Alex Montaño can remember when these parking lots along west Central would fill with lowriders, banter and impromptu hydraulics competitions. The Sonic under the neon Route 66 overhang would be jammed with nothing but lowriders, and you'd drive through to holler at your friends, show off your car and, of course, pick up girls, he says.
The late-'80s model Dually we're in rolls up Albuquerque's main drag, an echo of a time when such vehicles were king on a weekend night. But the herd has thinned, and although we get props and nods from cruisers around us, we're definitely one-of-a-kind tonight. The strip mall parking lots remain vacant. “The younger generation doesn't have respect for each other, I guess,” Montaño says. “Fights and cops just ruined it.” Cars still pack the Sonic, but none are as nice as the one we're in, its gorgeous flecked orangy-red paint glinting briefly as we pass under streetlights.
The paint makes the car, according to Montaño. “This paint? This is George's work,” he says. George Jaramillo was one of the biggest names in Albuquerque lowriding, owner of a paint and body shop and president of Rollerz Only, a local car club. He died about three years ago, says Montaño, leaving the Rollerz in disarray. The club split into two factions, dividing the community. Montaño shows me the Rollerz tattoo on his upper arm.
Montaño’s 14-year-old goddaughter, Janelle Martinez, sits on speakers in the back, handing up CDs as Montaño requests them. She's quiet throughout the ride, shy as passengers in other cars look over the Dually. “We're definitely turning heads tonight,” Montaño says. “When you're in a nice car, when you cruise, people want to be your friend.”
There’s something to be said about being the most cherry ride on the road. We hit Downtown around 10 p.m. Central hasn't been blocked off yet on this Friday night. It's bumper to bumper, a drowsy pace, but there's a sense of respect coming from most everyone we pass. The Dually's gone through four owners, Montaño says, that's four people who put years and money and work into the car. Squirrel Montoya owns it now.
A lot of the better rides don't come cruising anymore, Montaño says. Hassling from police has really put a damper on things. Lowriders are often pulled over, he says, adding that he once got a ticket for purple neon lights he installed on the underside of his ride. “It looked like it was glowing when you drove down the street,” he says. Montaño doesn't have that car anymore. Somewhere along the line, he had to make a decision. “I had to ask myself: Do I want a house? Do I want a car?” The money you put into these vehicles, you'll never get it back, he says.
“But it's in my blood to have a lowrider.”
It used to be a community, something for people under 21 to do on a weekend, he says. “Nobody really cruises alone.” There even used to be a Christmas parade, with cruisers decking cars in Christmas lights and backing Central up for miles. People without cars would come out, sit on the sidelines and watch the vehicles.
Unintelligible words from a bullhorn break through our music as we slowly make our way across Seventh Street. It's coming from a police car. The officer is telling a group of onlookers to move along. Montaño shrugs and shakes his head. We clear Downtown just in time. The barricades are going up.
We finish the ride, park the car and turn off the lights. Montaño leaves, but Janelle and I hover near the Dually. “It's nice, huh?” she says.