Time Transients

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

We go out, get in a car, head for a Denny's. On Camelback Road, we see the police car and the ambulance, the guy being loaded into it. We see the car, halfway onto the sidewalk, its rear windshield disintegrated. I look at it, and imagine the driver being shot at, losing control of the car. I think about how the impact of the bullets must have felt. I think about the guy who fired the gun, where he is, where he'll sleep tonight, what he'll eat for breakfast, who he'll have breakfast with, and never think of shooting.

The next morning, I watch the news on TV, waiting for the story. It never happens.

November 1996. A candlelight vigil in a lot behind a liquor store near 15th Avenue and Grand. The barrio is just south of the freeway, but the neighborhood on the north side is really a million miles away. The houses on the north are well-maintained, and the residents, though they have brown skin, tend to speak only English and have white-collar jobs. To the south, the houses are small and faded, the people often speak no English, and there are abundant liquor stores, pawnshops and motels that are little more than flophouses.

I'm talking to the family of a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead there by Phoenix police officers. The police report says the kid used a knife to cut a homeless guy and then lunged at the cops, who fired in self-defense. This is reported in the news. I talk to the homeless guy. He shows me the cut on his hand, but he tells me the kid didn't assault him, that he grabbed the knife by the blade and tried to pull it away from the kid, telling him he'd better give it up before the cops got any more pissed. He says he cut his own hand on the blade, let go of it and walked away. He says the cops stood in a semicircle and shot the kid repeatedly. Then one of the cops went to a cruiser, came back with a shotgun and fired it into the kid as he lay on the ground. This is not reported in the news.

February 1999. I'm in a hospital room in Scottsdale. The young woman in the bed has been shot in the chest and the back of the head by a man who abducted her from the store where she worked. Months later, when she is out of the hospital and recovering well, I turn on the TV and see a happy segment about how well she's doing. Here in the Valley, if you take a bullet in the head, you get better.


Phoenix is a boom town, but the citizens are getting screwed. Open a newspaper or turn on the TV and you will be told that the city is one huge, white suburb. The reality is that the heart of the city is a barrio, and that most of the money coming in never touches most of the people. When the boom gives way to the inevitable slump, the money will withdraw and go back to where it came from, taking with it its progeny, the money it gave birth to. I wonder how many of the citizens will even notice. It will be hard not to notice when the overpopulation and the paving-over are complete, and the water runs out.

The lie is seductive; who wouldn't want to live in the "Valley of the Sun," the happy valley whose residents all have fat salaries and perfect health and opulent houses, and spend their ample leisure time hanging out in elegant restaurants and glamorous resorts, a social scene full of local TV and radio personalities, politicians and sports stars? It's a pleasant place to read about.

But it doesn't exist for most of us. Phoenix is geographically closer to Mexico than to most of America, and it is closer socially as well. Phoenix is a great place to be doing well, and a terrible place to being doing badly. And, as a community, we are doing badly. When a town is booming, and unemployment is low, and nearly a quarter of the children live in poverty, we are doing badly.

In the cafes and bars of central Phoenix, it's hard to find a native of the city. Everybody is from someplace else, and nobody plans to stay. Everybody wants to make some money and then move on. While they're here, they don't really unpack their bags.

I get talking to a woman in a blues bar in central Phoenix. She's celebrating because she's just gotten a Ph.D. She's from Salem, Oregon, and came to the Valley to study for her doctorate at Arizona State University. She was bright and fun to talk to and she laughed a lot. She told me how much she hated Phoenix, because it was so white. I asked her where she'd been, where she hung out. She told me she just stayed close to ASU, and only hung out with the people she met there. "I made up my mind when I came here that I wasn't going to get involved with the place -- I was just going to do my work, get my doctorate and get out." Her story is a common one. There are so many who spend all of their work and leisure time with other affluent white people, with whom they complain that the Valley is too affluent and white. You want to see them? Buy a paper. Turn on the TV.

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