Sunday, August 30, 2009

BUS STORY # 148 (Dry Heat)

It’s somewhere in the upper 90s when we board the eastbound Rapid Ride at Nob Hill. A few steps inside the bus and it’s obvious the air conditioner isn’t working. But it isn’t until I take a seat by the window that I realize the blower is on and it’s blowing hot air. I quickly move to the aisle seat.

Across the way, the guy sitting opposite me has just made the same discovery.

“They’ve got the heater on.”

“Sure feels like it.”

“Somebody ought to tell the driver.”

I guess that means somebody other than him. Right now, it means somebody other than me, too. I figure the bus driver’s been on this bus long enough to know exactly how hot it is.

Still, it surprises me that no one is shouting out stuff like “Hey, driver, it’s hot in here!” or “Hey, driver, turn on the air conditioner!” Is it possible every single one of us has come to the same rational conclusion and opted for intelligent adult behavior? Hmmm. OK, then it must be too hot to muster the effort.

Between Nob Hill and San Mateo, I decide it wouldn’t be so bad if the fan weren’t running. I think about getting off and waiting for the next bus. I calculate that would cost me around 20 minutes.

At San Mateo, the first two boarders are young girls in shorts and tank tops. They head straight for the back of the bus. In no time at all, I hear one of them exclaiming how hot it is. Next thing I know, they are working their way toward the rear door against the incoming stream.

“Let me outa here! It’s too hot!”

They exit. I stay. I figure I have something in common with those stable rent-a-horses who will not be deterred by anything when they’re headed for home.

At Louisiana, the driver gets up and starts opening all the windows. He pops the lock and pushes the window out. As soon as he lets go, the window, hinged at the top, falls back into the closed position.

When he gets to my window and unlocks it, I ask him if the blower is stuck. He answers in a thick, Middle Eastern accent. All I can make out is “air conditioner” and “broken.”

I push my window out. It closes when I let go.

When he’s done with the windows, he pops the emergency exits in the roof. There are two of them, and they look like they’ll work as air intakes when we get going again.

Once we get going, I can’t really feel much difference in the heat. I wonder why the blower is still running. Then I wonder if hot moving air is better than hot dead air.

It could be worse. This could be Houston. Or Atlanta. Or New York City. Or anywhere else not here in the desert where the heat is dry rather than oppressively humid.

Venting the bus has taken a good five minutes. We finally get to Lomas just in time for me to see my connection roll on through the intersection. Great. The next bus doesn’t come for another 20 minutes. 20 minutes of waiting in the heat of the afternoon. In the unshaded heat of the afternoon. Well, thank God it’s dry heat . . .

Sunday, August 23, 2009

BUS STORY # 147 (David’s Story)

“I can’t believe it! It hit a hundred in Seattle yesterday. And I thought it was hot here!”

He’s a tall drink of water – six three, he’ll tell me later – in a maroon Village Inn T-shirt and silver and black basketball shorts. Young guy wearing those trendy black plastic glasses with narrow, squarish frames and wide temples tapering toward the ears.

“You know what it’s like when it hits a hundred in Seattle? And it’s July. It never hits a hundred in July. Maybe once or twice every other August. But things have changed. We used to have summer June July August, and Indian summer in September. But that’s all changed now. After August, it goes right into fall.”

I ask him if he’s from Seattle. He is – Interlake High School in Bellevue, U Dub – the whole nine yards.

So how did he end up in Albuquerque? I don’t realize it at the moment, but my question uncorks an answer that will blow virtually non-stop for the next 10 minutes we are waiting for the bus and for the following 15 or so minutes it will take to get to my stop.

He met his wife in Laguna (the one in California) and she’s from New Mexico. Her family is in the oil business. They charge people to pull the oil out from under their feet. They make a lot of money, although they’ve also been close to going bust what with the fluctuations of supply and demand and price per barrel.

It’s no picnic marrying into a rich family. When he was working at Dillards, he bought his mother-in-law a Waterford vase. Cost three hundred and seventy-five dollars. She told him, hon, there’s nothing you can buy me I don’t already have, but thank you anyway. He felt so bad hearing her tell him that.

But his wife’s not like that. She’s not materialistic. But her brother is. He’s already calculated everything he expects to be getting in the will, but you know what? That big old ranch might end up being sold to finance long-term care or assisted living. Happens all the time.

His own parents gave away everything they had to the Audubon Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A million dollars. His father was a rear admiral. His mother worked on the “Hoover Commission.” (I will later google “Hoover Commission” and, sure enough, there were two of them, one from 1947-49, the other from 1953-55.) They made some smart investments and retired on them and their pensions. It was more than they needed and at the end they just gave it all away. And good for them, good for them! He’s got no use for inheritances, it’s “dead people’s money.”

His brother-in-law has a PhD in engineering which he got from an online university. An online university! What kind of a degree is that?! He could get a degree in neurosurgery online, all he needs is a VISA card, but that wouldn’t keep him from wrecking someone’s “caranium.”

We board the bus somewhere in this story stream and sit side by side. I’m processing as fast as I can. He’s incredibly articulate – “caranium” is his only misstep – and he’s speaking in whole sentences without any pauses and without any “uh”s or “you know”s. He is also speaking emphatically, and loudly enough to be heard by the riders around us.

It is a wildly improbable tale, but there is an earnestness, an unfiltered openness, in his story telling that pulls me up short of labeling him a liar or a confabulator or just plain crazy. There is also a peculiar equality of emphasis given to everything he says, as if each sentence is equally important, each thought as worthy of consideration as any of its predecessors. I come up with “brain-damaged.”

People think if they have money, he continues, they’ll have everything they want and then they’ll be happy. Money’s not reliable. He had five hundred thousand dollars – a settlement from a bus accident – and now it’s gone. All gone. (My ears are already as pricked up as they can be, but “bus accident” elbows everything else out of the way.) First hit to the five hundred thou was 9/11. He lost - (He gives me an exact number which I do not remember except that it was six figures.) Then came the subprime debacle. Before that, he’d been getting a five-hundred-dollar-a-month allowance. Now all he’s got left is what’s in a money market fund which is earning what? a percent? which he can’t touch until he’s 65. He isn’t going to live to be 65.

“Bus accident?” I get in.

His bus went off a bridge and fell nine stories. Some crazy guy shot the driver, then himself. (He makes a gun out of his right hand and points the barrel at his mouth.) He was in the back of the bus, one of those “double-longs”, when it went over the edge. He grabbed the overhead poles and was hanging by his hands with his feet treading thin air and pointed at the front windshield. Then the pivot at the articulation started swinging to one side. All he remembers is a tremendous crash and being smashed through a window.

Diesel fuel ate through the skin on his legs (I’d noticed the scarring back at the bus stop.), and he ended up with broken ankles, broken knees, a fractured pelvis, lacerated liver and spleen, and was in a coma “for five months and 13 days.” (“Brain-damaged?” I think to myself. Could it be?) They also had to remove four inches from his vertebral column. “I used to be six-seven,” he says. “Now I’m six-three.”(Yes, I will also google “bus, murder, suicide,” and I will find the third return is from the New York Times about just such an incident back in 1998 – in Seattle.)

What makes him happy is his daughter. She’s been living with her grandparents, his wife’s parents, ever since his wife died. (!) She had asthma, and she died from an asthma attack. His daughter is an asthmatic, too. But she’s better off with her grandparents and cousins then she would be with him. She needs that female company.

“How often do you get to see her?”

He used to see her every other weekend. He’d drive to the ranch. But some drugged up punk kids stole his car and wrecked it. It was a special limited edition “GT” and he goes into some detail about the engine. Anyway, that’s why he’s working now. To get some money for a new car, and also he needs to register for some courses.

He could take the bus to see her, but he can’t get there any earlier than late morning, and then he has to leave early afternoon, so it doesn’t really give him much time with her . . .

His voice has become husky, and when I turn to look at him, I see his eyes are wet.

“She’s my whole life,” he whispers. “I love her so much.”

For the first time since we’ve met, he’s silent. It lasts less than a minute, and then he tells me he doesn’t spoil her. She’s already got every imaginable thing from her grandparents, and he doesn’t want her to learn a pattern of interacting with men for what she can get from them. But he buys her nice things. He gave her a Nano, it can hold 2,000 songs – “I don’t even know two thousand songs!” – and the kids at Walmart said they’d sure like a gift like that.

I’m at my stop. He reaches out his hand and says, “I’m David.”* I shake and tell him my name. “See you later,” he says.

If someone were to tell me, “Hey, that’s the story line from” some soap opera or women’s novel, I wouldn’t be surprised. On the other hand, I remember the first time I dismissed what I judged to be an improbable story from a dubious source. Both turned out to be dead-on. One thing I know for sure: you just never know.

*Real name changed

The photo at the top of this story is titled "Metro" and is posted with the kind permission of Slightlynorth. You can see this and all Slightlynorth's photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, August 16, 2009

BUS STORY # 146 (It’s Like Six Flags Over Texas)

There are a bunch of us down at The Frontier boarding the Rapid Ride home. I find an outside seat just behind the flex. Inside the flex area are two bench seats facing the aisle. They’re bolted to a disk on the floor of the bus. Whenever the bus flexes for a corner turn, the disk rotates, and the benches go with them. Wheee.

Both disk seats are double occupancy, but the one across the aisle from me has just one occupant. He’s somewhere on the near side of middle age, thin, with long, stringy black hair. He’s wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt, and sunglasses. He scans all of us who have just gotten on and taken seats back here.

“You all students?”

His voice is slurred. No one answers. No one looks at him. His question never happened.

There is a logic to the question. The Frontier is across the street from the main entrance of UNM, and most of the riders who boarded and are sitting all around me are young enough to be students. Few of them have books, however. Most of them have iPods or cell phones they are working.

“Stoonts?” he queries again.

Again, no one acknowledges him. I look up in his direction, and he catches the movement. He points at me.

“You mus’ be the perfessor.”

And now I’m feeling in the middle of a dilemma. First, no one is acknowledging him because no one wants to encourage him. Second, no one wants anyone else to encourage him, either. Third, I’ve just encouraged him, and am now at the point where I am either going to end it or allow it to go on for as long as he is riding. Fourth, despite the sense of peer pressure to ignore him, I hear that old tyme religion calling whatever you do to the least of my brethren. Fifth, I sense he’s a friendly drunk, and I like the way he called me an old guy. And last of all, there’s that self-centered impulse to offset all the noble stuff: There might be a bus story here.

He’s still looking at me and waiting for an answer.

“Naw, I’m just a worker,” I tell him.

He gives me a big grin. I can feel the riders all around me registering their disappointment or disgust.

“I’m nodda hell raiser,” he tells me, “jus’ an American.”

I nod my head.

“I like riding in these seats,” he says, both arms held out to indicate the flex area. He’s got a half-empty bottle of Coke in his right hand. I’m wondering if it’s just Coke, or Coke and something.

He leans down and, left hand just above the floor, runs his hand around the perimeter of the disk. It’s a surprisingly graceful, fluid movement that evokes the turning of the disk.

“I like how it turns and goes back’n forth. It’s like . . . it’s like . . . you know, the rolly coasters – Six Flags Over Texas.”

He sits back up and twists the cap off the Coke bottle.

“It’s mechanical,” he says, and he nods his head sharply to emphasize the point. Then he screws the cap back on.

“Th’only trouble is this.” He reaches up for the request stop pull cord. There isn’t one there. When you’re sitting in the flex, you either have to ask someone to pull the cord or you have to get up and walk forward or backward to pull it.

“So then you have to yell – STOP!”

That would have gotten the driver’s attention if we hadn’t already stopped at the San Mateo station, and the shout hadn’t been muffled by the movement of riders off and on the bus.

He gets up and heads for the rear exit. He stops at my seat and extends his right hand. I reach up to take it. It is one flabby handshake.

“Enjoy your ride on the bus,” he says, then heads for the back door.

The photo above features last year’s Poetry On The Bus fourth place winner in the adult category. The poem is Railroad To Central, by Amanda Kooser. Click on the photo to enlarge.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

BUS STORY # 145 (Portrait # 4: Elfin)

She’s a cutie.

Not exactly the word you’d expect to come to mind when describing a woman in her 70s.

She’s elfin, with a headful of short, gold-colored ringlets from either the beauty parlor or a good wig. Her movements are quick and sure.

But it’s really her eyes. They’re bright and alive, and they look everywhere, at everything and everybody. Her facial expressions mirror her interest in wherever those eyes alight.

When I first saw her, I thought “young for her age.” Now I’m thinking she’s simply free of a husband. She has no ring on her finger, and she has the spunkiness of a long-married then long-unmarried woman inhabiting the unfetteredness of the experience.

She even has a bit of unselfconscious bachelor eccentricity. I enjoy the way she stands up in her seat one or two stops from her own, her right hand on the pull cord and her left on the seat in front of her, peering out the windshield like Columbus looking for the Indies. And today, there’s a kneepad – just the one – sitting askew her right knee.

I’m looking at that kneepad and comes the lyric, “When are you free/To take some tea/With me?” Inquiring minds want to know about that kneepad!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

BUS STORY # 144 (Way Cool Portland, Boring Burg Albuquerque, and Poetry On The Bus)

Albuquerque and Portland have a lot in common.

They both have populations between 500,000 and 600,000 – although Portland’s metro population is almost three times ours.

They both have rivers running through them – although Portland’s river is a whole lot bigger and is wet all year round.

They both have extinct volcanoes – although Albuquerque’s are not actually inside the city limits like Portland’s are.

They both have microbreweries – although Portland has 28 to our five, and some of theirs are either nationally known or the obscure, sought-after darlings of beer connoisseurs.

They even have each their own Nob Hill neighborhoods with trendy, eclectic shops and adventuresome restaurants – although it is Portland’s culinary scene that has garnered a national buzz.

Almost anyone who has spent time in both places knows Portland is way cooler than Albuquerque. How cool is Portland? Well, as one of my kids explained it, Portland is so cool, it’s like Seattle in the ‘80s before fame and all those Californians screwed it up.

And how cool is Albuquerque? Well, for starters, we call ourselves “The Duke City.” How cool is that? Exactly. (I have to salute a local legend, columnist Jim Belshaw, who once proposed we improve that to “Albuquerque: Next 13 Exits.”)

Which is not to say I’d ever think of exchanging our 300-plus days of sunshine and blue skies for Portland's dank, dreary cityscape, or that I’d swap my glass of Kelly’s Black Bitter for anything Portland has on tap, or that I’d prefer any of their brainy brunette Pinot Noirs to our bubbly blonde Gruet on my wedding anniversary. But, then, I haven’t been cool for decades.

Local pride might make it difficult to admit we’re nowhere near as cool as Portland. But look: they’ve got the Trail Blazers; we’ve got the Lobos. They’ve got Sam Elliott; we’ve got Neil Patrick Harris. They’ve got Matt Groening; we’ve got the Isotopes. They’ve got The Shins; we used to have The Shins until they moved to – aw, don’t make me say it.

Case still not closed yet? OK: they’ve got MAX – Metropolitan Area Express – the poster child light rail system of the United States, with over 100,000 riders a day!

But we are not always The Three Stooges to their Marx Brothers.

Last year, we both had a program for putting poetry on public transportation. Ours was a first year effort called Poetry On The Bus. Theirs was an 11-year-old program called Poetry In Motion. It seems Portland concentrated on established poets both international and local, while we asked for submissions from anybody, including a separate category for youth. Either approach is an amazing idea.

But this year, while we have gone on to a second undertaking of Poetry On The Bus, Portland is getting ready to give their program up.

Why? Because “the groups behind bus poetry are as strapped for cash as everyone else.” (I posted a link to the story in This Week’s Feature on June 14. You can read it here.)

In short: Portland isn’t able to maintain or raise new sponsorship for poetry on public transportation.

Albuquerque is, and has.

For a while, it looked like we were scaling back this year. Last year there were prizes -- a laptop, iPod, and some gift cards. But there is no mention of prizes on this year’s announcement. Then, just last weekend, I was at the library and I saw this poster:

Anna Griffin’s story in the Oregonian made me think how I’d really not paid much attention to the sponsors of Poetry On The Bus, even though they are prominently posted, with links, on the ABQ RIDE website. So I thought I’d make a special effort in Bus Stories to acknowledge those sponsors, and thank them for making it possible for Albuquerque residents to write, publish and read the decidedly unglamorous art of poetry in the most humble of art venues, the city bus.

Along with ABQ RIDE, those sponsors are:

Duke City Fix

ABQ Film Festival

Film For Change

In fact, next time you enjoy anything your price of admission isn’t fully supporting, think how the sponsors went to the trouble and expense to make this experience available to you. We take so much for granted.

But we don’t have to take it for granted that we’re never as cool as Portland. When it comes to supporting poetry, We rule/We cool.