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.”

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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.

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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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