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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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.

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.