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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Back on the Bus

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It took some coaxing to get me back on the bus after nearly two years. During the interim I had ostensibly joined the “middle class” (i.e. got a salaried job, bought a car, etc…), and consequently Albuquerque’s buses and their people sank to that low status of big clunky nuisances clogging traffic. My sympathies still lay with the working man, of course, or at least that’s what I told myself—and with the struggling student, the addict, the prostitute, the down-n’-out writ large. But now I was middle class in matter and manner, and that meant our worlds were now as far apart as Jupiter and Pluto. That meant that although these others and I inhabited the same city and transited the same streets, we may as well be on different continents, for all we now paid attention to one another. But this segregation of classes (and this terrible anomie of the glorified middle) finally came to an end yesterday evening, thanks to Alexandria, a former student of mine, for she insisted I get back on the bus.

I had been worried that our fellow bus riders would somehow smell my new class status and reject me outright (ironic, considering I still haven’t been able to afford new clothes). Worse still, I was afraid I might no longer find complete strangers interesting, and that I would therefore reject them. But to my delight, I was completely wrong on both counts. Alexandria and I were immediately caught in a whirlwind of smiles and story-telling with each encounter on the bus, and of equal importance, these smiles and stories reawakened in me that jubilant curiosity for life, which under the weight of so many silly pressures had long gone dormant. Moreover, we were witness to acts of real humanity, of heroism, of struggle—the stuff that being alive is really all about, but that tend to disappear from view when we hole ourselves up in our individually packaged lives.

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My first smile was Jasmine, who I might have mistook for a “me-against-the-world” teenage gangbanger had I not struck up a conversation. It turns out that she is 28 years old and pleasant as a peach. She was glad to talk about her experience on the bus, and she had something to say. “Look at my foot,” she pointed down at the floor. “Bus driver ran right over me, and he knew what he was doing!” Since the accident last September, she has been living on SSI, which aside from providing her barely enough income to survive, has led to intolerable boredom. Still limping, this is why she was riding the bus today, just to get out of the house.

At the back of the bus, a middle-aged man named Paul showed me all the tattoos his son had given him. They were bluish, less-than-perfect “realist” portraits of loved ones, including his late father (killed shortly after he was born) and his daughter (the love of his life). Paul had a torn meniscus replaced the week before, and it was very much against the doctor’s orders for him to be running around on the city’s buses. His eyes lit up somewhat maniacally as he explained the situation: “I ain’t gonna let nothing hold me down, man. I’m a soldier!”

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A few minutes later the center of the bus was taken by a strange commotion. A man who looked to be about my age—a man who kind of looked like me—fell down in his seat and began to seize. Moses, a “street-dressed” man (also of my age, but who didn’t look very much like me), jumped up from the back of the bus and rushed over to tend to the stricken stranger. He laid the poor fellow down in the walkway, gently holding his head upright so that he would not choke on his tongue. Another stranger gave Moses a towel, with which he began wiping the foam and spittle away as it oozed from the man’s mouth. I gave him my bottle of water, which he used to wet the towel and rub over the man’s forehead. Paramedics arrived just as the man came to, and they escorted him off the bus to an ambulance. Moses returned to his seat at the back of the bus amid a ruckus of congratulatory cheer.

“How did you know what to do back there?” I asked him.

“Man, that’s simple shit. I’m gonna be graduating from RN [Registered Nurse] school this summer!”

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Before I could explain what Alexandria and I were doing on the bus, Moses went on to discuss a brilliant idea of his—he wanted to do a sort of photographic ethnography of the roughest, most disenfranchised communities in Albuquerque, and in this way give struggling people a platform upon which to tell the world their stories. With that I gave him my albuquerquebusstops.com card, and asked if he’d want to work on a project together sometime. “Definitely!,” he replied, and perhaps thusly was planted a new seed of collaborative genius. So are you going to call me, Moses? Don’t forget!

Way up on Central and Tramway, the end of the 66 line, Alexandria and I got off the bus and walked a ways in the golden light of the setting sun. We found yet another man of my age (by the way, I am thirty-six, a very refined age) sitting on the curb and finishing off a hamburger and fries from some nearby fast food joint. Behind him stood a small wheel cart stuffed with all his earthly belongings. He said his name was Jeremiah, and that he and his wife had been homeless for nearly a year now.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m addicted to heroin,” he said, explaining away a lifetime of turmoil in a single sentence. But his situation hadn’t always been so desperate, he assured me. Although he had been addicted to pharmaceutical opiates since the age of sixteen, he only began using heroin a little more than a year ago. Up until that point he had managed to hold a decent job at the Albuquerque Journal, where he earned enough to support his wife and four children, the oldest of whom is now thirteen. Heroin, which is far cheaper but also much stronger than other opiates, rather quickly incapacitated him as an effective employee, and so he soon lost his job. In short order, then, he also lost his home, and in the process he lost his children. All four of the little ones now live in foster care in Rio Rancho. Jeremiah and his wife, also an addict, try to visit them on Tuesdays.

“How do your children react when they see you like this?” I asked.

“They cry,” he told me. “I can’t bring myself to lie to them and say that everything is going to be alright.”

“But don’t you still have hope that you can overcome this?”

“No.”

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Just before parting, I asked Jeremiah if he wanted anything from the gas station. A flare of something momentarily came over his otherwise melancholy eyes. “A Honey Bun, please,” he said. And a Honey Bun it was.

Alexandria and I then strolled westward down East Central talking about life and all sorts of other nonsense. The sun was disappearing over the horizon when we finally stopped to wait for a bus. This is where we met Grizzly, our last friendly encounter of the evening. Seeing his rucksack beside him, I asked where he was headed.

“Where the wind blows me, my friend!”

I asked how he was going to get there.

“The old wagon trails!”

Alexandria took the conversation from there while I snapped photos. Grizzly spoke of his Apache ancestors and their knowledge of natural edibles and wilderness living (as opposed to simple “survival”). Alexandria spoke of the importance of local agriculture and eating organic. Both lamented the prevalence of fast food and cell phones in Western culture, the consequent poor health of human populations, and the spiritual disconnect between Man and Nature.

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Back at home and with time to reflect on our little adventure, something occurred to me. The people who ride the bus in Albuquerque (and probably elsewhere) do not just ride it to get from point A to point B when they are unable to do so by private vehicle. Although this is surely the reason for public transportation, it is by no means the only reason people use it. Instead, people ride the bus because it is a cheap and effective way to escape the loneliness of their homes and to feed their very basic needs as essentially social beings. The bus, in this sense, replaces the old town plaza, or how it was back before urban flight killed the plaza’s social function. It is a place where for little or no money one can “soak in the social,” a vitamin just as pertinent to the health of the human spirit as sunlight is to the life of plants. This helps to explain the countless individuals Alexandria and I saw repeatedly throughout the evening, smiling their way up and down central on bus after bus, these old town plazas on wheels. And since I came home feeling quite cheery myself, I got to thinking: middle class is for the birds. I’m going back to the bus.

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/

The Runaway

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We met Dominic as we rustled around for change.  The frail and tiny boy of twenty years quietly—though not shyly—offered to pay the 35 cents for Anais’ bus fare, and then slipped off to sit by himself on the nearly empty land barge that is the Route 66 Central Avenue main line.  I told him about our project and asked if he wouldn’t mind a few questions and photos, all of which he accepted without much hint of either enthusiasm or apprehension.

He ran away from his parents home just a week ago, and has since been sleeping on the streets (note: more than a thousand runaways are reported as “missing persons” each month in Albuquerque—he is perhaps on that list, perhaps not).  He has no job or plans to get one, no shelter or plans to seek one, and no joy or pain seems to be at this point permitted into his mind, as if he were in a state of shock.  Time has temporarily stopped, and every moment has neither future nor past, every action neither meaning nor mission.  Or perhaps this is not true?  What compelled the quiet and forlorn boy to offer the only change he had to a pretty young girl whom he had no intentions of even flirting with?

His answers to my questions were invariably curt and calm, telling more by their manner than by their substance.  He was angry about his parents, but did not tell the story, only that he would never go back there.  Pressured into acknowledging the inevitability of time grinding its rusty gears once again, he offered that he never finished high school, but got his GED, and that at some point he would probably get a job.  In the meantime, he sleeps in a park, stores some extra clothes at a friend’s house, and dodges the police who variously ignore his condition or chase him like hounds.

“How do you make money? Where do you get food to eat?”  His answers are too soft to hear when the bus squeals to halt at Central and Yale.  It is our stop, and we say a friendly goodbye.  These bus stop stories are often so fugacious.

Route 66 Central Ave.

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The Route 66 main line bus runs the gamut of Central Avenue from East to West.  Here passengers exit and board at the corner of San Mateo Blvd, just across the street from the Bank of America building, where billionaire Bill Gates rented his very first office space.