Forty-four years ago a smitten young neck tie salesmen awkwardly approached a cute blonde phone sales operator on the Gravois-Lindell bus in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. The blushing girl chewed at her fingernail, yet the boy failed to notice the big diamond ring on her finger. He dared ask if he could walk her home. The girl’s fiancé was busy dropping napalm out of an F-4 Phantom ten thousand miles away, and since a little chivalry never hurt anyone, she accepted. Eleven years later, on the very morning of the infamous Jonestown Massacre, a slap and scream rang out through the maternity ward at Barnes Hospital, and that was me. Thirty-four years on, in this grand year of 2013, my loving parents rode the bus again, this time in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They came to visit me for the first time since I graduated college—way long ago. Why not show them a little of my world?
Meanwhile, my world asked, “why not give them a little baptism of fire?”
Mayhem sprung loose at the corner of San Mateo and Central just as we parked the car. A woman had overdosed on something, presumably heroin, and lay sick and screaming on the bus stop bench. A rustled young police officer stood beside her, while variously compassionate or angry waiting passengers rushed to get the woman some water, or curse her for doing something stupid again. I crouched down to ask her name. I said something right, and she squeezed my hand, whimpering softly. Then I said something wrong, and she lurched back and screamed like the banshee of my worst nightmares.
Then the ambulance came, and I snapped my first photographs. A woman whose back may or may not have been in one of the frames was not concerned either way. But her impassioned husband evidently was:
“Did you ask my wife permission to take her picture?!” He berated me, beating a lopsided blue heart tattooed on his upper chest with his fist.
“Who is your wife?”
He pointed to a draping brown T-shirt and a mop of black hair amidst at least ten other people rushing about in the mayhem.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
“Did you take her fucking picture without asking, motherfucker!?”
“Cut it out!” The young police officer thrust his mighty voice between us, after which I felt an immediate jolt of admiration and fear before the uniformed man. My adversary must have felt it, too, for he bolted away into the crowd. And it was right then that I remembered something from my ride-a-longs with the APD Gang Unit last year (see http://underabq.tumblr.com/): The chief of the Albuquerque Police Department had recently prohibited officers’ use of curse words while interacting with civilians, making it a punishable offence. A number of officers were upset because they felt that using “fuck” appropriately, for example, was an effective de-escalation tool, without which the need for physical coercion would be more likely in certain situations. In any case, my good officer today unleashed not one curse word, and yet still scared the fucking shit out of me!
In the meantime, since I hate to make people feel bad, I decided to seek out my angry friend to apologize for perhaps taking a photograph of his wife’s back. It was, after all, unintentional, and I was perfectly willing to erase the photo if she appeared in it.
“That’s not the fucking point, you asshole! You’re a piece of fucking shit!”
At this time the police officer was twenty feet away and consumed in the chaos, and so it was just the angry man and me. His cursing nipped my apology in the bud, and I began to feel a familiar wry smile creep across my face. It was the sleeping giant of my man ego awakening. A challenge! A duel! A ruthless battle to the bloody end! Aggression, the essence of my primitive soul, was being taunted and teased into lashing out. A euphoric catharsis, albeit a massive stupidity. My chest heaved to and fro, a visceral excitement.
As usual, however, the rational elements of my good citizen mind spoke louder. And thank goodness, for after all, my beloved parents were just behind me, horrified that the angry man might pull out a knife and shank me. But I needed more than rationality, for the angry man opted to pursue me as I tried to walk away. I needed an intervention. I needed Rob, the bearded schizophrenic miracle who sailed in with a stream of nonsense so passionate, and so incongruous, he could have disarmed North Korea.
“My grandfather he was a Nazi in Nazi Germany and I just don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that hell man what did the Jews ever do to him damn I told her you shouldn’t smoke that stuff no way man it’s gonna kill you someday you know it!!…” and on and on.
The Central 66 bus squealed to a halt, interrupting the blessed tirade. When my parents and I stepped aboard, a nasty cursing came from the back of the bus. The angry man and his wife had already boarded, and they were irate. Seeing me enter, they flicked me some long fingers, yelled something none-too-friendly, and exited the bus indignant. I suppose there wasn’t room for both our giant man egos.
Then the wry smile propelled by my ego broke under adrenalin diluted. The bus jerked into motion, and I sat down all a nervous jitter, feeling so rattled by the chaos and confrontation. My parents, too, looked about nervously, not wanting to say anything, but clearly uncomfortable about the course of events. Looking for solace in a smile, any at all, I began talking to random people on the bus.
Sweet smile after sweet smile, heartfelt story after heartfelt story—some so tender, some so tragic—ever-so-slowly this brought my heart back to a proper beat. One of the worst sensations, after all, is to feel hated, and of course I risk this every time I nose my questions and camera into a stranger’s life. But one of the best feelings is to make a connection with a total stranger, share with him a smile, a handshake, a story, a momentary and mutual understanding that despite all our differences we are in essence all the same. I love to capture these moments because this provides for me some sense of meaning, without which no pain can be justified, and no joy sustained.
On the way downtown and back we talked to several people. Alex Xavier was heading back to his parents’ house off of 98th Street after an engineering class at CNM. Eddie from El Paso and Magda from Burque met ten years ago, and ride the bus everyday to go to work, run errands, and go out for dinner. Shen skipped stones in a puddle of water while waiting for the bus, and said it was so nice to visit his sister, as he often does on Friday afternoons. Ryan had ridden his bicycle from Coors and I-40, grabbed the bus at 10th and Central, and was now on his way to work a 12-hour shift in the ICU at UNMH. His wife stays home to take care of their three children, and—children are expensive. That’s why he is taking the bus.
Meanwhile, Doris just left the hospital, accompanied by her two brothers and a cousin. Her husband had beaten her to unconsciousness two days earlier. Visibly shaken, the real men in the family swore revenge: “When he gets out of jail, we’re gonna do street justice.” They asked me to take pictures of Doris’ horrendous bruising “for evidence,” and then we exchanged contact information.
In a flurry of tender handshakes and hugs, Doris and her brothers got off at Girard and Central, and on came none other than Jerobio, the toothless fun drunk from two posts ago. “These are your parents?” he beamed, and then lectured my dad on the importance of being good to his woman, for woman is God’s gift from the Heavens, and she must always be loved and respected, lest we lose her and live a life alone with our misery. Ask Jerobio, his wife is dead, his girlfriend in jail. Or ask his abandoned daughter. Such are the vagaries of love and vice.
Back at Central and San Mateo my parents and I stepped off the bus and into another golden New Mexico sunset. Arm in arm, they strolled like teenage lovers across Route 66, all a glitter with shards of broken plastic and glass. They had not been on a city bus in over three decades. It felt like the anniversary of their love.