Time Transients

Can there be another city in the state, or even the country, that would organize a massive public New Year's party, invest in it heavily, and then scare the citizens out of attending?

It is New Year's Eve, and people are frightened. In the afternoon, the Albertsons at 16th Street and Camelback has none of its own brand of water left, and not much of the other, more expensive stuff. The media have been warning us of the impending Y2K disaster, the terrible things that could happen: The computers could crash, phones may not work, the lights could go out, the ATMs may cease to work, the stores may not be open, there could be terrorist action. We are advised to stockpile food and water, and it seems that we are doing so. The coverage is relentless; Y2K is the new chupacabras, the scary thing in the darkness that we love to talk about, that provides a creepy thrill that substantive issues cannot. When some explosives are stolen from a mining company, the drooling and cooing over what might happen intensifies.

The Phoenix Police Department announces that all its officers will be on call. The official reason for this is in case of power outages, inconveniences that officers might help with. But the individual cops I talk to tell a different story. They're not worried about equipment failure. They're worried about people, about millennium wing nuts who believe the apocalyptic hype.

Roger Clyne is worried. Formerly the front man of the Refreshments, he now fronts the Peacemakers, one of the bands booked to play in downtown Phoenix at Celebration 2000. He imagines playing on top of a pile of explosives, and knowing how far-fetched that is doesn't make it any easier. I fantasize that I might get to write the line, "'I was afraid this would happen,' croaked Roger Clyne, as I pulled him out of the rubble." Clyne also has to deal with the paranoia of the cops, who're afraid his fans might cause problems. "It's because we've played for Hells Angels," he tells me. "The cops think that makes us a security threat. I tried to tell them that the Hells Angels are more courteous to us than the guys from fraternities."

His band will play on the Festival Stage, which would have been better named the Tempe Stage, considering who the other bands are -- the Gas Giants, the Pistoleros, and the Gin Blossoms, who've reunited for this show. In the days leading up to the show, the local radio stations have relentlessly played the Gin Blossoms -- a defunct band -- but not the other, still happening bands.

Paranoia is catching. As I leave home for the New Year's celebrations, I'm excited and a little bit nervous.

In Phoenix, things happen with a type of metaphorical convenience that a fiction writer would dismiss as too improbable, too trite. Before heading downtown, I stop at a Circle K to get gas. As I'm filling up, a homeless guy walks toward me. I reach for my wallet, preparing for the familiar recitation. When he stops beside me, I see that he's probably in his 50s, his face purple and blistered, as though he's been badly sunburned, even though it hasn't been that hot in months.

"Hey," he says. "Will you go in there for me and get me some Twinkies and Coke?"

"Why don't you go in yourself?"

"They won't let me. . . . I'm just trying to get something in my stomach."

He puts a hand in his pocket. He's going to try to give me the money.

They come here to escape. That is the cliché, the stereotype, but it became a stereotype because it is true. They come here to escape, from pollution, a maimed marriage, a felony warrant, a failed business, poverty, unemployment, all the usual things we run away from. And this is the place they run to.

I did.

They come here knowing they will not be asked why. It is considered rude, an insensitive question, to ask someone what brought them here. If the question is asked, the most common answer is "The bus."

The place is called Phoenix. It is the sixth-largest municipality in the United States, a science-fiction cityscape of tangled freeways and broad, empty streets under a cruel sun. No individual stores on the streets, just strip malls. Many central neighborhoods don't have sidewalks because nobody walks anywhere unless they're homeless. A boom town in a "right-to-work" state, which means no right to job security or benefits, just a guaranteed minimum wage. A place where violence is out of control, and otherwise intelligent people think that only criminals should be armed.

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Barry Graham