There’s more than one way to live in this town. And while you’ll find plenty of antelope squirrels and the occasional competent politician, there’s no primer for how to succeed in Phoenix. Or at least there wasn’t until now.
How to Be a Native
Pretend to like July. Say, “Yes, but it’s a dry heat!” Buy oven mitts for driving, because your car is a kiln with a steering wheel that gives blisters.
Mention Ladmo. Reminisce about Big Surf and Chris-Town Mall and water-skiing the canal. Say, “I’ve never trusted the news since Ray Thompson retired.” Say, “I remember when Ev Mecham sold used cars!” Boast about 90-degree Christmas Days. Wear shorts, a tube top, and flip-flops everywhere, even in the shower. Drop the words “hogan” and “cacti” into everyday conversation. Refer to “the land.”
Move away. Tell people, “Arizona was too conservative.” Say, “There was no culture there.” Ten years later, move back to Arizona. Claim not to miss autumn. Say, “There was nowhere to park in Poughkeepsie.” Marvel at how Phoenix has changed. Be wistful. Complain about what’s happened to Metrocenter. Say, “What do you mean Legend City is closed?” Recall the time Mary Jo West played Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
Say, “It’s nice to be back. But there’s nowhere to park downtown.”
Be a Vassar College graduate with master’s degrees in library science and gunsmithing. Care deeply about the architecture of the early 20th century. Become obsessed with Dame Zaha Hadid’s use of turned-brick masonry.
How to Be a Preservationist
Say, “She really told stories with blocks of mortar.” Say, “Bauhaus isn’t a movement, it’s a religion.”
Or be a transplant from a small East Coast city where anything built after 1830 is considered “new.” Marvel at how inexpensive old buildings are in Phoenix. Set your sights on an American Georgian Saltbox in the historic district but settle for a Transitional Ranch with dentil moldings and double-hung windows. Say, “I fell in love with the cornices!” Say, “I can feel the spirits of Depression-era housewives in my new-old home!”
Discover that a nefarious big-box store is coming to a vacant lot in Ahwatukee. Dress as a toilet plunger and chain yourself to the job site. Holler to passing cars, “We want old houses, not free commerce!” Tell people you’re not leaving until they free Al Beadle’s logo designs for the 1957 World’s Fair.
Disrupt meetings of the local Historic Preservation office by interrupting every speaker who doesn’t oppose light rail expansion. Say, “How can we be a true community when no one has heard of Bing Hu?” Wear a T-shirt printed with the slogan “No McMansions on My Watch.”
Circulate petitions. Use the phrases “urban core” and “period-correct.” Roll your eyes when friends mention rental communities.
Give up. Relocate to a new-build housing development made entirely of discarded storage containers and Pringles cans. Say, “I only live in carbon-based structures built from repurposed products that support the environment.” Go on historic home tours of old houses in downtown Phoenix. Get teary-eyed at the sight of seven-inch floorboards. Vacillate.
How to Be a SnowbirdBe a 70-ish Mary Kay sales associate from Belchertown, Massachusetts, with a purse full of wadded-up Kleenex. Or be a retired carpenter from Sandwich, New Hampshire, who’s tired of shoveling your walkway. Buy a condominium in south Scottsdale across from a golf course and next door to a JoAnn Fabric that offers double coupons. Or buy an attached duplex in a Sun City West complex that hosts bunco tournaments and an over-80 singles night. Or purchase a secondhand recreational vehicle and drive it — at 35 miles per hour! — to Glendale from your home in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Park it in front of your daughter’s house and leave it there for five months.
Go to the grocery store and stand stock-still in the middle of the canned fruit aisle. Say, “In Steubenville, pineapple rings cost half that.” Pay with a check. On the way home, drive very, very slowly — especially on the freeway, and preferably in the HOV lane at 5:30 p.m. Say, “What’s everyone in such a rush about?”
Vote Republican. Spend a leisurely hour crossing the street. Join a pickleball league and call your team Old Rage. Go out to eat at 4 p.m. Bring a coupon. Order only side dishes and a cup of hot water with lemon. Act offended when your server won’t split the bill. Say, “We would never stand for this in Smackover.”
Decide you like Phoenix and want to spend more time here. Sell your house in Hygiene, Colorado, and move here permanently. Buy a golf cart. Go to bingo at a Knights of Columbus hall and refuse to sit near “any of them Mexicans.” Say, “In Humptulips, those people have their own neighborhoods.” Work the phrase “kids these days” into every other sentence, and say it very, very loudly. Flatulate. Say, “More room out than in!” If people complain, say, “We shoulda moved to Fort Lauderdale.”
How to Be HomelessBe a 22-year-old former meth addict with a neck tattoo and no prospects whose family has given up on her. Or be a one-time insurance salesman who likes to drink and doesn’t like to work. Or be a person struggling with schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder who was released from a treatment program with nowhere to go and a fear of pharmacies and asphalt.
Seek refuge. Visit three different homeless shelters and two churches, none of which have room for you because it’s summer and they’re full up. Say, “I want to get back on my feet, and I’m willing to work.” Say, “I don’t understand. I thought you were here to help me.”
Spend the night under a 44th Street overpass. Wash up in the bathroom of a nearby Chevron and walk to the job bank. Fill out seven different forms and stand in three different lines. Say, “I have a criminal record, but I’m a good worker.” Say, “I know there’s a gap in my employment history, but I’ve been traveling.”
Lose your shoes. Panhandle on the freeway off-ramp. Listen quietly while strangers tell you you’re lazy when what you really are is tired, and a little dirty, and sick of not having a place to live.
How to Be an Artist
Say, “Roosevelt Row is so last millennium.” Rent a swamp-cooled studio space on Grand Avenue. Announce that you plan to find your muse. Nap. Email 17 local galleries to tell them you have a body of work that’s ready to be shown. Discover that 16 of these galleries have been closed for more than a year. Shrug. Say “painterly” and “giclee” and “substantive.”
Seek representation. Tell potential agents, “I make art for myself, not for sale.” Decide to convert your art studio into an art gallery called Haircuts While You Wait. Get angry when people wander in looking for a perm.
Denounce tempera. Hang out. Book your first solo show in the broom closet of a vegan cafe with a clever name. Turn up at the cafe to hang your work, only to find that the cafe has closed. Say, “Good thing I forgot to make flyers.”
Decide that making art is for dummies. Take a job at a vegan cafe on Roosevelt Row. When no one is looking, stand in the cafe’s broom closet and whisper, “I am art!”
How to Be a PoliticianBe a middle-aged ethics professor who got fired for kissing a student. Or be a former hostel owner known for antagonizing strangers on social media sites. Or an undergrad who’s studied economics, political science, international relations, and hospitality management. Say, “It pays to be well-rounded.” Say, “Who needs a soul when I have 4,413 Facebook friends?”
Volunteer at a soup kitchen, an animal shelter, and a drag bar. Call a local synagogue and offer to hold the soap at their next ritual washing. Pontificate. Make promises. Create photo ops. Say, “Synthesizing the views of our constituents is totally my thing.” Accept bribes.
Attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Choose a party affiliation. Pay high school kids to deface your opponent’s campaign signs. Equivocate. Kiss babies. Say, “I want to host a fundraiser for the whole world.” Align yourself with an anti-LGBTQ televangelist and, when he is arrested for having sex with underage boys, denounce him. Break up with your 14-year-old boyfriend, just in case.
Win the election. Destroy the morale of your community by aligning yourself with gun runners, abortionists, and indiscreet pro-lifers. Call a town hall and forget to show up. Get busted for buying a speedboat and a new toupee with your late wife’s charge cards. When a video of you having sex with an anti-LGBTQ televangelist surfaces, resign. Say, “I’ve been thinking about joining the Peace Corps.” Open a chain of cut-rate clothing stores that employs only 14-year-old boys.
How to Be an Arts Institution Board MemberBe an old-money art maven who’s bored with chairing the Bladder Cancer Awareness Ball. Or be the CEO of a bird-seed retailer who’s looking for a new hobby. Or be the widow of the third-richest man in Maryvale who “lives to serve.”
Accept a seat on the board of the Phoenix Symphony, although you’ve never heard of Arthur Honegger and think John Cage is that fellow who played Cher’s boyfriend in Moonstruck. Or say “yes” when asked to join the Phoenix Art Museum’s board of trustees, even though you’ve never made it past that display of paper moths in the lobby and once mistook an Otto Natzler lidded vessel for an ashtray. Say, “I was planning to take up water polo this year, but chairing Ways and Means for Arizona Opera sounds simply electrifying.” Say, “There’s so little breeding in the world these days.”
Learn to lie through your teeth and look the other way. Allow yourself to be bullied into hiring a director you know to be unfit. Attend meetings. Gossip. Pretend to agree. Publicly applaud your CEO, even though you secretly hate her and once saw her throw a Brian Atwood wedgie at a docent’s head. Claim the institution is out of debt. Sing the praises of people you’ve never met. Say, “I can never get enough Christoph Gluck, can you?” Say, “Those Kehinde Wiley pictures are something else!” Asked about Nabucco, say, “No thank you, I’m dieting.”
When the institution’s shortcomings are revealed in the media, throw everyone, including the CEO, the president of the board, and your late husband under the bus. Point fingers. Swear off charity work. Pout. Say, “I told them they should’ve done a bake sale!” Secretly wish you’d gone ahead and taken those samba lessons instead.
How to Be Undocumented
Although you have a master’s degree in neuroscience, take a job washing windows and pulling weeds at a storage facility on the edge of town. Work 60 hours a week for $1.80 per hour. Walk the seven miles to work each day because “illegals” aren’t allowed to get a driver’s license. Pray. Say, “Esto es malo, pero major.”
Worry. Quit your job after your boss refuses to pay you, offering instead not to turn you over to the authorities for deportation. Say, “Dame fuerza.”
Step on a nail while walking back to the tar-paper shack where you live with your wife and four children and two of your wife’s cousins. Don’t go to the hospital, because that could lead to deportation. Wrap your foot in an old shirt. Pray some more.
Decide to organize around undocumented rights. Attend an anti-immigration rally in a zarape while carrying a sign that reads “Brown Person.” Get arrested and sent to a detention center. Using an interpreter, ask, “How can a person be illegal?” Be denied basic human rights. Meet with a detention agent. Through the interpreter, say “Citizenship status” and “I can’t go back there” and “Please help me.”
After living in a filthy cell for seven weeks, get sent back where you came from. Miss your family. Plot your return. Think to yourself, “At least I didn’t have to listen to Trump’s welcome speech or that stupid Toby Keith song.”
How to Be a Pothead
Be an emotionally vacant college student, or a with-it grandmother, or a 12-year-old who knows where his dad’s stash is. Or be a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder and a lot of reggae albums. Visit your general practitioner. Say, “No, really, I think it’s glaucoma.” Plead. Wink. Offer to share.
Use your new medical marijuana card to fix your lower back pain, increase your appetite, and really stink up your apartment. Empty out your hall closet and install a grow light. Say, “I always meant to be a farmer.”
When you’re between crops, visit the local dispensary. Buy pot-laced gummy worms and Pixy Stix filled with THC and a devil’s-food snack cake that will cause you to lose all sensation in your thumbs for a week. Say, “I’ll diet next year!” Say, “In my day, a dime bag cost 10 bucks!”
Become increasingly paranoid. Explain to your dog that Willie Nelson and Eartha Kitt are actually the same person and that they are also your long-lost parents. Decide that Amazon packages arrive so quickly because they’re alive and want to eat your soul. Haul your pot plants out to the dumpster, burn your marijuana card, and switch to Oxycontin. Say, “I always meant to be Michael Jackson.”
How to Be a Weather PersonBe a hand model with aspirations of stardom. Or be a former newscaster recovering from opioid addiction and an unfortunate comb-over. Get cheek implants and a spray tan and veneers. Say, “I’m not a weather person. I’m a meteorologist.”
Endure that old saw about being paid to be wrong 80 percent of the time. Say the phrases “Doppler radar” and “incoming systems.” Smile.
Stand in front of a green-screen satellite image of North America. Point to Arizona and say, “It’s going to be a hot one today.” Say this three or four more times, replacing the word “hot” with other words that mean “hot.” Do this twice a day for nine months, possibly 10. Go home. Consider returning to opioid addiction.
How to Be a NewcomerBe a multilevel marketing analyst who got transferred from Myrtle Beach. Or be a retired garment-district worker who’s tired of “the city.” Or a college kid who flunked out of Bryn Mawr and wants a college education that’s “more relevant.”
Arrive in November. Dress in shorts every day, because you can, and make air quotes whenever you say the word “winter.” Buy a three-bedroom apartment in a midcentury high-rise for a third of what you would have paid back home. Gloat.
Out of habit, reset your clock to Daylight Saving Time. Text Photoshopped sunsets to your aunt in Minnesota. Hydrate.
Search for shade. Get funny looks when you mention autumn. Ask if Tuba City is a music store. Text your friends back home and say, “Oh, you know, Emma Stone is from here. Also Aidy Bryant.” Mistake Gilbert for an amusement park. Wear a cowboy hat and, when your friends object, pretend you’re being ironic. Taste saguaro jelly.
Get hospitalized with third-degree burns after tubing the Salt River. Say, “But it was April!” Look everywhere for professional theater and buildings that aren’t beige. Drive in the wrong lane on Seventh Street. Be confused about roof rats, and about why everyone laughs about the Mercado. Ride light rail halfway to your destination, because that’s as far as it goes. Say “subtropical” and “SPF 40” and “haboob.” Hike Ruth Hamilton Trail.
Receive your first summertime electric bill. Say, “This must be a typo.” Consider returning “back east.” Begin shopping for a new home in a more temperate place. Start thinking about higher property taxes, and that nice family of quail living in your backyard, and never again eating the chicken livers at Durant’s. Say, “Amazon doesn’t sell prickly pear jawbreakers!” Break out in a heat rash. Decide to stay. Take a deep breath of hot, dry air, and say, “I’m a Phoenician now.”