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Faux Meth Is Big Business In 'Breaking Bad' Town

Jesse Herron and Mike Silva, owners of Albuquerque Trolley, offer tours of <em>Breaking Bad</em> sites.
Albuquerque Trolley Co.
Jesse Herron and Mike Silva, owners of Albuquerque Trolley, offer tours of Breaking Bad sites.

On a hot summer afternoon in Albuquerque, N.M., the setting for the hit TV show Breaking Bad, a trolley that resembles a roving adobe house is packed with tourists.

The series follows Walter White, a chemistry teacher who turns to cooking methamphetamine to provide for his family after he gets cancer. The show, which begins its final season Sunday, has attracted critical acclaim, a slew of awards and rabid fans — some of whom have crammed onto the trolley for a tour of Breaking Bad filming sites.

Jesse Herron and Mike Silva, owners of Albuquerque Trolley, usually show off the city's high points, like Route 66 and historic Old Town. But this tour has a slightly different flavor.

"This is the Breaking Bad Tour," Herron tells the crowd. "This tour you're going to see the back alleys. You're going to see like the ghetto. It's gonna be good."

The trolley goes by houses that served as exteriors for characters' homes, as well as much sketchier sites from the series. Guy Tower, a lawyer vacationing from Virginia with his wife, says he expected the tour to be gritty.

"You know, it's not like we're going to see where Gone With the Wind was filmed on a plantation," he says. "We knew it was going to be scruffy."

When the trolley guys did the first tour last year it sold out in a day. When they added more, says Mike Silva, tickets sold out in hours. Now they can disappear in minutes.

"And boom they're just gone," Silva says. "You just sit at the computer and watch the tickets deplete out of the system."

Some in the city are uneasy that the place known for hot air balloons and the Mother Road is now linked to a show about meth. New Mexico has one of the highest overdose rates in the country. But at a wrap party for the cast, Mayor Richard J. Berry says it's important to remember the show is fictional.

"Really I think it speaks to the fact that we're open for business from the film standpoint," Berry says. "As a mayor, you're glad to have this. This is a million dollars of direct spend per episode. And people I talk to that I meet outside of Albuquerque; it's a panache thing almost, versus a negative thing."

The show is not about meth addiction, says actor Bryan Cranston, who stars as Walter White. It's about the choices people make.

"Walter White made some damaging choices in his life, which started him on a spiral that he couldn't control and he went out of control and lost his soul," he says.

Cranston adds that narrative would work with many issues.

"It could have been gambling, it could have been alcohol, it could have been cheating on his wife, it could have been any number of things. It just so happened he was a chemist."

At the Candy Lady shop in Old Town Albuquerque, visitors can buy baggies of blue rock candy meant to look like meth from the series. In fact, owner Debbie Ball made the prop meth for the show's first two seasons.

Last year, she was condemned in numerous letters to the editor of the local paper. But she disagrees with critics who say she — and the show — glorify meth.

"Obviously it doesn't," she says. "To me it teaches you which way not to go. You go down that dark road and you can't come back. My son's in the military and my grandchildren's mother died of an overdose. I do understand it."

Another business benefiting from the show's popularity is Great Face and Body, which makes spa products.

Co-owner Keith West uses a cherry red cement mixer to make "Bathing Bad" bath salts that promise to "Relax Away the Bad."

"We started by mixing originally in a one-gallon bucket," West says. "So we joke that we had to get the cement mixer, which is what we're using now."

The aroma of bath salt fills the large room with spearmint, lemongrass, patchouli, lavender.

"The Bathing Bad scent comes from combination of 17 essential oils, because we said, what would meth smell like in spa world?" West says.

Great Face and Body also sells blue candy, and West jokes there's a good-natured turf war going on among local businesses. It's starting to sound a bit like a Breaking Bad scenario.

As Walter White would say, "Stay out of my territory."

But so far, there seems to be plenty of business for everyone.

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Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus and Weekend Edition, the Global Music Show - and her job first as Morning Edition host and now All Things Considered host - fulfilling a long-held wish to learn radio.
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