I and two friends drive down to Phoenix. I drop them off at the airport. As I drive off, after the hugs and goodbyes, I feel the type of sadness that comes from love. I park in a mostly empty lot and wander the city alone.
The one good thing about being alone in a city is the feeling you get that you are invisible. Not ideal for a life, but good for a few days. Not a part of the city, not apart from it. In it, as an observer rather than as a participant. A front seat to the insanity. I don’t mind being around a lot of people, as long as I know I’m not really among them. An outsider by choice. Outside of the CVS there is neatly cut grass and a couple of oak trees, I’m not sure which type. A man shouts at his two kids to get back in sight. They are frolicking on the grass, distracting a college-aged kid who is reading in one of the white chairs on the green grass.
“C’mon! You can’t go over there!” the man yells.
Phoenix would be ideal this time of year for a hobo. And a hobo I always will be. The nights are perfect, if you’re into doomsdays. I doubt it gets much below 60. Apparently in a couple years it’ll be 90 at nights here in the summer. The temperature is rising, the people are getting colder.
“You stay where I can see you!” the father shouts at his children.
So many sounds to pay attention to in the city. I hear that song that goes,
Sometimes I get a feeling / That I never never had before.”
It’s coming from the Lucky Strike bowling alley above the CVS. There is a song I can’t quite make out coming from the Verizon store next door. In the CVS that song “Bad Day” is playing. Another song is coming out of the Gypsy Bar above the Verizon store. A bus pulls away loudly from the curb to my left, past the square; the kids yell as they play tag, their dad yells at them to stop playing tag. Another bus zooms off. A group of four guys who would probably be considered hipsters walk by, smoking cigarettes sullenly. Tight jeans.
If I lived in the city I would drink too much coffee, probably start smoking cigarettes as well. Either that or I would work out or run obsessively, until I injured myself through overuse. Something to counter the lethargy and weariness I know I would feel after too long in this type of environment. Or I’d just bike everywhere. The city on the bike would be exciting: dodging traffic, recklessly fast in the center of the road. Some sort of physical adventure in the midst of all this concrete, all these machines. Something to feel like a human being again.
A junkie asks me if I have change. I give her 30 cents. Then I ask her how long she’s lived in Phoenix.
“Do you like it?”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“I got a kid here.”
“Does he live with you?”
“Where does he live?”
“With my mom.”
In the city it’s the junkies who interest me. The downtrodden, the outcasts, the unhappy ones. The happy ones don’t interest me. Why they are happy is irrelevant to my happiness. Their happiness is a happiness that ignores the unhappy people. I’m looking for a happiness that includes the unhappy people, that is intimately involved with them. I talk more with this woman.
“What are the people like here?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what are they like? Are they kind, are they understanding?”
“What do you think? I’ve been sitting here for three hours and all I’ve made is the 30 cents you just gave me.”
“Why do you think that is?” I ask.
“People don’t care. Maybe the sun shines too much, maybe the weather is just too goddamn nice for people to care. They’ve made me the person I am today. I sit here holding in all these feelings, all this hatred. There’s no way to let it all out.”
“And the other people, the ones who ignore you. You’re saying that because they are not suffering, because they are warm and content, they cannot relate to someone who is cold and suffering and discontented?
She responds to that by asking me if I would go into CVS and get her a beer.
“I’m in pain, I need a drink,” she says.
“How long has it been since your last one?” I ask.
So the withdrawal has started. This woman has various ailments. She can barely walk. Her skin has shriveled. Her hands shake violently. I go inside CVS and get her some Gatorade. Her hands are shaking too much to open it. I had gotten some Advil earlier, I give her the bottle of ten pills to ease the pain.
“You might as well just give me the money,” she tells me. “I’m going to get drunk no matter how long I have to wait.
I don’t give it to her. I understand why she desires the thing that will kill her, I also understand how that desire will end. Rather than give her money, I give her my time, the time that isn’t really mine in the first place. I give her some human-human connection, the connection I can’t really give in the first place. A connection is neither given nor received; it is shared.
I get ready to leave. The concert is starting soon. I listen to her as she shares with me what she has been holding in all day.
“Disrespect has beaten me down into the ground,” she says.
She doesn’t explain this sentence, and she doesn’t say who has disrespected her. She leaves it at that, not looking at me as she says it. With all the sounds around, I almost don’t catch it.
Tears come to my eyes, I cannot respond.
I leave the square, walking towards the concert venue. I pass Five Guys, where The Cars song “Good Times Roll” is playing. A group of six well-fed, college-aged women are eating cheeseburgers and French fries, drinking soda. Good times rolling, rolling on, rolling somewhere. Getting nowhere, I sit on a ledge and try to reconcile this scene with the last one. Nothing doing, it is left unreconciled.
Things are becoming mechanized. At CVS you get your things from a machine voice that tells you what to do, when to put the change in, what steps to follow. The crosswalk voice tells you what to do too.
Still, there is music. A lone guitar player plays on the corner of 1st and Washington; I give him some change. A woman and man had started playing as I left the woman in the square. And there is the concert tonight, though it is inside, away from the pain and sorrow: enclosed, encapsulated, insulated.
I walk on, towards 2nd avenue, where the concert is. When you walk you maintain some control. The crosswalk voice tells you when to walk, but it doesn’t tell you how fast. You are free to walk at your own pace. I walk slowly, perhaps trying with my infinitely insignificant action to rebel against the speed and bustle and rush of the city. Also, when you walk slowly you are able to observe deliberately. You have the time to look around you, to notice the trees on the side of the road, the expressions of the people in the restaurants. The people look happy, I suppose. They smile and laugh. All is right with the world, for them.
I walk on.