Tucson Salvage 

A wandering escape finds a vigil, an altar and some gratitude

click to enlarge A lovely altar to a man who in 2014 was hit on his bicycle after he’d purchased bottled water at a nearby store. He was hit by a cop. The cop was never charged.

Brian Smith

A lovely altar to a man who in 2014 was hit on his bicycle after he’d purchased bottled water at a nearby store. He was hit by a cop. The cop was never charged.

I went for a long walk as usual and it was one of those melancholy Tucson sunsets that color the sky and mountains and air a burnt orange. I walked first to a candlelit vigil in the parking lot of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church near Alvernon and Third Street, held for a 15-year-old boy named Sephaul Booker who'd been shot dead a few blocks away. I'd heard about this boy getting shot and it fed into that Gordian knot of fear and sadness that I get in the stomach like clockwork each afternoon. He was a mother's son with best friends and relatives and people who loved him. There were about 30 people there, and the wind kept blowing the candles out.

There were local TV news crews there too, including one well-coifed TV reporter whose phone screen kept her face lighted much of the time. That, and the presence of "TV news," drew attention away from, and therefore diminished, the remorseful stories folks were sharing of Booker, and how the essence of his murder absolutely devalued the neighborhood's soul and wellbeing, how it almost literally brought neighborhood folks to their knees with sadness, shock, regret. In this setting, TV's big-booted journalism only amplified the fear the murder had planted in the hearts of those who live in this neighborhood. The TV goobs should've waited out on the street.

But I did learn a lot about young Booker here, and how he got into trouble and had an arrest record. How he had a father who walked out on him and how his single mom was in over her head. Another punk lost to Tucson street hassles? Nope. Booker had a brilliant side, and he was quiet, yet funny and generous. True qualities, according to those I talked with, and others who spoke at the vigil. Two of Booker's friends, 15-year-old Joel Beraca, and 19-year-old Jesus Lopez, were both crying.

"He didn't talk about what was going on with him lately," said Lopez, who met Booker five or six years ago playing basketball at the Boys and Girls club. "He'd just say 'It's all good.' But I could tell he was angry and sad a lot lately."

I was hoping to meet the boy's mother, but it was too soon and was told she was too broken to attend the vigil. Booker's cousin, Chelsea Kiki, spoke to everyone in a voice that soothed in the wind. "I wish I could've been there for him," she said more than once, before telling how Booker influenced her own reading habits, calling him a genius. Her hurt was pervasive.

One of Booker's tutors spoke too; she used "beautiful" repeatedly to describe him, and her voice was hardly audible because she was so shaken. Another speaker pleaded to "put the guns down" and pastor Bart Smith offered soft words and a prayer.

The group was then led in the gospel-tinged "We Shall Overcome," and the last refrain rose into the candlelit darkness, sung both tentatively and confidently, and in unison and harmony, by the white, brown and black folks: "We shall live in peace one day ..." Never has that song worked itself into my bones like this. And it fit.

When it was over I kept walking, like I usually do. Sometimes I think walking saved my own life so I do it almost daily.

See, to begin a day is to begin one like any other. I wake up often in despair and then try to work until I eventually hate myself. Absolute relief comes on these ever-onward ambles through neighborhoods of central Tucson. These escapes, which start just before sundown and last about 10 miles, stop whatever it was that sucked whatever life from me that day. Coincidences become heightened. Contexts reframe. Sadnesses head south and resentments recede. There's a mystical connection to Tucson that develops every time too, the desert in its edge-of-the-world magic. It's renewal.

There's no way to take in Tucson—especially the eclectic and seared neighborhoods and people—unless you traverse it on foot. This is how Tucson unveils itself to me, anyway. I can stroll any street in any direction in the neighborhoods that stretch out from my house—the working class to the working poor to straight-up poverty-riddled. And more than any other city I've lived in. I feel like I'm home. I think the dogs know it. I've walked by some dusty pound mutts behind chain-link so many times now they go quiet and wag tails when they see me coming instead of barking holy hell. Forget music or podcasts, I occasionally strike-up conversations with strangers. It's where countless stories live.

There are so many sensations and images for the head to play with. I love the front-yards decorated with rusted wheelbarrows filled with dirt and prickly pear, and those populated with sagging pickup trucks or dilapidated motorcycles or sun-charred lake boats, machines turning to earth.

I love lime-colored adobes and mid-20th century cinderblocks with gardens enclosed by chicken wire wrapped around PVC pipes, and all the little concrete porches where drunken couples bicker and laugh in the dirt-dry evening, with beer guts and cigarettes, on wobbly plastic chairs. I love the old ladies on their knees working on weeds in well-kept and loved yards of hacienda-style homes that see hummingbird feeders and octopus agave and sweet welcoming sunflowers.

I love the alluvial debris that collects where washes meet streets, and the rocky loam, silt and grass in the washes, which this time of year blooms into separate little ecosystems, sometimes around blankets strung up between Palo Verde and mesquite trees by homeless folks, and wholly beautified by the bursts of virgin-white oleander blossoms, and sweet-smelling desert willow flowers that lift high over walls of abutting backyards.

Other things bring joy, like mailbox posts fashioned from cholla skeletons and the rare tiger whiptail lizard scurrying for cover beneath creosote bushes and piquant whiffs of home cooking from open-door casitas, where laughter spills out to the street, and where people's lives, I surmise, are sustaining happily. I love the florescent yard-sale signs and overweight dog-walkers with bad hips and three-time DUI recipients careening shirtless on too-small bicycles down Flower Street. And how the heat generates a tinnitus-like hum in the head that's finally mollified by the evening's faraway train whistle, or KLPX blasting from a crappy stereo somewhere.

* * * *

I kept walking after the vigil and found myself at a roadside altar on First Avenue at Navajo, just south of the Boondocks lounge on the east side of the street. A bicycle symbolically painted white with an offering box enclosed by little metal bars, like a tiny prison. Inside the box are delicate white rosaries, angels and plastic roses and paper cempasuchiles. There's gilded plaster of Paris doves and a pitted silver frame that houses a short bio and a yellowy hazy picture of Francesco "Steve" Galvez, a thin man with short dark hair and a mustache and a kind face. Another mother's son dead.

It's a lovely altar to a man who in 2014 was hit on his bicycle after he purchased bottled water at a nearby store. It was dark and Galvez's bike had its light on when he was hit by a cop. The cop was never charged.

Galvez was a sacrificial lamb like Booker, lives that die around us, whether we notice or not, another unnatural death that should teach. Left me in a state of inquiry, how death gives life, and life is the practice of dying of old ideas. Galvez was a 49-year-old father and grandfather and was obviously loved. First Avenue traffic whizzed by but receded into the silence Galvez had left there.

As I walked home I passed a lovely woman on Stone Avenue moving slowly and singing softly a melody I didn't recognize. It was mournful yet uplifting like a southern Baptist hymnal. I walked slower so I could hear her longer. Her tone was a gentle embrace, almost prayer-like. It wasn't what I would ever associate with Tucson but I could, somehow, imagine Galvez and Booker, and my heart broke. By the time I arrived home with that melody stuck in my head, I was filled with unimaginable melancholia and joy and gratitude, a near-perfect state that no drug or bottle or prescription or song or book or film or person or any version of some ridiculous god could ever provide. Not ever. Just a long trudge to cap another day, the green more greener, the night more night.

More by Brian Smith

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