My first night in Tucson I slept in the trunk of my car. Well, technically, I slept both in the trunk of my car and the back seat, but it was darker in the trunk, so my head was there. This girl’s all about comfort. Thor and I left Santa Fe with the intention of getting to Tucson in time for dinner, but let’s just say that when traveling with someone like Thor, you get held up by frequent stops at places that fill them with wonder and delight, when in fact, they are just really shitty rest stops in the middle of nowhere. But to Thor, well, he tended to find something to marvel at everywhere we were, even if it was a simple a discarded shoe in the middle of the road. Actually, Thor had a few items of clothing that he wore all the time that were retrieved from the middle of the road. That’s just how he rolled. Once he actually found a sick bird on the side of the road and spent weeks trying to nurse it back to health. It was weird.
That first night in the car was pretty awful. Thor assured me that he had chosen a safe neighborhood, and now, years later, I know that it was a safe neighborhood. It was the Sam Hughes neighborhood, a lovely residential area filled with coveted historic homes. But at the time, considering what Thor thought was beautiful, I was convinced we were in the ghetto. He would have loved the ghetto. (He had his gun after all.) And truth be told, I didn’t want to be in Tucson. I wanted to be back in Santa Fe, where I was just beginning to enjoy my life, and meet people that I wanted to stay in my life. But this was a difficult age for me. I was still very much a follower, and it was easy for me to prioritize Thor’s goals over mine, since mine seemed so insignificant and unclear, and his seemed, like, totally groovy, man.
Actually, he had no goals. Hmmm. I may need to rethink my reasoning.
And then there was Tucson. I resisted Tucson like a junkie resists getting clean. For a long time, I just wouldn’t—couldn’t—commit to a life here. I talked often about where I would move and spoke poorly of Tucson. I did this for at least 13 years. So, why am I still here? I tried to leave, once. Well, I didn’t just try to leave, John and I actually left. We packed all our stuff, shoved it in a Penske truck and drove it all the way to Cleveland after being lured there by a recent, perfectly timed visit, which occurred right at the peak of fall. Seriously. I know you’re probably thinking how the fuck can Cleveland, Ohio lure anyone away from anywhere? But after years in the desert, we were yearning for grass, foliage, and water. One drive through the city of Cleveland Heights on a beautiful, crisp, sunny fall day, with gold, red, and orange leaves gently falling on a red brick road in Little Italy and . . . sweet mamajama—we were sold.
We left four months later. Drawn away from the really, really, really fucking cold weather.
Even after that, until this past year, I still spent hours online and with books like Cities Ranked and Rated or Top 100 Small Art Towns, researching cities. And then, suddenly, I woke up to the reality of my life in this city. I’m not sure why it took so long. Maybe because my brain is really small?
Really. My brain is so, so small. The children ate it.
The appeal of Tucson is based on the contrast between the ugly and the beautiful, and how they mingle. At first glance, you see an enormous amount of dirt, rocks, and pavement, weird plants, crumbling buildings, tagged walls, rusted iron, trash, lots and lots of trash, and questionable people walking the streets, or begging for money. And the sun. SIPNEL! The sun! It burns the eyes!
But it’s the kind of place that requires that you look closer. Once you do, you begin to see the sparkle. Once your eyes adjust to the light, that is. The mosaic bench in the middle of a poor urban area, the iron artwork taking up an entire yard that at first glance looks like discarded junk, but upon closer inspection reveals an incredible, large, complex found-art installation.
It seems obvious to most people that the mountains make this city beautiful, but it is so easy to forget them! We spend so much time driving through the city (no easy interstate access), fighting traffic, or being blinded by the sun that we forget to look up and out. When I remember to do that, I still gasp at the sight of them. Still, the beauty of the desert can be hard for people to understand. If you don’t live here, it’s easy to only see the dirt and dust. But I’m always struck by things like the seeming impossibility of desert life. How can things grow so heartily here? It’s mindblowing to me that in a place that is so dry, and in earth that is so hard and rock filled, so many things can grow, survive, and thrive. It’s both alarmingly beautiful and mystifying. Even when plants die here its alarmingly beautiful and mystifying!
And how could I not mention the weather? It’s really fucking hot. And yes, it’s a dry heat. Let’s get this right out of the way: dry heat is better. On a recent trip back east, I had the chance to experience the high eighties with 100 percent humidity, and I actually believed I would die. Or at the very least, manage to have a bad hair day even without having much hair at all. Things that shouldn’t be moist were, well, really freaking moist. I think that my eyeballs actually became sweaty. So, yes. It’s better here. The seasons are different in that we don’t really have a fall that appears to be fall. What we do have is really amazing weather in the fall which makes it all better. And occasionally you have people who send you things like this:
So, really, we don’t miss much. After 17 years of winter in upstate New York, I can say with conviction that I would hands down rather bitch about the sun than have to drive down a snowy road wondering at which second I may hit a patch of black ice and careen into a tree.
People are surprised to learn that Tucson is so large. It is. It’s huge. But it’s also tiny. I can’t go anywhere in this city without seeing someone I know. I could be 40 minutes from my home and still see someone that I know. In fact, we were in Phoenix a few weeks ago and . . . you guessed it . . . I saw someone that I know. As someone said to a national news outlet just after the mass shooting last year, there aren’t even six degrees of separation here. If we are separated at all, it’s not by much. Which is why, I think, the shooting in January felt so personal. There seemed to be a collective gasp from the entire city, and a flood of . . . Oh, I don’t know, a kind of instant familial feeling amongst all of us.
There are a lot of Tucson natives here, but it’s also full of people from elsewhere. In Santa Fe, I would meet someone one week and they would be gone the next. This happened at least thirty times while I was there. Eventually, I found myself sticking to friends I already had history with, knowing that they weren’t gonna go anywhere, and if they did, I would pretty much know where they were going, so I could stalk them. Forever. Anyway, it was the most transient community I have ever lived in. I know now that I could never have built a life there. I know this now mostly because of the kind of life I have built here. And this is where the real reason for loving this city comes in: the people. Good God! It’s an explosion of nice people! It could have happened anywhere, sure. But it happened here, and I, for one, am grateful it did. Suddenly I find my life so full. Full of friends. And support like I’ve never experienced. People who care about the community, local business, art, music, family, books . . . they are all up in my life! I love it! I realize that there are nice, interesting people everywhere if you look hard enough, but here they seem to be the majority! And they are shockingly unpretentious and open.
Years ago, I went back home to central New York for a visit, and while grocery shopping, I behaved as I do in Tucson: looking people in the eye, smiling, occasionally speaking to people (or trying to), being aware of my space as I make my way through the grocery store . . . Just generally being really annoying. What I found was that I was the odd one out: no one else looked around, no one looked happy, and not one person seemed to sense when there was another person in their vicinity. They all seemed to be experiencing some sort of hell. Either that or they were all stoned on pain medication and unable to move their facial muscles. Whatever the reason, it totally threw me off and woke me up at the same time. How lucky I am to live here, in a place where people are present and thoughtful, and where I’m never alone. How nice to finally be able to call Tucson my home.