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Monday, December 22, 2014

Bus blog tells stories of riders

Professor writes of experiences at bus stops

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By William Aranda / New Mexico Daily Lobo

Michael Wolff, center, talks with, from left, Shawn Sherman, “Richie Rich”, Serphina Thomas and Jallen Tsosie at the Rapid Ride stop outside the Frontier on Central. Wolff, a graduate student at UNM, has a photographic blog called Albuquerque Bus Stops that shows all the people he meets at bus stops.

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Michael Wolff has a history with Albuquerque bus stops. A political science instructor at UNM who moved to New Mexico in 1999, Wolff said his first experience at a city bus stop was an encounter with a pimp.

“One of the first things that happened was I sat down at a bus stop and I got offered a job as a prostitute, a male prostitute, on Second Street,” Wolff said. “I was nervous. I was a very timid 19-year-old and wanted to try and act tough in front of a pimp, who had just offered me a job. I kind of went along with it, but then I ran away from the situation as soon as I could.”

Fourteen years later, Wolff would find himself embracing the city’s public transportation system. Wolff is the creator of albuquerquebusstops.com, a personal project that documents the relationship between Albuquerque’s public transportation system and the city’s impoverished. Each blog entry follows Wolff as he tags along with a person that is new to the bus system. The two would then follow a bus route, as Wolff photographs and interviews people along the way.

“I’ve gotten some amazing stories from just sitting at the bus stop for 20 minutes. Stories of people who had just gotten out of prison; stories of people who were working three jobs and were going home to feed their kids, who had been alone all day; stories of drug addicts,” Wolff said. “We all see the bus stops, there’s a lot going on there, but somehow we all invariably try to ignore them.”

Wolff’s blog is rooted in ethnography, the study of cultural trends and patterns. He said his interest in the field stems from an incident in 2006 after Wolff was robbed at gunpoint by Mexican police. He said this moment lead Wolff to study police corruption and police violence. Wolff would later go on to study and perform ethnographic studies in Brazil before returning to teach and work on a dissertation in Albuquerque. Wolff said his online project is a personal one, as a way to continue personal work out on the street.

Wolff’s first blog entry was in March as the instructor paired together with his student Anais Garvanian. Garvanian said she was nervous as the two headed over to the bus stop on San Mateo and Central — Garvanian had never been on the bus before.

“It’s different when you’re with someone, which I’m sure a lot of young women and boys would agree,” Garvanian said. “It’s just really probable that you’ll be harassed or at least feel uncomfortable when you’re at the bus stop.”

Garvanian said her trip began with a nice surprise. After realizing she had no money to take the bus, a runaway teenage boy stepped forward and paid her fare.

“Everyone was really friendly, and open to share their stories. I don’t know if I’m any less comfortable taking a bus stop alone. At the very least I think I’m a little more open-minded, a little bit less to judge,” she said. “People that are struggling can still be really giving.”

Miss Duke City Chanel Wiese helped Wolff with an entry in July, just a few weeks after her run for Miss New Mexico. Wiese, a former student of Wolff’s, said she was only accustomed to the city’s bus route leading from the West Side to the University.

Wiese’s experience led her to a momentary conversation with a woman who had recently been released from jail and to a confrontation between a bus driver and a group sitting at the back of the bus with a small bottle of whiskey.

Wiese, who enjoyed her time with Wolff, said the project shines a light on a side of Albuquerque that is underrepresented.

“I think it’s really important for someone like me to see that, somebody that might normally not be put in that situation, in face-to-face contact with different types of people,” she said.

“That is Duke City, that is Albuquerque, when you represent an area or say you love your city, you have to take all parts of it with you.”