Best Of :: Megalopolitan Life
Beyond the Grave
by Robrt L. Pela
Visitors to the white-tiled pyramid at Papago Park have sometimes mistaken it for an oddly placed homage to Egypt. But the unadorned monument isn't a Sonoran hat-tip to Cairo; it's the gravesite of Arizona's first governor, George W. P. Hunt, who held office between 1912 and 1933. He was interred there in 1934, alongside the remains of his daughter and his wife, and those of her in-laws and his wife's sister.
"He wanted to have a significant place where he and his family could be buried," according to local historian Donna Reiner, PhD. "And he really loved Arizona. Even though he's not native-born, his heart belonged to this state, and he wanted some place where he could look out over the Valley when he went to visit his wife’s grave."
On the surface, it seems like a tale fit for the pulpy pages of War Stories magazine: On a chilly night in December 1944, some 25 German soldiers and sailors absconded from Camp Papago Park, a Valley prisoner-of-war facility during World War II. It was the largest-ever escape by Axis POWs on U.S. soil, an embarrassment for the military, and fodder for dramatic newspaper headlines ("Wily Germans Elude Chase"). Security was lax and life was relatively comfortable at the camp overseen by Army Colonel William Holden, who believed with Colonel Klink-like foolishness that his prisoners could never bust out. Exploiting the situation, the escapees used a 178-foot tunnel they'd dug for months to reach a nearby canal. Their newfound freedom didn't last. Some considered it a prank and surrendered days later. Others hoped to return to the fatherland by way of Mexico, but were done in by the weather and desert terrain. One trio even considered rafting the Gila River to the Gulf of California, only to find a dry riverbed. Within weeks, each was recaptured and the story of their great escape has since slipped into Phoenix lore.
For nearly a month after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests dominated life in Phoenix, as in many other American cities. Every night, people gathered, marched, and asked for justice for Black people in Phoenix. They demanded more accountability from the police department. They mourned the death of not just Floyd but Dion Johnson, a Black man killed by an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper on the same day. Early on, there were products of anger: vandalism, looting, and arrests. But as the days turned into weeks, the demonstrations settled into a peaceful and mostly predictable daily activity, something like a religious act. Inevitably, the protests petered out by late June. But not before many in the crowds of thousands — largely young and diverse, idealistic and hopeful — had participated for the first time in a massive, meaningful, organized, and sustained civic act. For many, we suspect it won't be their last.
Just before thousands of people in Arizona began dying from a pandemic disease, it briefly seemed like the biggest problem the state faced could be described with two words: "Penis Man." Crudely scrawled in spray paint, the phrase began showing up mysteriously on public and private buildings in Phoenix and Tempe in late 2019. By the new year, the graffiti and whoever was responsible for it had made national news and attained the sort of reverence on social media sites that's usually reserved for Gandhi or Obama. Penis Man was called "the watchful, silent hero of Tempe." "We are all Penis Man," someone on Twitter said, wisely. Copycats abounded, making it seem like Penis Man was everywhere at once. During the long weekend of the MLK Day holiday, he hit numerous places in Tempe with the tag, including City Hall. Police declared war. After an investigation, they arrested a 38-year-old Phoenix man in a heavy-handed raid that also made national news. In speaking to the press, the man seemed to be mentally unbalanced, his political rhetoric no more like Banksy's than his graffiti had been. But judging by the occasional scribble of his name that's still found on the back of road signs and garbage cans around town, no one can keep the legend of Penis Man down.
Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York project, in which ordinary people share small but meaningful stories about their lives, was affected by the pandemic just like everything else. COVID-19 meant it wasn't safe to walk around Manhattan looking for subjects, so Stanton sent out a call for submissions. Liz Santiago of Mesa answered. She told a story about her father, Domingo, who was a talented artist but only created one painting in his life: a portrait of the musician Sting. As her father lay dying, he had a last request for his family. He wanted them to give the painting to Sting. The HONY post, which received more than 250,000 likes on Facebook, caught the attention of Sting's daughter Mickey Sumner. Within days, a plan to send the painting from Arizona to England had been set in motion, and Sumner and Santiago had set up a GoFundMe to raise money for the National MS Society. (Domingo suffered from multiple sclerosis.) When Sting sent Santiago a photo of him standing with the painting, the effect was overwhelming, she said, but just as incredible was the way the HONY audience responded to her story. The post garnered news stories and comments from as far away as Singapore and Australia. "The painting had been under lock and key for over 25 years, and now it was all over the world," Santiago said. "There was a lot of emotion in that."
It might as well have been 700 years ago, but back in April, before a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd and sparked unprecedented nationwide protests, a different kind of demonstration was held in Arizona. The so-called Patriot Rally was organized in response to Governor Doug Ducey's stay-at-home order, which shut down bars, gyms, barber shops, and dine-in restaurants due to the spread of COVID-19. "You're not working ... your rights and finances are being destroyed ... so it's time to PROTEST! We do NOT consent! OPEN Arizona!" the organizer wrote on Facebook, encouraging attendees to drive around the Arizona Capitol and honk their horn. Having worked the hospital frontlines and seen firsthand the horrors COVID-19 had wrought, a handful of local ICU nurses headed down to the Capitol to stage their own counterprotest. Clad in scrubs and masks, they stood in silence, absorbing the insults of these "patriots." In one image from the afternoon, captured by Arizona Republic photographer Michael Chow, an old, angry, sunburned white man — Arizona Man, let's call him — tauntingly waves an American flag inches from a nurse's face. The nurse, Lauren Leander — blue scrubs, white N95 mask, arms crossed — meets his gaze, all grace and poise and calm. Like all iconic photos, it summed up the situation better than words ever could. Which side are you on, indeed.
For a few days there, we had the four short sentences memorized: "Been thinking about life and mortality today. I'd rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn't matter. But it kinda does." These were the words of Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, contained inside a tweet and accompanied by an image from the 2018 film The Great Battle. They arrived in early March, right as the severity of the coronavirus was beginning to dawn on the nation. The weekend before, Gosar, a Republican, had come into close, repeated contact with an infected person at a conservative conference. He decided to isolate himself, and within a day he had issued the battle tweet. Nobody was exactly sure what Gosar was trying to say, but one thing was clear: This was excellent meme fodder. Within hours, practically every journalist, comedian, and brand on Twitter had appropriated Gosar's words and swapped in visuals of their own: an insane-looking woman holding a preposterously large Final Fantasy VII sword, security guards chasing the Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty, a video of two gentlemen exaggeratedly giving each other the finger on a New York street corner. Gosar (who has previously dog-whistled at QAnon and Epstein conspiracists) has a knack for tapping into the weird web zeitgeist. He's not funny, exactly, but he can be entertaining. Kinda like Twitter itself, come to think of it.
Billionaire Mike Bloomberg and his presidential ambitions burst into Arizona and other states late last year, and by early 2020, he had become a force to be reckoned with — mainly by other presidential and down-ticket candidates, who discovered his near-infinite well of campaign cash was a vacuum sucking up a lot of local talent. By March, he had spent $5 million and hired 50 staffers in Arizona, far more than any other candidate. As New Times reported, these employees made out like bandits: free MacBooks and iPhones to use on the job, plus a $6,000-per-month salary. Before the pandemic, that meant more hotel rooms booked, more restaurant food, and more coffee shop drinks swilled — the former NYC mayor was like a mini-economic boom unto himself. Yet Arizona still got short-changed: That $5 million was just 1 percent of what he spent on his campaign to dethrone Trump in total. And after spending half a billion dollars of his own money, Bloomberg won a Super Tuesday primary race only in American Samoa, then dropped out in early May.
Police throw someone in jail every day in Arizona for small amounts of marijuana or other drugs, and people selling meth or heroin on the street might get decades in prison. Meanwhile, billionaire John Kapoor, co-founder and former chair of Insys Therapeutics in Chandler, enriched his wealth through the poisonous marketing of a killer opioid substitute, fentanyl. Hundreds of patients died, among the tens of thousands of opiate deaths that have added to the country's ills over the past few years. But then something unexpected happened: The federal government indicted Kapoor and his accomplices, and he was sentenced this year to five and a half years behind bars. No more duck and caviar on his private jet, or watching the sunset over the mountains from his Scottsdale mansion. Now, he's eating prison food with other drug dealers — people who outclass him in every way. He had it all for a while, but instead of using his privilege and wealth for good, he commited fraud and added misery to the world. Turns out, the criminal justice system does occasionally work.
Jake Paul has more than 20 million YouTube followers, but he got famous on Vine, so it's perhaps appropriate that a short video could eventually be what sends him to prison. On May 30, at the height of the George Floyd protests, looters descended on Scottsdale Fashion Square, causing millions of dollars of damage in the mall and its surrounding businesses. Social media videos from the incident began to trickle out, and one showed Paul on the scene. Paul, who's known for pranks and internet feuds, said he was there to document the events, and that he hadn't participated in any vandalism. But a few days later, he was charged by Scottsdale police with criminal trespassing and unlawful assembly, both misdemeanors. The Scottsdale charges were eventually dropped — but only, it appears, because the feds got involved. The FBI raided Paul's Los Angeles mansion in August, reportedly looking for evidence related to what happened that night in Scottsdale. A hard lesson for an influencer to swallow: Maybe not everything is worth documenting on Instagram.
Once upon a time, there was a bisexual, Native American anthropology professor at Arizona State University who stood up for the abuse of women in science and died of COVID-19 on July 31. The professor was known to about 2,400 followers on Twitter, including many followers in academia, as @Sciencing_Bi. They retweeted news of the professor's death, which happened at a time of intense debate about ASU's reopening amid the pandemic. People demanded that ASU acknowledge what had happened to @Sciencing_Bi. That's when this tale took a surprise twist. There was no such ASU professor. A former Vanderbilt University neuroscience instructor who had tweeted about the death, BethAnn McLaughlin, was soon outed as the person behind the hoax. McLaughlin's not laughing, though — she was booted from her position on the board of a science journal, and her previously published scientific papers are undergoing new critical review.
ASU officials hoped for a smooth transition after Christopher Callahan, dean of ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, took a job as president of University of the Pacific in California. They got anything but. ASU hired Sonya Forte Duhé from the School of Communication and Design at Loyola University in New Orleans to take his place. Duhé, who was supposed to start on July 1, had worked for years as a well-pedigreed broadcast journalism program director at Loyola, and ASU put out excited news releases in the spring about her imminent arrival. Then, Minnesota cops killed George Floyd, causing uprisings around the country, along with some looting. Duhé tweeted a word in support of the protesters — but also said something about "good" police officers. That caused one of Duhé's former students to go public with accusations that Duhé had said bigoted things to her and seemed unsupportive of her and other Black students. Several other students spoke up to agree. The press went crazy with the story. And suddenly, ASU uninvited Duhé as dean. The university made longtime faculty member Kristin Gilger the interim dean, who would have been a great choice all along. It wasn't that the journalism school had failed to do its research, either: Loyola officials eventually admitted they hadn't been forthcoming about complaints filed by Duhé's students.
Water treatment and sewage disposal are way more complicated from a city infrastructure perspective than simply turning on a tap or flushing a toilet, especially in the bone-dry desert we call home. Describing the intricacies of such a mundane process also tends to be boring as hell, especially for the average tween. Thus, at schools and educational events, the City of Phoenix Department of Water Services has introduced the mascot Wayne Drop, a smiling blue drop of water, to help kids and adults alike digest these turgid facts. The other end of the story had been missing until April, when the city rolled out Wayne's sidekick, Loo Poo, whose swirly brown costume resembles the typical "poop" emoji. In an activity book for kids, you can follow along with Loo Poo's adventures through sewage pipes until he (of course they made him a man) finally emerges again as a "bio-solid" fertilizer on your local farm. He doesn't have a shit-eating grin on his face like Wayne, but instead wears a smirk that seems to say, "How's your 2020 going?"