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.

The Deliverance of Ciudad Juarez

[A tangential bit on the condition of Albuquerque’s sister city]

Three years ago bodies were dropping in Ciudad Juarez at a rate of ten to fifteen per day.  3,300 fell in 2010 alone, often piled up on roadsides, hanging from bridges, or dismembered and scattered about busy intersections.  Convoys of green-clad soldiers and blue-clad, masked federal police officers raced constantly through the streets, futilely chasing random bursts of gunfire.  Extortionists left scores of businesses burned to ash, while hundreds more closed under related economic pressures.  More than 250,000 people fled the city for calmer lands, and nearly everyone learned to stay indoors after dark, leaving the streets a ghostly empty.  Rival cartels were in the thick of a bloody war for control of one of the world’s most vital smuggling ports for drugs en route to America, and Juarez descended into Hell.Juarez Bus Stops-4279And then, about a year and a half ago, the violence abruptly stopped.  People were still being killed, but at rates now comparable to many large American cities.  The army and federal police forces have withdrawn to their barracks, the municipal police were given their weapons back (substantially upgraded), and everything seems to have returned to normal, or the way it was prior to ex-President Felipe Calderon’s declaration of war on the cartels in 2007.  People and businesses have returned en masse, filling the streets day and night with vibrant social activity.  Families now hit the fairs, markets are bustling, youths drink and mingle, and prostitutes are making their buck.  Only the gringos have yet to rediscover the new Juarez, and thus remain confined to their borders.

What happened?  By most accounts, the war was simply won, and power has been consolidated under one authority.  That is, one cartel defeated another, and monopolized the means of criminal violence.  The Sinoloa Cartel, supposedly run by the infamous “El Chapo” Guzman, successfully pushed out the Juarez Cartel, and now any act of criminal violence in the city is strictly regulated by the new dons of the underworld.   Most of the young gangsters who had been cheaply employed by the rival cartels to kill each other off have been eliminated or disarmed, thus limiting random violence to the occasional desperation of drug addicts and crimes of passion.  And the widespread extortion of businesses mysteriously stopped as soon as the federal police left the city on orders of the recently elected president Enrique Peña Nieto.  It appears that an equilibrium at the politico-criminal nexus has finally been reached again, and Juarez has been delivered from the bowels of Hell.

But since nothing is real until you see it, my good friend Joshua and I must find a way to escape from our lives for a few days to explore those bowels south of the border, which are certainly no longer those of Hell, but rather of a festive purgatory far more cheery than this rigidly controlled peace of the Heavens.   We notice it immediately.  There are no more army soldiers at the border checking our car, no more masked federal policeman racing through the streets, and no more burned out our otherwise abandoned buildings dotting each business district.  Traffic is positively bad again, busses clog up intersections, and road construction blocks everywhere you want to go.  Street performers again pull tricks and juggle flames at red lights, and someone is always there to wash your windshield.  The air is no longer tense and constricted.  One can now breathe free of the expectations of random and cinematographic acts of violence.quinceanera

Our photojournalist friends on the crime beat have grown bored with their jobs.  Three years ago there were too many homicides during any given 8-hour shift to cover them all, and one newspaper article had to describe multiple events.  Today each murder gets its very own article, and several days might pass without any murders at all.  Some of our friends have been transferred to other departments altogether, and are now photographing social events, like quinceñeras and mini-marathons.  Others have stayed on the crime beat, but are now directed to cover car accidents and special moments, like the return of children to school after summer break.Juarez Bus Stops-4237

During our three days on the beat, there is only one murderous event.  It is Saturday evening around eight o’clock.  Brian receives a call from fellow journalists with news of a double homicide in the slums at the southwestern edge of the city.  We tear through the streets at 70 mph, dodging cars and potholes, hoping to get a view of the bodies before the police arrive and cordon the area off.  But we are late, and it turns out that the two dead men are lying inside a house and cannot be seen anyway.  Two others are only wounded, however.  The whole neighborhood watches from their darkened front porches as an ambulance rumbles slowly down the dirt road towards the sea of lights on the horizon.   No one knows what happened or why, or who it was that died.  There are no screams, no cries, just a respectful quiet concealing the collective tickling of this spontaneous bit of entertainment.Juarez Bus Stops-4350

And then nothing.  A false report of a fire.  A non-fatal stabbing.  A blind run after wailing police cars that are just running red lights for no good reason at all.  Two full days pass without murder in Ciudad Juarez, something inconceivable just a few years ago.  If this trend continues, the days of the “nota roja” (the graphic reporting of violent crime in Mexico) might be numbered.

In our spare time we drive around to see other matters of interest.  Downtown is full of brothels and prostitutes of all stripes who solicit customers from dimly lit street corners and shadowy doorways.  The criminal syndicates who govern this underworld prohibit photography, so we keep our cameras down.  But later we visit Eco2000, a large apartment complex that was built near to completion more than ten years ago before being abandoned when the construction company declared bankruptcy.  Squatters who began occupying the vacant complex two years ago run out to greet us, asking to be photographed and offering us a tour of their homes.   From the outside they are well-designed abodes for the middle class.  But inside they are slums.  Anything resembling running water or electricity is pirated and precarious.  Sewage has nowhere to go.  Security is left to the residents themselves.  The state, legally blocked from removing the squatters but unwilling to provide them services and protection, has chosen to ignore them altogether.Eco2000

The next afternoon we meet “Marta,” a 40-year old police officer and one of the first women to enlist in the service back in 2008 when the city government promoted female recruitment to improve the city’s image.  Studies out of Oslo and promulgated by the United Nations have suggested that women are less likely to indulge in corruption.  But Marta says that she enlisted because she has always been attracted to the profession.  She is of tough disposition, after all.  She worked as a bar tender in Juarez’ rowdiest dives for more than ten years prior to picking up a badge and gun.  Today she is the sole caretaker of both her mother and her young son, although her 21-year old daughter, a US Marine stationed in El Paso, helps with a check from time to time.

True to form, I ask to see her guns, and so we go home with her to explore the stockpile. While her mother and auntie busy themselves bottling roasted chiles to send to a lone son in Tucson, Marta fetches her pride and joy: a newly issued German Panther short-barrel automatic rifle and a 9 mm Beretta pistol.  Unfortunately, we cannot just go outside and fire off rounds, for such displays of raw hoodlumism are beyond the pail in most places, so we pocket our boyish fantasies, stash the weapons, and head out for less bellicose adventures around town.Juarez Bus Stops-4426

Joshua and I decide to ride the bus, for it is only this that could possibly pretend relevance to a blog called Albuquerque Bus Stops.  Further, as we devise, the bus provides a particularly interesting lens through which to view a city for what it really is.  And what we see is telling, for it quickly becomes evident that despite the dramatic decrease in homicides in Ciudad Juarez and the apparent increase in social activity, perhaps the greater part of the city’s population continues to fear for their safety on a daily basis.  Juarez may have been delivered from the bowels of Hell, but the scars of that violence remain deeply embedded in the hearts of those who survived it.

On the bus people are invariably reticent, with the exception of Carlos, our smiley driver.   Passengers all smile, too, but when I approach them, they turn to ice, their words dash and hide, their shoulders grow.  When I ask why people are back out on the streets, they tell me it is out of necessity, not for lack of fear.  Two 15-year old girls at the back of the bus are staring at us and giggling.  I ask them if they feel safer in the new Juarez.  No.  I ask them if they know anyone who has been killed.  They respond by unfolding t-shirts upon which the face of a teenage boy is imprinted.  They are just now returning from the print shop, and are on their way to a funeral.  The boy on the shirt is one of a the girls’ cousins.  He was bludgeoned to death with stones the day before.Juarez Bus Stops-4264

We stop for a break in Altavista neighborhood, which is the end of the line, and just down the street from the driver Carlos’ house.  His wife and daughter come down to see him, and then ride the bus with him on its last run of the day.  A young boy named Edgar is washing buses for less than three dollars a pop.  A family of drunkards invites us in for some mescal while their dumb-minded matriarch tries to stick her fingers in my pockets.  Across the street the schedule master keeps tabs in a notebook while his young daughters play about on the sidewalk.  A mangy mutt, big-balled and dreaded, lumbers lazily in their midst.  The sun is setting over Ciudad Juarez, and a cool breeze rolls down these desert hills.  Just across the valley America is a glimmering city of gold.

Back downtown the plaza of the cathedral buzzes with activity.  Deportees sit about and wait for eternity to pass, drunks and addicts meander restlessly, and evangelical Christians rant on over loudspeakers about the second coming of Christ.  We meet Johnny, a 45-year old ex-gang banger from Los Angeles.  Having been born in Mexico and raised in the U.S., he was deported five years ago after serving more than a decade in prison for gang-related violence in California.  He removes his shirt to show his tattoos, which indicate that he is/was a member of the 18th Street gang, in association with the “Sureños,” the “Mara Salvatrucha,” and the “Mexican Mafia” prison gang, all of which is still a matter of great pride long after the thrill of teen ganging is gone.  But even if he wanted out, and out for good, his old identity follows intrepidly behind him like a dark shadow.

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Another man of roughly the same age suddenly yells at us from across the street for us to come over.  He is also a deported gangster from California, but he is a “Norteño,” which means enemy to Johnny.  Johnny attempts to calm the man down, swearing no disrespect and looking for any opportunity to show that the two men actually have more in common than not—being that they are both deported homies from California now stuck in Mexico—but the rival will have nothing of it.  He starts to push Johnny and threaten his life:

“Get the fuck outta here, homie, or te desapereces, ¿me explico?  This plaza is Norteño territory, boy! ”

A shoe shiner working nearby recognizes the danger in all this animosity, and goes to Johnny to insist he move on.  I pat Johnny on the back, too, and guide him away.  After all, the playing out of old gang rivalries decades out of adolescence and thousands of miles from homie homeland is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Late in the evening we are back out on the crime beat and twiddling our thumbs because nobody is getting killed.  But it is an unnerving peace, for it is doubtfully the reflection of a healthy society, rather simply a tenuous accord between the forces of darkness lurking just below a veneer of democracy and the rule of law.  The war could start again at any time.  Prior to our arrival, one police officer was assassinated nearly every day for over a week, supposedly a strategy of the city’s new kingpin, Gabino Salas Valenciano, to bully the municipal police into a sort of pact of mutual assistance.   And then, mysteriously, Gabino was killed during a shootout with federal police last Wednesday.  Now everyone is on red alert, uncertain of the scale of retaliation that might ensue.

But tonight is the soft lapping of waves on pebbled beaches, so we decide to investigate other matters.  At the Casa del Pescador, a dingy evangelical mission located near the main border bridge that runs a daily soup kitchen and provides various forms of assistance to broke immigrants, the homeless, and drug addicts, we find Pedro and Luci tearing up under the impassioned prayers of Pastor Jesus.   They hold up a picture of their 5-year old daughter, who recently was taken into the custody of DIF (child protective services) after she swallowed some prescription medicine that was left unguarded while Pedro was in Juarez looking for work. Pedro then went back to get his wife in Mexico City, and they both have now traveled with no money or belongings to retrieve their daughter in Juarez.  But DIF says the investigation of parental neglect could take 6-12 months.  Pedro and Luci have two more children back in Mexico City, and the tragedy begins to unfold.  Poverty destroys families.  Poverty kills.  We agree to drive the couple across town to the Casa del Emigrante, where they will be allowed to sleep, shower, and eat for three days.   After that, they will be on their own again, just another couple of immigrants lost on the road of progress.Juarez Bus Stops-4514

The next day our old jalopy craws slowly over the border bridge under a hot midday sun.  The engine overheats.  We cut it at the bridge’s crest, and roll silent and sweaty into the lanes of the US Customs inspection unit, where we are searched and questioned.  A gaunt man in front of us is hand-cuffed and taken away, his face like an old carpet rotting on a river bank.  After twenty minutes a blue-eyed man flags us on with a smile, wishing us a good day.  We are stateside, and Ciudad Juarez, in war and in peace, is behind us, even if always deep inside.

Lynette’s Ride

Rain clouds roll in heavy over the mountains, their underbelly skimmed off by the Sandia Crest and curling over its edge like a sliver of cheese.  It is late July in Albuquerque, and the air is strangely as damp and cool as the coastal Northwest.  Pigeons could be sea gulls, and the hiss of wind down Central Avenue could be the melancholy of a fog soaked tide following an invisible moon.  The skylight is fading unnaturally early.  It feels as if a curfew were being imposed out of respect for a recent tragedy, or in preparation for one certain to come.  As it turns out, a man was busy shooting his wife and himself just down the street, but trees and breeze muffle gunfire and screams, here as anywhere else, so Lauren and I giddily hop a bus from Nob Hill to the International District with hearts almost as soft as the ones we were given, none the wiser, but all the better.

Lynette outing-2887 Born and raised in Santa Fe, Lauren moved to Albuquerque for college, where she studied theatre and became a conduit of comedic cultural expression.  Now she is better known as “Lynette” from the Blackout Theatre’s video series, Lynette’s Albuquerque and Shit Burqueños Say, which have reached a million people for whom our city has in some way or another come to mean something more than a dusty expanse of box homes and strip malls.

What more does it mean?  Although there is little of that ostentatious glory that sprouts loudly from the World’s mega-cities and quaint mountain paradises, we have here a sweet humility more endearing than even the dear end of all things, hidden ‘neath this (typically, but not today) boiling hot son, and which touches the heart of one and all who spend a little time here.  That is the essence of Lynette, and the genius of Lauren.  As New Mexican as a tortilla pan-burned in the image of Jesus Christ, Lauren has the wits, talent, pride, and drive to devote herself to the uncovering of, and the reveling of, a culture quirky, confused, and nigh forgotten to the rest of the world.  In doing so she has become an icon of the city, and a hot steamy bowl of laughyoassoff nostalgia for those who have left it.  Plus, she’s like all fun to hang out with on the bus ;).

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We hop aboard the Eastbound 66 at dusk.  The cabin is near full, and we immediately begin talking to people.  Ortencia and Maria are travelling up from a small city in Chihuahua called Buenaventura, which lies just south of Ciudad Juarez and is enmeshed is the same ascending wave of drug violence.  Ortencia’s two children are with her, hunched under bulging backpacks and squeezing Brats dolls and pillows.  They are on vacation, visiting family in El Norte.  I can see in Maria’s face a distrustful reticence before my camera, before my questions, for perhaps a poor Mexican is bound to feel forever scrutinized in a country that scorns the immigrants that make its mills run.  Ortencia is younger and more susceptible to a geek’s flattery, but only her children really open up with the bright smile of those too innocent to fear betrayal.

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Others are too far gone to fear it.  Three street drunks board the bus at Central and San Mateo, and sit down across from us.  Marta and “Squibals” came in from the Res for a cyclical binge.  “Cornbread” came from New York thirty years ago to escape the nuisance of parole, and found a year-round party on the streets of Albuquerque.  These are the occasional homeless.  They generally have a place to go sleep somewhere if they wish, but during binges feel far more comfortable and free amidst the grit and chaos of the streets.  Despite the rough n’ tumble of it all, Marta still keeps her hair trimmed and shining, and her smiley face enshrined in elegant turquoise jewelry.  “Squibals” had her nickname tattooed on her forearm.  It is a souvenir from Kansas, where she attended school as a child and where no one could pronounce her last name, Esquivel.  “Cornbread” is just “Cornbread,” perhaps because he likes cornbread…which means we might all be “Cornbread.”

Lynette outing-2913 Lauren and I get off the bus at Central and Wyoming.  A gaunt 37-year old man with short-cropped hair and dirty baggy clothes approaches us in front of Griff’s Burgers to very gently explain the dire straits that have compelled him to waver wistfully and forlorn outside a burger joint peddling for change.   He says his name is Chris, and his wife left him to move to Colorado after a fight they had three days ago.  They did not “break up” per se, but since he was laid off recently and the couple were subsequently evicted from their apartment, she fled north for shelter with family, and he stayed on the streets of Albuquerque to try to recoup.  “I just want some food,” he says.  Lauren and I are also starving pretty much to death, so we invite him into Griff’s with us, where I order three number sixes with unsweetened iced tea, courtesy of the tail end of my line of credit loan. And so we sit down inside, and Chris, tender and calm, tells his story.

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The son of a Mexican and a white American, Chris moved within and between two racially separate worlds with ease since childhood, slightly bending his identity from one end of the spectrum to the other according to the exigencies of each social context.  But growing up poor in the household of an extremely abusive father, he found a more welcoming outlet for his destitution and rage in the street-based families of Los Angeles’ Hispanic gangs.  He became a Sureño at thirteen, and spent the next ten years in and out of L.A. County corrections facilities, doing and selling drugs, and participating in acts of violence against rival gang members.  After seeing so many of his childhood friends killed or locked up for life, he opted out of the gang by moving with his mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  For years he kept his gang obligation to stay in touch, for to be a thug is to be a thug for life.  But age has a peculiar effect on youth gangs: It removes the youth, and eventually the gang no longer has its adolescent psychological foundations to stand on.  So today what is left of the old guard leaves Chris alone.  He has covered up most of his old gang tattoos with nondescript splotches of dark blue ink and wanders the streets of Albuquerque relatively free from menace, except for that provoked by hunger and cold hard ground.

Chris chews and swallows his food in giant gulps pushed down his sinewy throat like a turkey egg through a snake.  He speaks of his 3-year old son, Xavier, who for practical reasons is currently living with the child’s mother.  In fact, he says, the child is not even his, for he met his girlfriend when she was already six months pregnant.  But his was the first man’s face the child awoke from its uterine slumber to see, and he was the only man who took it in, who cared for it as if it were his own blood son, and that is the very nature of his love for it.  “Children are so innocent and pure,” he says, “I don’t get how so many men out there can just abandon their own kids, or worse, abuse them.”  His primary goal now is to find a new job, an apartment, and bring his girl and his kid back to Albuquerque.  The world is a lonely, hostile, and meaningless quagmire of suffering without family, without love. Lynette outing-2950Lauren listens attentively to Chris’ story, and is drawn completely in.  There is little doubt that he is speaking with the utmost sincerity, albeit little bits and pieces of any narrative are bound to suffer exaggerations or omissions of a perfect truth, for such is the nature of the mind’s interpretation of reality.  And Lauren is touched.  She has been hard up before, too.  She asks politely, almost timidly, if he wouldn’t mind a small cash donation from her pocket to his, if for nothing else to warm up a long cold night with a little goodwill.  Chris replies politely, almost timidly, that he would not reject such a gesture, and Lauren slips him a 20-dollar bill folded to the size of a paperclip.  Our departure is hugs and twilight.  “I’ll never forget you guys,” Chris says.

Night has fallen.  There is another overdose at the Westbound bus stop at Central and Wyoming.  Alcohol.  A middle-aged woman is being lifted into an ambulance with a drunk smile wide across her grease-shiny face.   Nearby a prostitute steps out of a client’s car and huffs in indignation as I stare curiously at her.  Two fat young toothless men ask to borrow a pen to exchange phone numbers.  Drunk cowboys laugh over silly nothings, and stumble over one another and onto the bus stop bench.  Lauren and I are speaking miles per minute, trying to digest too many thoughts in too little time, and perhaps making as little sense as the cowboys bumbling around behind us.  Then the bus comes, and we board for a fast cruise back to Nob Hill.  It is the Rapid Ride, and it speeds through the dark night like a ghost.

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Just Being Together

Big Black Beautiful Bee lied about the color of her eyes, but told truth of the coming rain, for who better a meteorologist than the homeless?  When it trickled and then dumped (momentary as it tends to be in these hell-baked plains), I ducked quickly into a Whataburger, for a “bigger better burger” and some smiles a bit too pure to be simply those proscribed by the directive of franchise.   Meanwhile, unsmiling teens with gang tats crawling up through awkward polo neck holes interviewed for jobs they secretly hoped not to get, and I flipped through the evening’s photos, confounded by the soft ethereal beauty that at dusk seems always to prevail over the insidious tragedies of our human existence.  And since beauty is the point, or at least part of it, there is no better place to begin or end, is there not?

Lisa and Juan-1121Lisa and Juan met five years ago at the old Bandidos on 12th and Candelaria, a dive bar with just the right dim and grime for the marriage of poetry and beer.  The blue-haired girl read alone, but dropped her books one day for the charming young Mexican who came in, timid and unassuming.  Love happened.  Two years later they were married, but there was a problem.  Juan had come to the United States illegally, and so did not qualify for a marriage visa.  He would either have to stay illegally and hope to eternally avoid a run-in with la Migra—a preoccupation that would put a stain on any family vacation—or go back to Mexico indefinitely, file for a “hardship” waiver with USCIS, and hope with no certainty at all that it would not be rejected.  The lovers chose to risk the latter, believing that anything was better than living an entire life in the shadows.   It worked out.  After nine months of separation, Juan came back to Albuquerque, a Green Card-totin’ member of our great nation on his way to full citizenship.

Juan first crossed the border with three childhood friends in 2006 through Columbus, New Mexico, the small American border town that was razed by Pancho Villa and his ruffians nearly a century ago.   Hidden in Westbound boxcars, the young men intended to stop in Phoenix, Arizona.  But when they awoke after a long nap and opened the freight doors, the train was squealing to a halt just outside Los Angeles.  Undaunted, they jumped ship, hopped a new train heading Eastbound, and made it safely to Phoenix the next day.  Fifteen days later they were formally greeted by one of Arizona’s Welcome to America committees: A group of young white men jumped from a car, screaming things unintelligible but for the brandishing of pistols.  Money and cell phones were all taken without further ado.  Not long afterwards, Juan moved to Albuquerque, where it is decidedly less terrifying to be a stranger in a strange land.

Lisa, meanwhile, has yet to visit Juan’s hometown of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua.  The Gringa plans to finally meet the parents in December.  I imagine they will all love her, her smile like a fairy tale, her hair the cool end of a rainbow, the Spanish words dancing gingerly from her tongue.  Trying to get a feel for something I do not know, I ask what is the best thing about being married?  “Just being together,” Lisa says, grabbing Juan’s hand tightly.  Yes, I think the families will get along just fine.  And if they don’t, there is always tequila.

But the future is the future, and now is now, so let’s ride the bus!

Lisa and Juan-1101The three of us meet at the bus stop on North 4th Street and Headingly to catch the No. 10 downtown.   The driver, Chris Davis, calls all aboard with a tenderness like your grandma’s tortillas.   Having never taken the bus in Albuquerque, Lisa and Juan fumbled around with the pay box before figuring out that $2.00 gets you an all day pass, and if you don’t have change, there is always a friendly rider willing to m’elp you out.  We then sit down for the ride, and it is an amicable affair, from the cursory glare of reformist thugs to middle class middle-aged men no longer angry about the big mistakes they made out of the frustration of anomie.  A 20-year old girl named Sarah is returning from visiting her boyfriend.  She lives in Belen with her mother, tends to bees, and once drove a old Dodge Ram 50 she called “Rambo.”  A woman named Frances, who graduated from Albuquerque High School “¡hace muchisisísmo!” just ended a shift at Denny’s and is headed home.  Others on the bus smile and nod, signaling sentiments quite sweeter than the worst of my fears.

Lisa and Juan-1113 Downtown at the Alvarado Center we get off, and Chris the driver implores us to walk around and enjoy ourselves.  “I promise, I won’t leave without you,” he says, and then takes a chomp out of Lisa’s cupcake hair as I move everyone to pose for a photograph.  We have about forty minutes to mill about, mosey, and mingle.  With the rain clouds above a cool front settles in, and all the madness of the world slumps into relaxation.   So we look for the mad of heart and mind, but everyone is almost indistinguishable beneath the blessed threat of water from the sky.

Bronco MattOut on 1st Street, Big Black Beautiful Bee asks for a hotdog and a soda, and so I go to Matt, the Broncos fan, to get one.  BBBB offers me the first bite, and then chastises me for taking such a big one.  Then I pull my camera out, and she says, “Boy, the only reason I’m lettin’ you take my picture is cuz you cute!”  And I reply, “Girl, the only reason I’m talking to you in the first place is cuz you cute!”  The ice is cracked, but not broken.  Thirty years on the streets can build a callous as big as those on the soles of her feet.  She refuses to remove her sunglasses, but I catch a glimpse of her right eye, and though I cannot read the odyssey inside it, its depth haunts and enlightens me.  It is not hazel like she says, but dark brown and scarred like a jelly fish.

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“Where are you from?” I ask.

“My mama,” she replies, “and a little bit from my dad, too, I suppose.”

BBBB says she came here from Germany thirty years ago.  I guess correctly that she was born in New York, the daughter of a Jamaican man and a Puerto Rican woman.  She married into the military, moved to a base in Germany, something happened, a fight, a torment, a divorce, and then she ended up in the land of enchantment.  She says she won a beauty pageant fifteen years ago, and if she looks familiar, it is probably because of that.  In recent years, however, her fame resides in a modified shopping cart, which is packed to the brim with colorful blankets and nicknacks.  “It’s worth $500, it’s all mine, and I could sue anybody try to take it from me.”   A bandage on her wrist betrays a deep pain.  She has just been released from suicide watch.

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Rushing back to meet Chris for a ride home, we briefly chat with a Vietnam veteran passing out leaflets concerning something entirely confusing.  Printed on them are copies of reply letters sent to him years ago by different state agencies charged with regulating importation laws and American Indian commercial transactions.  Everything about the man speaks of moral integrity and passion.  He is on a mission.  It is just not clear what that mission is.

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Back on the Bus we lumber bumpily northward on 4th Street.  A drunk man steps aboard near I-40, stalls at the entrance and says to Chris the Driver, “Uhhhh…wait, let me call my girlfriend.”  His indecision is eternal, so Chris gently coaxes him back onto the streets and promises that he will return in 24 minutes, when he has made up his mind.

In the four years that Chris has been an Albuquerque bus driver, he has seen many things, some tragic and some beautiful.  Once an old man stabbed a young man in the neck with a shank hidden in his coat sleeve, killing him instantly.  The old man then called the police himself.  Two years ago a drug addict left her newborn baby on the bus, having simply forgotten about the child while on her way to greater imperatives.  Sober passengers took the helpless creature into their arms.  On another occasion—and this hooks into my own heart like a crows claw—a 20-year old girl overdosed on heroin and died at the rear-end of the bus.  Just a few minutes earlier Chris had stopped for a 15 minute break at the Alvarado Center.

“She was nice girl, real pretty thing, and real sweet,” Chris said. “I went to the bathroom, and she did, too.  I guess she went in to shoot up.  She made it back to the bus, but didn’t last long after that.  And the crazy thing is that as soon as she died, these two men on the bus were already on top of her, groping her, you know, touching her breasts and thighs n’ stuff.  They were like children.  I kicked them off right away, and called the 911.”

But tonight is calm and beautiful, and Chris continues smiling along from north to south and south to north, hour after hour, day after day, joking and laughing with the regulars for whom he has become a sort of psychologist-chauffeur, or I’ll just say it, a friend.   “For twenty years I worked inside,” he shakes his head, recalling his old career as a X-ray technician. “Now I get to drive around watching a beautiful sunset every single day.”

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There are millions more stories to tell, but it is getting dark, and Big Black Beautiful Bee’s prophecy of rain has begun to unzip the sky.  We get off across the street from where we got on, and it is a warm goodbye to another day on the Bus.  Hand in hand, Lisa and Juan walk home, fading into the dreamy blue-emerald curtain of late dusk.  I drive off on my motorbike, and the dark clouds tear open.  It is time for a burger, some fries, and a happy little stomach ache.  For the time being, the soft light of beauty and goodness still shines in the cold dark night.

“I met your mother on a city bus”

Forty-four years ago a smitten young neck tie salesmen awkwardly approached a cute blonde phone sales operator on the Gravois-Lindell bus in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.  The blushing girl chewed at her fingernail, yet the boy failed to notice the big diamond ring on her finger.  He dared ask if he could walk her home.  The girl’s fiancé was busy dropping napalm out of an F-4 Phantom ten thousand miles away, and since a little chivalry never hurt anyone, she accepted.  Eleven years later, on the very morning of the infamous Jonestown Massacre, a slap and scream rang out through the maternity ward at Barnes Hospital, and that was me.  Thirty-four years on, in this grand year of 2013, my loving parents rode the bus again, this time in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They came to visit me for the first time since I graduated college—way long ago.  Why not show them a little of my world?

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Meanwhile, my world asked, “why not give them a little baptism of fire?”

Mayhem sprung loose at the corner of San Mateo and Central just as we parked the car.  A woman had overdosed on something, presumably heroin, and lay sick and screaming on the bus stop bench.  A rustled young police officer stood beside her, while variously compassionate or angry waiting passengers rushed to get the woman some water, or curse her for doing something stupid again.  I crouched down to ask her name.  I said something right, and she squeezed my hand, whimpering softly.  Then I said something wrong, and she lurched back and screamed like the banshee of my worst nightmares.

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Then the ambulance came, and I snapped my first photographs.  A woman whose back may or may not have been in one of the frames was not concerned either way.  But her impassioned husband evidently was:

“Did you ask my wife permission to take her picture?!” He berated me, beating a lopsided blue heart tattooed on his upper chest with his fist.

“Who is your wife?”

He pointed to a draping brown T-shirt and a mop of black hair amidst at least ten other people rushing about in the mayhem.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“Did you take her fucking picture without asking, motherfucker!?”

“Cut it out!” The young police officer thrust his mighty voice between us, after which I felt an immediate jolt of admiration and fear before the uniformed man.  My adversary must have felt it, too, for he bolted away into the crowd.  And it was right then that I remembered something from my ride-a-longs with the APD Gang Unit last year (see http://underabq.tumblr.com/): The chief of the Albuquerque Police Department had recently prohibited officers’ use of curse words while interacting with civilians, making it a punishable offence.  A number of officers were upset because they felt that using “fuck” appropriately, for example, was an effective de-escalation tool, without which the need for physical coercion would be more likely in certain situations.  In any case, my good officer today unleashed not one curse word, and yet still scared the fucking shit out of me!

In the meantime, since I hate to make people feel bad, I decided to seek out my angry friend to apologize for perhaps taking a photograph of his wife’s back.  It was, after all, unintentional, and I was perfectly willing to erase the photo if she appeared in it.

“That’s not the fucking point, you asshole! You’re a piece of fucking shit!”

At this time the police officer was twenty feet away and consumed in the chaos, and so it was just the angry man and me.   His cursing nipped my apology in the bud, and I began to feel a familiar wry smile creep across my face.  It was the sleeping giant of my man ego awakening.  A challenge! A duel! A ruthless battle to the bloody end!  Aggression, the essence of my primitive soul, was being taunted and teased into lashing out.  A euphoric catharsis, albeit a massive stupidity. My chest heaved to and fro, a visceral excitement.

As usual, however, the rational elements of my good citizen mind spoke louder.  And thank goodness, for after all, my beloved parents were just behind me, horrified that the angry man might pull out a knife and shank me.  But I needed more than rationality, for the angry man opted to pursue me as I tried to walk away.  I needed an intervention.  I needed Rob, the bearded schizophrenic miracle who sailed in with a stream of nonsense so passionate, and so incongruous, he could have disarmed North Korea.

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“My grandfather he was a Nazi in Nazi Germany and I just don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that hell man what did the Jews ever do to him damn I told her you shouldn’t smoke that stuff no way man it’s gonna kill you someday you know it!!…” and on and on.

The Central 66 bus squealed to a halt, interrupting the blessed tirade.  When my parents and I stepped aboard, a nasty cursing came from the back of the bus.  The angry man and his wife had already boarded, and they were irate.  Seeing me enter, they flicked me some long fingers, yelled something none-too-friendly, and exited the bus indignant.  I suppose there wasn’t room for both our giant man egos.

Then the wry smile propelled by my ego broke under adrenalin diluted.  The bus jerked into motion, and I sat down all a nervous jitter, feeling so rattled by the chaos and confrontation.  My parents, too, looked about nervously, not wanting to say anything, but clearly uncomfortable about the course of events.  Looking for solace in a smile, any at all, I began talking to random people on the bus.

Sweet smile after sweet smile, heartfelt story after heartfelt story—some so tender, some so tragic—ever-so-slowly this brought my heart back to a proper beat.  One of the worst sensations, after all, is to feel hated, and of course I risk this every time I nose my questions and camera into a stranger’s life.  But one of the best feelings is to make a connection with a total stranger, share with him a smile, a handshake, a story, a momentary and mutual understanding that despite all our differences we are in essence all the same.  I love to capture these moments because this provides for me some sense of meaning, without which no pain can be justified, and no joy sustained.

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On the way downtown and back we talked to several people.  Alex Xavier was heading back to his parents’ house off of 98th Street after an engineering class at CNM.  Eddie from El Paso and Magda from Burque met ten years ago, and ride the bus everyday to go to work, run errands, and go out for dinner.  Shen skipped stones in a puddle of water while waiting for the bus, and said it was so nice to visit his sister, as he often does on Friday afternoons.  Ryan had ridden his bicycle from Coors and I-40, grabbed the bus at 10th and Central, and was now on his way to work a 12-hour shift in the ICU at UNMH.  His wife stays home to take care of their three children, and—children are expensive. That’s why he is taking the bus.

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Meanwhile, Doris just left the hospital, accompanied by her two brothers and a cousin.  Her husband had beaten her to unconsciousness two days earlier.  Visibly shaken, the real men in the family swore revenge: “When he gets out of jail, we’re gonna do street justice.” They asked me to take pictures of Doris’ horrendous bruising “for evidence,” and then we exchanged contact information.

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In a flurry of tender handshakes and hugs, Doris and her brothers got off at Girard and Central, and on came none other than Jerobio, the toothless fun drunk from two posts ago.  “These are your parents?” he beamed, and then lectured my dad on the importance of being good to his woman, for woman is God’s gift from the Heavens, and she must always be loved and respected, lest we lose her and live a life alone with our misery.  Ask Jerobio, his wife is dead, his girlfriend in jail.  Or ask his abandoned daughter.  Such are the vagaries of love and vice.

Back at Central and San Mateo my parents and I stepped off the bus and into another golden New Mexico sunset.  Arm in arm, they strolled like teenage lovers across Route 66, all a glitter with shards of broken plastic and glass.  They had not been on a city bus in over three decades.  It felt like the anniversary of their love.

The Duke’s Sick Sister

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

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

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

Juarez Bus Stops

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

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

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

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

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

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!”

The Runaway

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We met Dominic as we rustled around for change.  The frail and tiny boy of twenty years quietly—though not shyly—offered to pay the 35 cents for Anais’ bus fare, and then slipped off to sit by himself on the nearly empty land barge that is the Route 66 Central Avenue main line.  I told him about our project and asked if he wouldn’t mind a few questions and photos, all of which he accepted without much hint of either enthusiasm or apprehension.

He ran away from his parents home just a week ago, and has since been sleeping on the streets (note: more than a thousand runaways are reported as “missing persons” each month in Albuquerque—he is perhaps on that list, perhaps not).  He has no job or plans to get one, no shelter or plans to seek one, and no joy or pain seems to be at this point permitted into his mind, as if he were in a state of shock.  Time has temporarily stopped, and every moment has neither future nor past, every action neither meaning nor mission.  Or perhaps this is not true?  What compelled the quiet and forlorn boy to offer the only change he had to a pretty young girl whom he had no intentions of even flirting with?

His answers to my questions were invariably curt and calm, telling more by their manner than by their substance.  He was angry about his parents, but did not tell the story, only that he would never go back there.  Pressured into acknowledging the inevitability of time grinding its rusty gears once again, he offered that he never finished high school, but got his GED, and that at some point he would probably get a job.  In the meantime, he sleeps in a park, stores some extra clothes at a friend’s house, and dodges the police who variously ignore his condition or chase him like hounds.

“How do you make money? Where do you get food to eat?”  His answers are too soft to hear when the bus squeals to halt at Central and Yale.  It is our stop, and we say a friendly goodbye.  These bus stop stories are often so fugacious.