Feeling the Heat in Albuquerque

I had stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of Albuquerque. This one was small, had four pumps and a picnic bench under an overhang. I chose it over other flashy gas-food-shower-convenience store-Burger King-souvenir shop-mega rest stations along the way.

I was on the eastward journey, riding Route 40, also known as the historic Route 66, home. The road dubbed “Main Street America” was built in the 1920s and is one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System. But unlike the images that the nickname might evoke, there weren’t any picturesque, quaint, mom-and-pop-type shops on this stretch. Miles of concrete and asphalt were flanked by expanses of a rock-strewn landscape. Mountains visible at a distance were faint and not always easy to tell apart from clouds. Kitschy gift shops and roadside teepees served as stores full of “real” Navajo and Hopi wares like pottery and kachina dolls–at least, that’s what the billboards, littering the landscape for miles, said.

I went to inside to pay for gas, and that’s when I noticed a newspaper next to the cash register. The masthead said Navajo Times. My curiosity was piqued, so I purchased it. I sat, reading the Diné community newspaper from the cab of my truck. The heat from the sun wasn’t as strong that day—but the heat and injustice turned in my stomach as I read the cover story, a feature on an artist and Navajo man named Jack Ahasteen whose family was re-located in the 1970s, “forced to their land, livestock, economy and way of life in exchange for a house on a relocation lot.” I learned through reading the article that the reservation lands—lands designated to indigenous peoples—are held in trust by the United States government for those people.

My thoughts went back to Albuquerque. I had stayed there during my westward journey. The whole time, I was plagued by a sensation of unease, the rumblings of my current gut reaction.

One afternoon, I went to Old Town Albuquerque. named as such for being the area of the original settlement by non-indigenous people. There were signs set up under the shade of porches: Native American souvenirs and desert-themed art. As I walked around, looked around, I saw a handful of shoppers crouching under a porch roof. People with colorful sneakers and clean t-shirts and jeans. People craning their necks to look buildings up and down. People posing for Instagrammable moments that (from my point of view) looked like poses of heat: Forehead mid-wipe. Tongues sticking out next to water bottles. The digital Rite Aid sign (visible over the one-story buildings, jutting up from the store on the 2-lane street behind the edge of Old Town) read 102*F.

I turned to the nearest door (a shop full of jewelry and crafts) and entered.

Air conditioning made the store physically cool, and that was a momentary relief.

There were rows of shelves in glss containers; each shelf held different shades of stone (green and blue and brown). I was keen on getting a turquoise piece, especially since I love rocks and gemstones, and New Mexico had historically been a place turquoise was mined. I was moving slowly down an aisle full of cabinets full of shelves—more greens, blues, brown spots—when a sales person approached. He looked brown-skinned, but from his accent, I could tell he was New Mexican American. He had a cool, refreshing air about him, and he was friendly. He struck up a conversation (“Where are you from?” New York) and showed he was knowledgeable about New York City (where he had lived with a girl for a while, he recounted, adding “boy she was crazy”) and asked me which jewelry pieces I was interested in (“No jewelry, thanks”). I laughed, with him, and at the idea that New York City has a toughness that is channeled upon its mention. Albuquerque will be conjured with heat, I thought. I casually strolled past more cabinets, and he followed me. I asked questions about the turquoise.

“Where’s it from? Local?”

“No, there no active mines nearby,” he replied.

I told him that I had been looking forward to buying some New Mexican turquoise.

“No, the only mine that are open are in Nevada,” he said again. These sentences were hot and dry, punctuated, different from his ease with which he joked about New York. “They stopped mining here years ago. But remember when you buy jewelry, if its set in metal, it’s European style. Natives only work with leather.” Then his brown face changed completely. It dropped. “They have to work. They sell stuff to the tourists just to get by. They don’t have time to go and protest. Besides, you’d think that if the Europeans have been here for over 400 years, we’d have equality by now. So what hope?” The transformation in the salesperson’s tone was complete: he spoke in a hardened, solid voice with undertones of anger, resentment, and tiredness.  

The quiet that descended between him and I got heavy, so I left the conversation at that. I excused myself politely, and I left the store, back outside, standing under a porch overhang, watching the tourists again. I noticed a few of them looking at jewelry spread on blankets on the ground. Some folks from the nearby acoma were selling handcrafted pieces—I walked over to look at the jewelry. All pieces of silver set with bright blue turquoise. All of the people selling the jewelry were dressed in sun-faded, time-faded, style-faded clothing.

The idea of Main Street America running through the American Southwest, a complex place layered with cultures, creates so much heat in me.

Written and shared with love and respect.

March 2019

Places as characters are really my jam.

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