When you punch a hole in something, you’ve got a natural axis around which things can spin…like your life, and the bullet hole at its center. So when you are putting your jetlagged self to bed at 10:30 PM, and trying not to remember that you have stayed up all night…in fact, past the night, it being 6:30 London time, your time, what is there to do but get a quick blast of the radio news? Revealing that another bullet has punched a neurological hole in a woman whom voters just asked to represent them in Washington.
Enough to keep an exhausted person awake in the Californian night, everything spinning. And spinning out of control. Enough to make a recent airport escapee head right back to Heathrow, and do keep the package of salted pretzels, thank you very much. For this nation is becoming old, old in the way of things that do not mature, but age and ossify. Or maybe this is happening to me. Perhaps things were always thus. Didn’t 17th-century England decide to scrap the Renaissance in favor of fundamentalist Christianity and violent revolution? Please, someone, help me understand.
It is hard enough to understand Arizona. In the spring of 2009, just after my wife had died, I drove with my sister and brother-in-law from their Phoenix area home north toward Sedona. It is an extroverted sort of place, Arizona, and its problems are not exactly deep and obscure. For here they were, on full display, mile after mile. Acres and acres of failed housing projects. A mile of wooden frames outlining intended kitchens and bedrooms, abstract and suggestive as a vast stage set, an occasional tumbleweed animating the still scene. Now, two miles of hulking, unpainted homes, black rolls of tarpaper on their plywood roofs…Affordable***Financing***Yours…a blown over wooden sign splintering in the desert. And more miles, and more. All adding up to a collective uprising against immigrants, Mexican and Central American immigrants, those people who vacuum the rooms, rake the lawns and push the strollers for half of Phoenix.
Don’t try to make sense of this, for the cost in brain cells isn’t worth it, unless you want to get a good snapshot of America in microcosm. Which still isn’t worth it. Particularly, because you next have to understand that all of this, the entire housing-and-resort development house of cards was not only put on a big roulette table and spun by players who somehow lost the game but kept the winnings…desert bandits who barely saw the desert and, in any case, quietly slipped into their jets at Sky Harbor Airport and headed home to the Hamptons to escape the heat. And not the heat of law enforcement or the lynch mob, but the good old sun. The latter rises as predictably as the fortunes of the Sheriff of Maricopa, who like the Sheriff of Nottingham, pursues good guys to great comic effect…although the joke must wear thin if you live in Phoenix. In any case, this is what happened here. It was like watching a bank robbery and deciding that, gosh, someone is going to pay for this, and it might as well be the parking lot attendant.
Just don’t ask obvious questions. No one else is. Big government is Arizona’s big secret. Without big bucks from taxpayers in places like Connecticut, places like Phoenix would not exist. The city’s water supply is sucked from the Colorado River, then pumped hundreds of miles over mountain ranges, then deposited in what locals call the Valley. The Valley of the Shadow of Drought, but for the multibillion-dollar federal welfare project that keeps the taps running. No one ever mentions this. There is no big sign at the airport proclaiming Thank You, Ohio Taxpayers, for the Central Arizona Project. Phoenix needs a Michael Moore rally to End Water Welfare — Repay the Feds. But that’s another movie.
The movie I am in at this 11th hour begins with a body giving way, its limbs collapsing inexplicably, pavement rising toward the face, one’s own face…sense absent. It was shot at night, this movie. But it wasn’t a movie. It was a memory of me as a Berkeley senior cramming for finals, absentmindedly wandering home from the library up a midnight street. Barely noticing the approaching kid who stopped and asked for money. The unknown kid who with equal casualness pulled out a revolver and shot me in the spinal cord. Permanently Paralyzed, words with the dramatic remoteness of a film title, now my life. Which is why I know how it happened, perhaps how it felt, a few mornings ago in Tucson. A flash, a pop, nonsensical and remote. The bullet and the shooter and the back story miles away from the slippage of the organism toward a blanker state. The mundanity of the Safeway or the Berkeley neighborhood street cut loose from the picture, a virtually silent picture, uncaptioned and dimming. Not even survival or how is this happening…just puzzlement. And if there is a coming back, the rest of life, one’s body, one’s everything, impaled and twirling around this hole in the nervous system. An opening that never closes, never heals and never fails to horrify.
We have become two Americas. We are retreating into fantasy. Annie Oakley is running for president. She has her opponents in the crosshairs. And damned if someone didn’t take her just a smidgen too literally too early and, well, jump the gun. As for the guns, they are the biggest fantasy of all. They keep the nation’s working class preoccupied with images of power, effectively distracting them from serious visits to the voting booth where they could do real harm. An armed populace is supposed to protect us from Big Government, of course. This sort of notion arises in a country that has never had bombs fall from its skies or tanks rumble through its streets. Germany probably regrets allowing the Brownshirts to arm themselves in the Weimar era, but that is history, and history is Americans’ least favorite subject.
It is hard to believe that I once worked for a gun control organization. In only 10 years the very notion of restricting access to firearms has become passé. Automatic weapons. You aim, it shoots and destruction is guaranteed. It is only fear that allows a people to get to this place. And the byproduct? Separating people from their elected representatives in the name of safety. Armed guards flanking county supervisors as they walk through the parking lot. A bad thing? Not if you get to your constituents through the likes of Fox News. It’s all better on screen, under control and at an effective distance. Want to change channels – hit the control. Want to change leaders – pull the trigger. It is a good time to believe in peace, nonviolence and man’s better nature. It is not a good time to be naïve.