Sunday, February 24, 2008

BUS STORY # 72, Part 2 (Freedom Flies)

I’m out of the biting wind and aboard the homebound Lomas and listening to a fellow passenger start to tell me how his religion helps keep him from binge drinking and being on the street.

His religion is the Native American Church, and he describes the taking of peyote in a ceremony I frame as a communion ritual. He tells me his grandfather taught him one should go to the ceremony once a year as a way to stay level. “Your life turns to ____, then you go to the ceremony, and everything gets back in balance.”

I ask him where the church is located.

“All over. I have some family in Los Lunas, and out in To'hajiilee, all around the area. We get together at my cousin’s house or at one of my in-law’s . . . ” It sounds like his grandfather’s once-a-year ritual has evolved into a more frequent celebration. Perhaps a lot more rebalancing is needed these days.

He tells me how the price of peyote buttons has skyrocketed. His dealer – that’s what he says: “My dealer” – goes down into Mexico and harvests the buttons and sends them back by mail. But they’re dried up and hard, not at all like the buttons his grandfather used to harvest in “The Garden” down in Texas.

“What part of Texas?” I ask.

“I don’t remember. Somewhere way down south, maybe near McAllen, somewhere like that. I went with him once when I was nine years old. Anyone could go down there in those days, but some guys got lost in there and almost died, so they restricted it to people who know the area.”

Later that evening, I will type “peyote harvest, texas” in Google and discover the Rio Grande area in far South Texas is indeed a source of peyote, that peyote harvesting is indeed restricted to licensed harvesters known as peyoteros, and that demand is exceeding supply these days.

“People think all we do is just get high on the peyote,” he says, “but there’s a lot more to it, a lot of chanting and meditating . . . It’s hard to really understand it if you’re an outsider.”

He tells me there’s a “white guy” from Santa Fe that’s been coming to the ceremonies. Of course, I think to myself, of course he’s from Santa Fe. Apparently he wants to film a documentary about the ceremony, but he’s been told it won’t make any sense to him unless he understands it from the inside first. So he’s coming to the ceremonies without his camera.

“His name is Dependable Hickory Strongheart.”

“That’s quite a name for a white guy,” I reply. I say the name over and over because I want to remember it long enough to write it down when I get the opportunity.

“He got that name when he made a walking stick and the wood was no good, so he made another one out of hickory.” And then he adds, “It’s on his birth certificate, too.”

I will also google that name after my peyote harvest search and come up blank.

My stop comes up and I tell my co-rider thanks for the conversation. “Stay warm,” I tell him as I exit. I cross the street, stop, take off a glove and pull out a pen and write “Dependable Hickory Strongheart” on the back of a magazine. It’s at that moment I realize I hadn’t gotten around to asking about “freedom flies.” I console myself with the thought that asking might have derailed the better story.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

BUS STORY # 72, Part 1 (Freedom Flies)

It’s dark and cold at the intersection of Wyoming and Lomas where four of us are waiting for the Lomas bus and the ride home. We’re scattered along the sidewalk, separate from one another, gloved fingers tucked under armpits, mufflers pulled over mouths, rocking to keep in touch with our toes. One of the riders moves to the bus stop sign and tries to make out the schedule in the wan, yellowish glow of the streetlight. Good luck, I think to myself.

He is standing there, rocking and studying, when he breaks out in quiet song. It’s a Native American song, a chant. All it needs is a drum. He stands in front of the bus schedule rocking and chanting. In the middle of this musical foreign language stream, the English word “freedom” sticks out like a sore thumb.

Surely I’ve imagined it. Or misheard English where the foreign sound randomly approximated it. A short while later, I hear it again, and this time I hear “freedom flies.” Maybe he’s singing “freedom fries,” I think to myself. Then I decide my hat isn’t doing enough to keep my brain from freezing up.

He rocks and chants. Maybe he’s praying for the bus to come. It’s cold, but it’s the wind that hurts. As if reading my mind, he turns toward me and says, “It’s cold out here.”

“Yes it is,” I reply.

“Couple of people froze to death last night.”

I had not heard that, and I tell him so.

“One down in the South Valley, one behind the Desert Sands.”

The Desert Sands is a motel on Central, just west of San Mateo. It’s on the bus route.

“Exposure,” he continues. “It was alcohol. Those guys get drunk, then fall asleep out in the open.”

I nod, in the way one nods when one is done listening because the conversation has moved past the routine ritual of polite acknowledgment. It doesn’t work.

“The alcohol makes them feel warm. They don’t plan ahead, just fall asleep anywhere. Most of the time you can get away with it, but not when it’s cold like this.”

He pauses, then tells me how he knows all about this stuff. He’s been there.

He’s binged on and off for 20 years now, he tells me. Binges and being out on the street go together, he tells me. But he’s never been stupid about being on the street. He keeps a sleeping bag in a storage locker. When it gets cold, he sleeps in the locker. He can always find someone with a motel room who’ll let him use the shower.

The longest he’s gone between binges is two years. The last binge happened after he and his wife had a fight. He said he’d show her, and hit the street and the bottle. A few days later, he was arrested and spent four days in jail. When he got out, his wife took him back. That was – he starts figuring from the jail date – whaddaya know? – six months ago today.

“So you haven’t had a drink in six months now?”

“Oh, no, I usually have a beer or two after work. It’s the binge drinking and being out on the street I have a problem with.”

I chew on this one a while before asking him if he’s getting any help.

He goes to the AA meetings. He tells me some of the guys go to the meetings and complain it doesn’t work, it’s all a bunch of BS. “It’s because they don’t want it to work,” he tells me. “I tell them it’s not the alcohol that’s bad, it’s how they choose to use it.”

He goes on to explain how alcohol is just like water: it’s good or bad depending on how it’s used. “The body needs water to stay moist. So drinking water is good. But when there’s a hurricane and flooding, well, water’s bad. It all depends on how it’s used.” Hard to refute that logic, I think to myself.

The bus arrives, none to soon. I take a seat, and my co-rider takes a seat across the aisle and one row up. He swings his left leg up on the seat beside him and turns back toward me and tells me how the other thing that helps him a lot is his religion.

I settle in for the rest of the story.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

BUS STORY # 71 (Something In The Way She Moves)

The Rapid Ride has pulled out of the inbound stop at Louisiana and is almost up to speed when the brakes come on. The driver pulls over to the sidewalk and the front doors open. Through the windshield, I can see a young woman running towards the bus.

I’ve seen other buses pull over like this on occasion, but never a Rapid Ride. When the woman comes on board and breathlessly thanks the driver, I have an idea why he stopped. She is, as we used to say, a looker, and the driver and the rest of us are doing just that.

She rummages through her purse and can’t seem to find the fare. She says something to the driver, then sits herself down. In the seat across the aisle from the driver. In the seats reserved for the elderly and handicapped. Which is, I admit, really OK since there are no elderly or handicapped needing that seat right now. But I’ve already got a hunch about how this is going to play out.

She makes a display of working her purse – and produces a dollar! She bounces up to the till, and I’ve just lost a dollar bet with myself that she wouldn’t come up with the fare and would charm her way out of it. Just when you think you’ve got ‘em figured
out . . . She and the driver exchange a laugh, and she’s back in her seat.

There’s a lovely ripeness about her that puts her beyond her 20s. As I continue watching her, I am surprised to realize she’s not beautiful, or even pretty, really. She’s . . . attractive.

I try out other words, but “attractive” is the one. But now I’m wondering what it is about her that makes it the right word. So I keep on looking. For answers.

There’s her hair. It’s long and straight and black, and one way or another, it’s always in motion. That’s part of it, but that isn’t really it, exactly.

She’s wearing blue jeans with black boots, a black blouse, a short, puffy white jacket, and a purple muffler. She looks tall and slim, but after a while, I figure out it’s the narrow leg jeans with the short, puffy jacket on top that makes her seem so. In fact, the more I look, the more I see her clothes don’t seem to be part of it, either. They’re neat and clean, but her jeans aren’t skintight, her boot heels aren't spiked, there’s no skin showing . . . she doesn’t need to employ the usual tricks.

It, I am coming to understand, is an attitude. That, and a killer instinct for using what she’s been given. The three guys in front of me holding on to their hard hats and lunch pails are working hard at not being obvious about watching her arranging and rearranging her jacket and muffler, her hair, her purse, herself in the seat . . . There’s nothing suggestive or patently flirty in any of these movements, and yet somehow she exudes . . . somehow we sense . . . there’s a certain . . . je ne sais pas quoi . . .

(Later, I will regret not looking at the other women on the bus during this time. I have a theory that whatever the quoi is this woman was projecting, it wasn’t distracting just the male ridership. I’m thinking of Lester Bangs’ reaction to his first and only Elvis performance – the fat, over-the-hill, Las Vegas Elvis, at that – where he unexpectedly experienced what he called “an erection of the heart.” Or me in my early 30s, mesmerized by Prince in the Little Red Corvette video on MTV. There’s a certain breath-taking, same-sex recognition of it that has nothing to do with wanting or even fantasizing about the other – unless you are fantasizing about being the other. Elvis had it. Prince, for all I know, may still have it. I’m thinking she had some of it, too. Maybe not in Elvis spades, but who does? If I had just looked at the other women on the bus that morning, I would know if I was on to something or just romanticizing.)

She gets off at San Mateo. When the doors open, she does not move rearward to the exits, but moves right to the front door and steps in front of the first guy climbing aboard. She smiles and says, “Excuse me,” and he is only too happy to step back and out of the way for her. I didn’t make myself a bet this time, but I give myself the dollar back anyway.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

BUS STORY # 70 (Perfect Timing)

When I open the front door to leave for work, my wife asks me what the weather’s like. “It’s cold,” I call inside from the porch, “but not bitter.” As I head down the driveway to the sidewalk, I realize why I was wrong: the porch blocks the wind.

By the time I reach the bus stop, I'm done in by the weather. I really, really want the bus to be on time this morning. Our current drivers have been remarkably punctual so far. Statistically speaking, I feel optimistic. From the Murphy’s Law perspective, I’m worried this will be the morning I’m left out in the cold. I look up the street and see the familiar illuminated route destination sign over headlights bouncing over a speed bump. I feel warmer already.

I transfer at Wyoming and Lomas. When I get to the Rapid Ride stop, the sign says eight minutes until the next bus. It’s 6:47 a.m. I estimate I’ll be waiting at least 10 minutes down at Yale and Central which has to be one of the coldest spots in Albuquerque before sunrise.

There are four of us at the Wyoming stop this morning. Three of us move behind one of the concrete supports in an attempt to block the wind. The fourth stays upwind to smoke. The irony is he’s being thoughtful enough to smoke away from the group while the wind carries the smoke and smell right to us. But the cutting wind is too much for even a smoker. He stubs out the cigarette and joins the rest of us huddled behind the support.

The sign says the bus will be here in two minutes when a woman rolls up to the stop in an electric wheelchair. She is an old woman, all bundled up so all you can see are her glasses and oxygen tubing under her nose. I’m not thinking of how the cold makes even more miserable the already arduous process of being an elderly, wheelchair-bound woman using the bus at this early hour of the morning. I’m thinking instead of the extra four or five minutes her boarding and securing will require. On any other morning, this would be like hitting a traffic light on red where you normally sail through on green. On this morning, however, I’m thinking that’s an extra four or five minutes I won’t be standing around down at Yale. I’m feeling warmer already.

The Rapid Ride is full this morning. Large numbers of boarders stream in at Louisiana and again at San Mateo, all of them looking relieved to be out of the cold. But at San Mateo, the bus doesn’t pull out when everyone is aboard. The exit doors open. Then close. Then open. Then close. Then open. The driver walks to the back of the bus. I can’t see because there are people standing in the aisle, but I’m pretty sure from past experiences one of the exit doors is stuck, and he’s trying to close it manually.

He returns to the driver’s seat. The doors close. Then open. He walks to the back, returns to the front. The doors close. Then open.

“You want me to push ‘em?” someone yells from the back.

“I already tried that,” the driver shouts back. He steps out the front door and moves to the back. I’m looking at the clock and thinking if I miss the Yale bus, it’ll be another 30 minutes before the next one. I’m feeling colder again. A Rapid Ride pulls past us from behind. “That’s a bad sign,” says my seatmate.

The driver reappears through the front door and takes his seat. The doors close. The bus begins to move. There’s a ripple of relieved approval, but no cheers, no applause. It’s too early and too cold.

I look up at the digital clock in the front of the bus. We have five minutes to make the Yale connection. My seatmate is looking at the clock with me.

“I think I’m gonna miss my connection this morning,” he says.

“I’m worried about mine, too,” I reply. “Where’s your connection?”

“Yale and Central,” he replies.

“Mine, too.” He’s not a regular, not on the 7:20 a.m. Yale, anyway.

The bus slows, then blows right by the Nob Hill stop. No one is waiting there, and no one on the bus pulled the cord.

“That’ll help,” I say. We have three minutes.

As we roll past Yale and into the UNM stop, we can see people at the Yale stop. We have a shot! The bus keeps rolling right on past the stop. A chorus of “heys!” comes from everywhere. The bus stops hard. “Sorry,” the driver calls out. We spill out of the bus and, this time, I don’t go to the intersection and wait for the light. I cut across Central and against the wind and dodge the cars just like everyone else. We get to the sidewalk and see the Yale bus pull up for the red light. Unbelievable! We’re really gonna make it! I look back at the Rapid Ride just before the corner store cuts it off from view. It isn’t moving, and I know the door is stuck again. Less than a minute later, I’m standing on the southbound Yale, packed with warm bodies.

Here’s the story: if it hadn’t been for the old woman in the wheelchair and the stuck door, I would have waited out in the raw, wet cold at least twice as long as I ended up actually waiting. It was the perfect morning for things to go wrong.