Big Scam Theory

Picture the Jerry Lewis telethon. See that guy in the wheelchair with the crooked arm? Now imagine him trying to juggle a dozen raw eggs. This conjures up a mixture of revulsion and fear, doesn't it?

Which is precisely what I feel when confronted by a microphone.

Except the eggs are live grenades.

Following an overlong speech I gave at the Phoenix Art Museum in October, the very first person to speak to me summed up thusly: "You are a complete asshole."

Jo Marie MacDonald, a fixture for years with the Phoenix Community Alliance, caught me square in the puss before I'd even had the opportunity to bolt down a glass of wine for the yips.

The two of us were on opposite sides of what has become class warfare over the fate of downtown. We cannot agree on what is cool.

I deserved no less than her fury for breaking my own rule. I believe that if you have a typewriter, you already have more voice than you deserve. For the sake of dignity, those with typewriters should leave the microphones to others. Or, am I so full of myself that I'll learn to work the saxophone next?

A shocked bystander who attends yoga class with MacDonald observed that I really must have gotten through to her.

"It was good for Jo Marie to be able to express herself," said Francine Hardaway. "She never does that."

What gulf inspired such unprecedented assault?

MacDonald and her downtown colleagues, as well as the bureaucracy at City Hall, believe that our urban core is about the following: the hundreds of thousands of tourists they hope will attend the expanded Convention Center; a tax-supported downtown mall, the Arizona Center (now a deserted gee-gaw factory); all of the subsidized sports stadiums; yet another hotel for out-of-towners with nametags; and (coming soon) a master-planned downtown enclave conceived by sports mogul Jerry Colangelo and designed by the schlock-meister of Disney villages, Jerde Inc.

I disagree with that vision.

I spoke to MacDonald and those assembled at the Phoenix Art Museum for the purpose of inviting them to an appearance by Richard Florida at the Orpheum Theatre. Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a best-selling author on urban issues, espouses a downtown rich in street life, a cityscape that attracts the creative class, which in turn attracts cutting-edge businesses involved in high-tech and the biosciences.

The thinking of MacDonald and her allies has given us a series of gargantuan, tax-subsidized edifices that rival any Soviet city for bland monumentality. The soul of any real city -- downtown residents, their restaurants, cafes, bar bands . . . all of it -- is missing. Our streets are empty.

An expanded convention center, the current mega-project under way, does not constitute a downtown.

A hot-blooded Jo Marie MacDonald is precisely the spirit that is absent in downtown's beige matrix.

Her abuse is the single most exciting thing that has ever happened to me in an art museum. I will never forget it.

A memory.

You don't get that sort of reminiscence with conventioneers and tourists.

A true downtown is a hive of memories, an incubator of the unforgettable for residents.

I've attended conventions for more than 30 years. I don't have a single memory. It is all a caffeine blur. Except for Pittsburgh. There I experienced the rapture of food poisoning.

In subsequent correspondence, Jo Marie MacDonald expressed some small measure of regret over her art museum outburst, saying that what she should have done was to congratulate me on my recent interest in downtown.

But on that point she is mistaken.

For three decades I have edited, written and officed downtown. Lived there, too. I continue to search for the feel of a pulse downtown. Maybe it's more of a rhythm than a pulse. What I know is that my ear, like a lot of other ears, responds to a different beat than those of MacDonald and her allies in the Downtown Phoenix Partnership and the Phoenix Community Alliance. I've said goodbye to friends, buildings and hangouts over the last 30 years.

It's time to create new memories -- for residents, not tourists.

1978 Central Avenue & Cars

Cars ruled downtown Phoenix. Until cops put an end to it, "Cruising Central" Avenue defined weekend nights with thousands of teenagers driving, ogling and hanging. No one dug cars better than Mexicans. Today much of the barrio lowrider scene has been sanitized, driven off the streets and confined to exhibit space in the convention center. My first car was a '55 Chevy. I drove it all over downtown and to work at the Westward Ho on Central. After a few paychecks, I took it to a paint shop on Central run by a couple of Mexican friends. The car was sharp once I got it back. But when I took it to the do-it-yourself car wash, the new paint came off in long, rubbery strips. My Mexican buddy said it was his brother's fault. When I picked up the car for the second time, there was a new problem. Someone had misplaced the hood latch. The hood was now secured by rope. He promised to find the latch and, look here, would I be interested in buying some diamonds at a very reasonable price? Laid out on my freshly painted fender, the hot rocks looked fine. Two weeks later, my girlfriend untied the hood and used my jumper cables and battery to start her own car. Later that morning, I drove on the freeway into downtown Phoenix. The enormous hood of the Chevy popped open with a tremendous bang, blinding me in rush-hour traffic. My girlfriend had spaced tying the hood back down. The horror of driving at 70 mph, blind, yielded to wonder as the hood tore out of its brackets and flew backward, tearing off the fresh paint on the roof of my car and then somersaulting down the freeway, scattering traffic.

I exited the freeway and parked. I had no car insurance and could not remember the words to the Hail Mary.

Later, over sorrowful tacos, I broke up with my girlfriend. We left my car at the restaurant and she drove me home. That night some pinche cabrón stole my '55 Chevy. At least one woman thought I had it coming.

This year I returned to the paint shop. I wrote a story about a young Mexican, another car kid who restored the old rides. He'd been pulled over for rolling through a stop sign. He pulled 10 years in prison for resisting arrest. It all went down behind the paint shop where I could still see the '55 Chevy, still smell the paint fumes.
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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey