Back on the Bus

Bus_Alexandria-3285

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.

Bus_Alexandria-3239

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!”

Bus_Alexandria-3258

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!”

Bus_Alexandria-3263

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.”

Bus_Alexandria-3276

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.

Bus_Alexandria-3306

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.

Advertisements

The Inhabitant of Burque

Lion outing-0971

I had never seen what lay hidden behind his dark sunglasses, and I cannot show it to you now, for shutters and zoom, like the mind, clunk and err from time to time, and rare opportunities are easy to miss.  But I assure you that the warmth in his eyes, alit in brief and random interludes, lends sincerity to all those words ever effervescing from his throne in bloom.  And those words, those images, they tickle and poke, caress and kindle so many latent emotions embedded in a strange city waking up to itself a little more each day.  He unto himself is no controversy, but the modern world he exposes is very much so, and I cannot help but to stare in awe as this same world—so thirsty for a chance to connect with its own self—gravitates more and more around the digital commons he un-ribboned only ten months ago.  Lion York, founder of the now famous Inhabitants of Burque facebook page, has been a mystery to me, and just as I do with most mysteries these days, I invited him to accompany me on a bus ride.  Lion accepted, save for the bus ride, and we set off together to explore Albuquerque.

Inhabitants of Burque, now nearing 16,000 followers, has been growing a solid steady month after month since its inception last August.  Like a snowball that grows exponentially as its circumference expands, the site seems to multiply its reach each day, attracting a broader field of people and interests the larger it gets.  My eyes are always squinting when I read it, my brow furrowed by muse, and although it is true that in a cave I have lived during most of this last decade of technological revolution, I need not be a prophet to see that Lion’s project is something far more than just another Facebook page.  It is—and please forgive my tendency for aggrandizement—the epicenter of a cultural shift in the City of Albuquerque.  This is not to say that the project is causing any such cultural shift or that the shift would not happen without it, but rather it is, by default or by genius, the vehicle through which Albuquerque is beginning to seriously redefine itself.

Lion outing-0981

Lion had not foreseen such rapid success.  One year ago he was, like many among us are or were at one time, a young man struggling to choose between job security and following his dreams.  Stability vs. Passion.  He bet on the latter, invested what money he had saved in camera equipment, a website, and related such overheads, and then jumped straight in.  There were obstacles, conflicts, controversy, and a great deal of uncertainty.   But something was happening in the city—and perhaps in society at large—that seemed to provoke an impassioned thirst for exactly that which Lion was the first and most consistent to offer:  a regular, interactive, and entertaining digital commons through which people of all stripes could explore the grit and glee of their own city, and share their own experiences, thus validating all the beauty and insanity one absorbs but rarely releases on a day to day basis.  Further, Inhabitants of Albuquerque puts to seed a long-begotten philosophical dream: Our city can be a real and unique community, one to be proud of.

Of course, if a sense of pride and commonality is the general direction in which we are moving, we most certainly still have a long way to go.  Just beneath the surface of this apparent social integration lies a vast and deep history of conflict entrenched on the lines of class, race, gender, nationality, ideology, and myriad other forms of human social identity.  It pops up from time to time in comments and counter-comments on the Inhabitants of Burque’s Facebook page, sometimes with utter vehemence and distaste.  In Lion’s own words, “computers give people tons of courage that wouldn’t be otherwise present in person.”  He implores them not to hate, but hate is out there, and it is a pressure cooker, is it not?  Time will tell, but as I am ingloriously ambivalent in my opinions on the matter, let us move on now to the adventure!

malibue and royalty2Our first encounter beckoned from the roadside, on Central Avenue near Wyoming.  Preface: Transexuality is the Western world’s greatest mindfuck, as it poses a direct challenge to age-old conceptions of man and woman that are at the base of our belief in a higher power.  Prostitution, too, is a thorn in the side of a society pretending in vain to adhere to firm moral structures sanctioned by God.  Combine the two, and the powers that be are left jaw-dropped and bumbling.  Society has a hard time adjusting to anything different than the way it has perceived things to always have been, even if things were never always any one way or the other in reality.  In the meantime, the appearance of transexual prostitutes on a hot summer afternoon is, as far as I am concerned here, only an appearance, for the truth of that matter remains undiscovered and unimportant.  All that mattered to Lion and I, to speak only for ourselves, is that two beautiful people with a million stories to tell were there for the telling.

Malibu and Royalty met just three months ago, but have since become best friends, going everywhere and doing everything together.  Malibu is from New York, but came here as a teenager.  Royalty grew up in Albuquerque.  She was a troubled teen, afflicted with an insidious anger that burned bridges and oriented her life away from school and towards the streets.  Although she is not in school now, she plans on going back sometime and becoming a social worker so that she can help troubled children and teens before they make the same mistakes she made.

Lion outing-0922With sweet giggle and smile, our impromptu photo shoot began.  Malibu and Royalty prepped their make-up in the reflective glass of a storefront door, puckering their lips with the naturalness of those who know their own beauty.  Lion and I snapped photographs, and the girls set to pose.  I thought to myself, the world is what it is, but… anyone who fails to see sexy in these girls, however they define themselves, must surely have a veil of confused morality draped over their eyes.  But, of course, that is nothing out of the ordinary, so let’s continue.

Up the road, off Tramway and Central, Lion and I ventured into the old Plaza Dorado housing complex, most of which is leased for Section 8 housing.  We immediately ran into two men, “Shy” (nicknamed so because he is, well, shy) and “Spaceship,” a 20-year old rapper from Little Rock, Arkansas.  Shy came out from Chicago three years ago to escape the unsettling alternatives to a high cost of living in his old city, but he misses the green.  Spaceship dropped out of high school at sixteen, and is now trying to make it in the music industry.  But despite his talent and his self-proclaimed resemblance to Lil’ Wayne (much appreciated by the local girls), the cards sometimes seem stacked against him.  “It’s like the police out here just want you to go to jail,” he says, complaining of constant harassment by the APD Gang Unit.  He also has to navigate the state bureaucracies to get everything from a birth certificate to a driver’s license because all of his identifying documents were lost when he was still a child.  He says his dream is to make whole lot of money and move to another country to live on the cheap, far far away from these games of cop-nab-the-gangster and other institutional restraints on living free as a poor young black man in America.

Plaza DoradoAt the end of the day, Lion has his dark sunglasses back on, and we stroll off into the impossibly sweet air of New Mexico dusk.  His eyes were only in brief moments exposed, but in them I saw clearly the windows to a tender and caring soul, one full of nuance and hope, and driven to help drive a city once forlorn to a place of greater harmony and common understanding.  I am still a cynical old bastard myself, but consider this my endorsement of those who promote community over disunity, hope over fatalism, and love over hate.

Lion outing-0979