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Tucson Salvage

A bus stop mystic, a girl called America, a still-operating porn shop, 24-hour tattoos, and other humble glories on nighttime 22nd Street



This white guy on the bus-stop bench caws like he's so pissed off. "Heygmm," he croaks. It's threatening and mean in its way, and so my blood pressure suddenly rises and heartbeat quickens. Those old fears fade hard—it's like they're rooted in some kind of PTSD—but I remind myself that I no longer live in situations where I find myself constantly dreadfully fucked. Anyway it's been awhile since anybody howled horrible names at me on the street or threatened to beat my ass. I consider how things are actually OK these days.

I just keep walking along 22nd Street.

"Heygmm," and louder this time.

So I turn around, walk back and stand there. He looks up at me, and says, "I'm Kilgore, Army Special Forces." Then he pats the bus-stop bench. "Have a seat."

Kilgore wears a backward trucker hat, but not in a street way, or a sexual statement way, or any silly way like that. It's a natural fit, like he never leaves the house without it. He offers me a shot from his Sprite bottle but looks at it like he doesn't understand something. "Uh ... shit, nothing in it." He pushes the empty back into the stuffed backpack at his feet.

Lights from passing cars reveal a thin face and glassy half-lidded eyes. Out of the blue, and just loud enough to hear over the traffic, he says, "You lost someone, and I don't think you're over it."

A woman with short, shagged blonde hair, dressed in black sits next to him on the other side. She rolls her eyes in that way that people do when they're so damn tired of their partner being drunk but for some reason they can never leave them and wind up just being drunk, too. I know that look. I could see my quick camaraderie with Kilgore getting somehow dangerous, and she obviously doesn't want me around because maybe she senses something dangerous, too.

"That's my lady next to me," Kilgore says. "Don't worry."

A long silent minute passes. He adds, "I'm Kilgore, Army Special Forces."

"Special Forces?"

"Damn straight."

His tone goes cryptic. "You lost someone, and I don't think you're over it. Who did you lose?"

I grew up in this neighborhood, and when I walk miles on 22nd Street, I always think about people who died. I get to own up to loneliness.

I realize that if you're walking at night down here near Kolb Road over near the Music Box Lounge, and EZ Money Pawn, and that tired car lot, across the street from tedious Starbucks/McDonalds commerce, it might be easy for someone to think you've lost someone and you're not over it yet. No one walks on 22nd Street at night. I love it.

I ask Kilgore where they're headed. I don't know why I said that, I just did. Suddenly I feel like a creep.

"Up to Country Club," Kilgore says.

The woman shakes her head in a way that shows even more disgust, and her face squinches up. She says to him, "Why are you telling him that? Why?"

Dusk is gone now and it's cool out. I stand to leave, and Kilgore goes, "Don't go, man. That's my lady. She don't bite."

I hear Kilgore behind me as I move toward Palo Verde High School. "Heygmm!"

I smell fall's first chimney, which might be the greatest smell in the world. Darkness fills the washes and the sidewalk cracks and hides cats, and streetlights make scary shadows of big chollas that rise over backyard fences. Giant towers look like ship masts and the electrical wires stretched between them hum when there's no traffic.

There's life beyond the streetlights that gets lost in its own blackness, and though I can't see the desert that surrounds the city, I can feel it in a claustrophobic way, and it won't let me go. It's dusky and lean on 22nd Street, yet lovely, and historic and broken and real, with no overpriced craft cocktails in sight. Could be worse, I guess, could be Portland.

The neighboring subdivisions are filled with rose brick and cinderblock homes long ago purchased by ex-G.I.s or Hughes Aircraft employees during the second burst of post-WWII growth, mid-century boxes and carports that repeat one after the other, but they don't look like each other night or day. I could live in one of those pretty houses. Up and down 22nd there's a peculiar assortment of mom-and-pop storefronts, and houses converted to businesses, with no nods to continuity or aesthetics, which is its own wondrous aesthetic: A tiny church next to a resale clothing shop next to a mystic candle dealer next to Cricket Wireless, next to self-serve car wash, or something. It's the Tucson I love. And I keep walking west.

I watch a woman push a stroller whose one rear wheel thumps like it's got a flat and I guess it's probably uncomfortable, or maybe fun, for the baby on board. Four kids walk with her, two out ahead, looking down and not curious, like routine. Mom balances plastic bags filled with groceries. A guy in wheelchair waits for kindness in front of the Mercado Y Carniceria La Mexicana grocery. There's no else here on 22nd at 8:30 p.m.

The Taqueria Y Raspados Jason food truck glows in soft gray-blue light on a big dusty lot past Wilmot, and it's elaborate with a colorful wall-sized menu, picnic tables and sturdy overhang. There are a few boys and girls bounding between tables, and tired parents sitting on the benches eating. Luis Gamez is one of four people working here tonight; he cooks the dogs off to the side. It's family run; cousins, brothers, sisters, wives, and so on, and business has been good, Gamez says. Of course he says that, even if there's rarely, if ever, walk-up traffic, like me. It's the second night working the order window for the owner's daughter, America, who's learning the family business. She's a high school kid and there's something about her that makes the littler kids here feel at home, a connection and buoyancy in the interactions.

The food's home prepared, the salsa, beans, rice etc., and they're open everyday. They wrap up the whole deal at 10 p.m., and park the truck at a nearby house. I don't eat hot dogs but I've been told they're the best Sonoran dogs in Tucson, and their prices are low. Gamez, whose wife works here with him, sometimes makes hundreds of dogs in a day, even in summer when it's 110 degrees. "No big deal," he says.

A thick swath of stars slices through the sky all the way down to the brilliantly lighted UnHoly Ink Tattoo and Piercing shop, which abuts something called Mike Pierce Insurance in a little strip a few blocks west of the food truck. It's open 24 hours like a Denny's, and is Tucson's only round-the-clock tat salon. They're all bright-faced and happy inside, which throws me, and the place smells of chocolate and vanilla. A trio of teen-girl customers huddles in the front. It's clean, well lit, and its green and black quasi-industrial interior is decorated in flash art and tat designs. Jory Byerly is the lead artist here. He's tremendously bearded, handsomely tatted and disarmingly approachable. He says he's worked a 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. shift before and you get the tweakers and "all kinds you can imagine." No robberies, though, because "everyone knows we carry." Weirdest work? He said he once did a full back tattoo on a sixtysomething guy, which surprised him.

Byerly, who grew up near here, nods out at toward 22nd Street, and says, "It's still pretty ghetto here, but it's not like it used to be."

Marcos Rios mans the counter at The Party House adult shop, which sits on 22nd between the sprawling Craycroft Baptist Church and the El Gordo Smoke Shop. He talks of "tweaker zombies" you see further down 22nd Street and near that Wal-Mart. He moved out of the apartment he had around there because he kept getting broken into. He was robbed here once, too.

"I just started and it was the graveyard shift. A guy comes in here wearing a Green Hulk mask holding a revolver. I carry a knife now." He lifts a hammer from behind the counter. "There's this now."Two youngish-looking guys step in and out quickly, minutes apart, each purchasing boner enhancements offered behind the counter. A graybeard strolls an aisle filled with Evil Angel DVD titles. Someone's in one of the 22 arcades in back. The small Party House has got to be the loneliest corner in all of lonely Tucson. The affable Rios is in his early 20s, been fulltime here for three years. He's completely engulfed in porn in this windowless environment. Tonight he's watching Dave Navarro on some repeated TV reality show. He nods, "Yeah, it can get lonely."

Porn is so lonesome. But that's its nature, and you only ever feel worse when you're done, like you need a jolt of something pure to expel it from your system. It's like crystal meth or coke that way, it's seductive and alters your brain chemistry and nervous system, depletes dopamine and fuels depression, and stays with you, demands more. I reviewed porn movies for a living once and it nearly did me in. Anyway, who goes to adult shops anymore? Porn's free everywhere, as dirty as you want it.

"Well, some people think the government is keeping tabs on them, keeping a record of what they're watching on the internet," Rios says. "And maybe men don't want their wives or girlfriends knowing what they're doing, no computer trail."

"Any women come in?"

"Yeah. You'd be surprised. Four regulars a month I'd say."

Another few hundred steps up 22nd Street and there's a little truck maybe bigger than a tollbooth called Churros El Rey, offering salvation in sugar. It's being run by Isella Islas and her perpetually grinning elderly mother Sandra.

"It's so dead, every night here," Isella says, "so very few customers so far." As she says this, a car pulls in and proves her wrong. Customers spill out.

I walk more and meet up with a guy near Wal-Mart with a backpack and a rolled up sleeping bag. Says he's Anthony Lewis Brown. He's stick-figure skinny, huddled with arms draped over knees, back against the Dollar Store wall, a gold hoop in each ear. I've seen him before, nights in the same spot. He tells me he's a rock star in hiding so he can't have publicity, something about witness protection, and he doesn't want to talk at all. Declines any handout or money. He's so alone, just here. So I leave him. The best I can figure is he too probably lost some people that he's not over yet.

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