Miss Duke City

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

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Had I not seen her home, decorated from ceiling to floor with American Flag ornaments, historical quotes of the revolution, and other patriotic regalia, I might have been given to doubt when I learned that Chanel won the 2013 Miss Duke City beauty pageant after reciting the Gettysburg Address before a ballroom full of people.   What, after all, could such an ancient piece of script possibly mean to a modern young woman competing with other modern young women for public recognition of subjectively defined notions of feminine beauty?

Pondering it, my head remains cocked like a pup at a curious sound, for in matters of God and Country, I have long ago lost sight of the forest for the trees.  Disheartened by the gory details of history, the blood of conquest, and the frequent triumph of raw power and greed today as before, the meaning of “America” to me has become far too nuanced to cuddle up to with token claims to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  But Chanel’s sincerity lifts my brow and tickles to life an old feeling in my gut.  It is a sense of pride and belonging.  Patriotism.  A love for one’s country.   Chanel has got it, and she firmly believes in the founding principles expressed in its constitutional documents.  These principles are not always followed—especially that bit about “all men created equal”—but they serve to orient us in that direction, and there is indeed a great value in that.

But beauty pageants? Six months ago the world of beauty pageants was as foreign to Chanel as it is to me.  In January she was searching around for scholarship opportunities to help pay for college, and she stumbled upon an ad about the Miss Duke City contest, the winner of which would be eligible for financial assistance towards higher education.  She called to learn more, and without realizing what she had done, the sweet southern lady on the other end of the line had registered her name.  She had just two months to prepare, which meant hours on Youtube in order to learn all the right moves, and many more in the gym to sculpt a body to look good doing them.  Still she never expected to win.  In the beginning it was just a matter of shits n’ giggles, a flip of a coin for the hell of it, or a little YOLO, as the kids are saying these days.  But it became something more, both for her personal development and for others.  “Stones get polished by tumbling around with other stones,” she says.  In other words, competition drives excellence.  And for others, the mere appearance of a Miss This or a Miss That during any kind of collective emotional craze, be it a football game or a memorial for disaster victims, can inspire a greater hope of salvation, whatever that entails.

In bringing Chanel with me on the bus, I was hoping to loosely test a hypothesis somewhat related to this last point: The Down and Out love the Beautiful, so long as the latter is not overtly afraid of or disgusted by the former.Chanel-3683

Most of the time I am surely incorrect in my suppositions on life and its participants, but this time the experiment lent evidence to my theoretical constructions.  Chanel was at first taken aback when “Dan the Man,” drunk and smelling of street, jumped up to give her a hug, but she quickly relaxed and released her inhibitions.  Several hugs later, she was as comfortable as a rabbit in a hole, listening to story after story of life on the streets, and sharing her own.   In turn, the people of the streets, in all their pain and tragedy, fell in love with her.  And with the classic chivalry of paupers, they kissed her hand and swore they would come after me if I did not take good care of her.

Safety, meanwhile, continues to be a luxury excluded to those who for vice, mental illness, or sheer poverty have come to live on the streets.  At our first encounter we meet Ruthy, Melvin, Key, Abe and “Dan the Man.”  Melvin and Abe both have scars where bullets cut through their flesh: the work of gangs of teenage boys stricken by boredom and drunk on beer and testosterone.   Key’s face has been smashed so many times it looks like a waxed potato.  Ruthy went to jail two weeks ago for swinging a bag of rocks at a man’s head while hanging out in the cemetery where she sleeps.  “That asshole tried to steal me,” she describes the attempted rape, “but I told him, ‘you’re not gettin’ any pussy from me unless I give it to you!’”  Her face still bares the sores and scars from the nasty scrap that ensued.

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After some playfully posed shots, Chanel and I say our goodbyes and get up to move.  Hugs all around the table.  Melvin bows in, holds my hand, and whispers desperation into my ear.  He is crying, “I just want my life back.”  Gone is the hellacious laughter from moments before.

“What do you mean?”  I ask.

“I used to be an officer in the army…I even went to college…”

Suddenly a tall man with a face like a soul broken under the weight of a hundred wars appears from behind me.  He is Melvin’s brother.  Melvin goes to him, hugs him, grabs his hand, and says a prayer for his redemption.

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More prayers are said.  The friends, who have been together on these streets for over a decade, have recently lost a “sister.”  They tell us that her name is Dora Espinosa, 28 years old, and could we please keep her in our thoughts.  Just a week ago she had taken her last swig of cheap vodka before throwing up blood.  That was the end.  She is in coma now, waiting to be taken off life support.

Shortly afterwards Chanel and I are waiting for a bus at Central and Harvard, and we meet Miss Southwest.  Her name is Jewel, and she says that she won the crown more than ten years ago.  The competition was subsequently canceled, and so she is still the reigning queen.  Meanwhile, her 17-year old daughter came in third place in a similar competition among a thousand participants, but had to drop out of the next round for lack of money.

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Having gotten on like two peas in a pod, Chanel and Jewel board the 766 all a smile n’ chatter, and I follow like a third wheel.  But on the bus I meet my world again right away.  A man is celebrating his release from the Metropolitan Detention Center, and everyone around cheers him on.  First things first: he needs to remove his prisoner ID wristband.  No problem.  Knives start swinging out from pockets and purses, and a Cuban man with a USA t-shirt starts cutting through the thick plastic band.Chanel-3761

Now it is picture time.  The party is on and everyone is into it (except for one gruff man who storms angrily away).  Finally, the free man pulls a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label from his pants, courtesy of his girlfriend who went to meet him at the prison gates.  But that’s too much.  The bus screeches to a halt, and the driver rushes back in a rage.  Too much ruckus for one evening.  Fortunately, the knives are again folded and concealed, the bottle is never opened, and nobody goes straight back to jail.  Chanel and I jump off into a cool blue dusk and wave goodbye to the gleeful mayhem as its speeds into night.Chanel-3771

God Bless America!Chanel-3790

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Lynette’s Ride

Rain clouds roll in heavy over the mountains, their underbelly skimmed off by the Sandia Crest and curling over its edge like a sliver of cheese.  It is late July in Albuquerque, and the air is strangely as damp and cool as the coastal Northwest.  Pigeons could be sea gulls, and the hiss of wind down Central Avenue could be the melancholy of a fog soaked tide following an invisible moon.  The skylight is fading unnaturally early.  It feels as if a curfew were being imposed out of respect for a recent tragedy, or in preparation for one certain to come.  As it turns out, a man was busy shooting his wife and himself just down the street, but trees and breeze muffle gunfire and screams, here as anywhere else, so Lauren and I giddily hop a bus from Nob Hill to the International District with hearts almost as soft as the ones we were given, none the wiser, but all the better.

Lynette outing-2887 Born and raised in Santa Fe, Lauren moved to Albuquerque for college, where she studied theatre and became a conduit of comedic cultural expression.  Now she is better known as “Lynette” from the Blackout Theatre’s video series, Lynette’s Albuquerque and Shit Burqueños Say, which have reached a million people for whom our city has in some way or another come to mean something more than a dusty expanse of box homes and strip malls.

What more does it mean?  Although there is little of that ostentatious glory that sprouts loudly from the World’s mega-cities and quaint mountain paradises, we have here a sweet humility more endearing than even the dear end of all things, hidden ‘neath this (typically, but not today) boiling hot son, and which touches the heart of one and all who spend a little time here.  That is the essence of Lynette, and the genius of Lauren.  As New Mexican as a tortilla pan-burned in the image of Jesus Christ, Lauren has the wits, talent, pride, and drive to devote herself to the uncovering of, and the reveling of, a culture quirky, confused, and nigh forgotten to the rest of the world.  In doing so she has become an icon of the city, and a hot steamy bowl of laughyoassoff nostalgia for those who have left it.  Plus, she’s like all fun to hang out with on the bus ;).

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We hop aboard the Eastbound 66 at dusk.  The cabin is near full, and we immediately begin talking to people.  Ortencia and Maria are travelling up from a small city in Chihuahua called Buenaventura, which lies just south of Ciudad Juarez and is enmeshed is the same ascending wave of drug violence.  Ortencia’s two children are with her, hunched under bulging backpacks and squeezing Brats dolls and pillows.  They are on vacation, visiting family in El Norte.  I can see in Maria’s face a distrustful reticence before my camera, before my questions, for perhaps a poor Mexican is bound to feel forever scrutinized in a country that scorns the immigrants that make its mills run.  Ortencia is younger and more susceptible to a geek’s flattery, but only her children really open up with the bright smile of those too innocent to fear betrayal.

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Others are too far gone to fear it.  Three street drunks board the bus at Central and San Mateo, and sit down across from us.  Marta and “Squibals” came in from the Res for a cyclical binge.  “Cornbread” came from New York thirty years ago to escape the nuisance of parole, and found a year-round party on the streets of Albuquerque.  These are the occasional homeless.  They generally have a place to go sleep somewhere if they wish, but during binges feel far more comfortable and free amidst the grit and chaos of the streets.  Despite the rough n’ tumble of it all, Marta still keeps her hair trimmed and shining, and her smiley face enshrined in elegant turquoise jewelry.  “Squibals” had her nickname tattooed on her forearm.  It is a souvenir from Kansas, where she attended school as a child and where no one could pronounce her last name, Esquivel.  “Cornbread” is just “Cornbread,” perhaps because he likes cornbread…which means we might all be “Cornbread.”

Lynette outing-2913 Lauren and I get off the bus at Central and Wyoming.  A gaunt 37-year old man with short-cropped hair and dirty baggy clothes approaches us in front of Griff’s Burgers to very gently explain the dire straits that have compelled him to waver wistfully and forlorn outside a burger joint peddling for change.   He says his name is Chris, and his wife left him to move to Colorado after a fight they had three days ago.  They did not “break up” per se, but since he was laid off recently and the couple were subsequently evicted from their apartment, she fled north for shelter with family, and he stayed on the streets of Albuquerque to try to recoup.  “I just want some food,” he says.  Lauren and I are also starving pretty much to death, so we invite him into Griff’s with us, where I order three number sixes with unsweetened iced tea, courtesy of the tail end of my line of credit loan. And so we sit down inside, and Chris, tender and calm, tells his story.

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The son of a Mexican and a white American, Chris moved within and between two racially separate worlds with ease since childhood, slightly bending his identity from one end of the spectrum to the other according to the exigencies of each social context.  But growing up poor in the household of an extremely abusive father, he found a more welcoming outlet for his destitution and rage in the street-based families of Los Angeles’ Hispanic gangs.  He became a Sureño at thirteen, and spent the next ten years in and out of L.A. County corrections facilities, doing and selling drugs, and participating in acts of violence against rival gang members.  After seeing so many of his childhood friends killed or locked up for life, he opted out of the gang by moving with his mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  For years he kept his gang obligation to stay in touch, for to be a thug is to be a thug for life.  But age has a peculiar effect on youth gangs: It removes the youth, and eventually the gang no longer has its adolescent psychological foundations to stand on.  So today what is left of the old guard leaves Chris alone.  He has covered up most of his old gang tattoos with nondescript splotches of dark blue ink and wanders the streets of Albuquerque relatively free from menace, except for that provoked by hunger and cold hard ground.

Chris chews and swallows his food in giant gulps pushed down his sinewy throat like a turkey egg through a snake.  He speaks of his 3-year old son, Xavier, who for practical reasons is currently living with the child’s mother.  In fact, he says, the child is not even his, for he met his girlfriend when she was already six months pregnant.  But his was the first man’s face the child awoke from its uterine slumber to see, and he was the only man who took it in, who cared for it as if it were his own blood son, and that is the very nature of his love for it.  “Children are so innocent and pure,” he says, “I don’t get how so many men out there can just abandon their own kids, or worse, abuse them.”  His primary goal now is to find a new job, an apartment, and bring his girl and his kid back to Albuquerque.  The world is a lonely, hostile, and meaningless quagmire of suffering without family, without love. Lynette outing-2950Lauren listens attentively to Chris’ story, and is drawn completely in.  There is little doubt that he is speaking with the utmost sincerity, albeit little bits and pieces of any narrative are bound to suffer exaggerations or omissions of a perfect truth, for such is the nature of the mind’s interpretation of reality.  And Lauren is touched.  She has been hard up before, too.  She asks politely, almost timidly, if he wouldn’t mind a small cash donation from her pocket to his, if for nothing else to warm up a long cold night with a little goodwill.  Chris replies politely, almost timidly, that he would not reject such a gesture, and Lauren slips him a 20-dollar bill folded to the size of a paperclip.  Our departure is hugs and twilight.  “I’ll never forget you guys,” Chris says.

Night has fallen.  There is another overdose at the Westbound bus stop at Central and Wyoming.  Alcohol.  A middle-aged woman is being lifted into an ambulance with a drunk smile wide across her grease-shiny face.   Nearby a prostitute steps out of a client’s car and huffs in indignation as I stare curiously at her.  Two fat young toothless men ask to borrow a pen to exchange phone numbers.  Drunk cowboys laugh over silly nothings, and stumble over one another and onto the bus stop bench.  Lauren and I are speaking miles per minute, trying to digest too many thoughts in too little time, and perhaps making as little sense as the cowboys bumbling around behind us.  Then the bus comes, and we board for a fast cruise back to Nob Hill.  It is the Rapid Ride, and it speeds through the dark night like a ghost.

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Just Being Together

Big Black Beautiful Bee lied about the color of her eyes, but told truth of the coming rain, for who better a meteorologist than the homeless?  When it trickled and then dumped (momentary as it tends to be in these hell-baked plains), I ducked quickly into a Whataburger, for a “bigger better burger” and some smiles a bit too pure to be simply those proscribed by the directive of franchise.   Meanwhile, unsmiling teens with gang tats crawling up through awkward polo neck holes interviewed for jobs they secretly hoped not to get, and I flipped through the evening’s photos, confounded by the soft ethereal beauty that at dusk seems always to prevail over the insidious tragedies of our human existence.  And since beauty is the point, or at least part of it, there is no better place to begin or end, is there not?

Lisa and Juan-1121Lisa and Juan met five years ago at the old Bandidos on 12th and Candelaria, a dive bar with just the right dim and grime for the marriage of poetry and beer.  The blue-haired girl read alone, but dropped her books one day for the charming young Mexican who came in, timid and unassuming.  Love happened.  Two years later they were married, but there was a problem.  Juan had come to the United States illegally, and so did not qualify for a marriage visa.  He would either have to stay illegally and hope to eternally avoid a run-in with la Migra—a preoccupation that would put a stain on any family vacation—or go back to Mexico indefinitely, file for a “hardship” waiver with USCIS, and hope with no certainty at all that it would not be rejected.  The lovers chose to risk the latter, believing that anything was better than living an entire life in the shadows.   It worked out.  After nine months of separation, Juan came back to Albuquerque, a Green Card-totin’ member of our great nation on his way to full citizenship.

Juan first crossed the border with three childhood friends in 2006 through Columbus, New Mexico, the small American border town that was razed by Pancho Villa and his ruffians nearly a century ago.   Hidden in Westbound boxcars, the young men intended to stop in Phoenix, Arizona.  But when they awoke after a long nap and opened the freight doors, the train was squealing to a halt just outside Los Angeles.  Undaunted, they jumped ship, hopped a new train heading Eastbound, and made it safely to Phoenix the next day.  Fifteen days later they were formally greeted by one of Arizona’s Welcome to America committees: A group of young white men jumped from a car, screaming things unintelligible but for the brandishing of pistols.  Money and cell phones were all taken without further ado.  Not long afterwards, Juan moved to Albuquerque, where it is decidedly less terrifying to be a stranger in a strange land.

Lisa, meanwhile, has yet to visit Juan’s hometown of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua.  The Gringa plans to finally meet the parents in December.  I imagine they will all love her, her smile like a fairy tale, her hair the cool end of a rainbow, the Spanish words dancing gingerly from her tongue.  Trying to get a feel for something I do not know, I ask what is the best thing about being married?  “Just being together,” Lisa says, grabbing Juan’s hand tightly.  Yes, I think the families will get along just fine.  And if they don’t, there is always tequila.

But the future is the future, and now is now, so let’s ride the bus!

Lisa and Juan-1101The three of us meet at the bus stop on North 4th Street and Headingly to catch the No. 10 downtown.   The driver, Chris Davis, calls all aboard with a tenderness like your grandma’s tortillas.   Having never taken the bus in Albuquerque, Lisa and Juan fumbled around with the pay box before figuring out that $2.00 gets you an all day pass, and if you don’t have change, there is always a friendly rider willing to m’elp you out.  We then sit down for the ride, and it is an amicable affair, from the cursory glare of reformist thugs to middle class middle-aged men no longer angry about the big mistakes they made out of the frustration of anomie.  A 20-year old girl named Sarah is returning from visiting her boyfriend.  She lives in Belen with her mother, tends to bees, and once drove a old Dodge Ram 50 she called “Rambo.”  A woman named Frances, who graduated from Albuquerque High School “¡hace muchisisísmo!” just ended a shift at Denny’s and is headed home.  Others on the bus smile and nod, signaling sentiments quite sweeter than the worst of my fears.

Lisa and Juan-1113 Downtown at the Alvarado Center we get off, and Chris the driver implores us to walk around and enjoy ourselves.  “I promise, I won’t leave without you,” he says, and then takes a chomp out of Lisa’s cupcake hair as I move everyone to pose for a photograph.  We have about forty minutes to mill about, mosey, and mingle.  With the rain clouds above a cool front settles in, and all the madness of the world slumps into relaxation.   So we look for the mad of heart and mind, but everyone is almost indistinguishable beneath the blessed threat of water from the sky.

Bronco MattOut on 1st Street, Big Black Beautiful Bee asks for a hotdog and a soda, and so I go to Matt, the Broncos fan, to get one.  BBBB offers me the first bite, and then chastises me for taking such a big one.  Then I pull my camera out, and she says, “Boy, the only reason I’m lettin’ you take my picture is cuz you cute!”  And I reply, “Girl, the only reason I’m talking to you in the first place is cuz you cute!”  The ice is cracked, but not broken.  Thirty years on the streets can build a callous as big as those on the soles of her feet.  She refuses to remove her sunglasses, but I catch a glimpse of her right eye, and though I cannot read the odyssey inside it, its depth haunts and enlightens me.  It is not hazel like she says, but dark brown and scarred like a jelly fish.

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“Where are you from?” I ask.

“My mama,” she replies, “and a little bit from my dad, too, I suppose.”

BBBB says she came here from Germany thirty years ago.  I guess correctly that she was born in New York, the daughter of a Jamaican man and a Puerto Rican woman.  She married into the military, moved to a base in Germany, something happened, a fight, a torment, a divorce, and then she ended up in the land of enchantment.  She says she won a beauty pageant fifteen years ago, and if she looks familiar, it is probably because of that.  In recent years, however, her fame resides in a modified shopping cart, which is packed to the brim with colorful blankets and nicknacks.  “It’s worth $500, it’s all mine, and I could sue anybody try to take it from me.”   A bandage on her wrist betrays a deep pain.  She has just been released from suicide watch.

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Rushing back to meet Chris for a ride home, we briefly chat with a Vietnam veteran passing out leaflets concerning something entirely confusing.  Printed on them are copies of reply letters sent to him years ago by different state agencies charged with regulating importation laws and American Indian commercial transactions.  Everything about the man speaks of moral integrity and passion.  He is on a mission.  It is just not clear what that mission is.

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Back on the Bus we lumber bumpily northward on 4th Street.  A drunk man steps aboard near I-40, stalls at the entrance and says to Chris the Driver, “Uhhhh…wait, let me call my girlfriend.”  His indecision is eternal, so Chris gently coaxes him back onto the streets and promises that he will return in 24 minutes, when he has made up his mind.

In the four years that Chris has been an Albuquerque bus driver, he has seen many things, some tragic and some beautiful.  Once an old man stabbed a young man in the neck with a shank hidden in his coat sleeve, killing him instantly.  The old man then called the police himself.  Two years ago a drug addict left her newborn baby on the bus, having simply forgotten about the child while on her way to greater imperatives.  Sober passengers took the helpless creature into their arms.  On another occasion—and this hooks into my own heart like a crows claw—a 20-year old girl overdosed on heroin and died at the rear-end of the bus.  Just a few minutes earlier Chris had stopped for a 15 minute break at the Alvarado Center.

“She was nice girl, real pretty thing, and real sweet,” Chris said. “I went to the bathroom, and she did, too.  I guess she went in to shoot up.  She made it back to the bus, but didn’t last long after that.  And the crazy thing is that as soon as she died, these two men on the bus were already on top of her, groping her, you know, touching her breasts and thighs n’ stuff.  They were like children.  I kicked them off right away, and called the 911.”

But tonight is calm and beautiful, and Chris continues smiling along from north to south and south to north, hour after hour, day after day, joking and laughing with the regulars for whom he has become a sort of psychologist-chauffeur, or I’ll just say it, a friend.   “For twenty years I worked inside,” he shakes his head, recalling his old career as a X-ray technician. “Now I get to drive around watching a beautiful sunset every single day.”

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There are millions more stories to tell, but it is getting dark, and Big Black Beautiful Bee’s prophecy of rain has begun to unzip the sky.  We get off across the street from where we got on, and it is a warm goodbye to another day on the Bus.  Hand in hand, Lisa and Juan walk home, fading into the dreamy blue-emerald curtain of late dusk.  I drive off on my motorbike, and the dark clouds tear open.  It is time for a burger, some fries, and a happy little stomach ache.  For the time being, the soft light of beauty and goodness still shines in the cold dark night.