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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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 Inhabitant of Burque

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I had never seen what lay hidden behind his dark sunglasses, and I cannot show it to you now, for shutters and zoom, like the mind, clunk and err from time to time, and rare opportunities are easy to miss.  But I assure you that the warmth in his eyes, alit in brief and random interludes, lends sincerity to all those words ever effervescing from his throne in bloom.  And those words, those images, they tickle and poke, caress and kindle so many latent emotions embedded in a strange city waking up to itself a little more each day.  He unto himself is no controversy, but the modern world he exposes is very much so, and I cannot help but to stare in awe as this same world—so thirsty for a chance to connect with its own self—gravitates more and more around the digital commons he un-ribboned only ten months ago.  Lion York, founder of the now famous Inhabitants of Burque facebook page, has been a mystery to me, and just as I do with most mysteries these days, I invited him to accompany me on a bus ride.  Lion accepted, save for the bus ride, and we set off together to explore Albuquerque.

Inhabitants of Burque, now nearing 16,000 followers, has been growing a solid steady month after month since its inception last August.  Like a snowball that grows exponentially as its circumference expands, the site seems to multiply its reach each day, attracting a broader field of people and interests the larger it gets.  My eyes are always squinting when I read it, my brow furrowed by muse, and although it is true that in a cave I have lived during most of this last decade of technological revolution, I need not be a prophet to see that Lion’s project is something far more than just another Facebook page.  It is—and please forgive my tendency for aggrandizement—the epicenter of a cultural shift in the City of Albuquerque.  This is not to say that the project is causing any such cultural shift or that the shift would not happen without it, but rather it is, by default or by genius, the vehicle through which Albuquerque is beginning to seriously redefine itself.

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Lion had not foreseen such rapid success.  One year ago he was, like many among us are or were at one time, a young man struggling to choose between job security and following his dreams.  Stability vs. Passion.  He bet on the latter, invested what money he had saved in camera equipment, a website, and related such overheads, and then jumped straight in.  There were obstacles, conflicts, controversy, and a great deal of uncertainty.   But something was happening in the city—and perhaps in society at large—that seemed to provoke an impassioned thirst for exactly that which Lion was the first and most consistent to offer:  a regular, interactive, and entertaining digital commons through which people of all stripes could explore the grit and glee of their own city, and share their own experiences, thus validating all the beauty and insanity one absorbs but rarely releases on a day to day basis.  Further, Inhabitants of Albuquerque puts to seed a long-begotten philosophical dream: Our city can be a real and unique community, one to be proud of.

Of course, if a sense of pride and commonality is the general direction in which we are moving, we most certainly still have a long way to go.  Just beneath the surface of this apparent social integration lies a vast and deep history of conflict entrenched on the lines of class, race, gender, nationality, ideology, and myriad other forms of human social identity.  It pops up from time to time in comments and counter-comments on the Inhabitants of Burque’s Facebook page, sometimes with utter vehemence and distaste.  In Lion’s own words, “computers give people tons of courage that wouldn’t be otherwise present in person.”  He implores them not to hate, but hate is out there, and it is a pressure cooker, is it not?  Time will tell, but as I am ingloriously ambivalent in my opinions on the matter, let us move on now to the adventure!

malibue and royalty2Our first encounter beckoned from the roadside, on Central Avenue near Wyoming.  Preface: Transexuality is the Western world’s greatest mindfuck, as it poses a direct challenge to age-old conceptions of man and woman that are at the base of our belief in a higher power.  Prostitution, too, is a thorn in the side of a society pretending in vain to adhere to firm moral structures sanctioned by God.  Combine the two, and the powers that be are left jaw-dropped and bumbling.  Society has a hard time adjusting to anything different than the way it has perceived things to always have been, even if things were never always any one way or the other in reality.  In the meantime, the appearance of transexual prostitutes on a hot summer afternoon is, as far as I am concerned here, only an appearance, for the truth of that matter remains undiscovered and unimportant.  All that mattered to Lion and I, to speak only for ourselves, is that two beautiful people with a million stories to tell were there for the telling.

Malibu and Royalty met just three months ago, but have since become best friends, going everywhere and doing everything together.  Malibu is from New York, but came here as a teenager.  Royalty grew up in Albuquerque.  She was a troubled teen, afflicted with an insidious anger that burned bridges and oriented her life away from school and towards the streets.  Although she is not in school now, she plans on going back sometime and becoming a social worker so that she can help troubled children and teens before they make the same mistakes she made.

Lion outing-0922With sweet giggle and smile, our impromptu photo shoot began.  Malibu and Royalty prepped their make-up in the reflective glass of a storefront door, puckering their lips with the naturalness of those who know their own beauty.  Lion and I snapped photographs, and the girls set to pose.  I thought to myself, the world is what it is, but… anyone who fails to see sexy in these girls, however they define themselves, must surely have a veil of confused morality draped over their eyes.  But, of course, that is nothing out of the ordinary, so let’s continue.

Up the road, off Tramway and Central, Lion and I ventured into the old Plaza Dorado housing complex, most of which is leased for Section 8 housing.  We immediately ran into two men, “Shy” (nicknamed so because he is, well, shy) and “Spaceship,” a 20-year old rapper from Little Rock, Arkansas.  Shy came out from Chicago three years ago to escape the unsettling alternatives to a high cost of living in his old city, but he misses the green.  Spaceship dropped out of high school at sixteen, and is now trying to make it in the music industry.  But despite his talent and his self-proclaimed resemblance to Lil’ Wayne (much appreciated by the local girls), the cards sometimes seem stacked against him.  “It’s like the police out here just want you to go to jail,” he says, complaining of constant harassment by the APD Gang Unit.  He also has to navigate the state bureaucracies to get everything from a birth certificate to a driver’s license because all of his identifying documents were lost when he was still a child.  He says his dream is to make whole lot of money and move to another country to live on the cheap, far far away from these games of cop-nab-the-gangster and other institutional restraints on living free as a poor young black man in America.

Plaza DoradoAt the end of the day, Lion has his dark sunglasses back on, and we stroll off into the impossibly sweet air of New Mexico dusk.  His eyes were only in brief moments exposed, but in them I saw clearly the windows to a tender and caring soul, one full of nuance and hope, and driven to help drive a city once forlorn to a place of greater harmony and common understanding.  I am still a cynical old bastard myself, but consider this my endorsement of those who promote community over disunity, hope over fatalism, and love over hate.

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Bella Banana

bella compYears ago I knew her only as Ann, the dolled-up secretary at a South Valley elementary school where I used to translate some language into another.  Just last month, egged on by two pooch-faced drug addicts begging for a hamburger and twenty-five dollars, I met “Bella Banana” smiling and smelling of Jimmy Choo over an Arby’s cashier counter.  We promised to meet for coffee sometime, and never did.  We opted for some boba tea and a bus ride, all around a sweeter deal.

bella banana-0872Bella grew up the last of eleven children in the little projects and trailer parks of Las Vegas, New Mexico.  The product of an “indiscretion,” she became a veritable Cinderella, derided and ostracized by her resentful siblings and cousins, and put to work in a seedy hotel at the age of twelve.  At fifteen, she was no longer the “little fat girl” to be made fun of, but when the Princes of Vegas began to swoon, her siblings decried her a “whore.” Instead of waiting for her little glass slipper, she slipped out at seventeen, left high school, and ran for Albuquerque.

Her heroes were all fabulous: Veronica Castro, Thalia, Susan Lucci, Lucy Lawless (the most bella of the bellas).  She tried to follow in their footsteps, modeling and schmoozing in the world of entertainment.  But it was a truncated emergence, both for her and for Albuquerque, and before long the window to stardom had shut. “Beautiful sixteen year-olds are born everyday, and how do you compete with that?” she says, at peace now with her resignation to less fab fates.

Bella had enjoyed working at the South Valley school where I first met her, but she felt she did not fit in.  She and the other office staff used to sit together at lunch and chew the fat over low-grade public school pizza and something like lettuce salad, but one day, a discussion of real and dream weddings drove a wedge between them.  Irene had gotten married in a Best Western hotel room.  Janette’s parents forced her to marry her Juanito after she got pregnant at sixteen.  Erica was at New Futures at thirteen, and being far too young to marry, simply never got around to it.  Bella, on the other hand, had bigger plans:

“When I get married,” she told the girls, “I want a 64-carat Chanel diamond ring, a Vera Wang vintage wedding dress, and oh my God, the wedding has to be somewhere just perfect, like the Sistine Chapel!”

“Tu te crees mucho, eh?” (“you think you’re all that, eh?”), the humble-dream girls chided.  A nasty sort of ideological abyss soon left Bella sitting alone at lunch.  It pervaded more than just the feelings of the girls, for its implications weighed on the futures of the children they were there to serve.

“It’s okay if you don’t want anything special for yourself,” Bella told me. “But it’s not right to teach the kids that they shouldn’t dream big.”

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And speaking of “not big,” Bella’s $11,500 per year salary at Albuquerque Public Schools was simply not compelling enough to stick around.  Eventually she decided to leave the schools for the private sector, and was hired to manage an Arby’s fast-food restaurant for three times her previous salary.  There are drawbacks, however.  Today she puts in seventy-five hour workweeks at the burger joint, managing a fluid and constantly changing stock of some eleven employees who might be more invested in their job were it not for the policy of the franchise to limit their own hours to twenty-seven per week.  Apparently, Arby’s found a loophole out of paying Obama Care through that age old trick of screwing over one’s destitute labor force.

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All of Bella’s employees, incidentally, regularly use the bus, which today is bustling, indeed.  At the corner of Harvard and Central we meet 17-year old Gabi, a CNM freshmen on her way home from a Summer session class on criminology.  Unlike her two brothers, both of whom “do nothing at all,” she wants to be a probation officer when she finishes school.  As Bella digs into the details of the more juicy aspects of life, we are all nearly trampled by a one-legged man in a wheel chair bellowing claim to being the second cousin of the one and only Elvis Presley, whose name is tattooed on his forearm.  “I’ll do anything to get my picture taken!” he says.  With no where to go and nothing to do, he decides to ride along with us, subtly suggesting we might all wind up at a cheap hotel somewhere with a bottle of party-all-night. It doesn’t happen.  We part with a sweet and anti-climatic handshake at Louisiana and Central, and Elvis rides into the sun setting over the flea market.

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On the way back, we meet Ben, who makes all of his own fetish leather gear, and Adolfo, who is the brother of Alfonso and the son of Alonso.  Ben is heading downtown to see a show.  Adolfo just lost all his money at the Casino, save for some change for bus fare.  Bella and I get off at Yale and Central.  After a golden hug goodbye, I thank her for the lovely company, and for introducing me to the bubbly world of Boba tea.  Another day slides off the horizon, and the coolness of the desert night saves our baked souls once again.

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“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!”