Years 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 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.”
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.
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.
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.