I come back to Tucson, married, 25 pounds heavier, happier, wiser, less easily flapped, with shorter hair and bangs.
In the April sun, hot but not yet too hot, I go to my old house. I take a picture of the front door through the gate. Through the wrought iron, I see the garden where my pug Violet used to play chicken with an unpredictable pitbull named Red. I see the desiccated, twisting, rotting prickly pear on every dusty streetcorner, next to the base of every street sign. I see the house where I once found a man and his wife arguing in the car, him pulling her hair, her screaming help he’s trying to kill me.
I take many pictures in doorways against bright colored doors. I see the spaces between buildings stuffed with garbage, plastic cups, old pants. I see overheated dogs panting on the pavement outside stores. I walk past stores full of singing bowls, pendulums, Tibetan prayer flags, and Himalayan salt lamps. Flowing tie-dyed dresses and pants with long crotches hang on racks in the sun for fifty percent off. Dusty dark stores full of shadowy succulents and leaves. A disproportionate amount of tattoo parlours and hookah lounges.
At 8pm I walk along Fourth Avenue alone carrying a large pizza. A desk light illuminates a shirtless young man sitting in front of his computer; he is eating pizza too. Homeless men, not well-dressed for the weather, walk up Fourth Avenue mumbling about politics. This ain’t California, intones a man in bright blue woolen tuque. The irony is not lost on me; people without fixed addresses show up in Tucson for the weather, and then do not/are not able to dress for the weather. Add discomfort to the list of things to be endured by the marginalized and unlucky.
Young people with facial piercings and tattoos on their arms, necks, and chest, man coffee shops and the front desk of Hotel Congress. Two baristas talk about a mutual friend who is an alcoholic. One says hey it’s his life, it’s his life to drink away if that’s what he wants. The other says Let’s not have this conversation right now, and she goes back to working the espresso machine like a factory worker.
I walk past a restaurant where I last remember eating apple pie with a lonely old man named Charlie. I remember his tobacco stained fingers and a septical black line of hair dye running down the nape of his neck. Charlie is dead and gone now, so says the obituary section of the Arizona Daily Star.
In the middle of the day, I walk to Hotel Congress. In stark contrast to the the outside glare, Hotel Congress is a dark cool mahogany colour on the inside. Before moving to Tucson for grad school, Facebook put me in touch with a student from the program, a boy one year ahead of me who was full of the wisdom that comes with no longer being the newest of the new.
You don’t know Congress now, he wrote, but trust me, two years from now, it will be old shoe.
The emptiness of the bar and the lounge at midday on a Tuesday is strangely reassuring. And eighty year-old-man with white hair, cheap sunglasses, and a black porkpie hat rustles around behind the bar. This is Tiger Ziegler, bartender at Hotel Congress for 59 years running. Hotel patrons trundle down the main staircase, planning their day out loud and stopping midway when they realize they have forgotten something in the room.
I pad through a doorway designated Tap Room by a neon sign, glowing orange like smelting iron. I walk onto the dance floor, dark and cavernous but for shafts of dusty light coming through a horizontal window, busting in aggressively from the outside. I dance to the faint sound of music, my flip flops separating from the underside of my feet and slapping the ground unevenly. People filter in and out in the background. Hotel Congress is both a hotel and a museum of sorts. People come to stay. People come to see. The back of my heels are cracked and blackened from walking the dusty Tucson streets. Splatters of mud are caked on the back of my ankles. My shoulders are burned and the inside of my nose is dry. I kick up my heels some more. I am Tucson free today.