Sunday, December 31, 2006

BUS STORY # 17, Part 1 (Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent)

I used to mark the transition of summer to winter by the golding of the cottonwood leaves, the smell of green chiles roasting, the clearest and bluest skies, the appearance of the clever, comical, slightly sinister crows, the first dusting of snow on the Sandias – powdered sugar on gingerbread. Riding the bus has taught me the real marker is Daylight Savings Time. Whether I’m going to work or heading out of the office for home, it’s suddenly dark out there. Unless Dan or Abel or Dennis or someone else is at the stop, I stand alone waiting with nothing more than my own morning thoughts, unable to read, unable to see anything more than porch lights, street lamps, and the headlights of car commuters. Same thing leaving work except my head is full of the turmoil of work.

The coming of the cold soon displaced my regrets about the dark. I remember the first morning I realized a jacket wasn’t quite enough. And the morning I realized I should add a sweater to my jacket and hat. And the morning I wished I’d worn my muffler and gloves . . . I still marvel at the blessings of dry heat and cold. It helps that I’ve been to Seattle this November, where the low 40’s become a damp, chilling, penetrating, inescapable presence. On the other hand, we have wind here, and when the wind blows, it cuts like a knife.

By December, the mornings are below freezing. I’m monitoring the feeling in my toes and clapping my gloved hands and guessing how many minutes before the bus gets here. I’ve already planned to start packing my hat and gloves and muffler next year when the time changes, and this proactive frame of mind gets me to thinking about what it will be like when rain gets added to the dark and cold and wind. Such are the times that try the bus rider’s soul. Pitted against the contemplation of the comforts of the car is the ideological contempt for the summer environmentalist and the sunshine commuter. I wouldn’t want to be one of them, now, would I.

I remember camping trips when I woke up in the back of my truck and my water jugs were frozen solid; or being on an early morning river casting into a mist rising off the waters with the feeling almost gone from my fingers, or simply pulling a poncho hood over my head during a hike as my only concession to the rain. Patrick F. McManus got it exactly right when he described these outdoor experiences as “a fine and pleasant misery.” So, I ask myself, how is waiting for the bus in bad weather any different? (I know, I know: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day working.” I’ve seen that on the back bumpers of the vehicles that are not buses being used by other commuters.)

So as Christmas approaches, I’ve reviewed all the reasons for switching to the bus – supporting public transportation, free bus pass, saving money for things other than gasoline, reducing my contribution to greenhouse gases pollution and to the Saudi funding of Islamic terrorist groups (Hmmm. I’ve covered the entire political spectrum here, from the tree-hugging left to the hard-line right. Could cutting gasoline consumption be the common ground we all say we’re looking for?) and, of course, my supply of bus stories. I’ve firmed my resolve, renewed my commitment. And then ABQ RIDE drops a Christmas present in my inbox:

“The City of Albuquerque’s Transit Department, ABQ RIDE, will be adjusting several bus schedules effective Saturday, December 23. Please check your bus route to see if any changes have been made. View the new bus schedules at”

There are changes to the No. 11 route. Big changes where I’m concerned. With the exception of two commuter runs in the morning and evening, they are cutting off my neighborhood altogether. They’ve given reasons for the change: 1) the need to allocate resources based on greatest need during a time of rapidly escalating demand; 2) the poor utilization of the buses in my neighborhood outside the commute times; 3) complaints from my neighborhood about the noise the bus makes.

It is this last reason that brings to mind the very first sentence of the very first bus story I wrote: “I suppose I had stereotyped my own neighborhood.” Perhaps I’ve just stumbled upon the counter-argument for dismissing stereotypes outright: behind each is an element of truth. My neighborhood seems to have no problem with the much more intrusive (though less frequent) transportation noise made by our neighbor, Kirtland Air Force Base – never mind that we are also beneath an occasional flight path from the Albuquerque International Airport. Somewhere in the neighborhood is another bumper sticker: “Jet Noise: The Sound Of Freedom.”

We also seem to have no problem with the insidiously pervasive rumble of generators recharging those 10 mpg motor homes, or with the melodies of power tools, chain saws, leaf blowers and lawn mowers, or with the pronounced roar of the diesel engines of big pickups being driven out of the neighborhood early every morning by hardworking independent small-businessmen. All of which pretty much suggests a not-so-subtle exclusivity in these complaints about the sound of the bus driving through our streets: “Our kind doesn’t ride the bus. We don’t want the bus and it’s kind in our neighborhood.”

In my more charitable moments, I remember when I used to smoke, and continued to smoke long after I knew better. The one thing that really irritated the dickens out of me was listening to someone else tell me how bad smoking was for me. Who really likes being nagged to do what they already know is the right thing? Perhaps hearing the bus is that same sort of nagging reminder that we ought to be doing something about that oil addiction of ours, and that we have an easy access alternative to driving our cars. Much easier to relocate the messenger. Out of earshot, out of mind. I can’t hear you, nanny-nanny boo-boo. Maybe we need a bumper sticker of our own: "Bus Noise: The Sound Of Energy Independence, Cleaner Air, Fighting Terrorism, Unclogging Our City Streets, And Making More Of Our Hard-Earned Money Available For Our Bodily Needs And Hearts’ Desires." Catchy, ain’t it?

I was discussing these conjectures with a co-worker who, in a previous life, was a New York City cop and so knows a thing or two about how things work in city politics. He suggested the possibility that some local satrap or otherwise connected citizen lives in my neighborhood and is the source of the “neighborhood” complaint.

But this is all speculation. Idle speculation given the fact of the new schedule. That is what I really need to attend to here. Looking at the new schedule, I see the earliest morning bus is late enough to put my connection with the 7:15 a.m. Yale bus at risk. But the real problem is the evening schedule: the latest bus hits my home stop nine minutes after I’ve boarded the Yale bus from work on the other side of town. Even if the a.m. bus runs right on schedule and I actually get to work on time, I cannot get home. It is time to consider my options.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

BUS STORY # 16 (Special Christmas Edition 2006: Luminaria Tour)

“This December 24, take a magical ride with the City of Albuquerque and ABQ RIDE on the Luminaria Tour. Enjoy this annual New Mexican tradition without worrying about parking, driving through snow, annoying traffic delays, or wasting gas. Instead, let ABQ RIDE tour you through a twinkling wonderland in Old Town, the festively adorned Albuquerque Country Club, and other hot spots decked out for the holiday.”

This notice has been posted on the buses and on the ABQ RIDE website since after Thanksgiving. Tickets will likely be gone by the 24th. [In fact, tickets were gone on December 8. The city added 520 more seats – thirteen more buses – to the tour. Those tickets were gone in less than a week.] This is one popular event, and a lot of locals take the tour with their out-of-town holiday guests. This is because luminarias are a genuine hecho en nuevo mexico Christmas tradition that will likely impress them as it did us the first time we saw them: this is truly the Land of Enchantment.

My wife and I took the tour with our Boston family one year. We’d each tried driving through these neighborhoods earlier in our lives, and we had learned our lesson. The six bucks a ticket is worth having someone else negotiate the traffic while you sit back and watch and ooh and ahh and visit. So there we were on Christmas Eve at twilight, standing in a UNM stadium parking lot in a switchback line that looked like a giant airport security checkpoint queue, waiting for the bus.

The night was clear and it was see-your-breath cold. That seemed festively seasonal for about 15 minutes. Then we commenced stomping our numb feet and covering our ears with our gloved hands and watching the lines of buses moving into their own lines, disgorging riders at another location across the lot, getting back into line, and moving up to the head of our line where they reloaded. This year, there are five flights. The first leaves at 5:20 p.m., and the next follows 25 minutes later. I have no idea how many buses make up a flight. A lot.

Our driver wore a red Santa hat and was still in a good mood. We pulled out and headed west. We laughed when we saw our APD motorcycle escorts. The cops were dressed in full Santa regalia, and their motorcycles were decked out in blinking Christmas lights. It was dark when we pulled into the first neighborhood luminaria display.

Some of you outer forty-niners may be asking what in the world is a “luminaria.” Well, it’s an adaptation of a Christmas tradition that came out of the seventeenth century little Spanish villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. On Christmas Eve, the villagers set up little stacks of pitch-smeared pinon and juniper and lit them at twilight. These little bonfires were called farolitos, and they were arranged so that the Holy Family could find its way to the front doors of the village church and a clean, well-lighted place for giving birth. I’ve gotta confess, I’ve imagined Santa in his sleigh looking down at such an arrangement and mistaking them for landing lights.

There are lots of versions of how little bonfires became paper lanterns, but somewhere along the line, in the transition from tiny mountain villages to towns and cities with neighborhoods, the luminaria emerged: a brown, lunch-size paper bag with the top edges turned down an inch or two, with a good spadeful of sand for ballast, and a votive candle placed inside the bag, on top of the sand.

Of course, these no longer lead to the neighborhood church. Nowadays, luminarias line curbs and sidewalks, wind up driveways and walkways to front doors. Sometimes they’re arranged along the tops of walls or porch railings or even along the edges of the traditional flat roofline. Occasionally, someone will arrange them as symbols in a front yard – a cross, a zia, and so forth.

Which marks yet another transition: the movement away from a religious tradition for one special night to a secular tradition for a holiday season. I’ve seen homes with luminaria displays for each of the seven days before Christmas, for Christmas night, and for New Year’s as well. But the huge majority of the folks here still confine their displays to the traditional Christmas Eve. Throughout the city, you’ll find one house or several in any given block still maintaining the tradition. Fortunately, there are still whole neighborhoods that mobilize to put out luminarias on Christmas Eve. These are magical.

I suppose you could make a case for attributing these transitions – from religious to secular, from the village church to the home -- to the coming of the Anglos. But one thing is certain: Anglos brought electric lights, and the fusion of the cultures is seen in the way luminarias and traditional American Christmas lights coexist, not just in the same neighborhoods, but often at the same house.

One egregious, increasingly popular fusion is the electric luminaria. Picture a string of light bulb stands over which are placed brown-colored plastic sack-like envelopes. What you cannot picture unless you’ve seen it is the real luminarias’ softly flickering patterns cast by votive flames inside brown paper. Many businesses have adopted the electric version as their nod to both the season and the state. But where homes and Christmas Eve are concerned, the electric luminaria is to Christmas as Taco Bell is to Mexican food. But, like Taco Bell, they’re quick, easy, and are ready when you are. Así es la vida.

Pulling into the country club area, we saw another fusion, but this one worked since it’s a play of one popular New Mexican tradition off another. Out on the golf course, several hot air balloons were inflated and tethered, and the pilots were flaring the gigantic envelopes one after another and back again. Giant glowing luminarias!

Over on the West Side, we pulled into a new neighborhood. Except for a lavish display of luminarias, there wasn’t another light anywhere in sight – no doorway lights, no windows edged with inside lighting, not even a streetlight. It was all luminarias flickering in the dark, and it was breathtaking. The traffic, as is the custom, drove through the quaintly winding streets with parking lights only, and some turned those off as well as we crept very slowly through these empty, silent night streets.

The homes were large and were what I call high-end Santa Fe style. I’m making an assumption here, but I’ve cast this as an Anglo neighborhood, and I’d wager all non-natives to boot. The Anglo part is easy: the architectural lines and decorative details are an Anglo fantasia upon a theme by Taos pueblo. The non-native part I derive from the exact replication of the concept of what the original old tradition must have been like (no electric lights). This is the kind of supercultural adaptation often found among first-generation immigrants.

The next neighborhood was an incredible contrast. Straight rows of little box houses exploding with lights, colors, music, people – Latino people, and lots of them. If there were luminarias, I didn’t see them amid the extravagant arrays of electric lights. There were big-bulbed, multi-colored house trim strings, lacy chains of icicle lights, and those shrubbery-covering nets of tiny, blinking white lights. But they almost got lost in the big displays: giant Santas and sleighs and reindeers, nativity scenes, angels and Christmas trees, and a great spinning pinwheel.

There were low riders decked out with Christmas running lights parked curbside with knots of young folk gathered around. One front porch featured three teenagers, two girls and a boy in the center linked arm in arm, the girls in short, fur-trimmed skirts and white marching band boots, high-kicking in unison to some familiar traditional Christmas music. “Hey,” my wife exclaimed, “that’s Gladys Knight and the Pips!” She meant the music. There was a concentration of neighbors at one house, folks visiting on the porch and coming and going through the front door, and you just knew inside, in the kitchen, was a huge pot of posole, and plates stacked high with homemade tamales and biscochitos. The Anglos may have been good for the lights and the music, but the food – that stays traditional!

I think of the two neighborhoods as the children of two parents, one Anglo and one Nuevo Mexicano. The children are separate and distinct from one another, yet wholly a mix of the same two, great parents. The Luminaria Tour has given me yet another way of seeing and celebrating where and with whom I live. And here at Christmas, it’s good to be visiting with the whole family.

As we say here in New Mexico, “Feliz Navidad.”

Sunday, December 17, 2006

BUS STORY # 15 (Ch-ch-ch-changes)

Gino is gone but not forgotten. He’s driving the Juan Tabo bus now. The switch was not entirely his idea. The drivers tell me there is a policy requiring drivers to change routes every four months. Drivers can bid for certain routes, and those bids are based on seniority. Gino would have had to split up his shift if he wanted to stay on the Lomas run, so he went looking for a route with an early-starting eight-hour shift and put in his transfer request. The morning ride in is not the same.

The morning schedule is not the same, either. Gino has been replaced by two different drivers who apparently have two different watches. "6:28 a.m." has become anywhere between 6:20 a.m. and 6:35 a.m., depending on who’s driving. I’ve missed a couple of buses even though I always arrive at my stop early. We riders laugh at the driver who comes early: he leaves the electronic date and time display at the front of the bus turned off. The driver who comes late isn’t worried about it.

Even the Rapid Ride has stuttered a bit. A couple of times going home, I got off the Yale bus, walked to the station in front of the Frontier, and saw the overhead message, "Next bus in 19 minutes." Those lapses cost me another 30 minutes making the Lomas transfer. My 70-minute ride home mushroomed to an hour-and-a-half. Thank God for the New Yorker and my wife’s forbearance.

Something has happened to two of "the guys" on the Yale 7:15 a.m. At first, I thought it might be vacation, but some time has gone by now, and it looks like the salon has disbanded. The one guy still riding looks forlorn. One morning, I saw him struggling to just stay awake. I miss his smile and his laughter. I miss this local access to the news and the conventional wisdoms that come with it. I miss hearing tolerant disagreement.

The guy in the white gloves has switched to black gloves. Is it a seasonal change? Have they quit making this style glove in white? Did he change styles and the new style doesn’t come in white? Why the change? Inquiring minds want to know!

The ServiceMaster young woman is gone, too. Her disappearance came at the end of a fascinating transformation, as if she’d emerged from a cocoon and flown away. One morning, a cell phone appeared on her belt. Another morning, her hair was down, and I noticed her shirt didn’t seem as starched as I’d remembered it. Yet another morning, her glossy black hair had taken on a golden-brown hue. The last time I remember seeing her was after we got off at our spot and I saw her walking ahead of me holding a cigarette. I remember this for two reasons: 1) she was holding the cigarette in her left hand in the awkward way of a new and self-conscious smoker; 2) I had the fleeting thought "My little girl is growing norteamericana." I wish I had noted the ring finger on her left hand before she disappeared.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

BUS STORY # 14 (Bus Driver To The Rescue)

I was taking the Rapid Ride home from downtown. We were moving right along: UNM, The Frontier, Nob Hill, San Mateo. At Louisiana, another stop. I was reading at the time, but I registered the doors closing, the bus starting up, then stopping. Two sharp horn blasts made me look up from my reading.

"You need the bus?"

It was the driver calling out, looking through the reopened front doors. I looked over to where he was looking. A man and woman were standing well away from the bus stop and by the wall of the Ta Lin grocery store. It seemed obvious to me they weren’t waiting for the bus. The man, who was facing the woman, turned his head toward the driver. He had a blue baseball cap, strong cheekbones, the moustache of a pistolero. Late 30’s, I guessed, or maybe early 40’s. He stared at the driver a bit before nodding "no."

"You need the police?" the driver then called.

I looked at the woman. She was halfway facing the man, halfway the bus. Large, solid woman, probably the same age range. She might well have been pretty 20 years ago.

"I’ll take the bus," she said.

And she did. Walked right over to the front door, climbed aboard, and stood by the fare box. The man continued to stare, but I couldn’t tell if he was following the woman or still staring at the bus driver. It didn’t look exactly like anger, but more like a slow train coming. But I wouldn’t want to have tested that hypothesis at that particular moment.

The woman and the driver spoke. I couldn’t make out any words until I heard him ask, "Where are you going?" I couldn’t hear the answer, but I did see him tear off a transfer slip and hand it to her. No money had been exchanged. She got off at the next stop, Central and Wyoming – a mile from where she’d gotten on. She headed for the front door, and before exiting, she stopped and said "Thank you for - " but that’s all I heard.

"Watch out for those crazy guys," the driver called out after her, then pulled out and resumed his conversation with the guy in the seat across the aisle about various car accidents they’d known and loved, a conversation they’d already been in when I boarded the bus downtown.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

BUS STORY # 13 (Tough All Around)

Last week’s story was my first encounter with a driver and a would-be rider without the fare. I’ve seen plenty since. It’s hard to tell which riders are running a con game and which just happen to be down on their luck at this particular moment. One thing they all have in common: as of this writing, the driver always gives them the benefit of the doubt.

One undetermined exchange happened on the Rapid Ride on my way to work. A long line of commuters was boarding at the Louisiana station, including a girl in a black, hooded sweatshirt. She flashed an ID and kept walking. “Hey hey hey!” the driver called after her. “Come back here.” The line stopped and waited while the girl went back to the driver.

“You’re a student?”


“How old are you?”


“If you’re eighteen, you’re an adult. You pay full fare, understand?”

She nodded. And stood there. The driver watched her stand there. The riders and lined-up commuters watched her stand there.

“Go on, now. You’re just lucky I’m not a hard-ass like the other drivers. You pay full fare from now on, got that?”

She nodded and walked back down the aisle. I watched her round, utterly impassive face (Navajo? I wondered) and thought how, even at my ripe old age, I would have felt embarrassed and humiliated, innocent or guilty, and my face would have been a billboard for my emotions. I had absolutely no clue what her real story was.

Another incident happened at the same station on the same inbound route. This time, a black man boarded the bus behind the others, stopped at the fare box, presented his handful of change saying it was all he had and, please, would the driver let him ride. He was tall, dark-skinned, fit, with strong arms and big, muscled hands and fingers. A real worker’s hands. He was carrying a square Tupperware-like container with food in it. No bag, no cooler like the one inside my carryon with my own lunch in it. His head was, well, “noble” was the word that came to mind at first. It unfolded as dignity driven to begging. He had a sonorous voice – no James Earl Jones, but in the minors. And it was agitated as well as pleading.

“I can’t do that,” the driver told him.

“Please, I’m already late for work. Can’t you give me a break?”

“I can’t do that. They’re watching us, bro, they’re watching us.”

“Bro” (from the Latino driver) is when I realized he was anything but. I would have guessed immigrant but his voice sounded American. Maybe from a small southern town? A fall from upper-class grace back east? How to explain a black man in his 40’s who was raised in America and whose posture, clothes, voice, words showed no evidence of having ever been exposed to the culture after 1959?

He stood his ground and pleaded his case again, the pleading a little edgier in his voice now with anger and desperation.

“OK, OK, just this once. But no more. They’re watching us.”

He sat in the row of seats behind the driver, facing the aisle, so I could see his full profile. His face twitched with the conflict of reestablishing composure. And then I watched him wipe both eyes, right there in front of a bus full of not-black people. I knew this was no con job. I knew that, whatever the story was, it was bad. And I knew I had no idea how to acknowledge that without making it worse.