Española, NM – Stick around any place long enough you’ll begin to recognize those people and events that encapsulate its fundamental absurdity, moments that in your mind come to define a place and its people. My hometown of Madison, WI, is characterized by the cartoonish lunacy of otherwise normal people going out of their way to look and act weird. Philadelphia had its share of weirdos, but over all it was moments like glancing sideways to see some street urchin in the park shitting in full view of an indifferent public that captured essence of a city that refuses to be beautiful.
Española, on the other hand, spans the ridiculous and tragic. Tragic in the sense that nary a day passes without an overdose death reported over the police scanner. On Monday I waited for authorities to remove a body from a mobile home so that we’d have a picture for this week’s edition until I was relieved by the paper’s crime reporter. At the time we weren’t sure if it was an overdose or a homicide. We just knew there was a body. As people here often note: Española has the most heroin overdose deaths per capita than anywhere else in the nation. The guy, who was lying in the shed rather than the mobile home, it turns out, died of an overdose, his mint ice cream cone melting beside him.
My Friday night captured the ridiculous.
After leaving the casino, where my co-workers and I capped off the week with a beer or two, I was backing out of the stall when a woman somewhere between middle- and old-age asked if I could give her a ride to home, on La Joya Street, which was about three blocks up and on my way. I told her to jump in.
She was really tall, slender and had long brown hair with strands of gray. After introducing herself she began peppering me with questions. Where in Wisconsin are you from? Why’d you move here? What do you do?
I then asked the same questions of her. Where are you from? Why’d you move here? What do you do?
“Right now I’m unemployed,” she said. “But I supplement my income by selling sex. Are you interested?”
I began cursing, privately, to myself, hoping that no one saw her get into my van, a black monstrosity with a purple stripe. My first weekend here I was approached by a guy who introduced himself as a fellow ‘Sconnie. Said he’d seen my van at Walgreen’s, but that I’d left before he could ask where in Wisconsin I was from. I was weirded out upon realizing how visible I am. And that was before I’d even begun work. Now, I never know who is watching, who might’ve seen this lady, whose business I’m sure everyone knows about, get into my vehicle. A rumor like that would be next to impossible to explain away with the truth.
I thanked her for the offer, but said I wasn’t interested.
I pulled up to her house, but before we parted ways I gave her my card in case she ever heard anything interesting – newsworthy – in the course of her work. About an hour later my phone began making noise. It was the prostitute, calling to invite me to hang out with her and her boyfriend, whom I’d apparently met last month at the flea market.
“He’s the guy from Wisconsin,” she said.
I take a lot of risks, but betting my money isn’t usually one of them. I’ve probably bought fewer than 25 lottery tickets my entire life. I’ve never had a knack for winning jackpots. Hell, I never win anything. My parents both gamble, but one is far luckier than the other in this regard. That luck never rubbed off on me.
As kids, my sisters and I used to play a card game with our grandma called Screw Your Neighbor. But my grandma, who came of age during the Depression, only played with pennies so winning never actually felt like winning. Even in the 80s, a handful of pennies wasn’t worth much.
The only significant thing I’ve ever won was $400 in a raffle that my grandmother entered me in after signing my name on the ticket. But I’m convinced things would’ve turned out differently has I known I was in contention. What a surprise it was to one day get a call saying I had $400 big ones waiting for me. I can’t remember what I spent it on. I was 16 so a good chunk of it probably went to weed. Talk about being a winner.
My luck changed last Wednesday. After arriving early at the casino bar ahead of my company, I strolled the gaming floor, between the rows of ringing slot machines, their lights flashing. On a whim I plugged $3 into a penny slot, placed a bet and won 50 cents. Then I placed another bet and the machine lit up and made one helluva clamor. I watched the tally climb and climb and climb and I instantly regretted not placing a full bet. In all, I won 11,500 cents, for total winnings of $115.50.
From a distance all cities seem mysteriously quaint and secretive. Española is no exception. The most striking feature of its skyline is also its skyline’s only feature: the casino hotel. Except for the hotel there isn’t a building in the valley that’s higher than two stories. I find this somewhat humorous since Juan de Oñate, and the Spanish explorers before him, dreamed of finding a City of Gold, which they believed was somewhere in what is now New Mexico. So it’s fitting that the centerpiece of the city’s downtown taunts with the temptation of riches. Only this time around it’s the outsiders who go home empty-handed.