Sunday, October 31, 2010

BUS STORY # 208 (Mona Lisa)

mona, © Heather Johnston Photography, originally uploaded by studioheather.

School days are here again, and the northbound 141 is standing room only. When I board, there’s a line in the aisle from the rear platform to just behind the driver. I set my backpack between my feet, grab the overhead bar, and brace myself.

From where I’m standing, I can see clearly the road ahead and the face of our driver in her big rear view mirror. She’s a young gal, smooth face, narrow black frame glasses, hair pulled back in a bobbed pony tail. Smooth, untroubled face.

It’s at Haines, just as she’s started pulling away from the stop, that the car in the southbound lane decides it can turn left fast enough to beat the bus. If she hit the brakes, I don’t feel it. Feels more like she just stopped accelerating. The car whips by right in front of us. I watch her in the mirror. I see her eyes follow the car eastward down Haines. And I see her smile.

It’s not a did-you-see-that smile, or a laugh-out-loud smile, or a what-a-jerk smile or a that-was-close-smile, or any other kind of smile that I can relate to what just happened. It’s a quiet, enigmatic little smile.

A few minutes later, we’re approaching the eastbound exit to I-25, when another car races around us, then abruptly cuts in front of us and barely makes the exit ramp. The guy standing behind me says simply, “T-bone.” I look in the mirror in time to catch our driver following the car as it rockets through a latticework of white paint before cutting into the lane in front of another car. She’s watching all this with that same eerily quiet little smile.

I spend the rest of the ride thinking about this smile. By the time we reach my stop, I’ve come up with three possible explanations:
She’s on Prozac;
She’s mastered the Eightfold Path of the Buddha;
She’s memorized the license plate numbers and, come the night, there’s gonna be a reckoning.

The photo at the top of this story is titled “mona” © Heather Johnston Photography and is posted with the kind permission of studioheather. You can see this and all studioheather’s photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

BUS STORY # 207 (“An Incident”)

Bus Stop, originally uploaded by busboy4.

It’s the first almost-cold day of the season. The wind is blowing hard and chill, gusts sandblasting bare skin. It looks like it might rain. There are five of us waiting at the corner of Lomas and Louisiana for the 11. Those of us that left before sunrise have light jackets. Those that left later in the day don’t.

A junior-high girl in a white T-shirt, short gray skirt, and black suede boots huddles up close to her mother. Mom’s wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. A woman in dark pants and blouse stands by the bench where mom and daughter are sitting. She’s using a big, pink shopping bag as a windbreak. An older guy in a gray and maroon striped polo shirt and black shorts stands near the curb, scanning Lomas for a bus.

We’ve been here about 40 minutes now, long enough to have seen two 11s going west, and three Red Lines going north.

“See anything yet?” asks the mom.

“Lotta dust,” answers the older guy.

It starts to spatter rain.

“Look, a rainbow!”

The girl is pointing northeast, toward the mountains. Sure enough, there’s a nice half-rainbow coming down somewhere near the end of Lomas. Where the pot of gold is. Where I’d be if the bus had come.

The spattering passes. A guy in jeans and a blue hoodie with the letters LA on the front walks across the street and joins us. He ends up sitting on the low metal bar separating the used car lot from the sidewalk and smoking.

The older guy sees a bus. He tells us it’ll probably be crowded since it has at least two runs’ worth of riders on it.

We watch the bus stop on the west side of the intersection and let four people off. The four people waiting then board.

This is a good sign.

When the bus pulls up at our stop, the driver runs his hand past his neck: the “full-up-to-here” signal. This is a bad sign. We keep walking toward the bus anyway, and he stops and opens the door.

“Sorry, I’m full up. I just can’t take any more riders. There’s another bus behind me. He’ll be here in 10 minutes.”

The girl thinks the driver seems “frantic.”

I start tracking the time on my cell phone. The next bus arrives in 18 minutes.

I ask the driver what happened to the earlier buses.

He mulls this question over before answering, a bit tentatively, that there was “an incident” on one of the buses and they had to transfer the riders to another bus.

When I get home, I post a question in the ABQ Bus Riders Discussion forum at Duke City Fix asking if anyone knows what happened. No further information is forthcoming at the time of this post.

However, I also email Rebecca Torres at ABQ RIDE’s Customer Service asking the same question. She responds the next day. There was indeed “an incident” which required calling in APD. She knew service had been disrupted for quite a while, and she apologized for the inconvenience.

At this point, I don’t need any more detail. I'm happy to have a quick and straight answer. Given the circumstances, neither she nor ABQ RIDE owes me an apology. Instead, I'm feeling thankful for all they do -- and all they put up with -- to keep us moving.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

BUS STORY # 206 (“But Someone Trying To Better Herself...”)

Yes U Can!, originally uploaded by busboy4.

“Is that our bus?”

She’s talking about the 50 on the other side of the street.

“It is.”

“So what does it do? Go up to the airport and turn around?”

“That’s right. It’ll be back here in about 10 minutes.”

We watch it go by. Then she tells me she was up here to see about getting food stamps.

She’s going to school full time, she explains. Organic chemistry, biology, and a math class. The chemistry and biology classes have labs which run another four hours each. She’s got a 3.8 GPA, but that’s because she puts a good two-to-three hours of study in for each course.

She tells me she’s a “single mom.” Later, she’ll tell me her kids are all grown and on their own now. She pays her own rent, has a patchwork of grants to pay for school, and no job. She’s applied for a work-study position, but hasn’t heard anything back.

About the food stamps, she says, “They told me if I was homeless, I’d qualify. But someone trying to better herself . . . ”

I ask her if she’s going to CNM. She is. She’s studying to be a lab technician. She was in the medical field and she wants to stay there, but doing something less physical. She was a nursing assistant for 13 years. She took care of the elderly -- “Lots of Alzheimer’s” -- until she wrecked her shoulder at work. They had to operate.

I ask her where she’d been working. Seattle, then Salem, Oregon. The bus comes before I can ask her how she ended up in Albuquerque. On the bus, we both sit in the front, a couple of seats away from being opposite one another. She tells me she’s gonna go over to the college and see if she can find out where she is on the list for work-study. Otherwise, she’s just gonna have to find a job. That’ll be the end of her 3.8 she says.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” I reply. Which is true, but that doesn’t save it from sounding lame after it’s out of my mouth.

A regular intake of passengers disrupts the conversation. She gets off at Smith’s. I ride on, remembering the times when I went back to school to “better” myself -- or at least my job prospects. She’s a tough cookie, and she’ll come out fine on the other end.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

BUS STORY # 205 (Portrait # 9: On the Powwow Highway)

I didn’t see him until he moved to the front of the bus. Young Native American kid, no more than mid-20s, but with an inscrutable, somewhere-else expression that was older.

Dressed all in black. Black baseball cap with a black and purple headband over it so that it covered the cap logo and both his ears. Where the logo would have been, a metal roadrunner was pinned to the headband.

He had a backpack with a bicycle pump sticking out of it, and a great chain worn bandolier style. His black jeans were tucked into gaiters.

He’d moved to the front where he sat on the edge of the seat with his eyes fixed on the road ahead. He looked utterly unselfconscious, utterly focused, utterly self-contained. There was something oddly out of time and place about him.

Later, I watched the way he took his bike off the bus rack, and I realized everything he was wearing had a specific purpose, and that purpose was the bike. And then I had the sense that he and the bike had still another purpose, and that it was serious and not of the white man’s world.

I would have had him get off at Tramway and ride north toward Sandia Pueblo, or else at Turner and ride east toward the mountains. But he got off at Eubank, and walked his bike past my window back toward town.

He disappeared before the bus made it to the intersection.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

BUS STORY # 204 (The Consultant)

Albuquerque, New Mexico, originally uploaded by Sean Jones.

He boards at the Nob Hill stop and takes the seat facing me over the wheels. Gray slacks with a nice drape, black polo shirt, daypack. Polished black business shoes like you don’t see much of anymore. He’s a not-young guy, but “older guy” doesn’t do him justice. He looks to be in excellent shape, and he’s got the square-jawed, rugged good looks of somebody you might see on the cover of Outside magazine. Turns out he bikes.

He’s an environmental consultant and he’s on his way to Santa Fe for a meeting.

We get to talking about the commute. He loves not having to drive to Santa Fe. Ten years ago, he worked for the state and commuted back and forth every workday. We both commiserate about driving I-25 during rush hour. He got to work feeling harried and all wound up. Getting home was even worse.

Now, he gets on the bus – his train ticket (discounted when bought online) gives him a free bus ride to and from the train station – and he does things like have this conversation. On the train, he works or networks thanks to the Rail Runner’s Wi-Fi. Or he just sits back and enjoys the ride.

You add up the fuel costs, wear and tear on your car, and parking costs, and the train is a real bargain, he tells me. Of course, he adds, it’s subsidized by you and me, but all the more reason to use it.

I agree. I add that, besides reducing commuter traffic on the interstate, it’s also become something of a thing to do, like the Sandia Peak Tramway or the Cumbres & Toltec narrow-gauge between Chama and Antonito.

My wife and I have taken the Rail Runner three times now, all day trips to Santa Fe. We took some out-of-town guests on one of those rides. The whole experience feels more like a vacation trip than a commute. Two of those times, we’ve sat next to whole families doing exactly the same thing. And the train up is always crowded, especially on the weekends. Board at the Journal Center on Saturday morning and you just might have to stand.

He also uses the train to visit his daughter in Belen. She lives about four miles from the station, and he takes his bike and rides from the depot. He hangs out with her for the day, then comes back home. One of the perks of being a consultant, he adds.

He joined a small consulting business started by two of his friends and former co-workers. He says it’s taken him a long time to learn the ropes, but now he has a network of go-to specialists who know their business and who also satisfy the requirements for landing federal and state bids.

You try to develop a team you can call on that includes a woman, a minority, and a veteran, he explains. So it’s important not only to have someone whose expertise and reliability you can count on, but who also fits the preference criteria for so many federal and state contracts.

He says this specialist expertise is invaluable when dealing with unanticipated discoveries -- say a cache of pot shards or a small population of local fauna. These are evaluated by a select team member whose findings help determine what variances, if any, need to be made to the project.

I like his enthusiasm for his work, and the pleasure he takes from having achieved a certain level of expertise and comfort in the process. He says it was hard won, and I’m old enough to appreciate what that means.

I also like how much he “gets it.” He’s exactly the ideal commuter the Rail Runner folks must have had in mind when they began planning. He knows the train is so much more than a novelty or a cheap alternative to driving. How many innovations which actually reduce the stress of every day life do any of us experience these days?

The photo at the top of this story is titled “Albuquerque, New Mexico” and is posted with the kind permission of Sean Jones. You can see this and all Sean Jones’s photos on Flickr at: