Jallen’s Freedom and the Setting Sun

Two hours ago Jallen walked out through the security doors of the MDC and into the arms of his lifelong friend Serfina.  Festive sympathizers on the bus offered their knives to cut off his prison wristband and usher him back into freedom.  Now he sits at the Rapid Ride stop on Central and Cornell, lucid of mind, body, and soul, soaking in the evening sun’s golden rays along with Serfina and two men he calls father and brother.  Reverie drifts in with the early autumn breeze.  Freed from the austere confinement of bitter-faced Bangladeshi nuns, I dig my hands into the cool sand of Mr. Arnold’s pit beside childhood chums who carry on as if they barely noticed I had gone away.  But there is a secret in the shine of their eyes: love, like a tide, embraces unencumbered by reflection.  The reunion is felt, not defined.  Jallen is back home on the street with his family. Daily Lobo-4606Today’s venture is metajournalistic.  I am out with William, a staff photographer for the UNM Daily Lobo, who was sent by the paper’s editor to photograph yours truly while on the beat for Albuquerque Bus Stops.  At first I am camera shy, for I virtually never find myself on the other end of a lens, unless it is I who set the timer and ran to position myself for a self-portrait, typically one that dramatizes my masculinity in some ridiculous way.  But as I lose myself in the glassy eyes of another tender face on the streets, smiley and wrinkled, William snaps away unbeknownst to me.  I forget about the distinctions between my handsome angle and the other, my uneven nostrils, the hair sprouting from them both, and my lazy eye of Jack Elam.  Today I am to be exposed in light and shadow before another’s eye, friend or foe, just as I do it to others each time I set out with my camera.  And to William’s good credit as a documentary photographer, I nearly forget that he is there. Navajo PortraitsIt is a typical evening on the bus.  A homeless trio has just come from spicy enchiladas at Project Share (Yale and Gibson area), and are now enjoying the shade and parkesque social environment of the bus stop.  A nurse has picked up her children from school and is heading home to make dinner.  An obese man with the smile of Steinbeck’s Lennie dreams of leaving Burque one day for greener lands, but sticks to the relative comfort of what he knows.  A white-haired man reveals sky blue eyes from under dark sunglasses, and recounts the eleven bus rides he has taken today.  Two women drag heavy bags of groceries aboard, and then fall on top of each other in a splash of giggles.  We make them miss their stop in order to better describe the exigencies of five little mouths to feed and nursing school, and they don’t get upset.Daily Lobo-4584

Meanwhile, the bus driver has a surprise for me.  “You the guys who do the Albuquerque Bus Stops blog?”

I cower in wait for his reprimand.  Thirty-four years into this human experience, the Catholic school boy in me still flinches at the raise of an eyebrow.  But Robert’s face is not that of the Bangladeshi nuns.  With a tender tumbling of cheekbones and jaws, he continues,

“Man, I keep waiting for the next post.  They don’t come out fast enough!”

His charm digs into my core.  I imagine dirt accumulating in my dimples.  Like a number of others on the bus today, he chooses not to have his photograph taken, but it’s no hair out of my nostrils, for he and everyone else just made my day.

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Back at Central and Cornell, William and I hop off the Rapid Ride and into the Freedom Reunion of Jallen and his beloveds.  Serfina, all made up and pretty for her friend’s liberation, holds on tightly to his arm.  Jallen’s father, “Richie Rich,” asks for change, and says he accepts Visa and MasterCard.  His brother, Shawn, tells the story of his stump.  A car accident years ago took his arm off, nearly his leg, and collapsed his lungs.  He was in a coma for eight weeks.

“But I’m still alive, man!”

Indeed.  Alive and free, temporary and constrained though this life and this freedom may be.   The next step is the same as the last, and as so many before.  Jallen says he has been on the streets for 23 years, a mighty big number for a 32-year old.  But he is looking to get an apartment with help from St. Martin’s Hospitality Center.  Maybe it will work out.  But apartments, like jails, are places of confinement to one so used to the bright stars over an abandoned cemetery.  None of that matters right now, however, for the golden sun is setting over Central Avenue, illuminating the quiet glee of a family—blood or otherwise—reunited. Daily Lobo-4617

The Deliverance of Ciudad Juarez

[A tangential bit on the condition of Albuquerque’s sister city]

Three years ago bodies were dropping in Ciudad Juarez at a rate of ten to fifteen per day.  3,300 fell in 2010 alone, often piled up on roadsides, hanging from bridges, or dismembered and scattered about busy intersections.  Convoys of green-clad soldiers and blue-clad, masked federal police officers raced constantly through the streets, futilely chasing random bursts of gunfire.  Extortionists left scores of businesses burned to ash, while hundreds more closed under related economic pressures.  More than 250,000 people fled the city for calmer lands, and nearly everyone learned to stay indoors after dark, leaving the streets a ghostly empty.  Rival cartels were in the thick of a bloody war for control of one of the world’s most vital smuggling ports for drugs en route to America, and Juarez descended into Hell.Juarez Bus Stops-4279And then, about a year and a half ago, the violence abruptly stopped.  People were still being killed, but at rates now comparable to many large American cities.  The army and federal police forces have withdrawn to their barracks, the municipal police were given their weapons back (substantially upgraded), and everything seems to have returned to normal, or the way it was prior to ex-President Felipe Calderon’s declaration of war on the cartels in 2007.  People and businesses have returned en masse, filling the streets day and night with vibrant social activity.  Families now hit the fairs, markets are bustling, youths drink and mingle, and prostitutes are making their buck.  Only the gringos have yet to rediscover the new Juarez, and thus remain confined to their borders.

What happened?  By most accounts, the war was simply won, and power has been consolidated under one authority.  That is, one cartel defeated another, and monopolized the means of criminal violence.  The Sinoloa Cartel, supposedly run by the infamous “El Chapo” Guzman, successfully pushed out the Juarez Cartel, and now any act of criminal violence in the city is strictly regulated by the new dons of the underworld.   Most of the young gangsters who had been cheaply employed by the rival cartels to kill each other off have been eliminated or disarmed, thus limiting random violence to the occasional desperation of drug addicts and crimes of passion.  And the widespread extortion of businesses mysteriously stopped as soon as the federal police left the city on orders of the recently elected president Enrique Peña Nieto.  It appears that an equilibrium at the politico-criminal nexus has finally been reached again, and Juarez has been delivered from the bowels of Hell.

But since nothing is real until you see it, my good friend Joshua and I must find a way to escape from our lives for a few days to explore those bowels south of the border, which are certainly no longer those of Hell, but rather of a festive purgatory far more cheery than this rigidly controlled peace of the Heavens.   We notice it immediately.  There are no more army soldiers at the border checking our car, no more masked federal policeman racing through the streets, and no more burned out our otherwise abandoned buildings dotting each business district.  Traffic is positively bad again, busses clog up intersections, and road construction blocks everywhere you want to go.  Street performers again pull tricks and juggle flames at red lights, and someone is always there to wash your windshield.  The air is no longer tense and constricted.  One can now breathe free of the expectations of random and cinematographic acts of violence.quinceanera

Our photojournalist friends on the crime beat have grown bored with their jobs.  Three years ago there were too many homicides during any given 8-hour shift to cover them all, and one newspaper article had to describe multiple events.  Today each murder gets its very own article, and several days might pass without any murders at all.  Some of our friends have been transferred to other departments altogether, and are now photographing social events, like quinceñeras and mini-marathons.  Others have stayed on the crime beat, but are now directed to cover car accidents and special moments, like the return of children to school after summer break.Juarez Bus Stops-4237

During our three days on the beat, there is only one murderous event.  It is Saturday evening around eight o’clock.  Brian receives a call from fellow journalists with news of a double homicide in the slums at the southwestern edge of the city.  We tear through the streets at 70 mph, dodging cars and potholes, hoping to get a view of the bodies before the police arrive and cordon the area off.  But we are late, and it turns out that the two dead men are lying inside a house and cannot be seen anyway.  Two others are only wounded, however.  The whole neighborhood watches from their darkened front porches as an ambulance rumbles slowly down the dirt road towards the sea of lights on the horizon.   No one knows what happened or why, or who it was that died.  There are no screams, no cries, just a respectful quiet concealing the collective tickling of this spontaneous bit of entertainment.Juarez Bus Stops-4350

And then nothing.  A false report of a fire.  A non-fatal stabbing.  A blind run after wailing police cars that are just running red lights for no good reason at all.  Two full days pass without murder in Ciudad Juarez, something inconceivable just a few years ago.  If this trend continues, the days of the “nota roja” (the graphic reporting of violent crime in Mexico) might be numbered.

In our spare time we drive around to see other matters of interest.  Downtown is full of brothels and prostitutes of all stripes who solicit customers from dimly lit street corners and shadowy doorways.  The criminal syndicates who govern this underworld prohibit photography, so we keep our cameras down.  But later we visit Eco2000, a large apartment complex that was built near to completion more than ten years ago before being abandoned when the construction company declared bankruptcy.  Squatters who began occupying the vacant complex two years ago run out to greet us, asking to be photographed and offering us a tour of their homes.   From the outside they are well-designed abodes for the middle class.  But inside they are slums.  Anything resembling running water or electricity is pirated and precarious.  Sewage has nowhere to go.  Security is left to the residents themselves.  The state, legally blocked from removing the squatters but unwilling to provide them services and protection, has chosen to ignore them altogether.Eco2000

The next afternoon we meet “Marta,” a 40-year old police officer and one of the first women to enlist in the service back in 2008 when the city government promoted female recruitment to improve the city’s image.  Studies out of Oslo and promulgated by the United Nations have suggested that women are less likely to indulge in corruption.  But Marta says that she enlisted because she has always been attracted to the profession.  She is of tough disposition, after all.  She worked as a bar tender in Juarez’ rowdiest dives for more than ten years prior to picking up a badge and gun.  Today she is the sole caretaker of both her mother and her young son, although her 21-year old daughter, a US Marine stationed in El Paso, helps with a check from time to time.

True to form, I ask to see her guns, and so we go home with her to explore the stockpile. While her mother and auntie busy themselves bottling roasted chiles to send to a lone son in Tucson, Marta fetches her pride and joy: a newly issued German Panther short-barrel automatic rifle and a 9 mm Beretta pistol.  Unfortunately, we cannot just go outside and fire off rounds, for such displays of raw hoodlumism are beyond the pail in most places, so we pocket our boyish fantasies, stash the weapons, and head out for less bellicose adventures around town.Juarez Bus Stops-4426

Joshua and I decide to ride the bus, for it is only this that could possibly pretend relevance to a blog called Albuquerque Bus Stops.  Further, as we devise, the bus provides a particularly interesting lens through which to view a city for what it really is.  And what we see is telling, for it quickly becomes evident that despite the dramatic decrease in homicides in Ciudad Juarez and the apparent increase in social activity, perhaps the greater part of the city’s population continues to fear for their safety on a daily basis.  Juarez may have been delivered from the bowels of Hell, but the scars of that violence remain deeply embedded in the hearts of those who survived it.

On the bus people are invariably reticent, with the exception of Carlos, our smiley driver.   Passengers all smile, too, but when I approach them, they turn to ice, their words dash and hide, their shoulders grow.  When I ask why people are back out on the streets, they tell me it is out of necessity, not for lack of fear.  Two 15-year old girls at the back of the bus are staring at us and giggling.  I ask them if they feel safer in the new Juarez.  No.  I ask them if they know anyone who has been killed.  They respond by unfolding t-shirts upon which the face of a teenage boy is imprinted.  They are just now returning from the print shop, and are on their way to a funeral.  The boy on the shirt is one of a the girls’ cousins.  He was bludgeoned to death with stones the day before.Juarez Bus Stops-4264

We stop for a break in Altavista neighborhood, which is the end of the line, and just down the street from the driver Carlos’ house.  His wife and daughter come down to see him, and then ride the bus with him on its last run of the day.  A young boy named Edgar is washing buses for less than three dollars a pop.  A family of drunkards invites us in for some mescal while their dumb-minded matriarch tries to stick her fingers in my pockets.  Across the street the schedule master keeps tabs in a notebook while his young daughters play about on the sidewalk.  A mangy mutt, big-balled and dreaded, lumbers lazily in their midst.  The sun is setting over Ciudad Juarez, and a cool breeze rolls down these desert hills.  Just across the valley America is a glimmering city of gold.

Back downtown the plaza of the cathedral buzzes with activity.  Deportees sit about and wait for eternity to pass, drunks and addicts meander restlessly, and evangelical Christians rant on over loudspeakers about the second coming of Christ.  We meet Johnny, a 45-year old ex-gang banger from Los Angeles.  Having been born in Mexico and raised in the U.S., he was deported five years ago after serving more than a decade in prison for gang-related violence in California.  He removes his shirt to show his tattoos, which indicate that he is/was a member of the 18th Street gang, in association with the “Sureños,” the “Mara Salvatrucha,” and the “Mexican Mafia” prison gang, all of which is still a matter of great pride long after the thrill of teen ganging is gone.  But even if he wanted out, and out for good, his old identity follows intrepidly behind him like a dark shadow.

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Another man of roughly the same age suddenly yells at us from across the street for us to come over.  He is also a deported gangster from California, but he is a “Norteño,” which means enemy to Johnny.  Johnny attempts to calm the man down, swearing no disrespect and looking for any opportunity to show that the two men actually have more in common than not—being that they are both deported homies from California now stuck in Mexico—but the rival will have nothing of it.  He starts to push Johnny and threaten his life:

“Get the fuck outta here, homie, or te desapereces, ¿me explico?  This plaza is Norteño territory, boy! ”

A shoe shiner working nearby recognizes the danger in all this animosity, and goes to Johnny to insist he move on.  I pat Johnny on the back, too, and guide him away.  After all, the playing out of old gang rivalries decades out of adolescence and thousands of miles from homie homeland is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Late in the evening we are back out on the crime beat and twiddling our thumbs because nobody is getting killed.  But it is an unnerving peace, for it is doubtfully the reflection of a healthy society, rather simply a tenuous accord between the forces of darkness lurking just below a veneer of democracy and the rule of law.  The war could start again at any time.  Prior to our arrival, one police officer was assassinated nearly every day for over a week, supposedly a strategy of the city’s new kingpin, Gabino Salas Valenciano, to bully the municipal police into a sort of pact of mutual assistance.   And then, mysteriously, Gabino was killed during a shootout with federal police last Wednesday.  Now everyone is on red alert, uncertain of the scale of retaliation that might ensue.

But tonight is the soft lapping of waves on pebbled beaches, so we decide to investigate other matters.  At the Casa del Pescador, a dingy evangelical mission located near the main border bridge that runs a daily soup kitchen and provides various forms of assistance to broke immigrants, the homeless, and drug addicts, we find Pedro and Luci tearing up under the impassioned prayers of Pastor Jesus.   They hold up a picture of their 5-year old daughter, who recently was taken into the custody of DIF (child protective services) after she swallowed some prescription medicine that was left unguarded while Pedro was in Juarez looking for work. Pedro then went back to get his wife in Mexico City, and they both have now traveled with no money or belongings to retrieve their daughter in Juarez.  But DIF says the investigation of parental neglect could take 6-12 months.  Pedro and Luci have two more children back in Mexico City, and the tragedy begins to unfold.  Poverty destroys families.  Poverty kills.  We agree to drive the couple across town to the Casa del Emigrante, where they will be allowed to sleep, shower, and eat for three days.   After that, they will be on their own again, just another couple of immigrants lost on the road of progress.Juarez Bus Stops-4514

The next day our old jalopy craws slowly over the border bridge under a hot midday sun.  The engine overheats.  We cut it at the bridge’s crest, and roll silent and sweaty into the lanes of the US Customs inspection unit, where we are searched and questioned.  A gaunt man in front of us is hand-cuffed and taken away, his face like an old carpet rotting on a river bank.  After twenty minutes a blue-eyed man flags us on with a smile, wishing us a good day.  We are stateside, and Ciudad Juarez, in war and in peace, is behind us, even if always deep inside.

Miss Duke City

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

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Had I not seen her home, decorated from ceiling to floor with American Flag ornaments, historical quotes of the revolution, and other patriotic regalia, I might have been given to doubt when I learned that Chanel won the 2013 Miss Duke City beauty pageant after reciting the Gettysburg Address before a ballroom full of people.   What, after all, could such an ancient piece of script possibly mean to a modern young woman competing with other modern young women for public recognition of subjectively defined notions of feminine beauty?

Pondering it, my head remains cocked like a pup at a curious sound, for in matters of God and Country, I have long ago lost sight of the forest for the trees.  Disheartened by the gory details of history, the blood of conquest, and the frequent triumph of raw power and greed today as before, the meaning of “America” to me has become far too nuanced to cuddle up to with token claims to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  But Chanel’s sincerity lifts my brow and tickles to life an old feeling in my gut.  It is a sense of pride and belonging.  Patriotism.  A love for one’s country.   Chanel has got it, and she firmly believes in the founding principles expressed in its constitutional documents.  These principles are not always followed—especially that bit about “all men created equal”—but they serve to orient us in that direction, and there is indeed a great value in that.

But beauty pageants? Six months ago the world of beauty pageants was as foreign to Chanel as it is to me.  In January she was searching around for scholarship opportunities to help pay for college, and she stumbled upon an ad about the Miss Duke City contest, the winner of which would be eligible for financial assistance towards higher education.  She called to learn more, and without realizing what she had done, the sweet southern lady on the other end of the line had registered her name.  She had just two months to prepare, which meant hours on Youtube in order to learn all the right moves, and many more in the gym to sculpt a body to look good doing them.  Still she never expected to win.  In the beginning it was just a matter of shits n’ giggles, a flip of a coin for the hell of it, or a little YOLO, as the kids are saying these days.  But it became something more, both for her personal development and for others.  “Stones get polished by tumbling around with other stones,” she says.  In other words, competition drives excellence.  And for others, the mere appearance of a Miss This or a Miss That during any kind of collective emotional craze, be it a football game or a memorial for disaster victims, can inspire a greater hope of salvation, whatever that entails.

In bringing Chanel with me on the bus, I was hoping to loosely test a hypothesis somewhat related to this last point: The Down and Out love the Beautiful, so long as the latter is not overtly afraid of or disgusted by the former.Chanel-3683

Most of the time I am surely incorrect in my suppositions on life and its participants, but this time the experiment lent evidence to my theoretical constructions.  Chanel was at first taken aback when “Dan the Man,” drunk and smelling of street, jumped up to give her a hug, but she quickly relaxed and released her inhibitions.  Several hugs later, she was as comfortable as a rabbit in a hole, listening to story after story of life on the streets, and sharing her own.   In turn, the people of the streets, in all their pain and tragedy, fell in love with her.  And with the classic chivalry of paupers, they kissed her hand and swore they would come after me if I did not take good care of her.

Safety, meanwhile, continues to be a luxury excluded to those who for vice, mental illness, or sheer poverty have come to live on the streets.  At our first encounter we meet Ruthy, Melvin, Key, Abe and “Dan the Man.”  Melvin and Abe both have scars where bullets cut through their flesh: the work of gangs of teenage boys stricken by boredom and drunk on beer and testosterone.   Key’s face has been smashed so many times it looks like a waxed potato.  Ruthy went to jail two weeks ago for swinging a bag of rocks at a man’s head while hanging out in the cemetery where she sleeps.  “That asshole tried to steal me,” she describes the attempted rape, “but I told him, ‘you’re not gettin’ any pussy from me unless I give it to you!’”  Her face still bares the sores and scars from the nasty scrap that ensued.

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After some playfully posed shots, Chanel and I say our goodbyes and get up to move.  Hugs all around the table.  Melvin bows in, holds my hand, and whispers desperation into my ear.  He is crying, “I just want my life back.”  Gone is the hellacious laughter from moments before.

“What do you mean?”  I ask.

“I used to be an officer in the army…I even went to college…”

Suddenly a tall man with a face like a soul broken under the weight of a hundred wars appears from behind me.  He is Melvin’s brother.  Melvin goes to him, hugs him, grabs his hand, and says a prayer for his redemption.

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More prayers are said.  The friends, who have been together on these streets for over a decade, have recently lost a “sister.”  They tell us that her name is Dora Espinosa, 28 years old, and could we please keep her in our thoughts.  Just a week ago she had taken her last swig of cheap vodka before throwing up blood.  That was the end.  She is in coma now, waiting to be taken off life support.

Shortly afterwards Chanel and I are waiting for a bus at Central and Harvard, and we meet Miss Southwest.  Her name is Jewel, and she says that she won the crown more than ten years ago.  The competition was subsequently canceled, and so she is still the reigning queen.  Meanwhile, her 17-year old daughter came in third place in a similar competition among a thousand participants, but had to drop out of the next round for lack of money.

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Having gotten on like two peas in a pod, Chanel and Jewel board the 766 all a smile n’ chatter, and I follow like a third wheel.  But on the bus I meet my world again right away.  A man is celebrating his release from the Metropolitan Detention Center, and everyone around cheers him on.  First things first: he needs to remove his prisoner ID wristband.  No problem.  Knives start swinging out from pockets and purses, and a Cuban man with a USA t-shirt starts cutting through the thick plastic band.Chanel-3761

Now it is picture time.  The party is on and everyone is into it (except for one gruff man who storms angrily away).  Finally, the free man pulls a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label from his pants, courtesy of his girlfriend who went to meet him at the prison gates.  But that’s too much.  The bus screeches to a halt, and the driver rushes back in a rage.  Too much ruckus for one evening.  Fortunately, the knives are again folded and concealed, the bottle is never opened, and nobody goes straight back to jail.  Chanel and I jump off into a cool blue dusk and wave goodbye to the gleeful mayhem as its speeds into night.Chanel-3771

God Bless America!Chanel-3790

Lynette’s Ride

Rain clouds roll in heavy over the mountains, their underbelly skimmed off by the Sandia Crest and curling over its edge like a sliver of cheese.  It is late July in Albuquerque, and the air is strangely as damp and cool as the coastal Northwest.  Pigeons could be sea gulls, and the hiss of wind down Central Avenue could be the melancholy of a fog soaked tide following an invisible moon.  The skylight is fading unnaturally early.  It feels as if a curfew were being imposed out of respect for a recent tragedy, or in preparation for one certain to come.  As it turns out, a man was busy shooting his wife and himself just down the street, but trees and breeze muffle gunfire and screams, here as anywhere else, so Lauren and I giddily hop a bus from Nob Hill to the International District with hearts almost as soft as the ones we were given, none the wiser, but all the better.

Lynette outing-2887 Born and raised in Santa Fe, Lauren moved to Albuquerque for college, where she studied theatre and became a conduit of comedic cultural expression.  Now she is better known as “Lynette” from the Blackout Theatre’s video series, Lynette’s Albuquerque and Shit Burqueños Say, which have reached a million people for whom our city has in some way or another come to mean something more than a dusty expanse of box homes and strip malls.

What more does it mean?  Although there is little of that ostentatious glory that sprouts loudly from the World’s mega-cities and quaint mountain paradises, we have here a sweet humility more endearing than even the dear end of all things, hidden ‘neath this (typically, but not today) boiling hot son, and which touches the heart of one and all who spend a little time here.  That is the essence of Lynette, and the genius of Lauren.  As New Mexican as a tortilla pan-burned in the image of Jesus Christ, Lauren has the wits, talent, pride, and drive to devote herself to the uncovering of, and the reveling of, a culture quirky, confused, and nigh forgotten to the rest of the world.  In doing so she has become an icon of the city, and a hot steamy bowl of laughyoassoff nostalgia for those who have left it.  Plus, she’s like all fun to hang out with on the bus ;).

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We hop aboard the Eastbound 66 at dusk.  The cabin is near full, and we immediately begin talking to people.  Ortencia and Maria are travelling up from a small city in Chihuahua called Buenaventura, which lies just south of Ciudad Juarez and is enmeshed is the same ascending wave of drug violence.  Ortencia’s two children are with her, hunched under bulging backpacks and squeezing Brats dolls and pillows.  They are on vacation, visiting family in El Norte.  I can see in Maria’s face a distrustful reticence before my camera, before my questions, for perhaps a poor Mexican is bound to feel forever scrutinized in a country that scorns the immigrants that make its mills run.  Ortencia is younger and more susceptible to a geek’s flattery, but only her children really open up with the bright smile of those too innocent to fear betrayal.

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Others are too far gone to fear it.  Three street drunks board the bus at Central and San Mateo, and sit down across from us.  Marta and “Squibals” came in from the Res for a cyclical binge.  “Cornbread” came from New York thirty years ago to escape the nuisance of parole, and found a year-round party on the streets of Albuquerque.  These are the occasional homeless.  They generally have a place to go sleep somewhere if they wish, but during binges feel far more comfortable and free amidst the grit and chaos of the streets.  Despite the rough n’ tumble of it all, Marta still keeps her hair trimmed and shining, and her smiley face enshrined in elegant turquoise jewelry.  “Squibals” had her nickname tattooed on her forearm.  It is a souvenir from Kansas, where she attended school as a child and where no one could pronounce her last name, Esquivel.  “Cornbread” is just “Cornbread,” perhaps because he likes cornbread…which means we might all be “Cornbread.”

Lynette outing-2913 Lauren and I get off the bus at Central and Wyoming.  A gaunt 37-year old man with short-cropped hair and dirty baggy clothes approaches us in front of Griff’s Burgers to very gently explain the dire straits that have compelled him to waver wistfully and forlorn outside a burger joint peddling for change.   He says his name is Chris, and his wife left him to move to Colorado after a fight they had three days ago.  They did not “break up” per se, but since he was laid off recently and the couple were subsequently evicted from their apartment, she fled north for shelter with family, and he stayed on the streets of Albuquerque to try to recoup.  “I just want some food,” he says.  Lauren and I are also starving pretty much to death, so we invite him into Griff’s with us, where I order three number sixes with unsweetened iced tea, courtesy of the tail end of my line of credit loan. And so we sit down inside, and Chris, tender and calm, tells his story.

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The son of a Mexican and a white American, Chris moved within and between two racially separate worlds with ease since childhood, slightly bending his identity from one end of the spectrum to the other according to the exigencies of each social context.  But growing up poor in the household of an extremely abusive father, he found a more welcoming outlet for his destitution and rage in the street-based families of Los Angeles’ Hispanic gangs.  He became a Sureño at thirteen, and spent the next ten years in and out of L.A. County corrections facilities, doing and selling drugs, and participating in acts of violence against rival gang members.  After seeing so many of his childhood friends killed or locked up for life, he opted out of the gang by moving with his mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  For years he kept his gang obligation to stay in touch, for to be a thug is to be a thug for life.  But age has a peculiar effect on youth gangs: It removes the youth, and eventually the gang no longer has its adolescent psychological foundations to stand on.  So today what is left of the old guard leaves Chris alone.  He has covered up most of his old gang tattoos with nondescript splotches of dark blue ink and wanders the streets of Albuquerque relatively free from menace, except for that provoked by hunger and cold hard ground.

Chris chews and swallows his food in giant gulps pushed down his sinewy throat like a turkey egg through a snake.  He speaks of his 3-year old son, Xavier, who for practical reasons is currently living with the child’s mother.  In fact, he says, the child is not even his, for he met his girlfriend when she was already six months pregnant.  But his was the first man’s face the child awoke from its uterine slumber to see, and he was the only man who took it in, who cared for it as if it were his own blood son, and that is the very nature of his love for it.  “Children are so innocent and pure,” he says, “I don’t get how so many men out there can just abandon their own kids, or worse, abuse them.”  His primary goal now is to find a new job, an apartment, and bring his girl and his kid back to Albuquerque.  The world is a lonely, hostile, and meaningless quagmire of suffering without family, without love. Lynette outing-2950Lauren listens attentively to Chris’ story, and is drawn completely in.  There is little doubt that he is speaking with the utmost sincerity, albeit little bits and pieces of any narrative are bound to suffer exaggerations or omissions of a perfect truth, for such is the nature of the mind’s interpretation of reality.  And Lauren is touched.  She has been hard up before, too.  She asks politely, almost timidly, if he wouldn’t mind a small cash donation from her pocket to his, if for nothing else to warm up a long cold night with a little goodwill.  Chris replies politely, almost timidly, that he would not reject such a gesture, and Lauren slips him a 20-dollar bill folded to the size of a paperclip.  Our departure is hugs and twilight.  “I’ll never forget you guys,” Chris says.

Night has fallen.  There is another overdose at the Westbound bus stop at Central and Wyoming.  Alcohol.  A middle-aged woman is being lifted into an ambulance with a drunk smile wide across her grease-shiny face.   Nearby a prostitute steps out of a client’s car and huffs in indignation as I stare curiously at her.  Two fat young toothless men ask to borrow a pen to exchange phone numbers.  Drunk cowboys laugh over silly nothings, and stumble over one another and onto the bus stop bench.  Lauren and I are speaking miles per minute, trying to digest too many thoughts in too little time, and perhaps making as little sense as the cowboys bumbling around behind us.  Then the bus comes, and we board for a fast cruise back to Nob Hill.  It is the Rapid Ride, and it speeds through the dark night like a ghost.

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Just Being Together

Big Black Beautiful Bee lied about the color of her eyes, but told truth of the coming rain, for who better a meteorologist than the homeless?  When it trickled and then dumped (momentary as it tends to be in these hell-baked plains), I ducked quickly into a Whataburger, for a “bigger better burger” and some smiles a bit too pure to be simply those proscribed by the directive of franchise.   Meanwhile, unsmiling teens with gang tats crawling up through awkward polo neck holes interviewed for jobs they secretly hoped not to get, and I flipped through the evening’s photos, confounded by the soft ethereal beauty that at dusk seems always to prevail over the insidious tragedies of our human existence.  And since beauty is the point, or at least part of it, there is no better place to begin or end, is there not?

Lisa and Juan-1121Lisa and Juan met five years ago at the old Bandidos on 12th and Candelaria, a dive bar with just the right dim and grime for the marriage of poetry and beer.  The blue-haired girl read alone, but dropped her books one day for the charming young Mexican who came in, timid and unassuming.  Love happened.  Two years later they were married, but there was a problem.  Juan had come to the United States illegally, and so did not qualify for a marriage visa.  He would either have to stay illegally and hope to eternally avoid a run-in with la Migra—a preoccupation that would put a stain on any family vacation—or go back to Mexico indefinitely, file for a “hardship” waiver with USCIS, and hope with no certainty at all that it would not be rejected.  The lovers chose to risk the latter, believing that anything was better than living an entire life in the shadows.   It worked out.  After nine months of separation, Juan came back to Albuquerque, a Green Card-totin’ member of our great nation on his way to full citizenship.

Juan first crossed the border with three childhood friends in 2006 through Columbus, New Mexico, the small American border town that was razed by Pancho Villa and his ruffians nearly a century ago.   Hidden in Westbound boxcars, the young men intended to stop in Phoenix, Arizona.  But when they awoke after a long nap and opened the freight doors, the train was squealing to a halt just outside Los Angeles.  Undaunted, they jumped ship, hopped a new train heading Eastbound, and made it safely to Phoenix the next day.  Fifteen days later they were formally greeted by one of Arizona’s Welcome to America committees: A group of young white men jumped from a car, screaming things unintelligible but for the brandishing of pistols.  Money and cell phones were all taken without further ado.  Not long afterwards, Juan moved to Albuquerque, where it is decidedly less terrifying to be a stranger in a strange land.

Lisa, meanwhile, has yet to visit Juan’s hometown of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua.  The Gringa plans to finally meet the parents in December.  I imagine they will all love her, her smile like a fairy tale, her hair the cool end of a rainbow, the Spanish words dancing gingerly from her tongue.  Trying to get a feel for something I do not know, I ask what is the best thing about being married?  “Just being together,” Lisa says, grabbing Juan’s hand tightly.  Yes, I think the families will get along just fine.  And if they don’t, there is always tequila.

But the future is the future, and now is now, so let’s ride the bus!

Lisa and Juan-1101The three of us meet at the bus stop on North 4th Street and Headingly to catch the No. 10 downtown.   The driver, Chris Davis, calls all aboard with a tenderness like your grandma’s tortillas.   Having never taken the bus in Albuquerque, Lisa and Juan fumbled around with the pay box before figuring out that $2.00 gets you an all day pass, and if you don’t have change, there is always a friendly rider willing to m’elp you out.  We then sit down for the ride, and it is an amicable affair, from the cursory glare of reformist thugs to middle class middle-aged men no longer angry about the big mistakes they made out of the frustration of anomie.  A 20-year old girl named Sarah is returning from visiting her boyfriend.  She lives in Belen with her mother, tends to bees, and once drove a old Dodge Ram 50 she called “Rambo.”  A woman named Frances, who graduated from Albuquerque High School “¡hace muchisisísmo!” just ended a shift at Denny’s and is headed home.  Others on the bus smile and nod, signaling sentiments quite sweeter than the worst of my fears.

Lisa and Juan-1113 Downtown at the Alvarado Center we get off, and Chris the driver implores us to walk around and enjoy ourselves.  “I promise, I won’t leave without you,” he says, and then takes a chomp out of Lisa’s cupcake hair as I move everyone to pose for a photograph.  We have about forty minutes to mill about, mosey, and mingle.  With the rain clouds above a cool front settles in, and all the madness of the world slumps into relaxation.   So we look for the mad of heart and mind, but everyone is almost indistinguishable beneath the blessed threat of water from the sky.

Bronco MattOut on 1st Street, Big Black Beautiful Bee asks for a hotdog and a soda, and so I go to Matt, the Broncos fan, to get one.  BBBB offers me the first bite, and then chastises me for taking such a big one.  Then I pull my camera out, and she says, “Boy, the only reason I’m lettin’ you take my picture is cuz you cute!”  And I reply, “Girl, the only reason I’m talking to you in the first place is cuz you cute!”  The ice is cracked, but not broken.  Thirty years on the streets can build a callous as big as those on the soles of her feet.  She refuses to remove her sunglasses, but I catch a glimpse of her right eye, and though I cannot read the odyssey inside it, its depth haunts and enlightens me.  It is not hazel like she says, but dark brown and scarred like a jelly fish.

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“Where are you from?” I ask.

“My mama,” she replies, “and a little bit from my dad, too, I suppose.”

BBBB says she came here from Germany thirty years ago.  I guess correctly that she was born in New York, the daughter of a Jamaican man and a Puerto Rican woman.  She married into the military, moved to a base in Germany, something happened, a fight, a torment, a divorce, and then she ended up in the land of enchantment.  She says she won a beauty pageant fifteen years ago, and if she looks familiar, it is probably because of that.  In recent years, however, her fame resides in a modified shopping cart, which is packed to the brim with colorful blankets and nicknacks.  “It’s worth $500, it’s all mine, and I could sue anybody try to take it from me.”   A bandage on her wrist betrays a deep pain.  She has just been released from suicide watch.

Lisa and Juan-1147

Rushing back to meet Chris for a ride home, we briefly chat with a Vietnam veteran passing out leaflets concerning something entirely confusing.  Printed on them are copies of reply letters sent to him years ago by different state agencies charged with regulating importation laws and American Indian commercial transactions.  Everything about the man speaks of moral integrity and passion.  He is on a mission.  It is just not clear what that mission is.

Lisa and Juan-1159

Back on the Bus we lumber bumpily northward on 4th Street.  A drunk man steps aboard near I-40, stalls at the entrance and says to Chris the Driver, “Uhhhh…wait, let me call my girlfriend.”  His indecision is eternal, so Chris gently coaxes him back onto the streets and promises that he will return in 24 minutes, when he has made up his mind.

In the four years that Chris has been an Albuquerque bus driver, he has seen many things, some tragic and some beautiful.  Once an old man stabbed a young man in the neck with a shank hidden in his coat sleeve, killing him instantly.  The old man then called the police himself.  Two years ago a drug addict left her newborn baby on the bus, having simply forgotten about the child while on her way to greater imperatives.  Sober passengers took the helpless creature into their arms.  On another occasion—and this hooks into my own heart like a crows claw—a 20-year old girl overdosed on heroin and died at the rear-end of the bus.  Just a few minutes earlier Chris had stopped for a 15 minute break at the Alvarado Center.

“She was nice girl, real pretty thing, and real sweet,” Chris said. “I went to the bathroom, and she did, too.  I guess she went in to shoot up.  She made it back to the bus, but didn’t last long after that.  And the crazy thing is that as soon as she died, these two men on the bus were already on top of her, groping her, you know, touching her breasts and thighs n’ stuff.  They were like children.  I kicked them off right away, and called the 911.”

But tonight is calm and beautiful, and Chris continues smiling along from north to south and south to north, hour after hour, day after day, joking and laughing with the regulars for whom he has become a sort of psychologist-chauffeur, or I’ll just say it, a friend.   “For twenty years I worked inside,” he shakes his head, recalling his old career as a X-ray technician. “Now I get to drive around watching a beautiful sunset every single day.”

Lisa and Juan-1178

There are millions more stories to tell, but it is getting dark, and Big Black Beautiful Bee’s prophecy of rain has begun to unzip the sky.  We get off across the street from where we got on, and it is a warm goodbye to another day on the Bus.  Hand in hand, Lisa and Juan walk home, fading into the dreamy blue-emerald curtain of late dusk.  I drive off on my motorbike, and the dark clouds tear open.  It is time for a burger, some fries, and a happy little stomach ache.  For the time being, the soft light of beauty and goodness still shines in the cold dark night.

The Inhabitant of Burque

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I had never seen what lay hidden behind his dark sunglasses, and I cannot show it to you now, for shutters and zoom, like the mind, clunk and err from time to time, and rare opportunities are easy to miss.  But I assure you that the warmth in his eyes, alit in brief and random interludes, lends sincerity to all those words ever effervescing from his throne in bloom.  And those words, those images, they tickle and poke, caress and kindle so many latent emotions embedded in a strange city waking up to itself a little more each day.  He unto himself is no controversy, but the modern world he exposes is very much so, and I cannot help but to stare in awe as this same world—so thirsty for a chance to connect with its own self—gravitates more and more around the digital commons he un-ribboned only ten months ago.  Lion York, founder of the now famous Inhabitants of Burque facebook page, has been a mystery to me, and just as I do with most mysteries these days, I invited him to accompany me on a bus ride.  Lion accepted, save for the bus ride, and we set off together to explore Albuquerque.

Inhabitants of Burque, now nearing 16,000 followers, has been growing a solid steady month after month since its inception last August.  Like a snowball that grows exponentially as its circumference expands, the site seems to multiply its reach each day, attracting a broader field of people and interests the larger it gets.  My eyes are always squinting when I read it, my brow furrowed by muse, and although it is true that in a cave I have lived during most of this last decade of technological revolution, I need not be a prophet to see that Lion’s project is something far more than just another Facebook page.  It is—and please forgive my tendency for aggrandizement—the epicenter of a cultural shift in the City of Albuquerque.  This is not to say that the project is causing any such cultural shift or that the shift would not happen without it, but rather it is, by default or by genius, the vehicle through which Albuquerque is beginning to seriously redefine itself.

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Lion had not foreseen such rapid success.  One year ago he was, like many among us are or were at one time, a young man struggling to choose between job security and following his dreams.  Stability vs. Passion.  He bet on the latter, invested what money he had saved in camera equipment, a website, and related such overheads, and then jumped straight in.  There were obstacles, conflicts, controversy, and a great deal of uncertainty.   But something was happening in the city—and perhaps in society at large—that seemed to provoke an impassioned thirst for exactly that which Lion was the first and most consistent to offer:  a regular, interactive, and entertaining digital commons through which people of all stripes could explore the grit and glee of their own city, and share their own experiences, thus validating all the beauty and insanity one absorbs but rarely releases on a day to day basis.  Further, Inhabitants of Albuquerque puts to seed a long-begotten philosophical dream: Our city can be a real and unique community, one to be proud of.

Of course, if a sense of pride and commonality is the general direction in which we are moving, we most certainly still have a long way to go.  Just beneath the surface of this apparent social integration lies a vast and deep history of conflict entrenched on the lines of class, race, gender, nationality, ideology, and myriad other forms of human social identity.  It pops up from time to time in comments and counter-comments on the Inhabitants of Burque’s Facebook page, sometimes with utter vehemence and distaste.  In Lion’s own words, “computers give people tons of courage that wouldn’t be otherwise present in person.”  He implores them not to hate, but hate is out there, and it is a pressure cooker, is it not?  Time will tell, but as I am ingloriously ambivalent in my opinions on the matter, let us move on now to the adventure!

malibue and royalty2Our first encounter beckoned from the roadside, on Central Avenue near Wyoming.  Preface: Transexuality is the Western world’s greatest mindfuck, as it poses a direct challenge to age-old conceptions of man and woman that are at the base of our belief in a higher power.  Prostitution, too, is a thorn in the side of a society pretending in vain to adhere to firm moral structures sanctioned by God.  Combine the two, and the powers that be are left jaw-dropped and bumbling.  Society has a hard time adjusting to anything different than the way it has perceived things to always have been, even if things were never always any one way or the other in reality.  In the meantime, the appearance of transexual prostitutes on a hot summer afternoon is, as far as I am concerned here, only an appearance, for the truth of that matter remains undiscovered and unimportant.  All that mattered to Lion and I, to speak only for ourselves, is that two beautiful people with a million stories to tell were there for the telling.

Malibu and Royalty met just three months ago, but have since become best friends, going everywhere and doing everything together.  Malibu is from New York, but came here as a teenager.  Royalty grew up in Albuquerque.  She was a troubled teen, afflicted with an insidious anger that burned bridges and oriented her life away from school and towards the streets.  Although she is not in school now, she plans on going back sometime and becoming a social worker so that she can help troubled children and teens before they make the same mistakes she made.

Lion outing-0922With sweet giggle and smile, our impromptu photo shoot began.  Malibu and Royalty prepped their make-up in the reflective glass of a storefront door, puckering their lips with the naturalness of those who know their own beauty.  Lion and I snapped photographs, and the girls set to pose.  I thought to myself, the world is what it is, but… anyone who fails to see sexy in these girls, however they define themselves, must surely have a veil of confused morality draped over their eyes.  But, of course, that is nothing out of the ordinary, so let’s continue.

Up the road, off Tramway and Central, Lion and I ventured into the old Plaza Dorado housing complex, most of which is leased for Section 8 housing.  We immediately ran into two men, “Shy” (nicknamed so because he is, well, shy) and “Spaceship,” a 20-year old rapper from Little Rock, Arkansas.  Shy came out from Chicago three years ago to escape the unsettling alternatives to a high cost of living in his old city, but he misses the green.  Spaceship dropped out of high school at sixteen, and is now trying to make it in the music industry.  But despite his talent and his self-proclaimed resemblance to Lil’ Wayne (much appreciated by the local girls), the cards sometimes seem stacked against him.  “It’s like the police out here just want you to go to jail,” he says, complaining of constant harassment by the APD Gang Unit.  He also has to navigate the state bureaucracies to get everything from a birth certificate to a driver’s license because all of his identifying documents were lost when he was still a child.  He says his dream is to make whole lot of money and move to another country to live on the cheap, far far away from these games of cop-nab-the-gangster and other institutional restraints on living free as a poor young black man in America.

Plaza DoradoAt the end of the day, Lion has his dark sunglasses back on, and we stroll off into the impossibly sweet air of New Mexico dusk.  His eyes were only in brief moments exposed, but in them I saw clearly the windows to a tender and caring soul, one full of nuance and hope, and driven to help drive a city once forlorn to a place of greater harmony and common understanding.  I am still a cynical old bastard myself, but consider this my endorsement of those who promote community over disunity, hope over fatalism, and love over hate.

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Bella Banana

bella compYears ago I knew her only as Ann, the dolled-up secretary at a South Valley elementary school where I used to translate some language into another.  Just last month, egged on by two pooch-faced drug addicts begging for a hamburger and twenty-five dollars, I met “Bella Banana” smiling and smelling of Jimmy Choo over an Arby’s cashier counter.  We promised to meet for coffee sometime, and never did.  We opted for some boba tea and a bus ride, all around a sweeter deal.

bella banana-0872Bella grew up the last of eleven children in the little projects and trailer parks of Las Vegas, New Mexico.  The product of an “indiscretion,” she became a veritable Cinderella, derided and ostracized by her resentful siblings and cousins, and put to work in a seedy hotel at the age of twelve.  At fifteen, she was no longer the “little fat girl” to be made fun of, but when the Princes of Vegas began to swoon, her siblings decried her a “whore.” Instead of waiting for her little glass slipper, she slipped out at seventeen, left high school, and ran for Albuquerque.

Her heroes were all fabulous: Veronica Castro, Thalia, Susan Lucci, Lucy Lawless (the most bella of the bellas).  She tried to follow in their footsteps, modeling and schmoozing in the world of entertainment.  But it was a truncated emergence, both for her and for Albuquerque, and before long the window to stardom had shut. “Beautiful sixteen year-olds are born everyday, and how do you compete with that?” she says, at peace now with her resignation to less fab fates.

Bella had enjoyed working at the South Valley school where I first met her, but she felt she did not fit in.  She and the other office staff used to sit together at lunch and chew the fat over low-grade public school pizza and something like lettuce salad, but one day, a discussion of real and dream weddings drove a wedge between them.  Irene had gotten married in a Best Western hotel room.  Janette’s parents forced her to marry her Juanito after she got pregnant at sixteen.  Erica was at New Futures at thirteen, and being far too young to marry, simply never got around to it.  Bella, on the other hand, had bigger plans:

“When I get married,” she told the girls, “I want a 64-carat Chanel diamond ring, a Vera Wang vintage wedding dress, and oh my God, the wedding has to be somewhere just perfect, like the Sistine Chapel!”

“Tu te crees mucho, eh?” (“you think you’re all that, eh?”), the humble-dream girls chided.  A nasty sort of ideological abyss soon left Bella sitting alone at lunch.  It pervaded more than just the feelings of the girls, for its implications weighed on the futures of the children they were there to serve.

“It’s okay if you don’t want anything special for yourself,” Bella told me. “But it’s not right to teach the kids that they shouldn’t dream big.”

bela and gabi

And speaking of “not big,” Bella’s $11,500 per year salary at Albuquerque Public Schools was simply not compelling enough to stick around.  Eventually she decided to leave the schools for the private sector, and was hired to manage an Arby’s fast-food restaurant for three times her previous salary.  There are drawbacks, however.  Today she puts in seventy-five hour workweeks at the burger joint, managing a fluid and constantly changing stock of some eleven employees who might be more invested in their job were it not for the policy of the franchise to limit their own hours to twenty-seven per week.  Apparently, Arby’s found a loophole out of paying Obama Care through that age old trick of screwing over one’s destitute labor force.

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All of Bella’s employees, incidentally, regularly use the bus, which today is bustling, indeed.  At the corner of Harvard and Central we meet 17-year old Gabi, a CNM freshmen on her way home from a Summer session class on criminology.  Unlike her two brothers, both of whom “do nothing at all,” she wants to be a probation officer when she finishes school.  As Bella digs into the details of the more juicy aspects of life, we are all nearly trampled by a one-legged man in a wheel chair bellowing claim to being the second cousin of the one and only Elvis Presley, whose name is tattooed on his forearm.  “I’ll do anything to get my picture taken!” he says.  With no where to go and nothing to do, he decides to ride along with us, subtly suggesting we might all wind up at a cheap hotel somewhere with a bottle of party-all-night. It doesn’t happen.  We part with a sweet and anti-climatic handshake at Louisiana and Central, and Elvis rides into the sun setting over the flea market.

adolfo and ben

On the way back, we meet Ben, who makes all of his own fetish leather gear, and Adolfo, who is the brother of Alfonso and the son of Alonso.  Ben is heading downtown to see a show.  Adolfo just lost all his money at the Casino, save for some change for bus fare.  Bella and I get off at Yale and Central.  After a golden hug goodbye, I thank her for the lovely company, and for introducing me to the bubbly world of Boba tea.  Another day slides off the horizon, and the coolness of the desert night saves our baked souls once again.

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Rolling with the Presidents

It was one of those evenings too beautiful for crazy.  The sun sank golden in cloudless skies west, blasting a silver-blue embankment of rainclouds high-cruising the Sandias.   Mara, a single mother of 4-year old twins, agreed to ride the 198 with me up Central Ave to the end of the line.  “Be aware, I attract crazy.”  Confirmed, but not today.  On this eve peace reigned in the southwest stretches of Albuquerque. bus stops-0631

We waited some ten minutes at the bus stop in front of the Downtown Inn.  Gilbert, the transit officer, decompressed the air pump as he slowed to a halt, dropping the door step down to the curb for our boarding convenience, and then greeted us with a smile as big as Bernalillo.  Few people were on the bus, for we missed the evening rush for a late-arriving babysitter.  But there is rarely no one to meet on the land barge. Mara and I got to talking right away.

Ron was coming home from his state job in Santa Fe.  Every day he busses it downtown, grabs the Rail Runner, and relaxes as the world glides by before laboring away at administrative duties in the Capital.  He owns a car, but why drive a personal land ship 120 miles each day when for less money you can rest your eyes from the road and read a book? bus stops-0640

Andrew agrees in his humdrum way.  He also has a personal vehicle, a small white Chevy pick-up truck, which he proudly showed pictures of from this cell phone.  But his truck is in the shop (way too far from his home on the West Side to make sense), and he was now riding home from visiting the pretty little wreck.  He carries an “honored citizen” card around his neck, which the Albuquerque Transit Department offers to senior citizens and disabled persons, discounting their fares to 35 cents per ride.  At 98th Street he pains to straighten his cramping back and lift his twisted leg. He limps out of the bus, his tender soul straining to survive amidst those bones in agony. bus stops-0666

Remembering his smile, I was a unafraid to meet Gilbert the driver, and as things went, fear had no place anyway.  43 years on the planet, 13 years taking people where they need to go, five years to retire, maybe ten, a wife, but no children, a possibility, a minister at the New Beginnings Church, someday a pastor, a smile for any and all, a judgment on no one, an intervention from time to time, because the bus can be a gnarly entanglement of drunken egos at times, but mostly peace, mostly just good folks moving bumpity-bump across an ever-expanding mass of concrete, work, home, driving a human family, living a human life, Gilbert. He won my heart when, upon seeing a friend driving a Rapid Ride in the opposite direction, both drivers ran out to greet one another with a massive bear hug.  bus stops-0661

The plight of transit officers is more complicated.  The city wants to reduce the pay cap for drivers from $17.00/hour to $12.50, and the starting pay from $11.00/hour to just $8.50.   The drivers also complain of security.  It can be an outright dangerous job to cart around Burque’s bus riders, some of them none too friendly, others none too stable.  Meanwhile, the bus routes are expanding.  Each new bus stop bench costs $5,000.  Each new bus, about $800,000.  “You’re riding in a million dollar vehicle!” Gilbert laughs, sighing down at an odometer approaching a million miles.  Eleven million rides are registered each year.  The Albuquerque Transit Department almost breaks even, sometimes.  More people need to ride the bus, clearly, but the stigma of crazy and the lack of routes deters most people who can afford a car.  Lacking clientele, the City drops the ball, investment drops, Americans cling to their funny dream, and the world keeps hurdling towards a most uncertain future. bus stops-0686

The sun was kissing the horizon when we picked up Donald, a sophomore at Atrisco Heritage High School.  He says he likes the bus.  His whole family uses the bus regularly.  Perhaps his shirt betrays his innocence, but where else should one sport a cotton-t raving bling but on a city bus in Albuquerque?  We dropped him off at Walmart on Coors and Rio Bravo before making the full loop back to Central.  Night was falling.bus stops-0680

On the way home, a smelly tattooed man and a pretty young girl giggled their way to the back of the bus and discretely injected heroin into their veins, which we never would have noticed were it not for the sudden and somnambulant euphoria that dropped over the girl’s eyes.   But Mara was lost in conversation with a cheery 18-year old just graduated from high school, and I was chewing the fat with Terrance, who was riding across town to his girlfriend’s place.  Instead of wasting $150 a week filling up his F-250, he opts for “by far the cheapest and easiest way to move around this town.” bus stops-0705

We stepped off the bus at 14th Street and Central into the bizarrely cold May night.  No crazy.  The world must be ending, I thought.  Or maybe it is just beginning.

Endnote: Mara Bailar is also a blogger.  Check out her intrepid exploration of sex and sexuality at:  http://pleasurepath.wordpress.com/

The Life and Times of “Change Bro”

johnny thanks givingA paragraph is sometimes insufficient to honor a man, so herego.

Fourteen years ago, just having spent my last dollars on a Limousine Express from Juarez to Albuquerque, I sat down on a bus stop bench at sundown on Central and 12th Street, aimed uptown towards the university.  A creepy pimp with the countenance and charm of Eazy-E sat beside me and said, “boy, you look like you could do to make some money tonight.”

Boy, he was right.  I had not eaten a meal in two and half days. I was completely broke, but for a few small coins—some pesos, some dimes—in my back pocket.   But this homage is not for the pimp who kindly paid my first bus fare and offered me a job “partying with hot older women” (save this for another time).  It is, rather, a continuation of the last post, an ode to the straggly-haired, mouse-faced, and tenderest of hearts who was waiting for me just a few minutes later in front of the Frontier Restaurant at Central and Cornell: “Hey, you got any change, bro?”  I did, and since its pithy jingle only made me feel worse about my woeful pauperism, I gave it to him.

In those days, Johnny Romero slept and roamed in and around the campus of UNM.  He was among the group of squatters residing in the rafters at the Student Union Building, who were later expelled when the scandal blew up.  Then he was kicked off the university campus altogether—perhaps a dozen times, before the campus police realized they would have to monitor him constantly, lest he sneak back in to charm young change-toting students.

In the end, he surrendered campus, retreating strategically to the surrounding “student ghetto” south thereof.  The college students and other penniless ragtags typical of the area tended to love and care for the meek and mild homeless man.  He always asked for change, but never demanded or acted aggressively.  And it was never a problem if you had none to offer.  He would simply thank you and move on, or stand and chat for awhile, inquiring politely as to the welfare of your best friends or your far-off family.

He could be quite chivalrous, too.  A dear friend of mine, a Spanish woman named Alicia, was getting her master’s degree and lived in the student ghetto.  Her classes often got out late, and she would have to walk home alone through the dark streets south of campus.  Those were the days of the notorious “Ether Man” and the “Southside Rapist,” both of whom were active in the area.  Johnny, the unassuming peddler, walked her home from class nearly every night to make sure she was safe.  Not for change, but for simple, perhaps even thoughtless, consideration.

But if students and ragtags liked the hapless Johnny, a number of local business owners felt strongly otherwise, and they called on the institutions of the state to guarantee the constitutional protections of private property.  Within a few years, and after so many beatings and brief stints in jail for trespassing, Johnny abandoned the neighborhood.  Believing that an official court order made it illegal for him to set foot in 87106, he marched on, from zip code to zip code, knowing no other life than that of an endlessly wandering pan handler.  He moved to Nob Hill, and another “court order” banned him from those public spaces.  He moved on, then, to an alleyway near the corner of Girard and Indian School, and there lasted a few years.  But when a sympathetic businessman passed away, and his daughter inherited his failing enterprise, the state was called upon again to remove the stinky man and his wad of sleeping gear, to be ushered off somewhere new.

It was around that time, in 2010, that I decided to interview him in depth for the first time.  I had just gotten back from a good long trip to Brazil, and felt stunned by his appearance.  Johnny was getting old, physically speaking.  He is only 46 years old today, but a life on the streets has aged him twenty years beyond.  His youthfulness seemed to have disappeared, his wrinkles deeper and dirtier, his gate more bent and drawn, a sadness in his stare I had not seen before.  It was common for me not to see him for months at a time, and at once I realized that if he were to at some point die and pass on to other worlds, I might never know.  And please understand that in 2010, noticing his physical decrepitude for the first time, I feared he might actually be dying.  And so I found him, spent a few days with him, talking of his life, his whereabouts, and his goals.

It was noon on Thanks Giving day, and the year’s first snowfall lay in a fluffy thin layer over a blue tarp in a narrow alley.  Snores and grumpy moans rumbled underneath.   Johnny wanted to stay in bed, but I said no.  We had a free holiday feast on which to stuff ourselves at the nearby Mennonite Church, and with my own family being so far away, I was not going to miss it.  Begrudgingly, he sat up, brushed the snow out of his hair, and prepared himself to face a brand new day.  And alongside the kind Mennonites of Albuquerque, we filled ourselves with innumerous courses of hot steamy soul food.  It turned out to be a delightful day of grace.

Between chomps and chews, Johnny spoke of his life.  He had grown up in the East San Jose neighborhood, just south of what the hip now call “EDO.”  In the 1970s and 1980s it was a bloody battleground of gang rivalry and small time drug dealing.  Heroin had wiped out the remnants of the Chicano movement, as Hispanic youth fell to addiction and the extreme violence of an unregulated market.  Gangs fought for turf.  The San Jose gang split into various clicks and factions as its old-tier leadership crumbled under overdoses, eternal prison sentences, and combat with the also deteriorating gangs from Barelas, Martinez Town, Washington Heights, and Wells Park.  In the middle of all this, Johnny and his brother were high school drop-outs living at home with their mother.  She died when he was 24-years old, and the duo began selling marijuana out the back window in order to make the mortgage payments (Johnny never landed a legitimate job).

The brothers did not belong to the local gang, however, and they had not gotten “permission” to sell drugs in the neighborhood.  One day a gangbanger approached the back window pretending to be a customer, and then pulled out a gun.  It was a .22 Caliber pistol, and one of its little lead bullets remains lodged in Johnny’s left calf to this day.  He barely remembers the moment for the adrenalin that catapulted him across the yard and over the fence.  Horrified, he never went back to selling drugs.  He and his brother failed to make the mortgage payments, and the house went into foreclosure.  While his brother left and is now somewhere in Texas, presumably married and raising a family, Johnny has been living on the streets of Albuquerque ever since.

Each time I see him, I sigh something like relief.  He is still alive.  His frail ratty body hunches more each year, his face evermore deeply sunken, his aging skin draped over the contours of his skull and bones.  His nose is broken like a boxer’s.  His left pupil torn from its center by a shard of glass in a fight long ago. His hands black with smut, his hair an eternal catastrophe.  But he is alive.  He was built street tough.  “I haven’t gotten sick in twenty years,” he says.  I can hardly believe it.  I get sick all the time.

“Change Bro” and Morris

Johnny and MorrisJohnny “Change Bro” Romero and his trusty sidekick Morris are Albuquerque’s most loved and possibly most abused homeless people.  They both belong to the mushy half-rotten, half-flowering core of the city’s morbid and mysterious charm, its true essence. So many generations of young people around the University and surrounding neighborhoods have loved and cared for these two, while many others have assaulted them.  Local business owners have also loved and hated them, as they tend to attract the penniless bleeding hearts and scare away the monied middle classes unaccustomed to the smell of sweat and rot on a man.  The police have arrested them countless times, always for trespassing—that is, wherever they find a nook or cranny in which to sleep—and have on many occasions beaten them.  Other homeless people, particularly those with drug and alcohol addictions or more aggressive manifestations of mental illness, have beaten them and stolen their coins, clothes, and sleeping bags numerous times.  Johnny once had a stack of hand-written journals stolen and trashed while in jail.  He has not written since.  Just recently he qualified to receive $700.00 per month for disability.  ”They say I’m mentally ill,” he smirks somewhat angrily.  ”It’s not true, though.  I’m not mentally ill.”

Unlike Johnny, Morris clearly suffers from mental illness, but it is of the most docile and friendly kind.  Morris is a glowing orbit of love, tormented deeply though he may very well be.