Sunday, March 25, 2007

BUS STORY # 26 (You Look Like A Tourist)

I’d worked late one evening and caught the Yale bus home at 6 p.m. A few stops later, two fellows boarded and sat in the back of the bus across from me. I might not have remembered them except for two things: 1) one had a striking face. He was wearing a faded green kerchief pulled tightly over his head and knotted at the back that served to magnify an uncommonly long goatee. Between the kerchief and the goatee were two large, intelligent eyes and strong cheekbones. 2) The other guy, the talker of the two, asked me if I’d just gotten into town. “No, I’m just going home from work,” I replied. “I thought you were coming from the airport,” he said. “You look like a tourist.”

I pegged these guys as day laborers. Late 30s, tall, lean, dusty beat-up jeans and boots. I surveyed the other riders. Nobody else looked like they’d just spent the day in an air-conditioned office, either. I was wearing slacks and a polo shirt, but I figured it was the hat (a Tilley hat, a fine, broad-brimmed sun-deflecting gift from my wife), my sunglasses and my duffel-like carryon stowed under my seat that made me look like a tourist. I couldn’t help thinking I’d just been profiled. And then I couldn’t help thinking that’s what I do everyday I ride the bus and survey my fellow bus riders.

“Profiling” is a pejorative term, of course. It denotes socio-politically incorrect behavior. Another word is “stereotyping” – not much of a connotative improvement. Still, we all know it’s a big-brained adaptation of a survival skill older than our kind. It’s what the robin does when it elects to leave the birdbath where it was happily splashing away when I walk out on my back porch. It doesn’t know me at all. What it knows is how best to keep out of trouble. “Gut instinct” comes off better than “profiling.” We all know the 15 rounder going on between “instinct” and reason. And we all have stories about what happened to us when we decided to trust our rationalizations instead of our gut. Right or wrong, regardless of the trouble it sometimes causes, we – that’s all of us – profile our way through every day. Because, bottom line, it works so well we’re rarely even aware we’re doing it.

Which is why I wondered what it was that made me look like a tourist. I had the physical evidence explained, but I think there was more to it than that. Maybe I looked like a tourist to this guy because I am a tourist.

The World Tourism Organization defines a tourist as a person who is traveling to and staying in places outside his usual environment “for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited.” Well, yes. It all fits.

No question the bus culture – the bus stops and the buses themselves – are well outside my usual environment. At the time of this writing, I have been in this culture for four months now – considerably less than a year – and I offer my previous bus stories as evidence that I am still a wide-eyed, open-mouthed observer of the still-exotic behaviors of a diverse and mysterious native population. Like every tourist before me, I chose to travel here. I could have stayed home in my car – unlike most of my fellow riders who would gladly drive if they could afford a car. My ecological and economic motives are not business-related. My unexpected discovery and recording of bus stories is certainly “leisure.” You might argue that my free bus pass is a form of remuneration – but it is not from “within the place visited.”

Here’s the story: I look like a tourist because, yes, I am a tourist. And the natives can tell just by looking. But I plan on still being here after a year, and I suspect the rising demographic of my kind, driven by economics, environmental concerns, and relief from the ever crazier traffic, are turning a lot of us dressed-for-the-office tourists into the new immigrants. One mid-morning well outside the commuting time border lines, after boarding the regular Central bus, I look over a tumult of sideways baseball caps and tank tops, technicolor spandex pants and tube tops, tattoos and piercings, and I can’t help but wonder if these long time residents are looking at me and thinking “There goes the neighborhood.”

Sunday, March 18, 2007

BUS STORY # 25, Part 2 (Indians And Dodo Brains)

Waiting for the Lomas bus. The Indian; the dad, standing on the curb, rocking back and forth, looking westward; the kid who finally lay down on the bench and pulled the Indian’s flannel shirt over him like a blanket; two women waiting several yards from the far end of the bench where they stopped abruptly and elected to stay about the time the dad leaned over the curb, pressed a finger against one nostril, and blew his nose into the street. And me.

“It’s coming,” the dad says. He goes back to the bench and rouses the boy. “Go give the man back his shirt,” he says. The kid gets up and takes the shirt over to the Indian.

“Thank you,” he says.

“That’ll be five bucks,” says the Indian as he takes the shirt.

“OK,” says the kid.

The Indian laughs. “Did you hear that? He said ‘OK.’” He laughs. The father picks up the two McDonalds sacks. “Here,” he says, handing them to the kid.

The Indian boards first. I let the father and son board ahead of me. I want to be as far from the croupy kid as possible. I let the women board ahead of me, too. The father and son are near the front of the bus. As I make my way to the back, I see the Indian has found a fellow Indian to share the ride with. I don’t catch a lot of detail, but the other guy has a baseball cap, shoulder-length hair, the same style glasses except the frames are black, and earphones.

I’m sitting close enough to hear most of the conversation. I’ve come in on the tail end of an explanation. The guy with the cane is explaining to the guy with the earphones how the cops confiscated his crutches. Both of them. He asked the cops why they couldn’t just keep one and give him the other to walk with. They needed them both as evidence, they told him. His friend responds with “THE COPS ARE NO GOOD!” A few riders look back, but most are experienced enough to keep their eyes to themselves.

My Indian turns out to be Navajo. His seatmate is a Puebloan, a San-something I can’t quite make out. They kid each other about whose women make better wives. It has to do with cooking. My attention wanders. Then I hear – we all hear -- “A MUSHROOM CLOUD OVER BAGHDAD!”

We’ve picked up a lot more passengers, and there is too much conversation and engine noise to hear the two Indians anymore except for the shouts of the Puebloan. The ride to Juan Tabo where the Navajo gets off is punctuated by intermittent shouts: “RAGHEADS! . . . FIGHT FOR OUR COUNTRY! . . . I’D SACRIFICE MY DAUGHTER! SHE’D GO . . . AMERICA!” Nobody looks back.

After the Puebloan is left by himself, the shouting is less frequent and the subject changes. “JOHN LENNON! . . . HE’S COOL!” I figure he’s listening to his headphones. “BUT NOT YOKO!” On the Tramway stretch that now cuts off my neighborhood, he returns to theme: “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL! . . . PEOPLE DYIN’ EVERY DAY FOR AMERICA!”

Incredibly, we all get off at the 7-11 – the Puebloan, the dad and his son, and me. The Indian strikes out ahead, arms extended. I wonder if he’s listening to Steve Miller and flying like an eagle. He cuts the corner to the north and I wait to see if he’s heading up Tramway or for the pedestrian bridge over Tramway before I decide how I’m going to cross the street. I prefer the bridge. Red lights are scant protection and the traffic is going at least 50. The Puebloan turns up toward the bridge. I wait at the intersection with the father and son.

The father pounds at the pedestrian crossing button. I can tell from the kid’s expression he knows only a dodo-brain doesn’t know this won’t make the light change any faster.

Halfway across the intersection, I look up and back at the bridge. The Indian has just begun the crossing. I can’t hear anything at all over the traffic.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

BUS STORY # 25, Part 1 (Indians And Dodo Brains)

The Indian studies the schedule. It’s posted on the bus stop sign on the eastbound side of the street at Lomas past Wyoming. There have always been some bus stops with the schedules attached, but recently the city has been putting new ones on the Lomas route, presumably because a lot of riders are confused about which buses go past Tramway and which don’t. Even better, the schedules are now readable.

“I think we missed it,” he says, turning to me. “It should have been here 10 minutes ago.”

“We didn’t miss it,” I reply. “I’ve been here since five ten. It didn’t come.”

The Indian studies the street. “Maybe this is why,” he says, pointing to a repeating pattern of fluid leakage exiting from the bus pull-in lane. Indian scouts trail, I hear myself think. He says, “I hope that isn’t brake fluid,” and laughs. It will turn out it isn’t brake fluid, it is fuel, and he will be right: that’s why the bus didn’t come. It will turn out I will hike up the hill again after waiting an extra 30 minutes for the opportunity.

The Indian is a classic: short, stocky, with a square face and ‘80s-style plastic-frame glasses, a Denver Broncos baseball cap, and a long, unadorned braid. He’s got a blue plaid flannel shirt on over a sweatshirt, jeans – always jeans – and boots. Two different boots: the one on his right is an orthopedic boot. He’s got a metal cane.

“Native American.” It comes to me I should be referring to him as “Native American.” I recall that “Indian” is neither geographically accurate nor politically correct. I could sidestep the issue if I knew his tribe. I wonder if he is Navajo. But then I’d have to worry about whether to call him “Navajo” or “Diné.” I’m pretty sure “Diné” is what we’re supposed to be using now. Although I think I’ve also heard only the Navajo are supposed to use “Diné.” He could be Puebloan. I’ve got nineteen different choices here, but I can’t recall any injunctions against using “Puebloan.” I remember my kids telling me how, in Seattle, the Asian population does not take kindly to being lumped together as “Asian.” They are Vietnamese or Cambodian or Thai or Laotian or Korean and they know the differences if we don’t. I wonder if the local Pueblo people feel the same way about being called “Puebloan.” I know from personal experience never to ask a Zuni if he’s Navajo. But then the Navajo are not Puebloan. Actually, white people look alike to me, too. I can’t tell an Iowan from an Ohioan to save my life, never mind guessing the country of origin of their progenitors. Of course, you can often guess the Texans. Unless they come from somewhere else – Ohio or Iowa, for example. Which reminds me of stories of how Santa Clara refugees from the Pueblo Revolt are said to have become Hopi over on First
Mesa . . .

This monkey-mind riffing is mercifully terminated by the arrival of a father and his boy. The father is a sight. He’s tall, with a big belly. He has long hair graying at the temples and combed straight back, and an unruly gray goatee. He’s got an eye-catching overbite. He wears his glasses up high on the top of his head. He’s wearing a plaid polo shirt and jeans. The kid looks like a 10-year-old Tom Petty with a runny nose. Blue, long-sleeved polo shirt with a yellow collar and yellow stripes on the sleeves. Jeans, athletic shoes. He’s carrying two McDonald’s sacks.

Dad steps to the curb, his hands in his pockets, looks westward and rocks back and forth. The kid collapses on the bench, then lets go with a seriously croupy cough. He’s sitting sideways at the end of the bench and after the cough, sags against the back rest. “I’m cold,” he says. He wipes his nose with his sleeve.

“It’s your own damn fault,” his father barks. “I told you to take your coat.”

“You didn’t take your coat,” the kid whines.

“I made a mistake, and now I’m paying for it, just like you.”

I recognize the kid’s expression. He can’t begin to explain to himself or his father all the things that are wrong with this answer, but he knows. “You’re a dodo brain,” he says quietly. I wonder if maybe I’ve underestimated the kid’s ability to understand. Meanwhile, the Indian has moved over to the kid and put his flannel shirt around him.

“Thanks,” says the kid.

“Thanks,” says the dad.

“I got kids myself,” says the Indian.

It’s a noble and compassionate gesture, and all I can think of is how infected his shirt is gonna be when he gets it back, and how he’s gonna take it home to his own kids. “No good deed goes unpunished,” says the voice in my head. A few minutes later, the kid looks like he’s fallen asleep, still sitting up and leaning sideways against the backrest. We adults stand silently, watching and waiting for the No. 11.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

BUS STORY # 24 (Special Edition: Will’s Bus Story # 1)

A Vancouver TransLink city bus. Photo by Busboy.

Will lives in Vancouver, BC. Vancouver is some 1600 miles from Albuquerque, but Will’s story makes it clear it’s really just a bus stop away.

Saturday night I usually take the bus home after working all day in the record store. I'm tired, sometimes very much so if I've moved a lot of records. It's around 7 p.m. when I get to the stop, and usually a 10, 15 minute wait. Most nights I'm leaning against the wall. Weary as I may be, I'm always entertained by the weekend parade of spikey haired pierced ones, the muttering unwashed, and giggling young Asian students, oblivious to their environment, passing by.

So last Saturday night, the bus finally pulls up to the stop, and I climb up the steps to pay my fare. There's a reflective tape safety vest draped over the coin box. The driver shakes his head at me. "No fare tonight." All right by me. I go to my usual seat at the back.

A few stops later, the bus now half full of shoppers clutching their parcels and more giggling youngsters going out to dinner in the local Korean and Japanese restaurants near my home, a young man, obviously used to living on the street, gets in. No fare - OK with him, too. As he starts walking towards the back of the bus he catches the furtive, sidelong glances of his fellow riders. But rather than nod hello, or mumble a "Hi," he makes a noise like a chicken. "Buc buc buc buc buc," he says to each rider who makes eye contact. They quickly look away. They don't teach chicken in the ESL schools here. Well, he "buc bucs" his way back to me, my weary eyes resting perhaps a bit more gently on him than those of the less well versed riders, and looks me in the eye, smiles slyly, and says, "buc buc buc buc buc, crazy like a chicken, crazy like a chicken." He then plops down in his seat, settles his garbage bags of clothes, blankets and bottles, and falls asleep. Instantly.

We ride down the road, people get on and off, we turn the corner and go down a bit, when he pops his head up, pulls the cord, gathers his bags and walks to the door. As he gets off he says, "Thank you so much" to the driver. Then he's gone. To where, I wonder, has this sleepy, polite, crazy chicken gone to roost, to make a warm nest on a cold fall eve? May he escape the foxes should they come for him in the night.