A speeding Oldsmobile swings onto Lee Street off of Columbus Boulevard and nearly hits a woman who’s pulling a pair of cheilitis-lipped children in a plastic red wagon. She pretty much ignores the car but stops walking anyway. There’s a singlewide trailer glittering in the sun and it has caught her attention. She pulls the wagon around and centers it on the edge of the street so that the trailer frames the fidgety kids. She steps back, lifts her phone and snaps a pic. Then she clutches the wagon handle and continues towing the kids down the middle of Lee.
It’s no wonder the woman snapped a pic. The singlewide illuminates—no, completely raises hell on—the otherwise dirt-toned, faintly creepy milieu at the Casa Dulce trailer court.
For one thing, hundreds and hundreds of compact discs are glued in seamless vector to the outer surface of the mobile home, data side out. In the daylight, when the sun refracts just right, it could be the bottom of a wishing fountain filled with gilded coins, and when headlights hit the trailer at night it becomes a hazy cluster of crescent moons flaming in orange and gold.
The trailer sits on a double lot, which butts up to Lee Street. Picture a flipside to Bosch’s earthly delights: Among a couple trees, bushes, and a prickly pear, there’s a gimcrackery of stuffed bears and monkeys, cracked ceramic lambs and pigs, and dollar-store angels atop pipe fixtures. There’s a sun-bleached San Marcos wolf blanket decorating the gate, and next to that hangs a blue bedspread showing a heraldic sun and a half moon. Coal-black tennis balls form scrums on the dirt, and plant stands uphold fake flowers. There’s sun-blackened wreathes, hidden rosaries, fabricated metal frogs, and dozens of neatly arranged hubcaps. And so on.
It’s chimerical and absurd, but there’s whatever-works ingenuity, and even artful nuance. It’s shaped by a lack of cash, a lack of modern technology, and so it’s a show of resourcefulness, and lots of patience. It’s a proletariat proclamation that says the owner of this trailer, Gustavo Orozco, could be an absolute madman. Or it could be that he’s grateful to have made it to retirement age alive, and he’s reveling the win.
When asked what inspired such incredible decorative flourish, Orozco says he “just did it.” He pauses. Adds, “the CDs reflect the heat, and that’s why I started putting them up. Soon people were just leaving CDs for me outside.”
The word “Abella” is spelled out in large ornate script in two places on the trailer. They’re tossed-away signs from a local business.
“Abella is an Italian word for beauty,” he says, “and I do my best to make this beautiful.”
* * * *
It’s a sunny day, the birds are chirping and Orozco’s giving me tour of his mini compound. He’s wearing cop shades, a cowboy bandana, a vest with Levi’s, and his head’s topped off with an NRA cap. His horseshoe mustache and partly dyed-on muttonchops enhance a story-lined face that Walker Evans likely would’ve loved to photograph.
A black cat slinks around my ankles. “That’s Cyrus,” Orozco says. “He came around and I started feeding him. He lives here now.”
Orozco flips the latch on the heavy wooden gate that opens to a tiny path that leads into the secured Arizona room of his trailer. He sort of hobble-walks through it and reaches one hand back and rubs his lower back, and he winces. “I fractured my spine once,” he says, cigarette angling off his lips. “Cutting marble. A giant pile of it fell on top of me. I landed my back on sharp piece of marble.” He was wheelchair bound for two years. “Doctors said I’d probably never walk again. What do they know?”
The story begets others, including the time he spied a guy breaking into a neighboring trailer. “He came from behind and hit my lower back with an iron bar. Oh man! I wound up in the hospital again. But I’ve had about six of my bikes stolen. My tools. I’m not going to let it slow me down.”
He pulls up his shirtsleeve and, with a detectable hint of pride, points to a scar on his shoulder about a half-inch in diameter. “That’s one,” he says. Then his forefinger traces down to other places on his body, on his chest, lower hip and leg, and he counts aloud, slowly, considering each number: “Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.” He pauses, looks up, makes eye contact, and says, “I’ve been shot six times.”
He touches his upper chest and messages around with his fingers. He’s hunting for the bullet fragment that’s lodged somewhere between his shoulder and the top of his rib cage. It continues to create health problems. He laughs it off. “Doctors thought it was cancer, but it was just a piece of bullet.”
Born in San Juan, Texas 65 years ago to migrant workers, Orozco was the youngest of 12. With few, if any, advantages, it’s no stretch to imagine that his family’s burdens were comprehensive in a world that mostly rewards good blood lines, education and money. He’s worked lots of odd jobs. He spent much of his life in Gilroy, California, but he has picked potatoes in Idaho, garlic in California, cotton in Arizona. He’s worked in a cannery, cut tile, and is an expert landscaper. He dealt drugs too, hence the bullets.
He says he took a rap for drug-dealing buddies and has done time in California prisons like San Quentin. “I wouldn’t want to be a snitch,” he says.
He moved to Tucson to “settle down,” but arrest records show that he’s been busted numerous times here, smaller infractions including disturbing the peace and traffic violations. “When they put the handcuffs on me, I don’t know what happens. I can’t be put into a cage. I turn into an animal; I’m not going to deny it.
“I did all my time,” he adds. “I just want people to leave me alone.”
He’s never been married but he has two adult daughters in California (“I talk to them as often as I can; I miss them so much it hurts”), and a grown son he doesn’t communicate with, saying he’s in a Salvation Army adult rehab “getting help.” I ask what he’s getting help for, but Orozco just leaves it at that.
He shows me around the trailer’s added-on Arizona room, which he partly assembled from a vintage wrought iron bed (a gift from the owner of a neighborhood bar), slats from baby cribs he hauled home from street curbs (“you’d be surprised how many people throw away cribs”), and a wall-sized chunk of metal siding from an outdoor patio that a nearby bar and grill had discarded. He’s secured it all with wires and chains and heavy canvas drop cloths.
There are a few fetching street-rod bikes—one’s a three-wheeler—that he painstakingly built mostly from old parts he’d find in junk piles and then refurbish, sometimes ordering pieces from a local bike shop. One he’s particularly proud of is painted red and gold like the San Francisco 49ers, his favorite team. There’s a matching trailer to go with it. Without a car he rides bikes everywhere, the Laundromat, the store, the bar.
* * * *
It’s murky and dark inside Orozco’s trailer; corners filled with eerie silences, and it smells of baby powder, fried eggs and bug spray. The windows are covered but a dusty haze of sun streams through a gap that holds a little AC unit. The interior looks what you might expect from the exterior. There are clown figures, zebra-print blankets, tiger faces and toy guns (despite the NRA cap, he says “doesn’t mess around with real ones”). There’s a big-screen TV in lounge-y area.
A monitor in his kitchen shows what’s happening in front of the trailer. Orozco’s been broken into so many times, he no longer takes chances.
“This place was filthy when I got it,” he says. “It took three months to clean before I could move in. I spend $100 a month fighting the cockroaches. The whole park is infected, and I’ve only seen one in my place.”
Spending $100 on insecticide is a lot, considering Orozco fixed monthly income of social security and disability totals, he says, $800, plus food stamps. It’s $275 just to keep the trailer at Case Dulce. He collects aluminum cans with his friend, who looks about 30 and gives his name as Albert Lomeli. When asked, Lomeli doesn’t reveal much about himself except that he’s unemployed, and once lived in the trailer across the way. He’s staying with Orozco, helping him with his bikes, collecting cans, working on the place, they say.
“It’s always work,” Orozco says, “and I can’t really lift anything anymore. So I haven’t done much to the place lately.” He adds, “But I do hope people will drop off more CDs. We need to put more up. What’s that saying? ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’”
Trash, treasure or whatever, even the display on the rooftop evaporative cooler suggests something about the trailer’s owner. It’s shielded front and back by heavy acrylic sheets plastered with evenly placed CD-Rs. Precariously bungee-corded to the cooler is a toy horse with stuffed monkey perched in its saddle. The monkey, which Orozco christened Caesar, wields a pair of toy machine guns, a faded American flag, and he’s posed as leading charge.