of it a future lifestyle.
And this, I am forced to conclude, explains why I took no photos with me to Mexico and watched no TV while I was there, but found myself quickly addicted to the Internet cafes.
One November day—three months into Mexico—I discover that Puebla is hosting something called the Museo Peatonal : in English it calls itself “The Passerby Museum,” although “The Pedestrian Museum” would not be an inappropriate translation. Anyone who passes by can contribute something of theirs to this exhibit, which consists solely of such objects displayed in orderly arrays of Ziploc bags. When I visited the museum in Puebla it contained roughly 2,000 objects, taking up a space about the size of four studio apartments. It had previously hit New York City, Barcelona, Madrid, Havana, and Mexico City, growing with each stop.
The Museum as I found it was awash in old receipts, snapshots, scraps of paper with scribbled notes, ticket stubs. A few items had been pulled aside into a “treasures” section, the most remarkable of these being, in my opinion, an unimpressive black box whose former owner had written a note of explanation: “This is a key that will open any electrical box in Madrid.” I must have stood there before this hunk of plastic for a good ten minutes with a troubled look on my face before I saw the note and managed to translate it.
The museum is all anonymous—meaning any exhibitionistic urge it inspires is necessarily a circumscribed one—although it still grants you the satisfaction of knowing that strangers will observe what was once your personal property with the same respect they would accord any other artifact displayed in a museum. After the black box, my second favorite treasure in the museum was a giant preserved insect, its long, stick-like legs curled into its abdomen and forming a symmetrical diamond roughly the size of my fist. The feeling of disgust I got while watching it was pleasing—aren’t giant dead insects marvelous to behold when they are trapped behind plastic?—though I could not imagine what kind of person would have such an object at their immediate disposal.
Context is essential in The Passerby Museum. It is context that differentiates between a used movie ticket from New York City—which I found moderately interesting—and a used movie ticket from Cuba—a virtual sociological study. The museum’s co-creator, Nicolás Dumit Estévez, remarked on this to me over email: “At first glance, its objects might give an overall sense of globalism, but as one proceeds to examine the objects in detail the differences become noticeable. I am learning that people have the ability to use the same words to compose very different sentences.” The museum satisfied me first and foremost for the lessons afforded by context; another way to put this is that voyeurism functions best when you know where you are looking.
After the treasures of the black box and the giant preserved insect, I came across an empty Ziploc bag hung amidst hundreds of others on a wall display from DF. It stood out as the only null point in this charged field and thus it immediately pulled me in. Was it really empty? Had someone donated air from Mexico City? Eventually the bag gave up its secret: from a particular angle I could see a single, long strand of blond hair switchbacked on itself. Such sudden intimacy was too much: in that skidding moment disgust surged up my chest. Full of nausea I stepped back and fixed my eyes on a more inert object and wondered why it was that a hair in your soup repels, but a lover’s hair found stuck to your clothes enthralls. In The Passerby Museum these two aspects of the physical are in uneasy embrace, and within its walls it is possible to observe the process by which inanimate objects begin to work on you. Dumit Estévez commented to me that, “Every city visited reacts differently to its encounter with our nomadic institution. In New York City interactions are brief, intimacy can easily be summed up in two minutes. In the two places that we have visited in Mexico, the DF and Puebla, donors seem to have a more relaxed sense of time. There is always room for a conversation, and the items and their descriptions are carefully crafted: ‘the only blond hair that my girlfriend has.’”
One of the last things I noticed in my first trip to the museum was that a number of Mexicans from DF and Puebla had donated expired passports. They were opened to the front page and hanging there in a row, their former owners’ impassive eyes reminding me of a silent protest. Below each headshot was the passportee’s full name, address, and identification number, and it was this data that evoked within me an empathetic shame at its nakedness. I wanted to cover them up. But then, as I stood there thinking of my own private data, so well-protected from thieves, it hit me that these were the only objects in the museum that were not anonymous.
In The Passerby Museum I felt surrounded by a mass of other lives, I worked to imagine the people behind so many of the objects left there, but nothing in the museum woke within me the urge to join them. My complete disinterest in being part of an enterprise I so clearly respected and found intriguing left me at a loss, but some days later Dumit Estévez placed this into a new context when he remarked over email that “objects can be felt and smelled in ways that the virtual still lacks.” He went on: “The Museum can confer on its visitors an invisibility. Blogs and reality TV, although related, do not demand the same level of personal interaction as The Museum. Blogs and reality TV are relatively safe spaces from the standpoint of the voyeur. In The Passerby Museum, one is always a voyeur in a public context.”
With those words I began to see my way toward why I did not want to become part of the museum, despite my great participation in that other passerby museum called the Internet. In a similar sort of way, I began to understand that Mexico’s appeal to Americans has always been the convenience of exoticism. Even if Mexico is now hardly the place it was when Jack Kerouac wrote “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic,” the switchover from consciousness to sub- was nonetheless clearly evident for me upon arrival. My foolish image of Mexico was destroyed piece by piece as my stay in that country lengthened from weeks to months, and as that happened I began to construct a shadow-image of the place America was now becoming in my mind. Thus began my education in the limits of the virtual, a lesson that was reinforced every time I saw the wonder that the word America could trammel up in the eyes of the average Mexican and heard the questions they would ask me.
This desire in each of us to see the other’s country is a variant of a fantasy I was uncommonly strong prey to as a child: a belief that within you lies an entirely different person, that somehow your life can be entirely different if you have the power to knock it off the tracks. For all of my stay in Mexico I believed that this was just what I’d done upon arriving in the DF airport. I thought that in that one shattering moment I’d knocked that old life clean off, although now, with the benefit of years of hindsight, I see that this is not the case. The knock wasn’t made all at once; I’ve come to believe that it never is, that such a shattering of one’s identity, violent though it may seen, is in reality a protracted process. In my own case this change in identity was still ongoing when I visited the museum, months after landing in DF, and according to this current narrative I’ve arranged my Mexican life into, it was this process that I now designate as ending several months after my visit to The Passerby Museum, when deep in summer I found myself high above the Yucatán jungle.
With time I grew bored with that shadow-America that the Internet could offer me in Mexico. I would still of course check my email regularly and follow the news, but as time passed I grew less concerned with eavesdropping on the other life I’d left behind. What took the place of voyeurism was nostalgia, although not nostalgia for the American life I had left but rather nostalgia for the early days of my Mexican life. This was my clearest indication that Puebla was becoming a home. I took so many photos of that city, so many photos of my partner Beth and I spending time together in all the places we came to know in Mexico, and toward the spring and summer they began to evoke the sharpest emotions.
Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Press, 2013). His work has been published widely, including in Tin House, Drunken Boat, The White Review, The Point, Music & Literature, and The Times Literary Supplement. He edits The Quarterly Conversation.