Twenty-year-old aspiring guitar maker Allen Pegues recalls his high school days. "I was all about buyin' me some beer," he says. "That's what I did."
Pegues lives near downtown in a neighborhood peopled by crack dealers, whores and kids wielding oversize bikes with bare-rimmed wheels who noisily run over empty beer cans in the street. Waltz-time sonatas provide a steady beat to afternoons and evenings of front-porch beer drinking.
A teenage Latina strolls along his fence in the uniform of a prostitute -- tight jeans, crimson pout, long chestnut-colored hair. Pegues looks at her, takes a pull from his can of Bud Light, and says, "That's pretty bad when they are young like that and not like regular teens. Especially someone that beautiful. They could be doing anything but that."
An underlying tension is often attendant here, the old slant of being white in an all-brown community. Pegues squints into the waning sun, drops his eyes to focus on a nearby crackhouse and says, "It's just not happy here. There's no happiness, ya know?"
His longing for simple homespun cheeriness explains why his is the only front yard on the street with a garden. It's mainly tomatillos, tomatoes and sunflowers. "Seems like these people 'round here would be all about having gardens."
Pegues is from Mississippi, most recently Petal, a suburb of Hattiesburg. He's in Phoenix attending Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. As soon as the school semester ends next week, he's gone. Hopefully, he says, to Michigan or Austin to work his guitar angles.
And after only six months of luthiery he's already a hell of a guitar maker. I played a spruce-top acoustic he built from scratch and it chimed like a Martin. Pegues explains that a worthy and well-crafted steel-stringed acoustic guitar is one that will remain timeless, its tone taking years to realize. An inferior acoustic lacks the tone resonance and timbre of a well-crafted model. Hand-crafted guitars preserve their makers' inspiration and inventiveness, giving an individuality to each instrument.
Pegues' speech is tinted with an unlikely Mississippi via Oklahoma dialect and his words have a kind of musical meter; guitar is pronounced "git-tar," etc. He's 6-foot-3 but slouches down to six feet.
With smoky blond hair and cobalt eyes, he resembles the implausible upshot of Joe Buck and a young Buddy Ebsen.
He grew up listening to Sousa marches and classical music. Now he's blues-addicted, mostly digging Jimmy Rogers, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. He can place any Bob Dylan line to its song.
On his porch is a copy of Catch-22. He's halfway through it. "Man, there's some funny stuff in that book," he says.
By age 5, Pegues (pronounced Pag-EEZ) was driving golf carts. Before his 10th birthday he was building go-carts and taking apart and reassembling engines. Using only a chain saw, he has been known to carve chairs from pine logs.
"I used to love to get drunk and play with chain saws," he says, laughing.
His old man is a World War II veteran, retired after a 20-year teaching tenure at a penitentiary in Mississippi. His dad is one reason he won't be going back to Mississippi once school's out.
"He's 74 years old now," says Pegues. "He's a hardworking son of a bitch. I don't know how he does it. I hope I get more sense than he does when I get 74. You know, out working in the sun all day and shit. And I know if I get back to Mississippi, he'll have me building a house. I don't want to build a house. Whenever you move back home, you're giving up, you know what I'm saying? You're not moving forward anymore.
"Plus," he adds, "there was Klan people down in there. And that's fucked up, man. It was weird. It was real obvious throughout the population of the whole area. Hattiesburg is not so bad because it's a college town. It's as bad as Louisiana, though. And the Cajun people, I could be scared of the Cajun people. When I was growing up in Cleveland, Mississippi, there wasn't any black people at all on the west side of the railroad tracks. That was a segregated town. But a shitload of writers came out of Mississippi there, like Faulkner."
A job transfer for Pegues' mother moved the family to Norman, Oklahoma, when he was 11. Pegues' interest in formal education faded during high school .
"I kind of started fucking off in school. I'd always done that, but I started not even going at all. I didn't have to once I started driving legally. I'd just like drive to school and sit in the car and listen to the radio or sleep or something the whole time. My friends all had parents that made them do stuff. My parents never made me do anything."
After six years in Oklahoma, the family headed back to Mississippi. The unsettled Pegues returned to Norman the day before his 18th birthday, telling his parents he was off to finish his senior year with his friends. A girl and unreciprocated love were involved.
"The real reason I moved back there was on account of a girl," he says, shaking his head. "I would sit there with my four-track and it was like I was losing my mind."
He had his own apartment and worked in the delivery trade, and later worked at a golf course.
"I got a job delivering pizzas at Pizza Shuttle in Norman," he says, laughing. "That's where all the hipsters used to work when I was younger. There's a bunch of hip people up there in Norman. They had stickers in their car windows and stuff. There's one thing that I noticed in Hattiesburg and in Petal, Mississippi, with the college kids is that they don't put like a bunch of stickers in their windows. No porn star stickers and all the different bands and stuff. The only ones you'd ever see is Dave Matthews Band or something. And that's as cool as it gets, and that's pretty bad."
Much of his time spent getting over the girl concerned developing a healthy fondness for beer and run-ins with a cast of oddballs -- California jailbirds with histories of child molestation who ate too much ice cream, golf course weirdos, pizza delivery drunks and teenagers with aspirations to become junkies all crossed his path.
Figuring he was going nowhere, and since he's been playing guitar since the seventh grade, he considered his options. Late last year he found himself the recipient of federal financial aid and enrolled in the oldest operating guitar-making school in the country.
Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery is situated on two lovely acres in south Phoenix in a neighborhood surrounded by junkyards, a VFW post and wholesale paint warehouses.
The school, a member of Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, grew out of a one-on-one apprenticeship program called Juan Roberto Guitar Works founded by John Roberts in the late 1960s. It became a full-on guitar-making school in 1975, and has seen more than 1,000 students graduate. Tuition for the six-month program is nearly $7,000, not including materials needed to complete the required two-guitar minimum. Roberto-Venn is the only school of its kind in the state and one of a handful in the country.
The campus is a palette of beiges and browns punctuated by mesquite and eucalyptus greens, a ramshackle collection of Gomer Pyle-like barracks, pewter-roofed shacks and makeshift ramadas cooled by mists of water. Rare, air-dried woods from around the world are stored under lock and key. Students varying in age (late teens to early 50s) and nationalities (three Japanese students) are hunched over various guitar construction and repair jigs and workbenches. The smell of mahogany, maple and rosewood fills out the airy workshop.
The school's mascot, a gray-striped tailless cat, rambles lazily around the dirt and gravel lot between naps underneath an old pickup truck. Steve Earle songs could easily come to mind.
The Roberto-Venn campus feels like summer day-camp minus wafts of pool chlorine. There's a sense that the 31 students here could all be from some social misfit stratum: guys in bands that were going nowhere; others that saw regular late-night-TV-advertised tech schools as just another horrible means to an end; those finding a home for craftsman's hands.
And there are craftsmen at work here. Among other things, students learn hands-on guitar design, craft and repair, finishing with different lacquers, stains and oils, guitar electronics. The students ultimately learn to become guitar makers and repair professionals.
Pegues has completed an electric and acoustic guitar already and has two more soon to be finished.
"I consider myself a craftsman," Pegues says. "If you have basic abilities as a craftsman going in and you graduate from this school, you got the basic knowledge of a lot of different stuff. You got knowledge on different repairs, knowledge of business stuff; starting your own repair business or starting your own business.
"Before I was pretty much going to high school because I thought it was a thing I had to do because that's what everybody tells you. All the parents are like, you got to have a high school education, and that's a load of shit. High school is complete bullshit. If you got any intelligence, you take a GED and go on to college and you get a trade or do whatever. It's [high school] nothing but learning fake-ass social skills that I don't want, but some people need 'em, ya know. Especially in sports and stuff."
Pegues possesses a confidence that allows him a certain rootlessness, to be able to up and leave any place at any time. The confidence to walk into any situation and know that he'll survive. A semblance of the American dream. Ultimately, he says he'll own his own shop and live in its upstairs, like the "old days."
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"And," he says, "I'm gonna find myself a wife."
That, and he's looking forward to leaving Phoenix in his '55 Caddy. He won't miss this neighborhood.
"Pendejo . . . fuck you, white boyee," crows a short Latino strolling past Pegues' duplex. The kid's skinny frame looks comical holding a head that appears too large to balance the cap perched atop it. The cap could be held there by sheer attitude.
"Me," says Pegues, "I'm white, white and more white."