The impossible city

Lúcia Sá is from São Paulo. Professor of Brazilian Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester and Stanford University, she is currently working on her book Life in the Megalopolis: Mexico City and São Paulo, to be published by Routledge.

Armani, Benetton, Cartier, Uzi...

Rua 25 de Março, centre of São Paulo. I zigzag between stalls, improvised shops, blankets laid out on the concrete laden with the most recent bounty of Western civilization. I can't help noticing Brad Pitt's legs on the cover of Troy. The vendor reels off titles: "Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Jar Head, Brokeback Mountain, better quality than the original."

"Any Brazilian films?" I ask.

"Brazilian? Nooo, not at the moment. Come on, I'll give you a discount on Troy. We have music CDs, too, anything you want."

Next to her a middle-aged man is selling Rolex watches, "Real Swiss," he assures me. "We also have Omega, Cartier, Patek Phillipe; daintier ones for women, anything you fancy."

I feel a passing hand on my bum; when I turn around, the culprit is gone. Did Baudelaire ever get his bum pinched? There are twenty million people in the urban area of São Paulo; they must all be here. I buy a Rolex for 20 reais (5 pounds). The vendor tells me he came to São Paulo to work in the auto industry, right before they started laying off masses of people. "I became unemployed a year after I got my first job," he says. "Here I am now, part of the informal economy."

I walk into a proper shop to look at clothes from India. The owner sees me about to strap the Rolex to my wrist. "Did you just get this watch? They're all fakes." I try to look surprised, but he doesn't notice. "We pay taxes, we pay for our employees' pensions and vacation, while these people on the sidewalk set up stalls selling fake stuff and nobody stops them."

A woman behind me joins in: "I hate them. They trash the streets. São Paulo used to be a civilized city. Look at it now: you can hardly walk; it looks like a middle-eastern market. Why doesn't the government send them all back to the Northeast?"

I slowly make my way to Parque Dom Pedro to take the metro. It's clean, well kept, punctual. I can't avoid commenting on it to the young woman at my side and she agrees that it is the best service in the city. "It is the only first-world institution we have," she says. I react in surprise: "First-world? The subway in London is filthy and anything but punctual; the one in New York is a dump. If anything, our metro is more like the one in Mexico City." She frowns, obviously displeased to have her city compared to another in Latin America. I prepare to get off at Brás station, leaving the young woman to her first-world dream. She is right about the São Paulo metro, it is almost perfect. Too bad it covers only a tiny proportion of the city.

The streets are completely jammed with cars. Lorries and buses belch a thick black smoke that makes everybody cough. Each time the government tries to raise pollution standards for lorries, the transport companies threaten to go on strike and paralyse the country. A bonus of the traffic jam is that I can cross the street without fear of being run over by yet another Ayrton Senna. Brazil spawns thousands of them.

More men used to call me sexy and delicious as I walked by. I must be getting old. Brás, in the eastern part of town, was an Italian quarter in the early 20th century; now it is inhabited by north-eastern migrants. Ruined factories still provide a memento of early industrialization in São Paulo. At last I arrive at Rua Oriente. Shopkeepers from other parts of the city come here to buy clothes in bulk. I had a friend whose father, a Lebanese immigrant, owned a shirt factory here. At that time, in the seventies, they were mostly Arabs. Or Jews. Brazilians called them all Turks. But then my friend's father lost the factory because he couldn't compete with the cheap Chinese shirts that were entering the market. A Korean sweatshop owner sublet the building and bought the machines. Later, the police found out he kept over forty illegal Bolivian immigrants there as slave workers, locked in. So it was his turn to be put in prison. Yet sweatshops still thrive in Brás, thanks to the slave immigrants. Fewer street vendors - most business is done inside shops. Dozens of Argentinian tourists emerge from these shops carrying bags of blue jeans, "I-♥-New-York" T-shirts and authentic Ronaldinho jerseys in anticipation of the Cup (a trick gift for friends back in Buenos Aires?). There are African tourists, too, even some Americans - apparently, Brás has made it into the guidebooks as the place to buy cheap Brazilian bikinis and tight-fit jeans. I stock up on bikinis and men's shirts.

The Korean shopkeeper confirms that business is going well: "Everybody shops in Brás," she says. "The shops in the malls in the west and north - they all buy their clothes here." I can't sew a thing, but I can't resist going into a haberdashery. I love the buttons, and all those things with funny names that you stick on your clothes: sianinhas (rick rack), debruns (trims), lantejoulas (sequins). And the labels: rolls of embroidered labels that endlessly repeat Emporio Armani, Benetton, Gap. The clothes' miracle that transforms your Rua Oriente shirt into a real Polo.

I manage to find a seat in the Cidade Universitária bus, which will take me to the west side of the city. The bus fills up quickly and people hang on outside the door. I am reminded of the local male art of placing genitals snug into the rear of women on crowded buses. A young woman elbows one such male and calls him a pervert. He protests that he hasn't done anything but gets off the bus anyway. The other passengers yawn. After nearly an hour, I get off at the corner of Rua Augusta and Avenida Faria Lima. The corridor of glassy tall buildings and a few remaining mansions takes me to the shopping centre Iguatemi, the oldest and, arguably, still the poshest mall in São Paulo. Ramps lead up and down and no doors separate you from the street. Apparently, anybody can wander in. But only apparently. Uniformed security guards discreetly observe everyone who walks past. Other security guards, badly disguised as shoppers, wander the white-lit corridors. Their purpose is to make sure that Iguatemi remains an oasis, free of street vendors, muggers, beggars, street children, the homeless - free of the poor. I enter Emporio Armani to see a shirt. The salesman looks me up and down, focusing on my Rolex watch. He shows me a shirt that costs three times the Brazilian monthly minimum wage. "What makes it so expensive?" I ask, and he says it is the authentic Egyptian cotton.

"What about those Emporio Armani shirts on Rua Oriente?" He laughs: "Rua Oriente? Everybody knows they're fakes."

"How can you tell?" I insist. He is too well trained to show any irritation. Instead, he starts to refold the shirt, while answering calmly, "You can't even begin to compare the elegance of the lines, the well-cut collars and, of course, the authentic Egyptian cotton."

Outside Iguatemi, urban chaos. Rush hour has arrived and not a single bus in sight. The traffic seems even more jammed than usual and people are yelling at each other from their cars. Old VW Kombis and newer vans have become improvised bus services. Taxis are all busy, but nobody can go anywhere, and I am told why: Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) has brought the city to a halt. They are burning buses after having made armed attacks on several police stations. The government has stopped them from doing their business as usual, they claim. Up until two days ago, PCC leaders were running their rackets from jail using mobile phones and an impressively organized network. But now a judge has decided that they have to be moved to a high-security prison, which severely interferes with business. They are important players in supplying the very demanding markets in the United States and Europe, and messing with them, they complain, will inevitably force prices up. Moreover, they argue that their export business creates jobs and brings capital into the country; bringing modernity to Brazil in the form of cocaine and heroine for the upper classes. Thanks to organizations like the PCC many young men from the favelas can have their share of globalized fare in the form of crack-cocaine and extremely sophisticated products like Beretta, Browning, Sig-Sauer and Walther pistols, and Beretta, Ingram, HK, and Uzi machine guns. People sense the police will soon reach a deal with the PCC, though not without making their own killing. As usual.

Shopping is done. Things are getting hot out here and I decide to walk back. I stop at a corner bakery to drink some juice. Graviola, mangaba, açaí, sirigüela and camu-camu are on offer, along with other exotic delights from Amazonia and the Northeast. Ten years ago, nobody knew these fruits in São Paulo, and in order to taste them, you had to travel four hours or more by plane. Now their juice flows everywhere. It must be that thing they call globalization. Good to be back home.

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