After catching a night train out of Los Angeles to Chicago, I woke up in New Mexico. We rumbled over a river; large, swollen, and muddy. After a golf course we crossed a freeway into the outskirts of Albuquerque. Approaching through a desert mountain river valley replenished by last night’s rain, one could see a few scattered horse farms sprinkled through the countryside. The railroad tracks were lined with trees; oak trees, maple, and birch.
We passed the skeletal frame of some construction yard or industrial site, and a concrete viaduct for rainwater and storm surges slicing through the earth. Piles of neatly stacked bricks, construction materials, assorted scrap metal, and wood chips sat in a large dirt and gravel lot. Another lot stored treated lumber covered in bleached burlap. One could see silos; containers of gravel, dirt, and mined rock; massive pile of wooden pallets; darkened splintered wood slats quickly nailed together in a crosscut pattern so cargo could be raised and moved by forklift. Piles of square logs, railroad ties jumbled together, rose two or three stories haphazardly. Besides concrete cinder block warehouses with sheet metal roofs, a few twisted trees grew. Stacks of construction materials, glass windows and frames, had been left in the open air. A few scraggly greenish grey bushes grew next to red tile stacked in neat square piles.
Next to DPC industries, a water treatment chemical firm that sells Chlorine, Sodium Hydroxide, Sulfur Dioxide, and other chemicals across the country, stored in large vats and massive white cylinders, a painted triangle indicating hazardous liquids and gas. As we approached town, I saw a parking lot with old cars, half torn apart, smashed, and dented—row after row of contorted vehicles and parts shining silver in the sun, waiting to be crushed, melted, and re-forged into another shape—some beam or machine. The scrap metal yard extended for what seemed like miles.
One could see residents’ homes in this part of town; small one story stucco frames with three or four rooms, a window ac hanging out of one corner, a patch of dirt for a yard, some with pools or two car garages filled piled with random clutter. I peeked into a garage that doubled as a small machine shop, stocked with hand tools, drills, and metal scraps.
As we pulled in closer to Albuquerque, we passed some old factories with small green square tile windows, empty, abandoned, with peeling lead based paint. We passed a farmer’s market, local produce, tomatoes, watermelons, native American Navajo vendors selling artisan crafts and jewelry. The Amtrak finally stopped at the downtown Albuquerque station.
Marcus is a security guard at the train station.
An African-American man, in his early or mid-30’s, he’s from upstate New York, and moved here in 2016. The air is nice and clean, it’s different than New York, way more open. The cost of living is better too. His wife works at a nearby 7-11 as a cashier. The railroads hire cops and security officers to keep the homeless away, loiterers, and vagabonds.
“There is a lot of homelessness and joblessness in Albuquerque. Part of our job is to move homeless panhandlers off the streets and away from the rail yards. Housing is expensive, but it is nothing like New York—you can get a three bedroom for $900 a month. A lot of these people are shooting up; there are needles in public parks. I heard a story recently of how a kid slid into home base at a baseball game and was stuck by a used needle.”
“People say there aren’t enough alcohol and substance use services, I’ve done some research—there are some, but some people don’t want to change. You have to want to get better. There are not enough shelters—or housing. No jobs, people lost their mortgage, jobs, homes in the great recession, and never got back to work. They panhandle, use drugs; they have no hope—and so why not? Just get high. There are not many homeless families out here like you have in LA. It’s mostly single people, and couples. It’s not as bad as Los Angeles, where thousands sleep every night in skid row.”
“When the cops clear the camps out there, they will just pop up somewhere else.” I responded.
“Yep, then It’s just someone else’s problem,” he replied. “But nothing changes.”
“Right,” I continued. “They have something we hear about it California called greyhound therapy. I heard it from some therapists and homeless outreach workers. Cities just ship their homeless problems to California, from Phoenix, and Las Vegas, giving people one-way greyhound tickets to downtown Los Angeles. Folks often get off at the first stop across the California border, or places like Hemet, San Bernardino, or Riverside. On Skid Row, the homeless have no sewage, clean water, trash pickup or sanitation. There are some lawsuits around homeless property rights. Think about the public health; that’s why you see third world diseases like cholera and typhus popping up.”
“Yeah,” Marcus replied. “A lot of my co-workers, they just rush [the homeless] when they are out there, to lock them up, force them to move along. I see folks, if they aren’t bothering anyone, I’ll approach them, reason with them, check up on them. If they aren’t bothering anyone, I don’t bother them. I mean it’s a real problem, you will stop at a stop sign, someone is there, panhandling you from your window. But it’s not there fault, they are just trying to live.”
You can’t police your way out of the problem. There is nowhere for them to go.
“It’s true,” I replied. “Cops are forced to do everything, to enforce all of society’s rules, both the ones on the books, and the ones unspoken. There are no social workers, and no jobs or housing for people. There’s got to be a way to get folks off the street and back to work. I mean you could just lock em all up, or kill them, but that’s not right.”
“Yeah, that’s for sure.” Marcus replied. “Something has to give. I see a lot of people sleeping in their cars too. Folks have an RV, a recreational vehicle, or a van, a pickup truck that they’ve converted, adding a covering to sleep in. Especially if you work the night shift, you can park in a Wal-Mart or supermarket parking lot during the day, no one will say anything, and save some money that way.”
Mr. Garcia is the Amtrak train operator, a conductor. He approached me as I was speaking with Marcus, who got a call on his intercom, he walked down the station to where a tall skinny elderly man was reported to be smoking a joint.
“They’ll be a delay for an hour or so,” Garcia mentioned. “They are working on the tracks– you know these rail cars are two generations old—our rail system, and our infrastructure is in such disrepair,” he mentioned.
It’s nice riding the rails. I looked up squinting in the morning sun, and took a deep breath. “You get to see the country, the state of manufacturing, you get a different view of the nation riding by train.“
“We could use some funding from the Federal government.” A lot of rails and rail yards–they first built the southwest rail line in the late 1800’s. “It could use a lot of work,” Conductor Garcia replied.
The first trans-national rail lines after the Mexican-American war when the United States annexed Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado from Mexico, and after the civil war when the Union Army defeated the Confederacy—rich southern landowners who rebelled against the United States and keep slave labor on their cotton plantations. The railroads were built by Jim Crow chain gangs of incarcerated former slaves and Chinese migrants, who were deported back after the Chinese Exclusion Act and a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria as rail construction petered out and the economy retrenched during the recession of 1882.
Conductor Garcia looked at the locomotives on the Blue Amtrak train sitting in the station. Besides himself, his crew consisted of conductors and engineers, as well as cooks, and passenger attendants.
“We need modernize our trains, and our transportation system. We are generations behind a lot of other countries when it comes to railroads. Building rail cars could put a lot of Americans to work—it’s not rocket science.”
Marcus came back to finish talking with me. He told me a bit more of his new life in the southwest. “It’s good to talk to someone, have a genuine conversation,” he smiled, swinging his arms in the mid-morning air. “These kids now a days, they don’t know how to talk to each other; they are just staring at their phones. When they look up they say LOL or OMG—text speak. They don’t know how to talk or interact with each other. In New York—both upstate, and in the city, people are different. They are nicer. They may be blunt, but that’s just the way they are; it’s all love. Here, if you say hi, they look down, like they are afraid to talk to you.”
It was time to board. The train left downtown Albuquerque, the Sandia mountain range rising upwards to the east. It was an hour to our next stop.
We passed downtown’s commercial strip, a few clustered blocks of taller buildings. The Hyatt Regency Hotel; some brown stucco buildings with southwestern, adobe-style architecture. A Wells Fargo sign had been affixed to one structure; the bank that the Securities and Exchange Commission caught stealing from its customers, I remembered. They opened multiple accounts in others names, and charging them fees and fines when customers didn’t know they even had bank accounts. Wells Fargo got a slap on the wrist, a small fine. Probably less than what they spent on advertising to repair their image. We passed a US Bank, its logo emblazoned on a tall building one block away. Next was a U.S. postal service distribution center, a rail and truck depot and distribution center. A communications tower with large white circular disks beaming high frequency microwaves and radio signals, audio, visual, and wireless data to satellites high above the earth’s orbit.
Next was another industrial area; Dan’s Windows and Doors; some old antique 1950’s trucks collecting rust in the corner of a freight yard; piles of steel and aluminum beams; stacks of palates; a bee bright yellow with black stripes spray painted on the side of a grey wall. Bee populations have been declining at alarming rates; many believe electromagnetic waves, pesticides, and other pollution sources are the cause of death of these pollinators. We passed a metal scaffolding storage facility, a break and clutch company, a building with tall white painted spheres—chemical storage areas.
We passed into a neighborhood with single family homes; two and three bedroom one and two story buildings with courtyards and the occasional yard. A baseball diamond sat at the edge of a utility companies storage site–a dirt yard full of coiled electrical wire and utility trucks to fix power lines, electrical equipment sat in the open air. A recycling facility; large bundles of compressed paper and cardboard stacked on top of each other, to be turned into pulp and recycled in some remote location. A few stagnant pools of water buttressed a fence separating the railroad from the other side, draining rainwater between assorted scrapyards and warehouses.
Next the train made its way through a neighborhood of prefabricated homes of doubled sided trailers stitched together, sitting in unnaturally bright green grass or amidst desert shrubs; a dirt yard adorned with small rock gardens, a few roofs adorned with solar panels. The homes gave way to pastures and horse stables, oak trees, cattle grazing on the hills up to the edge of the mountains in the distance their majestic cliffs rising over head. Bright towering billowing cumulus clouds puffed up scattered across the horizon, as the train rumbled on towards the east.