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DRUNK TOWN, USA
Gallup, New Mexico
A weathered metaphor compares the cycles of life to the seasons. The rejuvenation of spring, summer's warm length, the realizations of aging in the fall, leading to the end, the winter. As I drive through this ancient land and see snow clinging to shadows, I complicate the metaphor two-fold; it can also be compared to a culture. The whites of the Navajo winter...
While traveling among the Navajos you will notice some differences between the Dine culture and the European-American culture. One such difference is eye contact. To many people eye contact is considered polite and important. Among Navajos eye contact is considered impolite. If you are speaking to a courteous group of Navajos, some may look down or away, even though you may have their full attention...
Three days ago a woman's body was found in a ditch in front of Wal-Mart, and a man's body was found on the steps of a residence, both victims of exposure. A thirty-four-year-old woman died in a rollover on interstate 40 just outside of town. It was the woman's birthday, and authorities suspect she had been out celebrating. On that same day another distraught individual, arguing roadside with his girlfriend, suddenly jerked into the highway and dove under a car, ending his life. They were all Native Americans, their deaths all alcohol related. The unfortunate driver who ran over the man was cited for driving under the influence.
I am working at the Gallup Independent newspaper with engineer Mike Jarvela. We lighten the load with typical road humor: working with us for Goss is a towering young man from Poland named Lech. He seems typical of many Eastern Europeans I have worked with, big, strong, confident, and very independent. I have nicknamed him, 'The Gallup Pole.' Jarvela says we ought to start a coffee shop here - call it Nava-joes.
"They call Gallup 'Drunk Town, USA,'" a Navajo told me at work. "There's no alcohol sales on Sundays. There is a law that you must have a vehicle to buy alcohol in town. So the guys sleeping under the bridges or walking around can't drink. The town of Dead Horse sells alcohol on Sundays, they say they have record sales of alcohol in Dead Horse because of this. I think the only town in New Mexico with a higher rate of DUI is Las Vegas. Domestic violence, yes. Fights in the barrooms. No, not a lot of stealing, but there are issues."
Gallup sprawls like frosted flakes in a bowl straddling Interstate 40 and a fifteen-sets-of-track railroad. It is surrounded by diverse topography including barren, hundred-mile stretches to the north; hilly, pine studded tracts to the south; and northwest, into the heart of the Navajo Reservation, stunning canyon scenery. There is a giant pole with a rusted pickup truck perched atop. There are, according to the signs entering town, 34 motels. The cheapest is sixteen bucks a night. The great Navajo Reservation, with over 200,000 souls in its 25,000 square mile block of land mostly in Arizona, but edging into Utah and New Mexico, surrounds this high desert railroad stop. In Gallup a white person is a decided minority.
You may not be successful in striking up a conversation with a Navajo. The general exuberance many cultures define as friendliness is not considered such by the Dine. From childhood they are taught not to talk too much, be loud, or be forward to strangers. Such behavior is considered impolite or showing off...
"I am thirty-one years old and I have a seventeen-year-old son, and a sixteen-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. I am getting my high school diploma now. I want to move away from here, I've always wanted to move away."
"Where would you like to go?"
"Back to Farmington."
The police regularly search the ditches on cold nights in an attempt to prevent exposure deaths. The Indians like to drink, and although it doesn't seem so out of line from, say, Wisconsin, where I once counted sixteen barrooms in the mile and one half in Green Bay between my hotel and Lambeau Field, there is a marked difference in the mentality. The trying realities of hopelessness, poverty, alcoholism, suicide, obesity, and distressing child mortality rates all sire anger and frustration among their most afflicted. And some of these drink themselves senseless, and lay down in ditches.
"My husband is typical husband. He will never admit he is wrong; he will never allow me to see him cry. He is always right. In some ways he is not so good to me. My family and my children say I should develop a life without my husband, but I don't know..."
There are big men, angry men, and drunken men. You sense they can turn on you any moment, that you must be on guard. At work I was told that the sheriff showed up the first day and instructed the white press installers which barrooms to avoid.
"Hey where you from, man?"
"You like cocaine? I can hook you up."
"Naw, I'm too old for that shit."
"Where you from, man?"
Likewise, touching is seen differently. Among Navajos it may be reserved for close friends and family, and in other cases may be a sign of disrespect. Usually the only physical contact you will see is handshaking, and even then a firm grip is interpreted as being overbearing. When shaking hands a light touch is preferred...
"How 'bout weed, man. You like weed? I can hook you up."
"Naw, I don't smoke that shit anymore."
"Hey can you do me a favor? Can you buy me a beer?" When I cast a wary glance in response, he added, "My girlfriend is a pizza girl, she'll have money. She'll be here at ten."
"I think I'm gonna check out the other room," I said. He offered his hand, and nearly crushed mine when I shook it. I slapped him on the back as I left.
"Hey, where you from, anyway?" he called after me.