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.

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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

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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