A Night in Albuquerque
I left Marfa in the early afternoon. I packed up my green backpack, tossing it alongside my food boxes into a little red wagon El Cosmico provided. I was heading to meet my childhood friend, Julie, in Albuquerque where we would meet at the Albuquerque airport at noon the next day. We would grab a bite at some online-recommended restaurant and make the forty-five minute drive to Santa Fe. I had chosen to stay just one night in Albuquerque so that when I woke, I could take my leisurely time, go to yoga, make breakfast, before picking up Julie. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and Julie ended up on a ten hour pilgrimage to Santa Fe arriving almost a full day late.
Julie and I have been friends since my freshman and her sophomore year of high school. We met, as one does in high school, on our bus. The freshman all sat closest to the front, the sophomores and juniors populated the back. As we both discovered our distaste for our fellow bus riders, we slowly found ourselves moving seats, her closer to the front, me closer to the back, until we finally met in the middle. We made a fast friendship over shared alternative music taste. Mine leaning more towards the spindly guitars of jam bands at the time, her’s more of the screaming punk variety, but we aligned in our difference. As adults living in different cities, we started an annual tradition of meeting around Christmas time and, since we are two Jews, sharing the holiday together in an unusual location. Last year it was a week long jaunt in the Azores. Technically Portugal, the Azores are a tiny group of islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. An inexpensive romantic getaway trip I found on some groupon site, we spent the week together surrounded by couples enjoying opulent meals of octopus, steak, and wines. We decided to make a tradition of it and this year chose to meet nearing the end of my journey, somewhere in the South West.
Julie is a spectacular professional. At just 30 years old she already has the typical markings of success nailed down. A wonderfully loving husband and marriage, a beautiful home in a mid-sized city she loves, and a slick well paying job in the tech industry. She came to all these things in such a natural and good natured way, that you could not begrudge her, she did not need any of it, she was just that good. It was hotel points accrued at her job, that was the reason we chose to meet up in Santa Fe.
When we discussed meeting on that side of the country, I had vaguely suggested camping.
“I have a tent.” I said.
“Or we could stay at a resort with my points.” Julie said matter of factly, not bragging, not showboating, just always using her brain to come up with the best and most efficient solution.
“Oh yea, fuck camping.” I said. “Let’s do your thing.”
At Jordan’s suggestion, I decided to check out the Mcdonald Observatory on my way to Albuquerque. An astronomical observatory set-up by the University of Texas. They have two enormous telescopes, pointing to the center of the sun, that are available to the public. It was only forty-five minutes out of my way and since I had left Marfa relatively early, I decided make it a destination.
I had been warned that West Texas was desolate. That I’d better fill up on gas at every opportunity because there would be stretches of nothingness for miles. I had been very careful up until this point, never letting my gas tank dip below half a tank. I decided not to fill up as I left Marfa, as I rationalized for whatever reason, that there would be a gas station near the Observatory. I arrived there with still 150 miles in my tank, sure that would be plenty. When I asked the woman at the receptionist desk if this seemed ok, I was met with a less than enthusiastic, “Uh yea, sure, 150? That should be...ok.” I drove up to the telescope sight. I was not able to actually view the center of the sun as I had hoped. To look into the scopes you must be on a guided tour, which only started at 2pm. Rather than waste two hours, I opted to wander around the site on my own, taking in the spectacular scenic views.
On my drive down the mountain, I held my breath. I realized I would be driving a very long way along a central Texas highway without a gas station for miles. I chastised myself for being in the very position I had been warned about. I spent the next hour, driving through desert landscape, no cell phone service, willing the next sign to read, “gas” instead of “animal crossing.” I turned off the air and radio telling myself that this would save gas in my precious little Volkswagen. I sang songs out loud. Calming free-style ditties in broadway falsetto and early 80s raps. “Don’t run out of gas! You’re not running out of gas. You will see the next town sooooooonnnnnnn!” I sang out to myself. At Kent, Texas I saw the skeleton of a former gas station, a sad movie set of a business, graffitied and shuttered.
I finally came upon a gas station after 120 miles, 30 miles in my tank remaining. I breathed heavily and practically jumped out of the car, so excited to have made it.
I pulled into Albuquerque later that afternoon. It was turning dark by the time I arrived. I was antsy and desperately ready to get out of the car. I missed the Route 66 Hostel twice due to ugly orange-tape construction taking place in the front yard. I parked in a space directly in front of the decrepit hostel porch. A leathery gray haired man, wearing a fedora, cigarette dangling out of his mouth addressed me. “I wouldn’t leave all that stuff on the top of your car if I were you. Just sayin,’” he gestured at my rack.
“I wasn’t,” I said more defensively than I intended, as if I were a silly little girl that needed reminding.
“Do you know where the parking is?” I asked.
“There’s some parkin’ out back, but it might be filled up by now. You can probably leave your car there, it’ll be just as safe there as it would be in the back. Don’t park in the apartment’s parking next to us. They can be real assholes those guys.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll try back there.”
I pulled around to the lot in the back, several cars double parked, and not a hostel parking space left. I had to use the bathroom by this point so I pulled into a spot in front of the apartment, intending to run in then come back and move my car. A male figure in a white wife-beater appeared in a doorway.
“You can’t park there,” he yelled across the lot.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just going to run in for a moment. I will move it right away.”
“Well then I’m going to just call the towing company ‘right away’.” I could not make out his face but I saw the reflection of his yellowed teeth when he smiled at this comment. His clever little word play against mine.
“Ok,” I said and hopped back into the car, parking it at the front where I had just been a moment before.
The hostel’s lobby was quite small, with graying white painted walls, and old furniture. It was only $30 a night so I could not complain and they had upgraded me to a room with my own bathroom at no additional cost. I went about lugging my things up the creaking narrow winding stairs.
The room itself was rather large. Big enough to fit my bike, my food boxes, and backpack. It had a worn crimson armchair and two short bookshelves in the front area. There was a tiny connected bathroom with a shower, toilet, and very small sink. The room was a dusty pink with colorful posters of weather balloons, something I learned was a popular hobby in this area of New Mexico. There was an oddly slanted queen sized bed in the center of the room and a smaller twin sized bed next to it against the wall.
I changed clothes, put on a blush of red lipstick, and grabbed my bike to check out downtown. I was wrangling my bike down the porch steps when the man I had seen earlier called out to me.
“Hey.” He said with a slow slur, “Nice bike. You riding around here? I love a road bike like that. You can really speed. Not like those heavy ass mountain bikes.”
“I was just going to ride downtown for a bit. Check out the town.”
“Oh yea I see, check out the clubs, huh? A pretty young girl like you, be careful.”
I laughed at being referred to as “a pretty young girl,” as if thirty were still “barely-legal.”
“Do you think it’s not safe? To bike?” I asked.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just stick to the sidewalk on 66.”
“Ok, thanks, do you work here?” I asked because of the familiar way he had addressed me when I first arrived.
“Me? Oh no. I just like it here is all. Anytime I’m around these parts I stay here. Good people, you know? And these folk they drink like… like…”
“Like fish?” I offered, he seemed to have already imbibed himself by the way he was trailing off and slightly running his words together.
“Ha! Yea! Like a fish. Or like people. Whatever.”
I could tell he wanted to keep chatting, but I was getting impatient. “Well have a good night!” I said waving, he called something to me as I biked off that I could not make out.
I headed just two blocks up Central Ave. to a smattering of bars and restaurants. I rolled down the sidewalk surveying the scene. Cute scene boys in glasses outside of a music venue, very young looking emo kids next to a movie theater, dolled up women in their forties wearing leopard print next to an American-style restaurant. I had been avoiding drinking. After I woke up in physical pain in Austin from a night of martinis, I had been letting my body adjust. But what else does one do, by themselves, in a city where you don’t know anyone, but grab a drink or a bite at a local spot? I decided on a small dive bar, the name of which I cannot remember. It was a big windowed, one room, little bar with a friendly Irish American bartender who introduced himself as “Jim” with a smile and a firm handshake. I ordered a gin and soda and took a place next to the window. I sipped my drink for a bit, combed through a local newspaper, made smiling eye contact with a man wearing glasses at the bar.
A girl next to me was celebrating some kind of graduation. I had seen her earlier, when I was biking down Central. She was beautiful, young, in her early twenties presumably, hispanic with dyed jet black hair and perfectly lined goth black lipstick. She wore a white lace dress that could have been an alternative wedding dress, it showed her litany of tattoos up and down her arms. She sat next to a man, presumably her boyfriend, a lanky brown haired, white guy with acne scars. I marveled at the diverse group of people that showed up to wish her congratulations. Young and old and white and native and hispanic and black, her friends and family seemed a loving mix. I sat watching the familial sweetness, a little homesick, when a short man with an angular beard and a ponytail of dreadlocks piled at the top of his head the rest of his skull shaved like a harikrishna, sat down next to me.
“Are you celebrating too?” He asked me.
“No, I’m not with that group. I’m just having a drink on my own. Thanks.”
He looked at me with enormous black pupil eyes, he must have been on drugs I reasoned, opiates or molly, something to make his eyes the size of dishpans.
“Tonight’s my first night here in Albuquerque,” he said, “I just got back from Hawaii.”
“Oh.” I said, trying not to be rude in the way women are taught to be, but wishing he would read my body language and leave. I had my whole body turned away from him. I pulled out my phone and glanced at it, anything to show my obvious disinterest.
“Oh yea, see they kicked me out of the union, I had a great job working for the movies. That shit is the best fucking money I have ever made. Movies man. But I went to Hawaii to take a break and I didn’t pay the fuckin’ union while I was out there. So now I get back and I’m ready to go back to work. I offered to pay my back dues, but they wanted no part of it. They want to punish me for leaving.”
“Sounds like you didn’t pay your dues.” I said curtly.
“I know I fucked up, but they are making me pay for it. Boy are they. You live in Albuquerque?”
“No, I’m just passing through, heading to LA.”
“You need to check out the hot springs on your way. Oh man, the springs!” His eyes went even bigger and it was clear he was remembering something vivid, that and he was definitely on drugs.
“These springs are so beautiful man, you just hike out there, take off your clothes and hop in. You’d need to be naked of course. That’s just what you do. Take off your clothes and hop in.”
The way he kept saying “take off your clothes” and looking at me made me want to jump out of my skin and slither away.
“Look I’m really just trying to enjoy a drink on my own so…”
“Oh yea, the springs are great, you’ll see when you go.”
He rambled on and on, having a one sided conversation with himself about his daughter, his plans to travel to New Zealand, as soon as he paid off his outstanding debts and could leave the country of course. He was creepy and earnest and clearly having a drug induced transcendental experience.
Just tell him to “Fuck off.” I told myself. You know Erin or Court would do it. Just tell him to get out of your space. “Go Away.” Tell Him.
But I didn’t. I tried my futile, “I’m really just enjoying a drink by myself tonight,” and he stuck around. If anything I think he misread it as an “I’m not with anyone” come on. Eventually, I excused myself to the bathroom taking my bag with me as I went and decided to make my exit. Leaving a half full drink on the table, I ducked out of the front door, unlocked my bike, and rolled it away from the window, so he would not see me outside as I bolted.
Biking back to the hostel, I felt the uncomfortable and familiar feeling of eyes on me. A low rider pulled up next to me at a red light, the window rolled down. “HEY!” a man screamed at me out of the car, not a ‘hey baby’ or even a complementary ‘hey good lookin’ just a wild loud manic “HEY!” as if his presence should be enough for me to come to him, like a household pet. I turned left as the light changed and the car followed behind me for a block. Slowly and menacing just a reminder not to get too comfortable. A woman on a bike should not get too comfortable.
A homeless man with a big coat hissed at me as I rode by, not a “boo hiss,” more like the flickering sound you use to call a cat. “Thhh thhhh hhhhh.” I pedaled faster.
I debated picking up some dinner, but the thought of dealing with one more hiss or leer as I rode by was more than I could handle and I booked it back to the hostel.
I lugged my bike back up the porch and up the stairs to my room. I ate a bowlful of room temperature rice, made the night before, curled up in the crooked bed and went to sleep.
The next morning I went to a hot yoga class down the street. I biked despite being completely unprepared for the freezing weather and thin altitude. About half way up a hill I thought my chest would explode and I cursed myself for being too stubborn to take my car. The class was a gentle flow, geared towards senior citizens, mostly light stretching, it felt nice but was not my usual active practice. I biked back to the hostel after the class, my hands and face on fire from the windy freezing air. A gust nearly knocked me off my bike several times and I, again, cursed myself for biking.
I got back to the hostel and hopped in a hot shower. I watched a tiny silverfish slither out of the shower head and onto the wall. I considered drowning it, but decided I was actually on his territory and thought better of it. I changed quickly, made lunch in the dirty shared hostel kitchen, and was on my way.
If I were to ever visit Albuquerque again, I would make sure to have a better plan. I usually do well traveling in an unknown city, letting myself get swept up into something or someone, but it was too hard there. Everything had a rough gritty quality that made me feel vaguely threatened. I am sure given the right recommendations or timing or whatever I could have enjoyed this fair city. But given my experience, if I were ever driving that way again, and I had the option of staying in Albuquerque, I would drive the hour to Santa Fe in a heartbeat.
EATS: Central Ave