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 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!
The 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.
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.
Out 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.