Words of the Prophet

“Tell me about the last time you saw your son Levon,” I asked of Grandma Alice, who despite her frail figure, seemed an indestructible spirit.

She closed her eyes and dropped her head, as if to see him. A sweet smell of corn and carne radiated from the kitchen behind us.

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Grandma Alice at her home near Shiprock, New Mexico.

It was a strange web of circumstance that brought us all together here in Alice’s home, way out on the Navajo Reservation. Two years ago I had been passionately engaged in the writing of this very blog. Each week I sought out someone in Albuquerque who had never ridden the city bus (which was easy to do), and together we would go on a terrific adventure, rolling up and down Central Avenue or mingling with the riffraff at the bus stops. Then I would go home, edit photos, and spend hours writing up the story. For me, this was part sociological inquiry into the world of society’s leftovers, part desperate search for meaning amid an existence governed increasingly by impersonal, soulless institutions. For the people we met on the bus, it was an opportunity to tell the world about their triumphs and their struggles. For the readers, I will of course never know.

Like all things, my blog project lived for a while and then died. Or at least so I thought.

Two weeks ago, a message from a woman named Clara appeared in my inbox. She wanted to talk to me about one of the subjects I wrote about in my very first blog post, a man who called himself Two Crows.

“Two Crows was my brother, and we lost him on 9-22-15,” she wrote. “PLEASE contact me on my email.”

The news struck me hard. I remembered my encounter with Two Crows very well, yes, as if it were yesterday. Two Crows had the air of a charismatic, a great peacemaker, a prophet, I remembered. He spoke with a wondrous poetic eloquence matched neither by those of the street nor those of the tower. And he had the power, in the hail of his breath, to bring a man’s anger to heel, or to lift the spirit of she in despair. He was only thirty-three years old, and healthy as one could be under such conditions. How could he have perished?

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Two Crows on an chilly spring evening in Albuquerque (2013)

When Clara and I spoke by telephone, she explained that her brother, whose real name was Levon, was killed instantly by a speeding car while trying to cross Coors Road near I-40 here in Albuquerque. She said that by miraculous chance, or something of the sort, my blog article about Two Crows came to her attention just weeks after her brother’s death. She told me how the article deeply touched her. She felt as if her beloved brother were speaking directly to her through its words. For so many years she had sought answers from him, only to meet with reticence and flight. Why did he leave his family? Why did he leave his home? Now she found great comfort in his message, which was a message to her:

“Everything you do in this life is a decision,” Two Crows had said to me. “Happiness is a decision. This [his arms spread wide to embrace the world of the street and all its vicissitudes] is a decision!”

Clara and I cried together over the phone, two complete strangers, connected only by radio waves spanning a great and mysterious horizon. We cried for her brother’s soul, and we cried for our own. And then, like the midday sun interrupting a matinee at its climax, an awkward truth rushed suddenly in, bathing our magic moment with unwanted light.

“The man you refer to as Two Crows in your article is the one who appears with you in the photo, right?” she asked me timidly.

“Umm…uhhh…oooh….well, no,” I replied achingly, taken totally by surprise. “Two Crows is the other guy.”

And so it was, Clara’s brother Levon and the prophetic man called Two Crows were in fact not the same man. We had been crying over two different people, and this sudden realization set me to crimson. The deep intrinsic meaning I had attributed to this strange encounter with Clara threatened to melt quickly away like the year’s first snowfall. And this was largely my own fault, for in the article I had described Two Crow’s overcoat incorrectly. I had described it as the very overcoat that Levon wore in a different photograph, the one in which I appeared beside him.

Blogger and Ron at Central Ave. and Harvard St.

Levon Bates (1963-2015)

“I’m so sorry,” I said. Clara and her sisters had already invited us (me and my fiancé Paula) to come visit them in their home, and so I felt extra bad. “I totally understand if you would rather us not come up next weekend.”

“It’s okay,” she said with some sadness in her voice, but she was no longer crying.

Attempting some consolation, I began to tell Clara what I knew of her real brother, now that we had confirmed his identity. But the truth is that I knew very little about him. Levon, who was fifty years old at the time when I met him, barely spoke at all. I don’t think he was able to speak. He smiled a lot, and he stumbled a lot. He stared stoically into the setting sun alongside me, and he pointed almost hopefully—but perhaps just blindly—at God knows what out across the endless golden skyline. Wordless as our encounter was, however, I could tell that deep down this man was a gentle soul. Perhaps his mind was broken, but he had love in his heart. That is all I could share with Clara, and it felt like so very little.

To my surprise, Clara recovered from the confusion very quickly. She said that it didn’t really matter, and in a way, she believed that the man called Two Crows might have been speaking for her brother, because her brother could no longer speak for himself. Yes, yes, indeed! I thought. A prophet Two Crows might really be, a voice not for himself but for the voiceless, for Levon and for all like him whose minds have been silenced but whose spirits still yearn to speak!

Clara insisted that we still come up to meet her and the rest of Levon’s family that coming weekend, despite that awkward little confusion over her brother’s identity. And of course we accepted her invitation.

“Alice? Grandma Alice?” I said again. Clara had introduced me to her mother only a few minutes earlier, yet we were already getting on dazzlingly. “Would you tell me about the last time you saw your son Levon?”

At eighty-six, Grandma Alice’s pensive calm might at first be confused for dementia, but this would be an entirely false assessment. Her clarity of mind is nothing short of shocking (her mind has far greater clarity than my own, to be sure), and in wit and humor she is sharp as a whip. When I asked her what year she was born in, she said “thirteen fifty-six,” and scolded me for asking a grown woman’s age. When I took her picture, she winked and made me promise not to pass it on to any boys. But I really wanted to know about Levon, and so I asked again. She heard me. Her eyes shut. And finally, her voice almost inaudibly soft, she thus began:

“It was at least a year ago…no, it was more than a year. It was longer than that. It must have been early March, yes, because I remember it was still very cold, and it had been raining a lot. It was Sunday, and I was going to Church in Farmington, and all of a sudden there he was, Levon, my son. He was wearing his overcoat. He was drenched to the bone…”

“Lunch is ready!” Mike, who is Alice’s grandson, yelled from the kitchen. “Have you ever had a Navajo taco?”

“I think so,” I turned my head to reply, unable to stop this interruption for the delicious calling of fresh fry bread, beans, beef, and corn, hot and steamy and ready to eat.

“I bet not,” Mike said. “You’ve had an indian taco, I bet, but not a Navajo taco. It’s almost the same, I suppose, but everything in this taco is from right here on the res. I would know, I made it all myself.”

Mike, who stands well over six feet tall and would aptly be described as a bear of man, was in fact the only man at all in this home of many women. So where were all the men? I thought to myself. Some husbands and sons were surely out at work or relaxing at home, but there was something more to this. A lot of men seemed to simply be missing. But missing where?

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Grandma Alice with some of her many grandchildren.

Despite her arranged marriage, Grandma Alice’s had been a fruitful one, if not entirely pleasant. She bore nine children, five girls and four boys, just as evolutionary science would predict. But science would have difficulty explaining the discrepancy that followed. Like their father before them, all of Alice’s sons took to the bottle early on, and alcohol eventually killed all but one of them. One fell to cirrhosis of the liver, another to drunken bloody murder, and now Levon, hit by a passing car while stumbling across Coors Road. Alice’s sole surviving son probably would have suffered a similar fate, I was told, but some years back he found the strength within him to put down the bottle and take back control over his life. He now leads Alcoholics Anonymous support groups on the reservation and drives a big rig. Meanwhile, despite challenging times, the women were able to stay on their feet, to come together. This was largely thanks to Grandma Alice, who they refer to as the “rock” of the family, the great matriarch.

As tragic as this one family’s story is, it reflects a more generalized tragedy for the Navajo and other American tribes around the country. According to the CDC and the Indian Health Service, twelve percent of all deaths among Native Americans are directly related to the problem of alcohol (more than three times the rate among non-natives), and nearly seventy percent of these deaths are among males. Car accidents and cirrhosis are the number one assailants, while homicide and suicide come in second. What, then, is the more heartbreaking tale: the loss of Grandma Alice’s three sons to the same terrible vice, or the fact that this is nothing extraordinary?

“Why-y-y-y?…” I stuttered through this dumbfounding revelation.  “Why is alcohol such a huge problem here?”

“Poverty,” Mike quickly replied.

“Boredom,” said one of Alice’s daughters.

“No jobs. No money.  No hope,” said another.

There are no simple answers to such a question, of course, for the root causes of any societal pathology almost certainly lie as much in deep historical processes as they do in the decisions of individuals as they navigate the structural barriers and opportunities presented them by life. Levon’s decision to give himself to the streets instead of fathering his two daughters, for example, presents a terrific puzzle. According to his niece, Smeenie, he once spent a whole month in sobriety in hopes of setting his life straight. He lodged at a local church in exchange for custodial work. He seemed so happy, proud, and strong, she recounts. This could have been his chance to turn things around, yet despite it all—or in spite for it all—one morning Smeenie found him packing his rucksack, and she watched as he walked off down the road, never to return to the church or to sobriety. But what was it that pulled him away from life? What pulled him away from the people who loved him so dearly, those whom he also clearly loved? Was it mere boredom, or was it a force much greater, perhaps much older, than himself?

“Grandma Alice,” I said, recalling suddenly that she never finished her story. “What happened the last time you saw your son Levon?”

Our stomachs were now full, our attention redirected. It was now definitively Alice’s turn to speak. And when she spoke, the world around her bowed reverently.

“As I told you, it must have been more than a year ago. It was early spring, I know, because the winds were icy and cold. It had been raining, and when I saw him, my son Levon, he was drenched with that ice cold water from head to toe, through and through. He had his coat on, but it was drenched, too, and I know he must have been terribly cold. And in that state that he was—drunk as always, he was always drunk—he walked right up to me with his arms stretched out wide, and he tried to hug me.

“‘No, no,’ I told him, and I put my hand out like this to stop him from putting his soaking wet arms around me. I told him, ‘you can’t come up to me like this in front of everyone from church, it’s embarrassing!’ I told him, ‘if you can’t come sober, then you have to go.’ That’s what I told him, and I told him just like that. ‘If you can’t come here sober, then I don’t want you around at all.’

“’I know when I’m not wanted,’ he told me. ‘I don’t want you like this!’ I said. ‘I’m going to go away, then,’ he told me. Then I told him to get in the car, even all wet like he was, and I would drive him over to Kirtland and drop him off, right out there, right out on the road there where he wanted to go. And that’s were I took him. He got out of the car and I drove back home. That is the last time I saw my son Levon.”

A long silence followed that no one dared to interrupt.

“After that,” Grandma Alice continued finally. “Word came around that he was telling folks that his mother was dead. He was telling people that he didn’t have a mother at all…that his mother was dead. That’s what he was telling people, they say.”

                                                                * * * * *

An hour later Paula and I were carefully maneuvering our fragile little sedan over deep mudded gullies towards the most massive and most magnificent stone outcropping I have ever laid eyes upon. It is called Shiprock to the outsider, but the Navajo and their ancestors call it Tsé Bit’a’ í, the “rock with wings.” The evening sun blast its west face like a furnace, while the easterly winds seemed to freeze its backside. We parked the car and began prancing about to ward off the chill, but before long a strange and distracting image caught our eyes and brought us to complete stillness. Up above, way up high atop the pinnacles of those immense mirrored wings of stone, fully alight in the setting sun’s rays, there stood two enormous black birds. Suddenly and from afar, a tremendous crack tore through the sky above us, shaking the earth beneath our feet. We looked again towards the massive stone beast before us. One to the East, the other to the West, the two crows took to flight, and in so short a moment that our hearts mightn’t speak, they disappeared forever into those infinite, mysterious horizons.

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Tsé Bit’a’í

 

 

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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

“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!”