Two hours ago Jallen walked out through the security doors of the MDC and into the arms of his lifelong friend Serfina. Festive sympathizers on the bus offered their knives to cut off his prison wristband and usher him back into freedom. Now he sits at the Rapid Ride stop on Central and Cornell, lucid of mind, body, and soul, soaking in the evening sun’s golden rays along with Serfina and two men he calls father and brother. Reverie drifts in with the early autumn breeze. Freed from the austere confinement of bitter-faced Bangladeshi nuns, I dig my hands into the cool sand of Mr. Arnold’s pit beside childhood chums who carry on as if they barely noticed I had gone away. But there is a secret in the shine of their eyes: love, like a tide, embraces unencumbered by reflection. The reunion is felt, not defined. Jallen is back home on the street with his family. Today’s venture is metajournalistic. I am out with William, a staff photographer for the UNM Daily Lobo, who was sent by the paper’s editor to photograph yours truly while on the beat for Albuquerque Bus Stops. At first I am camera shy, for I virtually never find myself on the other end of a lens, unless it is I who set the timer and ran to position myself for a self-portrait, typically one that dramatizes my masculinity in some ridiculous way. But as I lose myself in the glassy eyes of another tender face on the streets, smiley and wrinkled, William snaps away unbeknownst to me. I forget about the distinctions between my handsome angle and the other, my uneven nostrils, the hair sprouting from them both, and my lazy eye of Jack Elam. Today I am to be exposed in light and shadow before another’s eye, friend or foe, just as I do it to others each time I set out with my camera. And to William’s good credit as a documentary photographer, I nearly forget that he is there. It is a typical evening on the bus. A homeless trio has just come from spicy enchiladas at Project Share (Yale and Gibson area), and are now enjoying the shade and parkesque social environment of the bus stop. A nurse has picked up her children from school and is heading home to make dinner. An obese man with the smile of Steinbeck’s Lennie dreams of leaving Burque one day for greener lands, but sticks to the relative comfort of what he knows. A white-haired man reveals sky blue eyes from under dark sunglasses, and recounts the eleven bus rides he has taken today. Two women drag heavy bags of groceries aboard, and then fall on top of each other in a splash of giggles. We make them miss their stop in order to better describe the exigencies of five little mouths to feed and nursing school, and they don’t get upset.
Meanwhile, the bus driver has a surprise for me. “You the guys who do the Albuquerque Bus Stops blog?”
I cower in wait for his reprimand. Thirty-four years into this human experience, the Catholic school boy in me still flinches at the raise of an eyebrow. But Robert’s face is not that of the Bangladeshi nuns. With a tender tumbling of cheekbones and jaws, he continues,
“Man, I keep waiting for the next post. They don’t come out fast enough!”
His charm digs into my core. I imagine dirt accumulating in my dimples. Like a number of others on the bus today, he chooses not to have his photograph taken, but it’s no hair out of my nostrils, for he and everyone else just made my day.
Back at Central and Cornell, William and I hop off the Rapid Ride and into the Freedom Reunion of Jallen and his beloveds. Serfina, all made up and pretty for her friend’s liberation, holds on tightly to his arm. Jallen’s father, “Richie Rich,” asks for change, and says he accepts Visa and MasterCard. His brother, Shawn, tells the story of his stump. A car accident years ago took his arm off, nearly his leg, and collapsed his lungs. He was in a coma for eight weeks.
“But I’m still alive, man!”
Indeed. Alive and free, temporary and constrained though this life and this freedom may be. The next step is the same as the last, and as so many before. Jallen says he has been on the streets for 23 years, a mighty big number for a 32-year old. But he is looking to get an apartment with help from St. Martin’s Hospitality Center. Maybe it will work out. But apartments, like jails, are places of confinement to one so used to the bright stars over an abandoned cemetery. None of that matters right now, however, for the golden sun is setting over Central Avenue, illuminating the quiet glee of a family—blood or otherwise—reunited.