Time Transients

A new millennium in Phoenix, where the motorist in the next lane is your auld acquaintance

In the collective mind, Arizona is wild, open country. In fact, it's grimly urban.

Some things haven't changed between history and the present. The state's popular identity is still based on a lie. New Age zombies flock here to play at being Native American, regarding the Indians as a race of benevolent mystics. The reality is that the reservations are organized ghettos.

The place is run by a network of aging good ol' boys, a cabal of wealthy rednecks who are making vast fortunes by eradicating the land.

Timothy Chapman
Timothy Chapman

I don't mean that the land is being "raped" or "exploited," two words favored by environmentalists. I mean it is vanishing, at a rate so fast it sometimes appears that the developers have invented a bomb that throws up ugly buildings wherever it explodes. Few of us object to this. Of those who do, there are fewer who think it can be stopped. The rest of us know with certainty that the desert is going to be taken from us, and we oppose its eradication not because we think we can win, but out of a secular sense of Christian duty, a sense that, however futile, it's the right thing to do. And, though it's painful to admit, some of us are excited by the sheer spectacle of the carnage.

Four years and two months ago. It is October 1995, close to midnight. The plane lands at Sky Harbor Airport and I disembark. The place I have come from is cold, and the desert night feels like a dark oven. I have come here alone, although there is someone with me -- a woman I have been married to for some years and will not be married to for very much longer.

We get in a cab. As we roll across the city, I look around, wondering when we will hit the urban area, see the bars and cafes and people walking around. We never do, of course. There isn't such an area. I have never seen a city like it, so utterly deserted on a Friday night.

We arrive at the hotel, an Embassy Suites. We booked a few weeks in advance, but the guy behind the desk has never heard of us. He says there is a convention in town, and so the hotel only has one room available. We take it. The room smells of ancient cigarette smoke, but we are too tired to care. We go to bed. As I fall asleep, I am glad to be there. I have no idea what Phoenix will be like, but I know it must be better than what I have left behind, the life I have run away from. In the air-conditioned darkness of that hotel room, I feel safe. I do not know it at the time, but I will not feel that way again.

We wake in the morning and lie in bed as we watch the news on TV. It appears that Phoenix is a place where nothing very bad happens. We go downstairs and complain about the room, and the manager gives us our money back.

That same day, we find an apartment in an overpriced complex near 19th Avenue and Camelback.

I have no job -- I work for myself -- and so no workplace I have to go to. But after a few hours in the apartment, I feel stir crazy. She and I have become hostile strangers. I don't know how to drive, and it will be some months yet before I learn well enough to pass a test. Most days, in the middle of the afternoon, I walk the mile or so to Christown Mall. As I walk, people yell at me from passing cars. I am usually the only person on the sidewalk, or walking in the gutter on streets where there is no sidewalk. But sometimes there are other people, and they always approach me, and they always say the same thing. It goes like this: "Hey, I ain't panhandling, it's just my car's a couple miles up the road and I ran out of gas and my wife and kid are in the car and I got to get them home and . . ."

I walk, and I don't see anything that tells me about the place. I wander around the mall, then sit in the food court and read or try to work. After a while, I walk back to the apartment, or else I call her from the mall and she drives there and picks me up.

I watch TV, and the anchors are smiling, and the news is about community and what a fine place this is to live. But there are things I don't see on TV.

A few weeks after I move into the apartment, I have some friends over. It's late in the evening, and we just sit around and talk. Then we decide to go out and eat. I'm tying my shoelaces when I hear the gunshots, so close by that the sound bounces around the complex, ricocheting off the walls like stray bullets. A few minutes later, we hear the sirens. "That means somebody got shot at," says Bobbi. "Otherwise, the cops wouldn't have come. There's too many people firing guns for the cops to come out all the time."

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