It may be no country for old men, but the old predominate anyway. As for young men, something about the place makes them invisible. Arizona. Tempe, to be exact. My sister and I have set out on a walk. This has been a most enjoyable weekend visit. Instead of feeling obliged to dash about the area doing things, we have spent much time at the home of my sister and brother-in-law having good talks. And now we are out for a stroll. Me in my semi-portable electric wheelchair, my sister walking beside. My head is full of human observations and ideas, such is my sister’s world. Now there is this world, a series of suburban neighborhood streets, the late afternoon ebbing, desert air in the upper 70s, the blueness of sky startling in its clarity. Elongated strips of white cloud, the wake of high-altitude airliners over Arizona, disperse in parallel. After crossing the first street without a curb ramp, I steer my wheelchair into the pavement.
Things are abloom. As a desert boy, I have a feel for this. The miracle of flowers in the harshest of life conditions. Not that I am accustomed to such variety. We had one or two species of cactus annually blooming about my boyhood home near Palm Springs. We also had a lot of creosote and transitional shrubs of the chaparral zone. This is true Sonoran Desert, and cactus of every imaginable variety are looking downright flagrant, petals of fluorescent pink and coral appearing right in front of my sister’s house. The blossoms of cactus seem like afterthoughts, protuberances as unplanned as warts marching along the green spiky pads. Or appearing at the end of interwoven barbs on cholla. Like flowering pimples on saguaros. And then there are the trees. The palo verdes wave their yellow blossoms in the desert breeze, branches green, foliage seemingly absent…waxy structures substituting for leaves in this arid, heat-blasted land of almost no rainfall.
We talk of schools. My sister has recently won an award for educational research. She seems pleasantly surprised, half puzzled, half buoyed by the experience. She is worried about work. Both of them, my sister and brother-in-law, are academics with a social justice background in the broadest sense. These days, they’re worried. They can’t be alone, judging by the bars on so many of the houses in this neighborhood. Is crime prevalent here, I ask my sister? She shrugs. Who can say? Crime is everywhere, and today there is probably more than there was a few years ago. Jail-like gratings over windows, signs proclaiming frequent security patrols by this or that company. Would one describe this as a lower middle-class neighborhood? Not only does no one know anymore, but no one can predict. The corporate state having tightened our belts for us, as Cornel West puts it, ‘we are all niggers now.’
This is the Sunbelt. Just look up. This day’s sun, what is left of it, shines unimpeded. The only clouds seem to be artificial ones, left by mistake by people flying 30,000 feet above. At the stop sign my sister cautions me while we watch cars approach on Hardy Avenue. I am inclined to dart across the traffic several times, for the traffic is hardly there. This is an arterial street, but the cars are few. As we continue through the neighborhood, traffic is nonexistent. There is a ghostly feel to everything. Yes, this is a Sunday. But it is also the prime tourist season, still. No one seems to be moving. We pass one elderly couple on foot. They say hello. Except for Hardy Avenue, this is the first traffic, foot or vehicular, I have seen in twenty minutes. We are now passing newer houses, some small Spanish-style bungalows, which are condominiums. Many have signs on them. For sale, for rent, for good or ill. Housing prices have collapsed here. They keep dropping. No one seems to know how much further they may fall. Staring at one of these single-storey condominiums, admiring the hacienda arrangement of inner courtyard, walled garden, it occurs to me that faced with the choice, buy a new wheelchair van or purchase one of these homes, the expense would be the same.
I shake my head to clear it. What on earth would I do with a home here? For a quadriplegic who does not sweat, the place is uninhabitable for five months of the year. For the rest? The facts are simple enough. No one knows how far things will drop. No one knows what will happen to the neighborhood, this one or any other. No one knows lots of things people living here probably cannot afford to contemplate. Such as water. This is not a good time to read Reiser’s famous Cadillac Desert.
Too much of Arizona life has already proved unsustainable. Life here seems to have been predicated on so much that was demonstrably shallow. The endless building of homes, hotels, shopping centers, golf courses, because of the endless influx of people seeking warmer weather. The endless has ended. People are trying to hang on to their homes, the ones they live in, not the second ones they can no longer afford. The future and the present seem as rootless as the vegetation. But not entirely. Now we pass a home that dates from the 1940s, 1930s, even 1920s. Spanish-style, of course, and with lots of land around it. My sister says that the owners keep a few miniature sheep. At this, I say nothing. The thought is as bizarre as Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdess. Besides, I am aware that this folding, portable wheelchair is now far from my sister’s house and I am getting worried. About what? I can’t really say, so keep going. Now passing a park, a sign from the City of Tempe proclaiming its dominion over an expanse of dried pummeled grass, picnic tables and playground equipment.
One street over, we find richer looking homes. Are these people year-long residents or just more affluent winter folk? No one can say, because no one can see them. They are still invisible, the neighborhood folk. One can only conclude that in Arizona there are lots of streets, but not much street life. It is easy enough to see what the place looks like. Hard to define the life in it.
It is easy enough to find my sister’s life, for it is abundant. Friends visit frequently. She reciprocates. Because it is harder to find the life, certainly for a visitor, Arizona’s upheavals appear more stark. Beyond the belief in endless home construction, endless resort expansion, endless visitors dropping into Sky Harbor Airport en route to endless hotel stays, there was that other thing, the endless importation of labor. For years, Arizonans have lived an idyll of high winter temperatures and low year-round wages. Along with cheap water, the state’s cheap workers were imported. In boom times, no one asked any questions about the technicalities. The busboys, the greens keepers, the maids, the shelf stockers, the nannies, the harvesters, all of them had brown skin, spoke Spanish and cost next to nothing. During the non-work hours their activities were unknown. Now that Arizona has entered into its non-work years, the labor force has been discovered to have been procreating all this time. Who would have guessed?
On the way back to my sister’s house, there are still no pedestrians, absolutely no cars on her street. The day is mild, prime time for activity before the summer furnace flattens everything. And yet everything already seems flattened. Not even summer time, and the livin’ seems too easily invisible.