The Vato Loco’s Last Ride 

By: Bill Whaley
29 June, 2017

Richard Trujillo, May 19, 1941—June 29, 2017

My friend Richard died on June 29, 2017 at UNMH, a morphine drip smoothed the way after 8 days in ICU. Late last year cinders from his wood stove set his house on fire. The fire department got the call but couldn’t find his house on Cosme Lane just off Los Pandos. His cousin Frank Salazar found him trying to live in the burned out hulk, suffering from what appeared to be an ear infection and worse, moved him to Holy Cross where an MRI indicated a mass at the base of his skull, a tumor.

From there, friends, Debra Villalobos and Bill Whaley, with help from Peggy Nelson got him moved into the Taos Living Center, where he thrived at first and found the facility hospitable. “Everybody here is cool with me,” he said, frequently. Despite numerous trips to UNMH, the mass remained largely a mystery but grew increasing painful, requiring more pain meds to sleep and maintain. Still, we drove him around to the mail, Walmart, Michael’s, Paul’s Men Store, Brodsky’s, and the Gorge for a few beers a few times.

Occasionally on the way back from Albuquerque we stopped at Kokoman’s for a purchase, which beer he drank at the picnic tables at County Line Access Road along the Rio Grande where the rafts float by. You couldn’t pass through Espanola or Velarde, Santa Fe or Albuquerque without a story of the now distant past. Years ago, after being in the Guard and spending some time in the joint, he said he made some contacts and used to make the trip from El Paso north. “I was like the milkman, Whaley, delivering dope, marijuana, up through the villages.” That was back in the sixties and seventies. Now a single beer gave him a headache and he had to give up the Miller and the Bud.

Yes Richard, whom I’ve known since 1969 when we were neighbors in Canon, and I made the grand medical tour in my beat-up 1995 white Ford Ranger. He got Cat Scans and MRIs at Sandoval Regional Medical Center and nuke sans and a lengthy biopsy at UNMH. We stayed at the Howard Johnson motel a few blocks from Lomas and the hospital. Between trips with Richard I had my own prostate problems, starting at Holy Cross but double-checked at Los Alamos Medical Center with a final pit stop for out patient “cryotherapy” surgery at the University of Colorado in Aurora on East Colfax in Denver back in May. Both of us had intermittent stops at Holy Cross Hospital.

So that’s what we’ve been doing since the first of February. I want to tell you something about Medicare, me, and Medicaid, Richard: we got damn good treatment. So when I hear about the mess in Congress I want to grind my teeth. For all the challenges New Mexico faces, the docs, the Living Center, the nurses and the aids, the systemic convolutions, for all that in this state and in Colorado, there is no shortage of compassionate and skillful care. Richard’s tumor was buried at the base of his skull where the sun didn’t shine and the object of the scalpel remained a mystery.

Now in Richard’s case, I can’t say “only the good die young.” He was 76. You’ve seen Richard, his long hair, bandanna round his forehead or hair stuffed under a hat, walking long the roads and streets in Taos, carrying a valise for the last decade and a half, from which he extracted poetry and prose, the Barbarian Dialects and Tio Zuco’s Weird Tales of Crime and Humor, which he sold in bars, most of which no longer exist.

The raconteur appeared at Don Carlos’s lounge and the Quality Inn, the Gorge (Ogelvie’s) or the Taos Inn. He drank at Martyrs and El Monte, too. Long ago he was a habitue at La Cocina, Tano’s Fernandez de Taos on the Plaza, the Living Room, the Plaza Bar, Old Martinez Hall/El Cortez Tavern, San Geronimo, El Patio (The Alley) or places you’ve never heard of like El Gaucho et al. To me he was like some Chicano Walt Whitman, who sold poetry door to door.

Sure his poetry and prose are untutored but the work reflects the authentic language and imagination of the street, which transcends the more civilized academic tones of most published poets or writers, due to the laughter and the daring. To hear Richard read one of his tales or poems in his backyard, aided and abetted by a few beers was a priceless experience.

And drunk, that longhaired vato loco Richard could be a little scary, what with that big knife and take no prisoners attitude. He shot a Chicano in the foot at the Zuni Lounge one afternoon. He broke a beer glass in the face of a big rambunctious Lakota Sioux in Tano’s. Tano told the bleeder, “You messed with the wrong guy this time.” He never got arrested on either occasion. When we stopped back then or even in the last ten years at a liquor store and a few Chicanos in the parking lot saw me and glared, they suddenly changed their attitude when Richard emerged; they gave him nothing but respect.

Oh, yes, lots of people disliked him for good reason but he was loyal to his friends. Course some people he said, were just “fucks.” He had a wicked sense of humor and an impish grin. And lots of ladies loved him the right way. “My friends are all dead,” he’d say, referring to the dangers of the trade, the needle, he never touched, and the gun, he used sparingly. He’d shake his head at the stupidity in the world.

His mailbox filled up with catalogues. He loved his CDs and books, the blues, Tom Waits, Dylan, Lenny Bruce, and Mark Twain. He liked Jack Palance posters, the gunfighter in Shane, whom he met one afternoon in Ogelvie’s. He was as independent as his pedigree, an orphan, adopted by the family of Cosme Trujillo in Canon from whom he learned to clean acequias and hand-dug wells like his single source of water at his house.

His Spartan existence rewarded him with a healthy body. When I helped him fill out forms for cataract surgery a couple years ago, he had little in the way of poor health, no high blood pressure, no ills; I checked all the boxes saying “no “except for emphysema, which he got fighting fires lo’ these many years ago. A former babe working for the unemployment department helped him get SSI, a kind of mini miracle, considering he had no phone, his birth certificate a problem, and virtually “no papers.” But SSI sustained him during his last decade.

Oh, yes, Richard was clever in the way he circulated, working (hustling) different neighbors, borrowing and paying back, moving round the community, whether the mark was Anglo or Chicano. Years ago Sally Howell told me Howell Cleaners (Bryans Gallery today) was getting hit, burglarized on a regular basis. So she mentioned it to her part-time yardman, Richard, who spoke to the perps and the pilfering stopped. There are lots of Taosenos who gave him rides but knew the ride included stops at the grocery store or bank or bar.

On the last ride to Albuquerque, I didn’t think he’d live. He never regained full consciousness. I checked him into the ER/ICU when we got to UNMH. Now, later in July when the state’s death forms have been filled out and the spirit’s soul satisfied, we the friends of Richard will get together, tell some stories, and celebrate La Vida, the last Vato Loco of Canon.

Kelly Pasholk and I are working on a new edition of Barbarian Dialects and Tio Zuco’s Weird Tales of Crime and Humor for print on demand. He completed two short tales in the winter of 2017, fittingly called: The Gateways of Oblivion and Parable: God and the Devil Fighting Over Me.

As he confronted his relentless decay and death, Richard was unrepentant. He became increasingly gentle and remained ever charming but blamed no one and did not possess an ounce of self-pity. He did his time.

P.S. During the coming days I’ll post some of his tales and poetry. 

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