At 2:45, happily expecting a refreshing storm, I find myself on Santo Tomás between Carretones and A. Gurrión, right across the Anillo from the Merced's main entrance. A crowd of people stand in the narrow, one-way street, so something special must be going on, and I go over to see what's up.

Between 150 and 200 men, maybe eighty percent in their twenties, form a long oval ring about 200 feet long, wedged between the walls of the narrow street; thus flattened, the ring crosses the street in two places. Most men lean against walls, with curious looks on their faces. Inside the ring, about twenty prostitutes walk counterclockwise, prancing as if in a beauty pageant. One woman, smiling vivaciously, coyly approaches a young man, walks her fingers up his chest, tugs at his collar, rubs his groin area, and says something. A middle-age fellow stands just outside the oval, so I walk up and ask what's going on. He looks at me unbelievably.

"Business," he finally replies.

"Well, they're prostitutes," I continue, "but I've never seen anything like this. Is this some kind of ceremony?"

"No, man," he laughs, "the girls are just drumming up business. They're trying to get the boys' attention, get them excited"

"Why don't they just go stand along the street?" I ask.

"Well, it's specialization," the man says. "Here it's faster, but cheaper. The average price out there is US $12.50, you go to a hotel room, and it takes a little time. Here, they ask US $8.33, you go into that little room over there, get about five minutes, and then it's over. Hey why don't you show a little spirit and get one yourself? You're a gringo, you can afford it."

"I worry about AIDS."

"Oh, we all use condoms; it's OK. That's no good, but for such a low price we just use condoms and exercise our fantasies. So, go get one, anímate!"

"I'm in love with a woman I don't want to betray," I say, and this stops his urging. After a while he continues:

"It's a hell of a lot of money, isn't it? You can see how many are using that room, and I can tell you that half the money goes to the organizers as soon as you walk in. I've been there. I know. And this is just one place where this goes on, and it goes on every day like this, every day... "

He tells me of five other streets in the general mercado area where the same event takes place daily. Each location has its own specialty. In one, the girls are expensive but you get more attention, in another they are especially pretty, and in another they know special ways to treat you.

"It's the economic situation," he sums up, getting a philosophical tone in his voice "There are more girls every day, you see it, more and more every day. And they're getting more aggressive, and cheaper. Over on the Reforma, it goes on round-the-clock. One shift goes to sleep, another comes onto duty. Anything you want."

Without thunder or wind, a cold rain begins falling. The crowd breaks up. We scatter and black water with garbage floating in it pools against the curb.