Sunday, July 29, 2007

BUS STORY # 43 (Immigration Status)

From a July 17, 2007, ABQ RIDE press release:

“ALBUQUERQUE-Mayor Martin Chávez and ABQ RIDE Director Greg Payne are pleased to announce that new ridership figures show a 9.3 percent increase in passenger boardings during the recently completed Fiscal Year 2007 . . .‘To put these numbers in perspective, a 9.3 percent increase equals nearly 800,000 more bus trips than the previous year.’”

By an admittedly rough calculation, I take credit for 315 of those bus trips. That, in turn, makes me personally responsible for 0.039% of the increase. That’s me with “Hi, Mom!” on my percentage sign.

The press release also identified the three most popular lines. I ride two of those: the Rapid Ride Red Line (Yes, there is now a new Rapid Ride: the Blue Line. It runs from just north of Coors and Montano way out there in the northwest clear on down to UNM where I catch another of the three most popular lines), and the Yale bus (aka the No. 50, the Airport/Downtown bus, and the Martin Luther King Blvd bus). The Rapid Ride Red ridership jumped by 28%; the Yale by 20%.

The data don’t show it, but I suspect most of the new riders are folks like me: white-collar commuters who max out the seating capacities of the pre-8:00 a.m. and the post 4:00 p.m runs. We’ve already seen a sign that the city understands the shift: the Yale bus is now often one of the larger “300s.” No more standing on this particular run.

I’ve been riding over a year now, and I’m no longer a tourist. One of the indicators of my change of status is the fact that I sometimes don’t realize I have a bus story until I’m recounting something that happened on the bus to a fellow rider at work or to my wife sometime after I get home. I’m becoming acculturated (a nine-dollar word that was worth $7.70 this time last year – a 16.8% increase in FY ‘07).

I’ve also noted a demographic shift. The blue-collar regulars are still there, but the white-collars are moving toward majority status. This is true only of the first two Lomas and Yale morning commutes; I find the afternoon commutes still maintaining a bracing heterogeneity. Of course, the demographics will shift again at the end of August when school resumes.

Whether I catch the first or second Lomas inbound, there’s now a good chance I’ll encounter someone working in the same building I do. On the Yale bus, it’s up to as many as five. I find myself having more conversations about shared work experiences and doing less reading, less watching for possibly unfolding bus stories.

We are the new immigrants, and the commuter-time buses are our new neighborhoods. And as often happens in neighborhoods where the new immigrants start moving in, some older residents move out to other neighborhoods where they feel more comfortable. (This doesn’t seem to be true of the third most popular bus, however. The Central bus, or the No. 66, remains the International District of the ABQ RIDE neighborhoods.)

You might say what we’re seeing here is the creep of gentrification. It’s a gentle creep, somewhere in the neighborhood of, say, 20 to 28 percent a year. Folks still seem to be getting their coffee from McDonald’s, but I’ve already scoped out an area on the Rapid Ride where the Albuquerque Journal has a vending machine. I think a bus-size Starbuck’s dispenser would fit in nicely.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

BUS STORY # 42 (I Knew Him When)

At the bus stop this morning is a new rider. He’s a young guy, mid-twenties, tall and lean, with an angular face and a short chin beard. He introduces himself – “I’m Clint”* – and reaches out his hand. We shake. Clint’s from Terra Haute, Indiana, and he’s only been here three weeks. He’s working at Wecks until he can get a job with “the fire” – by which he means the fire department. That’s what he did back in Terra Haute. That, and play country music.

“What brought you out here?”

“My dad’s retired military. He’s been out here since he retired.”

Which explains why he’s here but not why he left Terra Haute. But he’s definitely looking forward. He’s got an audition with a recording studio after he gets off work today.

“You write your own songs?”

Yes he does. In fact, he thinks he just might have some lyrics with him, he says as he rummages through his backpack. He pulls out a spiral notebook and flips through several written-on pages. “Here’s one,” he says, handing me the notebook. The handwriting is legible. The song is about dreaming and sailing. It’s competently written. I tell him I’m impressed.

“It’s just something I wrote out of boredom when I was stuck someplace,” he answered. “I think if I ever get to the ocean, I might never come back.”

“You’ve never seen the ocean?”

“No – at least, not that I remember. I went to Germany when I was two, but I don’t remember crossing the ocean that trip.” He says this with a straight face and a straight voice. He’s a classic Midwesterner.

His country music heritage comes from his family tree which grows out of the Appalachians. And he alludes to “a cousin” who’s “seventeen years older,” lives in Nashville and is in the business -- with some success, he implies, but he doesn’t offer any details.

“So are you a solo artist, or do you work with a band?”

Naturally, being down here only three weeks makes him a solo artist, but he figures if he got a contract right now, he’d go back to Terra Haute and recruit the “boys” he’d been playing with to come on down to Albuquerque.

“You like country?” he asks me.

I explain I went classical about fifteen years ago, but I think the best country album I ever heard is Steve Earle’s Guitar Town and its follow-up, Exit 0. He’s blank as a post. I realize that was twenty years ago. But he’s quick with factoring in my age. “I really like Hank Williams Junior,” he offers. We agree on that one.

“But I kinda think he turned himself into a caricature when he signed on with the NFL,” I add.

“Yeah, I can see that,” he allows, “but I saw him by accident in Nashville, and it was the best show I’ve ever seen.”

He gets off the bus at Eubank. I catch the outline of a can of snuff in his back jeans pocket as he heads for the corner convenience store. I smile because I can imagine remembering this morning a few years from now and thinking to myself I knew him when.


*Real name changed.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

BUS STORY # 41 (Change For The Bus)

I’m waiting for the Yale bus on my way to work. There are several of us, in two groups. The larger group is clustered in front of the bench. The smaller is in the parking lot behind the bench, catching the shade.

A man crosses the street and heads for the bench. He’s got a stack of books supported by his left hand. They look like textbooks. The top one is open. He keeps the stack together and the top book open with his right hand. He’s got a pillow tucked under his left arm. A regular bed pillow.

He’s talking as he approaches the first group, his eyes on the book. He slowly works his way across the front of the group, moving from left to right. The talking is intermittent, and I realize he must have one of those headphones attached to his left ear. But when he turns around and starts toward the group of us behind the bench, there’s no phone in sight.

I can hear what he’s saying now as he moves toward us, around us, eyes fixed on the open book under his right hand. “I need change for the bus. Change for the bus. I just need change for the bus. I need change for the bus.” And then: “I need to make a telephone call.” And then back to “Change for the bus.” If it weren't for the words, I would have no idea he is asking for change for the bus.

He’s maybe in his late 30s, clean white shirt, nice pair of jeans, loafers in good shape. His hair is reddish and he wears it high and tight. He reminds me of Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Rain Man.

Everyone is pretty much in full “I don’t see you” mode. I think about giving him some change just to see if he’ll look up from his book. Then I wonder how he’d manage taking anything with the load he’s carrying. But I don’t have any change. No change, no bills, no wallet. No need, really.

He moves on into the deli behind us. A little later, I look back. I don’t see him, but I see someone in the open doorway – a customer? a clerk? – having what looks like a perplexing discussion with someone else out of sight. I figure it must be with my guy.

He’s still inside the deli when the bus comes.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

BUS STORY # 40 (We Have A Trolley, Too!)

I was planning a Fun Day when ABQ RIDE dropped an email in my inbox announcing the return of the Albuquerque Old Town Trolley for the summer.

“Fun Day” is a surprise date. One of us gets an idea, then asks the other if we can have a particular day and time for a Fun Day. That’s all the information the other gets, except for appropriate dress recommendations. We’re careful not to take advantage – no “Surprise! We’re bungee-jumping the Grand Canyon!” We’re trying to enhance the relationship here.

So I was making plans when the trolley came along. It was a perfect fit.

One Saturday afternoon, I drove us to the Park And Ride south of Coronado Mall. “I should have suspected this would involve the bus,” my wife said, but she was up for it.

We took the Rapid Ride downtown. This was her first Rapid Ride experience. We were the only two passengers boarding at the Park And Ride.

“Is it always this empty?” she asked.

“I’ve never seen an empty Rapid Ride,” I told her.

“Take my picture,” she directed. I raised the camera. “No, I mean from the front of the bus.”

She sat in the center seat at the back of the bus and I took her picture from down by the fare box. Then I took pictures of the advertisements on the overhead panels that featured Rapid Ride as part of the advertisement. The bus driver asked us where we were from.

We picked up passengers all along the way, and a good handful of us got off downtown at the Alvarado Transportation Center. This is the site of the legendary and former Alvarado Hotel. The hotel was demolished over the protests of preservationists in the ‘70s. Here’s a link to a good story in the Santa Fe New Mexican by Marc Simmons, noted local New Mexico historian.

The Alvarado Hotel

The site is no longer a gravel parking lot. The city built the ABQ RIDE depot using an Alvarado Hotel façade. We walked around, visited the waiting room and information desk, checked out the big fountain in the main pedestrian entranceway, then went searching for the bay where the trolley would dock. “The trolley!” my wife exclaimed. I was getting points for this Fun Day.

The Albuquerque trolley has a history. We had mule-powered trolleys pulled along tracks back in the 1880s. We got our first electric trolleys back in 1904. Those were replaced by buses in 1927. Trolleys reappeared as four motorized, trackless trolley cars in the 1980s under the auspices of the Albuquerque Trolley Company, an independent touring company. These I remember, in large part because of their names: Molly, TaMolly, GuacaMolly, and Pasqualé. This endeavor came to an end sometime in the ‘90s. ABQ RIDE (known then as Sun Tran) restored the trolleys once again, although with slightly different trolley cars and without cutesy names and tour guides.

It may not be San Francisco, but, as you can see, our little trolley is charming and quaint. Inside, it has brass handrails and leather hand straps and old-fashioned wood benches that are surprisingly uncomfortable and slippery. But not enough to put a dent in the fun. A family boarded along with us, two parents and two small, excited children. We passed several buses, and the drivers all waved to our driver. The kids waved back.

We got off at the Albuquerque Museum where we saw a fine exhibit on Billy The Kid. Among other things, we learned one of Garrett’s two deputies, J.W. Poe, wrote his own eyewitness account of the events that night in Ft. Sumner. Not only does he contradict much of Garrett’s story, but he also says Garrett shot the wrong man. Pretty cool stuff.

There was also a wonderful collection of movie posters for the some 60 movies that have been made about The Kid. My favorite was Rompiendo Las Reglas (literally, “Breaking The Rules,” an interesting rendition of the original title in English, “The Outlaws Is Coming”). It starred none other than Los Tres Chiflados (The Three Stooges!).

There was even an iPod station where we listened to the Top Ten songs about Billy. Wonderful discovery here: “Me and Billy The Kid, we never got along” written by Joe Ely and sung by Pat Green (live at Liberty Lunch, a legendary music venue in the legendary live music city of Austin).

We left at closing time. My plan was to take the trolley back to the Alvarado, then the 66 to the Standard Diner for dinner. When we’d gone into the museum around 2:00 p.m. or so, it was a hot summer afternoon with clear blue skies. When we walked back outside three hours later, the skies were a restless gray, we could smell rain, and I could have used a light jacket.

I decided getting us rained on would take the fun out of “Fun Day,” so we headed for an Old Town restaurant, Ambrozia, just a short walk away. We got there a little after five, but the place was closed. We looked for a schedule, thinking maybe it didn’t open until 5:30 p.m., but there was nothing on the door. We caught sight of a young woman inside. She looked at us, then disappeared and never returned.

It had begun to sprinkle. Standing on the front porch, we spotted a Rapid Ride -- and it stopped across the street! I suggested we switch gears again and head for Nob Hill and Scalo. Shortly after boarding the next Rapid Ride, it began to pour. We saw lightning, heard thunder. The mountains were partly grayed out. By the time we got to the Nob Hill stop, the traffic was spewing rooster tails onto the sidewalks. “We’re going on to the car,” I told my wife. That was OK by her.

The rain had stopped when we got to the car. We settled for Pei Wei, a raucous and somewhat frenzied Asian-style chain salvaged by what my wife described as the best Vietnamese spring rolls ever. Then we walked next door to The Satellite, got two coffees and a Flying Star pear torte with two forks, and had a long, leisurely dessert. We noted one of the baristas was movie-star handsome, but in an old-fashioned way, like a young James Dean. We watched a small midway light up across the street in the Coronado Mall parking lot. My wife put her head on my shoulder and said, “You did good.” I felt good. “We don’t do enough of these,” she said. She’s right.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

BUS STORY # 39 (If You’re Going To San Francisco)

My wife and I were in Oakland a couple of weekends ago where we took the opportunity to ride the BART into San Francisco. BART is the Bay Area Rapid Transport, a high-speed train system that links several communities in three counties surrounding San Francisco Bay. It is comparable to our Rapid Ride – if you can imagine the rest of Albuquerque as three counties, buses that can reach 80 mph, Central Avenue as train tracks, and the underpass east of First Street as a tunnel under a bay. If you can do that, we’ll work on making Albuquerque comparable to Manhattan next time.

We had purposefully chosen to use the BART rather than rent a car – more out of curiosity and (I confess) with the hope of snagging an out-of-town bus story. Our hotel was a block away from a station, and, as it turned out, all our destinations in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley were no more than a couple of blocks from a BART station. We didn’t have the need for a bus.

In San Francisco, that was a bummer. The city public transportation system is called the Muni, and in addition to the ordinary garden–variety buses and articulated Rapid Ride-style buses, they have electric trolleybuses, the famous cable cars, of course, but best of all, a wonderful collection of antique Italian electric trams which, I was told, had been picked up from other cities’ discards, and refurbished and installed in the Muni. A clear case of “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and a fine recommendation for recycling.

I got my story on the ride back to Oakland. On the BART, seating is in clusters of four, two facing fore, two aft, so that two passengers sit next to one another and face the two passengers opposite them. It’s like a little living room without a coffee table.

A man boarded the BART and sat in the empty seat opposite me. I’d guess he was in his early 50s. He might have been a “person of color” (a phrase used in the bay area without any sense of priggishness or irony). It was hard to tell. Here in New Mexico, we have a relatively limited palette of familiar colors and physiotypes. (It is not for nothing we are called “tricultural.”) This gentleman’s coloring was unfamiliar to me, but it was warm and exotic and had a glow which set off beautifully the silver in his thick hair and neatly trimmed beard. Add the large, dark, and -- really, this is the way they looked -- kind eyes, and he was truly arresting. He wore jeans, white athletic shoes, and a powder blue, V-neck windbreaker. He had a plastic Target bag which he set carefully on his lap.

Once he was settled and the train got on its way, he pulled two record albums out of the bag. He took one and held it up and began examining it carefully, front and back. It was Meet The Beatles, Capitol Records’ first Beatles album release. It was worn, and I could see fissures along the edges. He studied both sides carefully, then pulled the inner sleeve partway out of the album. I saw ads for other Capitol artists at the time: Al Martino is the one I remember. Then he carefully extracted the vinyl partway out of the inner sleeve and studied it carefully. From what I could see, it was in excellent condition.

About this time, I noticed the man across the aisle was looking at the album with the same degree of attention we were. He was with his wife (who was looking out the window). They were my age, maybe a decade older than our record collector, and they looked like they had managed to make money without forfeiting their ‘60s countercultural sense of style. No matter what our actual origins, all of us belonged to a generation that knew about not just the Beatles, but about album covers, and how they were as much a part of the experience as the music on the enclosed vinyl.

He gently pushed the record back into its sleeve, the sleeve back into the jacket, then put it beneath the second album. He picked up the second album and began examining it as he had the first. It was The Beatles’ Second Album. He was intently studying the cover of the album when he must have sensed I was staring at him. He suddenly moved the album down a bit and looked directly at me. And then he smiled. It was the Summer of Love all over again.

That smile told me he knew I knew what he had there, and wasn't it amazing? And while it’s also true I didn’t know exactly what he had there (a particular pressing of one of the several of this particular album cover? The original inner sleeve? The excellent condition of the vinyl?), and that I didn’t know whether this was a finding of pure chance or the culmination of a quest, he was right: I did know exactly what he had there, and, yes, it was amazing. More amazing was the rare beauty of such innocent joy in the smile of a man our age.