Back on the Bus

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It took some coaxing to get me back on the bus after nearly two years. During the interim I had ostensibly joined the “middle class” (i.e. got a salaried job, bought a car, etc…), and consequently Albuquerque’s buses and their people sank to that low status of big clunky nuisances clogging traffic. My sympathies still lay with the working man, of course, or at least that’s what I told myself—and with the struggling student, the addict, the prostitute, the down-n’-out writ large. But now I was middle class in matter and manner, and that meant our worlds were now as far apart as Jupiter and Pluto. That meant that although these others and I inhabited the same city and transited the same streets, we may as well be on different continents, for all we now paid attention to one another. But this segregation of classes (and this terrible anomie of the glorified middle) finally came to an end yesterday evening, thanks to Alexandria, a former student of mine, for she insisted I get back on the bus.

I had been worried that our fellow bus riders would somehow smell my new class status and reject me outright (ironic, considering I still haven’t been able to afford new clothes). Worse still, I was afraid I might no longer find complete strangers interesting, and that I would therefore reject them. But to my delight, I was completely wrong on both counts. Alexandria and I were immediately caught in a whirlwind of smiles and story-telling with each encounter on the bus, and of equal importance, these smiles and stories reawakened in me that jubilant curiosity for life, which under the weight of so many silly pressures had long gone dormant. Moreover, we were witness to acts of real humanity, of heroism, of struggle—the stuff that being alive is really all about, but that tend to disappear from view when we hole ourselves up in our individually packaged lives.

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My first smile was Jasmine, who I might have mistook for a “me-against-the-world” teenage gangbanger had I not struck up a conversation. It turns out that she is 28 years old and pleasant as a peach. She was glad to talk about her experience on the bus, and she had something to say. “Look at my foot,” she pointed down at the floor. “Bus driver ran right over me, and he knew what he was doing!” Since the accident last September, she has been living on SSI, which aside from providing her barely enough income to survive, has led to intolerable boredom. Still limping, this is why she was riding the bus today, just to get out of the house.

At the back of the bus, a middle-aged man named Paul showed me all the tattoos his son had given him. They were bluish, less-than-perfect “realist” portraits of loved ones, including his late father (killed shortly after he was born) and his daughter (the love of his life). Paul had a torn meniscus replaced the week before, and it was very much against the doctor’s orders for him to be running around on the city’s buses. His eyes lit up somewhat maniacally as he explained the situation: “I ain’t gonna let nothing hold me down, man. I’m a soldier!”

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A few minutes later the center of the bus was taken by a strange commotion. A man who looked to be about my age—a man who kind of looked like me—fell down in his seat and began to seize. Moses, a “street-dressed” man (also of my age, but who didn’t look very much like me), jumped up from the back of the bus and rushed over to tend to the stricken stranger. He laid the poor fellow down in the walkway, gently holding his head upright so that he would not choke on his tongue. Another stranger gave Moses a towel, with which he began wiping the foam and spittle away as it oozed from the man’s mouth. I gave him my bottle of water, which he used to wet the towel and rub over the man’s forehead. Paramedics arrived just as the man came to, and they escorted him off the bus to an ambulance. Moses returned to his seat at the back of the bus amid a ruckus of congratulatory cheer.

“How did you know what to do back there?” I asked him.

“Man, that’s simple shit. I’m gonna be graduating from RN [Registered Nurse] school this summer!”

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Before I could explain what Alexandria and I were doing on the bus, Moses went on to discuss a brilliant idea of his—he wanted to do a sort of photographic ethnography of the roughest, most disenfranchised communities in Albuquerque, and in this way give struggling people a platform upon which to tell the world their stories. With that I gave him my albuquerquebusstops.com card, and asked if he’d want to work on a project together sometime. “Definitely!,” he replied, and perhaps thusly was planted a new seed of collaborative genius. So are you going to call me, Moses? Don’t forget!

Way up on Central and Tramway, the end of the 66 line, Alexandria and I got off the bus and walked a ways in the golden light of the setting sun. We found yet another man of my age (by the way, I am thirty-six, a very refined age) sitting on the curb and finishing off a hamburger and fries from some nearby fast food joint. Behind him stood a small wheel cart stuffed with all his earthly belongings. He said his name was Jeremiah, and that he and his wife had been homeless for nearly a year now.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m addicted to heroin,” he said, explaining away a lifetime of turmoil in a single sentence. But his situation hadn’t always been so desperate, he assured me. Although he had been addicted to pharmaceutical opiates since the age of sixteen, he only began using heroin a little more than a year ago. Up until that point he had managed to hold a decent job at the Albuquerque Journal, where he earned enough to support his wife and four children, the oldest of whom is now thirteen. Heroin, which is far cheaper but also much stronger than other opiates, rather quickly incapacitated him as an effective employee, and so he soon lost his job. In short order, then, he also lost his home, and in the process he lost his children. All four of the little ones now live in foster care in Rio Rancho. Jeremiah and his wife, also an addict, try to visit them on Tuesdays.

“How do your children react when they see you like this?” I asked.

“They cry,” he told me. “I can’t bring myself to lie to them and say that everything is going to be alright.”

“But don’t you still have hope that you can overcome this?”

“No.”

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Just before parting, I asked Jeremiah if he wanted anything from the gas station. A flare of something momentarily came over his otherwise melancholy eyes. “A Honey Bun, please,” he said. And a Honey Bun it was.

Alexandria and I then strolled westward down East Central talking about life and all sorts of other nonsense. The sun was disappearing over the horizon when we finally stopped to wait for a bus. This is where we met Grizzly, our last friendly encounter of the evening. Seeing his rucksack beside him, I asked where he was headed.

“Where the wind blows me, my friend!”

I asked how he was going to get there.

“The old wagon trails!”

Alexandria took the conversation from there while I snapped photos. Grizzly spoke of his Apache ancestors and their knowledge of natural edibles and wilderness living (as opposed to simple “survival”). Alexandria spoke of the importance of local agriculture and eating organic. Both lamented the prevalence of fast food and cell phones in Western culture, the consequent poor health of human populations, and the spiritual disconnect between Man and Nature.

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Back at home and with time to reflect on our little adventure, something occurred to me. The people who ride the bus in Albuquerque (and probably elsewhere) do not just ride it to get from point A to point B when they are unable to do so by private vehicle. Although this is surely the reason for public transportation, it is by no means the only reason people use it. Instead, people ride the bus because it is a cheap and effective way to escape the loneliness of their homes and to feed their very basic needs as essentially social beings. The bus, in this sense, replaces the old town plaza, or how it was back before urban flight killed the plaza’s social function. It is a place where for little or no money one can “soak in the social,” a vitamin just as pertinent to the health of the human spirit as sunlight is to the life of plants. This helps to explain the countless individuals Alexandria and I saw repeatedly throughout the evening, smiling their way up and down central on bus after bus, these old town plazas on wheels. And since I came home feeling quite cheery myself, I got to thinking: middle class is for the birds. I’m going back to the bus.

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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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The Duke’s Sick Sister

Today I am not riding the bus.  A pile of ungraded student exams stared me into a corner until I was huddled, whimpering, and anti-social.  And so I thought best of it to sit still in my seat, let the billowing clouds whisper their sweet nothings through the open window and into my tickled ears, and reflect on the bloody, bittersweet, bus stop memories of the year 2010—in the heart of Albuquerque’s southern sister, Cuidad Juarez.

It was the height of Mexico’s drug violence.  Ten to fifteen corpses, mutilated or riddled with bullets, dumped in random places every day.  More than three thousand people were killed in Juarez that year as two Cartels and their gangboy hit men fought over the “plaza” through which billions of dollars worth of drugs are smuggled to reach addicts and bored youths all over the United States.  Jolted by the media reports of such a fiery massacre so close by, my friend Roberto and I decided to spend a few days there to see for ourselves what was happening.  For reasons I have long forgotten, we left our car in El Paso and took the city bus.

There are so many differences between the Duke and the Daisy, not least of which is the astronomical disparity of violence, but I shall limit myself here to a cursory exploration of public transit in Ciudad Juarez.  First, of course, the buses are different.  They are mostly second-hand school buses imported from somewhere in America, now painted pretty, adorned with protective saints and virgins, and in some cases decorated quite extravagantly on the inside. Secondly, they are often full of people, most of whom are travelling to or from work, and typically not drunk off their gourd.  Thirdly, there is commonly some young cowboy or poor old lady clanking away on a cheap guitar and singing so finely out-of-tune about Jesus Christ All-Mighty or the baddest drug boss on that side of the Rio Grande.

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The roads are also quite different, typically narrower and bumpier.  On the main causeways you might hear the screech of tires and glimpse a column of masked and heavily armed federal police officers or soldiers wailing by in pick-up trucks.  Smoke might rise from somewhere on the horizon, and it might just be some trash burning.  As you move away from the town center towards the poor suburban expanses and mountaintop slums, the roads at times will disappear altogether, but the bus will keep lumbering on.   The driver will wrench the wheels leftward, drop the clutch, and with a clunk and thud roll down into a potholed drainage ditch that seconds as a roadway—when it’s not raining, of course.  Swaying violently from left to right to avoid the pot holes, the bus will lurch and moan on just beneath half-broken or half built homes of cement block, emerging from time to time for a moment, just to sink back down.

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As the bus approaches the poorer, more desolate neighborhoods near the great mountainside white-stone message, “Lee la Bibia” (Read the Bible), it might squeal to a halt for a broken down car in the road, right in front of a “pharmacy”—or a drug house, where dealers and addicts make transactions out in the open.  When you not-so-discretely snap a photograph through the bus window, the other passengers might begin to hyperventilate.  They are afraid.  After the bus moves on—and the drug dealers having failed to notice the voyeurism—everyone might sigh with relief and curse the stupid gringos.

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At the top of holy mountain you can get off the bus at its last stop and walk up into the Tarahumara Indian colony, where you had best bring a present next time to show respect, lest there not be a next time!  But on a good day, you might just get to see a great and beautiful rarity: a Tarahumara women’s basketball tournament!

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Late in the afternoon, given the Earth still spins on its axis, you might see the sun sink and sky darken.  Burning tires will send smoke and stink from all around.  Children will be playing in the streets, laughing as they do.  Pops and flashes will glisten in the vast expanse beneath you, and you will longingly look over it all to America, sitting there so still and quiet on the opposite side of the Rio Grande Valley.  The day’s last bus might arrive just then, and you will take it, and pray for peace, both in your loving heart and out in the streets.

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As the sun says goodbye, you might be walking back across the border bridge where a few hours earlier a US border patrolman shot and killed a 15-year boy who tossed stones at him from the Mexican side of the Big River’s pithy stream.  Another teenager, who witnessed the slaughter from the bridge above, will be singing a corrido (story-telling folk song) about the tragic course of events. You will want to take a photograph to remember, for your mind and memory seem at times even more delicate than life itself.