Observations on Arizona
I Am Not Making Any of this Up
A State of Mind
I rolled into Phoenix about a year and a half ago. I’d been here only once before when I was 17 for a visit to an aunt and uncle that lived in Peoria. I remembered the desert and the mountains that rimmed the stark landscape. I remembered that there were lots of Mexicans and Native Americans. I remembered that you could bake a cheesecake on the blacktop in August. I knew nothing about what it meant to live in a western town that still worships its personal freedom to ride a motorcycle without a helmet or carry firearms in public.
We got here in January and reveled in the balmy temperatures that never got low enough to put on a sweater. We drove around looking for “the center.” Strip mall after strip mall, Lowe’s after Home Depot after Wal-Mart etc, it’s a never ending shopping trip. If it’s dark you’re never sure anything is open. Storefronts, parking lots and strip malls are all so poorly lit that it looks like they’re expecting an air raid at any moment. We decided to settle in Tempe where we sensed an actual heartbeat like a real city. It’s home to one of the biggest party school in America…ASU. We live close enough to the school to feel the vibration of drunken festivities like pagan rituals where frenzied women tear wild animals to shreds. It’s what we thought was a heartbeat.
The Valley is a collection of small towns that run into each other from urban sprawl. Mesa runs into Tempe that runs into Phoenix or Scottsdale with no real delineation except separate library cards. However, each town has it’s own character and it’s own idiosyncrasies. Tempe is a college town with lots of scantily dressed drunken young people from all over the country. There is a center called Mill Street with cafes and shops that cater to alt-kids with multiple piercings and tattoos on every visible part of the skin. It’s slightly hippy dippy but the proximity to Scottsdale lends that “wanna be LA trampy glam.”
Scottsdale is unbelievable. It’s where you live if you have money or want people to think you have money. It’s expensive decorative art to hang over your sofa; thousand’s of plastic surgeons who will augment your breasts, suck the last five pounds out of your thighs, or botox your buttocks; and the most incipid human beings on planet earth. It’s like living in an actual soap opera…bad dialog and all. I have personally never seen anything like it. I refer to it as Scottsdale Syndrome. I went to a concert at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts and watched the parade of emaciated blonds with enormous fake breasts balance on stiletto heals like their hair was a basket filled with fruit. They are the epitome of the Stepford…or Scottsdale wife that has her skin pulled back into her hairline every year until she looks like her nose is about to pop off her face. They may actually be beautiful under all that crap but who knows? The one woman I watched with much interest in her gold shirt that was actually two strips in front that covered her basketball shaped breasts that defied gravity. I kept waiting for one small turn to the right or left so I could see what was under that garment. I have never seen anyone look more uncomfortable…even the glamed up female guests on late night talk shows look more at ease as they try to cross their legs without answering the question, “Do you wear underwear?”
This reminds me of a story my boss Jim once told me about a trip he and a colleague Dennis made to a topless bar. Dennis told one of the dancers that Jim was a plastic surgeon (he was actually a public servant) and she eagerly bounced over to him. “Nice breast job,” he drolly offered. “How do you know that they’re not real?” the girl squeaked with sincere interest. “Anytime a breast looks like what a 12 year old boy imagines in his fantasies they are definitely fake.” He responded. She took it as a compliment…and maybe it was.
There is nothing here that resembles American civilization, as you might know it from the East Coast. Architecture is mostly new and what might be described as experimental gone Duck Doggers in the 21st and a half century. There are buildings that look like giant wedding cakes, an upside down pyramid, giant glass buildings that act like mirrors to reflect parking lots and run down neighborhoods. The best architecture is seen in the adobe low buildings that really do look like they belong here. The only problem is adobe does not make a meaningful office building that can stand more than two stories. Even though the downtown buildings are modern in a cartoon landscape kind of way, the public sitting areas around fountains or outside these building try to fool you into a “natural setting” by making sitting areas out of fake rock. There is nothing more uncomfortable than sitting on a fake rock…even real rock is better since it may be covered by moss if you’re lucky.
You can’t drink the tap water here. Every 7-11 and Circle K have water machine’s out front where, for 25 cents, you can fill up your own container with water that has been purified as follows: ion exchange pretreatment, high capacity sediment prefiltration, micro fine sediment prefiltration, granular activated carbon, reverse osmosis, post carbon filtration and ultraviolet disinfection. I copied this verbatim off the machine. What kind of rancid water needs all this careful manipulation to make it drinkable? What is it, raw sewage? And what the hell is “reverse osmosis?” Is it even water after it’s been altered this much? I’m almost afraid to take a bath in my tap water.
Then we get to the definition of personal freedom in a southwestern state. You are free to get on a powerful motorcycle dressed in a tee shirt, shorts, and flip flops and drive down Route 17 to Flagstaff at 75 miles an hour with nothing but your skull to protect your brain from spilling out like a cracked raw egg on the pavement. This is not bad enough but I see parents with their small children propped up against the sissy bar in the back with their towheads as naked as the day they were born. Can anyone say, “brain damage?” And I’m not necessarily talking about after the accident.
Personal freedom also means being able to carry concealed and unconcealed weapons anywhere you go. The other day right before sundown I pulled into the plaza where I do my laundry. I happened to see a dangerous looking young man with his pants down to his hips showing off the top of his boxer shorts and what appeared to be a 22 sticking out of his underwear. He was leaning against his car out front of Cheba Hut, the restaurant that openly caters to potheads, staring at the door and balancing his cell phone on his shoulder as he tried to light his cigarette. Anywhere else in the world I could have called the police. Not Arizona. It is perfectly legal for this young man…thug or no thug… to have a giant handgun stuck in the waistband of his pants. When I got into the Laundromat I kept waiting for the BANG but thank goodness it never came. I’m from NY. If you have a gun you have the sense to conceal it so you don’t scare the crap out of middle-aged women doing their weekly laundry.
There is a rather strange phenomenon on the streets and highways for a culture so in love with personal freedom. There are cameras set up along the side of the road that take your picture as you speed by or run a red light. The first time I received a photo of myself in the mail with a look of wrapped concentration on my face as I rushed to make it to my job as a salesclerk in Macy’s menswear, I took it seriously. I enrolled in online traffic school and paid as much or more in fees and fines as I would have if I paid the traffic ticket. I didn’t want a mark on my spankin’ brand new Arizona license. It turns out…these are not “legal” and if you get one you can exert your personal freedom and ignore it. Or you can simply send it back saying that this is not you…even if it’s the best photo of you ever taken, there is no recourse for the police department. No one will come to your door. You will not get a notice that your license is being suspended. They can’t legally collect the fine. I found this out a little late and the next time I got a photo of myself, smiling broadly as Greg and I traveled up route 17 to Sedona for the day. I simply filled it under Arizona memorabilia in my plastic file box.
This is a land of weird vegetation. It’s as different from Buffalo as the plant life on Mars (please, don’t interrupt me by the facts…I know there are no plants on Mars). The palm trees fascinate me. Who knew there were different varieties of palms? There are some that look like pineapples on steroids. There are palms that produce dates that hang in tangled bunches in the tree-lined meridians. There are tall brown stalks with crazy tufts of leaves that could bend almost to the ground in a heavy wind. But there is rarely heavy wind…or rain…or what might be described as weather at all. Every day is sunny and most days are hot. The only variation on a theme is partly cloudy, an occasional rainstorm that may last as much as an hour, or a dust storm usually only along the highway on desert roads. In the summer the temperatures can go up to 120 degrees…this is when I describe Phoenix as a strip mall in a pizza oven with a cowboy movie backdrop.
This is a ridiculously scenic state. Every time you drive 15 minutes in any direction from Phoenix the landscape will blow your mind and we haven’t even been to Monument Valley yet. The Grand Canyon, the giant red rocks, ancient cliff dwellings, cactus in bloom, wild flowers that will rival any natural beauty anywhere on the planet because they are set against these incredible mountain vistas that come up out of nowhere. On the pass to Jerome, an old mining town that is now a haven for artists, you look out over the mountain road on to a pastel panorama that looks like the planet of the Telatubbies. I can’t get enough of this landscape.
Mark Twain once said something like Choose Heaven for climate and Hell for company. That sticks in my mind as I requote, “Choose Arizona for climate and the northeast for company.” You could go on a road trip every weekend and be astounded by the natural beauty that is accessible 52 weeks a year. That is, if you plan your high country trip in the heat of summer and low country the rest of the year. We are driving distance from LA, San Diego, Utah, Las Vegas and innumerable other sites that are so unlike what we’re used to that to us it’s the height of exotic travel.
However, finding people that are liberal, who do not push their religion on you, and who have ideas beyond hairstyles and dieting is likely to frustrate even the most patient. The culture is of beauty, the art is artiface, the push is all for profit, and I don’t know where to look for others of my own kind. To be fair, I might just be missing them…I do however, try to strike up conversations with strangers everywhere I go. When I do, they invite me to join their church. I even had a dinner engagement with a woman from GA who said she was new in town and didn’t have a lot of friends. We went to a Mexican restaurant on the corner and she pulled two Bibles out of her satchel... one for me and one for her so we could discuss verses while we waited for our entrées. I am a big fan of the Bible but I am not religious. She wasn’t talking ancient literature following a people from tribalism through kingship…she wanted to snag me into the Truth…her Truth…to save my ragged soul. I had the fish tacos with a side order of Ecclesiastes.
I am finding all of this fascinating in an anthropologist from another planet kind of way. I hope to learn more of the people here and take this knowledge to my own planet so that we may learn the ways of this world. Sometimes all you need is an example of wrong to help make your own thing more right.