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.

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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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