Escape to Tucson


Last week I was back in Tucson where the Mexican women sell tamales in front of Food City, the Chicano boys with fades cruise 22d street in bright yellow low riders with flames on the side, bikers play darts in low cinderblock bars, Tohono girls in black braids sway those sassy hips at powwows, the hippies lounge around on purple couches at Plush, strippers roll suitcases down Drachman to TDs, you can get student massages for twenty bucks, do yin yoga on fourth on Tuesday nights with Jen, meditate at Tara Mahayana, join the Fourth Street co-op, line-dance with live callers and cowboys in rhinestones and turquoise, Tucson!! Surrounded by mountains on all sides, fires raging in the Santa Ritas, public art in the barrios, Mexican war murals on the wall of the Arizona Inn, saguaro cacti, palo verde trees, thrift stores, art galleries, and public gardens. Right now it is about 108 degrees with zero humidity, but soon the monsoons will fill the arroyos and bring the smell of greasewood and sage, great cracks of thunder and 360 degree lightening shows. Tucson.

Tucson in the blood. Back in the day my father’s family lived along a reservoir in New Haven with memberships to three country clubs, a house on the shore, summers in Europe, chauffeurs and butlers and maids, and the story goes that a favorite aunt of mine stole the family car and drove west, leaving behind the coming-out and commodore’s balls, the martinis and pearls, the young men in blue blazers at the Lawn Club, the ballroom dancing, the white wedding in New York, the calling cards and sailing regatas. Legend has it, she drove through nine states and wound up in Tucson, where she met my Uncle Bill, a blonde farmboy from Oklahoma, six foot two and terribly handsome, a pilot for the airforce. He fell madly in love with my Aunt Julie, diamond studs in her ears, black bangs cut straight across like Garland, that lean five foot eleven frame. She was 19 years old, fresh from the New England with an elegance that defined Frederick John Kingsbury and sons. This is allegory of course, perhaps she stole the car, perhaps they gifted it to her, maybe she was 19 maybe she was 25, nevertheless there I was, growing up in a house with a manicured lawn in southern Connecticut, dreaming of Tucson and the blonde airforce pilot and most of all stealing a car and driving away into the night with everything I knew retreating into the eye of an Easter egg behind me.

Aunt Julie died of Ovarian cancer when I was nine. Like Dean or Monroe, she was an icon in our family, to us she will always be cocking her hip at Christmas parties, wearing silk as casually as denim, calling the young men into the library for stories and drinks, thin as a piece of paper, flashing her flirty eyes, the renegade. She left behind a son, Tommy Crocker. Springs I went out to visit Tommy in Tucson. He was older and therefore God, and he drove me around in a Suburban the size of a whale, we listened to Lunatic Fringe as loud as we could on the radio and went to the foothills where girlfriends lived against the rocky edge of Sabino Canyon in flat houses and javelinas hung out in their backyards. I thought in eighth grade I might bag my plane ticket home and live with Uncle Bill and Tommy, play Barbie dolls with my stepcousin, laze around on the rubber raft in their above-ground pool. Tommy farted on his cat to see what it would do and lifted weights in a room off the kitchen and there were wide avenues with palm trees and a great blue sky every morning. It hardly ever rained. People wore shorts and no shirts and lived in silver airstreams in the middle of the desert, making their livings selling woven blankets at the flea market near the airport, there were a million people there including black-eyed boys who whistled and called me queen in Spanish, and the city sprawled out before me like an opportunity. Back home it was grey and cold and desolate, my prep school had a dress code and my friends were the daughters of Yale Surgeons and Timex vice presidents. They did not understand about the dark red southwest, coyotes trading Mexicans, drug runners from Michoacán, Navajo boys cutting off their ponytails to prove their promises and Chicanos with tattood Virgin Marys on their biceps.


When I grew up to be about thirty-three, I finally moved west. First to Bisbee where it smelled like lime and people made art all day, a man walked around in a chicken outfit and no one gave a damn, you could get massages for free and balance your chi with crystals and there were pig’s heads on the barroom walls, a man named Wolfe befriended me. He kept a .45 in his back pocket and walked with a cane, had a real buffalo blanket in his guest bedroom and real bullet holes in the adobe walls of his house. He and his buddies got drunk and shot around for fun. Wolfe O’meara was in his seventies and about the handsomest man I ever laid eyes on. He smoked Camels and in those later years only drank wine, though when he was younger he told me he drank all kinds of things and sometimes lost cars or wound up on the wrong airplane. His unlawful activities led him to hide out on a Navajo reservation for a few years, where he learned to pound nickels to make jewelry. He had a silversmith off the end of his house in Bisbee, where he made fine silver necklaces, bracelets and rings and sometimes gave them for free to pretty girls. I lived down the road from Wolfe, in an old mansion on the edge of town that used to be owned by a mining barron. It was filled with antiques and the neighbor who lived beneath me, Max, an old bald rodeo man with mouth cancer and legs so bowed you could walk through them without touching either one, rode me around the borderlands in a blue Cadilac big as a living room. Max had been married about seventeen times. He knew about the ranchlands and wildflowers near Patagonia and sometimes we drove into Mexico and drank shots of tequila for a dollar, bought big straw hats and I practiced my Spanish while Max chewed an unlit cigar and told me stories about bull riding. Bisbee. Where the men outnumber the women about 7 to 1 and wear black cowboy hats and carry guns. For money, they play outlaw in the streets of Tombstone for tourists. I stayed about a month in those windy streets where the candy-colored houses are built into the rock, when you yell inside the tunnels, they answer back and every roadside has on it a shrine to someone lost. After a month, I packed my car and moved north. To Tucson.

I lived in Tucson for about a year in an old building that people said was once a nunnery or a mental institution, I never knew which. The Spanish tile floors had been made in Mexico and laid out on the streets to dry so that dog prints ran through my apartment. There were great wood beams across the ceilings. The windows looked out over the Tucson mountains and a blooming Palo Verde tree. I kept dried chilis on the walls and cows skulls someone found in the desert and set out to dry, I dated a Chicano boy from south Tucson whose sister worked at a morgue. His pillow talk was about Russian Roulette parties and gang members shooting one another along the south Tucson alleyways, a sweet boy with black eyes, who wanted to learn Chinese and saw things before they happened, heard voices between the songs on the radio. He showed me churches in the middle of the desert where people used the mud from the ground to heal and bought me great suede capes with fringe and murals born into the leather. During that year, Tommy moved to Phoenix from LA. I am sure if ghosts have will power, then my aunt Julie had something to do with that serendipity. Tommy had become a corporate man with a wife and a child on the way. Sometimes he came down to the high desert and we drove the streets like we used to when he was sixteen. My other cousin lived there, too, and he came down to show me the gritty side of Tucson, the Branding Iron and the Bandit, where men had silver teeth, if they had any and drank whiskey straight up. There were pigs feet on the counter in ointment that looked like iodine. My mother cousin taught me how to shoot pool on a tilted table and was my guide to the strip clubs along Drachman and Stone. I was writing a novel and needed to know about champagne rooms and cigarette girls.

A group of old women gathered in Tucson called the Crones. At their gatherings the old women drummed, dressed in purple and talked about the mystery of death. There I met Cora, an 80 year old dancer who had studied with Graham. We went to Powows where she wore bright red and turquoise wraps and silver jewelry. I met truckers who hauled Benitos and went to strip clubs where the cigarette girls turned tricks in the champagne room. For exercise, I rollerbladed at Reid park where on spring evenings they did Romeo and Juliet on a makeshift stage. My third novel was being born. It was about a girl lost in Tucson. The girl wants more than anything to be lost, and a boy she knew a long time ago is looking for her. I saw that girl everywhere and sometimes I was her. While I was writing this novel, my first novel came out. I did my debut reading at Antigone Books on 4th.

Wolfe died that year and the morning his son called to tell me, I left for Santa Fe, drove six hours in the back of a rancher’s sedan to the Cowgirl Café to grieve him at late night bars in the Zocalo and then came back to his funeral in Bisbee, where the women cried, each one saying she was the one he loved best. People drank and roasted pig out back, or I think they did. Late in the day I found myself in the living room, alone with an altar someone had made. There were a dozen pictures of Wolfe O’meara in his younger years. I knelt down on the and picked up a black and white of him in a cowboy hat, with a cigarette in his hand, his denims slouched on cowboy boots, his blues eyes squinting in the sun. I thanked God I didn’t know Wolfe then. He might have ruined me for the other men, for who could have compared to him? Wolfe, like my aunt Julie, escaped a high Northeast life to come west, and he used to say to me, “The people out here are braver, more courageous, they take more risks, their ancestors are the ones who braved the wagon ride for Christ’s sake.”


I left the summer Mount Lemmon burned. It was 112 in Tucson, the air was liked warped grass and the elderly were dying in their houses. I had been running around with a boy who had a motorcycle and a big heart. We went up the mountain right before the fire hit. On the way up, we saw great formations of rock reminiscent of dinosaur days. That night we ate dinner on a deck looking over the aspens in pines. I was shivering from the drop in temperature and my scant clothes. Some locals invited us to a party, gave us plastic cups and showed us the bathtub keg, they played guitar, someone sang, my date played hand drums, and I wandered around the place looking at family photographs on the wood-paneled walls and wondering what it was like to live high up there, overlooking the city in a tiny tourist town with good folks. The next day, driving on the back of the motorcycle back down to Tucson, we passed great overlooks on the curve of each switchback and finally stopped to look at the view. Down in the canyon below you could see the route it took for peoples’ cars to tumble. An old 1960’s VW van was oxidizing in the sun. Next to it another sedan so badly rotted from weather, it was barely recognizable. I wondered who those people were, if their bones were fossilizing into rock. We went slower after that down the mountain to Tucson. I remember buying lemonade from two Chicano boys in East Tucson, sitting in their hot driveway, braving heat for dimes.

The next day Lemon began to burn. Smoke lay over the city like a haze and locked it in heat. It was like walking around in an oven, my maroon Volvo had no a.c., I sold it for 1,000 bucks to some guy who’d been in Tucson all his life, and then I broke my lease to come east. When the plane struck down in Hartford, I was struck by all the green. I housesat that summer, jumping from one friends place to the next. It struck me sometime around August, sitting on a terrace overlooking a parcel of oak and maple, a stone’s throw from my mother’s house and surrounded by friends, that everyone needs a place to escape, a place where she is not entirely herself, where she can date a security guard from the barrio, buy a cranky Volvo, write her first novel, ride around in an art car that looks like a fish, ride on a motorcycle over a cattle grate to feel it vibrate, sit in the tiny chapel at De Grazia’s Gallery looking at the flower sketches under the light of a full moon, everyone needs a place of escape, of risk, a place different from her genesis where she can make wishes at El Tiradito, and prayers at Mission San Xavier del Bac and sometimes she can head down to NoGalas, Mexico to eat fresh menudo as the sun sets over the Tucson Mountains. And while she is heading north up AZ83 through Patagonia, the ranchers’ land and the roadside shrines, she might realize she has found that elusive thing she’s heard about all her life: the Open Road, and she might feel, well, American, living the dream so many have talked about and some have actually made come true. She might understand why Horace Greely’s imperative Go West Young Man (or Woman) came to be so famous, she might feel a little like Mae West in the movie by that same name. Maybe she would put the soundtrack from Priscilla Queen of the Desert on the stereo, open all her windows to smell that desert sage and sing aloud to the prickly poppies and the brown-eyed evening primrose along the highway, trying her best to imitate the Village People as they sing that song: (Together) We will fly so high, (Together) Tell all our friends goodbye, (Together) We will start life new, (Together) This is what we’ll do: GO WEST!

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7 Responses to “Escape to Tucson”

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