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.