Incessant birdsong, traffic din and distant baseball kids create a melancholy jam, giving the grassy Santa Rita Park a Sunday-at-dusk quality all day long. The song evokes lost or unreachable worlds, a soundtrack for veterans of ugly wars waged internally or in far-off lands, or both. Worlds ticking free of time.
Park lethargy is easy, especially when a dozen or more homeless heads rest beneath trees, on backpacks or heaps of personal things. Hearts beat slow, and slower still, except those pumping at G speed.
Two abandoned swimming pools, framed by a dun-colored pool house and tall, pad-locked chainlink, sit in the southeast corner of the park. The pool house provides a shady spot for the lanky Orly Tyrone Williams, where he runs his own makeshift bike repair shop.
He has many spray oils and tools — crescent wrenches, various hammers and screwdrivers, crank removers — spilling from out of a backpack and oily grocery plastic. Nearby, wobbly and ramshackle inside a cluster of shopping carts, covered with a blue tarp, is his life's loam. He sleeps under stars in the dusty, brome-heavy wash, over across 22nd Street, between industrial walls and chainlink and railroad tracks.
Orly’s from Monroe, Louisiana, and he's been outdoors, surviving, about four years. Has three daughters. His lot couldn't have been so easy. But it is easy to uncover wrongs about people, and I later discover that since the mid-'90s, Orly's been arrested for possession and sales, a theft charge or two, failures to appear, possessing a firearm, etc.
In 2011, a South Tucson drug deal went south and Orly took a bullet straight into his heart and by some miraculous fluke he survived. Cops nailed the shooter, who got 12 years.
Yet there's unjaded sparkle in Orly, minus born-again insincerity. No shifty eye contact, no stiff movements when in my presence, no sensation of powerlessness evident in his stoop or grimace. That or his formality is a ruse. He has the quiet calm of a southern gent, or stoner. He offers water to drink; it's all he has. Could be he's grateful, like he says, and that all grief is relative. Don't know why I find that hard to imagine, maybe because I have an actual bed to sleep in at night.
He sometimes slips into a street-preacher mode: "Tucson is a beautiful place. It's how you live. If you live with a criminal mind, you're going to make Tucson a hell place. If you live in a positive mind and do things positive, you're going to find those positive people. And those positive people will be your anchor in life."
I know Orly is 55 years old and arrived in Tucson as a child because "mom wanted a better life for us." Jim Crow was still easily felt in Louisiana then. Real opportunities for black people, he says, were limited to work with the city sanitation department. His home "broke" when his mom died in '84 from multiple sclerosis. A heart attack took his dad in '98.
"I had the best parents you could ask for,” he says. “My mom and dad probably wouldn't approve of me living outdoors. There were times when I was a boy in Louisiana I used to go sleep in the woods. I'm just a nature type of boy."
So now he peddles neighborhood streets on his Mongoose, sorts through junk piled on curbs where he "might see a bicycle frame in there." He hauls his treasures to his camp in the wash and then to the park to work on. But it takes time, he warns, and you don't take parts with filed off serial numbers. You don't steal bikes. You have to hunt shops and trash for missing parts. He often hits BICAS (Bicycle Inter Community Art and Salvage) for them. The mechanics of building and fixing are easy with experience, and he's done it since childhood. "It's like they say,” he says, “'you're once a man and twice a child.'”
People roll bikes up for him to fix. He builds bikes for children, college students or people fresh from prison who need a job. "And I help them out. They always like to pay me, and sometimes I accept it because I really need it, mainly to buy parts for other bikes."
He gets meals at soup kitchens and in the graces of "real good people who feed the homeless at parks." Many of Orly's tools were donated too, by acquaintances and passersby. "They see what I'm doing, and they say, 'I got some extra tools you can have.' So they'll return with tools. I'll take them and lubricate them, get the rust off, put a little sandpaper to them, and they're new again."
Orly sweeps the dirt from the oil-stained concrete of his shaded area, flips a bike over and stands it upside-down. He unlocks its rear quick-release, yanks the wheel free, grips it by its hub and spins. No damaged bearings and the wheel is straight, so it's a good find, he says. He slips the rear wheel back into place and returns the chain to its ring in one swift, honed movement.
His girlfriend strolls up, baggy shorts, t-shirt, knee in a brace. I don't get her name because I have somewhere else to be, but Orly's talking family and life, says he trusts my ears. He tells me he's in this location every day until sundown. He made a point to say "every day" twice. He wants to talk his life. I'm down.
* * *
I return the following day to resume my hang with Orly, and after searching the entire park he's nowhere to be found.
Dust and grass rise behind the wheels of a little municipal truck rolling around the park. It's like a glorified lawnmower, greenish with the City of Tucson seal emblazoned on the side. A Latino groundskeeper in a sweet boonie hat mans the thing. He's been on the job 18 years. We talk. He tells me his name too but warns I can't use it because it'd cost him his City job.
The groundskeep cleans the park bathrooms "meticulously," otherwise his grandchildren who visit him on the job couldn't use them. No way. He keeps grass cut too, trash picked up, not only here but at other Tucson parks. He says I wouldn't believe the stuff he's seen. He is acquainted with Santa Rita stories — the homeless, the drugs and the torment. But he's got a heart. Shows interest in the well-being of others. Knows of Orly too. Shakes his head: "If he's not here today, he's in jail. He'd never leave his stuff without somebody watching it."
Orly's shaded area at the abandoned swimming pools is telling. There's a single shopping cart filled with remnants of good intentions lost to some authority — discarded clothes in homeless-ready pastel colors, a brand-new unused 2018 calendar datebook with a kid-happy polka-dot cover, a box filled of mushy, unopened microwave burritos. Orly's dollar-store broom leans against the wall. Fifty feet away sit his shopping carts with the blue tarp, two bikes chain-locked to the heap. Behind that, the train.
* * *
Dealers on mountain bikes and old 10-speeds. One wheelman looks like Hunter Thompson in a poly buttondown, khaki trou, gray on the fringes, pole thin, and he's selling G. I'd guessed weed, but I'm so out of practice. G is meth, easy as shit to score here. I find it hard not to, and I could easily redouble at least one fading addiction. So the old blue bird of depression kicks in with that brassy Tucson light that so effortlessly illumines dying things.
But no one here on this weirdly cool May morning considers me a cop, just some addict, likely. Certainly not one of the Veterans on Patrol, those who live in tents across the park at Camp Bravo, the homeless shelter mostly for war veterans, some of whom patrol the park evenings. They're into Jesus and sobriety, the Stars and Stripes, and are often sidearm strapped. Most homeless folk shrug at them.
So, some things don't change, and it's easy to make friends. Good thing. I'd always found some comfort and camaraderie with the homeless, more than with most other people, really, except the times in my life when I actually had no home. Then it was all fear and suicide shakes and alcohol. There's really no explaining the sadnesses. Still, I've never met anyone who preferred to be homeless. Never. Even if they claimed they did. That's just ignominy talking.
I wait for Orly in the park and meet Julio Sarmeinto. Offers me a rolled smoke, end wet with spit. Just rolled it. If I want G, he knows who's holding. He unwraps two bologna sandwiches from plastic baggies, eats while tearing pieces off for the birds. Plaid shorts and blue T-shirt, black shades, dusty rat's-nest hair, very rock 'n' roll, a young Link Wray.
He tells of his pal Lionel, murdered nearby a month or so back, in the wee hours at a nearby convenience store. He points in the direction of the market: how it happened there, how it was over $20, how he saw Lionel the day before. Says Lionel was the kind of dude who always volunteered to feed other homeless.
His buddy, Richard Marcado, nods off a few feet away. His arms rough with too-scratched mosquito bites and things. He's old Tucson hippie, white bandana around his neck. Born (1956) and raised here. He wakes up and talks legends like John Wesley Hardin. He's got Robert Palmer on a little hand-held radio, the kind you never see.
Julio was born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, moved to El Paso as a pup. At 16 he was born-again, the family following mom's lead. It didn't sit so well; Julio was all Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. He graduated from the same high school that gave us Sandra Day O'Connor years before and he’s proud of that. The U.S. Navy was where the action was for the El Paso 19-year-old, and he served 1985 to '89. First stop, San Diego. And the cold war, man. On an amphibious assault ship. He didn't know what shit was going on when he was 19, how Russia had invaded Afghanistan, the Black Ops in South America. Blew his mind. He went all over, Hawaii, Philippines, Australia, Japan.
Later he drove trucks, interstate. Married, bought a house with a mortgage and two brand new cars. The American dream lasted an entire decade. Pulls on his smoke, pushing his hand through his thick black hair, "We all age differently." His involved escalating OCD issues.
The divorce gutted him. Short jail time (weed, resisting arrest) ensued. He landed in Tucson four years ago, looking for a relative. He's a learned guy and talks varied subjects, from the Jewish Torah, Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls, to getting connected to yoga and the laws of nature, and then crystal meth. He's partial to G, only discovered its joys a year ago. Yes, it connects you to worlds far outside your own. Then it doesn't. He hasn't yet done enough to strangle himself. He knows. I like him a lot.
Later on, Carolina Richtie (or Carolyn Magrit), lit-up energy, long hair, rock 'n' roll hippie with her own business card — a personal production company specializing in everything from pet sitting and lifestyle coaching to "Kaos" piloting. She's from Los Angeles, Northern California and New York. Makes a beeline for me, shouting she knows me.
Says I look like Max's Kansas City. She was in New York then. "CBGB's too, and Warhol." People have said things like this to me since I was 15. Carolina feels familiar, for a moment. Like an aunt or older sister from another life. Her broken down pickup sits with its engine hood up in the parking lot. She's been stuck here with a busted ride for a few days, nowhere to go. She introduces me to Billy. "Billy from L.A.," he says. Billy has the magnetism of an undefeated street battle-rapper, but with a tender underside of personal tragedy, which makes him approachable. I'd buy his records if he'd made any.
I ask the two if they've seen this guy Orly, who fixes bikes at the abandoned swimming pools. Billy's seen him, but it's been a few days. Come back tomorrow, he tells me. "He's not going anywhere."
I return again the next morning. I see Billy and Julio down by the baseball field, but no Orly. Carolina's pickup is gone. I walk around aimlessly before settling at a picnic table under a wondrous tree, waiting for my man. Kind of like the old days, but minus lots of friction. Here come the melancholy jams.