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.
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 ;).
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.
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.”
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.
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. Lauren 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.