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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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/