Sunday, March 29, 2015

BUS STORY # 438 (Black Sheep)

Poem by Anna McKenzie. (Photo by Busboy.)

Last summer, in Vancouver, our good friends Will and Carol took us to the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. The museum specializes in “First Culture” -- what we call “Native American.” Among the displays we saw was an installation of mixed media presentations of the experiences of many young, Native, urban-dwellers.

One of those installations was the poem featured in the photo at the top of the page. The author explained she had written the poem on a bus after seeing “an Indigenous brother” asked by the driver to get off the bus because he was inebriated. I took the photo because a bus was part of the story. Months later, I saw the same scene play out here in Albuquerque with two different Native Americans.

He’s tall, trim, Native American, with long hair down his back that could use a wash and some combing. Blue, long-sleeved sports shirt, worn denim jeans.

It’s mid-morning on the bus, and he’s inebriated. Not stumbling, slurred-speech inebriated. He’s a friendly drunk, perched on the edge of the bench seat across from the driver, talking away, his movements a little too exaggerated, his voice a little too enthusiastic.

After a while, he turns his attention to a rider sitting in the aisle seat of the first row.

This rider is a kid, a large kid, with thick, short black hair, sunglasses, white earbuds, big white T-shirt and basketball shorts. The legs coming out of the shorts are small and short for his size. I think the drunk is thinking the same thing I am: a fellow Native.

He asks the kid if he’s going to school. The kid doesn’t respond.

He asks again, leaning toward the kid.

The kid removes his earbuds. I can’t hear his voice, but the way he turns his head suggests he’s asking if the guy is talking to him.

The way he moves his head is also how I sense he is asking reluctantly, as if having to deal with the earbuds’ failure to protect him.

The guy asks again if he’s in school. No trace of irritation or impatience in his voice at having to repeat the question.

The kid shakes his head yes. One slight nod.

The guy asks if he’s Navajo. Before the kid answers, he adds, “I can speak some Navajo.” And he speaks several sentences which sound like they could be Navajo.

The kid shakes his head no.

I sense the kid is acutely uncomfortable.

The guy tries another set of phrases. The kid shakes his head no. I’m taking this as “No, I don’t understand” rather than the answer to some question he’s being asked.

Nice kid, a polite kid, maybe Navajo, maybe Pueblo, but mostly a teenager just trying to fit in here in the city, just riding the bus to school and minding his own business, you know? How many other things feel worse than being publicly embarrassed when we’re adolescents?

It is right here that I find myself remembering the display in Vancouver. But there is a difference between the two Native observers. The young woman in Vancouver was older, more experienced, more self-aware and self-confident. And she was able -- afterwards -- to articulate her experience:

The kid's not there, not yet, not now. If he’s having any thoughts, I’d guess they’re in the form of a prayer: “Please, make me invisible.”

And then a miracle. The bus is stopped, and a woman with a walker is making her way onto the bus.

The buzzed guy stands up, steps back, and with a sweep of his right arm, offers the entire bench to the woman. She says thank you and maneuvers herself into a seat. He stays standing until she is seated, then takes the aisle seat in the first forward-facing row.

He introduces himself and offers her his hand.

She declines, explaining she doesn’t shake hands.

(The kid is now invisible!)

He tries again.

She declines again.

He backs off, waving both hands in the air and saying, “That’s cool, that’s cool.”

At the next stop, the driver turns and tells him this is his stop.

This is his stop?

This is his stop. This is where he gets off.

And he does.

As the bus pulls away, the driver calls out, “Sorry about that, folks.”

I last see the guy out on the sidewalk, looking around trying to figure out where he is. The kid is looking straight ahead. All of us on board, except maybe the kid, have only the vaguest idea of what “led him to this place of darkness,” and probably none of us are thinking “There but for fortune.” I know I don’t until I’m telling this story.


Here is a better shot of Anna McKenzie, the author of the poem at the top of the page:

Sunday, March 22, 2015

BUS STORY # 437 (Go Catch It!)

Be Her Champ by busboy4
Be Her Champ, a photo by busboy4 on Flickr.

I watch them board. She’s a big woman with white hair and a walker. He’s a skinny guy in a baseball cap with “veteran” across the front, and he’s wearing those old aviator-style sunglasses.

She takes a seat in the front row on the driver’s side, then directs him to the bench seat in front of her. He has another idea, but she cuts him short and directs him to the bench seat. He takes it.

They don’t talk much, but when they do, she’s loud and emphatic, and he’s quiet.

We pull up behind the 5 in front of UNMH and she calls out to the driver, “Tell him to wait.” Then, to her companion, she says, “Go catch it! Go catch it!”

The driver doesn’t respond to the first direction, and the skinny old guy delays before getting up and wandering tentatively toward the front door.

The 5 pulls away.

He tells her they can just ride down to the ATC and catch the bus there. She tells him they could have saved a lot of time if they’d caught that bus.

We catch up to the 5 again a couple of stops later.

Again, she calls out to tell him to wait, and this time, the driver honks the horn a couple of times.

Again, she directs her companion to go catch it before it gets away, and he moves more quickly this time.

Outside, he turns as if to wait for her. She waves him on impatiently to go catch that bus.

He does, and they do.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

BUS STORY # 436 (Volunteer)

Reproduction of an untitled painting by Michael Christiana featured at an ABQ RIDE bus stop on Wyoming. Photo by Busboy

It’s just a short ride from Lomas to Central on the San Mateo southbound. I’ve picked up a prescription, and I’m planning to catch the Red Line to La Montanita for some grocery shopping.

I sit down beside a guy who turns to me and says “Good morning.” Close cut hair, glasses. He looks like the tall and lanky type. I’m guessing early 40s, but he could also be the older-than-he-looks type, too. He doesn’t have headphones or earbuds, isn’t scrolling through a smart phone, isn’t reading a book or a newspaper or a magazine.

“Good morning,” I reply. “Beautiful weather.”

“Yeah,” he says, and goes on to say they keep telling us cold weather is coming, but so far, we’ve dodged the bullet.

I tell him I don’t mind the cold as long as the wind isn’t blowing.

He agrees with that, and tells me the other day when he was volunteering down at the VA, that big flag was stretched straight out and popping in the wind.

“You’re a volunteer at the VA?” Then I ask, “What do you do?”

He troubleshoots computer problems. There are plenty of problems to keep him busy. Now that I think about it, yup, he look like an engineer.

I want to ask if he’s working on the VA’s computers or the patients’, but I don’t have a lot of time before we reach Central, so I ask him why he volunteers.

He tells me he’s a disabled veteran and he doesn’t have anything else to do. He says he’s also trying to set up an art therapy program. He corrects himself: “Art in therapy.” One of the other vets told him he has to be a licensed counselor to be an art therapist. “I just paint,” he explains.

I tell him it’s a good thing to be volunteering. He says it’s good for him, that’s for sure. He invites me to check out the program there. “There’s plenty to do,” he tells me.

We’re at the Central stop, so I wish him good luck and head out the back door. He’s on his way to the VA, at the end of the line.


Michael Christiana is one of six New Mexico artists who also served in the Armed Forces, and whose work is being featured by ABQ RIDE's "Art in Transit" series. Check out this week’s side link under This Week in Albuquerque.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

BUS STORY # 435 (Portrait # 27: Strange Bird)

A rare U.S. sighting of the Rufous-necked Wood-rail. Photo by Jeffrey Gordon, AP.

I’m so taken with her appearance that I don’t realize until later her boarding is a stage entrance. She takes care of the fare, then sits with a swirl of skirt on the bench seat opposite the driver, all the while talking on her cell phone.

The skirt is long, but open in front, the sides like curtains showcasing legs coming out of blue denim shorts and disappearing into cowboy boots. The boots are gorgeous, intricate patterns in a gray and brown exotic-looking leather. It’s probably not what she intended, but the skirt and boots steal the show.

She’s got the swirl down pat; no need to rearrange how it falls once she’s seated. She crosses her legs, and now I understand it is all part of the swirl.

The skirt is part of a jumper. The bodice is a dense display of brightly colored small dots, mostly blue and yellow. The dots give way to a larger pattern of irregularly-sided rectangles on a tie-dyed background of soft pink and pale yellow. The tie-dye fades into a linen-looking tan.

She moves her glasses -- black frames with gold accents, round, large, smokey lenses -- to the top of her head. Her hair is short and black, and gives the overall impression of slightly ruffled feathers. Black eyeliner, makeup that makes her freckled cheeks shiny. Large elongated hoop earrings, enamel inlays that flash green-gold with each emphatic shake of her head when she speaks to the phone.

She has rings on every finger except for her left pinky -- two on her left index finger. I try counting the bracelets on her left arm. Fourteen. No, sixteen. No --

“Thirty-nine and holding” comes to mind.

She has a small tattoo just above the webbing between her left thumb and index finger. It looks like it might be a turtle, the shell a square spiral pattern. She has another small tattoo behind her left ear, but I am too far away to make it out. Both are in the standard black ink, no ladylike color accents.

I cannot take my eyes off her.

I find myself thinking about the Rufous-necked Wood-rail, not exactly a pretty bird, but very colorful, and rare in these parts. Back in 2013, a hurricane blew it into the state for a couple of weeks. Folks flocked here from all over, couldn’t keep their eyes off the thing.

I’m not sure what kind of hurricane blew this woman onto the bus, but when I get to my stop, her voice rises. “I can’t believe you are _______ saying this to me.” I turn back and look, and she is wiping her eyes with her free hand.

Twenty minutes later, I’m done with my errand and waiting for the bus. When the door opens, I see it’s the same driver. Makes sense; I’m fairly close to the far end of this route. I board, and to my surprise, she’s still on the bus, still sitting in the same place, now off the phone. Her eyes don’t look smeary.

I sit pretty much in the same seat I was in before -- across the aisle and two rows back.

Sitting directly across from her, in a bench seat facing hers, is a guy in a black T-shirt and jeans. Looks somewhere in his 40s, with a mermaid tattoo on his right forearm. The tail extends to his upper arm, and it flexes when he bends his arm. He looks like a delinquent gone straight for a couple of decades now.

He’s looking at her like he doesn’t know what to make of her. He can’t keep his eyes off her either, although he tries. He looks at the front doors, than back over the rest of the bus, but his eyes always end up coming back around to the woman across the aisle and staying there.

She gets up and walks over to the driver. I can’t hear what she says, but I hear him reply, “Two more stops.” She remains standing, and at the second stop, she gets off the bus.

The guy sitting across from her watches her go out the door, then turns to look at me. I give him a kind of smile-shrug, as if to say, “Yeah, strange bird.” But he doesn’t smile back. He looks like he’s embarrassed to have been caught looking at her. He gets off several stops later and doesn’t look back.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

BUS STORY # 434 (Mr. Monk)

He’s an old, skinny guy, with a porkpie hat and a chin beard, and he looks just like a skinny Thelonius Monk from the 1962 album cover for “Monk’s Dream.”

He’s got a cane and a bag of groceries which look heavy from the way he sets them down by the till. He braces himself and gets his pass through the slot. Then he lifts the bag by its cloth handles and starts for the bench seat behind the driver.

His gait is stiff and slow, and he’s using that cane for all it’s worth. I’m wondering if both feet hurt. He’s got them encased in big leather hiking boots like you used to see on outdoor types back in the early ‘70s.

He gets himself settled into the seat and rides awhile.

Several blocks later, he pulls himself up, half lifts, half drags the bag toward the door, then uses his cane as a hook to pull the stop requested cord. He misses, and almost loses his balance. All kinds of hands from all over the bus go to the pull cord.

At the stop, the driver kneels the bus for him, and he hobbles to the doorway. Before exiting, he looks back at us and says “Thank you for bein’ so kind, y’all.” Then he turns back to the open door. Then stops, and looks back on more time, grins, and says “Y’all need to smile more. Keep on smilin’.”

He exits, and I look around. We are all grinning away, basking in this abrupt feel-good vibe Mr. Monk has left hanging in the air like a sustained, final chord.