Desolation Angel

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."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith