Sunday, December 09, 2007

BUS STORY # 62 (At Yale And Silver)

It’s one of those days. I’m heading back to the office after a meeting on the UNM campus. Out on University, I see I’ve just missed a southbound run. No problem; it’s just a few blocks to Central.

At Central, I’m standing on the north side of the intersection waiting for the light to turn. Across the street, the Central bus is stopped and letting out passengers. If the light changes to red before the bus finishes emptying out and boarding, I’ll be able to cross the street and catch it. But the light stays green. No problem; it’s just a few blocks to Yale.

On Central, I’m by Bandido Hideout when the southbound Yale bus crosses Central. Close, but he’ll be pulling away from the stop when I round the corner. I’ve got 30 minutes till the next bus.

The stop is catching the full afternoon sun, so I walk south a couple of blocks to where I know there’s a bus stop bench in the shade. A block away and I can see someone is already sitting on the bench. An elaborate calculus begins working out whether I will sit here or move on. Older guy; work clothes; panhandler? drunk? drunk panhandler? guy waiting for the bus two blocks off a connecting route; judgmental; no data on the next bus stop; I’ve been doing a lot of walking . . . He looks up at me as I approach the bench. I swing over and sit down beside him.

“You just missed the bus,” he says. I detect a faint whiff of alcohol.

He tells he’s just walked from Alameda where he went to work only to be told the workday had been cancelled because supplies hadn’t arrived. I don’t know how far Alameda is from here, but I figure it’s gotta be a good 10 miles. I ask him why he walked, halfway knowing the answer. He didn’t have any money. He was planning on getting paid for today’s job. How did he get to work this morning? He walked. Left at four in the morning.

So where does he live? I’m thinking he’s pretty far south as it is. He’s staying in town with one of his daughters right now. He actually lives in Los Lunas. He has a vehicle – that’s what he calls it, a “vehicle” – but he doesn’t drive it. I ask why. Because he has a DUI. His license has been suspended for ten years – “for a first offense!” he says, shaking his head. When did this happen? Ten years ago. So his suspension is up this year, which is almost over. Yes, but then he’s gotta pay to get his license back. He shakes his head again. He used to have a regular job, but he quit because GMC was taking all his money.

Why was GMC taking all his money? Because he bought a vehicle but the engine quit working. He took it back. They said they’d have to replace the engine for a lot of money he didn’t have. He told them that wasn’t right, they should fix what they sold him. They didn’t see it that way. He quit making payments. Later, he bought another vehicle, but his wife crashed it. “She almost died.” The insurance wouldn’t pay. So he quit making payments on the second vehicle, too. Pretty soon, GMC was calling him telling him he owed them money. “I don’t think so,” he told them. They garnished his wages. “Cleaned me out.” So he quit work to cut them off.

How’s your wife now, I ask him. “She divorced me.” He pauses before going on. He’s in his house and there’s a knock on his door and there’s a sheriff and a lady with a paper. A divorce paper. “It was hard. I started drinking after that.” He tells me he built the house and raised nine children in it, always provided for his family, and this is what happens. He shakes his head. “Now I’m kicked out of my own house.” Is this in Los Lunas? Is that why he’s staying with his daughter? No, this is in Arizona. Three of his children moved here to be with him after the divorce.

“I belong to the Diné tribe,” he tells me. I already know this by the unmistakable cadence of his speech. But I also notice he does something unusual for a Navajo: he often looks directly into my eyes when he’s talking to me. His eyes are bloodshot, but his speech is clear. His head has the slightest tremor, but I don’t see it in his hands. His face has an openness that I find I like a lot. He’s wearing a baseball-style cap with sunglasses perched above the bill. His hair outside the cap is short and gray. He’s got a black jacket, blue jeans, and yellow-brown work boots, all of which have seen a lot of days.

He talks about growing up poor and hard. He doesn’t know whether it was discipline or abuse, he says. He was raised by the whip. Your father, I ask. Everybody, he replies, father, mother, grandmother. They sent him to boarding school, and that was hard, too. He shakes his head. I know boarding school is a common experience among older Navajo, and I think of the gentle humor of the song “Rita” by another Navajo, Vincent Craig. But I can see his memories are made of grimmer stuff.

He tells me he used to be a bull rider. He traveled to rodeos all over the country. Rode for 28 years. Sent his money home. “Twenty-eight years?” I ask. Long time, he answers. I’m thinking an awfully long time to be a bull rider. He motions me to look across the street. There’s a young couple holding hands. He shakes his head as if to tell me this will come to a bad end.

A bicycle whizzes by and distracts us both. “I had a good bike, but I sold it.” He thinks now maybe he shouldn’t have. I think I know why he sold his bike, then immediately take myself to task. I don’t really know why he sold his bike. Then, despite checking my thoughts, I find myself sniffing for alcohol. Nothing. I’ve only caught a hint of it a couple of times now, when I wasn’t thinking about it.

So where does your daughter live, I ask. Just past Smith’s here, he answers. I’m surprised. That’s just a couple of blocks away. So he’s not waiting for the bus. I think about this and decide maybe she’s not home from work yet and he doesn’t have a key, or maybe he doesn’t want her to know he’s been drinking and is airing out. Or maybe it’s exactly like he explains it: he’s been walking all day and he just got tired and needed to sit down and rest.

Then he tells me his grandfather told him when he was a young boy to never forget the Great Spirit. The words “Great Spirit” throw me a little. It sounds like something a bilagáana would put in the mouth of an Indian. Or something an Indian might fold into a pitch to a white man. I’m on alert.

His grandfather told him no matter how far down you are, if you ask the Great Spirit for help, he’ll be there. Maybe he’ll come as a horse. He’ll come as something. And then he tells me how good it is to be able to talk to someone who listens. He’s looking right at me. I’m not sure if he’s referring to the Great Spirit or me, or if he’s decided I’m what the Great Spirit has sent. The red flag is up the pole now, and I brace myself for the pitch for money. I say something lame, something like we all have our bad times, knowing full well I’ve never come close to walking in his moccasins.

We sit quietly for a bit. “Looks like your bus is here,” he says. I look north, and sure enough, it is. The 30 minutes have flown by. “Good luck,” he tells me. Nothing more. “Good luck to you,” I reply before boarding. Once again, I’m taking myself to task for making assumptions. He never did ask me for money, or even hint at it. Then I wonder if maybe I’m just too white to have recognized the gentleness of the pitch. And then I think about a friend of mine who told me about an angelic encounter, and I spend the rest of my ride wondering if I’d just been given a test.


Blogger Geoffrey W. Dennis said...

Good entry. You were touched severa times during the encounter by the angel of your better nature.

7:29 PM  

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