“Touch the ground of New Mexico and you’ll never be the same.”
Hot Roasted Chilies
Santa Fe, New Mexico sits at 7199 feet above sea level on the foothills of the Sangre Mountains. It intersects the end of the Rocky Mountains and Northern Rio Grande Valley, which places it as the highest capital city in the United States. The De Vargas Street House and the San Miguel Mission house and church are among the oldest in America. Santa Fe is also the oldest city capital founded in 1610 and the oldest city in New Mexico and the United States. It enjoys a semi-arid climate with an average of 32” of snowfall annually. According to the last U.S. Census, Santa Fe is mostly Hispanic (51.1%), Caucasian (43.5%), and Native American (4%). Santa Fe is renowned for its arts and culture that reflect its Spanish traditions and that of the Native Pueblos. In recent years Santa Fe has become an offshoot of the contemporary art world. Santa Fe is one of three American cities listed with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Also, according to a 140-page report by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) titled Artist in The Workforce: 1990-2005, “no other city has such a high percentage of writers, artists and architects”.
Although this sounds very appealing in tourist magazines, this isn’t the Santa Fe that I have come to know. In my part of this tourist town of Santa Fe, what are more familiar are drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, Johns, addicts, the homeless and the broken; in other words the marginalized. In this part of town the waiters won’t be asking what kind of chili you would like on your cured ham sandwich because the food pantry doesn’t have fresh chilies. There is only expired food from Trader Joe’s, Albertson’s and Whole Foods Market that is so spoiled it would make a Billy-goat gag.
“It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.”
Anywhere in America
There was a knock on my door, I answered. As it creaked open, in front of me stood a neighbor in his boxer shorts with a pair of blue jeans in his hand. “Hi do you want to buy a pair of jeans?” inquiring in a voice as if he were asking to borrow a cup of sugar. I told him that I didn’t but that he may want to ask the people down the hall. Feeling like a prankster I thought others would see the humor in this. Shutting the door I realized how advantaged I was to enjoy the daily spectacle of living with my relegated neighbors. There is a silver lining in everything and although I still mourn aspects of my previously privileged status, I wouldn’t have access to this fringed American if I hadn’t fallen so far. I think if I could, I would package this daily spectacle with the likeness of the theater of the absurd. For the poor bastards living in homogenized gated communities, private cul de sacs and vulgar mansions in the sky, fringed authenticity is unconceivable. Life on the fringes is a rare luxury for the mainstream privileged.
Minutes later I heard another knock. Expecting to see the half dressed man again, I was delighted to see Gazpacho and Jurgen. Both Gazpacho and Jurgen are typically reclusive and were paying me an unusual social visit. They were interested in what I was doing and if I had no plans would I like to grab a bite at Denny’s Diner?
Gazpacho earned his name due to his Black Irish ancestry which gifted him with dark features and a high cheekbones that gives him the swagger of the archetypal Latin lover and because he speaks Spanish better than most native New Mexicans. Although much older, Gazpacho wears the youthful aesthetic of a “post-punk” or “Emocore”. He is of slight built and wears handed down clothes from a teenage fetish boutique. Tonight he showed up wearing black skinny jeans, stage shoes and purple velvet jacket over a T-shirt that read, “Who is John Gault?” the individualist character in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It seemed to me that the t-shirt displayed notable irony because Gazpacho shows quite a bit of empathy towards others. Gazpacho is agoraphobic, but as I’ve gotten to know him he has begun to come out of his shell. What is more problematic for Gazpacho is a condition that causes him to have ongoing hallucinations.
A native of New Mexico, Gazpacho comes from a less than modest means, claiming he grew up receiving public assistance. His jet-black hair swerved down his face and he stood with slumped posture, as he motioned to Jurgen who was saying; “we were wondering if you want to hang out at Denny’s for a while? Don’t worry if you’re not moneyed-up we got you covered.” Denny’s is the only twenty-four hour diner in my side of Santa Fe. Contrary to the local gastronomic reputation of Santa Fe, the food at Denny’s is absolutely horrid. Yet one doesn’t go to this national chain for food but for amusing late night entertainment and to be with friends.
Jurgen, on the other hand, could be described as a tall, white forty something male from the Florida Panhandle who wears the pejorative, “wife beater” t-shirt and heavily worn leather pants. Most of the time he is equipped with multiple tools and accessories on his waist that give the appearance that he’s on his way to Burning Man or preparing for the Great Apocalypse. In spite of Jurgen sometimes being out of sorts, he’s quite charming and well liked among his cohort. He previously wrote computer code for a large security and surveillance firm; now he uses his talents to work on computers for free or at little cost for the indigent in the community.
He sat on the sofa and appeared to be more anxious than usual. One side of his face was drooping as he explained that gang stalkers were attacking him. He said for the pass few nights he had been microwaved and convinced that a person or persons were stalking him near by. He asked if I would join them because he would be fleeing town within the next two days and tonight he would like to have witnesses if anything happened to him. His behavior was very bizarre and paranoid. He unplugged all of my electronic devices and placed a piece of duck tape over the camera on my laptop.
Jurgen is a victim of gang-stalking. As a result, he suffers from episodic paranoia and severe PTSD. Until meeting Jurgen, I didn’t know anything about gang-stalking and I refuse to know much about it now because the whole idea of it hurts my head. When I first met Jurgen I dismissed him as someone who suffers from delusions. However, I began to read up on gang-stalking and he appeared to be suffering from the classic symptoms of someone that is a targeted individual. Mostly what I read suggested that gang stalking involves electronic harassment, mind control and psychological deception and is disguised to make the victim seem like they have gone mad. Jurgen stated that he has been a targeted individual for over two years and recently the harassment has become unbearable. He isn’t clear as to who is doing the gang-stalking, but he hypothesizes that it is a network of underground hackers that worked as U.S. intelligence contractors that he had become loosely involved with when he was doing high-end security work.
To most, Jurgen’s story must seem sensational but I have met people that have made similar claims. It was about ten years ago, In Washington D.C. I was at an anti-war demonstration with members of Veterans for Peace, when George Bush’s motorcade drove by. While secret service agents hung out dark SUVs pointing automatic weapons, I noticed a disheveled man wearing dessert camouflage with a Special Forces tab on his left sleeve saluting the President with his middle finger. His sign read, “End Human Mind Control Experiments”. Interesting I thought but admittedly I didn’t think the guy was completely there. Yet I wanted to hear what he had to say. He seemed anxious for anyone to listen to him.
He claimed the U.S. Government was experimenting with energy weapons to control people’s minds and these experiments were taking place in VA hospitals. He also said he had a computer chip that was invasively installed in his brain. This obviously sounded suspect, but his story continued. He explained that he went into the VA for a routine procedure and when he woke up he had a severe headache and a bandage around his head. They told him that he had fallen while he was sedated. This sounded absurd until I looked at the x-ray he showed me. What I saw definitely looked like a microchip was planted in his brain. I had no way of authenticating the image, but it reinforced my belief that in the dark shadows of the federal government anything is possible.
Back at my apartment on the other side of Santa Fe, I put my shoes on; and the three of us exited down the less traveled stairwell. It was midnight when we were greeted with a smoky mist in the air. We walked across a dark budget hotel parking lot before reaching Cerrillos Road or what we aptly named the Walk of Shame.
As a few motorists pass by one can often feel invisible, but when there is a glance of recognition of a human figure, it is usually accompanied by an expression of contempt as they drive off to their middle-class neighborhoods. They won’t be stopping to shop here because the only thing open at this hour is the commodity of vice, a market of the cultural underground, a market for the marginalized. At this time of night only the lower reaches of the underground food chain are walking the street, “chasing a hit”; which isn’t uncommon in any American city. Most often what one sees are people in a state of suffering. When strolling Cerrillos at night, one can feel a spike of adrenaline; the vice is so dense it weighs heavily on your skin.
Here one gets the overwhelming sense of desperation of Santa Fe’s most vulnerable, as is demonstrated by the foolhardy attempts to earn a dime. People with hopelessness in their eyes desiring momentary escape from their reality.
Practices and Power of Panhandlers, Prostitutes, Pimps and Police
Shortly after reaching the boulevard, I was aroused by the scent of intoxicating perfume. Approaching us was a traditionally attractive young woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was wearing day-glow hot pants and a low cut blouse that revealed her cleavage. In a soft Southern voice she said, “Please can you help me? My fiancé got mad and left me stranded here and I’m trying to get back home to Texas”. I asked why the boyfriend left. She explained that he got angry with her because she was talking with another guy that invited her to “get high” in a hotel room. When her fiancé heard of this he had called her a whore and disappeared with their camper van. “I’ve been here for three days with nowhere to go; could you help me with some spare change”. Her face was angelic yet her eyes sad and hopeless. You couldn’t avoid but wanting to help her, but tonight I kept my wallet in my pocket.
She didn’t recognize me, but I had met her a couple of weeks ago panhandling in a supermarket parking lot when I gave her a few dollars. Her demand was the same – a few dollars – except she said that she had to see her mother in an Albuquerque hospital. Although I don’t have a problem giving people money for some instant relief from a cruel world, on this night my pockets were slim. I only had a two-dollar bill that I had been holding on to and I wasn’t willing to give it up. Finally she begged Jurgen: “Please, I’ll blow you for ten dollars.” He reached down to his pocket and gave her a five-dollar bill. She thanked him and quickly ran off.
We continued to walk and came to an intersection. A panhandler sitting in the median strip apparently didn’t know what time it was as he appeared to be going into a junkie nod. His sign read, “Don’t worry I’m not going to wash your windows”.
As we reached a dark car lot, I began to feel adrenaline rush through my body and my hair was standing up on my neck. The wind kicked up and we could smell the raw odor of urine. Out of the darkness emerged a large moving figure that had been urinating behind a pick-up truck. He saw us and quickly jumped into the truck. I don’t think that we are an intimidating crew but given the circumstances and the hour one can understand why he was attempting to maintain some distance.
In the adjacent parking lot and in front of a traditional New Mexico restaurant, we observed a peculiar couple walking arm and arm toward a large passenger van. The man looked undistinguished, short and appeared to be in his mid-fifties. He was partially bald, had a stout figure and his stomach hung over his belt. He was helping a woman who appeared out of place in this part of town, step into the van. A buxom blonde over a foot taller than the man, she was wearing a pair of designer high heals and a white tailored dress and a shawl wrapped around her shoulder. She reminded me of the iconic Marilyn Monroe photo, “Marilyn in White” by Hollywood glam photographer Bruno Bernard. The man looked at us very nervously as he jumped into his van; he then quickly accelerated from the parking lot screeching his tires along the way.
In the distance we could see a police car with its flashers on. When we walked up on the police car, in front was a late model Japanese sedan with four college kids sitting on the curb. While they were sitting, two police officers were searching in the car with latex gloves and flashlights. None of the students appeared to be drunk or high, but they all had fear in their eyes. I asked Gazpacho if he thought I should video record the scene. He said “absolutely not” as he increased his pace. Jurgen and I almost had to run to keep up with him, I asked why recording would be a bad idea? He said, “Don’t you know that cops kill people for recording their actions?”
After walking about a half mile we came to a parking lot where there was a buzz of activity. After seeing several junkies, drug deals and “working girls” it was apparent that this was an open-air market that challenges public decency and criminal laws. The energy in the adjoining Allsups parking lot was much alive; it was as if we were watching a well-rehearsed dance. I counted twenty people trying to make their “connect”
Then three police cars pulled into the parking lot on the Allsups side. By the time police got out of the cars, the area had cleared except for a large statured panhandler who was unkempt, and had no shoes. The police had their weapons pulled and asked the panhandler for his name. The panhandler murmured something and then a thick police officer with a bulging neck, quickly grabbed the panhandler, slammed him up against the side of the building and placed him in handcuffs. Yet oddly a few minutes later they took the man out of the cuffs. On the other side of the car the police seemed to be having a conference among each other and not really paying attention to the panhandler, so covertly I asked the panhandler why they were detaining him. He only said, “some bullshit I didn’t do”.
Before I could be noticed, I covertly backed off from the scene. Gazpacho, then shaking his head, said to me, “You’re really trying to go to jail tonight.” And no sooner did those words come out of his mouth; the panhandler ran by with two undercover police officers chasing him on foot off in the distance.
Jurgen and Gazpacho were already in front of the diner assimilating with homeless people with overstuffed daypacks dressed in multiple layers as if they planned a long evening outside but had no place to go. I saw Gazpacho give one of them a cigarette, while Jurgen was having a conversation with another. Jurgen introduced me to a friend that he just met. His friend was named Arthur and he was smoking a joint. He asked me if I wanted a hit. I said, “No I’m allergic to weed”. He replied, “This isn’t weed. This is medical marijuana; it will take away the pain of boredom.” I thanked him but said, ” No thanks, tonight I think that it may cause me to break out in handcuffs.”
As we entered through the door of the diner, a young man with a sunburned face carrying a large satchel headed for the restrooms. He had a pungent aroma that followed him, with the markings that he was one of the 1500 homeless people on any given night in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
One would think from all the cars in the parking lot, the diner would be full, yet as we entered into the harsh florescent light it was freakishly empty. The one waitress, told us to grab any seat, so we parked in a circular booth in the corner. This was perfect because none of us wanted to have our backs exposed to the front door. It was a good perspective and range to see in the kitchen and hear conversations at the front counter. It was also a good vantage point to watch the shared parking lot at the Allsup’s next store.
A thirty-something Native American waitress came to our booth with menus and water. She took our drink order when I couldn’t help but to noticed she was wearing arm warmers under her Danny’s uniform. Curiously I asked, “What’s the purpose of your extended sleeves? It looks like that you would be uncomfortably warm wearing that inside”. She confessed that she was a little uncomfortable, but she was instructed that it is corporate policy that all front floor staff must hide their tattoos. The waitress said that she was “in the weeds” – a term used in the restaurant business to let colleagues know they are feeling overwhelmed. She took our menus and headed toward the kitchen. Shortly, after we placed our orders, the man with the sunburned face came out of the restroom – clean shaven, wet hair, wearing fresher clothes and a trail of cologne followed him out the front door.
At the counter was an old cowboy who was oblivious to his surroundings and an androgynous looking woman with her arm wrapped around a waitress who I heard say that she was finishing her shift. Sitting on the edge of the counter was another woman with high-healed boots, mini-skirt and open mid-drift top. Her hair was dark and she was more than six feet tall. She also had unusually large hands, strong facial features and what appeared to be an Adam’s apple. She was sitting next to a young Latino wearing a thick gold chain, tank top, basketball shorts and white Michael Jordan’s. He was also covered with gang tattoos. It seemed obvious that he was paying for her meal because the tall women had her hand on his leg under the counter. They were in intimate space, so I figured either he was her pimp or date.
The cowboy next to them didn’t seem to notice what was going on, only eating his chicken fried steak and drinking Denny’s wretched coffee. With his tall cowboy hat and a rodeo buckle he was staring off in a place a thousand years away. Attempting to draw him in on a conversation I said, “Sir, would you recommend the chicken fried steak?” Seeming pleased that I was addressing him he responded, ”Very good I get it almost every night; so yes I would.”
We had a cordial conversation, before I asked a more difficult question. I said, “Every time that I come here I see you here, why is that”? He opened up easily, saying that about a year ago the banks foreclosed on his property and he lost everything he had built over the past twenty years. He said it was really difficult for him because a year before losing his property, his wife had died suddenly from a heart attack. He added that although things are difficult, his faith gets him through each day. “So the real reason I come here is so I can spread the Lord’s word. There are a lot of people out here tonight that are lost and do not know God’s promise so I share it with people that I meet. By the way have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” I told him that I would talk to him about that some other time and moved back to the booth where Jurgen and Gazpacho were still waiting for their food, which was nearly an hour after placing our order.
In the booth next to us was a nondescript white male wearing a baseball cap, a Denver Bronco’s t-shirt and cropped mustache. He wasn’t paying much attention to our table, but he did seemed to be very interested in the people in the parking lot and those in front of the Allsup’s. As I began to observe him watching the parking lot dance, I had the strong feeling he was an undercover cop. Since the police drove off, the parking lot was full again. This was a cat and mouse game that we watched several times before the night’s end.
The mustached man pulled out his phone and made a call from the booth. Simultaneously several unmarked cars raced into the parking lot and grabbed another young man that had the appearance of a “Cholo” (Latino gang member). A small woman was in one of the cars and seemed to be identifying the man from inside the car.
We also were assigned a new waiter, which made Jurgen more paranoid than he was. Something was odd about this waiter. He was wearing an illuminate T-shirt and an undistinguishable badge around his neck. Mustache Man nodded to the new waiter as he walked out the door without paying for his bill. I could see sweat rolling down the waiter’s baldhead as if something were making him nervous. This also aroused Jurgen’s anxiety because the waiter appeared out of nowhere. Two orders came out, Gazpacho’s, and mine but Jurgen was so freaked out that someone was trying to poison him that I gave him my plate and took his, which came out a minute later.
At this moment there was no enjoyment in our meals. Jurgen was convinced that there was some coordinated plan to poison him. He was really triggered and ready to flee. We threw our money on the table and briskly walked back to the apartment building without hesitation. The parking lot was covered with police, so the dance moved to the Super-9 Hotel across the street. A successful evening for an addict would be to panhandle enough on the street to score a good hit, find a cigarette and maybe squat in a room at this cheap hotel.
Lagging behind my two comrades and enjoying a night of voyeurism, I jumped when someone crept up behind me said, “Yo, you have a dollar?” Quickly pivoting to face him, I assured him that I didn’t, but he didn’t seem to be convinced. He continued to insist and follow me with desperation in his voice. I could feel him sizing me up, wondering if I was someone he wanted to take a chance with. My heart began to race as I was preparing for him to come my way when I shouted, “Back the fuck off!” Startled by my alarming cry he quickly retreated across Cerrillos Rd.
Gazpacho and Jurgen turned in for the night almost immediately. I saw Gazpacho the next morning. He said that Jurgen had severe abdominal pains and had to go to the emergency room last night. After several examinations and tests they determined that Jurgen had food poisoning but also an interesting anomaly. According to the tending physician, the lining of Jurgen’s stomach had been removed and was a symptomatic condition of a cancer patient who had been through intensive radiation treatment.
In a world that seems remote, rejecting and futile, those that find themselves on Cerrillios Road at the bewitching hour are searching for an escape from their restrained lives. The commodities on Cerrillos Road are vice and the residual byproducts of American culture; although there is an illusion that value resides in vice, rather than social relationships. Some of the common themes of this marginalized population of the night are a descent of prevailing middle-class values, yearning for life from the ruptured spirit, and the ever-present battles against modernity and popular conformity. However these hopes have faded for most because for them they are caught in the grip of alienation and addiction.
From what I observed on the Walk of Shame, there is an immense awareness of life’s inherent anxiety. There’s a firm American belief that their salvation is in their own hands. However, with this vast penetrating alienation the actors believe that they are living in a world that they don’t fully belong.
As Jurgen put it, “we have grown up on pancreas and lies. Even our minds and hearts are strangers. For most of us we are lucky if we find out who we are.”
© Dennis Dodson, 2015
This is an ethnographic sketch or what anthropologists refer to as “field notes”, on one night in a northern New Mexico town. This inquiry gazed at the marginalized, the relationship between cultural practices, power and broader social processes, the role of addicts, panhandlers, dealers, prostitutes, solicitors, cowboys and the interplay in between; embedded in a theories of commodity fetish and alienation.
In the broadest sense, ethnography involves an analytic description of behaviors that characterize cultures and particular social-cultural groups. Although ethnography is a method of descriptive analysis of beliefs that generate behaviors of various groups, the nexus of this is to know who the actors are, what are the reasons of their beliefs and how do they feel about their relationship in the larger reality.
To be a participant observer is to understand this life by participating in it, but in the case of one night in the field, the best one can do is to gain an empathetic understanding through passive participation. In a scientific study one would hope to spend months, maybe years in the field and obtaining multiple interviews, recording events and finding reliable informants, but as a one-night observer, thick description is slightly out of reach.
All photographs provided by Dennis Dodson, except 3 images of Santa Fe including the Sangre Mountains, San Miguel Chapel and montage of Santa Fe’s Downtown Area from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Fe,_New_Mexico