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Welcome to My Job

Weekday mornings, I wended my way northwest in Little Red to the lumber company, often driving past the Clover Club potato chip factory with the broad stack belching steam; a lover of potato chips since childhood, the sight made my mouth water even at the breakfast hour.  

The lumber company’s headquarters was considerably less glamorous than those of the two previous companies for which I had processed data.  The building was located on a broad, windswept, and dusty side street that contained no sidewalks.  The street’s asphalt ran right up to the company’s doorstep, and parking spaces were indicated merely by a few concrete chocks arranged diagonally. 

The front of the old, boxy, two-story building consisted of white brick with patches of wood paneling; it had a single, unsheltered glass door.  The bottom floor of the headquarters contained a reception area―small and, due to the floor’s split-level architecture, totally isolated―the offices of the president, the vice-president of finance, and the vice-president of sales; and a large, wood-paneled room with cubicles for the company’s several salespersons. 

A narrow, angled staircase with a small landing led to the top floor, except for the glassed-in computer room containing the System 38―my third 38―a largely open area where inventory, accounting, and computer programming occurred.  The floor’s large windows overlooked the lumber and shipping yards.  The floor had worn carpeting in some places and cracked linoleum in others.  The men’s restroom was cold, bleak, functional.  Yet after the swank of the Denver companies, I rather liked all this grittiness; given the nature of the business, it seemed as appropriate as the rugged mountains and mesas framed in the floor’s windows.  (It was my understanding that the 38 was, with a forklift, delivered to the floor through one of those windows; I would not have wanted to have been responsible for that procedure.)

I worked with seven others on the floor, a nearly even mixture of Latinos and Anglos.  The person in charge of computer operations was a young and easygoing Latina.  She and her husband, an auto mechanic, were originally from the northern New Mexico hamlet of Questa. 

In the cubicle next door to mine sat the accounts receivable clerk.  She was middle-aged and lived on what she called a “hobby farm” close to the Rio Grande in the sleepy village of Corrales, just northwest of Albuquerque.  (“Drive slow, see our village,” reads a street sign in Corrales.  “Drive fast, see our judge.”)  Ordinarily quiet and focused on her work, when prompted she loved to discuss her farm, particularly her beloved goats.  Proud of her pastoral life-style, she could hold forth about the tastiness of horse meat. 

Sharing her cubicle was a fellow named Steve, also middle-aged, who daily updated the company’s inventory.  He always addressed me as “Mr. Davis,” although with the warmest informality.  Whether by necessity or choice, he was always the first to arrive at the second floor, at 7:00 A.M., an hour before my appearance; thus, his natural warmth notwithstanding, I associated him with the mauve skies and chill of the New Mexico dawn.  He was always in good humor.  At lunchtime, I’d poke fun at some mysterious glop he’d just heated in the second-floor microwave and was enjoying at his desk.  “You were expecting The Galloping Gourmet?” he’d respond.  His home was the Shalako Apartments complex on east Central Avenue.  The name was perhaps some marketing director’s idea of attracting tenants by invoking the hallowed winter ceremonies of western New Mexico’s Zuni Indians.  Apparently unimpressed with this ploy, Steve always referred to his residence as “The Shacko.”  

Nearly every day employees from the first floor and the lumber yard paid visits to the second floor for one purpose or another.  The visitors included Carlos, the vice-president of finance, the middle-aged Latino who hired me.  Although he was not a programmer, I got the impression he was responsible for the purchase of the 38 and was thus most invested in its successful day-to-day functioning.  He was relaxed, often with his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned, but businesslike, rarely in the mood for levity.  Early on in my employment, observing my frustration with one of the company’s software applications, he offered, “The challenge is not the mountain, Phil, it’s the pebble in the boot.”  At this point in his life, he did not look like a mountain climber, rather like someone who would have been content to surround himself with his extended family, enjoying their respect, at a picnic at a National Forest campground at the base of a central New Mexico mountain.  In any event, especially as a hiker, I liked the ring of this homily: it struck me somehow as uniquely Hispanic, uniquely New Mexican. 

One of the company’s shipping clerks, Ray, a young, slim, handsome, and soft-spoken Latino, appeared with his coffee mug first thing every morning to get java from the second-floor coffeemaker and jaw in a relaxed manner.  Like many Albuquerque Latinos, he had a beautifully constructed pompadour; yet how he managed to maintain its shape and stature apparently without so much as a dab of styling mousse, I couldn’t figure.  (This as my own hair was thinning.)

Other visitors to the second floor throughout the day often included the Albuquerque mill manager and the company’s several area foresters, two of whom lived in Albuquerque and one who lived in the northern New Mexico town of Española.  I envied the foresters, pumped them for impressions of their latest sylvan rambles, for I knew they spent much of their workdays in the mountains up north, either in their trucks or on foot, among majestic ponderosa pines, the most coveted of the company’s raw material.

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Cheese and Crude

Some fifteen months after I began my studies, I managed to land a part-time job in something called “computer operations” at a large, successful Denver cheese manufacturer, and quit the cab company.  Four days a week, from 4:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night, I worked, except for a small janitorial crew of Vietnamese refugees newly arrived in Colorado, alone in the large facility.  I worked in a large, hermetically-sealed, “climate-controlled” (in other words, chilly), and spotless room.  It had a false floor to accommodate a mess of wires and cables; a self-locking door with a push-button key; bright florescent lighting; and a host of potted plants, presumably to lend the sterile place some semblance of organic life. 

Dominating the room were a number of pallid IBM products: a System 38 “mini computer”―IBM’s current success story, the machine I was determined to saddle and bust―consisting of a central processing unit and several disk storage drives; a computer-tape drive; and two printers.  This various equipment recalled, to my inexperienced eyes, freezers, washing machines, and credenzas, albeit immaculate ones.  What little character the central processing unit possessed was expressed in its vents, keyboard, and raised glass display; what little warmth, the glow of the green letters and numbers on the display.  In addition, there was a desk upon which sat a terminal, about the size of milk crate, with a display of more green numbers and letters, and another keyboard.  Against one wall was a cluster of non-IBM instruments that comprised a modem to deliver data to and from the company’s satellite plants around the country.  My job every shift was to run programs off of a “menu” on the terminal display, print documents generated by the programs, and back up on magnetic tape all of the company’s evolving and ongoing electronic data.  

The only programming in the company’s computer operations department, software entirely different from that of accounting, was undertaken by the operations manager, a bald, out-of-shape, 40-something man who spoke little, lumbered around in black wing-tips that appeared to weigh six pounds apiece, chain-smoked at a terminal in a sealed, glass-fronted office within the operations room, and drove a Cadillac.  He reminded me of a corrupt libertine in a Pasolini movie.

The computer operators did no programming; they merely pushed the buttons that set programs in motion.  However, I quickly learned that the operators could transition to and train in the company’s applications-programming department, which created the programs that performed the basic accounting functions, provided the operator sufficiently impressed the operations manager with his or her dedication, knowledge, and data processing intuition. 

I made what I thought was progress at the company: I was thorough, responsible, and had an impeccable attendance record.  Eventually, I accepted a full-time job in day-shift computer operations, confident that this would better position me for a transition to applications programming, which was also undertaken during the day shift. 

It did not.  One day, some two-and-a-half years into my employment, the operations manager recommended to the company’s Vice President of Information Systems an operator working the evening shift to join the applications programming department.  That operator was a fellow student of mine I had encouraged to apply to the company.  I bore him no ill will upon his promotion; he was indeed sharp.  But I was mortified with the operations manager, who merely explained that the recommendation was a “judgement call.”

Hmmm. Did the operations manager, through his stench of tobacco smoke, get a whiff of my marijuana smoke?  Furious, I updated my resumé and began looking for employment elsewhere while continuing to work at the mozzarella factory.

My experience apparently paid off.  Within two months, I was working in the computer operations department of a Denver oil company and, convinced I could climb the data processing ladder by simply learning on the job, no longer attending college. 

The company was owned by a corpulent Denver billionaire―at a time when American billionaires were still somewhat rare―who also owned the Beverly Hills Hotel and had recently bought and sold 20th Century Fox.  His name, too, was Davis, although no relation.  He was known as “Mr. Wildcatter” for the thousands of holes he had punched into the planet in search of his black gold.  The company’s head of data processing was young, driven, and rarely given to humor, but I didn’t care.  “You’ll love it,” he said, referring to the job, the day he hired me.  

And I did.

I worked alone in a building of polished steel, marble, and glass several stories above Denver’s downtown on a floor devoted to the company’s accounting procedures.  Once again, I worked the swing shift, although now five nights a week.  The computer room, which housed my second IBM System 38, was another chilly, fluorescent-lit, and secured enclosure. 

However, “Mr. Wildcatter,” whom I never once saw, was well on his way to pulling out of the oil business and investing his riches in Colorado and California real estate.  As a result, the floor on which I worked consisted of empty offices and just a handful of accounting personnel.  Nonetheless, for two years, in addition to handling computer operations, I was permitted to write some simple application programs.  Thus, when I applied for work in Albuquerque, I had, in addition to my resume, a printout of the software of which I was most proud. 

And I had my first love.  I was on my way in the data processing field, a journey that led to the Albuquerque lumber company.

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The Soul of the New Man

After some basic research, I identified the two pillars of computing: “hardware” and “software.”  I learned that hardware is primarily about electrical engineering.  Having witnessed two people, one a dear friend and the other my brother-in-law, grapple with the study of “double-e,” and having an interest in electricity only insofar as it powered my refrigerator and stereo and was responsible for spectacular lightning shows over the Rockies, I knew that electrical engineering isn’t for me.  Which left that mysterious, apparel-sounding phenomenon known as software.  What, I initially wondered in my abject ignorance, is “soft” about any aspect of metal computer? 

Well, I then read that software is essentially electrified instructions that can read electrified numbers and letters and electrically command simple or complex electrified arithmetic operations.  (All of which was a considerable part of the soul of that little Texas Instrument calculator I used at the instrument repair company, although I was unaware of this at the time.)  I read that writing software is known as “programming,” and that programming is extremely detailed, precise, and orderly, and commonly used in accounting and bookkeeping applications―in other words, I concluded, a glowing possibility for me. 

From a programmer acquaintance, I borrowed a book on “flowcharting”: the routing of those electrified numbers―“data”―toward a desired goal.  As I read the book, the detailed-oriented part of me became increasingly optimistic, and the English-major part of me imaginative.  I imagined that each individual “datum” was a sleek automobile, its headlights aglow as it coursed over the perfectly gridded streets of, say, Manhattan at night, bound for its proper destination; turning north, south, east, or west; stopping and starting at perfectly calibrated traffic lights; respecting my junctions, intersections, loops, side streets, alleys, and dead ends; experiencing no unnecessary pauses, no time wasted, no flat tires―all under my flawless command, the traffic engineer at his desk upon which sat a coffee cup in its proper place.  Billions of cars, billions of lights, constant movement, not a single accident. 

Oh, such an awesome and beautiful rationality to all of it!  Yes, I could see myself as a successful programmer.  Thus, I decided to return to college, this one in downtown Denver, to pursue a major formally called by the college Computer Science and Accounting. 

Meanwhile, speaking of traffic, I hired on as a part-time driver at a Denver cab company, a job that, I was certain, would allow me to support myself, including paying for my education, while I pursued my studies.  Excited by my new career goal and satisfied with my new job now in its third week, I phoned my father and mother with the news.  My father applauded my latest academic pursuit, although not the new job.  “Only idiots drive cabs!” he spat, while no doubt recalling the thousands of dollars he spent toward my bachelor’s degree.  Swallowing, I tried to placate him, informing him, albeit with scant evidence, that demand for data processing professionals in Denver’s exploding economy was so great that I would have a job in the field long before I was awarded my second college diploma; this seemed to work. 

Lacking a car, I took a bus, or bicycled, or walked, or even ran―in running shoes and sweats―to the cab company in northwest Denver.  (I could have taken a cab, but I considered a cab too costly given my meager living as a cab driver.)   

Beyond my academic studies of FIFO, LIFO, central processing units, stocks, bonds, and “machine language,” I tried to engage with anything and everything in the day-to-day world that dealt with computers.  I read Megatrends.  I read Time magazine’s 1982 cover story about “the computer,” the magazine’s unprecedented “Machine of the Year.”  One afternoon I sat with rapt attention through a speech by a guest of the college, the distinguished Grace Hopper, a United States Navy Rear Admiral, computer programmer since the 1940’s, and pioneer in the development of COBOL, the first common programming language for business that I was at that very moment studying.  I slogged through Tracy Kidder’s Soul of the New Machine, a National Book Award winner about computer engineering.  At the same time, I sought any kind of work in the data processing field.

 

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Phil the Scriviner

Either I passed my drug test―and for that I would have owed a debt of gratitude to comedian, political activist, and fasting advocate Dick “Cookin’ with Mother Nature” Gregory―or the head honchos at the lumber company felt that, despite evidence of marijuana use, a well-groomed and relatively articulate guy was worth a chance, so I began working as the only computer programmer in a company of 75 employees. 

My career in data processing arguably began when I was 25, shortly after I left the mine.  The Colorado state employment division referred me to a tiny Denver company that sold thermocouples and calibrated electrical and mechanical equipment.  The company was looking for a “full-charge bookkeeper.”  As usual, I was willing to take nearly any job offered to me.  However, I never filled out an employment application at the company, and no one at the company, which employed just five people, ever said in so many words, “You’re hired.”  I simply showed up at the company’s doorstep one day with a referral from the state.  The company then commenced to training me and told me to come in the following day.  The following day, the company resumed training me and told me to come in the day after that.  After a week of this somewhat peculiar routine, I, lacking the assertiveness to flat-out ask, presumed I was hired. 

My trainer was my predecessor at the company, a fellow named Lawrence, who appeared to be about 75 and was retiring after decades at the business.  Bald and rotund, wearing white perfed loafers, he reminded me of my hospital-accountant grandfather.  During my training, Lawrence, in an aura of either after-shave or cologne, hovered over me at my desk, a burning cigarette held effeminately between his first two fingers, his eyes squinting against the smoke.  A retired Army colonel, he all but forbade me to do a procedure unless each thing on my desk―pen, Texas Instruments calculator, coffee cup, Burroughs mechanical adding machine, pack of cigarettes, ashtray―was in a place he deemed appropriate. 

Long before Sarah Palin, Lawrence introduced me to the expression, which seemed to me particularly Western, “Youuuuuu betcha.”  And one rainy day he introduced me to a thing he called a “bumbershoot.”  He had beautifully flowing handwriting, graceful as the curves of drifted snow, with numerals exceptionally elegant, and my penmanship markedly improved under his tutelage. 

Lawrence trained me for a month.  Soon, I was well-versed in balance sheets, general ledgers, financial statements, work orders, payroll taxes, 3% 10/Net 30’s, and imprests.  Before long, I wouldn’t relax until I’d reconciled the company’s monthly checking account statement to the penny, even if it meant toiling alone at the office on a Friday evening.  (My monthly bank statement receives the same attention today; I regard the mental exercise of reconciling it as useful a defense against dementia.)  Indeed, if nothing else, my job seemed to reveal I had a knack for detailed work. 

Now, many another young man would have enthusiastically looked upon this job as the first step up that proverbial ladder of success in the world of business administration, accounting, or sales.  I did not.  The business utterly bored me.  Our thermocouple specialist had a radio above his workbench, so every lunch hour meant suffering the annoying staccato of right-wing newscaster Paul Harvey as he hawked automobiles―American-made, of course―and “porkburgers”; drooled over his wife, “Angel”; told maudlin stories; delivered cutesy sign-offs; and jabbed at communism.  The dreariness of the sales and servicing of thermocouples, pressure gauges, and Hewlett-Packard oscillators overshadowed any satisfaction and pride I got from keeping the accounting end of this whole uninteresting enterprise humming.  

My ennui particularly tested the tolerance of my gentle boss, Joe.  For instance, it was also my job to answer all phone calls to the company with, of course, the expectation that I would do so in a spirited and professional manner―very difficult to do, given my attitude.  Therefore, Joe would wearily remind me, “Phil, please don’t say ‘yeah’ when speaking to a customer; say ‘yes’.”  In addition to me, Joe had to deal with a leg presumably game since birth and a shoe with an elevated outsole, both of which he had to drag behind him whenever he moved about the office.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to quit, goldbrick for a couple months (and fritter away my meager savings), and return to the drudgery of job-hunting.

Meanwhile, the company, while not failing, was not exactly increasing its market share.  A year after my hiring, as various malfunctioning gauges and oscillators deep in the company’s back room―repair orders years old and somehow forgotten without consequence―gathered dust and the company barely made payroll, the aging owner of the business, retired before I came aboard, sold the company to a toothy, back-slapping, 40-something guy with a hard-on for the Denver business world.  I disliked him immediately: his ambitious ideas for the company threatened to disrupt my torpor.  Shortly after taking over, and to my great indignation, he accused me (correctly) of being a “clock-watcher,” and I therefore had no alternative but to be affronted and terminate my employment.  

I drifted from one job after another after that.  My work included volunteering for a groundbreaking Denver-government-sponsored mental-health program that worked with the male perpetrators of domestic violence.  My verbal skills led to the program being featured on The Phil Donahue Show and subsequently raised $12,000 to hire, for the first time in the program’s brief history, a full-time director.  I was among those who sought that directorship, but the program’s board members rejected me, hiring an individual with, apparently, far more experience running a non-profit. It was a huge disappointment, my first in my employment history; there would be more.

Then one day I decided that if I wanted a car; an apartment larger than a storage locker; furnishings beyond a table, chair, used mattress, and a few pieces of used United States Marine Corp dinnerware; and a girlfriend who expected a boyfriend with a modicum of financial stability, I’d have to consider my career options with an iron practicality.  I’d have to get into what was all the rage in the early 1980’s.  I’d have to get into computers!

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And Then a Little Beyond Albuquerque

Later that first week, I left the city limits, motoring west and looping briefly through the rural stretches of Bernalillo, Cibola, and Valencia counties.  In the distances I saw Sierra Ladrones and Mt. Taylor.  I plunged into and out of the massive basin of the Rio Puerco; the basin contains a lone, barren hill, Cerro Colorado, its prominence─that is, its height from base to peak─roughly half that of the tallest mountain in my native New Jersey.  (Now that’s big, I thought. Imagine the number of New Jerseys I could fit in this state.)  I skirted the Cañoncito Navajo Indian Reservation (today the re-named To’hajiilee Indian Reservation of Breaking Bad fame) and sliced across the Laguna Indian Reservation, although I don’t believe I saw a single Indian.  I saw countless mesas and massive ramps of broken rock that seemed to have sprung violently from the land like pieces of warped linoleum.  I saw eroded rangelands of dust, destroyed, unbeknownst to me, by overgrazing.  In the extinct settlement of Correo, New Mexico, I passed the ghostly ruin of the Wild Horse Mesa Bar, likely the last stop of many a cowboy and Indian.  I drove Route 6, a remnant of Route 66, to Los Lunas; the highway paralleled the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad, and I kept pace with mile-long freight trains traveling 60 miles per hour.  Returning north to Albuquerque, I shadowed the Rio Grande.

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Albuquerque’s Great River

Just west of Old Town runs the legendary Rio Grande, depending on how it is measured, either the fourth- or fifth-longest river system in North America.  While a Colorado resident, I surely crossed it several times during my jaunts to the southern part of the state and northern New Mexico, most likely in the town of Alamosa.  During our Lawrence Ranch rendezvous, Linda and I witnessed the river from a bridge eight miles west of Taos; however, the river barely resonates there, for it is narrow through this stretch and buried in a canyon 500 feet deep.  And, of course, I glimpsed its scant flow as my father and I drove to and from Taos. 

Still, before moving to New Mexico, the Rio, to me, was far more a mere geographical feature in a Hollywood western or an element of a comic Johnny Mercer song about an “old cowhand” than an actual watercourse.  Rolling into the city on that Valentine’s Day evening, I didn’t actually see the river, but I certainly sensed it in the gulf of space between the east and west uplands that cradle the heart of Albuquerque.  Now, as a new Albuquerque resident, I realized the river was, literally and figuratively, central to the city.    

Tootling around Albuquerque’s center in Little Red during my first week, I crossed the river on Central Avenue.  While doing so, I first marveled at the woods, commonly known in the city by the Spanish name bosque, of cottonwood, willow, and Russian olive that border, narrowly but densely, each side of the river.  What precious slices of nature in the middle of this city of 380,000!  What encouraging foresight that the bosque wasn’t flattened and replaced with concrete levees, lawns, asphalt, parking garages, and luxury condominiums.  Then, continuing onto an unimposing beam bridge, my eyes darting left and right, I glimpsed the Great River itself, although in late February it wasn’t so “great.”  The snow packs of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico had yet to contribute to it, and Cochiti Dam, not far upriver, had yet to release much, if any, of its impounded waters for irrigation purposes, so the Rio, some 40 yards wide here, looked almost feeble as it braided through islands of sand, here and there exposing a snagged, sodden tree limb. 

I marveled at this serene wilderness corridor through the clamor and clutter of Albuquerque.  It was obviously a part of the city, yet at the same time oddly―and alluringly―apart from it, seemingly inviolate.  The river’s February want did not trouble me.  On the contrary, that the river was shrunken and slow-moving made it all the more inviting: I felt as if I could, if I was so crazily inclined, hike its string of sandbars north to Alamosa or south to Matamoros, Mexico, through forest or desert, abundance or penury, the spring freshets eventually erasing any trace of me. 


  

Such were my first views and impressions of Albuquerque.  I’d been a city-dweller for nearly all of the fifteen years since I graduated from college, and this new city agreed with me.  As did, especially, its surroundings: No matter where I happened to be in Albuquerque, I was nearly always accompanied by a vast, vibrantly blue sky and the uplifting sight of a near or distant mountain or mesa.  As Albuquerque author Erna Fergusson once observed, “This grandeur of nature so near is not without influence in the town.”

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Goodbye and Thanks, Colorado

Fourteen months after meeting Linda, I landed a job as a computer programmer at an Albuquerque lumber company.  Advised (translation: warned) by my new employer that I would be drug-tested in Albuquerque prior to my first day of work, before leaving Denver I did a six-day juice fast, confident, albeit with no scientific proof whatsoever, that it would remove any trace of cannabis from my system.  (I was an occasional user.)  On the last day of my fast─beyond hunger, my breath sweet, my mind calm and sparkling, my body feather-light and free of the distraction and ordeal of digestion─I arose early, got in my Mercury Lynx named Little Red, and made a triumphant farewell loop through central Colorado─Fairplay, Buena Vista, Leadville, Minturn, Silverthorne─bidding a grateful goodbye to the Colorado high country that had led me on a circuitous journey to my Southwest.  Several days later, on a Valentine’s Day morning, Red and I headed south on I-25 to Albuquerque.

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Dad Meets Mabeltown

On another occasion, I drove down to Albuquerque to meet my father, who had flown into the city from New Hampshire, where he had retired, a widower now for three years.  This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army inductee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across the southern part of the state.  After Linda, whom my father had previously met in Denver, and I welcomed him at the Albuquerque airport, my father and I headed in my car to Taos, where we would spend the night and ski the following day.  Dad had never been to the romantic northern New Mexico town.

On the ride north, my father, in the passenger seat, said little.  Understandable: he had always been a man of careful words; plus, his left ear had been failing him for some time and he thus had difficulty conversing even in a car.  Nonetheless, I could see his great interest, in his wide eyes and the continual swivel of his head, as we drove through ancient Santa Fe, shared the street with low riders in the pastoral town of Española, and hugged the Rio Grande, now January shrunken, in the winding cañon between Velarde and Pilar.  Yes, I thought proudly, Dad is as fascinated by New Mexico as I am. 

When we finally climbed out of the cañon, we were treated to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: to the west, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; to the east, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, both nestled in the lap of the Sangre de Cristos.  Then we passed through the woodsy hamlet of Ranchos de Taos, where a sign indicated the iconic St. Francis Church, which had been attracting painters and photographers from all over the world for generations. 

By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon the two of us.  Unlike me, my father loved to travel, and I so wanted him to fall under New Mexico’s spell.  But when we entered the south end of Taos, and the highway ballooned into four hectic lanes on either side of which was, amid the litter, a dreary succession of hotels and fast-food joints, my father, without warning, dryly remarked: “Shitty town.”

“Shitty town.”  Thus, Dad seemed to join the ranks of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after Mabel Dodge Luhan, of course.  (Luhan is “very wicked,” Lawrence once observed, “has a terrible will-to-power.”)

A bit stunned, I said nothing and drove on.  Meanwhile, more amused than resentful, I thought: Well, perhaps it is “shitty”when you live in a New England retirement community of handsome condominiums, manicured lawns, book and bridge clubs, a community garden, weekly trash collection and recycling, and cable TV, all located in a white-steepled Norman Rockwell village with a 150-year-old college, a lake with private beaches, a “Little Theater,” and a tavern serving crab cakes and shepherd’s pie.

Pffff!

My father’s estimation of Taos rose, however, once we reached the town’s center and he beheld the charmingly narrow streets, the aged pueblo architecture, the famous plaza with its majestic cottonwoods, and, especially, the Native Americans from the nearby pueblo and the town’s comely Latinas.  After two martinis and a dinner of pan-seared trout at Doc Martin’s restaurant, and the promise of a night in a sumptuous bed surrounded by R.C. Gorman prints and traditional Hispanic woodworking at the Kachina Lodge, the Taos mystique had just about roped him. 

The following day at Taos Ski Valley, Dad struggled for air in a heavy snowfall and called it a day after several runs due to poor visibility and a dearth of oxygen.  Nonetheless, he was thrilled by the wind, snow, and vertiginous slopes of the southern Rockies.  On the drive back to Albuquerque, in the cañon of the Rio once again, he reiterated, in his own straightforward and quiet way, his high regard for Linda: “She’s a good catch.”

  

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At Last: the Real Southwest!

Is Albuquerque the real Southwest?  Of course it is.  In fact, maybe the very heart of the Southwest.  In his 1974 book, Southwest Classics, Lawrence Clark Powell reminds readers that he at one time regarded the Southwest’s “heart of hearts” as Albuquerque’s Alvarado Hotel, “that mellow old turquoise and silver Harvey House beside the Santa Fe [Railroad] tracks.”  The Alvarado was demolished in 1971, but the soil on which it stood remains.  Enough said, in my opinion.[1]    

Prior to meeting Linda, I had seen Albuquerque only once, while driving between Denver and Arizona.  Cities witnessed only from interstate highways had never left impressions upon me, and Albuquerque was no exception.  Now, however, I was looking forward to calling The Duke City, as it was also known, my new home.  While Linda rented an apartment in Albuquerque and pursued her career, I remained in Denver, working in data processing while seeking work in Albuquerque long-distance.  My job search took eight months.   

During this time, Linda and I periodically rendezvoused in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico.  I observed my first Christmas in the state while staying in her 3rd-floor apartment.  Of course, everything in my life now was sweetened by first love.  Yet there were aspects of Albuquerque during that visit that would have charmed me under nearly any circumstance.  I grew up in a typically verdant New Jersey town whose street names naturally spoke of wood: Linden, Maple, Chestnut, Spruce, Arbor, Sherwood, Beechwood, Edgewood.  Later, the names of the many Denver streets on which I lived struck me as dull and predictable: Clarkson, Lafayette, Pearl, Gaylord, Race, Vine.  The names of countless Albuquerque streets, on the other hand, are not only lovelyLinda lived on Madiera Drivethey are literally saintly: San Mateo, San Pedro, San Rafael, San Luis Rey, San Lorenzo, San Patricio, and, of course, San Felipe. 

And then there was the night of thrilling Albuquerque weather over the aforementioned holiday.  On Christmas Eve, Linda and I attended the 11 P.M. service at her church.  The city was buffeted by winds.  I imagined them launching off the sheer western face of the Sandia Mountains to the east of the city, or accelerating off the vast and the empty plateau that is Albuquerque’s western edge.  Whatever their origin, the gales shook the great sanctuary of the church as the pastorwho would one day marry Linda and medelivered the sermon of joy and hope.  At the end of the service, the congregation lit candles and sang “Silent Night.”  Certainly, “all” was not “calm” in Albuquerque that night.  Yet the dramatic weather seemed fitting for the night’s great religious significance.  Driving home, we saw strands of colorful lights, strung on the city’s trees and shrubs, dancing in the wind.  And there was snow in the air.  Yet in the dry, brute wind the flakes were remarkably light, reluctant to adhere to or even meet the ground, more spirit than substance.  Meanwhile, our car seemed borne upon the undulating veils of sand that proceeded up the asphalt streets before and beneath us.  Snow and desert, I thought, what a strange pairing! 

It was on that gritty, windswept night that I first began to sense Albuquerque’s unique isolation on a sea of desert.  Albuquerque author Harvey Fergusson notes this in 1944: “Like all Western towns seen from a distance, [Albuquerque] looks small and insignificant, completely dominated by a landscape that lends itself but grudgingly to human use.”  Albuquerque author V.B. Price updates this theme in the early 1990’s, pointing out Albuquerque’s most unique trait: a city of a half-million effectively surrounded by wilderness.  Wilderness, indeed: In 2015, the National Wildlife Federation named Albuquerque one of the top-10 wildlife-friendly cities in America.  

Once, Linda drove north and I drove south from Denver to get together at the Lawrence Ranch, as in the British author D.H. Lawrence, just north of Taos.  In 1924, the ranch property, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was essentially gifted to Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, by Taos patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan.  In 1955, Frieda donated the ranch to the University of New Mexico.  As a Fellow in Infectious Disease at the university, Linda was given preferred access to the ranch’s facilities, which included several rustic cabins. 

For myself, I knew nothing about the ranch, and my knowledge of the bearded, wraith-like Lawrence was scant.  In high school, I read his short story “The Rocking Horse Winner,” about a boy who has an uncanny ability to pick winners at the racetrack.  In 1969, I laughed at the scene in the film Easy Rider in which a disheveled, unshaven, hungover ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson toasts Lawrence on the streets of a putative hick town (in real life, Las Vegas, New Mexico) with a breakfast slug of Jim Beam followed by a primitive war cry, some peculiar utterances, and a final gasp of “Indians!”  I saw director Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Lawrence’s novel Women in Love when it was first released, and had never forgotten the remarkable scene in which actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed playfully wrestle “Japanese style”: in the nude before a roaring fire.  Although I never studied him at length at Hobart, I knew Lawrence was regarded as a giant of English literature, and I looked forward to experiencing something so palpably associated with him as the New Mexico ranch. 

On the afternoon of our rendezvous, Linda and I lay on our backs in the sweet, soft summer grass of the ranch property, marveling at the color and clarity of the New Mexico sky, surely not unlike Lawrence some 65 years earlier; for, as Lawrence Clark Powell observes, D.H. “preferred to write out of doors, seated on the ground, with his back against a tree.”  In the midst of this reverie, Linda asked me to focus, really focus, on my vision and, summoning her medical knowledge, drew my attention to something as manifest as the clouds in the sky, yet something of which I’d been unaware all my life: the variously configured specks, known as floaters, in the vitreous of my eyes, skating in all directions as if upon the azure New Mexico heavens.  I regarded this as not only a fascinating anatomical lesson, but also, of course, as one more charming moment between us.  That night, in one of the cabins, the charm was tested as, each in a short (Lawrence stood 5 feet 9 inches) and crude wooden bunk, we both tossed and turned.  But we survived, albeit exhausted, to witness a beautiful morning of more clouds and floaters.


[1] Or almost enough said.  With the end of The Alvarado, Powell moved his Southwestern “heart of hearts” to a rather wilder location: “. . . that buff-colored sandstone battlement called by the Anglos Inscription Rock”―which likely will never be leveled―in the rocky piñon-and-juniper woodlands of northwestern New Mexico.

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I Two-Step into Love

Meanwhile, I continued to grope for some kind of future in the Mile High City.  My sister had left Denver.  I drifted back to a Denver college, studying at various times drawing, community service development, accounting, and computer science.  I worked as a bookkeeper, bus boy, janitor, handy man, pre-school aide, cab driver, and computer operator.  I lived merely from day to day, never imagining leaving Denver.  I dated a few women, had flings with fewer still, yet never found one to whom I was willing to open my heart.  (Nor did it help that, my feminist posturing notwithstanding, I opened my lonely eyes a little too often to the hot, unreal voids of Playboy, Penthouse, and cruder magazines.)

One day, however, my fondness for country-and-western music eventually led me to a class in such country dances as two-step, schottische, and waltz.  There I met a woman, a long-time Coloradan, with whom I fell in love.  Her career as a physician was soon to take her to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Before long, we were agreeing to join one another there.