I had a week to explore Albuquerque and its environs before beginning my job at the lumber company. Denver fascinated me when, 18 and thrilled at being on my own for the first time in my life, I hit its streets. The bliss of first love at age 37 fueled a similar fascination with the streets and neighborhoods of Albuquerque.
Linda’s apartment was located several blocks from Central Avenue. Before the construction of Interstate 40, Central Avenue was the city’s main east-west artery. Today, it remains a bustling, 16-mile-long segment of the famous U.S. Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. Rendered obsolete by the gradual construction of America’s interstate highway system, Route 66 effectively ended in the late sixties, but its spirit lives on in Central Avenue, which is the longest surviving urban stretch of the highway; Albuquerque’s commercial and cultural interests make much of this fact.
As I suggested earlier, Route 66 wasn’t a complete surprise to me. In the early sixties, I often watched the television series Route 66, in which two handsome and seemingly carefree young men, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock, drive in a Chevrolet Corvette convertible all around America (and thus often far beyond the “Route 66” of the title) and have adventures generally of the dramatic nature. Bandleader Nelson Riddle’s theme song for the show, a jazzy instrumental that churns like a Corvette engine and soars like the Western sky, thrills me to this day.
Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” written by jazz pianist and actor Bobby Troup.
When one lives in southeast Albuquerque, as Linda and I did when I first arrived in the city, Central Avenue is hard to avoid. I was drawn to it by its fame as well as its convenience and various goods and services, just as I was attracted to Denver’s Colfax Avenue, a similarly long east-west thoroughfare, as a curious and adventurous 18-year-old. In February of 1988, Central Avenue consisted of four worn and bumpy lanes lined with often cracked and grimy sidewalks. Between San Mateo and Tramway boulevards, it was bordered by motels, some obviously decaying; chain fast-food and mom-and-pop restaurants; used-car lots; full- and self-serve car washes; appliance repair shops; an apartment complex set back from the avenue; bars; a supermarket; Indian jewelry stores; an “adult” store; the state fairgrounds; and a considerable number of boarded-up businesses. What few spindly trees and feeble shrubs there were along the avenue had yet to leaf out; what few patches of grasses existed were winter gray. By day, Central Avenue was a dull, monotonous sight; by night, it was an alternating river of darkness and lurid electric signage.
Yet this was New Mexico, not Colorado, and Central Avenue was clearly not Colfax Avenue. One explanation for this difference was architecture. The architecture of many of Central Avenue’s businesses, particularly its motels, was what I would soon come to know as pueblo-revival style: generally single-story structures meant to recall the dwellings of adobe brick and mud of the early Pueblo Indian inhabitants of New Mexico’s Rio Grande region. The businesses’ walls were brown, white, or dark pink and softly rounded at the edges; however, I doubted that they were actual adobe. Protruding from the upper edges of the walls were logs, some six inches in diameter, meant to recall the supports for the ceilings and roofs of the original dwellings; I suspected many of these logs were full-length and not merely abbreviated simply for effect, although they certainly did not support the original roofs of branches and mud. Meanwhile, Spanish portals supported by large pine logs occasionally shaded and sheltered the entrances to some of these businesses.
Soon, I realized that pueblo-revival style was extremely common throughout Albuquerque, although almost without exception it consisted of structures of cinderblock or wood that was coated in wire and stucco. Whether authentic adobe brick or not, whether with corners round or sharp, I liked its echoes, especially amid Central Avenue’s calamity of people and traffic, of a simpler, slower, more earth-rooted past, and its reminder that this is a land of little rain. Adobe brick would not last long in a rain forest.
Another explanation for the difference, more profound, to me, than the architecture, were the people who occupied the pavement and sidewalks of Central Avenue. I wasn’t prepared for the numbers of dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-skinned people who walked, rode, and drove on the avenue. At the time, Latinos made up about a quarter of Denver’s population; yet they comprised over a third of Albuquerque’s. I considered the difference significant: at times on Central, I felt like I was on the street of a Mexican city, among ancestors of the first inhabitants of the Americas.