Cool, slate-gray eyes skitter about the avenue like a desert bat obsessed on a streetlight, and she's at once street-tough and trembling, searching out some joy. Then there's the final, clumsy realization that, between New Mexico, Seattle and now Arizona, from detox wards to university classrooms to the streets, she's seen it all and says she's living long on borrowed time. She's now panhandling on Fourth Avenue and begins to weep softly. See, Shelly Johnston is without home, pushing her stroller that contains the few things obsessively dear in her world in this moment, including her little sleepy dog Moe and a Big Gulp cup filled of water and ice that hasn't yet melted all the way. She's hoping to earn enough coin to eat on before the long trudge to her bleak refuge in the bushes somewhere behind the Tucson House, before cruel street urchins ransack her world and seize her spot on the earth. She's not wearing shoes but her filthy feet and ankles look absolutely powerful, like those belonging to a man of athletic means.
Then Gino appears, a sharp-shouldered street musician with equally flitting eyes and kickass hair that's long and straight. He's talking about his stolen tambourine and a broken guitar and of a woman's breast falling off and having to be taped back on. He hugs me often.
And a homeless black guy, who gives his name only as Wildcat, is stooped beneath a streetlight, behind a blur of sidewalk passersby. He's frightened and invisible there a little.
The three form a micro community around Dorreen Martinez and her hotdog cart, a wheeled and silver-glow kiosk of mirth on a well-lit section along Fourth, between Eighth and Ninth Street. She's doling out gifts, including one mesquite-grilled dog with all the fixings that looks like an entire meal in Johnston's shaky hands. She hooks up Gino too, gratis. They tell me how much they love Martinez before disappearing into the night. Wildcat is no fan of dogs, especially any wrapped in bacon, despite his hunger.
"I can't eat pork, man," he says rubbing his bloated belly. "And I'm eating for two." Thumps from open car windows and the exterior speakers at the neighboring O'Malley's Bar & Grill, and the squeal of brakes from the Tucson Streetcar, all provide soundtrack. Martinez understands Wildcat's predilections, hands him a bottled water, and asks if he needs anything. He shakes his head and moves up the street.
It's another Friday night and Fourth Avenue teems with the well-groomed and floppy-fringed, the thick and the thin, the boozy boomers and millennials, the El Salvadorians, Asians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, Native Americans, whites and on and on. The human race—the only race—creates an impossible-to-dissect melting pot of ethnicities that's pure Old Pueblo, at least how it's revealed down here on Fourth.
This is Martinez' street parade, and many know her. Some returning customers kick-start the same conversations that didn't end the last time they saw her—last week, last month, whenever. She works and slaves over dogs, in grease-flamed smoke, conversation and sweat, haste and love. Piquant scents rise from sizzles of zeppelins and bacon brats and Polish sausages, the Sonoran-style dogs with beans and green sauce, just as her handmade menu placard advertises, ranging in price from a buck to $4. She's on her feet, talking, laughing, cooking, preparing. Hours tick by fairly quickly, fatigue slow-builds, and this is obvious:
Martinez is one of those who can't help but remind you of little wonders that bring a certain joy to city nights—the straight-backed dignity of a wheelchair-bound woman rolling up the sidewalk among a pack of walkers, world-softening streetlight refracting from smudged windshields and storefronts, the lovely train whistle that forever adds a sense of melancholy to this scene.
A tall bearded guy with a toothy grin collects Diet Coke cans from Martinez' trash. She must know him because she sets down her tongs, steps from the little grill, which throbs with reddening mesquite, stands next to him on the sidewalk and points to the rounded moon in the southwestern sky, marveling aloud at the nuances in its color and shape. The can collector nods like he has just collected another, greater, thing.
She steps back to serving, her elbows pulling back and forward, her kohl eyes squinting in the heat, and, while simultaneously serving two customers, asks if I've seen the petroglyphs outside of Tucson, and describes their beauty.
"Just when you think you know everything there is to know about Tucson," she says, "you see that ..." Her comment is punctuated by a revving motorcycle backed up in traffic at Ninth Street, and prompts one graybeard in line to suddenly caw, "Get a Harley. Pussy!" Folks cheer.
Minutes later, a lubed up guy named Miguel Madrid orders four dogs. Says he's been a Martinez customer/fan for months.
"She's biggest money-maker down on Fourth at night because everyone gets druuuunk," he says. "This homegirl takes care of everyone!"
She reveals a tolerance of drunks and it's admirable.
"I had a bottle of Jack, you know me," Madrid says, amidst hyperboles he's firing at Martinez. Then his credit card is declined:
"That just fucked me up for real!"
Andy Isham, a long-standing employee at nearby Moon Smoke Shop, brings some clarity, saying Martinez represents Tucson well, and she's now a tradition, an entrepreneurial success story. "She just rocks that shit out," he says, waiting for his dog. "And you know, there's not many of them left."
Each night but Monday, Martinez hitches her food cart to her red Jeep, arrives at the same spot at 10 p.m. and sets up. There's a condiments table, and she warms buns on a propane-heated steam table that's filled with hot water, where she keeps accouterments, beans and the grilled dogs hot. Paper plates, napkins, buns are boxed and within her reach, and there's a cooler filled with ice, water, pop. Underneath there's a bucket of mesquite wood for the fire. It streamlined and she's efficient.
She cleans everything when the street clears (including her part of sidewalk), packs up and is usually home by four A.M. Some nights are dreadfully slow, she's home earlier, sometimes later. It hasn't always been this close to effortless.
The Tucson-raised Martinez is alluringly pretty like Tuesday Weld in later roles, but with dark hair, and tonight she wears leather booties, a black skirt and white top. She's got an easy, stay-awhile grin.
She married at 21 and stayed that way 25 years. Says marriage often wasn't the best of times, not even close, and relates generalized customer comments to simplify: "They would joke and laugh about how grumpy he was." She divorced not so long ago.
Martinez and her then-husband purchased this very cart with a tax refund 22 years ago. She taught herself food-cart ropes and has been stationed on Fourth for those 22 years. "I'm not really crazy about changing," she laughs. "That's not to say it's not been so easy. We've had to go to the city council and plead the changes in city ordinances that would've made it extremely difficult to stay in business.
"And the health codes are such that no one should ever think twice about eating off a food cart."
Martinez won't reveal her average nightly take but it's good enough that her Jeep is paid off, and she can live comfortably enough. Her personal philosophy advances the theory that as long as "I'm working as hard as I can, the universe makes sure I have all that I need.
"If you sit and pay attention in the desert you see so much," she continues. "There's so much there. Watch a bird, how they get water and sustenance, and you keep watching and you see how the desert takes care of them; they get the fruit of the saguaros and prickly pear... It's magic."
She had four kids in those years (she worked while pregnant or with one strapped to her body), adding to the couple's total of nine (yes, nine). Raising nine children, working home care for elderly folk, and running a food cart while overseeing lots of homeschooling for their children?
Once the food cart began to financially pan out, Martinez was relieved to give up caring for elderly folks. "I learned so much from them but there was so much dying."
Too much death.
There's an image of a knife piercing a heart tattooed on Martinez' wrist, and an angel on her back right shoulder. They're inked tributes to her oldest child Tess. Tess died in a 2009 car accident.
When Martinez talks of the inescapable weight of her daughter's death, it's in abstracts, or in stories of her life, or its emotional impact on her other children. There is no salve for the void Tess left. Martinez nearly laughs about how her daughter had overcome a lot. Tess had studied to become a skilled writer and journalist, and a contributor to, among other publications, the Tucson Weekly.
Then, a few years ago, another of her children was nearly killed when hit by a car while riding a bike.
"I don't think the universe is going to take two of my children," Martinez says. "That's how the world is, that's how my world is, there's lots of drama. But," she adds, "there's lots of love."
Over the years, four of her sons and one daughter have helped mom with the cart. Her oldest son is now an attorney in Indiana, and another is a military man stationed in Korea. The others live in Tucson, and she's now a grandmother, too.
Martinez could be operating a much larger food truck, and she's had opportunities to open a restaurant. No thank you. "I want to stand next to the person," she says, "ask them how their day was. It makes me happy to go out there and see the people that I see. I feel enriched."
Fourth Avenue still retains an aesthetic (if not emotional) sense of older Tucson. Martinez turns her head and looks up and down the street, and says, "This is the last spot that hasn't changed, and that's a good thing." She's never felt threatened here, except maybe the one time someone tried to run off with her tip jar.
Some guy in a purple striped shirt is shouting, weaving slightly in place. He has drunk-dude menace. Thinks he's funny.
"Wieners! How do you want to garnish your wiener?"
He turns to Martinez. Chirps, "Hot dogs! This is just a regular hotdog stand!"
She retorts: "No, this is an irregular hotdog stand."
He grins, steps back and shouts, "a regular hotdog stand!"
He spots Wildcat, who'd vanished earlier but is now sitting there under the streetlight again. Drunk guy steps over and looks down at him pityingly. I brace for some Trump-inspired hate to burp from the drunk's mouth. But wait.
Wildcat looks at the guy, goes, "You ashamed to talk to me 'cause I'm a Wildcat?"
Drunk guy goes, "You think I'm ashamed to talk with you because you're black?"
Wildcat looks away.
"Let's go," Drunk guy says. "I'm gonna take you somewhere nice so you can sit down and have a proper meal."
Wildcat looks up, shocked. Says, "Me?"
"Let's go to Lindy's," drunk guy says. "They have the best burgers in Tucson."
Wildcat stands and the two disappear like buds into the humanity moving up Fourth.
The night winds on and Martinez garnishes and dresses her dogs, exchanging them for cash and plastic. She sings softly and swings her hips and shoulders to Elle King's "Ex's and Oh's" rising from her portable player perched on the shelf next to some mustard. Lighted faces pass, noses to Pokémon on phones, they miss the world around them, yet it's like they have radar when their last-second sidesteps avoid folks in the hotdog line.