Sunday, May 27, 2007

BUS STORY # 34 (Abel)

I began riding the bus a year ago this month. I met Abel* my first morning down at my stop. ABQ RIDE could not have arranged a better welcome. Abel told me how he’d been riding the bus for seven years, how convenient and dependable it was, and what wonderful people he’d met as fellow riders over the years. He introduced me to the driver, made sure I knew where to get off and when to pull the cord. I was impressed and grateful, and I wrote about this experience in my very first bus story.

Some time later, I got the opportunity to tell him how much I appreciated the way he’d put me at ease that morning. He told me how one of the regulars had done the same for him his first morning. “I didn’t know anything,” he told me. “I didn’t know how the fare was handled, if I was supposed to sit in some designated place, how to signal when to get off – nothing.” He said a woman had taken him under her wing and shown him the ropes. “I’ve never forgotten her,” he said.

I ended up having to take an earlier bus to accommodate my work schedule, and so I only saw Abel infrequently. Whenever I was going somewhere other than my office, I could leave later, and Abel was always down there waiting. This past December, when ABQ RIDE changed the Lomas schedule, I’d sometimes catch him on the afternoon bus up the hill whenever the connections were on schedule. We talked mostly about the impact of the schedule change on ourselves and our co-riders these last few months. When I told him I’d decided to write a letter about the schedule, he asked if I’d send him a copy of the letter. I sent him the draft. He made a couple of good suggestions.

Once we crossed Juan Tabo, he’d pull out his cell phone and let his family know it was time to come pick him up at the bus stop. He told me he used to be able to walk up to home, but recently found the climb just too steep. He always offered me a ride, and I always thanked him and declined.

I knew Abel was an accountant and worked for the County Assessor’s Office. He hadn’t always been an accountant. Once, he told me about his early days working for a bank downtown. He was a loan officer, and his supervisor called him in one day to tell him they were worried about many of the loans he was making. It seems that Abel’s clientele consisted of a large number of recently single mothers. These were deemed risky loans. But Abel believed he had a pretty good sense about people. He was sympathetic to their plight, and he persisted in making loans to this particular demographic. As he anticipated, he was again called into the office. This time, he was prepared. He had a list of all his clients and their payment records, and he had another list of bank clients consisting of males with good credit ratings. Guess who had the better payment record? He told me they left him alone after that. “I guess I was kind of a rebel back in those days,” he concluded, chuckling.

Abel didn’t look like a rebel. He was neat as a pin – pretty much what you’d expect an accountant to look like. Always a tie, of course, and always slacks (as opposed to pants). He was partial to black and white. Perfectly dressed for subversion, it now occurs to me.

Abel retired last month. He invited me to a retirement breakfast party at Weck’s just north of the Lomas-Juan Tabo intersection, and he asked me to pass the invitation to Maddie,* another regular rider and one of my fellow employees. I ended up picking her up at her regular stop, and taking us both to work after the breakfast. We expected to be surrounded by county employees. Surprise: Abel’s party consisted of bus riders and drivers he’d made friends with over the past eight years. It was amazing.

Abel was also there with Rita,* his wife of 41 years, and his son and daughter and their families. Many coffee toasts ensued. I saluted him for being ABQ RIDE’s best ever PR guy. One of the old riders was already retired, and Abel asked him for advice. “It’s easy, Abel. You make a list of all the household chores, divide them up by the number of days in the week, and start your days with that daily list. Be sure to cook a dinner or two as well. Once you’ve done all that, you’ll find your wife will let you do anything you want with all the rest of your time.” Abel asked him if this routine made him miss work. We all laughed. “Not at all,” he answered, “and you won’t, either, Abel.” It’ll be us who will do the missing.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

BUS STORY # 33 (Mother’s Day)

Ralph* and I were sitting at the Frontier Rapid Ride stop. Ralph is an accountant who works in the same building I do. We met riding the bus, of course. The Frontier, a restaurant across the street from the main entrance to the University of New Mexico, is legendary for being open 24/7, for good and cheap food, for perennially topping the town’s various “Best” lists for its homemade sweet rolls and green chile, and for making possibly the best flour tortillas in the known universe. I worked for the owner, Larry Rainosek, in Austin back in the ‘60s. A fine experience, but that’s another story.

So Ralph and I were sitting on the metal bench talking when this guy walks up carrying a big, rectangular, heavy-duty black plastic bin, complete with lid. “I found this at work,” he told us. “They were gonna throw it away. It was full of greasy old engine parts, so I dumped ‘em out and scrubbed it up real good.”

“What are you gonna use it for?” Ralph asked him.

“For storing clothes in. I’ve got a dog run I can put it in.”

He sat down on one of the cement ledges at either end of the metal benches. He was tall, with a scrawny blond ponytail. Black faded cap with an indeterminate logo, black jacket, blue jeans, brown work boots. I never got a fix on his age. He was an old young man.

A motorcycle roared by and we all followed it.

“I had a bike for about four years,” he said. “It was the last thing my parents gave me. They sent me $650 so I could buy it, and they told me that was it, I was on my own after that. Then last month, somebody stole it. On a Sunday right around noon.”

“Sounds like you saw it happen,” I said.

“Heard it,” he told me. “They must have been waiting. I drove down to get a Sunday paper. Then I drove back home, parked it right by the front door, thought about locking it, then thought no, I’m just gonna use the bathroom, then drive over to Wal-Mart. I was sitting on the toilet when I heard the engine rev.”

He abruptly changed subjects. “I heard it was supposed to get cold and rainy today, so I wore this jacket.”

It wasn’t a particularly heavy jacket, but more than he really needed. It had been overcast all day, but no rain. It’s an old Albuquerque tease. He propped the bin on one end in front of him. I figured if he was six feet, the bin was four. We talked weather for a bit, and somehow the conversation wandered back to the bin and how he needed a place to store things since he’d had to downsize his living quarters recently.

“I been living in the same place for 10 years, $400 a month. Never once raised my rent. Then I come home from burying my mom to an eviction notice. Developers,” he explained. Seems like they’d discovered “the war zone,” another local legend for an area roughly between Louisiana and Wyoming, and Central and Zuni. “If I were an investor in property, that’s where I’d buy now,” he told us.

Now he had a place a quarter of the size of his old place. For $650 a month. He felt lucky to have it. “I was this close to being homeless,” he said, holding up a thumb and forefinger an inch or so apart. “I had to take off work to bury my mom. My brother sent me plane fare. Then I come back and have to take off more work to find a place to live. My boss was hot, but what can you do?”

He told us how he found his new place walking around this past Sunday afternoon. He was feeling the pressure of having to be out of his old place by the next day. “I saw this little ‘For Rent’ sign over on Utah. I headed to the Circle K and called right away. Took it right there on the phone. Y’know, I kinda wonder if my mom had something to do with it.” He looked skyward. “I was this close,” he repeated, showing us again that thumb and forefinger.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

BUS STORY # 32 (Good Deed)

On my way to work on the Rapid Ride this morning, we stop a couple of blocks before the regular Nob Hill stop for a guy with a transfer ticket. A murmur runs through the bus: how come she’s stopping here? “She” being the driver, one I’d not seen before. I got a good look at her waiting in line to board. Short, skinny, pretty, but a hard pretty, like the pretty that tucks a razor in her bra or a blade in her boot because, like make-up, it’s part of what you always do before going out.

The boarder is a young guy – a young man, actually, and good-looking. Hmmm. Could it be that sex appeal can pull some drivers over where they wouldn’t normally stop? They do exchange a few words before he takes a seat. Up front, close to the driver. Hmmm.

A couple of blocks later, we’re at the Nob Hill stop, but we’re in the center lane. The outside lane is fenced off by a row of orange barrels. There are a bunch of folks waiting at the stop.

“What are you guys doing there?” The driver’s voice is exactly what I would have imagined: dramatic, shrill, with an underlying whine. It’s TV-ready and wonderful. She stops the bus, opens the doors, and yells out “You guys shouldn’t be here. They’ve moved the stop to Solano. That’s what that yellow bag over the bus stop sign means. C’mon, hurry up. I’m not supposed to be stopping here.”

I look in vain for some indication that the Rapid Ride stop is no longer operational. But now I understand the handsome young man is the only rider who has a clue about what’s going on. I’m on the ABQ RIDE email list for schedule updates, and I would have remembered an announcement about Rapid Ride and the Nob Hill area. I think ABQ RIDE has dropped the ball here.

She is hurrying the folks on board, waving away bills and passes and transfer tickets. “Keep moving. I’ll look at ’em later. C’mon, let’s go.” I count nine passengers in all. They’re stacked up in the aisle waiting to settle the fare business. She starts up again, checking each passenger while moving along to the next stop.

After everyone is settled, she goes through her spiel about the stop being closed again. Someone from the back of the bus yells, “OK, OK, just close it.” “What?! I go and do you a favor and pick all you guys up and you’re telling me to shut up?” The incredulity and anger are right there in her voice. The woman across the aisle says, “I’ll bet that’s the last time she picks up anyone there again.” Two other voices from the back: “Thank you, bus driver.” “Yes, thank you.” A pause. Then the original voice repeats, “We got it now. So let’s close it.” Another male voice chimes in, “Yeah, let’s close it up. It’s done.” Followed by laughter.

It’s times like this when I wonder what God was thinking when He created the Y chromosome. But before I get to wondering about His chromosomes, I think about the fact I’m getting off at the next stop, and maybe I ought to say something to the driver. I’m undecided right up until the exit doors open. Then I walk to the front of the bus and stop by the toll box.

“You did a good thing picking up those people. I’m sorry you got any grief about it.”

She does this head-ducking thing which reminds me of a bashful grade-school girl from the 1950s unexpectedly hearing she’s pretty or smart. She smiles, and all the hardness and the differences between us fall away. Who of us hasn’t been in the driver’s seat? “Thank you,” she says, and she means it.

I exit and head for the corner. It’s a Monday morning. I’m feeling exceptionally good, and the rest of this particular Monday goes exceptionally well.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

BUS STORY # 31 (Animal Control)

I try reading when I’m waiting for the Yale bus, but most of the time I’m distracted by the regulars or the street traffic. On this particular morning, I spotted a woman walking her dog south on Yale on our side of the street. Strong, magnificently-built Amazon of a woman in yellow nylon running shorts and a purple runner’s vest. Wraparound sunglasses, one of those plastic sunshades, and an ipod. And, of course, the dog on the leash.

I’m not good about dogs, but this one looked like it was in the Husky family, with golden fur. And I saw it lunge forward the same time I heard a cacophony of barking. To the right of the bus stop, a second dog, slightly smaller, more indeterminate breed, but also golden-haired, was also lunging and barking. Its keeper was lying on the ground, arms stretched out across the sidewalk, holding on to the leash with both hands. His T-shirt was faded, his pants torn. Tattoos wound up both arms. He was hatless and balding. Hard to believe I hadn’t seen him until this moment. In retrospect, I figure I’d filtered him out.

The woman pulled her dog up smartly. She called out commands, but her dog continued lunging at the other dog and barking. The guy just kept hanging on to the leash while his dog kept after her dog. The woman quickly figured out the guy wasn’t able or willing to pull in his dog, so she maneuvered her dog back, then out further in the street, and around him. She’d negotiated this maneuver successfully and was down the street some ten yards or so when the guy lying across the sidewalk yelled “Get your damn dog outa here! Get that damn dog offa the street! He don’t belong here!” She stopped, turned toward him with an expression that even with sunglasses you could see was gonna blowtorch him off the planet, paused. I think she must have realized he was descumpuesto and had the good sense to resume her walk down the street without responding. The crowd of us watched this whole scene play out in silence.

Shortly afterwards, the same voice yelled, “You gotta cut that ____ out, y’hear?” The bald guy was sitting up, legs scissored out, the dog standing between the blades wagging his tail. “You gotta cut that ____ out right now!” he yelled at the dog’s face. The dog looked delighted to be getting so much of his master’s attention.

When the bus came, a long line of us boarded. It was standing room only this morning. As the last person boarded, the bald guy jumped to his feet and moved through the open doors with his dog.

“You can’t bring that dog on the bus,” the driver told him. The bald guy argued. The bus driver was unrelenting. The bald guy pleaded. He said it was just for a few blocks. The other drivers always let him ride with his dog. The driver held fast. The bald guy was sweating. He stuck a dollar in the fare box. The driver told him he’d just lost a dollar because he couldn’t bring the dog on the bus and he couldn’t get the dollar back out of the fare box. More arguing, more pleading. The rest of us were riveted, but were also wondering what it was going to take to get this guy off the bus and get us moving. The driver must have been wondering the same thing. He finally relented.

The guy and his dog worked their way through the standing passengers to the back door area. Nobody said anything for a while. Then one of the guys up on the back platform said, “You’re lucky the driver wasn’t a hard-ass.” The guy next to me reached out and petted the dog. The dog wandered up the steps of the platform and started sniffing one of the passengers. He stood up and said to the bald guy, “Get that dog out of my face right now.” His voice was angry and it meant business. He was a late middle-aged black guy. Scenes of Birmingham and Selma flickered black and white through my mind, and I couldn’t help wondering if I were seeing a personal or cultural response to being at the business end of a white man’s dog. The dog must have sensed the situation because he returned to the bald guy on his own. True to his word, they got off a couple of stops later.

The bus conversation came alive after that. “I’m sure there’s a law that says you can’t bring a dog on the bus.” “Think of the liability if that dog had bitten somebody.” And so forth. I got to the office thinking I’d’ve been more relaxed listening to NPR and fighting the traffic this morning.