Desolation is available in bulk around much of Riggs Road, that stretch of two-lane highway south of Phoenix that cuts a path through the Gila Indian Reservation.
Too long on a desolate road can do something to you. Objects start to look inconsequential and hollow. Polished cars become rushing blurs of metallic colors. Squeaking semi-truck brakes sound like animals getting run over. Hues of desert green take on flat, gray tones, and the slant of light makes it feel like Sunday afternoon. Scents of dust and diesel, rubber and asphalt take on a stench that will stick to you. Your mouth tastes like typing paper.
A guy who knows this scene and its consequent tedium well is Philip Schroeder, a 68-year-old one-armed crossbow dealer who's been at the same spot on Riggs Road just east of I-10 since 1993.
Easily spotted are his battered '65 Chevy pickup and white roadside signs that read in clear red lettering "Crossbows $18 and up." Propped up next to his pickup is the flimsy "stand" he mans almost daily, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The stand hosts a selection of black pistol mini-crossbows, arrows, some blowguns, and a few pellet air rifles.
"From now on, I'll be out here all of December," Schroeder says over the afternoon talk show cackle emanating from his portable radio. "Every day until Christmas. This is when I make most of my money."
Schroeder's eyes are dark with heavy gray flecks, same as his hair and beard. The skin shows rugged reddish brown and lines as if he'd spent his entire life outdoors. He's a former mason, and his Dickies overalls and straightforwardness give the air of a blue-collar work ethic sort who'd made a life with good intentions, hard labor and sacrifice for tomorrow.
He first came out to Riggs Road in '93. At the time, he was a fruit vendor, mostly watermelon and cantaloupe. He switched to licit weaponry because the merchandise was easier for him to physically load and unload. Each day Schroeder sets up and tears down his portamart. He leaves nothing behind but the rebar that's stuck in the ground to prop up one of his signs.
"As you can imagine with watermelon, it was hard for me to handle," he says. "I quit laying rock and I went to just selling fruit in 1990 or something like that."
He gave the flea market/swap meet rounds a go but found it too competitive with too little reward. He wanted something to do that offered more solitude, a place with little distraction. "Somebody said something about the reservation, so I went out to the headquarters of the reservation and sold out there for a while. I was coming home and I thought this spot looked pretty good and I just stopped here one day."
Yet the boredom is excruciating. Schroeder's retirement, the final act after a lifetime of work, makes his autumn years seem like a point of withdrawal rather than a place to spend time cataloguing a lifetime of remembrances and woes.
"Boring ain't the word for it," Schroeder says. "It's boring, boring. If a guy was rich when he retired, there'd be a lot he could do. I'd take trips to Chicago. I'm retired so there really is nothing to do. Ain't nothing to do anymore." He pauses. "Shit, TV is all garbage."
Born and raised in Chicago the second to last of 11 children, the journeyman bricklayer came to Phoenix in 1957, where he found steady work with contractors.
In 1961, Schroeder lost his arm in an auto accident. "I was coming home from work. I was working in Oatman, up there by Snowflake. We stay up there all week. We worked in a pulp mill. Coming home on Friday night I got in an accident with a city truck." He shakes his head at the memory and follows it with a long silence. Then he says, "Only thing you can be sure about is don't be sure about nothin'."
Schroeder has six children younger than 40, all of whom reside in Phoenix. His home in southwest Phoenix is paid in full. This roadside shop is a means, he says, to supplement social security checks and cover yearly property taxes. Yet not coming out here -- not working at all -- is not a considered option. The little he manages to pull off is motivated by the unpleasantness of the alternatives. For Schroeder, it's more boring not to do this.
His second and current wife lives in Payson. He prefers the living arrangements as they are, saying that after his first divorce he should have remained wise enough not to repeat the gaffe.
"Goddamned women ain't nothin' but trouble," he says with a grin that might be a sneer. "I could go up to Payson and be with my old lady. But I don't want to."
Sitting. Just sitting. It's about developing the capacity to endure long stretches of uncolored time. The world becomes a drowsy, uncomfortable trance in front of Schroeder. Still, he calls it work. It's more the simple acknowledgement that a man must have something to do, regardless. Moreover, he's grateful. "I'm just thankful . . . I got a nice, quiet spot."
He spends some time reading. He's midway through a Margaret Truman pulp, Murder at the Watergate. He drinks coffee from a weathered thermos. His packed lunch consists of a couple of pears and a bologna-and-cheese sandwich. There's Bush/Gore Florida recount gabble and Paul Harvey on the radio. Harvey details a road-rage scuffle in Florida involving O.J. Simpson and a motorist wielding a gun. "He shoulda shot O.J.," Schroeder says, pointing his half-eaten sandwich at the radio. "It would've made it even."
On a good day, Schroeder says he will gross between 100 and 200 bucks. Some days he will sell absolutely nothing. Usually, after a half-hour commute, he arrives at 10:30 a.m. and splits at 4. After a couple of brutal dog days, he quit showing up in the summer.
"I don't want to not be here if someone comes looking for me for Christmas. Mostly it's the signs. They just see the sign and go, 'It sounds good.' I get a lot of referred and a lot of repeat customers."
A trusting old man by himself in the desert would appear to be perfect fodder for a crime. He's never been robbed, attacked or even hassled.
"I thought about it [getting robbed] a lot of times, and I suppose I could, but nobody's ever tried to. If you'd pulled a gun out, now, I might have listened to you. I'm not that concerned."
Once, he says, a Native American guy creeped up on him, only to inform Schroeder of his "guest" status on the reservation. "He was just a young punk," snorts Schroeder. "And as I see it, I got a permit, so I belong here."
The pistol crossbow is made of die-cast aluminum with a steel bow and a hard plastic butt. It comes with five metal head, razor sharp arrows. The scope positioned at the end of the barrel does little in the way of precision aiming, as declared on the box, and arrows frequently take on a life of their own when shot. An arrow could easily penetrate a skull from close distance. I took small chunks out of a concrete wall standing a good 30 feet away. Risk is often essential for a good time, a fact that makes the $18 mini-crossbow a worthy investment.
But once while loading an arrow into the crossbow, the safety latch faultily let go on me, launching the nickel-tipped missile to regions unknown at a speed of 200 feet per second. The stinging in two of my fingers from the whipping bowstring became a dull ache that lasted a couple days.
Rick Hanson, a weapons expert and CEO of Cutty Security, said that some people "think mini-crossbows are toys. And they aren't. They [the crossbows] are unreliable and dangerous as hell. Some of these things at close range can have the impact of a .30-06."
Because crossbows are not considered a firearm, the sale to minors is legal. A state sales tax license and a permit from the Gila reservation allow Schroeder to operate.
Schroeder claims he refuses to sell to anyone who looks younger than 18. Other than the three crossbows (50-pound, 80-pound, 150-pound), Schroeder sells blowguns that shoot piano wire darts and air rifles that fire pellets. The most popular item is the $18 crossbow.
"I know myself, I wouldn't want my kids to have it. Women will come by here and say, 'I need some of them for my kids for Christmas.' I say, 'How old are they?' And they'll say, '12 or 13.' I'll tell 'em, 'You don't want these.' I have a conscience. I don't think you can kill me with that crossbow. You'd probably hurt the hell out of me."
Once a year or so, he makes a haul to a California wholesaler to purchase stock.
Truckers, who must abide by local state gun laws when traveling through, can duck weapons paperwork by purchasing crossbows for protection. Schroeder sells to college kids and even elderly Sun Lakes types.
While I was there, Schroeder had but one customer, a beer-bellied, fiftysomething man wearing a hand-tooled belt and mesh ball cap with a small American flag pin.
"Pretty slick for the price," Schroeder says, addressing the man who's scrutinizing the $18 crossbow on display. The guy nods his head in agreement. Schroeder explains how to cock the thing. He shows the guy where to insert the arrow and the target 12 feet behind the table. The man looks at the crossbow a few seconds longer and puts it down. He walks back to his car and drives off.
Toward evening, I watch Schroeder load his homespun bazaar into the back of his bedraggled pickup. With one arm, the process looks arduous and involved. Schroeder moves in a languid way, like a person suitably oppressed by the surroundings. "Man, this is ragtag; I look like Gasoline Alley."
He fits the table, chair, aluminum enclosure, Styrofoam target board, three large roadside signs and rebar stands, and a few dozen pieces of product neatly into the back of his pickup. He then straps the tarp over the top as a cover. All the while he jokes about how the majority of his monthly social security goes to his wife.
The laugh is tired, weak with the lips pressed together, the snicker of a seemingly happy person who still maintains a sense of silliness, of desperation.
When asked whether loneliness plays a hand in his days on Riggs Road, he answers emphatically, "Hell, yes. What the hell do you think? But it's almost Christmas. I'll be too busy selling a lot of these things."
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