Bitter Water and the Spring of Life

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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Lynette’s Ride

Rain clouds roll in heavy over the mountains, their underbelly skimmed off by the Sandia Crest and curling over its edge like a sliver of cheese.  It is late July in Albuquerque, and the air is strangely as damp and cool as the coastal Northwest.  Pigeons could be sea gulls, and the hiss of wind down Central Avenue could be the melancholy of a fog soaked tide following an invisible moon.  The skylight is fading unnaturally early.  It feels as if a curfew were being imposed out of respect for a recent tragedy, or in preparation for one certain to come.  As it turns out, a man was busy shooting his wife and himself just down the street, but trees and breeze muffle gunfire and screams, here as anywhere else, so Lauren and I giddily hop a bus from Nob Hill to the International District with hearts almost as soft as the ones we were given, none the wiser, but all the better.

Lynette outing-2887 Born and raised in Santa Fe, Lauren moved to Albuquerque for college, where she studied theatre and became a conduit of comedic cultural expression.  Now she is better known as “Lynette” from the Blackout Theatre’s video series, Lynette’s Albuquerque and Shit Burqueños Say, which have reached a million people for whom our city has in some way or another come to mean something more than a dusty expanse of box homes and strip malls.

What more does it mean?  Although there is little of that ostentatious glory that sprouts loudly from the World’s mega-cities and quaint mountain paradises, we have here a sweet humility more endearing than even the dear end of all things, hidden ‘neath this (typically, but not today) boiling hot son, and which touches the heart of one and all who spend a little time here.  That is the essence of Lynette, and the genius of Lauren.  As New Mexican as a tortilla pan-burned in the image of Jesus Christ, Lauren has the wits, talent, pride, and drive to devote herself to the uncovering of, and the reveling of, a culture quirky, confused, and nigh forgotten to the rest of the world.  In doing so she has become an icon of the city, and a hot steamy bowl of laughyoassoff nostalgia for those who have left it.  Plus, she’s like all fun to hang out with on the bus ;).

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We hop aboard the Eastbound 66 at dusk.  The cabin is near full, and we immediately begin talking to people.  Ortencia and Maria are travelling up from a small city in Chihuahua called Buenaventura, which lies just south of Ciudad Juarez and is enmeshed is the same ascending wave of drug violence.  Ortencia’s two children are with her, hunched under bulging backpacks and squeezing Brats dolls and pillows.  They are on vacation, visiting family in El Norte.  I can see in Maria’s face a distrustful reticence before my camera, before my questions, for perhaps a poor Mexican is bound to feel forever scrutinized in a country that scorns the immigrants that make its mills run.  Ortencia is younger and more susceptible to a geek’s flattery, but only her children really open up with the bright smile of those too innocent to fear betrayal.

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Others are too far gone to fear it.  Three street drunks board the bus at Central and San Mateo, and sit down across from us.  Marta and “Squibals” came in from the Res for a cyclical binge.  “Cornbread” came from New York thirty years ago to escape the nuisance of parole, and found a year-round party on the streets of Albuquerque.  These are the occasional homeless.  They generally have a place to go sleep somewhere if they wish, but during binges feel far more comfortable and free amidst the grit and chaos of the streets.  Despite the rough n’ tumble of it all, Marta still keeps her hair trimmed and shining, and her smiley face enshrined in elegant turquoise jewelry.  “Squibals” had her nickname tattooed on her forearm.  It is a souvenir from Kansas, where she attended school as a child and where no one could pronounce her last name, Esquivel.  “Cornbread” is just “Cornbread,” perhaps because he likes cornbread…which means we might all be “Cornbread.”

Lynette outing-2913 Lauren and I get off the bus at Central and Wyoming.  A gaunt 37-year old man with short-cropped hair and dirty baggy clothes approaches us in front of Griff’s Burgers to very gently explain the dire straits that have compelled him to waver wistfully and forlorn outside a burger joint peddling for change.   He says his name is Chris, and his wife left him to move to Colorado after a fight they had three days ago.  They did not “break up” per se, but since he was laid off recently and the couple were subsequently evicted from their apartment, she fled north for shelter with family, and he stayed on the streets of Albuquerque to try to recoup.  “I just want some food,” he says.  Lauren and I are also starving pretty much to death, so we invite him into Griff’s with us, where I order three number sixes with unsweetened iced tea, courtesy of the tail end of my line of credit loan. And so we sit down inside, and Chris, tender and calm, tells his story.

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The son of a Mexican and a white American, Chris moved within and between two racially separate worlds with ease since childhood, slightly bending his identity from one end of the spectrum to the other according to the exigencies of each social context.  But growing up poor in the household of an extremely abusive father, he found a more welcoming outlet for his destitution and rage in the street-based families of Los Angeles’ Hispanic gangs.  He became a Sureño at thirteen, and spent the next ten years in and out of L.A. County corrections facilities, doing and selling drugs, and participating in acts of violence against rival gang members.  After seeing so many of his childhood friends killed or locked up for life, he opted out of the gang by moving with his mother to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  For years he kept his gang obligation to stay in touch, for to be a thug is to be a thug for life.  But age has a peculiar effect on youth gangs: It removes the youth, and eventually the gang no longer has its adolescent psychological foundations to stand on.  So today what is left of the old guard leaves Chris alone.  He has covered up most of his old gang tattoos with nondescript splotches of dark blue ink and wanders the streets of Albuquerque relatively free from menace, except for that provoked by hunger and cold hard ground.

Chris chews and swallows his food in giant gulps pushed down his sinewy throat like a turkey egg through a snake.  He speaks of his 3-year old son, Xavier, who for practical reasons is currently living with the child’s mother.  In fact, he says, the child is not even his, for he met his girlfriend when she was already six months pregnant.  But his was the first man’s face the child awoke from its uterine slumber to see, and he was the only man who took it in, who cared for it as if it were his own blood son, and that is the very nature of his love for it.  “Children are so innocent and pure,” he says, “I don’t get how so many men out there can just abandon their own kids, or worse, abuse them.”  His primary goal now is to find a new job, an apartment, and bring his girl and his kid back to Albuquerque.  The world is a lonely, hostile, and meaningless quagmire of suffering without family, without love. Lynette outing-2950Lauren listens attentively to Chris’ story, and is drawn completely in.  There is little doubt that he is speaking with the utmost sincerity, albeit little bits and pieces of any narrative are bound to suffer exaggerations or omissions of a perfect truth, for such is the nature of the mind’s interpretation of reality.  And Lauren is touched.  She has been hard up before, too.  She asks politely, almost timidly, if he wouldn’t mind a small cash donation from her pocket to his, if for nothing else to warm up a long cold night with a little goodwill.  Chris replies politely, almost timidly, that he would not reject such a gesture, and Lauren slips him a 20-dollar bill folded to the size of a paperclip.  Our departure is hugs and twilight.  “I’ll never forget you guys,” Chris says.

Night has fallen.  There is another overdose at the Westbound bus stop at Central and Wyoming.  Alcohol.  A middle-aged woman is being lifted into an ambulance with a drunk smile wide across her grease-shiny face.   Nearby a prostitute steps out of a client’s car and huffs in indignation as I stare curiously at her.  Two fat young toothless men ask to borrow a pen to exchange phone numbers.  Drunk cowboys laugh over silly nothings, and stumble over one another and onto the bus stop bench.  Lauren and I are speaking miles per minute, trying to digest too many thoughts in too little time, and perhaps making as little sense as the cowboys bumbling around behind us.  Then the bus comes, and we board for a fast cruise back to Nob Hill.  It is the Rapid Ride, and it speeds through the dark night like a ghost.

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Rolling with the Presidents

It was one of those evenings too beautiful for crazy.  The sun sank golden in cloudless skies west, blasting a silver-blue embankment of rainclouds high-cruising the Sandias.   Mara, a single mother of 4-year old twins, agreed to ride the 198 with me up Central Ave to the end of the line.  “Be aware, I attract crazy.”  Confirmed, but not today.  On this eve peace reigned in the southwest stretches of Albuquerque. bus stops-0631

We waited some ten minutes at the bus stop in front of the Downtown Inn.  Gilbert, the transit officer, decompressed the air pump as he slowed to a halt, dropping the door step down to the curb for our boarding convenience, and then greeted us with a smile as big as Bernalillo.  Few people were on the bus, for we missed the evening rush for a late-arriving babysitter.  But there is rarely no one to meet on the land barge. Mara and I got to talking right away.

Ron was coming home from his state job in Santa Fe.  Every day he busses it downtown, grabs the Rail Runner, and relaxes as the world glides by before laboring away at administrative duties in the Capital.  He owns a car, but why drive a personal land ship 120 miles each day when for less money you can rest your eyes from the road and read a book? bus stops-0640

Andrew agrees in his humdrum way.  He also has a personal vehicle, a small white Chevy pick-up truck, which he proudly showed pictures of from this cell phone.  But his truck is in the shop (way too far from his home on the West Side to make sense), and he was now riding home from visiting the pretty little wreck.  He carries an “honored citizen” card around his neck, which the Albuquerque Transit Department offers to senior citizens and disabled persons, discounting their fares to 35 cents per ride.  At 98th Street he pains to straighten his cramping back and lift his twisted leg. He limps out of the bus, his tender soul straining to survive amidst those bones in agony. bus stops-0666

Remembering his smile, I was a unafraid to meet Gilbert the driver, and as things went, fear had no place anyway.  43 years on the planet, 13 years taking people where they need to go, five years to retire, maybe ten, a wife, but no children, a possibility, a minister at the New Beginnings Church, someday a pastor, a smile for any and all, a judgment on no one, an intervention from time to time, because the bus can be a gnarly entanglement of drunken egos at times, but mostly peace, mostly just good folks moving bumpity-bump across an ever-expanding mass of concrete, work, home, driving a human family, living a human life, Gilbert. He won my heart when, upon seeing a friend driving a Rapid Ride in the opposite direction, both drivers ran out to greet one another with a massive bear hug.  bus stops-0661

The plight of transit officers is more complicated.  The city wants to reduce the pay cap for drivers from $17.00/hour to $12.50, and the starting pay from $11.00/hour to just $8.50.   The drivers also complain of security.  It can be an outright dangerous job to cart around Burque’s bus riders, some of them none too friendly, others none too stable.  Meanwhile, the bus routes are expanding.  Each new bus stop bench costs $5,000.  Each new bus, about $800,000.  “You’re riding in a million dollar vehicle!” Gilbert laughs, sighing down at an odometer approaching a million miles.  Eleven million rides are registered each year.  The Albuquerque Transit Department almost breaks even, sometimes.  More people need to ride the bus, clearly, but the stigma of crazy and the lack of routes deters most people who can afford a car.  Lacking clientele, the City drops the ball, investment drops, Americans cling to their funny dream, and the world keeps hurdling towards a most uncertain future. bus stops-0686

The sun was kissing the horizon when we picked up Donald, a sophomore at Atrisco Heritage High School.  He says he likes the bus.  His whole family uses the bus regularly.  Perhaps his shirt betrays his innocence, but where else should one sport a cotton-t raving bling but on a city bus in Albuquerque?  We dropped him off at Walmart on Coors and Rio Bravo before making the full loop back to Central.  Night was falling.bus stops-0680

On the way home, a smelly tattooed man and a pretty young girl giggled their way to the back of the bus and discretely injected heroin into their veins, which we never would have noticed were it not for the sudden and somnambulant euphoria that dropped over the girl’s eyes.   But Mara was lost in conversation with a cheery 18-year old just graduated from high school, and I was chewing the fat with Terrance, who was riding across town to his girlfriend’s place.  Instead of wasting $150 a week filling up his F-250, he opts for “by far the cheapest and easiest way to move around this town.” bus stops-0705

We stepped off the bus at 14th Street and Central into the bizarrely cold May night.  No crazy.  The world must be ending, I thought.  Or maybe it is just beginning.

Endnote: Mara Bailar is also a blogger.  Check out her intrepid exploration of sex and sexuality at:  http://pleasurepath.wordpress.com/

“I met your mother on a city bus”

Forty-four years ago a smitten young neck tie salesmen awkwardly approached a cute blonde phone sales operator on the Gravois-Lindell bus in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.  The blushing girl chewed at her fingernail, yet the boy failed to notice the big diamond ring on her finger.  He dared ask if he could walk her home.  The girl’s fiancé was busy dropping napalm out of an F-4 Phantom ten thousand miles away, and since a little chivalry never hurt anyone, she accepted.  Eleven years later, on the very morning of the infamous Jonestown Massacre, a slap and scream rang out through the maternity ward at Barnes Hospital, and that was me.  Thirty-four years on, in this grand year of 2013, my loving parents rode the bus again, this time in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They came to visit me for the first time since I graduated college—way long ago.  Why not show them a little of my world?

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Meanwhile, my world asked, “why not give them a little baptism of fire?”

Mayhem sprung loose at the corner of San Mateo and Central just as we parked the car.  A woman had overdosed on something, presumably heroin, and lay sick and screaming on the bus stop bench.  A rustled young police officer stood beside her, while variously compassionate or angry waiting passengers rushed to get the woman some water, or curse her for doing something stupid again.  I crouched down to ask her name.  I said something right, and she squeezed my hand, whimpering softly.  Then I said something wrong, and she lurched back and screamed like the banshee of my worst nightmares.

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Then the ambulance came, and I snapped my first photographs.  A woman whose back may or may not have been in one of the frames was not concerned either way.  But her impassioned husband evidently was:

“Did you ask my wife permission to take her picture?!” He berated me, beating a lopsided blue heart tattooed on his upper chest with his fist.

“Who is your wife?”

He pointed to a draping brown T-shirt and a mop of black hair amidst at least ten other people rushing about in the mayhem.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“Did you take her fucking picture without asking, motherfucker!?”

“Cut it out!” The young police officer thrust his mighty voice between us, after which I felt an immediate jolt of admiration and fear before the uniformed man.  My adversary must have felt it, too, for he bolted away into the crowd.  And it was right then that I remembered something from my ride-a-longs with the APD Gang Unit last year (see http://underabq.tumblr.com/): The chief of the Albuquerque Police Department had recently prohibited officers’ use of curse words while interacting with civilians, making it a punishable offence.  A number of officers were upset because they felt that using “fuck” appropriately, for example, was an effective de-escalation tool, without which the need for physical coercion would be more likely in certain situations.  In any case, my good officer today unleashed not one curse word, and yet still scared the fucking shit out of me!

In the meantime, since I hate to make people feel bad, I decided to seek out my angry friend to apologize for perhaps taking a photograph of his wife’s back.  It was, after all, unintentional, and I was perfectly willing to erase the photo if she appeared in it.

“That’s not the fucking point, you asshole! You’re a piece of fucking shit!”

At this time the police officer was twenty feet away and consumed in the chaos, and so it was just the angry man and me.   His cursing nipped my apology in the bud, and I began to feel a familiar wry smile creep across my face.  It was the sleeping giant of my man ego awakening.  A challenge! A duel! A ruthless battle to the bloody end!  Aggression, the essence of my primitive soul, was being taunted and teased into lashing out.  A euphoric catharsis, albeit a massive stupidity. My chest heaved to and fro, a visceral excitement.

As usual, however, the rational elements of my good citizen mind spoke louder.  And thank goodness, for after all, my beloved parents were just behind me, horrified that the angry man might pull out a knife and shank me.  But I needed more than rationality, for the angry man opted to pursue me as I tried to walk away.  I needed an intervention.  I needed Rob, the bearded schizophrenic miracle who sailed in with a stream of nonsense so passionate, and so incongruous, he could have disarmed North Korea.

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“My grandfather he was a Nazi in Nazi Germany and I just don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that hell man what did the Jews ever do to him damn I told her you shouldn’t smoke that stuff no way man it’s gonna kill you someday you know it!!…” and on and on.

The Central 66 bus squealed to a halt, interrupting the blessed tirade.  When my parents and I stepped aboard, a nasty cursing came from the back of the bus.  The angry man and his wife had already boarded, and they were irate.  Seeing me enter, they flicked me some long fingers, yelled something none-too-friendly, and exited the bus indignant.  I suppose there wasn’t room for both our giant man egos.

Then the wry smile propelled by my ego broke under adrenalin diluted.  The bus jerked into motion, and I sat down all a nervous jitter, feeling so rattled by the chaos and confrontation.  My parents, too, looked about nervously, not wanting to say anything, but clearly uncomfortable about the course of events.  Looking for solace in a smile, any at all, I began talking to random people on the bus.

Sweet smile after sweet smile, heartfelt story after heartfelt story—some so tender, some so tragic—ever-so-slowly this brought my heart back to a proper beat.  One of the worst sensations, after all, is to feel hated, and of course I risk this every time I nose my questions and camera into a stranger’s life.  But one of the best feelings is to make a connection with a total stranger, share with him a smile, a handshake, a story, a momentary and mutual understanding that despite all our differences we are in essence all the same.  I love to capture these moments because this provides for me some sense of meaning, without which no pain can be justified, and no joy sustained.

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On the way downtown and back we talked to several people.  Alex Xavier was heading back to his parents’ house off of 98th Street after an engineering class at CNM.  Eddie from El Paso and Magda from Burque met ten years ago, and ride the bus everyday to go to work, run errands, and go out for dinner.  Shen skipped stones in a puddle of water while waiting for the bus, and said it was so nice to visit his sister, as he often does on Friday afternoons.  Ryan had ridden his bicycle from Coors and I-40, grabbed the bus at 10th and Central, and was now on his way to work a 12-hour shift in the ICU at UNMH.  His wife stays home to take care of their three children, and—children are expensive. That’s why he is taking the bus.

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Meanwhile, Doris just left the hospital, accompanied by her two brothers and a cousin.  Her husband had beaten her to unconsciousness two days earlier.  Visibly shaken, the real men in the family swore revenge: “When he gets out of jail, we’re gonna do street justice.” They asked me to take pictures of Doris’ horrendous bruising “for evidence,” and then we exchanged contact information.

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In a flurry of tender handshakes and hugs, Doris and her brothers got off at Girard and Central, and on came none other than Jerobio, the toothless fun drunk from two posts ago.  “These are your parents?” he beamed, and then lectured my dad on the importance of being good to his woman, for woman is God’s gift from the Heavens, and she must always be loved and respected, lest we lose her and live a life alone with our misery.  Ask Jerobio, his wife is dead, his girlfriend in jail.  Or ask his abandoned daughter.  Such are the vagaries of love and vice.

Back at Central and San Mateo my parents and I stepped off the bus and into another golden New Mexico sunset.  Arm in arm, they strolled like teenage lovers across Route 66, all a glitter with shards of broken plastic and glass.  They had not been on a city bus in over three decades.  It felt like the anniversary of their love.

Pocahontas and Kaylee Marie

Jerobio has not been home to see his children in two days, but he thinks he will probably make it tonight.  In the meantime, the sun is setting over a city gilded by its light, and the liquor store is calling.  We meet at the bus stop downtown just across from the train station, and we ride all the way to Coors Blvd for the store with the best deal on cheap beer.  His friend, Gregory, with a smile like a Kuala bear, departs at 8th and Marquette to see a bail bondsman.

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Today I’m traveling with my girlfriend Paula (at back with Jerobio), who happened to be born and raised in a Brazilian city near where I did much of my graduate research.  Today she is a nurse in the emergency room, and perhaps from that experience has become so comfortable around—and comforting to—those who have long abandoned their dreams to depravity and vice.  In any case, it is easy for me to move around to take pictures because Jerobio immediately falls into playful conversation with her, intermittently advising her, of course, on matters of life, love, and the complementary essence of man and woman.

Jerobio had been married to a Navajo woman named “Chuki” who he met near his hometown in Utah.  He had just come back from a tour in Afghanistan in 2006 when Chuki died in a drunk driving accident, and he says that at that point he began his total devotion to alcohol.  “Take care of your woman!” he implores with all seriousness, and then slips into toothless laughter over unrelated matters.

I ask about his experience in the military.  “I was a sniper, but I never killed no one, man…just picked at ‘em [pokes at his “non-vitals”].  I’m a Christian, man!”

I ask about his children.  He says they stay with their grandma, and that he makes sure that he never drinks in front of them.  That’s why he hangs downtown with the hobos.  Because of the nature of the binge, he often will not go home for days, sometimes a week, while he accumulates grime and stink in the scratches and wrinkles of his skin.  He especially loves his 13-year daughter: “She is like Pocahontas, man, a real princess!”  What does she think about her father not coming home for days? “I think deep in heart she understands.”

Paula and Jerobio continue laughing on about all the whatnots of life while I move about the bus in search of an interesting photographic angle.  Being that there are others on the bus, I can’t help but wiggle myself between them, bump into them, trip and fall into their laps—at which point I apologize profusely, and they ask in perfect kindness and curiosity what I am doing.

Paula outing-0313That is how I meet Jeff and Sierra, a sweet young couple from Bernalillo on their way back from Presbyterian Hospital where they travel by bus every day to visit their newborn baby in the ICU.  Their daughter was born with a hole in her heart one month and seven days ago, and must remain monitored 24/7 until she is ready to undergo surgery.  Her name is Kaylee Marie, the letters now tattooed on her father’s left forearm by his own right hand with black ink and a needle.  She will survive.

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Jeff and Sierra met for the first time at Wall Mart five years ago while still in high school.  The crush was immediate, love followed, and today they are engaged.  Jeff dropped out of school and is yet to get his GED.  Sierra graduated and went to NMSU for a while, but then came back.  They are obviously inching along a plain of high hurdles and real struggle, but it is hard to see it their faces, which retain a youthful tenderness like a first kiss under starry Spring skies.

In a sudden jolt the land barge halts at the Churches Chicken on Central Ave near Coors Blvd, and this is our hapless stop.  Jerobio goes off to his liquor store, Jeff and Sierra to their home in Bernalillo, and Paula and I to the bathroom smelling of fried chicken and industrial cleaning agent.  To the East is the slumping string of cement of Nine-mile-hill dumping into the now blossoming Rio Grande.  Beyond it, the slow stretch of city upward towards the hazy magnificence of the Sandia Mountains.  To the West, a New Mexico sunset in all its glory.  Right in front of us, Joseph, a 48-year old alcoholic just released from jail (again), where he was sent for drinking in public and trespassing.  His jail tag from the MDC is stuck to his wrist:

“You guys don’t by chance have a knife on you, do ya? They don’t cut ‘em off for you at the jail like they used to. And I don’t carry knives or guns..,” his timid voice goes comically ominous, “…because if I did, I’d use ‘em!”

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Just before we arrived, Joseph had gotten another ticket for public drinking at the next bus stop up, where simultaneously an ambulance was tending to a veteran who had cracked his skull open and was bleeding profusely.  The cops had told Joseph they wouldn’t give him a ticket if he could walk away.  A pithy little joke it was.  Joseph’s right ankle is swollen like an eggplant, and he can barely walk.  Somehow, though, he stumbled his way to the next bus stop anyway, plunked down, and opened another can of beer.

Paula busies herself in conversation with him while I snap some photos and admire the beauty of this grand city at sundown.  Joseph talks to her about his life, and how he ended up a bus stop drunk.  “I tried to join the army when I was twenty-three, but I’m too stupid.”

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“You’re not stupid!” Paula insists.

No response. He just keeps on as if she hadn’t a clue as to what she was talking about.  After the army fiasco he worked in “labor” on construction sites for a few years, but shortly thereafter succumbed to a life of drunkenness.  Everything since is only a blur, a constant in and out of jail for loitering, trespassing, public drinking, failures to appear in court, outstanding warrants, and whatever, always back to the same.  The perfect tragedy.  But whatever else has been lost in his life, what surely remains is his warmest of smiles, childlike in essence, pure and sweet.

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As night falls, Paula and I walk down Nine-mile hill all the way to 2nd Street and Gold, where we left her car.  We stop in for onion rings and wieners at the Dog House.  Ever since she saw it on an episode of Breaking Bad, she wanted to eat there.  It was delicious and nasty, just like you know.  And thus ends another day on the bus.