It's Wednesday night in the city of the dead.
We pull into Park Central. It seems all that is missing here is the tumbleweed blowing through. In the back of the open mall, down a long empty corridor past dry fountains and vacant storefronts, we come to Club Central, a place offering some noise and people.
We walk in, descend some stairs and sit down at a table near the back. The waitress comes around and takes our order. The inside of the bar is clean and new with red brick walls, carpeting and a sizable DJ booth and sound system.
"Who are these guys?" asks the club's MC when he sees the photographer and me. The MC is standing in the middle of the floor talking into a microphone.
Turns out the MC's name is G.E. Howard and he is hosting Club Central's open-mike night for local comedians. He says, "Who is that guy with the camera who dragged Marilyn Manson in with him?"
Howard points at me and adds, "He wants to get up here and tell some jokes. That guy over there, Marilyn Manson, he is next."
All two dozen heads in the crowd turn and look at me. I shake my head, raise my just-arrived Heineken and take a heavy swallow. The faces turn back around and watch MC Howard.
Howard is an African-American guy dressed in white-white tee shirt, shorts, shoes, socks, backward baseball cap. He thinks I look like Marilyn Manson. Aside from having sallow skin and black hair, I look nothing like Marilyn Manson. Though, this being Wednesday night in the city of the dead and all, maybe Howard is being funny.
Between Howard's monologues, the comics come and go. Wanda Lee, a stocky and animated middle-aged woman, shares an anecdote involving a dollar forty-five and wedding-night sex. One guy tells a story about accidentally spending an hour and a half giving head to his mother. Both tales are received with hearty applause.
When the open-mike piece of the night is concluded--that point when there are no more jokes to be had--the house DJ kicks in. Tonight the DJ volunteers, of all things, a Bachman-Turner Overdrive number. Some get up and dance. We go back up the stairs and leave.
In the car and driving down Central, nothing else is going on. The photographer calls it a night and goes home.
In an attempt to salvage the evening, I wind up at a place called Amsterdam, the only other bar on Central that I could find open at midnight.
Amsterdam is a lovely, mahogany-lined piano bar situated in a once-vacant storefront on a stretch of Central south of Roosevelt that isn't adjacent to some strip-mall franchise. There's no am/pm, Blockbuster Video or Starbucks.
Graceful flowers are arranged throughout the bar. The Supremes and Donna Summer come in softly through the stereo. And the place, in keeping with the tradition of the night, is deserted.
Bubba, the buoyant and artful bartender, mixes me a heady mocha martini that has chocolate rings around the glass. He follows that with a sightly concoction he calls Deep, Dark and Delicious. I'm feeling pretty good about this place tonight.
The only other patron, an old queen sitting at the end of the bar, gets up and shambles out the door.
"It's July in Phoenix, and everything is dead," Bubba says. "It's murder. It's hard to believe anything can stay open."
I nod in agreement.
Outside, a hot wind blows from the west, hard enough at times to pin the palm tree branches straight up. The wind carries some debris across the street, swirls it around, then deposits it in the darkness. The sky is a dark, dusty, burnt-orange color. The city feels like some Old West movie set. There are no whirring sirens or blurs of metallic color; only one car passes the bar's front window in 40 minutes. Other than Bubba, the only sign of life from this vantage between midnight and 1 a.m. is some man walking along Central as though the heat has morally oppressed him.
A Wednesday night on a main drag in the country's fifth-largest city and still, it's the city of the dead. I tell Bubba that a man's boredom can fester in a place like this. He agrees. "It's a wonder there aren't more drunks," Bubba says.