Bitter Water and the Spring of Life

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Damian awaits his first bus in Albuquerque (photo: M. Wolff)

“I could throw a tennis ball from my front door, and it would easily roll right into the street here,” Damian muses, his coral blue eyes alit and longing. Despite living so near, he had never ridden the bus in Albuquerque nor attempted to explore the strange universe of Central Avenue, which hums and hisses day and night less than three blocks from his home. A woman and child stare down at him from an advertisement poster at the bus stop as we wait for Ol’ Number 66. It’s about time you came, they seem to say.

Although for years he had managed to avoid the “tragedy train” that runs the East-West span of Albuquerque’s most classic thoroughfare, Damian’s work as an emergency department (ED) nurse has held him in close orbit to that world. Emergency rooms in Albuquerque are, after all, not so terribly unlike bus stops, and they share many of the same frequent flyers. If bus stops are places where the most destitute among us can congregate in relative safety and temporarily avoid run-ins with the law, emergency rooms are like full-service hotels for the homeless, where even the most wretched of souls can occasionally get a meal and a bit of respect (so long as something hurts, and something always does).

Today, however, Damian and I are just two more passengers on the city bus, though probably nosier than most others aboard. Our mission is (as usual for this blog) to strike up conversation with anyone and everyone who is willing to share their story, and to take photographs of them as they go about their day. And this is not difficult to do, because once one enters the realm of public space, he automatically becomes a participant, voluntarily or not, in all its rapidly unravelling melodrama. Our first such call of duty consists of mediating an argument between a bus driver and a wheelchair-bound woman called “La Loca.”

“You’re lying to me!” La Loca screams at the bus driver.

“I already got two wheelchairs, lady!” the driver screams back, and then pleads with me to jump aboard and confirm this fact and put the case to rest.

I hop aboard and see that indeed there already are two wheelchair bound passengers on the bus. I communicate this to La Loca with an apologetic shrug, after which she calms down and seems to let the matter go. I make a note to myself for future reference: Only two wheelchairs are permitted to ride on the bus at a time.

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La Loca and Damian at San Mateo and Central Ave. (Photo: M. Wolff)

A mid-story disclaimer: There is systematic methodological bias in this blog about public transportation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I tend to portray time and again a very specific part of the city (Central Avenue) at a specific hour of the day (evening) as if this were the general reality of life in Albuquerque’s public spaces all the time. It most certainly is not. But as the city’s oldest main street, and its socio-cultural blood and guts, Central Avenue at dusk—the ever famous Route 66—carries in its bowels the very essence of what Albuquerque is, once was, and longs forever to be (or not to be). It is the city’s unaltered, unfiltered true self, the rawest expression of its fervent vitality and morbid decadence. It deserves, per consequence, all the loving attention a methodological bias can give.

Meanwhile, some twenty yards away, a family of four who had boarded a bus a half hour earlier now returns in a panic. They had nearly made it home before realizing with fright that they had left a backpack full of expensive baby gear on the bus stop bench. “We were sure it was gone for good,” Rene Junior says as he professes thanks to a goateed young man named Omar who had forgone several passing busses to guard the stranger’s belongings. All of it was still there, just as they left it.

“That’s what we do around here,” a large young Navajo man named Jeff Padilla explains to me in a tone that seems simultaneously empathetic and aggressive. “We take care of each other, man.”

Rene’s wife, Janelle, is ecstatic about the find, although she denies having felt very worried about losing the backpack, for she always knew she could trust the people around here. Even if there were some bad seeds scattered in the mix, the majority of folks are good and honest, she insists, just like Omar, who had not only saved her a pretty penny, but restored for everyone by his simple act of kindness a little bit of faith in humanity. Janelle also just loves to ride the bus, however. “It’s really fun, and we save sooo much money this way!”

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Omar (left) poses with Rene, Janelle, and their children, Rene III and Joseph (Photo: M. Wolff)

Before we can jump back aboard a bus, we run into a middle-aged Navajo man who, upon seeing my camera, suggests that we bless its lens with his own cheerful and disarming smile. His name is Lincoln Tohdacheeny, or “Bitter Water,” and we know this not to be a lie because he takes out his Arizona State ID card to show us. My camera, meanwhile, does feel quite blessed by his smile, as do both Damian and I, and so with thanks in our hearts we invite him to a meal at a nearby fast food restaurant. As I go to pick up his order, however, I overhear the pretty young cashier hiss to her boss, “Oh gawd, it’s that nasty drunk guy again.” Apparently, Tohdacheeny’s charm doesn’t work on everyone.

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Lincoln Tohdacheeny in a moment of high charm (Photo: M. Wolff)

Damian and I soon say our goodbyes to Tohdacheeny, although only temporarily, for we see him several more times throughout the evening, moving from bus to bus and always smiling giddily, as if a deep inner peace pervaded him. Now we jump aboard an eastbound line to Wyoming Blvd. We are in search of something meaningful, something to tie it all together, but night’s dark curtain has now begun its descent, and the play at hand has changed its tone. The plot is now far more chaotic and unintelligible, a sort of looming madness. It becomes harder and harder to hold it all in.

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Courtney (Photo: M. Wolff)

A young black man holds a pack of ice to his swollen, bloody face. He explains that he is a street fighter, and that nine out of the ten times it’s the other dude who looks like this, only this time the motherfucker got him with a cheap shot. An unsmiling young woman staunchly claiming her throne at the back of the bus glares at me with murder in her eyes, but nonetheless gives me permission to photograph her. Others jockey rowdily to either get in or get out of the frame. A fantastically drunk woman boards the bus with a lit cigarette, provoking the ire and dismay of the beleaguered bus driver. Eventually we follow this woman off the bus for a roadside dance and photo shoot. She says her name is “Don’t Remember.”

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“My name is Don’t Remember.” (Photo: M. Wolff)

If the looming madness unnerves us a bit, our minds are soon eased by the kindness and good company of Pastor Mario and his faithful followers from the Iglesia Cristiana Manantial de Vida (Spring of Life Christian Church), who for months now have dedicated all of their Wednesday evenings to handing out food, drinks, evangelical literature, and live prayers to the down and out people of East Central Avenue.

“I was once lost like all these people you see here,” the 36-year old pastor explains, recalling his past drug addiction and subsequent path to Jesus Christ. “And you know, maybe most of them won’t ever read any of the words I gave them tonight, but one day…one day when they are really down, they will remember when someone reached out a helping hand. That’s all I hope for.”

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The Spring of Life Christian Church (Photo: M. Wolff)

One of the church women offers us a prayer as we began saying our goodbyes, and we accept with glee, for whatever one’s faith, there is very little to despise in being showered in exhortations of hope and love. We all then huddle in a circle, at least eight souls, and for a few minutes all the sirens and drunken shrieks of the mad world surrounding us fall silent before this mighty cacophony of praise and imprecation. Prayer, I think to myself, can be so deeply beautiful at times.

All the while tragedy lurks about us, however, waiting patiently to pounce again once the prayers have ended. Damian and I cross the street to wait for our final bus to take us home, and now the bus stop is full to capacity. It is full of people who wear their tragedy on their sleeves, who spit it from their mouths, bleed it from their ears, who wrap themselves in it like a blanket. Here is where we meet a charming and beautiful young woman named Naomi who by all appearances has only recently begun what is likely to be a long and arduous descent into the hell and quagmire of addiction. Here is where we meet two Lakota Sioux, a mother and child, penniless and stripped of identifying documents, banned from their reservation, and condemned to make their beds in the shadows of dumpsters. Here is where bus passes are exchanged for cigarettes, where EBT cards are exchanged for heroin, where souls are exchanged for survival. Here is now and any other day in our great and decadent city in the desert.

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Naomi and Damian discuss the lighter and darker side of things (Photo: M. Wolff)

“How’d you like it?” I ask Damian as we roll homeward, leaving it all behind us.

“Awww man, this was great!” are the words he speaks, though his enormous smile says so much.

At our penultimate stop, a large and hobbling woman in her fifties finds a seat in front of us. Her own bright smile might shake the bus, might shake the world. She struggles a bit to wrap and tie her gold-glittered skull and bones bandana to her bald head, but her smile only grows larger and brighter.

“Why are you so happy?” I ask, perplexed.

“Why, son, I’m going home!”

And home we all went.

 

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Words of the Prophet

“Tell me about the last time you saw your son Levon,” I asked of Grandma Alice, who despite her frail figure, seemed an indestructible spirit.

She closed her eyes and dropped her head, as if to see him. A sweet smell of corn and carne radiated from the kitchen behind us.

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Grandma Alice at her home near Shiprock, New Mexico.

It was a strange web of circumstance that brought us all together here in Alice’s home, way out on the Navajo Reservation. Two years ago I had been passionately engaged in the writing of this very blog. Each week I sought out someone in Albuquerque who had never ridden the city bus (which was easy to do), and together we would go on a terrific adventure, rolling up and down Central Avenue or mingling with the riffraff at the bus stops. Then I would go home, edit photos, and spend hours writing up the story. For me, this was part sociological inquiry into the world of society’s leftovers, part desperate search for meaning amid an existence governed increasingly by impersonal, soulless institutions. For the people we met on the bus, it was an opportunity to tell the world about their triumphs and their struggles. For the readers, I will of course never know.

Like all things, my blog project lived for a while and then died. Or at least so I thought.

Two weeks ago, a message from a woman named Clara appeared in my inbox. She wanted to talk to me about one of the subjects I wrote about in my very first blog post, a man who called himself Two Crows.

“Two Crows was my brother, and we lost him on 9-22-15,” she wrote. “PLEASE contact me on my email.”

The news struck me hard. I remembered my encounter with Two Crows very well, yes, as if it were yesterday. Two Crows had the air of a charismatic, a great peacemaker, a prophet, I remembered. He spoke with a wondrous poetic eloquence matched neither by those of the street nor those of the tower. And he had the power, in the hail of his breath, to bring a man’s anger to heel, or to lift the spirit of she in despair. He was only thirty-three years old, and healthy as one could be under such conditions. How could he have perished?

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Two Crows on an chilly spring evening in Albuquerque (2013)

When Clara and I spoke by telephone, she explained that her brother, whose real name was Levon, was killed instantly by a speeding car while trying to cross Coors Road near I-40 here in Albuquerque. She said that by miraculous chance, or something of the sort, my blog article about Two Crows came to her attention just weeks after her brother’s death. She told me how the article deeply touched her. She felt as if her beloved brother were speaking directly to her through its words. For so many years she had sought answers from him, only to meet with reticence and flight. Why did he leave his family? Why did he leave his home? Now she found great comfort in his message, which was a message to her:

“Everything you do in this life is a decision,” Two Crows had said to me. “Happiness is a decision. This [his arms spread wide to embrace the world of the street and all its vicissitudes] is a decision!”

Clara and I cried together over the phone, two complete strangers, connected only by radio waves spanning a great and mysterious horizon. We cried for her brother’s soul, and we cried for our own. And then, like the midday sun interrupting a matinee at its climax, an awkward truth rushed suddenly in, bathing our magic moment with unwanted light.

“The man you refer to as Two Crows in your article is the one who appears with you in the photo, right?” she asked me timidly.

“Umm…uhhh…oooh….well, no,” I replied achingly, taken totally by surprise. “Two Crows is the other guy.”

And so it was, Clara’s brother Levon and the prophetic man called Two Crows were in fact not the same man. We had been crying over two different people, and this sudden realization set me to crimson. The deep intrinsic meaning I had attributed to this strange encounter with Clara threatened to melt quickly away like the year’s first snowfall. And this was largely my own fault, for in the article I had described Two Crow’s overcoat incorrectly. I had described it as the very overcoat that Levon wore in a different photograph, the one in which I appeared beside him.

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Levon Bates (1963-2015)

“I’m so sorry,” I said. Clara and her sisters had already invited us (me and my fiancé Paula) to come visit them in their home, and so I felt extra bad. “I totally understand if you would rather us not come up next weekend.”

“It’s okay,” she said with some sadness in her voice, but she was no longer crying.

Attempting some consolation, I began to tell Clara what I knew of her real brother, now that we had confirmed his identity. But the truth is that I knew very little about him. Levon, who was fifty years old at the time when I met him, barely spoke at all. I don’t think he was able to speak. He smiled a lot, and he stumbled a lot. He stared stoically into the setting sun alongside me, and he pointed almost hopefully—but perhaps just blindly—at God knows what out across the endless golden skyline. Wordless as our encounter was, however, I could tell that deep down this man was a gentle soul. Perhaps his mind was broken, but he had love in his heart. That is all I could share with Clara, and it felt like so very little.

To my surprise, Clara recovered from the confusion very quickly. She said that it didn’t really matter, and in a way, she believed that the man called Two Crows might have been speaking for her brother, because her brother could no longer speak for himself. Yes, yes, indeed! I thought. A prophet Two Crows might really be, a voice not for himself but for the voiceless, for Levon and for all like him whose minds have been silenced but whose spirits still yearn to speak!

Clara insisted that we still come up to meet her and the rest of Levon’s family that coming weekend, despite that awkward little confusion over her brother’s identity. And of course we accepted her invitation.

“Alice? Grandma Alice?” I said again. Clara had introduced me to her mother only a few minutes earlier, yet we were already getting on dazzlingly. “Would you tell me about the last time you saw your son Levon?”

At eighty-six, Grandma Alice’s pensive calm might at first be confused for dementia, but this would be an entirely false assessment. Her clarity of mind is nothing short of shocking (her mind has far greater clarity than my own, to be sure), and in wit and humor she is sharp as a whip. When I asked her what year she was born in, she said “thirteen fifty-six,” and scolded me for asking a grown woman’s age. When I took her picture, she winked and made me promise not to pass it on to any boys. But I really wanted to know about Levon, and so I asked again. She heard me. Her eyes shut. And finally, her voice almost inaudibly soft, she thus began:

“It was at least a year ago…no, it was more than a year. It was longer than that. It must have been early March, yes, because I remember it was still very cold, and it had been raining a lot. It was Sunday, and I was going to Church in Farmington, and all of a sudden there he was, Levon, my son. He was wearing his overcoat. He was drenched to the bone…”

“Lunch is ready!” Mike, who is Alice’s grandson, yelled from the kitchen. “Have you ever had a Navajo taco?”

“I think so,” I turned my head to reply, unable to stop this interruption for the delicious calling of fresh fry bread, beans, beef, and corn, hot and steamy and ready to eat.

“I bet not,” Mike said. “You’ve had an indian taco, I bet, but not a Navajo taco. It’s almost the same, I suppose, but everything in this taco is from right here on the res. I would know, I made it all myself.”

Mike, who stands well over six feet tall and would aptly be described as a bear of man, was in fact the only man at all in this home of many women. So where were all the men? I thought to myself. Some husbands and sons were surely out at work or relaxing at home, but there was something more to this. A lot of men seemed to simply be missing. But missing where?

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Grandma Alice with some of her many grandchildren.

Despite her arranged marriage, Grandma Alice’s had been a fruitful one, if not entirely pleasant. She bore nine children, five girls and four boys, just as evolutionary science would predict. But science would have difficulty explaining the discrepancy that followed. Like their father before them, all of Alice’s sons took to the bottle early on, and alcohol eventually killed all but one of them. One fell to cirrhosis of the liver, another to drunken bloody murder, and now Levon, hit by a passing car while stumbling across Coors Road. Alice’s sole surviving son probably would have suffered a similar fate, I was told, but some years back he found the strength within him to put down the bottle and take back control over his life. He now leads Alcoholics Anonymous support groups on the reservation and drives a big rig. Meanwhile, despite challenging times, the women were able to stay on their feet, to come together. This was largely thanks to Grandma Alice, who they refer to as the “rock” of the family, the great matriarch.

As tragic as this one family’s story is, it reflects a more generalized tragedy for the Navajo and other American tribes around the country. According to the CDC and the Indian Health Service, twelve percent of all deaths among Native Americans are directly related to the problem of alcohol (more than three times the rate among non-natives), and nearly seventy percent of these deaths are among males. Car accidents and cirrhosis are the number one assailants, while homicide and suicide come in second. What, then, is the more heartbreaking tale: the loss of Grandma Alice’s three sons to the same terrible vice, or the fact that this is nothing extraordinary?

“Why-y-y-y?…” I stuttered through this dumbfounding revelation.  “Why is alcohol such a huge problem here?”

“Poverty,” Mike quickly replied.

“Boredom,” said one of Alice’s daughters.

“No jobs. No money.  No hope,” said another.

There are no simple answers to such a question, of course, for the root causes of any societal pathology almost certainly lie as much in deep historical processes as they do in the decisions of individuals as they navigate the structural barriers and opportunities presented them by life. Levon’s decision to give himself to the streets instead of fathering his two daughters, for example, presents a terrific puzzle. According to his niece, Smeenie, he once spent a whole month in sobriety in hopes of setting his life straight. He lodged at a local church in exchange for custodial work. He seemed so happy, proud, and strong, she recounts. This could have been his chance to turn things around, yet despite it all—or in spite for it all—one morning Smeenie found him packing his rucksack, and she watched as he walked off down the road, never to return to the church or to sobriety. But what was it that pulled him away from life? What pulled him away from the people who loved him so dearly, those whom he also clearly loved? Was it mere boredom, or was it a force much greater, perhaps much older, than himself?

“Grandma Alice,” I said, recalling suddenly that she never finished her story. “What happened the last time you saw your son Levon?”

Our stomachs were now full, our attention redirected. It was now definitively Alice’s turn to speak. And when she spoke, the world around her bowed reverently.

“As I told you, it must have been more than a year ago. It was early spring, I know, because the winds were icy and cold. It had been raining, and when I saw him, my son Levon, he was drenched with that ice cold water from head to toe, through and through. He had his coat on, but it was drenched, too, and I know he must have been terribly cold. And in that state that he was—drunk as always, he was always drunk—he walked right up to me with his arms stretched out wide, and he tried to hug me.

“‘No, no,’ I told him, and I put my hand out like this to stop him from putting his soaking wet arms around me. I told him, ‘you can’t come up to me like this in front of everyone from church, it’s embarrassing!’ I told him, ‘if you can’t come sober, then you have to go.’ That’s what I told him, and I told him just like that. ‘If you can’t come here sober, then I don’t want you around at all.’

“’I know when I’m not wanted,’ he told me. ‘I don’t want you like this!’ I said. ‘I’m going to go away, then,’ he told me. Then I told him to get in the car, even all wet like he was, and I would drive him over to Kirtland and drop him off, right out there, right out on the road there where he wanted to go. And that’s were I took him. He got out of the car and I drove back home. That is the last time I saw my son Levon.”

A long silence followed that no one dared to interrupt.

“After that,” Grandma Alice continued finally. “Word came around that he was telling folks that his mother was dead. He was telling people that he didn’t have a mother at all…that his mother was dead. That’s what he was telling people, they say.”

                                                                * * * * *

An hour later Paula and I were carefully maneuvering our fragile little sedan over deep mudded gullies towards the most massive and most magnificent stone outcropping I have ever laid eyes upon. It is called Shiprock to the outsider, but the Navajo and their ancestors call it Tsé Bit’a’ í, the “rock with wings.” The evening sun blast its west face like a furnace, while the easterly winds seemed to freeze its backside. We parked the car and began prancing about to ward off the chill, but before long a strange and distracting image caught our eyes and brought us to complete stillness. Up above, way up high atop the pinnacles of those immense mirrored wings of stone, fully alight in the setting sun’s rays, there stood two enormous black birds. Suddenly and from afar, a tremendous crack tore through the sky above us, shaking the earth beneath our feet. We looked again towards the massive stone beast before us. One to the East, the other to the West, the two crows took to flight, and in so short a moment that our hearts mightn’t speak, they disappeared forever into those infinite, mysterious horizons.

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Tsé Bit’a’í

 

 

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.

Jallen’s Freedom and the Setting Sun

Two hours ago Jallen walked out through the security doors of the MDC and into the arms of his lifelong friend Serfina.  Festive sympathizers on the bus offered their knives to cut off his prison wristband and usher him back into freedom.  Now he sits at the Rapid Ride stop on Central and Cornell, lucid of mind, body, and soul, soaking in the evening sun’s golden rays along with Serfina and two men he calls father and brother.  Reverie drifts in with the early autumn breeze.  Freed from the austere confinement of bitter-faced Bangladeshi nuns, I dig my hands into the cool sand of Mr. Arnold’s pit beside childhood chums who carry on as if they barely noticed I had gone away.  But there is a secret in the shine of their eyes: love, like a tide, embraces unencumbered by reflection.  The reunion is felt, not defined.  Jallen is back home on the street with his family. Daily Lobo-4606Today’s venture is metajournalistic.  I am out with William, a staff photographer for the UNM Daily Lobo, who was sent by the paper’s editor to photograph yours truly while on the beat for Albuquerque Bus Stops.  At first I am camera shy, for I virtually never find myself on the other end of a lens, unless it is I who set the timer and ran to position myself for a self-portrait, typically one that dramatizes my masculinity in some ridiculous way.  But as I lose myself in the glassy eyes of another tender face on the streets, smiley and wrinkled, William snaps away unbeknownst to me.  I forget about the distinctions between my handsome angle and the other, my uneven nostrils, the hair sprouting from them both, and my lazy eye of Jack Elam.  Today I am to be exposed in light and shadow before another’s eye, friend or foe, just as I do it to others each time I set out with my camera.  And to William’s good credit as a documentary photographer, I nearly forget that he is there. Navajo PortraitsIt is a typical evening on the bus.  A homeless trio has just come from spicy enchiladas at Project Share (Yale and Gibson area), and are now enjoying the shade and parkesque social environment of the bus stop.  A nurse has picked up her children from school and is heading home to make dinner.  An obese man with the smile of Steinbeck’s Lennie dreams of leaving Burque one day for greener lands, but sticks to the relative comfort of what he knows.  A white-haired man reveals sky blue eyes from under dark sunglasses, and recounts the eleven bus rides he has taken today.  Two women drag heavy bags of groceries aboard, and then fall on top of each other in a splash of giggles.  We make them miss their stop in order to better describe the exigencies of five little mouths to feed and nursing school, and they don’t get upset.Daily Lobo-4584

Meanwhile, the bus driver has a surprise for me.  “You the guys who do the Albuquerque Bus Stops blog?”

I cower in wait for his reprimand.  Thirty-four years into this human experience, the Catholic school boy in me still flinches at the raise of an eyebrow.  But Robert’s face is not that of the Bangladeshi nuns.  With a tender tumbling of cheekbones and jaws, he continues,

“Man, I keep waiting for the next post.  They don’t come out fast enough!”

His charm digs into my core.  I imagine dirt accumulating in my dimples.  Like a number of others on the bus today, he chooses not to have his photograph taken, but it’s no hair out of my nostrils, for he and everyone else just made my day.

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Back at Central and Cornell, William and I hop off the Rapid Ride and into the Freedom Reunion of Jallen and his beloveds.  Serfina, all made up and pretty for her friend’s liberation, holds on tightly to his arm.  Jallen’s father, “Richie Rich,” asks for change, and says he accepts Visa and MasterCard.  His brother, Shawn, tells the story of his stump.  A car accident years ago took his arm off, nearly his leg, and collapsed his lungs.  He was in a coma for eight weeks.

“But I’m still alive, man!”

Indeed.  Alive and free, temporary and constrained though this life and this freedom may be.   The next step is the same as the last, and as so many before.  Jallen says he has been on the streets for 23 years, a mighty big number for a 32-year old.  But he is looking to get an apartment with help from St. Martin’s Hospitality Center.  Maybe it will work out.  But apartments, like jails, are places of confinement to one so used to the bright stars over an abandoned cemetery.  None of that matters right now, however, for the golden sun is setting over Central Avenue, illuminating the quiet glee of a family—blood or otherwise—reunited. Daily Lobo-4617

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

Pocahontas and Kaylee Marie

Jerobio has not been home to see his children in two days, but he thinks he will probably make it tonight.  In the meantime, the sun is setting over a city gilded by its light, and the liquor store is calling.  We meet at the bus stop downtown just across from the train station, and we ride all the way to Coors Blvd for the store with the best deal on cheap beer.  His friend, Gregory, with a smile like a Kuala bear, departs at 8th and Marquette to see a bail bondsman.

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Today I’m traveling with my girlfriend Paula (at back with Jerobio), who happened to be born and raised in a Brazilian city near where I did much of my graduate research.  Today she is a nurse in the emergency room, and perhaps from that experience has become so comfortable around—and comforting to—those who have long abandoned their dreams to depravity and vice.  In any case, it is easy for me to move around to take pictures because Jerobio immediately falls into playful conversation with her, intermittently advising her, of course, on matters of life, love, and the complementary essence of man and woman.

Jerobio had been married to a Navajo woman named “Chuki” who he met near his hometown in Utah.  He had just come back from a tour in Afghanistan in 2006 when Chuki died in a drunk driving accident, and he says that at that point he began his total devotion to alcohol.  “Take care of your woman!” he implores with all seriousness, and then slips into toothless laughter over unrelated matters.

I ask about his experience in the military.  “I was a sniper, but I never killed no one, man…just picked at ‘em [pokes at his “non-vitals”].  I’m a Christian, man!”

I ask about his children.  He says they stay with their grandma, and that he makes sure that he never drinks in front of them.  That’s why he hangs downtown with the hobos.  Because of the nature of the binge, he often will not go home for days, sometimes a week, while he accumulates grime and stink in the scratches and wrinkles of his skin.  He especially loves his 13-year daughter: “She is like Pocahontas, man, a real princess!”  What does she think about her father not coming home for days? “I think deep in heart she understands.”

Paula and Jerobio continue laughing on about all the whatnots of life while I move about the bus in search of an interesting photographic angle.  Being that there are others on the bus, I can’t help but wiggle myself between them, bump into them, trip and fall into their laps—at which point I apologize profusely, and they ask in perfect kindness and curiosity what I am doing.

Paula outing-0313That is how I meet Jeff and Sierra, a sweet young couple from Bernalillo on their way back from Presbyterian Hospital where they travel by bus every day to visit their newborn baby in the ICU.  Their daughter was born with a hole in her heart one month and seven days ago, and must remain monitored 24/7 until she is ready to undergo surgery.  Her name is Kaylee Marie, the letters now tattooed on her father’s left forearm by his own right hand with black ink and a needle.  She will survive.

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Jeff and Sierra met for the first time at Wall Mart five years ago while still in high school.  The crush was immediate, love followed, and today they are engaged.  Jeff dropped out of school and is yet to get his GED.  Sierra graduated and went to NMSU for a while, but then came back.  They are obviously inching along a plain of high hurdles and real struggle, but it is hard to see it their faces, which retain a youthful tenderness like a first kiss under starry Spring skies.

In a sudden jolt the land barge halts at the Churches Chicken on Central Ave near Coors Blvd, and this is our hapless stop.  Jerobio goes off to his liquor store, Jeff and Sierra to their home in Bernalillo, and Paula and I to the bathroom smelling of fried chicken and industrial cleaning agent.  To the East is the slumping string of cement of Nine-mile-hill dumping into the now blossoming Rio Grande.  Beyond it, the slow stretch of city upward towards the hazy magnificence of the Sandia Mountains.  To the West, a New Mexico sunset in all its glory.  Right in front of us, Joseph, a 48-year old alcoholic just released from jail (again), where he was sent for drinking in public and trespassing.  His jail tag from the MDC is stuck to his wrist:

“You guys don’t by chance have a knife on you, do ya? They don’t cut ‘em off for you at the jail like they used to. And I don’t carry knives or guns..,” his timid voice goes comically ominous, “…because if I did, I’d use ‘em!”

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Just before we arrived, Joseph had gotten another ticket for public drinking at the next bus stop up, where simultaneously an ambulance was tending to a veteran who had cracked his skull open and was bleeding profusely.  The cops had told Joseph they wouldn’t give him a ticket if he could walk away.  A pithy little joke it was.  Joseph’s right ankle is swollen like an eggplant, and he can barely walk.  Somehow, though, he stumbled his way to the next bus stop anyway, plunked down, and opened another can of beer.

Paula busies herself in conversation with him while I snap some photos and admire the beauty of this grand city at sundown.  Joseph talks to her about his life, and how he ended up a bus stop drunk.  “I tried to join the army when I was twenty-three, but I’m too stupid.”

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“You’re not stupid!” Paula insists.

No response. He just keeps on as if she hadn’t a clue as to what she was talking about.  After the army fiasco he worked in “labor” on construction sites for a few years, but shortly thereafter succumbed to a life of drunkenness.  Everything since is only a blur, a constant in and out of jail for loitering, trespassing, public drinking, failures to appear in court, outstanding warrants, and whatever, always back to the same.  The perfect tragedy.  But whatever else has been lost in his life, what surely remains is his warmest of smiles, childlike in essence, pure and sweet.

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As night falls, Paula and I walk down Nine-mile hill all the way to 2nd Street and Gold, where we left her car.  We stop in for onion rings and wieners at the Dog House.  Ever since she saw it on an episode of Breaking Bad, she wanted to eat there.  It was delicious and nasty, just like you know.  And thus ends another day on the bus.

“I’m homeless, of course I have a cell phone!”

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Notorious to students living or parking near the University of New Mexico’s south campus, the bus stop on Yale Blvd near Central Avenue offers a daily ruckus of drunken riffraff for passersby to fear and avoid, stop and gawk at, or in rare cases, share a swig or splif with.  Like many other bus stops, the corner itself is in part just one of few viable congregation points for homeless people who without a “reason” to be there (i.e. “waiting for the bus”) would be quickly and perhaps violently ushered along by the police for being in violation of loitering statutes.  The other utility of the bus stop is, of course, public transportation, without which thousands of laborers, students, struggling parents, wayward teens, ex-convicts and vagabonds would be stranded in this poorly organized urban expanse called Albuquerque.

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“Brother, you can ask any question you like, but let me just ask you something first!,” exclaimed Two-Crow, a 33-year Navajo man from Colorado with dusty auburn hair hanging past his shoulders.

“But of course. Shoot!”

“How in the world did you get such a beautiful woman at your side?!”

Anais, a 19-year old UNM student, had asked to come along on one of my bus stop ventures.   As I expected, the dynamic of encounters was different than when I go alone, but I hadn’t foreseen the great advantage of being accompanied by a young, beautiful, and unassuming female.  Contrary to my previous solo outings, not one person accused me of being an undercover narcotics agent while Anais was with me.  Furthermore, everyone—no matter the degree of their intoxication—treated us with kindness and respect, a sort of street corner chivalry, if you will.  And to top it off, Anais carried herself so naturally, with such sincerity and confidence while asking questions, that she thoroughly won the hearts of all around.

“You’re guess is as good as mine!” I responded.

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Two Crow had come into Albuquerque only three days prior, and will be moving to other places to be homeless a few days from now.  Yet he has made friends quickly, illustrated by the multiple hugs and handshakes that befell him in our presence.  “When you are homeless, making friends and enemies happens really fast.  You get on someone’s good side if you have something that they want.”

A swig of seven-buck vodka or a hit from a joint can break the fragile but dangerous barriers between strangers on the street.  As in all social groups, reciprocity is the foundation of trust, and trust is one’s best guarantee of survival.  Ironically, the vehicle of this reciprocity on the streets—alcohol and drugs—is that which imprisons one to this very fate.  Two Crow is all too aware of this dynamic, and although he admits that systemic racism and oppression has in many ways helped to orient his path of depravation, he also takes full responsibility for the decisions he has made.  “Everything you do in life is a decision, brother.  Happiness is a decision. This,” he spreads his gangly arms wide, his gray overcoat sprawled like a mast, “is all a decision!”

Two Crow grew up in a small town in Colorado, and left his parents’ house for the streets at the age of twelve.  He says he did it out of spite for his mom.   In a fit of anger over his early teen drinking, she once pointed out to a drunken hobo lying in the gutter and screamed at her son, “Is that what you want to do with your life? Is that what you want to become?!”

“Yes, it is!” the little boy Two Crew had screamed back.  Twenty years later, reflecting on it, he says, “I wanted to piss off my Mom.  Turns out she didn’t really care what I became after all.”  A sincere chuckle followed, as if no resentment remained, not even regret, rather only a lighthearted—if fatalistic—acceptance of a fate long decided and sealed.

He went on to explain that when you have lived on the streets for so long, you no longer feel comfortable anywhere else.  Embracing two of his new friends, he expounded, “if you gave us money to sleep in a hotel room tonight, we would sit there awkwardly for while, and then be like, ‘let’s get out of here and go walk around,’ and then we’d be right back here.” The six others at the bus stop nodded in agreement as they took turns munching down a plate of Chinese food given to them by a worker at a nearby restaurant.

At various points in the conversation, Two Crow burst out in song, melodic poems of struggle, liberation, and redemption, or traditional tribal songs the meanings of which I could only intuit.  His eloquence was sweet and soothing.  His charisma embraced the entire world.  When an angry passerby yelled out, “Don’t let him [me] exploit us brown brothers!” Two Crow cooled things down in an instant, hugging the stranger, telling him, “It’s okay, brother, he’s good, he’s with us.”

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Now on the subject of race, which is inescapable when one opens his eyes—particularly when traversing the interstices of human social life—I asked Two Crow if  he identified with being Native American.  His answer was immediate, clear to the point, and profound:

“When I’m drinking, I’m an Indian.  When I’m sober, I’m Native American.” 

He was referring to the stereotypical “drunk indian” who betrays his noble past by surrendering to depravity and vice, and to the “stoic native” who remains in touch with the spirits of the universe, the masters of the earth and heavens.  He is both things, he is yin and he is yang, and that is the life he has chosen.

The darkening sky beckoned our departure, and so we soon said our goodbyes.  Hugs around the table.  Two Crow embraced me like a bear, “Brother, in a few days I will be thinking about you.  I hope you will remember me, too.”  He then offered his cell phone number in case we wanted to get in touch again, even though he was leaving in a few days.  Anais was confused, “you have a cell phone?”

“I’m homeless, of course I have a cell phone!”