Jerobio has not been home to see his children in two days, but he thinks he will probably make it tonight. In the meantime, the sun is setting over a city gilded by its light, and the liquor store is calling. We meet at the bus stop downtown just across from the train station, and we ride all the way to Coors Blvd for the store with the best deal on cheap beer. His friend, Gregory, with a smile like a Kuala bear, departs at 8th and Marquette to see a bail bondsman.
Today I’m traveling with my girlfriend Paula (at back with Jerobio), who happened to be born and raised in a Brazilian city near where I did much of my graduate research. Today she is a nurse in the emergency room, and perhaps from that experience has become so comfortable around—and comforting to—those who have long abandoned their dreams to depravity and vice. In any case, it is easy for me to move around to take pictures because Jerobio immediately falls into playful conversation with her, intermittently advising her, of course, on matters of life, love, and the complementary essence of man and woman.
Jerobio had been married to a Navajo woman named “Chuki” who he met near his hometown in Utah. He had just come back from a tour in Afghanistan in 2006 when Chuki died in a drunk driving accident, and he says that at that point he began his total devotion to alcohol. “Take care of your woman!” he implores with all seriousness, and then slips into toothless laughter over unrelated matters.
I ask about his experience in the military. “I was a sniper, but I never killed no one, man…just picked at ‘em [pokes at his “non-vitals”]. I’m a Christian, man!”
I ask about his children. He says they stay with their grandma, and that he makes sure that he never drinks in front of them. That’s why he hangs downtown with the hobos. Because of the nature of the binge, he often will not go home for days, sometimes a week, while he accumulates grime and stink in the scratches and wrinkles of his skin. He especially loves his 13-year daughter: “She is like Pocahontas, man, a real princess!” What does she think about her father not coming home for days? “I think deep in heart she understands.”
Paula and Jerobio continue laughing on about all the whatnots of life while I move about the bus in search of an interesting photographic angle. Being that there are others on the bus, I can’t help but wiggle myself between them, bump into them, trip and fall into their laps—at which point I apologize profusely, and they ask in perfect kindness and curiosity what I am doing.
That is how I meet Jeff and Sierra, a sweet young couple from Bernalillo on their way back from Presbyterian Hospital where they travel by bus every day to visit their newborn baby in the ICU. Their daughter was born with a hole in her heart one month and seven days ago, and must remain monitored 24/7 until she is ready to undergo surgery. Her name is Kaylee Marie, the letters now tattooed on her father’s left forearm by his own right hand with black ink and a needle. She will survive.
Jeff and Sierra met for the first time at Wall Mart five years ago while still in high school. The crush was immediate, love followed, and today they are engaged. Jeff dropped out of school and is yet to get his GED. Sierra graduated and went to NMSU for a while, but then came back. They are obviously inching along a plain of high hurdles and real struggle, but it is hard to see it their faces, which retain a youthful tenderness like a first kiss under starry Spring skies.
In a sudden jolt the land barge halts at the Churches Chicken on Central Ave near Coors Blvd, and this is our hapless stop. Jerobio goes off to his liquor store, Jeff and Sierra to their home in Bernalillo, and Paula and I to the bathroom smelling of fried chicken and industrial cleaning agent. To the East is the slumping string of cement of Nine-mile-hill dumping into the now blossoming Rio Grande. Beyond it, the slow stretch of city upward towards the hazy magnificence of the Sandia Mountains. To the West, a New Mexico sunset in all its glory. Right in front of us, Joseph, a 48-year old alcoholic just released from jail (again), where he was sent for drinking in public and trespassing. His jail tag from the MDC is stuck to his wrist:
“You guys don’t by chance have a knife on you, do ya? They don’t cut ‘em off for you at the jail like they used to. And I don’t carry knives or guns..,” his timid voice goes comically ominous, “…because if I did, I’d use ‘em!”
Just before we arrived, Joseph had gotten another ticket for public drinking at the next bus stop up, where simultaneously an ambulance was tending to a veteran who had cracked his skull open and was bleeding profusely. The cops had told Joseph they wouldn’t give him a ticket if he could walk away. A pithy little joke it was. Joseph’s right ankle is swollen like an eggplant, and he can barely walk. Somehow, though, he stumbled his way to the next bus stop anyway, plunked down, and opened another can of beer.
Paula busies herself in conversation with him while I snap some photos and admire the beauty of this grand city at sundown. Joseph talks to her about his life, and how he ended up a bus stop drunk. “I tried to join the army when I was twenty-three, but I’m too stupid.”
“You’re not stupid!” Paula insists.
No response. He just keeps on as if she hadn’t a clue as to what she was talking about. After the army fiasco he worked in “labor” on construction sites for a few years, but shortly thereafter succumbed to a life of drunkenness. Everything since is only a blur, a constant in and out of jail for loitering, trespassing, public drinking, failures to appear in court, outstanding warrants, and whatever, always back to the same. The perfect tragedy. But whatever else has been lost in his life, what surely remains is his warmest of smiles, childlike in essence, pure and sweet.
As night falls, Paula and I walk down Nine-mile hill all the way to 2nd Street and Gold, where we left her car. We stop in for onion rings and wieners at the Dog House. Ever since she saw it on an episode of Breaking Bad, she wanted to eat there. It was delicious and nasty, just like you know. And thus ends another day on the bus.