by Stephen J. Lyons
Years ago I lived in Tucson’s Skid Row. That is where I met Frank. At the time I drove an ice cream truck for a company called Miss Sharon’s. My boss cashed me out each night with a loaded .357 magnum resting on his desk between us so there would be no arguments when he shortchanged me. There were none. Frank used to hang out at the shuffleboard courts, just down the street from the plasma donor center. Despite our age difference, we took to each other right way. Over time, we told each other our stories. I was an inexperienced hippie with a guitar and a notebook and a dream of being the next Dylan, Jack Kerouac, or Jack London. Frank? His ambitions were quite different. Unlike me, he had lived a long, tough life. After each conversation I would hurry back to my apartment and jot down his words as best as I could remember in a small, cloth notebook with the word “Record” stamped in gold type on the cover. At the time, it felt like the most important thing in the world to be doing. As if I might just be a writer after all. Anyway, I hope Frank forgives me if the following is not a word-for-word recollection of our talks, and if I took a few authorial liberties in the retelling. Somehow, I bet he’d be okay with it.
In 1940 I was shipped down here by bus from the state hospital in Medical Lake, Washington. Doctors determined from some tests involving electricity that I was officially normal, or at least not any kind of threat to anyone except myself and that never counted for shit. So they set me free to roam with twenty-six bucks, a comb, leather hiking boots, a one-way ticket to Arizona, and thirteen bottles of blue and green pills—someone’s bright idea to stop these voices I’ve been hearing. But I threw all the pills away in Boise just after I started to see two of everything. Did not like that. Seeing one of anything is plenty. I’m officially called disabled, “not suitable for employment.” That’s what it says right here on these papers I keep in my socks. What them papers don’t say is that I can walk farther than anyone, that I love the desert at night more than anything else in this certifiably crazy world, and that I seen lots of things. Hey, I’m not the only one. Tucson is a dumping ground for us homeless and so-called bums. We’re like some lost tribe of wrinkly men, hanging out in what’s left of downtown, bumming dimes off heat-seeking tourists from Iowa who flock down here in the winter to warm up and have themselves a Native American-Southwest-Kokopelli-cultural experience. I’ve never seen unhappier people in my eighty years. Unlike that bunch—and the rest of the world—we homeless respect each other’s privacy and space. We say exactly what we think. No filters. Tourists don’t much like that but truth ain’t for the faint of heart. Sure, some of us drink ourselves into a white heat. I confess I’m no angel on that score. And the younger ones out here are dangerous. They’ll open up your gut with a rusty blade for a few quarters. Drugs make ‘em do it—all that crack business with the pipes and needles—and I don’t mess with drugs. No sir. This here life is strange enough as it is without throwing drugs into the mix. Cops ain’t much better either. Again, it’s those itchy younger ones who don’t respect anything older than yesterday.
As for me? I ride the Sun-Trans bus every day of the year. Call it my day job. The drivers mostly leave me alone because I don’t talk out loud, don’t stink, and I don’t panhandle anybody. And unlike most folks, I know where I’m headed. I take the Number 8 right out of Ronstadt Transfer Station down Broadway to Alvernon where I switch to the 14, which goes east to the last stop at the Botanical Gardens. Ever been there? Then I walk straight into the desert. No one can out walk yours truly. I’m like a tank. I never stumble, and I can see at night like a tomcat. I’ve been as far east as the Chiricahua Mountains, west all the way to Quintobaquito, south into Mexico to Tajitos. I stay away from the north, up by Phoenix and Scottsdale. Too many voices up there. I know every seam and crease of Sabino Canyon, even drank with the WPA bridge builders camped out there in the 40s when there were still trout in the creek and not those mean sunfish.
Look, I ain’t stupid. I listen and the desert’s been telling me her secrets. I’ve taught myself to identify all the cacti and cholla. And I can tell the exact day, precisely, more or less, because things are changing fast down here, when the ocotillo blooms; how long it takes a saguaro to grow its first elbow; how many thorns there are on each ear of a prickly pear; what direction a rattler coils; why we need bats. And I learned some other things, too, all of ‘em probably not too useful to anyone around here from what I can tell. I know where the desert tortoises live, but I’ll never tell anyone. I’ve seen ocelots, ring tails, wolves that ain’t supposed to be here, coral snakes as lit up as Christmas lights, and one fat Mexican grizzly with the face as big as an eighteen-wheeler’s hubcap. I’ve even spotted jaguar tracks. Don’t ask me where. These lips are sealed. And I’ve seen the families, women and children mostly, crossing the desert from Mexico, always running, always looking over their shoulders like scared jackrabbits, throwing themselves right into the thorn bushes to avoid the border patrol whose vision is even better than mine. Hey, those families are all right by me, and I give ‘em what I can: water, oranges, bus tokens, cigarettes, some of my government money, though it ain’t never enough.
But, look, things are dying out there, out beyond the golf courses, the condos, the super malls that won’t let the likes of me inside, past all of them new lawns with their goddamned sprinklers that run full blast in the middle of the day, and them houses that remind me of tombs. Dying, every last bit of it. White-barked sycamores, live oaks, cottonwoods, velvet ash. All of ‘em retreating back down the hills, crowding into the last slips of creek, spring, and shade. Even the saguaros. Why the hell should anyone believe me? I’m just an old bum with rotten teeth that hears voices. But every day them voices get louder. It’s kinda like a million mountain lions screaming at the same time. ‘Cept it’s the desert screaming. Know how they make the desert scream? They use these three-story-sized earth movers with chains to drag out the Palo Verde and the mesquite, the tortoises and the Gilas, hedgehog cactus, anything and everything that gets caught in the teeth of them machines. And they work at night when they figure no one’s around. But I see ‘em alright, yeah I see ‘em, chewing up the desert, pissing on everything, throwing them damn beer cans in the brush, stomping on the lizards and scorpions, generally making a holy mess of things. Everyone’s in on it. It’s one big land and plant grab. They dig up the jumping chollas, cow skulls, rocks, Indian drawings, and ship ‘em off to them health spas in Sedona or Santa Fe. Then the javelinas and lions and anything that can outrun the machines head further south toward Nogales, and Heaven help ‘em down there.
Me? I’ve run out of places to run to. Besides, I want to be right here, in Tucson with my buddies, when this city gets the dry heaves, when the water runs out, when the sprinklers quit hissing, when the swimming pools evaporate, when the entire stinking mess comes crashing to a goddamn halt, pardon my French. Now some years back I heard people on the buses talk about saving water, pulling up the Kentucky bluegrass and letting the desert come back. But now no one mentions water. A thousand people a month are moving down here, mostly lawn lovers from Canada and Ohio. They don’t care about water. They ain’t listening. They don’t hear nothing ‘cause they’re too busy talking. But I’m doing everything I can to save the desert. I don’t leave the tap on anymore when I wash up at the Greyhound station. When I see people hosing down their sidewalks I give ‘em the evil eye. I haven’t flushed a toilet in ten years. See, I pay attention to my friends—the plants and animals. They tell me to lie low during the day when it’s hot, like a lizard does, to shut down my body; to do my walking at night when it’s cooler. Last summer the temperature got to 130, and I did just fine.
Now, I still got me some good friends down in the Barrio. Like me, they feel squeezed out by the New Agers, the architects and painters who think the neighborhood is charming—authentic, whatever that means. Hell, they even named it the “Art District.” But to us it’s our home ‘cause it’s familiar. It’s all we got besides the medicine and each other. On Saturday nights, if I’m not out walking, and the cops are chewing on donuts somewhere, we all get together—the old timers that is—at the shuffleboard courts. We pass a little malt beer around and swap stories about old Tucson, the way it was before the gangs and the crystal meth and the forty-million-dollar Civic Center that cut the heart out of this here city and pushed out from the center of things. This was some sweet city. A hobo’s paradise. Lemons, oranges, grapefruits would fall into your hands. You had to be a fool to starve. There were hummingbirds and flickers in every tree and bush. Varieties of birds and flowers you ain’t never going to see again. Less cops, more trains. No malls filled with useless plastic junk and them kids with their hats turned the wrong way. And a hell of a lot more water.
Back then the voices were only whispering to me. Lately I don’t feel that good myself. I guess me and the desert are on the same time line, health-wise. We’re running out of time and energy. Not to mention that H2O business. We can’t fight ‘em anymore. Too many machines. Who knows how long we’ll hold out. I figure I’m about ready to call it quits. Let someone else have this here job. There’s only so much change a person can fit into one lifetime and not get their heart hurt. One of these days, and soon, I’m walking out into the sagebrush and I ain’t ever coming back. I know just the place, too. Out there to the southeast, past Dos Cabezas, in the Chiricahuas. No voices anywhere around, ‘cept the good ones like gray jays, coyotes, owls, red tails. And there’s these trees, they call ‘em alligator junipers, with this funny black bark that looks like its been all burnt to Hell and stitched back together, like an ugly puzzle, like yours truly. Growed to be sixty-feet tall with branches sticking out every which way because the wind makes things interesting up there. I always figured them junipers to be my good luck trees. Like we share some big secret. Anyways, I’m going to lie down under the biggest one I can find in the canyon, look up through those branches with their purple-green berries that stink like skid row gin, close these old sunburnt eyes, and think about how I got here, all them long walks under the stars in the desert. I’ll retrace every step I ever took in the last fifty years. I’ll sort the whole damn thing out once and for all. And I’m going to remember every plant, animal, and snake, that fat grizzly, too; all my hobo buddies down on Congress Street, who, by the way, ain’t looking too sharp themselves, and all them Mexican families that never hurt nobody and just want a chance at something better. By the time I’m found, my bones will be as white as widow’s hair. The smart ones will find me first, the coyotes and bobcats. Maybe a little band of javelinas will poke around after that, although I won’t have too much they’d be wanting. Then the buzzards and the ants can pick through what’s left and scatter these old bones all over southern Arizona and Sonora. I’d be giving something back to this desert, such as it is.
I got no regrets, either. I gave this here life my best shot. Listened to the voices, behaved myself on the buses, didn’t waste no water, never harmed even a fly. No sir. I only got one favor to ask. When I’m gone please tell someone about the machines, how they’re stealing all the beauty in this world. Tell ‘em enough is enough. We already got us enough cars, guns, and televisions, and a million other things to make us all jittery. As it is, the world’s running too fast for a person to think about any important stuff like frogs and lizards, stars and river rocks. What we need is some places to walk at night so folks can move around quiet-like and breathe deep, not always get in each other’s way. We need less roads and more things we can love that ain’t ever gonna change; that the earth movers can’t haul away. If you want to know what I’m talking about, go check on those white sycamores down in Sabino Canyon. Sit yourself down next to ‘em, and listen. But just remember, bring lots of water. It’s getting dry down there, bone dry.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism, most recently, Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. He is two-time recipient of a fellowship in prose writing from the Illinois Arts Council and his work has been published in more than a dozen anthologies, as well as Newsweek, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Sun, High Country News, Psychotherapy Networker, Salon, Audubon, USA Today, and dozens more. He has reviewed books for a number of newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star Tribune. He received a Notable Essay mention in The Best American Essays of 2016.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • March 2017
Image header by dmitri_66.
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