The Life and Times of “Change Bro”

johnny thanks givingA paragraph is sometimes insufficient to honor a man, so herego.

Fourteen years ago, just having spent my last dollars on a Limousine Express from Juarez to Albuquerque, I sat down on a bus stop bench at sundown on Central and 12th Street, aimed uptown towards the university.  A creepy pimp with the countenance and charm of Eazy-E sat beside me and said, “boy, you look like you could do to make some money tonight.”

Boy, he was right.  I had not eaten a meal in two and half days. I was completely broke, but for a few small coins—some pesos, some dimes—in my back pocket.   But this homage is not for the pimp who kindly paid my first bus fare and offered me a job “partying with hot older women” (save this for another time).  It is, rather, a continuation of the last post, an ode to the straggly-haired, mouse-faced, and tenderest of hearts who was waiting for me just a few minutes later in front of the Frontier Restaurant at Central and Cornell: “Hey, you got any change, bro?”  I did, and since its pithy jingle only made me feel worse about my woeful pauperism, I gave it to him.

In those days, Johnny Romero slept and roamed in and around the campus of UNM.  He was among the group of squatters residing in the rafters at the Student Union Building, who were later expelled when the scandal blew up.  Then he was kicked off the university campus altogether—perhaps a dozen times, before the campus police realized they would have to monitor him constantly, lest he sneak back in to charm young change-toting students.

In the end, he surrendered campus, retreating strategically to the surrounding “student ghetto” south thereof.  The college students and other penniless ragtags typical of the area tended to love and care for the meek and mild homeless man.  He always asked for change, but never demanded or acted aggressively.  And it was never a problem if you had none to offer.  He would simply thank you and move on, or stand and chat for awhile, inquiring politely as to the welfare of your best friends or your far-off family.

He could be quite chivalrous, too.  A dear friend of mine, a Spanish woman named Alicia, was getting her master’s degree and lived in the student ghetto.  Her classes often got out late, and she would have to walk home alone through the dark streets south of campus.  Those were the days of the notorious “Ether Man” and the “Southside Rapist,” both of whom were active in the area.  Johnny, the unassuming peddler, walked her home from class nearly every night to make sure she was safe.  Not for change, but for simple, perhaps even thoughtless, consideration.

But if students and ragtags liked the hapless Johnny, a number of local business owners felt strongly otherwise, and they called on the institutions of the state to guarantee the constitutional protections of private property.  Within a few years, and after so many beatings and brief stints in jail for trespassing, Johnny abandoned the neighborhood.  Believing that an official court order made it illegal for him to set foot in 87106, he marched on, from zip code to zip code, knowing no other life than that of an endlessly wandering pan handler.  He moved to Nob Hill, and another “court order” banned him from those public spaces.  He moved on, then, to an alleyway near the corner of Girard and Indian School, and there lasted a few years.  But when a sympathetic businessman passed away, and his daughter inherited his failing enterprise, the state was called upon again to remove the stinky man and his wad of sleeping gear, to be ushered off somewhere new.

It was around that time, in 2010, that I decided to interview him in depth for the first time.  I had just gotten back from a good long trip to Brazil, and felt stunned by his appearance.  Johnny was getting old, physically speaking.  He is only 46 years old today, but a life on the streets has aged him twenty years beyond.  His youthfulness seemed to have disappeared, his wrinkles deeper and dirtier, his gate more bent and drawn, a sadness in his stare I had not seen before.  It was common for me not to see him for months at a time, and at once I realized that if he were to at some point die and pass on to other worlds, I might never know.  And please understand that in 2010, noticing his physical decrepitude for the first time, I feared he might actually be dying.  And so I found him, spent a few days with him, talking of his life, his whereabouts, and his goals.

It was noon on Thanks Giving day, and the year’s first snowfall lay in a fluffy thin layer over a blue tarp in a narrow alley.  Snores and grumpy moans rumbled underneath.   Johnny wanted to stay in bed, but I said no.  We had a free holiday feast on which to stuff ourselves at the nearby Mennonite Church, and with my own family being so far away, I was not going to miss it.  Begrudgingly, he sat up, brushed the snow out of his hair, and prepared himself to face a brand new day.  And alongside the kind Mennonites of Albuquerque, we filled ourselves with innumerous courses of hot steamy soul food.  It turned out to be a delightful day of grace.

Between chomps and chews, Johnny spoke of his life.  He had grown up in the East San Jose neighborhood, just south of what the hip now call “EDO.”  In the 1970s and 1980s it was a bloody battleground of gang rivalry and small time drug dealing.  Heroin had wiped out the remnants of the Chicano movement, as Hispanic youth fell to addiction and the extreme violence of an unregulated market.  Gangs fought for turf.  The San Jose gang split into various clicks and factions as its old-tier leadership crumbled under overdoses, eternal prison sentences, and combat with the also deteriorating gangs from Barelas, Martinez Town, Washington Heights, and Wells Park.  In the middle of all this, Johnny and his brother were high school drop-outs living at home with their mother.  She died when he was 24-years old, and the duo began selling marijuana out the back window in order to make the mortgage payments (Johnny never landed a legitimate job).

The brothers did not belong to the local gang, however, and they had not gotten “permission” to sell drugs in the neighborhood.  One day a gangbanger approached the back window pretending to be a customer, and then pulled out a gun.  It was a .22 Caliber pistol, and one of its little lead bullets remains lodged in Johnny’s left calf to this day.  He barely remembers the moment for the adrenalin that catapulted him across the yard and over the fence.  Horrified, he never went back to selling drugs.  He and his brother failed to make the mortgage payments, and the house went into foreclosure.  While his brother left and is now somewhere in Texas, presumably married and raising a family, Johnny has been living on the streets of Albuquerque ever since.

Each time I see him, I sigh something like relief.  He is still alive.  His frail ratty body hunches more each year, his face evermore deeply sunken, his aging skin draped over the contours of his skull and bones.  His nose is broken like a boxer’s.  His left pupil torn from its center by a shard of glass in a fight long ago. His hands black with smut, his hair an eternal catastrophe.  But he is alive.  He was built street tough.  “I haven’t gotten sick in twenty years,” he says.  I can hardly believe it.  I get sick all the time.

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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!”