Category Archives: Albuquerque

The Price of Vanity

As I sit in a chair on my driveway in the afternoon shade while watering my lawn and shrubbery, I look down at the healing wound on the inside of my right heel and the blister that is scabbing up on the back of my hand.  To do this I must peer over the pale flesh of my abdomen; flesh that has passed many a month since it has seen the face of the sun.  The condition of these three parts of my body, hand, heel and belly, is intimately connected.  The pale flesh of the belly, untouched by the rays of the sun for so long, is my belated attempt to avoid further damage to my skin; damage exemplified by the recent biopsy of a mole on my heal and the freezing of the remnant of known squamous cell carcinoma on the back of my hand.

If you grew up in San Diego as I did in the middle of the last century, you had a high regard for the sun tan.  In fact, after the explosion of the surfing culture around 1960, the degree of one’s status and social attainment was greatly assisted by the quality of their tan, and I did everything that I could think of to get a tan.  One of my personal favorites, as I reflect, was the application of baby oil while I would lay under the open sun at Pacific Beach or some other sun-drenched spot where I could properly cook myself.

Baby oil, we teens were guaranteed, was the magic elixir that would turn even a melanin-challenged northern European like me into a bronzed god.  I do not remember who it was that issued that bogus guarantee, but their sales pitch was effective to the utmost.  I would roll over every so often, basting myself anew each time.  The only guarantee that was fulfilled was the unspoken one that I would cook myself like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“The West Coast has the sunshine, and the girls all get so tan – – -“ goes the lyric in a well known Beach Boy song, and the girls did their best to imitate art with their lives.  Twenty years later little had changed.  “I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun.  You got the top pulled back and that, radio on baby.”  At least three times in that song Don Henly mentions his wayward lover’s brown skin, and unless she is derived from an more melanin-rich lineage than mine (or Don’s, to judge from when I have seen him on TV) that suggests that the girl spends a lot of time working on her tan.

But I’ll not point my gnarled finger only at the beach culture.  One fine day while enjoying a burger and coffee in a roadside squat-and-gobble restaurant somewhere west of Albuquerque I heard a waitress tell a regular customer that her affections would be reserved for a man with that “weathered look.”  Several ranchers and truckers in that joint filled her description to a tee, their tough, brown-to-red skin dried out and creased by deep wrinkles that looked eerily like the gulches and dry arroyos of that sun-blasted land.  The Marlborough Man had as much to fear from the sun above him as he did from the carcinigous death sticks that he liked to suck on.

But let’s bring this story back to my favorite topic:  Me.  As I stated earlier, I tried desperately to get my uncompromisingly white skin to take on some color.  I would broil under the sun at the beach all day, or roast in the desert at Yaqui Pass, Tamarisk Grove, or any of a score of unnamed (as far as I know) springs that could be found up valleys and ravines on the east slope of the Laguna Mountains, in search of the elusive tan.  My record of “success” tended mostly to a glowing redness that never quite matured into that coveted bronze tan.  Rather, it frequently evolved into full blown blistering.

Usually those episodes of trying to imitate a bratwurst on a tailgater’s grill would result in peeling that made me look like a snake shedding its skin.  Perhaps that was my body’s way of getting me to put on some protection.  Clothes applied to cover up my pseudo-leprosy also sufficed to block the next round of damageing sun exposure.

San Diego was not the only scene of my crimes against my own epidermis.  In Texas, Vietnam, northern California, New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest I chased that unreachable symbol of sun-blessed health.  It wasn’t until my third round of biopsies and freezings and lectures from my dermatologist that my addled brain at last allowed the thought that this might not be in my best interest to squeeze through into my consciousness.

So here I sit, writing this sad tale.  However, it’s not really all that bad.  Yeah, my belly’s white, but I’m sitting in the shade on my driveway, drinking some wine, watering the shrubs, and staring at the grass which I currently abide above instead of below.  At long last I understand that life is worth more than a tan, and I believe that I would like to stick around for a little while longer.

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To Serve and Protect, Part III

The year 1976 saw my last encounter of a negative nature with any law enforcement agency.  Four and one half years had passed since my case of mistaken identity had occurred in El Cajon, California.  Clarice and I were married a year and a half later and three years after that were divorced.  During that time I gave up my quest to earn a bachelor’s degree and formed a construction company with a friend in northern California, and poured half of my time and almost all of my energy into making it a success.  The plan was working but my wife grew tired and bored with lying around at home waiting for a hungry, tired, and frankly self-centered husband to come home late nearly every day and ignore her for the period of time between dinner and bed.

The separation and divorce were amicable but nevertheless painful in an extreme, and over the stretch of the next seven months my previous dedication to a plan was now traded for a new dedication to forgetting my problems.  My self-centeredness continued unabated and, if anything, grew.  Those seven months were filled with parties and childish antics and pranks and two dangerous episodes in which I could well have gotten myself shot.  One of my lapses in judgement was when I lent my drivers license to my twenty year old roommate Ralph so that he could go to a bar one night, and forgot to retrieve it before one morning when I woke up disgusted with my life, threw a few necessary items into my truck, and headed towards Albuquerque where I proposed to start over.

The new plan was that I should stay at my brothers house until my friend Wes could join me a day or two later, at which time we would run off to a seaport in Mexico, board any freighter going to Saudi Arabia, and get rich working in the oil fields.  The story of that fool’s errand may be read in my earlier tale entitled “Do You Know The Way To Veracruz, Parts I-III”.  Wes duly arrived and we both camped out on my brother’s living room floor while we made our plans for our getaway.

Before we boarded any Polish freighter to Saudi Arabia however, my brother Brad was determined to show us some of the New Mexico that he loved.  The first part of that New Mexico was the package store at the Piggly Wiggly Market on Isleta and Rio Bravo where we purchased and made considerable damage to a couple of cases of Budweiser Beer.  All three of us considered ourselves to be accomplished drinkers who could “hold our liquor”, whatever that means, but the next morning I had one of the more monumental hangovers of my adult life.  Brad proposed a trip about an hour north to the spectacular city of Santa Fe.  Wes was up for it and I, with head pounding and stomach doing cartwheels, agreed to come along.

We saddled up in Brad’s little Japanese sedan, I do not remember which model, loaded up a cooler with the remaining beer, and headed east on Rio Bravo towards the Interstate leading north to Santa Fe.  Brad and Wes already had two of the Budweisers open by the time we got to the freeway and several more downed by the time we got to Santa Fe.  Brad and Wes enjoyed what must have been a wonderful meal – most meals in Santa Fe and indeed all of New Mexico are wonderful – but my head and stomach were still locked in mortal combat and I only ate some chips and drank some water or iced tea or something like that.

We turned the car south after their meal and took a two lane road behind the Sandia Mountains, through quaint mining villages and high desert valleys and finally joined up with the Interstate highway that had replaced Route 66.  Just before merging onto that highway Brad pulled the car over and announced that he was to inebriated to safely continue driving (an understatement, probably).  Wes was equally soused so the lot fell to me, being the only sober body in the car, to drive the rest of the way home.

Things began successfully enough with me putting the car into gear and nosing it into traffic.  Soon we were speeding west through Tijeras Canyon and onto Central Avenue in Albuquerque.  I don’t remember how we came to be stopped behind a line of traffic at a street light with Brad deciding that we should be going in the opposite direction.  I assume that a tankful of Budweiser might have had something to do with it.  There we were however with a couple of double yellow lines between where we were and where we wanted to go.

“Make a U-turn” said Brad.  “I can’t do that here” I replied.  “That’s not just a double yellow line, it’e two double yellow lines”.  “They don’t care about that stuff here” said Brad.  “There’s a lot bigger fish to fry here in Albuquerque than people making U-turns.  Go ahead.  They don’t really care.”

I was not at all convinced but Brad knew Albuquerque and I did not, so when the first break in the traffic came I punched the gas pedal and spun the steering wheel and flew across the multitude of yellow lines painted on the asphalt of that Albuquerque street; right in front of a patrol car of the Albuquerque Police Department.  It didn’t take long at all for me to learn that the Albuquerque Police Department really did, in fact, care.

The lights went on and the utterly idiotic first impulse of Brad and Wes was that I should somehow outrace or loose the cop.  The probability of this being successfully accomplished hovered somewhere between the Pope not being Catholic and pigs flying.  I turned down a side street and traveled maybe half a block before I announced “screw it, I’m stopping”.  I rolled up next to the curb, shut down the engine, placed my hands on the steering wheel and waited for the policeman to walk up to the driver’s side window.

“Can I see your license and registration” he asked.  “I can show you the registration” I said as Brad was pulling it out of the glove box.  “But I don’t have my license”.  “And where might your license be?” asked the officer.  I saw no advantage to be gained by telling him the truth and instead said “I just moved here from California and I lost it somewhere between there and here.”  I suppose that there was a grain of truth in that story.  I really had just move from California and I really did lose it in the “there” part of that equation.  I went on to tell him my sob story of the last year (not the last time I would use that strategy, and sometimes to good effect) and told him that I intended to get a New Mexico license at my earliest opportunity.

The patrolman was impressed with my tale of woe but decided that he did after all have to take me downtown.  It had been obvious that my first impulse had been to evade him and the officer felt the need to check and see if I was wanted anywhere for anything.  This was before the era of the computer, and such background checking took time.

“Can we work this thing out right here?” asked Wes as he was extracting his wallet and thumbing through some bills in it.  “Looks like I have eighty dollars here.  Maybe we can just clear up our misunderstanding without going to all this trouble?”  The patrolman put the stink eye on Wes and said “I am going to pretend that I misunderstand you, and I advise you not to try to clarify your previous statement.  Why don’t you put that wallet back into your pocket and drive home.  Mr. Durden here and I are going to take a drive downtown.”

And downtown we went.  As with my other encounters with policemen, this young officer was polite and as we proceeded towards headquarters we spoke of my sad story and other things.  He listened sincerely, and I believe that by the time we arrived at our destination he was convinced that I was neither a bank robber nor a serial killer.  Still, rules are rules and form had to be followed.  I was fingerprinted, photographed while holding a tray full of numbers below my chin, and placed in a cell to wait for the necessary phone calls to be made and for Brad to come and bail me out.  Knowing how Brad’s wife Ginny would receive the news of the day”s activities I wondered if I would be bailed out at all.

The cell was pretty much what you see in the movies; metal benches bolted into concrete walls behind gray steel bars.  The clang of that steel door closing and the clunk of the lock was the stuff of nightmares.  Inches away was the world where you can live your life in freedom, to one degree or another.  On my side of the bars freedom was just a cruel memory.  You were captive, you had no freedom in any degree.  Your very life depended upon somebody else’s pleasure.  I was in hell.

I sat down on the bench and leaned back against the concrete wall trying to look bored, as if I had done this a dozen times before.  Being a rookie in the slammer does not always guarantee a good time.  Not for the rookie anyway.  Without looking obvious I scanned the other occupants with whom I shared the cell.  It was a scurvy lot of about a dozen who looked like life had not been especially kind to them.  With my long hair, beard, and overall scruffy construction worker look I fit in with the crowd to some degree.  There was however one fellow who did not seem to belong there at all.  He was white, middle age, dressed in a sort of tacky used car salesman sort of way (with apologies to any used car salesmen reading this story) who was running his mouth about how people in America should speak English, and if they don’t know how they should learn it.  I suspect that the only reason he survived his evening in the pokey, assuming that he DID survive his evening there, is because half of the guys in that cell had no idea what he was saying and the other half weren’t listening and just wanted him to shut up.  He was still alive when my stay at the Graybar Hilton came to an end, but I would hesitate to wager on how the rest of his evening went.

The end of my ordeal came about two hours after it began.  The police in the northern California city where I had previously lived had no outstanding warrants for me and Brad arrived to pay the ridiculously low $20 fee to spring me loose.  My wallet and belt were returned to me and quickly I was breathing free air once again.  I knew however that one battle had been won but another remained to be fought.

“I know that Ginny is going to be pissed” I said.  “I think that Wes and I should get a motel room”.  “No, not at all” Brad lied.  “Ginny wants you to come back to our place.  She understands that it was just a mistake”.  I knew that Ginny would not be mad about the license thing.  For me to be driving when everyone else was alcoholically impaired was the smartest thing that I could have been doing  under the circumstances, which makes one wonder how we ever would have thought of doing it in the first place.  What drove Ginny crazy was the way that Brad became somebody different when we were together, and how the tenuous hold that either of us had on good sense when we were apart evaporated instantly once we were together.  This made Ginny furious and always there was this thing which separated her and I, and we were never really able to close that gap.

I slept on Brad’s living room floor that night, but within a couple of days Wes and I had done a little construction work, made a payday, and departed for Veracruz to find that freighter that would float us away to find our fortune in the Arabian sands.  I never heard from the Albuquerque Police Department again.  Apparently my brother’s $20 was adequate to whatever administrative needs were generated by my brief incarceration, or maybe the clerk just pocketed the Ben Franklins and called it square.  I don’t know.  There is one thing that I do know with crystal clarity however.  The police in Albuquerque really DO care.

I’m A Fool for the City

The year of our Lord 1976 was not my best year.  The first five months of that year I spent trying to hold together a marriage which was slowly melting down, and the last seven months were mostly lost in a boozy muddle wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke as I self medicated to forget the pain of my failure in that endeavor.  Each day of that last seven months was an undirected jumble of virtually meaningless hours and every night at the residence which I shared with three other people would have looked like a party to any reasonable person, not that there was ever very many reasonable people present in our residence on any given night.  One evening a person who accompanied a  friend of mine apologized for not bringing something to add to the party.  My friend laughed and told him “This isn’t a party.  It’s always like this here.”

That sort of lifestyle eventually either kills you or loses its allure and for me it was the latter, and so as that awful year drew to a close I awoke one morning, put my tools, some clothing and a few valuable items into my truck, and pointed the nose of that vehicle south and east away from Northern California and across Southwest deserts towards Albuquerque New Mexico, where my brother Bart lived.  I needed to restart my life and returning to my family seemed like the right place to get that journey underway.

Albuquerque is a very different kind of place than any that I had ever lived in before however, and it didn’t take very long after my arrival to find out just how different it was.  I actually felt like I had fallen into a crack between two universes and had emerged in some bizarre facsimile of the normal one I had inhabited up until I pulled into the city limits.  My introduction to this odd new universe came quickly when Brad announced on my first day there that he was going to K-Mart to buy some item which he needed for a construction project at his house.  I climbed into his truck and we were soon standing in one of the construction supply aisles near the rear of the building.  We were not alone however.  A few yards in front of us an argument was taking place between a young woman and a young man.

“I don’t know why you are saying that.  None of it is true” said the young woman.

“Don’t lie to me” replied the young man, spitting the words out between clinched teeth.  “You think I’m stupid?  or that I don’t have ears or eyes?  You’re nothing but a puta”

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Southwest, ‘puta’ is not a very nice thing for a woman to be called.

“Don’t call me that” she hissed at her accuser.  “I haven’t done anything wrong.  I don’t know why you’re making this up.”  The young man remained unconvinced.

“I’m not making anything up.  I saw you with Joe with my own eyes.  Are you saying that I’m blind, puta?”

“I said don’t call me that.  Me and Joe are friends and that’s all.  We’ve been friends for a long time.  You’re just trying to make something out of nothing.”

“I know you and Joe are friends.  Good friends, too.  You looked real friendly when I saw you get into the back seat of his car.  Maybe if I had stayed around longer I would have seen your heels in the window too, puta.”

This was as far as the girl was willing to let the young man go, and she lashed out with a vicious right hook that would have made Mike Tyson proud.  The young man’s glasses flew off of his face and spun through the air, landed on the floor and skidded to a stop at the feet of Brad and me.  Brad had found the item that he needed so we quickly did an about face and walked up another aisle towards the check out stand at the front of the store.  While Brad was paying we heard the quavering voice of a female in distress paging the store manager to the employee break room.  My guess is that the young man at that same moment was applying something warm and wet to the left eye that was swelling shut and already beginning to blacken.

I was completely blown away by the this event and as we arrived at Brad’s truck I asked “What the hell did we just see?”  “Oh, that’s no big thing here” Brad replied.  “You’ll get used to it”.  The funny thing is that I did get used to it, mostly because one odd event after another seemed to blend into the pattern of a unique personality of the city.  The next wrinkle of that personality was to make itself known to me before very much water in the Rio Grande passed underneath the I-40 Bridge.

My friend Wes showed up at Brad’s house two days after I did and all three of us strapped on our tools and began to hang drywall for a local contractor.  It was the dead of winter and Albuquerque sits at 5,000 feet above sea level.  Winter storms are not common there, but they do occasionally come and when they do they can bring significant amounts of ice and snow.  The three of us were working on the east side of the city one day when the grey clouds rolled in and began to drop snow while we were occupied inside of a building.  By the time that we noticed the weather there was a layer of snow an inch or two thick on the ground already and more was falling as we stood there.  Brad declared that we should quit and begin to make our way to his house on the west side of the city, as far away from where we were standing as we could and yet remain in the same city.

We stowed our tools in the back of Brad’s truck and he began to steer the vehicle slowly and carefully down the whitened streets, first stopping to procure a couple of cases of beer in case we were snowed in.  Many others had the same idea and there was an additional inch or two of snow on the streets when Brad completed his purchase and began to do the best imitation of a tip-toe in a half ton truck that I have ever seen.  Slowly and carefully he navigated the gentle hill which dropped into the South Valley where his house was, still many miles away.

Now at this point I have to explain something about the tires on many of the vehicles in Albuquerque.  New Mexico is a dry place, and Albuquerque is more dry than many other parts of that state.  Without a lot of rain and snow and ice to make the need for good tread on one’s tires obvious it is easy to become lazy and not replace a tire until it is a good deal past far gone.  Many of the tires in Albuquerque are simply bald, and bald tires plus ice and snow are a bad, bad mix.

And a bad mix they were on this particular day.  Brad and Wes and I were rolling slowly down Second Avenue, enjoying a few beers before actually arriving at Brads house (I am not advocating this behavior; I am simply reporting it) when Brad noticed a large American car – all American cars were large in those days – coming up behind us at a much higher rate of speed that we were going.  The first that Wes and I were aware that there was a drama about to unfold was when Brad said “Uh Oh, this probably is not going to end well,” and he began to slow down a little bit more to increase his maneuverability in case things went horribly bad.

The car behind us, driven by a young man with his wife or more likely girl friend beside him, pulled into the oncoming lane in order to pass us.  When he attempted to straighten the trajectory of his car the slick, bald tires allowed not an iota of traction however and the car continued on in the new path which the driver had just initiated.  That path took the car and its passengers across the oncoming lane, down into a low and somewhat broad ditch, up a railroad embankment which paralleled Second Avenue, and back down the embankment to settle in the bottom of the ditch.  While this was happening the car began to turn a lazy half circle so that it came to rest with the front of the car pointing towards us as we continued our slow, careful pace up on the road where we wanted to stay and the now hopelessly stuck driver wished that he still was.

The whole thing seemed like some slow motion dance.  The car making it’s lazy arc up and down the railroad embankment, narrowly missing a road sign in the process; the female passenger already giving the driver hell before we passed them by; it was like an opera without the music.  There was not one thing that we could do to help in those days before cell phones, but Second Avenue was a busy street and we knew that a police cruiser and a tow truck were in this gentleman’s immediate future, so we drove on laughing so hard that we almost wet ourselves.

A final tale (and I could tell many more) featuring the peculiarities of Albuquerque came a year later, when I was back in town following the construction trades.  Brad took me to Chuck’s Lounge, a bar and pizza place on Central Avenue in the heart of the city.  There was always a diverse crowd in Chuck’s due to its proximity to the University of New Mexico a few blocks away up Central and two interstate highways just a short distance west and north.  They also made some very good pizza.  On this particular night one could see sandals and boots, headbands and cowboy hats, paisley shirts and big shiny belt buckles and every manner of clothing and personal grooming styles you can imagine.  I was there for the pizza because they made the best green chili, pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  Actually, they make the ONLY green chili and pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  I was interested only in the pizza and not the other clientele who were enjoying Chuck’s hospitality that night.

All of that changed in one instant however.  Unnoticed by anyone in the building, a man entered the front door with a handgun of some unknown calibre looking for the person who was fooling around with his wife, and his wife too if she happened to be so unlucky as to be there that evening.  This person bellowed out a name which nobody responded to, which prompted the man to discharge a bullet into the roof to make himself perfectly clear.  At this point everyone in the joint hit the floor or took cover behind whatever they could find.  Nobody bolted for the exit because that would put them into clear sight and might suggest to the cuckolded shooter that he might be the guilty party.

The armed man peered under tables and around bar stools and decided that the Casanova whom he was in search of was not going to be found in Chuck’s that night.  At that point he pulled out his wallet and laid a wad of bills on the bar, apologized for disrupting everyone’s evening, instructed the bartender to set everyone up as far as the wad of bills on the bar would go, and took his leave to search for his wife and her lover elsewhere.

Brad and I crawled out from under our table and found to our delight that very little beer had slopped out of our glasses as we dove for cover.  We finished our pizza and beer, paid up, and departed shortly after the incident.  Chuck called the police, since he would probably have heard about it if he had not, and they showed up just before we left.  There was no sense of urgency shown by the police since nobody was hurt.  The officers took a description and seemed to know who their suspect was, and we all got to leave without a great deal of fuss and to-do.

These are three of a great many stories that I could write about life in Albuquerque.  I found that city and state to be unlike any others, and I frankly enjoyed their quirky if somewhat dangerous personality.  I live far away from Albuquerque now and my family has also moved on, so I have little likelihood of seeing that city again.  I still keep it in my mind and heart however, and that will simply have to do.