Arizona Blues

Why have I come to Tempe, the university quarter of Phoenix, Arizona? The question resounds, particularly on my first night, dealing and coping. What other words for undressing and getting into bed on my own these days? It has come to this. Things are getting harder. It has come to this. I am getting older. It has come to this. I resent it all, and yet the very process of dealing with a foreign environment…well, it keeps me going. Keeps me resilient. Keeps me believing that I can handle the world.

And what is there to handle? A bed that is higher than the one I have at home. Too high, from my perspective. Modern, from that of the hotel. Such that when I am ready to crash, several serious challenges present themselves all at once. First, getting into bed and then turning out the light won’t work. Once I am fully positioned on the mattress, reaching to my right, home of the bedside lamp, is simply too far. Furthermore, the switch requires forceful downward pressure – no way I can pull this off lying down. To put a finer point on it, I lack the strength. To maneuver the switch requires standing up, putting my thumb on the switch, then using my body weight to depress it. It depresses me, this reality.

In terms of going beddy bye, there’s another problem. To get into the high bed I have to throw myself back, bend my one working leg up onto the mattress, then push and drag myself aboard. Not the sort of thing that is much improved by darkness. It seems marginally better to try this with adequate illumination. But there is the light switch problem, isn’t there? Trade-offs. Remember, I keep telling myself, this is a wheelchair-accessible room. Imagine a normal shower, a conventionally low toilet, and so on. No. I don’t want to imagine this. Things seem difficult enough.

And yet I’m not in difficulty, not in the big picture. That is the thing. I am now the proud owner of a four-plex. The economic pressure is definitely off. So this is my ‘job.’ Getting into bed. That it is a risky job…well, some jobs just are. Take trapeze artists, for example. Racecar drivers. Paratroopers. Doing serious things with a disability incorporates such elements, but couples high risk with low status and no pay. Unless you consider having a life adequate payment. Which, with the break of day, I do.

It takes me twice as long as usual get things done in the marvelously wheelchair accessible bathroom. That’s why I feel almost embarrassed to my call my sister and brother-in-law to suggest that we abandon plans for morning coffee. They have exercise and Zen meditation, respectively. I have made them late, or would make them late if we attempted to rendezvous now at my hotel. Actually, they had offered to come by earlier and help me get dressed. No no, I insisted, no need for that. And yet, I now concede, there was a need. Not so much a practical matter as a spiritual one. You’re not alone.

In any case, I am alone now, out on the street, Mill Avenue. It seems a sort of moonscape to me. But then I am drawn to places like San Francisco, even Menlo Park, where the environment is less harsh. And what is harsh about this place, the center of Tempe, Arizona?

Relatively speaking, not all that much, and certainly less than other parts of Phoenix. I suppose that much of America is like this. A newly built urban area, or newly rebuilt, in which cars and their needs predominate. That is the worst one can say about the corner of Mill Avenue and University Drive. The streets are too wide, too wide for the largely ambulatory shopping district that surrounds. Ironically, the center of Tempe, the Mill Avenue district, is a pedestrian zone. At night, the hordes of students processing up and down, can produce something like a roar. The adjoining university has more than 60,000, after all. They need to go somewhere on Saturday evening. And great to see that they have some place to walk, instead of drive.

And in case this needs to be explained, and in America it mostly does…walking is good. Aside from cardiovascular benefits, on foot, passing each other en route to beer or films or coffee…well, people get to see each other. Remember they are all people. Nothing from Mercedes or Honda is physically isolating them, reinforcing economic status…or gobbling up so much urbanscape that, in a sense, you cannot see across the road. I use ‘see’ advisedly.

A better word is probably ‘feel.’ With four lanes and left turn bays, the pavement is too wide for the neighborhood. It undermines it. Mill Avenue needs to be half as wide in these blocks near the university. The street and its traffic both dwarf and drain attention from one of the town’s few cultural gems, the Valley Theater, a single screen cinema that shows, incredibly, truly independent and limited distribution films.

Never mind. I turn right on University Drive, another immensely wide, moonscape thoroughfare. One corner is home to a 24-hour drugstore, part of a national chain, CVS. Someone should know better. Someone does, but in Arizona it is practically un-American to suggest that this junction, which is within sight of a famous theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, needs something a little different.

I make my way to the only truly offbeat, even faintly bohemian, café I know in the area. The Cartel espresso bar. Best coffee in town. The proprietors have taken over what seems like a suburban warehouse space. Their establishment is too hard to find, unfortunately. Only the lost make their way here. Which is the other thing about being disabled. One is naturally lost. Which in modern America is, I swear, the only thing to be.

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