valentine hell’s angel
The streets of Santa Fe curve across the landscape, one tracing the Old Taos Trail, another the Old Pecos Trail. Histories intersect at every stoplight, ancient, modern, two days ago when I came through this same intersection searching for a laundromat. Today, I’m looking for the main library near the plaza. I turn into the parking lot “For Library Patrons ONLY” and pull into space 12, realizing as I do so that numbered spaces are generally spaces you pay for. Grabbing my daypack, my laptop, and pocketing my leftover laundry quarters, I walk across the lot to the kiosk near the front door, punch in my license plate number on the keypad, and feed in two dollars to max out my parking time at four hours. So cheap, I think, walking toward the automatic front door, ready to work on writing projects for the afternoon.
The door doesn’t budge.
I walk along the wall of windows to my left, looking for another door. A mother with a toddler approaches the building, standing before the automatic door. Nothing.
“Is this the only door?” I ask.
“It’s the door I always use,” she replies.
“Hmm, well, it doesn’t seem to see me,” I joke over my shoulder, standing under the sensor and waving up at it. Nothing. Then, still looking up, I glance to my right. High above my head, my eyes find a white sign taped to the glass wall: HOURS.
“They’re…not open…on Monday?” I read aloud, perplexed.
The woman takes her toddler’s hand and they slowly walk away to find a nearby park instead, the baby wobbling on unsteady feet.
I walk back to my car and set my laptop on the trunk. I need wi-fi, and had thought to save the cost of a latte by working in the library instead of a coffee shop. Now I’m out two bucks, unless…sure enough, the library wi-fi is available in the parking lot — the hot, sunny parking lot. Nevertheless, curious, I pick up my bags and, carrying my laptop open before me as a wi-fi detector, I carefully maneuver toward the building, along that wall of windows, and slowly around the corner of the building, watching the computer screen, glancing now and then at the uneven sidewalk. Still signal. Finding the library courtyard, I look to my right for a bench but see only a faded, dirty backpack leaned against the wall, tucked as inconspicuously as possible near an alcove. Homeless, I think to myself. Charging their phone at an outside outlet.
I remember back to the days when I used to meet with clients in my office, people carrying everything they owned in a backpack, or a tall wire carryall basket on wheels, or a shopping cart.
Or their car.
That’s what I’m doing now, living out of my car. Travel writing sounds glamorous, but in reality, it’s sometimes pretty cramped living. As a general rule, I really do like vagabonding, exploring new places and heading off again toward a new horizon. But the money’s no good, at least not for someone like me, an unknown name freelancing for $500 a story. Sometimes that’s my monthly income. I’m a happy nobody, living free and slowly going broke.
When I worked as a case manager, and then as a program coordinator, and then as a manager, I had a pat line I used when describing my background. If clients asked about my supposedly high level of education, I’d laugh and reassure them, “Nah, no Master’s degree. I went to community college. I’m just a poet with a sweet day job, getting to talk to awesome people like you.”
Now I look at that drab backpack leaned against the wall. My own backpack is stashed in my trunk, wrapped in a black trash bag to protect it from what I fear might be an infestation in my car — of bedbugs.
I’ve never had to deal with bedbugs before, not for myself. They’re a free gift I’ve picked up on my travels, but not the way you might think. I applied for a seasonal job proofreading legislative documents at the State Capitol in Santa Fe. I drove into town and checked in at a mid-priced motel, to be fresh for the on-site proofreading test the next morning. As I sat on the bed watching a movie, I felt a sharp insect bite at my elbow. I looked down. The pillows were swarming with bedbugs. I grabbed my bags and fled.
I can read the handwriting on the wall, scrawled like some kind of Zen graffiti: the word “impermanence.” This situation cannot last without an infusion of cash. While I have a couple of editors who work with me, one monthly, one annually, I’ve also had plenty of pitches and submissions declined. I’ve been doing this for a year, this roaming, and now it’s autumn again, and the nights are feeling cold, in my tent or in my car. Only now my car has bedbugs. And there is no money left to pay for motels to sleep inside.
Santa Fe has been calling to me, even as it stings and bites me. The class differences of this city are glaring — rich white art patrons wearing squash blossom necklaces of heavy turquoise and silver while attending the symphony on the hill, and ragged people just trying to get by. It’s like everywhere, I guess, full of haves and have nots. For some reason, the indirect roads meandering through town, causing navigational havoc for me, seem to imply that I want things too neat and tidy, too ordered. As a self-styled free wanderer, I find that irritating.
Like bedbugs. I rewashed all my clothes and bags and blankets at the laundromat on hot, and overdried everything, until the snaps on my pants burned my fingers and I dropped them back into the rolling basket, swearing. I just want to live my life; but it’s hard to get away clean, apparently.
The homeless guy found the only outlet. My phone and laptop are both going to go dead, I think wryly. Turning from the courtyard, I see a bench in the shade of trees and claim one end as today’s workspace for as long as my electronics decided to last.
As I’m typing up my story, literally on my lap, a short, stocky woman with long gray hair plops down exhaustedly on the facing bench, parking her luggage cart between her legs. She’s wearing a pink T-shirt over her gray hoodie, dark sweatpants, and black prison shoes. She sighs audibly.
“Ah, mija, I’m so tired,” she complains, and I look up to see that she is addressing me.
I nod agreeably. My typing slows.
“Do you know what time it is? Is it three?” she asks.
I look at my watch. “Ten ’til,” I nod again.
“See? I’m Native, I”m Apache, we know the sun, it’s in our blood,” she nods back.
I smile agreeably.
“It’s wrong I’m out here like this. They kick me out, because I’m Indian, can’t even go to the shelter no more, but I wouldn’t go there no matter what, it’s so bad,” she tells me, emphasizing her point by jutting out her chin. She tears up unexpectedly. “I had a man, but he was no good, he left me here by myself. Now I can’t go nowhere or they’ll take my Disability.”
“It’s hard, to transfer your disability check, that’s true,” I reply.
“I can’t go nowhere, mija — if I even leave town, they’ll take it. But where I’m gonna go anyway? There’s nowhere.”
The tears are real. I’m done typing.
She continues. “I got depression, my mother didn’t want me, she gave me a brain tumor, my man left and didn’t take care of me.” She sniffs and wipes her eyes with the sides of her hands. “I been homeless since I was six years old, you know? I had an apartment but people, they knew, the druggies, they found me, where I lived. They started using on the steps outside my apartment and wouldn’t leave, so the manager didn’t renew my lease.”
I shook my head. “People don’t understand, sometimes, how hard it is to get off the streets.”
“You from around here?”
“Where do you live?”
An excellent question. “I, uh, was living in Albuquerque. But I’ve been traveling around. Hoping to get a job here now.”
“Oh Albuquerque — that place is too bad. Dangerous. Me and my cousin, we went there once. We were both pregnant with our first, but it was too scary, so we left. I never been back.”
“Where’s your cousin now?” I ask.
“I don’t know. After we left, I never seen her again. We went our separate ways.”
She rummaged through her belongings, ignoring a very large bottle of mouthwash that I suspected she might drink later, looking for anything to use as a tissue to wipe her eyes. I had nothing to offer her.
“No bad feelings or nothing, just … we went our own ways.” She repeated her story, how she has no family but her son who is a Marine in Special Ops, how her mother didn’t want her, gave her a brain tumor. “I was raised by Hell’s Angels, that’s why I’m this way.” She nods knowingly at this explanation. It’s actually a fairly familiar story for me, all except the brain tumor. Someone is always in Special Ops.
I’ve sometimes felt like I was raised by a Hell’s Angel. Or maybe I’ve wished for it, to make my early life make more sense. To make my runaway tendencies seem somehow more legitimate and less like I ran out of patience with my life going nowhere and its ongoing, pernicious sufferings, like waking with bites and sores from when you were asleep, at your most vulnerable.
Now I nod and lean toward her. “That’s why you’re so strong,” I say. “I see your strength. You’re a survivor.”
She smiles at me. “You have a good heart, I can tell. I’m an Aquarius and we can tell about people, who’s good and who’s not. We know.”
I raise an eyebrow. “I’m an Aquarius, too!”
Her face blossoms into a grin. “I’m February, on Valentine’s Day!”
“My birthday is in January.” I smile back at her. “Aquarius. Maybe I’m right about you then, huh?”
“Oh, I’m tough, that’s for sure,” she says, patting her belongings back into the cart.
I’m packing away my laptop, hoisting my daypack to my shoulder as I stand. “I don’t have much money….” I say apologetically.
“No mija, I have my Disability, it was just good to talk. I feel the love from you. I feel your good heart, and the love, and I love you, sweetie.” Her eyes snap as a thought suddenly clears away her tears. “What’s your name?”
She smiles warmly. “I’m Tereza.” She stands and throws her trash into the can between us. “You be safe, Bo. You take care.” She nods. “Love you, Bo.”
I shake my head slightly, wondering at her gracious generosity of affection. “I love you too, Tereza. You have a good heart, too.” I shift my daypack. “Maybe I’ll get this job and be able to see you around, say hi. Maybe we’ll be friends, eh?”
“I hope so, mija.” She let me shake her hand. “Oh! Your hands are so cold! You need to get warm,” she advised. Then she let me go. “Bless you sweetie. Take care.”
I walked slowly, back to my parked car. No one gets away clean in this life. Santa Fe might as well be home, I think. No matter where I go, these trail angels are all I see.