Goodbye, Phoenix

Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. Not only because I do not have Lou Gehrig's disease, but because it has been my privilege and pleasure for the last 90 weeks to write the column that you are now reading.

All of that will end with this issue, for as of July I will be in California, writing for New Times Los Angeles.

Still, those 90 columns have represented 90 times that you, the Screed reader, have allowed my humble words to move and entertain you, to bring you joy, pain, arousal and disgust; to reveal, perhaps, a slightly different glimpse of a place that all of us refer to as "Phoenix."

But what have we learned on this journey together?
We've learned about people. We've learned about each other. And we are people. So, definitely, that's what we've learned about.

When I came to the Valley so many months ago, I had no idea what to expect. I looked around at the Circle K's, the empty lots, the stucco. I felt the heat. Once, waiting for a light to change on my way to work, I saw a tumbleweed blow across the street in front of the New Times Building. I thought of the story about a condemned prisoner who is led up to the gallows, the noose is placed around his neck, and he is asked if he has anything he'd like to say.

"Yes," he replies. "I don't think this damn thing is safe."
But, for me, that turned out to be a good thing. There is a wealth of twisted enchantment simmering all over the place here; all you have to do is look for it. And drive around a lot.

I remember one evening at the Log Cabin Motel on Van Buren researching column No. 1, where, in midinterview, a fellow named Michael Garland pulled a gun out of his waistband and leveled it at my head.

Forget bungee jumping or autoerotic asphyxiation; journalism in this town has its own rewards. (Among other various crimes that night, Garland went on to shoot a guy in the stomach. The victim lived to appear on the witness stand--as did I--after the cops apprehended Garland. Just a couple months ago, the court decided that he should best remain a guest of the state well into the next century.)

But it hasn't all been searing action and potential life-threatening violence. Sometimes this big ol' desert village coughs up a warm load of tenderness, and don't let anybody tell you different.

I can remember the way I was touched by the stories of Tom, Barry, Carlos, Gary and Teodore, the mechanics who had created men out of mufflers. Surely you recall those metal chaps crafted out of love and Flo-Masters. Jeronimo, Moe, Mr. Muffler Man, Moffles, and Muffler Man. You couldn't help but feel a bit fuzzy when Barry revealed that "a few weeks ago, they put a swastika on Mr. Muffler Man's chest. I had to paint over it. Mr. Muffler Man, he's all-American!"

Then there was the tale of jumpsuit-clad, 81-year-old Monty and his 69-year-old wife Donna, who had been accused of running a swingers club in Tempe. Sad, really, but the police forced the place to close. Something about zoning ordinances. I'll never forget the crack in Monty's voice as he looked at me innocently through the smoke of his Camel and pleaded, "That's exactly why we named it the Get-Acquainted club. It was get acquainted to get to know people, to party with people. It wasn't to get acquainted to get laid."

It's that kind of rustic charm that will always spell "special" to me in my personal dictionary of my heart when I look up the word "Phoenix." One Friday morning, slightly after dawn, I was at the Bikini Lounge, where everyone was downing draft beer like it was fresh-squeezed Sunkist. The Bikini is the last of the great, authentic tiki bars in this town where you can hunker down with a cold one and jaw with the regulars, with characters like blue-eyed, bearded Dean. Dean was playing pool that morning, and what a scene it was. The sight of the crisp golden sunlight creeping under the crack of the front door as I heard Dean wheeze to his opponent, "You better call home and tell 'em to sell the outhouse, 'cause you're going to lose your ass!" is one I shan't soon forget.

I'd be lying to you--and faithful readers know I would never do that--if I told you I hadn't encountered my share of weirdness over the course of writing this column.

Does the term "Rods" mean anything to you? If it doesn't, then you didn't read two whole pieces devoted to an in-depth investigation into the phenomenon of the tubelike objects of unknown origin that pass through the local skies so fast as to be barely perceptible to the human eye. A man named Jeff Ferris gave us a glimpse into the odd world of Rods through his detailed collection of videotapes that captured the elusive creatures--or whatever they are.

In-depth though the stories were, I never actually found out what Rods were all about. But so what? How many of you can make pate de foie gras? That doesn't stop you from eating it, does it? I rest my case.

But the troubling case of the Chandler rock bombardments will not rest quite so easily. No doubt, heads are still being scratched over the story of the seemingly upstanding neighborhood dad who, according to police, was responsible for throwing river rocks at homes (including his own) on a cul-de-sac in the town where Buck Owens was baptized.

The whole thing had mystified locals for weeks, yet the police and their state-of-the-art methods of deduction proved too much for the stone-tosser.

As one officer who had personally gathered many of the stones told me, "I kept some of the rocks in my car the first couple days 'cause I wanted to ask people, 'Do you believe this thing fell out of the sky over a telephone pole? My ass!'"

Pushing the envelope of believability even further was no problem for David and Debbie Barnes, a couple I wrote about who claimed to be in possession of a Picasso original that packed quite a message.

"I locked myself in my bedroom, and I started studying the thing," David admitted to me as I sat in his west-side living room, rapt. "I saw demons come out of it." That's not all--Picasso himself started communicating with Barnes from beyond the grave; it was revealed that Jesus would return to Earth in "a spaceship"; Barnes found a map to hidden Nazi treasure encoded in the painting; and it allowed him to have visions of things like who shot down TWA Flight 800. Barnes promised me a portion of the enormous amount of money he would get after selling the alleged Picasso, simply for letting him tell his story.

So I have that going for me.

As we sit here and reminisce, it's hard not to hearken back to some of the celebrities that have graced this page. Remember Louis Armstrong? Well, it wasn't actually Satchmo himself, but we did go on a no-holds-barred journalistic trip into the history of his favorite laxative, Swiss Kriss. Wasn't that a good one? I know, I liked it too.

How about Mr. Vic Caesar, king of the lounge singers? Vic had stories about every celebrity that has walked the face of the Earth since talkies were introduced. I'll refresh your memory: Vic played piano for Marilyn Monroe. Vic said he smoked dope with Bobby Kennedy and Sammy Davis Jr. Vic lived at the Playboy Mansion. Vic hugged Dick Nixon. Vic! My man! Phoenix doesn't deserve you, baby!

And who could forget Candy Cantaloupes, the stunning "entertainer" with a "115 ZZZ-cup" bra loaded with talent? We spent time with Candy on her last night in the business, as she gave up an international career and frequent appearances in publications like Bra Busters and Gent--Home of the D-Cups (she was clearly overqualified for that one).

Candy spoke of her appearances on Howard Stern's show, and of the new life she was about to embark on. I sat and listened. She was getting her breasts reduced, she was heading for New York to live with her new boyfriend--"he loves and accepts me"--and enroll in college. Wherever you are, Candy, I hope your dreams came true. I still have the Polaroid we took that night, embracing, you smiling and topless, your chest smashing against my leather jacket, me with the shocked expression of Lee Harvey Oswald as he took a bullet to the stomach. I consider it priceless.

But, like the photo of me and Candy and her monstrous breasts, I consider all of my memories of this town and the people I have come to know and write about to be priceless. And for that I want to say thank you, Phoenix.

Thank you, Phoenix.