The Place Where Things Are Alone With One Another: Tucson
by Paul West
There is no river, of course, but a commodious watering place only a block away called the University of Arizona where you can amble among heavyset palm trees and through unvandalized beds of roses and pansies or, especially on weekends, sit on a smooth stone bench to let the well-tempered winter sun play on your face as you contemplate the oranges and lemons on suburban trees only a street away on Park, Tyndall, or Euclid Avenues. Above the trees loom the ocher, gray, and white hides of the mountains.
Every time I look up I see a ring of ragged peaks and think I am living on a stage set, while, overhead, coming in so often they go almost unnoticed, jet fighter-bombers in pairs make slow-flight approaches to nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, rockets in clusters under their wings, their wheels down, their turbines whining as if unfed. Not far away, they touch-land, then go right up again with a lunge of thunder, swarthy harbingers of the shapelessness of things to come, but in this scene as congruous as buzzards.
Friends back east are shoveling or blowing snow, while here, in this mellow limbo nested at 2,400 feet among the 8,000-foot Catalinas, the sun is constant, somehow generating in everyone you deal with an exultant agitation, an almost reckless heartiness you don't often find among students working their way through college, spelling one another at the cash registers in order to take their classes. No one rushes. A chat is paramount. Buy a TV Guide and someone in line will pick it up and read it. You are free to squeeze and evaluate their toothpaste, their mangoes, their tube of whatever number sun block they've chosen. Early in the morning, students who live outside of town drive up by the thousands and fill lots that create wide open spaces among the low-set apartment houses and the rather taller dorms, which have names like Manzanita, Gila, Yuma and Maricopa. Then, at about 4:00, as the sun begins to weaken, they head away from the watering place, and the lots look as empty as the desert itself. Transhumance is one word for this phenomenon, and those who walk across walk nimbly, almost enacting that strange sense of exemption you develop if you live here: snowless, iceless, rainless, in the tropic of euphoria. There is almost no weather but the sun, and it is hard not to feel young, lucky, imperishable, born to watch the sunsets forever as they shift and wheel, wan and flush, with sometimes a horizontal spectrum above them ascending from red to violet.
A stroll down Euclid Avenue takes you to The Stray Cat, “Tucson’s Party Spot,” a burned-out discothèque whose blue and orange awnings have survived. The building wears them like battle ribbons. Almost opposite stands the derelict Geronimo Hotel, chained against intruders, its ad no longer in the Yellow Pages (“Day-week-month-Phones-Elevator-Sun Deck 1 Block W of University”). What a glory once was here; the courtyard at the rear, off University Boulevard, has trim little cottages overlooking mature, tilting palms, and a round cactus garden thriving and full. The place begs to be reopened by those enterprising merchants who have turned University Square into arcades of tasteful boutiques offering Indian jewelry, paintings, sculptures, and rugs, rugs, rugs, as well as shoes and books galore. One has seen this kind of thing in the Virgin Islands, and the prices are reasonable, the variety startling. For all its chic, this is an old quarter of town: the pastels of the walls have faded, but are subtler for being mottled; the gardens have run ripe, and the fences are squishy. But there is atmosphere all right. For every defunct creperie there’s a bicycle shop, for every barricaded beer parlor there’s a temple of organic foods.
One quiet Sunday as I strolled through the arcades to the mailbox (the post office proper is a hatch in a hallway), I came upon a student playing classical guitar there because the acoustics are good and there was peace and quiet out of the afternoon sun. Passersby paused to listen and then to chat, soothing themselves, bracing themselves for the flood of sunlight. As they walk they studiously angle their necks and faces, connoisseurs of rays, esthetes of tan. They use the weather as they use the neighborhood, which is usable indeed. The drugstore has no lunch counter, but sells everything from underwear to soup, nitrateless canned chicken to plastic bags of four knives, spoons or forks. The liquor store at Park Avenue and Sixth Street, next to El Greco Greek restaurant, sells chocolate and ice cream.
The other flank of campus, along Campbell Avenue, is duller, less whimsical, less heterogeneous. Not there will you hear a drama student on his balcony, practicing a Hamlet soliloquy for all to overhear, or smell Indian frybread being made, or see an ancient Cadillac with its windows shot out, carefully swathed in an extravagantly floral comforter.
With sunset comes an almost carless quiet as the saffron over the western range turns vermilion and the antennas, the dishes, on top begin to resemble mutants semaphoring for help, silhouettes against an engulfing scarlet. The lights of the high-rise towers in the merely nominal downtown flit on (Tucson has no real downtown, being a centrifugal city); but here in this dormant college quarter (a suburb rather than a college town), something wonderful begins and lasts. Globes of the softest orange now glow among the palms and fruit trees, like newborn planets. A basketball court floods with harsher light, but there is no game, just a few players practicing shots. A parked bus occupies half the court anyway.
The violet hour has just ended when the Arab women, a dozen at a time, come padding across the deserted lots, all but their faces and hands wrapped in cloth, on their way to eat, giggling and expertly changing formation as they head for International House. You hear more Arabic than Spanish here. The Arabs have come from one desert to another to study the ecology of arid lands.
Others who cross the lots include the can collectors who comb through the trash bins, perch each can on its end, then accurately squash it with a heel. Laden with clanking plastic bags, and equipped with a long stick having a hook at one end, these trashcombers move slowly, like people working out a life sentence, and they have little in common with the young crew-cut Mexican who walks boldly forth from his apartment with a cow’s head and horns lashed to a sawhorse and practices with a lasso.
Now the tang in the air is that of barbecues and wood smoke (it gets chilly at night). Student lamps make yellow docking points. Strobe lights on planes approaching the Tucson airport cruise just above the roof opposite, and the electric blare of a train—at once blustering and forlorn—reminds us of the continent’s vastness, the desert’s indifference, of how, as Sartre said, things are alone with one another. Here, maybe because of all that limitless aridity out there beyond the oasis of the town itself, the suburb of study turns in upon itself, in theory at least. Books open behind picture windows, and I wonder if those young worthies, boning up on their thermodynamics, Tolstoy, desert sciences, or the categorical imperative, can imagine how someone looks who sits in the sun trying to start a new novel. Or can the youth who lassos plastic horns, if ever he looks up?
Light-years from Tucson’s other attractions, such as the No-Tel Motel and the Curve Inn Motel on Miracle Mile Strip, you find here, right at hand, enough galleries and museums to last you a year, and the Center for Creative Photography too, whose exhibits often change. It’s a good place to mooch around in, entering into jubilant stagnation or just having a long hard think.
Paul West’s most recent novel is The Shadow Factory (2008), and his most recent contributions to periodicals are work in Harper’s, The Yale Review, and Conjunctions. His current projects include a new novel (his twenty-fourth) and essays for the French periodical Transfuge. Gallimard published his novel The Place Where the Pollen Rests in 2009, under the title Des poupées et des dieux. (1/2011)