The first time I ventured to step onto a bus in Albuquerque, I took the wrong one. Or rather, I took the right one, but was on the wrong side of campus. Hence, I ended up at the bus depot on Indian School Rd. and walked the scant three miles home. That’s how I ended my first day of grad school at UNM.
The Magic Bus
Aside from that small misadventure, taking the bus was a slightly magical experience for me. I know, most of you are probably rolling your eyes. It’s not that I’d never ridden a bus before. There are plenty of cities I’ve visited with public transportation. But I’d never lived anywhere where it was more than a vague promise. MARTA isn’t known for its punctuality or even showing up at all, and I grew up in a place where cars were expected–everything is designed to this end. Even if there’s a sidewalk along the way at any point, generally speaking, nowhere is really close enough to walk. Buses themselves are suburban myths.
So, imagine my delight that I could, with a little bit of planning, walk two tenths of a mile to the corner in front of the Circle K, and most days catch a bus anywhere I wanted to go. It wasn’t a perfect system, and I would sometimes end up cutting across campus from the Lomas stop to Central if I wanted to access the pubs or coffee shops along Route 66, but on the whole, it seemed quite amazing. I didn’t need to drive. I didn’t even have to pay bus fare directly for the first two years, because I was a grad student at the University and received a bus pass as part of my tuition. All I had to do was show up at the right time and I could get where I needed to go.
The Rider Phenomenon
I think I owe some of the most valuable insights to time spent riding the bus. When I first arrived in Albuquerque, everything appeared dirty and shabby to me. I had a difficult time differentiating the “better” parts of town with those less well off, because everything was covered in Adobe or mock-adobe, and houses everywhere seemed rather fond of metal bars over the windows. This wasn’t the case everywhere, but at first it seemed quite a prevalent trend.
I was a great deal Whiter when I arrived in New Mexico than when I left, and I’m not simply referring to the permanent burn-tan I developed from exposure to the sun. But it wasn’t obvious to me until I was confronted with the evidence, and architecture was what started my quest to uncover my own Whiteness. I rode the bus around on Fridays–a day without classes, but on which the bus schedule followed the weekday routines. I obtained transfers, changed lines and stared out the windows at the scenery I passed.
Beneath the Surface
Some parts of the city were beautiful and interesting. I began to memorize a map of the city where the buses ran, and resolved to return to this park or that street of shops when I had time. Other parts of the city laid back my surface acceptance of the Other and revealed the purse-clutching, door-locking little white girl I really was. In this case, I was at once shielded from and exposed to what unsettled me.
I came to understand that it was not a particular ethnicity that unnerved me, but a more class-based uneasiness. I had been raised to avert my eyes from the trappings of the less affluent, the subcultural dress and music trends, body language, and general manner of more urban ways of life. In some ways, I still avert my eyes, because direct eye contact can be received as a challenge. But in most other instances, I owe my increased comfort with lifeways not my own to my Fridays on the bus.
Time to Drink the Light
Because I was permitted the relative luxury of observation without focus by riding on the bus, I was also able to finally come to terms with Albuquerque. I could say I almost hated life in the desert valley the first six months I was there. I was pressured by Dr. Frances Hayashida to be more rigorous in my pursuit of anthropology. What were my goals? What was my focus? What right did an undriven bumpkin like me have to be rubbing elbows with colleagues published a dozen ways to Sunday by the age of 24? I wanted to run away, to give up on grad school.
But I wanted to stop running away even more, and finish what I’d started, however ill-advised. So, I stayed. January of 2013 was bitter, with temperatures falling below zero. To this Southern girl, seeing -14 degrees Fahrenheit on the weather forecast was a shock. But luckily, the arid conditions also made it feel less cold, provided you could fill all the chinks in your outer wear. I stood at the bus stop, stomping my feet, since the unforgiving cold made rubber soles feel like paper.
I boarded an early Number 5 bus to campus, and installed myself at a window seat. Later buses were often standing room only, so getting out a half an hour earlier was worth it. Beyond the fogged and filthy pane of safety glass, the city rose late in winter. I remember clearly noting the angle of the sun, how it sliced almost horizontally across the faces of buildings, through the brittle black lace of bare trees to cast shadows that were the blue of wood smoke or pigeon feathers.
These blue silhouettes were pierced with gold and pink in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else. every vertical face–building, curb, bus stop kiosk was drenched in a molten brilliance.
And it was the light with which I fell in love. The city of Albuquerque was still as dirty, dry, and unwieldy. But I had dawns and dusks for every season of the year, and those alone were worth staying for.