Sunday, April 29, 2007

BUS STORY # 30 (Too Old To Chase The Dragon)

I was waiting for the Yale bus back to the office after a morning meeting downtown. The sun was still low enough that I chose to stand in the parking lot behind the bus stop bench to catch the shade of the tree next to the bench.

A woman was sitting on the bench. Before long, a guy approached the bench. She seemed to recognize him and called out, “Hey, how are you? How you been? Wanna buy me a beer?” They talked for a bit, then he moved back to where I was standing in the shade.

Pretty soon, a second guy approached the bench. “Hey, how are you? How you been? Wanna buy me a beer?” He sat down next to her and they talked. The guy sharing the shade with me chuckled. “There she goes, pretending she knows everybody and hitting them up for a beer.” He wouldn’t buy her a beer, he wouldn’t buy anybody a beer, he wouldn’t go anywhere near a beer because it was alcohol, and alcohol had just about killed him. He was in the VA and he was bleeding and he had horrible stomach pains, and the doc told him if he really wanted to die, then the first thing he should do when he got out was buy a pint and drink it because he would start bleeding again and the doc wouldn’t be able to stop it the next time. So when he got out, he bought a half pint, and when he was ok after the half pint, he bought another. “I just about died,” he said. That was it for him and alcohol. He quit, cold turkey. No more drinking for him.

“How long have you been on the wagon?” I asked him.
“About a week now.” That’s how long he’d been out of the VA, and he was never gonna go back to drinking. “It’ll kill me. I know that now.”

Had he ever tried AA?
He was gonna try it, but he knew it was God who was really gonna help him. God had never let him down. And besides the fear of dying and the memory of the pain during those hospitalizations, there were all the other bad things drinking had caused. He’d lost his girl friend, and he’d lost his car, a ’99 Buick “in mint condition,” after a DUI. The case on his DUI got lost for a while, he hoped forever, but they finally called him into court. They told him because of the time they were gonna cut his sentence from a year of house arrest and having to wear “the bracelet” to three months and just calling in every week. But first he had to get a phone. He lost his phone when he spent the phone money on alcohol.

I asked him where he worked. He laughed and said, “I don’t work. I’m retired. I’m 70.” That was a surprise. He didn’t look 70. He surely didn’t look like a 70-year-old alcoholic. His hair was still black, combed straight back. His face could have passed for somewhere in the 50s. A discreet black stone was centered in his left ear lobe. He sported a trim, off the lip moustache. His clothes were clean: khaki pants, an untucked yellow tattersall sportshirt.

He’d been injured when a scaffold fell. He’d “messed up” three bones in his spine. He was good for nothing after that – “I couldn’t even sweep leaves.” He went on disability. He was doing all right once Social Security kicked in, but when he moved from California to New Mexico, he lost $400 a month in disability payments.

Why the move?
Because he was from here. He’d been in California for 42 years, East LA, bad place, too much trouble. He was always in trouble with the police down there.

For drinking?
No, for robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, stuff like that. He was on heroin then, he explained. He did hard time, 16 years. He’s done with drugs.

How long had he been off heroin?
10 years. Never again. “I’m too old to chase the dragon.”

He laughed when we heard the woman’s “How are you? How you been?” “There’s not even a place around here where she can get a beer. Nearest place is” – he jerked a thumb westward – “three blocks that way, or two that way,” he said, moving the thumb eastward. “No sir,” he continued, that’s it for him. No more alcohol. He was drinking vodka when he almost died. That did it for him. “Basta. Enough.”

The bus came and we climbed aboard, along with the woman and the two other men who’d joined her at the bench. The two of us sat across from one another, but the flow of conversation had stopped. We ended up getting off at the same place. He turned north, I south. “Good luck,” I called to him. I’d wondered if somewhere during this story telling, he was going to try hitting me up for money. I understood now that wasn’t what was going on here. He just needed to tell his story. I could relate to that. It wasn’t until later that I realized he wasn’t smoking.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

BUS STORY # 29, Part 2 (Takin’ It To The Street)

I wrote a letter to Greg Payne, director of ABQ RIDE. I sent copies to the mayor and my city councilman. I told them all about the trials and tribulations the new schedule was causing us east-of-Tramway Lomas bus riders. I didn’t yell or threaten or plead or whine. I just explained a number of us wanted to use public transportation and had done our best to accommodate the new schedule, but it just wasn’t working out. I provided three pages of personal experiences. I closed with the suggestion that ABQ RIDE restore the old schedule, at least during the commuting times.

A week later, the 6:11 a.m. bus didn’t show up. When Abel arrived to catch the 6:45 a.m., he said in all his eight years of riding, he’d never seen the bus not show. “They must have gotten your letter yesterday,” he quipped.

The following day, I got a personal response. Greg Payne acknowledged my frustration, reaffirmed his commitment to making bus service work for all of us, and announced the old No. 11 schedule would be restored at the end of April. I read that last part again: the old No. 11 schedule would be restored at the end of April. Incredible.

I’m not foolish enough to believe my letter made this happen. There must have been a busload of emails and phone calls and letters from other riders as well. Still, I was astonished by the response.

I was in Boston early last month and caught Mike Daisey at the Zero Arrow Theater doing a monologue on, among other things, a history of the New York City subway system. He described how the board meets to listen to public input on MTA policies and schedules, current and under consideration. Afterwards, they retire to a boardroom and make the decisions they’d already decided on before the public meeting.

This is how I understand government works. So, naturally, Greg Payne’s letter was a disillusioning experience.

Fortunately, I had my faith restored just a few days ago. A rumor was sweeping through the ridership that the real reason the schedule was changed in the first place was because a personal friend of the mayor’s had leaned on Hizzonor to do something about getting the bus out of the neighborhood. The mayor in turn leaned on Payne. Payne in turn changed the schedule. That would put my co-worker, the ex-New York City cop, right on the money.

That is, if it’s true.

The truth is, I don’t want to find out otherwise. It’s become fashionable to debunk every truth we hold sacred, and there is no truth more sacred than city hall is about favoritism and shenanigans. Frankly, I’m getting grumpy about all this debunking business. But now I’m left with explaining why the city changed the schedule back again. I can‘t seem to find any other reasonable explanation than responsiveness to public input. Imagine that!

I’m looking forward to sleeping in another 15 minutes, and to leaving work when I’m done. I’m looking forward to feeling relieved of the stress of making my connections. I’m looking forward to talking to the regulars about something besides the schedule. I’m looking forward to being on the lookout for bus stories. Once again, I’m looking forward to taking the bus.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

BUS STORY # 29, Part 1 (Boring)

Decades ago, when I first came to Albuquerque, I got a job on the night shift. Every night I’d come into work, my co-workers and I would begin briefing one another on how much sleep we did or didn’t get during the day, what we had to do before we could get to sleep, what kind of sleep interruptions we’d experienced, and on and on and on about the ever-elusive ideal eight hours of restorative, golden slumber. Sometimes we’d talk about other aspects of our lives, but only after covering the requisite sleep report in exhausted detail.

To an outsider listening in, there could only be one reasonable conclusion: Those night shift folks, they need a life.

After the schedule changes to our No. 11, I realized the same thing was happening on my bus rides. Instead of talking about our daily lives, we’d taken up talking about the bus schedules and the havoc they’re wreaking each day of our bus riding lives. We go over and over how the Monday - through - Thursday No. 11 driver gets us to the Wyoming and Lomas Rapid Ride station in time, but not the Friday driver which means we don’t make the Yale connection in time and are 30 minutes later getting to work. Or how even though we were on time, the Rapid Ride came early, or late, and we still missed the Yale bus and were still 30 minutes late for work. Or how one of the riders swore if we stayed on the No. 11 to Louisiana and then caught the Louisiana southbound, we’d catch the Rapid Ride we missed at Wyoming – which makes no sense and has one extra failure point, but captures the frantic and irrational search for a miracle cure that has gripped many riders suffering from the afflictions of the schedule change. Or we talk about the trip home and how the Yale bus was late and we missed the Rapid Ride that would have gotten us to the Lomas bus that went across Tramway and up Turner – or the Rapid Ride was late, or had collapsed somewhere on the side of the road leaving us with a 19 minute wait and the missed connection at Lomas -- or how the Yale bus and the Rapid Ride were right on schedule, but the Lomas bus came early . . . We discuss the good drivers and the bad drivers – the “good drivers” being the ones who get us to our connections on time and who sometimes wait on us when they know our usual connection is running late. And we talk about this every morning all the way in and every evening all the way home, and nothing at all seems to be important or interesting enough to interrupt this boring beating of the same very dead horse.

How boring is it? Have you managed to read every word to this point? That’s how boring.

Worse, it was killing the bus stories. I found myself preoccupied with getting to and from work rather than with what was going on around me. And, big surprise, I found I’d replaced the stress of driving with stressing out over the connections. Outside the joyless practice of virtue, there was increasingly little to recommend taking the bus.

I experimented with the Park and Ride. The good news is that it eliminated all my missed connection problems. Even if it came late in the afternoon, there was no missed Lomas bus and no walk up the hill to contend with. The bad news is that the Park and Ride is 13 miles round trip (work is 20). And the No. 11, which I was bypassing, has been a diamond mine for bus stories.

So: I wrote a letter.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

BUS STORY # 28 (In Which My Wife Rides The Bus)

Although I’ve never tried to convert my wife to riding the bus, she’s felt compelled to explain why she remains firmly committed to her car. Her case is solid. While the current schedule can get her to work before her shift begins at 7:00 a.m., it can’t accommodate the fact that her shift rarely ends at “quitting time.” Even if she gets out on time, it can’t get her any closer to home than a seven-tenths of a mile uphill walk in the dark; can’t get her home without putting her on a street-light-illuminated corner for a connecting bus for up to 60 minutes. Not exactly the circumstances in which a solitary woman wants to put herself in this day and age.

Which is not to say if ABQ RIDE addressed all her concerns, she would then ride the bus. Right now, she can sleep until 6:00 a.m. on workdays. A bus schedule that would work would push that time back to 5:00 a.m. I suspect this would be the hardest sell of all.

Still, I think my stories have made her curious about the experience, so when I invited her to join me for a daylong conference at the new and swanky Embassy Suites and proposed we take the bus, she asked, “What time would we have to leave?”

“We’d have to catch the first Lomas bus, the one I normally catch at 6:13 a.m. That would get us there around 7:25 a.m. – we could get breakfast in the 20 minutes before the sign-in begins. It’s a straight shot down Lomas – no transfers, and it’ll drop us practically at the front door.”




“Are you sure? We could still drive.”

“No, let’s take the bus.”

We took the bus. Worked perfectly. We even had the incredibly good fortune of catching a bus back which was one of the few that still serviced our neighborhood. There were no great adventures, but there was a pretty good slice of bus life for her to share. On the way in, a young woman with a four-year-old sitting in front of us shared her academic strategies, her knowledge and experience of negotiating the bureaucratic maze of student grants, and a critique of various day-care and pre-school options in town. We could see she was determined and focused, and we concluded this was exactly the kind of person we were happy had these sorts of government-funded opportunities.

On the way home, I saw one of the morning Yale bus irregulars, an older woman with a pronounced limp and a cane. She was standing in the median when our bus pulled in, and she called to us to ask the driver to wait. He did. The traffic was heavy, and she was slow. It took a while. When she boarded, she thanked the driver, then she thanked us, then collapsed heavily onto the seat behind the driver. She then announced to the young woman across the aisle that her husband was finally out of his coma. Then she rolled up her right pant leg to display a swollen, reddened lower leg. “Cellulitis,” she explained. My wife gave me the elbow and nodded in concurrence. The young woman advised her to keep off the leg as much as possible, and to wrap it in a warm, wet towel and elevate it when she got home. My wife was amazed anyone would offer such specific advice for such an obviously serious medical condition. “But I guess she can’t be sued,” she concluded.

An old, blind Indian with a cane worked his way down the aisle from the back of the bus. It looked to us like the cane was for decoration since he used his body as his primary sensory contact. He bumped into seats, passengers, poles, the back of the driver’s seat. “Not yet,” said the driver. The Indian tried to sit down on top of the woman with the bad leg. She apologized and with some difficulty moved over a seat. He got up a couple more times before he reached his stop. We held our breath as he lurched toward the stairs. The driver got up and grabbed his arm, and helped him down and out of the bus.

After the bus resumed its journey, the man sitting directly across the aisle from where the Indian had been sitting told the driver how he had helped him earlier in the day do his shopping at Smith’s, then to cross the street and board the bus. Chance encounter? Regular routine? We don’t know but wish we did.

Our driver waited at two stops for a couple of minutes explaining to us he was a little ahead of schedule. One of the passengers called out, “Shucks, I’m a little behind in my schedule.” That got a few chuckles. Our driver also waited a couple of times on passengers who were running trying to catch the bus. My wife remarked we had a compassionate bus driver, and I agreed. When we got off at our stop, we exited through the front door and I stopped and asked him his name. “Lorenzo,” he told me. The next morning, I called in a compliment.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

BUS STORY # 27 (Intersection)

A month had gone by since I started taking the early bus, and Dan* [Bus Story # 6, parts 1, 2, 3, 4.] looked to be another casualty of the schedule change. I missed his wonky take on things.

But one afternoon, after climbing aboard the outbound Lomas bus going up to Turner, I found Dan grinning at me from the bench seat behind the driver. “I thought we’d lost you,” I said. He said he’d been alternating between taking the later bus and having his wife drive him in. The later bus wasn’t really cutting it, and the early bus was just too early. “Man, that’s an extra 20 minutes sleep out of each morning.”

After swapping our schedule-change woes, a trip through the intersection of Lomas and Juan Tabo got us back to normal. “See those cameras?” he said, pointing to what looked like a giant metal birdhouse mounted on a steel pole. “This is one of those red light camera intersections.” I’d read all about them. There were a dozen or so of these intersections scattered around the city which photographed the license plates of drivers either running red lights or speeding through the intersections.

“Fifteen,” Dan corrected me. “And they aren’t scattered.” Turns out a few of his coworkers had decided to do a little extracurricular analysis of the program. One of the data folks began with a map of the distribution points. Dan asked him what this map told them. He answered that wasn’t his job; he was just the data guy. Dan laughed. “Government workers.” Dan didn’t think of himself as one of them, of course.

The group correlated the distribution points with the intersections that were, one, the busiest, and two, had the highest number of accidents. “So what does that tell you?” he asked me. “That they’re trying to reduce the number of accidents.” He smiled. “Or that they’re trying to maximize income.”

“Income” was a hundred bucks for the first ticket, $250 for the second, $500 for the third and over. Dan cited some numbers that suggested the city was making a killing on these tickets. “But that just proves drivers here are irresponsible,” I countered. I also thought it proved drivers here weren’t real bright since they kept getting tickets, but I kept that to myself.

Dan went for the coup de grâce. The group took a field trip to several of the intersections and timed the duration of the yellow light. Sure enough, they found some interesting discrepancies. “People learn how much yellow light time they have at a frequently-used intersection, then use that learned response at other intersections where the timing is different. When that time is shorter, the city makes a hundred bucks. Or more.”

I wanted to know if there were any stats yet about the impact on accident rates, but we’d come to my home stop. Before the schedule change, we would have resumed the debate in the next day or two. But it’s been another month or so now, and I haven’t seen him since. However, I have seen the laser flashes in the Lomas/Juan Tabo intersection every morning on my way to work. Another reason to take comfort from riding the bus.


From the city website:

In 2006, accidents in the City of Albuquerque were down 8% citywide and 30-40% at red-light camera enforced intersections. In addition, the Albuquerque Fire Department reports a 23% decrease in Level 1 trauma calls at red-light camera enforced intersections. The great news, with violations being down by as much as 50-70% at the oldest red-light camera intersections lives, money and time are being saved by this successful traffic initiative.

Also from the city website:

How could I request that someone check the timing of the yellow going westbound at Montano and Coors? I use the intersection all the time and do not believe the yellow is anywhere close to 3 seconds.

Please contact City Traffic Engineering at 857-8680 as they can handle that request.


*Real name changed.