Bitter Water and the Spring of Life

Damien_5.18.2016-6

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.

Damien_5.18.2016-7

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!”

Damien_5.18.2016-9

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.

Damien_5.18.2016-11

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.

Damien_5.18.2016-13

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.”

Damien_5.18.2016-15

“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.”

Damien_5.18.2016-23

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.

Damien_5.18.2016-24

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.

 

Advertisements

Jallen’s Freedom and the Setting Sun

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. Daily Lobo-4606Today’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. Navajo PortraitsIt 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.Daily Lobo-4584

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.

Daily Lobo-4572

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. Daily Lobo-4617

Miss Duke City

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

Chanel-3697

Had I not seen her home, decorated from ceiling to floor with American Flag ornaments, historical quotes of the revolution, and other patriotic regalia, I might have been given to doubt when I learned that Chanel won the 2013 Miss Duke City beauty pageant after reciting the Gettysburg Address before a ballroom full of people.   What, after all, could such an ancient piece of script possibly mean to a modern young woman competing with other modern young women for public recognition of subjectively defined notions of feminine beauty?

Pondering it, my head remains cocked like a pup at a curious sound, for in matters of God and Country, I have long ago lost sight of the forest for the trees.  Disheartened by the gory details of history, the blood of conquest, and the frequent triumph of raw power and greed today as before, the meaning of “America” to me has become far too nuanced to cuddle up to with token claims to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  But Chanel’s sincerity lifts my brow and tickles to life an old feeling in my gut.  It is a sense of pride and belonging.  Patriotism.  A love for one’s country.   Chanel has got it, and she firmly believes in the founding principles expressed in its constitutional documents.  These principles are not always followed—especially that bit about “all men created equal”—but they serve to orient us in that direction, and there is indeed a great value in that.

But beauty pageants? Six months ago the world of beauty pageants was as foreign to Chanel as it is to me.  In January she was searching around for scholarship opportunities to help pay for college, and she stumbled upon an ad about the Miss Duke City contest, the winner of which would be eligible for financial assistance towards higher education.  She called to learn more, and without realizing what she had done, the sweet southern lady on the other end of the line had registered her name.  She had just two months to prepare, which meant hours on Youtube in order to learn all the right moves, and many more in the gym to sculpt a body to look good doing them.  Still she never expected to win.  In the beginning it was just a matter of shits n’ giggles, a flip of a coin for the hell of it, or a little YOLO, as the kids are saying these days.  But it became something more, both for her personal development and for others.  “Stones get polished by tumbling around with other stones,” she says.  In other words, competition drives excellence.  And for others, the mere appearance of a Miss This or a Miss That during any kind of collective emotional craze, be it a football game or a memorial for disaster victims, can inspire a greater hope of salvation, whatever that entails.

In bringing Chanel with me on the bus, I was hoping to loosely test a hypothesis somewhat related to this last point: The Down and Out love the Beautiful, so long as the latter is not overtly afraid of or disgusted by the former.Chanel-3683

Most of the time I am surely incorrect in my suppositions on life and its participants, but this time the experiment lent evidence to my theoretical constructions.  Chanel was at first taken aback when “Dan the Man,” drunk and smelling of street, jumped up to give her a hug, but she quickly relaxed and released her inhibitions.  Several hugs later, she was as comfortable as a rabbit in a hole, listening to story after story of life on the streets, and sharing her own.   In turn, the people of the streets, in all their pain and tragedy, fell in love with her.  And with the classic chivalry of paupers, they kissed her hand and swore they would come after me if I did not take good care of her.

Safety, meanwhile, continues to be a luxury excluded to those who for vice, mental illness, or sheer poverty have come to live on the streets.  At our first encounter we meet Ruthy, Melvin, Key, Abe and “Dan the Man.”  Melvin and Abe both have scars where bullets cut through their flesh: the work of gangs of teenage boys stricken by boredom and drunk on beer and testosterone.   Key’s face has been smashed so many times it looks like a waxed potato.  Ruthy went to jail two weeks ago for swinging a bag of rocks at a man’s head while hanging out in the cemetery where she sleeps.  “That asshole tried to steal me,” she describes the attempted rape, “but I told him, ‘you’re not gettin’ any pussy from me unless I give it to you!’”  Her face still bares the sores and scars from the nasty scrap that ensued.

Ruthy

After some playfully posed shots, Chanel and I say our goodbyes and get up to move.  Hugs all around the table.  Melvin bows in, holds my hand, and whispers desperation into my ear.  He is crying, “I just want my life back.”  Gone is the hellacious laughter from moments before.

“What do you mean?”  I ask.

“I used to be an officer in the army…I even went to college…”

Suddenly a tall man with a face like a soul broken under the weight of a hundred wars appears from behind me.  He is Melvin’s brother.  Melvin goes to him, hugs him, grabs his hand, and says a prayer for his redemption.

Chanel-3724

More prayers are said.  The friends, who have been together on these streets for over a decade, have recently lost a “sister.”  They tell us that her name is Dora Espinosa, 28 years old, and could we please keep her in our thoughts.  Just a week ago she had taken her last swig of cheap vodka before throwing up blood.  That was the end.  She is in coma now, waiting to be taken off life support.

Shortly afterwards Chanel and I are waiting for a bus at Central and Harvard, and we meet Miss Southwest.  Her name is Jewel, and she says that she won the crown more than ten years ago.  The competition was subsequently canceled, and so she is still the reigning queen.  Meanwhile, her 17-year old daughter came in third place in a similar competition among a thousand participants, but had to drop out of the next round for lack of money.

Chanel-3741

Having gotten on like two peas in a pod, Chanel and Jewel board the 766 all a smile n’ chatter, and I follow like a third wheel.  But on the bus I meet my world again right away.  A man is celebrating his release from the Metropolitan Detention Center, and everyone around cheers him on.  First things first: he needs to remove his prisoner ID wristband.  No problem.  Knives start swinging out from pockets and purses, and a Cuban man with a USA t-shirt starts cutting through the thick plastic band.Chanel-3761

Now it is picture time.  The party is on and everyone is into it (except for one gruff man who storms angrily away).  Finally, the free man pulls a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label from his pants, courtesy of his girlfriend who went to meet him at the prison gates.  But that’s too much.  The bus screeches to a halt, and the driver rushes back in a rage.  Too much ruckus for one evening.  Fortunately, the knives are again folded and concealed, the bottle is never opened, and nobody goes straight back to jail.  Chanel and I jump off into a cool blue dusk and wave goodbye to the gleeful mayhem as its speeds into night.Chanel-3771

God Bless America!Chanel-3790

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.

Lisa and Juan-1148

“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.

Lisa and Juan-1147

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.

Lisa and Juan-1159

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.”

Lisa and Juan-1178

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.

The Life and Times of “Change Bro”

johnny thanks givingA paragraph is sometimes insufficient to honor a man, so herego.

Fourteen years ago, just having spent my last dollars on a Limousine Express from Juarez to Albuquerque, I sat down on a bus stop bench at sundown on Central and 12th Street, aimed uptown towards the university.  A creepy pimp with the countenance and charm of Eazy-E sat beside me and said, “boy, you look like you could do to make some money tonight.”

Boy, he was right.  I had not eaten a meal in two and half days. I was completely broke, but for a few small coins—some pesos, some dimes—in my back pocket.   But this homage is not for the pimp who kindly paid my first bus fare and offered me a job “partying with hot older women” (save this for another time).  It is, rather, a continuation of the last post, an ode to the straggly-haired, mouse-faced, and tenderest of hearts who was waiting for me just a few minutes later in front of the Frontier Restaurant at Central and Cornell: “Hey, you got any change, bro?”  I did, and since its pithy jingle only made me feel worse about my woeful pauperism, I gave it to him.

In those days, Johnny Romero slept and roamed in and around the campus of UNM.  He was among the group of squatters residing in the rafters at the Student Union Building, who were later expelled when the scandal blew up.  Then he was kicked off the university campus altogether—perhaps a dozen times, before the campus police realized they would have to monitor him constantly, lest he sneak back in to charm young change-toting students.

In the end, he surrendered campus, retreating strategically to the surrounding “student ghetto” south thereof.  The college students and other penniless ragtags typical of the area tended to love and care for the meek and mild homeless man.  He always asked for change, but never demanded or acted aggressively.  And it was never a problem if you had none to offer.  He would simply thank you and move on, or stand and chat for awhile, inquiring politely as to the welfare of your best friends or your far-off family.

He could be quite chivalrous, too.  A dear friend of mine, a Spanish woman named Alicia, was getting her master’s degree and lived in the student ghetto.  Her classes often got out late, and she would have to walk home alone through the dark streets south of campus.  Those were the days of the notorious “Ether Man” and the “Southside Rapist,” both of whom were active in the area.  Johnny, the unassuming peddler, walked her home from class nearly every night to make sure she was safe.  Not for change, but for simple, perhaps even thoughtless, consideration.

But if students and ragtags liked the hapless Johnny, a number of local business owners felt strongly otherwise, and they called on the institutions of the state to guarantee the constitutional protections of private property.  Within a few years, and after so many beatings and brief stints in jail for trespassing, Johnny abandoned the neighborhood.  Believing that an official court order made it illegal for him to set foot in 87106, he marched on, from zip code to zip code, knowing no other life than that of an endlessly wandering pan handler.  He moved to Nob Hill, and another “court order” banned him from those public spaces.  He moved on, then, to an alleyway near the corner of Girard and Indian School, and there lasted a few years.  But when a sympathetic businessman passed away, and his daughter inherited his failing enterprise, the state was called upon again to remove the stinky man and his wad of sleeping gear, to be ushered off somewhere new.

It was around that time, in 2010, that I decided to interview him in depth for the first time.  I had just gotten back from a good long trip to Brazil, and felt stunned by his appearance.  Johnny was getting old, physically speaking.  He is only 46 years old today, but a life on the streets has aged him twenty years beyond.  His youthfulness seemed to have disappeared, his wrinkles deeper and dirtier, his gate more bent and drawn, a sadness in his stare I had not seen before.  It was common for me not to see him for months at a time, and at once I realized that if he were to at some point die and pass on to other worlds, I might never know.  And please understand that in 2010, noticing his physical decrepitude for the first time, I feared he might actually be dying.  And so I found him, spent a few days with him, talking of his life, his whereabouts, and his goals.

It was noon on Thanks Giving day, and the year’s first snowfall lay in a fluffy thin layer over a blue tarp in a narrow alley.  Snores and grumpy moans rumbled underneath.   Johnny wanted to stay in bed, but I said no.  We had a free holiday feast on which to stuff ourselves at the nearby Mennonite Church, and with my own family being so far away, I was not going to miss it.  Begrudgingly, he sat up, brushed the snow out of his hair, and prepared himself to face a brand new day.  And alongside the kind Mennonites of Albuquerque, we filled ourselves with innumerous courses of hot steamy soul food.  It turned out to be a delightful day of grace.

Between chomps and chews, Johnny spoke of his life.  He had grown up in the East San Jose neighborhood, just south of what the hip now call “EDO.”  In the 1970s and 1980s it was a bloody battleground of gang rivalry and small time drug dealing.  Heroin had wiped out the remnants of the Chicano movement, as Hispanic youth fell to addiction and the extreme violence of an unregulated market.  Gangs fought for turf.  The San Jose gang split into various clicks and factions as its old-tier leadership crumbled under overdoses, eternal prison sentences, and combat with the also deteriorating gangs from Barelas, Martinez Town, Washington Heights, and Wells Park.  In the middle of all this, Johnny and his brother were high school drop-outs living at home with their mother.  She died when he was 24-years old, and the duo began selling marijuana out the back window in order to make the mortgage payments (Johnny never landed a legitimate job).

The brothers did not belong to the local gang, however, and they had not gotten “permission” to sell drugs in the neighborhood.  One day a gangbanger approached the back window pretending to be a customer, and then pulled out a gun.  It was a .22 Caliber pistol, and one of its little lead bullets remains lodged in Johnny’s left calf to this day.  He barely remembers the moment for the adrenalin that catapulted him across the yard and over the fence.  Horrified, he never went back to selling drugs.  He and his brother failed to make the mortgage payments, and the house went into foreclosure.  While his brother left and is now somewhere in Texas, presumably married and raising a family, Johnny has been living on the streets of Albuquerque ever since.

Each time I see him, I sigh something like relief.  He is still alive.  His frail ratty body hunches more each year, his face evermore deeply sunken, his aging skin draped over the contours of his skull and bones.  His nose is broken like a boxer’s.  His left pupil torn from its center by a shard of glass in a fight long ago. His hands black with smut, his hair an eternal catastrophe.  But he is alive.  He was built street tough.  “I haven’t gotten sick in twenty years,” he says.  I can hardly believe it.  I get sick all the time.

“Change Bro” and Morris

Johnny and MorrisJohnny “Change Bro” Romero and his trusty sidekick Morris are Albuquerque’s most loved and possibly most abused homeless people.  They both belong to the mushy half-rotten, half-flowering core of the city’s morbid and mysterious charm, its true essence. So many generations of young people around the University and surrounding neighborhoods have loved and cared for these two, while many others have assaulted them.  Local business owners have also loved and hated them, as they tend to attract the penniless bleeding hearts and scare away the monied middle classes unaccustomed to the smell of sweat and rot on a man.  The police have arrested them countless times, always for trespassing—that is, wherever they find a nook or cranny in which to sleep—and have on many occasions beaten them.  Other homeless people, particularly those with drug and alcohol addictions or more aggressive manifestations of mental illness, have beaten them and stolen their coins, clothes, and sleeping bags numerous times.  Johnny once had a stack of hand-written journals stolen and trashed while in jail.  He has not written since.  Just recently he qualified to receive $700.00 per month for disability.  ”They say I’m mentally ill,” he smirks somewhat angrily.  ”It’s not true, though.  I’m not mentally ill.”

Unlike Johnny, Morris clearly suffers from mental illness, but it is of the most docile and friendly kind.  Morris is a glowing orbit of love, tormented deeply though he may very well be.