by Nicole Walker
Traffic is backed up all the way from Enterprise and Route 66 to the light behind Huntington and Butler. I’ve barely made it through the gauntlet where people driving cars with license plates from Texas and California dodge from the Chevron gas station to the Motel 6, from the McDonald’s to the entrance ramp for I-40. We who live here drive west toward downtown for dinner but they can’t see us, even though we are the ones with the sun in our eyes. My friend’s son was killed here. He was riding his motorcycle and someone didn’t look left before they pulled out of the Mobile. The semi-trucks forge ahead regardless of flesh and metal. I ride my bike on this road although not at rush hour and definitely on the sidewalk.
The light on Huntington turns green. I hold my breath and floor it. The longer I stay in the gauntlet, the higher the risk a Floridian with a motorhome the size of a bus, towing an F150, towing a trailer, will think my car is just a big green bug and crush it against one of its many grills.
But, I’m hurrying to nowhere. The red lights blink. The barricades fall like a barber pole on break. I should get a bumper sticker that reads, “This Car Stops at All Railroad Crossings” because it’s a rare day when I don’t get stopped by a train. I count the engines. One, two, three, four. It’s going to be a long one but at least it’s booking it. Fifty miles an hour? Maybe. In Portland, the ordinance forbids trains to go over twenty miles an hour. It is a long wait for a train to pass in Portland. In Flagstaff, not so much.
Perhaps that’s what makes a city—an ordinance that slows the trains, which means Flagstaff is out of the running. Or is it merely acts of ordinance that define a city? A couple of years ago, Flagstaff passed an ordinance to ban train whistles. This was good. If you were walking downtown and the train horn blew, you had to cover your ears to protect your eardrums. The bar, Altitudes, served “whistle shots” for $2 whenever the train blew by. Sure, our eardrums are now safe but with the new ordinance, how do Flagstaffians find cheap shots?
Perhaps what makes a city are train tracks themselves. You can’t be born on the wrong side of the tracks unless there are tracks to be born on the side of. In Flagstaff, as in many cities, the tracks divided the city by drawing racial lines. If you were white, you lived north. If you weren’t, you lived south. Although, as in most cities, this gets messed up when a university, which is the town’s primary employer, is on the south side of the tracks. And the definition gets more complicated when the city is on the edge of the Navajo reservation and the white people here divided the town by laying down the tracks, forcing some to the south, some to the east, and pushing a vast majority to the north where there is a lot of land but not a lot of water. Perhaps you define a city by how many indigenous people you displace.
Perhaps the full presence of native people of any kind negate the city title. The Hopi host festivals in the middle of downtown. A shop owned by a Navajo man sells Katsinas from both tribes. On Saturdays, there’s a Navajo rug sale at the museum. There’s a wool festival every June where Navajo weavers weave the rugs they’ll later sell at the museum. As part of the festival, alpacas, llamas, and goats are brought to Flagstaff from Ash Fork and Seiligman. Even Kingman.
But then again, because the alpacas are brought to Flagstaff and don’t live here permanently, perhaps that’s what makes Flagstaff a city. There are few alpacas on either the south or the north side of the tracks. Maybe hosting many festivals in the square makes Flagstaff a city. Maybe because Flagstaff brings so many people from far away, into town, it’s a city. Maybe, like a good city, Flagstaff is a melting pot. My daughter goes to Puente de Hozho, a trilingual magnet school. The name for the school, Puente de Hozho, is a mash-up of languages. Puente means bridge in Spanish. Hozho means peace, balance, beauty, and harmony in Navajo. That’s a lot of abstract ambition to lay on a school. The school population is divided equally among white, Hispanic, and Native American kids. It is more a melting pot than Flagstaff proper, which has 73 percent white people, 12 percent Native American, and 15 percent hispanic and other populations. But Salt Lake City, which must be a city because the word “city” is in its official title, claims about the same number of white people and a few more Hispanic people. Although no one thinks of Salt Lake as a wildly diverse town. There are only 2.7 percent African Americans in Flagstaff or Salt Lake, which doesn’t make either seem very melting pot-like at all.
Perhaps it is the melting pots themselves that make Flagstaff a city. While the fondue chain “The Melting Pot” does not have a franchise here, you can order fondue at Beaver Street. You can order hog jowls braised in Dr. Pepper at Tinderbox. You can order charcuterie there, too, that features house-made duck prosciutto, duck rillette, a pork and pistachio terrine, chicken liver pate, and cranberry chutney. Or, the steak tartar, raw yolk in the middle, pistou to swirl your beef-ridden fork into on the side. There are oysters at Buster’s and cut-to-order steaks at Proper, Langostines from Brix, and pork belly tacos at Criollo. There’s flatbread with picked onions and roasted lamb at McMillan. There are $2 tacos at The Patio during Happy Hour and a Bahn-mi burger at the Lumberyard. There’s smoked salmon at Josephine’s and Chateaubriand at The Cottage Place. There are four Thai Restaurants—Swadee Thai, Pato Thai, Dara Thai, and Ewas—and much disagreement among university faculty about which is best. There’s a Korean restaurant, Vegan restaurant, Vietnamese restaurant and three Indian restaurants. You can get pasta from Pasto’s and rellenos from Salsa Brava (Thursdays only) and chilaquiles from Martanne’s. Il Rosso stays open until three a.m. Coppa has been named one of the best restaurants in Arizona. You can spend $165/person for a truffle-inundated tasting menu/wine pairing. You can also just pop in for an $8 vegetable gratin. Perhaps this vast array of restaurants makes Flagstaff a city. Perhaps the fact that I can name nearly all the fancy restaurants in one paragraph means it is not. Still. If you go to Coppa, order the tomato bisque. Maybe the roasted boar. At least a macaroon.
But when you leave Coppa you will have to drive on Milton, which eventually turns into Route 66. Milton backs up worse than Huntington, especially when the entire three million people of Phoenix drive the 140 miles up the mountain to see the impossible weather phenomenon called snow. Do not go to Coppa on this day. Do not go downtown. Do not try to go to the Snowbowl which half of Flagstaff is boycotting because the Hopi protested the use of gray water to make snow on the mountain. They lost because corporations always win in Arizona and also in the US, which makes us a city for all the loss. Perhaps a protest makes a city.
If you are driving on Milton during snow days or in the summer when Phoenix is not only a melting pot but a boiling one, take a right instead to avoid it and drive through campus. It is slow, but not as full of tourists. The students obey the crosswalks, for the most part. No one tries to cut you off. Most everyone is on a bicycle. The campus is not a city.
The campus is not a city but you will have to wait behind a city bus there. And you will follow a bus on Huntington and on Butler, on Route 66 and Milton. Buses are for everyone and undoubtedly, this is the primary test of cityhood. There are eight bus routes. The three most popular run from 6:15 a.m. to 10:36 p.m. They all run on Sundays. This is more than I can say for the bus system in Salt Lake City which did not run on Sundays. It did, however, run on Saturdays and I would walk the mile and a half to the bus stop, styling my hair into a fauxhawk and stabbing my ears with safety pins to head downtown to shop at the Raunch Records where I bought all the Crass albums. I wrote my name using the same broken letter font that Crass used on their album covers on my eighth grade homework. On the bus, it took thirty minutes to get from my house to downtown—meaning no matter how punk rock I thought I was, I lived in the suburbs, which was not downtown, where I wanted to live.
Maybe living in the suburbs but wishing you lived downtown makes Flagstaff a city. I live in the suburbs of Flagstaff. A herd of deer just walked through my backyard. Running around the lake that really is just a pond because we live in the Southwest where we call even puddles “lakes” in the hope to make it true, twenty-three elk walked in front of me. Elk look like a cross between a camel and a cow. Whoever invented them must have thought “melting pot” or “a bridge between species” or hybrid “city-town” when they invented elk. Elk are no singular thing, but then again, maybe nothing is, especially when it walks in front of you and you are wearing jogging clothes even though you’re really just walking around the pond you call a lake because you so want it to be one.
I have friends who live downtown, right off Butler. They can walk to Proper for Mortadella, to Uptown for whisky, to Motherlode for IPA. Motherlode serves no food but Pizzacletta, next door, will bring them pizza fired in the wood-burning stove built in Naples and shipped here stone by stone. They can walk to campus and walk to poetry readings and walk to the library and walk to the park.
Perhaps walking makes a city. Ask Walter Benjamin. Ask the flaneur. My friends, the ones who live downtown, Erin and Justin, walk like a city. Justin, sixteen feet tall, walks fast and crosses the second before the “walk” light says go. He does not saunter. There is no drawl in his step. Erin, who lived in Brooklyn with him, walks fast too, but she is not endemically city. Erin makes elk tamales with her mom. Her mom has a southern drawl. Her dad drives a truck and lives in Donney Park, not even suburb, but exurb, which means “land beyond” and “farm-like.” Yet her mom and dad come into the city every Monday for the poetry reading.
There are poetry readings, symphony performances, opera, and art walks. The Drive-by Truckers play the Orpheum. Social Distortion. Son Volt. Alt Country? Is Flagstaff Alt Country? Oh no. While I’m rethinking this city thing I will remember that homeless people may make a city, which seems bad but might be good in a way. If you were homeless, would you want to live in the country, alt or not, sleeping in barns, walking fifty miles between homesteads? Would you want to sleep in the mountains without a cabin or a lean-to or even a tent? The city promises services. It also promises alcohol, which I can imagine you would want extra of if you were homeless. It promises people with quarters and dimes. It promises a cup of coffee. Eating dinner one night at Karma Sushi, sitting at the coveted window seat, looking out, I saw a homeless man, or someone very down on his luck at least, sitting on the bench on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. He leaned with the lean of the alcoholic, something my dad did, at his worst. Is it that the drink is tipping the man or has the man tipped the world on its side, like a half-full glass of whiskey? While the man sat, leaning, three boys walked by. One came up and knocked the man’s hat right off his head. I ran out of the restaurant. They did this right in front of me, like this wasn’t a city made of people who might stop you from being an asshole.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Knocking a hat off someone?” I yelled.
“He was harassing us.”
“He was harassing you? Three guys harassing one old man. You are evil.” I tend toward the hyperbole when I’m yelling at people. Yelling is very city, although it’s also very crazy in a city where the three boys could turn and beat me into the sidewalk, but in Flagstaff, I can scream at the top of my lungs because Flagstaff is usually scream free, so any noise I make may make this Flagstaff not a city. No one beat me up. I marched them over to apologize. The guys gave the hat back, said they were sorry, not because they were, but because they wanted the crazy person from the city to leave them alone.
Maybe a city is defined by not being left alone, by being infiltrated and harassed, having to share the smallest seat on the bus, having to wait in line for everything, for being the victim of a crime, as I was when I lived in Portland. Once every three months, someone popped the hood of my VW Jetta and stole the fuel injectors, and it cost $500 to replace them. Finally, I got smart and bought an alarm for my car. Street smarts, my therapist used to say I didn’t have any. Well, after the third time fuel injectors were stolen, I did. I internalized the city and now, when I ride the bus, I share my seat. I wait in the grocery express line and say really loudly, “Well, I guess it is hard to count to fifteen,” and have found a short-cut around the train. I miss the art show and the poetry reading because I’m sure there will be another one soon. I stay home for dinner because I figured out how to make duck prosciutto myself and now, when I drive, I curse at the top of my lungs, but I also am honking at the guy who stopped on the train tracks and the guy who didn’t realize you can merge if you go the same speed and the woman who doesn’t understand you can take a right on a red, this isn’t New York City you know. Perhaps the definition of city depends on what kind of honking we’re doing. If it’s “you are a tourist in my way, so I’m honking at you,” then I am city, you are town. “No honking” means this is a town not a city. I always honk. Sometimes, the city is a jerk.
The city is the city that you are. I try not to always be the griping city or the honking city. Sometimes, I take the bus. Sometimes, I ride my bike. Sometimes, I see the people standing on the sidewalk. Sometimes I stop seeing I and start seeing us walking down San Francisco Street, tossing quarters in the jar by the man playing the flute and then another in the hat of the woman playing the guitar, sneaking a glass of wine from the art gallery, waiting in line at Criollo, watching the band set up in the square, buying a teapot from the tea shop and a Life Is Good shirt without irony from Mountain Sports, watching the moon rise in the east pulling New York city up and over, naming us.
Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts and winner of Best of the Net in both 2013 and 2014, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 2 • January 2016
Images by Erik Sather.