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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

Albuquerque Bus Stops: An Ethnography

Originally published May 2013

A homeless boy and a college girl, roughly the same age, discuss their divergent paths on the Route 66 bus in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

I had been thinking about this not-so-incredibly novel idea for some time: a photographic documentary project about Albuquerque’s bus stops, a sort of ethnography of public space. I have done a fair amount of similar work in far off places, particularly in Brazil and Mexico, where lifestyles new and unknown to me sprung out every which way I turned. But after fifteen years in Albuquerque—and vaguely aware that within a year or so I will likely be leaving this eclectic and beautiful city—it occurred to me that the essence of the human soul and all its contradictions are blatantly before me, although frequently ignored, right here. The struggles, triumphs, and failures of individuals, as well as those of our society, are on constant display for all to see, day and night, if we choose to keep our eyes open. All that separates us is just as vast, and all that brings us together as fellow humans just as powerful, right here in one southwestern city as it is between New York and Rio de Janeiro. The difference is in the blinders we habitually carry in the places we call home.

Bus stops in Albuquerque, like cracks in a sidewalk, are a sort of interstitial space into which dust, muck, and grime tend to accumulate. In this way they are different here than in many other cities—and in many other countries—where public transportation may not be a stigma of class and status. Here in the American Southwest, where cities were built for the automobile, and where one’s sense of personal worth often begins with his form of motorized transportation, public transit has turned into a symbol of social failure, and as such, something to avoid at all cost—if you can. And after the power of stigma deters perhaps of majority of Albuquerque residents from ever stepping foot on a city bus, the rest among those who cannot avoid it constitute a biased representation of the city’s demographic: the poor and destitute, the mentally ill, the chronic drug addicts and alcoholics, and a subsection of college students, wayward teens, and visionaries.

This demographic bias creates a terrific fascination for the eye, the mind, and the soul: A fascination that, like a goat head caught in your undershirt, claws and scrapes at your side. So much so, indeed, that most of us, most of the time, relegate these images to the blurred periphery of our vision. It either hurts too much to look, or it feels rude, as if we were gawking at someone else’s misfortune. Or we might just be trying to avoid unwanted attention, knowing full well what eye contact with an inebriated stranger can lead to. And yet it continues to be fascinating. Sociologically, it is a blunt and cold display of a society’s failure to provide for its most vulnerable. Philosophically, it is an abrasive obstacle to man’s search for meaning. On a much shallower level, it is a great clown show, a matter of giggle and jeer, fodder perhaps for those half-sickening/half-funny websites making fun of Wallmart shoppers.

The bus stop itself is a delicate sanctuary from persecution for the homeless. It is a sanctuary because “waiting for the bus” is a loophole to avoid loitering charges, but it is delicate because loopholes only really work for the wealthy. Nevertheless, because of this dynamic, bus stops become standard points of congregation for loiterers of all stripes and states of degradation. And because so many among the loiters are chronic addicts of drugs and alcohol, bus stops also become magnates for small time hustlers who sell everything from shots of cheap vodka to doses of meth and heroin. All of this eventually brings the police back again and again—as well as ambulances and fire trucks—to break up fights, cuff and detain, and carry off. Counting overdoses and homicides, bus stops in Albuquerque have seen the final gasps of many a man.

Central Avenue west of the Rio Grande (Photo: MJW)

Taken together, bus stops in Albuquerque are far more than determined areas for buses to stop, pick up, and drop off passengers. They are choke points of uneven human development, and microcosms of anarchy. They are the uncovered manholes of a vast and intriguing cultural underworld. They are amphitheatres of modern tragedy and comedy. They are the lifeline of a city that often wishes to believe otherwise. They are as far away as the wars of central Africa, and they are right across the street.

I imagine that this blog will be received in various ways, some positive and others very negative. It may simultaneously charm and insult, speak of brotherly love and incite contempt. Most complements and critiques will likely be valid, and I shall accept them all. Am I reaching out to embrace the disenfranchised as fellow humans to help them tell their stories, or am I exploiting those most vulnerable by making a spectacle of their suffering and misfortune? Am I doing good, or I am doing harm? That will be up to the reader to decide. As for myself, I am doing this in an effort to wedge my heart and mind a little deeper into the crux of the human soul, which I believe is too often obscured beneath so many layers of denial and fear.

The author (shown above alongside Levon Bates (1963-2015)) is a professor of political science at Western Washington University. He spent the better part of two decades in Albuquerque, New Mexico before moving to Washington State in 2016.

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