It was Christmas Day, 2013, and Gabe and I were driving south on I-19 towards Madera Canyon because we had heard there was snow left over from a storm a few days before. There were very few people on the road - I think it was 2pm - and like it always happens on the 25th of December, I felt an eerie sense of quiet. In my lifetime, I've rarely had this silence drowned out by relatives around a dining table or the sound of my own jaw chewing on ham and figgy pudding, familiar and full. Nor was this Christmas silence ever sacred to me, either by theological weight or the hushed reverence of newly fallen snow. Why was this silence eerie to me rather than peaceful? Why did it feel like I was holding my breath, rather than exhaling?
I was in the passenger seat as Gabe drove south. I looked out the window to my right, and saw the formidable Spectrum Plaza, a massive shopping center easily accessible by the interstate, situated off a major thoroughfare for the city of South Tucson. When I say massive, I mean it. Tucson is not a stranger to large shopping 'plazas,' but I dare say this one takes the cake. In Centrum Plaza there is, for your consuming pleasure, in alphabetical order:
Ross Dress For Less
Salon De Futur
The Home Depot
Apparently there are more stores, but according to google, those are the highlights. There's a movie theater too, a gas station; the possibility for consumption seems endless. I've stopped by Spectrum a few times, especially when I lived for a week in Amado (about 35 minutes down I-19) during my summer fieldwork with cattle ranchers in 2011. Besides the little towns of Green Valley and Sahuarita, Spectrum Plaza is the first beacon of a major city as one makes her way north from Mexico. If you had never been to the United States before, your entry on I-19 would go something like this: First a retirement community, then a casino, then a Spanish Mission, and then this, everything you could ever want.
But as we drove by on Christmas Day, out of my window I saw something rather spectacular: Pure, unadulterated absence. The structures were there, of course, in their big box glory, and the parking lots too. What wasn't there was people. Every store's designated parking lot was empty. There was the occasional camper van or RV parked in the far flung corners of the Home Depot and Ross, there were a few people at the gas station, as it was open for business. But in the several acre Spectrum Plaza campus, driving by at 75 miles per hour, I saw a gaping void. I saw Capitalism on its day off.
After we went to Madera Canyon and frolicked in the snow, I got home, packed up my tripod and camera, and headed back out, southbound to Spectrum Plaza. I stopped by the gas station at the north end of the Plaza and got some Sour Brite Crawlers, pulled into the farthest parking space in the Target lot, and waited until the sun dipped behind the structure so I could photograph the space. At some point a few teenagers, all riding new shiny scooters, flew by me, looking at me oddly, with my camera mounted on its tripod as I sat on the hood of my car eating gummy worms. I could hear the low-hum frequency of the interstate, but I could also hear birds chirping.
I started examining the white lines demarcating parking spaces - there was a jagged pattern to them, almost like a zipper. White teeth and black asphalt. There were oil stains like ink blots on the already dark pavement, greasy fingerprints of human presence when there was none. I tried to calculate how many cars had been in this lot just the day before, how much oil it took to get them there. There was trash strewn across the parking lot, left over from the mad rush the day before; water bottles and empty bags of cheetos. There were also rogue shopping carts parked haphazardly where, on any other day, cars would be. I imagined the people on parking lot clean-up duty, itching to get home the night before, late on Christmas Eve. I imagined that they did a half-ass job, ready for their day off, too. I wondered if they'd get in trouble for leaving carts unattended and trash not picked up, what value cleanliness and orderliness have in the liminal space of a parking lot, where nobody stays for long.
There's something about parking lots in general that generate a sense of disorientation. When people visit from bigger cities, who don't drive and rarely leave their urban centers, they notice with raised eyebrows the very expanse of parking lots, and that they are up front rather than behind the store. The forward-facing parking lot signals to us that a store values convenience over storefront aesthetic, that there is no danger in not being allowed in. It's funny to think about this shopping center being so close to the Mexican border - it's almost like our version of the Statue of Liberty. Almost every day of the year, her torch is lit and her arms are open, welcoming some modern version of the huddled masses. Here, there is a space for every man, woman, and child. The space is demarcated by white lines, and it ushers you towards the automatic doors. Welcome.
But on Christmas day, the torch was not lit. As I walked around the vacant lots of Spectrum Plaza, jumping from one white line to another as the sun set behind the buildings, I began thinking in earnest about my initial reaction to this unpleasant feeling of quiet I couldn't quite figure out. The longer I stayed, the more I recognized that an empty Spectrum Plaza was a physical manifestation of that eerie silence. Here was emptiness. A break.
I began to understand that the eeriness of quiet was Late Capital doing its work. I say 'late' because capitalism has matured, and as it has grown up, those who pull its strings have done remarkably well at figuring us out. Capitalism has reached a stage - another step towards progress to some, a garish height before the fall to others - where it has gotten under our skin. Shuttered storefronts, vacant parking lots, empty highways all signal that there is one day we don't need it - it just so happens to be the day we spend weeks and months getting ourselves in debt to celebrate. Even unavailable, the stores I stood in front of on Christmas Day are needed. Capitalism has not only become a way to spend/earn/owe, it is now sewn into the very fabric of our physical and mental spaces, sewn into the order of things. Emptiness signals absence, which signals loss, which is antithetical to what Capitalism has come to mean - gain. Gain profit, gain efficiency, gain trust, gain. On its day off, I realized that Late Capital was telling us that he was taking a nap. But he's the kind of sleeper that keeps one eye open.
I snapped a few photos, but as it got darker, I noticed that a few cars had started appearing, circling slowly around the perimeter of the lots. They would pass each other, flashing their lights. Occasionally, a car would pull up to another car, close enough that their passengers could reach out to one another, and after a few seconds, they would separate, peel out. I recognized this as a series of drug deals, which I was watching from a distance. I was observing the creep of another kind of capital, taking place in the shadows, an entrepreneurial spirit temporarily occupying the den of the sleeping giant. One driver must have not appreciated my presence - he circled closer and closer to me, slowly. His lurch was menacing, I did not feel welcome. As I got the hint, for the first time since I pulled into the shopping center I did not feel that eerie feeling. The emptiness was being filled by those morally excluded from legitimate commerce, the space had taken on another shape, and it was not arms spread wide, beckoning. Just for the night, in the empty quiet of Christmas, Spectrum Plaza was open, but not to me. If I was previously holding my breath, now, I exhaled.
As I drove home, the first two lines of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty rang in my head. Give me your tired, your poor // Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. My hour spent in an empty parking lot on Christmas Day, 2013 taught me one thing: Late Capital must learn to breathe.
I was looking through some emails today and came across the very first "thick description" I wrote for an anthropology class when I was but a wee undergraduate at the U of A. For those who don't know, what we call thick description in anthropological writing is the act/process of being somewhere and simply taking it all in. So if you're somewhere doing research, it is important to recognize both who and what is around you - from the ground you're walking on, to the seat you're sitting in, to the clothes and shoes on (or off) the people around you, to the noises, and the smells, and the sensual world that envelops you. This anthropologist named Clifford Geertz (and others, too) said that this sort of "thick" description is important, because the social world can be thought of as a web of significance. Even something that seems unimportant may be the thing that makes the whole world tick. The assignment was to go somewhere and observe, with an anthropologist's eye, what was happening around us. I remember being really proud of this little piece of writing, even though this was before I understood that thick description wasn't supposed to include my personal opinions or assumptions. It still makes me happy, because I can remember sitting on the bus to the county jail (where I decided to do the assignment) and thinking, "If this is anthropology, I'm in."
Maybe I should not have done this. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on perfume, or worn this shirt. But I am here, so I might as well write. It’s running late, and a group grows larger around the designated stop for bus 23, destination Laos center. I will not ride this bus to its terminus; instead I will take it to a stop called “Silverlake/County Jail.”
At 11:53, 8 minutes later than scheduled, the bus comes. Getting off are people that look tired, maybe, or distraught. Or maybe they just look like they didn’t want to ride the bus this particular Saturday, and had to. I stand in a line of twenty or so people. Two men motion for me to go ahead of them. Both of these men are wearing Vietnam veteran caps. I nod, and take my place, waiting to board.
I choose to sit in the raised portion of the bus towards the back. These seats are not padded, and face towards each other. The reason escapes me as to why this portion is raised, but for all intents and purposes, it fits my needs. Four seats away from me, as well as directly across from me, two mothers hold infants close to them. The women are dressed in lace tops and tight jeans, and have no carriers or diaper bags. One has a bag full of magazines and soap from Walgreens. The infants are both asleep.
The seats are hard, and grey. As I look down at the lowered portion of the bus, I see another woman holding a Snapple bottle, with her eyes closed. She is wearing pink high heels and large, gold earrings. I imagine her earlobes will be sore later. The two Vietnam vets are gripping the poles of the bus, and when we leave the station and move quickly away from downtown Tucson, one of them holds his head and rocks slightly. Perhaps he is about to trigger. I rehearse my counseling bit in my head. I know I have jumped to conclusions, when rather suddenly, he pulls out a picture from a brown, faded leather wallet and shows it to a stranger. It is too far away to hear what they are saying. The photo is passed around to another man, then the woman with the pink heels and Snapple bottle. I wished I were down in the lowered portion of the bus so I could hear who this photographed child was. At the next stop, a woman and her school aged daughter board. This child runs to the veteran and kisses him, and sits on his lap. I believe it is the child in the picture. They were - the veteran, his daughter and his granddaughter - eventually to get out of bus at the jail. A Saturday family outing.
The scenery changes to a bilingual one. Just less than ten minutes have elapsed from downtown Tucson, and mesquite trees have given way to taquerias and vacant lots. There are mesquite trees here, too, I suppose, but they look different when their branches are intertwined with plastic bags blown up from the wind. A man and his two sons board the bus, talking car-talk. The man sits down in the seat beside me, blocking the view of one of the mothers with the sleeping child. The man points out car after car in the used lots we pass. The son asks what kind they are, and the father responds, listing obscure details of the model, the engine type, and the price of the transmission. How fast it goes, this type of thing. The children are far apart in age, it seems, with the elder son being sometime in high school, and the younger one being no older than 10. They stop talking when one of the infants on the bus begins to cry. Then the man looks over at me and says, “prison two days in a row, I guess its gotta be a bad week for me.” I’m not sure what to say, so I just say, “wow.” We passed a car lot that has signs in Spanish, some of which are translated to English. One of those translations reads ‘Got a Job? Get a Car HERE!’ The older son sees this, and asks his dad, “Dad, could you try and get a car there? Over there, dad?” The father doesn’t here his son’s quiet voice over the din of the bus engine.
I ask the father if the stop is coming up soon. It’s been about twenty minutes. He nods and asks whom I’m visiting. I feel foolish and voyeuristic and I say a friend. He smiles and puts his arm behind my seat, which I noticed earlier was riddled with stale pink gum. “I don’t bite,” he said, and I reassured him I wasn’t thinking that. In fact, I felt it was a gesture of mutual experience, or understanding. Both mothers and infants, along with now about 30 other people, are slowly standing. I follow suit, and when the bus stops, every single person exits. Not one remains. The photographed child holds her mother’s hand while they wait for the veteran grandfather to slowly descend the steps. I climb down to the high curb, and the car-knowledgeable father looks towards me, expecting me to walk with them. “You better hurry, its busy on Saturdays,” he says. I tell him I need to smoke a cigarette before I go in. I am a liar.
I cross the street, and wait for the northbound bus to come. Already, a woman is crying at the bus stop. I sit next to another Vietnam veteran. If public transportation is a microcosm of any given society, I have sorely misread my own. I ask him where he’s headed, and he says back home. He just visited a friend who got busted for violating his parole. We talk about how he got caught under an army tank for two and half days after being shot in the stomach twice in a place called ‘rock city’ in Vietnam. He told me how, when the hospital plane landed in the USA, students threw eggs and lettuce at him and told him to go back to Vietnam, you baby killer. He is in a wheel chair, one leg amputated and the other atrophied from disuse. His chest is barrel shaped and his breathing is heavy. He says the VA treats him well.
I sit in front of the weeping woman on the way home. The seats face in a different direction on this bus, forward, and more secluded. I wonder if Suntran does this on purpose, so people leaving jail would have more privacy. I doubt it. I wonder if the crying woman is thankful she does not have to face anyone during this. A man next to me is carrying a bag full of rolled white socks. I ask him what they are for, and he says they are for his brother. They didn’t let him take them to him, but they let him keep them. That doesn’t always happen, I guess.
This bus ride is more somber. Less crowded. There is much less anticipatory camaraderie. No pictures being passed around this time. The route is exactly the same as it was on the way to the jail. I sit close to the Veteran and I listen to his labored breath. His wheelchair allows him to recline, and he does so and closes his eyes. I wonder what the bus is like at 3 pm, when visitation hours end. The shocks on this bus are better than the first. The engine noise is always the same – loud. Loud enough to block out, for example, someone quietly crying.
When I get off the bus again downtown, a man is standing with his daughter, holding a pink foam crown that says happy birthday. The little girl is wearing a pink dress to match. I wonder if they will let him take the hat in to the visitation room. It seems to be for the little girl, so I hope they do.
-- September, 2007
Driving through downtown Tucson on a Friday morning at 9 am, on the way to the soup kitchen, I saw a very old man in a very new Prius take a left turn onto Stone Avenue, which meant he had turned the wrong way on a one way street, head-on into the relative melee of morning traffic. As the light turned green, there was no honking; all the cars on the road remained still, in order to give the old man time to figure it out. A man on the street corner wearing a business suit was smoking a cigarette with a bemused look on his face, while two construction workers on the other side of the road were leaned up against their excavator, giggling. The business man yelled something across the two lanes of cars to the construction workers, which made them all laugh. After a few seconds of this, another man stepped out of his SUV that idled next to me, adorned with spinning 22” rims and the last name “Navarette” in gothic scrawl on his back window. He chased down the Prius that hadn’t made it very far, knocked on the window, and explained to the old man his predicament. Having sensed a conclusion, all the cars started moving again, slowly, and in my rearview I could see Mr. Navarette jogging back to his SUV while the old man painstakingly executed an 18-point turn until his Prius joined the flow of traffic.
This brief scene - 2 minutes tops - made me wonder: how does one rank a city’s patience? its humor? how do we measure words parried across traffic between tailored suits and hard hats? to the very real extent that we are poor, what wealth can we find in moments, in the ebb and flow of everyday life?
When he walked into my office, I was surprised to see how tall he was. He wore a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, his hair slicked back in a ponytail. He had headphones on, and the music was loud enough that I could hear it – heavy metal, full blast. I had read his application that he had filled out in the waiting room, so I knew he was only 23 years old, that he had lived his whole life on the Tohono O’odham reservation until he went to prison at age 19, time served for possession with intent to sell. Yet these were the only things I gleaned from his application, because the lines under the questions I had crafted to get a sense of what I could help him with, What hobbies do you have? What were your favorite subjects in school? If you could describe an ideal Saturday, what would it be?, were filled in with just one word, over and over again: No. No. No.
I was only a few years older than he was, but his height and demeanor belied his young age. I asked him to remove his headphones, which he did, begrudgingly. What unfolded afterwards was, at the time, what I considered my first failure at my job. I had worked as a Mentoring Associate for over a year, matching volunteer mentors with individuals who had just been released from prison – some re-entering after a year, some after two decades. Yet after dozens of clients, he was the first I felt helpless about, the first I couldn’t imagine a positive future for. In contrast to him, most of the men and women I met in my office were excited. Our introductions came within 24 hours of their release, and they spent our first meetings revealing their enthusiasm about starting over, staying clean, changing for good this time. I supported this self-affirming ritual. As they explained their job prospects, the support of their sponsors, and their general optimism about starting anew, I responded with “What you did was in the past, you did your time. This felony isn’t your identity. It’s just an obstacle that you can overcome.”
But with him, the young man with the heavy metal music, there was none of this unbridled self-motivation. Monosyllabism was his forte, until I became frustrated enough that I finally broke my thus-strained professionalism.
I spewed, “Do you even want to do this program? It’s not required, you know.”
“I just want to go back to prison,” he said, his first multi-word sentence since his arrival.
Less than a day after he got out, this was what he wanted. He had no hopes of a better future in Tucson, no dreams about picking himself up by his bootstraps. He wanted back in. I asked him why, and silence filled the room. I shifted in my seat. I didn’t want to fill the pregnant pause with my motivational interviewing techniques. I only wanted to begin to understand.
Finally, he muttered, “I want to go back because I know people in there. I don’t know shit out here. I sat at the bus stop to come to this appointment and a lady didn’t want to sit next to me. I don’t want to be outside. People are mean to me out here.”
He picked up his earbuds and pressed play on his cd player, as if our time together was over. And it was. I let him go.
on the way to the soup kitchen this morning, i saw a homeless man begin to cross the street at a very large intersection where i was stopped. when he was about 3 steps off the sidewalk, the light turned red. i gave a slight chuckle when he kept walking, impressed with his utter disregard of the do-not-walk sign. but then my chuckle turned into amazement when he walked so slowly that it took him not one, not two, but three entire light cycles to cross the road. people in their cars were honking, red in the face despite being cool in their air-conditioned cocoons. they were outraged. i couldn’t do anything but laugh and hope this wasn’t just a result of a man’s lack of mobility and consciousness, but an intentional bit of guerrilla movement as the 120 degree asphalt sizzled under his feet.
One day, my husband decided to build a new fence between us and our neighbor, the baptist church. As he was working in the summer heat, a man approached him and asked if he needed help digging holes and pouring concrete for the metal posts. My husband’s answer was an unequivocal yes, as it was over 100 degrees outside at 10 am that morning and the faster it could get done, the better.
This man, who said his name was Terry, was on his way to the church for their weekly ‘church relief,’ in which congregation members lined up to provide homeless individuals with food, toiletries, etc. Terry had been going to the relief for years, and as he walked there from wherever he was staying the previous night, he would keep his eyes open for odd jobs, day labor, to get some cash in his pocket.
The fence between us and the church took three weekends to build. Terry was there each Saturday and Sunday at 8 am, the agreed time. Our friends would come over to help too, and I would hear occasional laughter and a lot of banter between the two, three, or four gentlemen outside, over the pounding of sledgehammers into the dirt or the welding of metal to metal.
I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to Terry, as I wasn’t helping out with the fence too much, but my husband and his friends did. It was a strange sort of impromptu friendship between them, centered around backbreaking work. When the fence was completed, Terry told my husband that if he ever needed him, all he needed to do was ask for “Shirtless Terry.” He picked up this name, I guess, because he never really wore clothing on his torso, as his leathery skin attested to. I just thought that was interesting, the notion that we could ‘just ask’ for him in the homeless community of Tucson. It made me think, who else could I ask for? Who else could I find? What other names have been adopted, and what do they mean?
I woke up this morning to the aching creaks of a tree stump being excavated. I looked outside and saw the usual suspects, this time working on a front gate for our yard. It was my husband, wielding a chainsaw, his two best friends, squaring metal stock and pouring concrete, and Shirtless Terry, hacking away at the roots of the once mighty salt ceder whose demise was inevitable. I guess he had made his way to the church relief again and saw that there was more work to be done, and dug right in. He’ll be back again next week and maybe the week after that, as long as there was something to be constructed, to be made.
Thanks for your continuing help, Shirtless Terry.