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Tucson Salvage: A Pandemic Day at Circle K

A Pandemic Day at Circle K

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Michael McNeil (left) and Jason Stark in front of Circle K. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Michael McNeil (left) and Jason Stark in front of Circle K.

Big Mike, as he's known around here, swings open the door for customers, greets them with a tobacco-fortified grin and kindly nod. This guy is big, like an ex-lineman, in his 40s, gray beard, swollen belly, black wrap-arounds. There's a pragmatism about him, a honed way of survival. His life's belongings cram a shopping cart, and it is packed, mathematical and neat, folded, arranged, fastened. A giant jug of water occupies the bottom rack. It is parked in the lot like some apocalyptic mini-coop. Like many out today, the dull color of his clothes mixes with the muted hues of dirt and pavement. It is a cool, partly overcast day in late March, and the skies are dripping. It is a beautiful world when the sun is out and it rains too. Big Mike is hardly concerned with any such beauty, and this is fact. It's not the threat of a virus either, he must find shelter from the goddamn rain.

Jason Stark ambles up as Big Mike rolls his shopping cart out of the Circle K parking lot. He is 40-ish, saguaro-skinny and windblown, and wears a gray hoodie and two trucker hats. He hits us up for a smoke, and Big Mike hands over his tobacco pouch and papers. Stark rolls one in a flash all the while theorizing the Covid-19 pandemic, how it could be a plot to implant computer chips into humans or some other grim means to "thin out the population." In few sentences, Stark reduces the government, the media and the rich into a vague conspiracy of malevolence, architects of some major long con.

Stark's energy is difficult to pin down, like some infection, like a tweaker, but he swears he doesn't tweak. It's the bi-polar meds, he says, which keep the monologues running and saliva crusted on the corner edges of his lips. When you think he isn't listening he'll answer your question, many run-ons later. His mind is fast and he is no idiot.

"It's in the congested cities, like New York and Milan, in China, so we're fine here," Stark says. Big Mike nods. "But now no one's working so I can't look for a job," he adds. He produces a black iPhone from his pocket, and would I be interested?

Forget social distancing, Big Mike and Stark are hardly nervous about coronavirus. Big Mike says, "I'm not worried at all." His empathic head shake and pursed lips confirm this. Stark interrupts with a mumble about his longing for televised sporting events, long canceled.

Big Mike looks for shelter. - BRAIN SMITH
  • Brain Smith
  • Big Mike looks for shelter.

Now Big Mike sleeps wherever he can and has some story to tell but Stark's screed of equivocal conspiracy theories distracts and Big Mike loses interest. He whips out his wallet and Arizona ID so I get his last name correct: Knopf. He has five bucks to his name and hands one of them to Stark, who hasn't eaten in god knows how long. It is one-fifth of Big Mike's net worth and Stark and Big Mike only met now. It is a generous gesture upholding a tacit law of capitalist humanity: the less you have the more you share. Everyone homeless I meet shares—food, smokes, fountain-poured Dr. Pepper, whatever. That stuff is riches. There are no gloves or masks. This is hour-to-hour survival.

Big Mike rolls off toward the Goodwill thrift store down the street for shelter, and will stash his cart and catch a bus somewhere, taking advantage of Sun Tran's pandemic-era fare-free policy.

Stark heads into Circle K telling me of his life back in Maryland, making good money working as an Exxon cashier, and side hustles involving credit cards and slinging. He quit that, he says. The cost of living is "so high around Baltimore and D.C." there is no way to survive. His mother lives out on Tucson's eastside, why he ended up here. In route he camped in Albuquerque with relatives, and says the tweakers there are so bad they think they communicate telepathically with each other. He had to get out. He soon discovered there was no work in Tucson and now disability about covers his rent.

From this Circle K you'd never know a deadly virus disseminates in the world. This one at Fort Lowell Road and Alvernon is a neighborhood heartbeat. People pump in and out, travel there by car or foot, the displaced and the better off, crowd the checkout line and ignore the sign that reads customers keep six feet apart. Most ignore the store-provided hand sanitizer stationed at the entrance. The harried front-liner employees behind the registers appear to keep distance, and regard their customers with a helpful but skeptical air. What can they do? They need the work, there is no work if they don't count out the change, retrieve cigarettes and bag things for the high number of dispossessed folks trudging in and out with cumbersome backpacks or hungry dogs, many in poor health and hygiene. Folks (today all white guys) collect out front on the concrete, backs against the store, before ambling on. Most non-essential goods and services have shuttered, car traffic is sparse, and necessary panhandled cash from strangers is nearly non-existent; those with cash don't touch it. For those without, even standing six feet apart is a luxury. The weekday-morning foot traffic here is hectic, more than usual, one clerk confirms. Let Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey order everyone in the state to stay home—for some, this is their home.

We meet Michael McNeil who has been perched outside the K for some time. His ponytailed hair and matching gray beard stir in the breeze and sharp bones protrude from his smallish frame. His twinkly blues and long rigid nose suggest a character Yeats might've dreamed up. He looks much older than his 48 years. He is friendly and self-effacing.

McNeil and Stark talk at once.

McNeil explains he is Irish, though his surname is "actually Scottish," and how his grandfather married a Sioux Indian, so he's one-quarter Native. How he was born and raised outside Houston, to a drunken carny and a mother who bailed before his first birthday. His aunt and hard military-man uncle took in McNeil and his brother. His aunt became his mother and driving force in the kids' life and they lived on farms in both Arkansas and Texas, with chickens, horses and an open-air life. He once horse-backed across Texas. ("It took three and a half months!")

Meanwhile, Stark works his Polar Pop and appears engaged in a suite of tasks and movements privy only to him. Dude is restless. He riffs over McNeil, stopping short of homily, complaining his food stamps were whittled to 16 bucks a month ("they can shove that 16 dollars back up their ass") and how disability barely covers his rent. Yet he talks the upcoming presidential election and airs mad dislike for Biden, stands by Trump, and, like most Trump fans I meet, gets defensive for little reason. Soon frustration carries him off toward Fort Lowell Road, shouting indecipherable words over his shoulder, throwing a fist skyward, the gallon of milk, M&Ms, chips and pack of smokes I just bought for him in a bag bouncing off his thigh. He moves toward that roach-infested room he says he can't live in, the "cool but crazy woman" he says he can't sleep with, a babble of some other hustles in an unspoken Tucson Babylon, his home, for now.

McNeil has no money and a few smokes, and I walk him into the K for a coffee. All he needs, he says. He rode the bus for free today to get here, from his place not far up Fort Lowell.

We step outside and he leans against the trash receptacle and lights a cigarette, pulls from his sugar-blasted coffee and explains he was released yesterday from Carondelet St. Mary's Hospital, after a week's stay. His third heart attack in a year. He first landed in the psych ward, for booze detox. "The withdrawal wasn't so bad this time, lasted only two days, but they filled me full of drugs." No heart surgery needed but he was issued stern warnings involving his cardiovascular disease and self-care.

McNeil's wry grin belies his blunt sentences, like he's holding back the funny parts. He talks in it-is-what-it-is capitulations, accents with shoulder shrugs. I ask if maybe he should cool it with the smokes and coffee. He did just suffer a heart attack. The shrug: "I've been through a lot—it's just life."

Michael McNeil, "I'm dying anyway." - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Michael McNeil, "I'm dying anyway."

It is just life. McNeil was homeless, camped at a Tucson Salvation Army, prior to his first heart attack, and now he resides in a little state-paid apartment up Fort Lowell. He's been homeless in Texas, Kentucky and Phoenix. Once, years ago, a 15-year-old kid cracked his skull open. The boy, McNeil says, "wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone." He points to a metal plate in his head, a trophy for not dying in the attack.

He remembers his dad crashing back into his world, and how he and his brother wanted to kill him. Dad introduced the 19-year-old to hard drinking and carnival road work, jumping freight trains and how to escape trouble. "He was a motherfucker but that's how he showed me he loved me, I guess," McNeil says. "We became friends for a short while, and it was really great getting drunk with my dad, I will say that. But he never did say he was sorry." They worked carnivals side-by-side (dad got him in) and once lived in Phoenix together where McNeil learned theater and show production at Phoenix College, and found some work as a sound tech on staged productions. Dad is still alive somewhere in Texas, as far as McNeil knows. It's not like he'd ever talk to the old man again.

McNeil savored the carney life, the travel, the set-up and tear-down, all the kids, the ticket-taking, running rides, such as his "big ass" fave, Starship USA. He fell in love too, hard. In fact, he bused into Tucson about a year ago to be near Melanie, the same woman he met on a traveling carnival 27 years ago.

He married Melanie once, it lasted a decade or so before he drank it away. They were living with his aunt/mother in Indiana, where he worked at an animal shelter. ("I'd get close to the animals and the next day they'd be killed. It's brutal work and most people only last three years. I did four.") McNeil drank long each night after work and Melanie bailed, and remarried. It broke his heart. Later, in 2009, his mother died and the landlord kicked him out. He left Indiana with nowhere to go and no money to get there, saddled with a healthy booze addiction.

He and Melanie are back together now, living separately. She's in state-paid housing, which is on lockdown. "I can't see her for 14 days," McNeil says. "It fucking sucks."

As we talk, some dude of indiscernible age lurches over and tosses a tiny blue baggie containing about $5 worth of meth on the trash container between us. His presence is big, dark and spectral, shrouded in a kind of graphic-novel menace. Lights-out eyes highlight a scabbed hatchet face. Even at six feet away he smells of Javelinas. His entire body is concave, both frightening and miraculous in its ability to stay upright. I know speed as both an elixir and easy tombstone. I'm not indifferent to the tweaker or his tragedies, and I've seen some goners, just filled with sadness. The coronavirus would take these street folks down in one swoop. Suddenly even McNeil's problems seem almost petty.

McNeil picks up the baggie and tosses it back to the guy. No sale. No words. The salesman huffs away sideways. Takes an elbow on the concrete ground near the K's front door, coughs, pulls an unwrapped danish from somewhere on his person, and shoves the entirety into his maw.

McNeil shrugs, answers an unasked question, "he's not evil, he's just psychotic."

The rest of McNeil's day will unfold like this: He'll attempt to negotiate the hours with as little friction as possible, likely catch a free bus ride to a food bank because his cupboard is bare, "if it's open. I lost my food card in the hospital." He doesn't ask me for anything, I offered the coffee, and he is not about to let coronavirus worry turn to fear. Maybe it is some inner-calming buffer, "I just got out of the hospital and I'm clean, tested. So I am safe."

He settles back against the Circle K glass to watch through those transparent blues the dogs and backpacks and shopping carts, and the cars moving on Alvernon Way. A bulwark against a diseasing world.

And he'd rather be someplace else.

"I'm only here for one reason," he says, sparking another smoke. "My mom is gone. The dad who raised me died in 1985. I'm dying anyway. It don't matter to me anymore, except for Melanie."

He adds, "I have 15 percent of my heart left, and that's for her."



Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.