Remembering The Day Something Wicked This Way Came.
By Stacey Richter
NOW THAT IT'S all over, now that the menace to our town has long been slaughtered and the principals are either dead or married, it's easy to look back on the event of that autumn and say it wasn't really all that traumatic. But it's important to remember, as part of our cultural heritage, that at the time the entire metropolitan area of Tucson was immobilized by terror. School children were kept home. Buses stopped running. The eye of the nation was focused on the strip of Fourth Avenue between Sixth Street and the Toole Avenue underpass. This was once a lively street teaming with commerce. But on November 14, 1998, it was reduced to a paste of rubble and ash, glazed with foul-smelling saliva.
Some of us will never forget. Others among us are too young to remember the events of that warm and breezy Saturday afternoon. Certain youthful types around town have expressed skepticism that the event even occurred! Their elders find this hard to take, particularly from snot-nosed punks who like to ride the Trolley down to the former Fourth Avenue and frolic in the artificial ocean--an artificial ocean we voted to install in the gaping crater created in the horrible aftermath of that terrifying day. Some of us can't even dip a toe in the wave pool without flashing back to the afternoon when Tab Whiteman's face broke into our regular programming, disturbing our calm and climate-controlled lives, to give us the shocking news.
Now, Tab: Tab was a weatherman and not a very good one at that. You kids who know him only from his equestrian statue in Reid Park may be under the impression that he was always a strong, charismatic leader (and a skilled horseman), but the truth is that before the event, Tab was known as a wimpy, blow-dried weather air-head. It was obvious that he got the job because of his jaw-line, but despite his regular, Nordic features, Tab couldn't could get a date. A lot of the women who turned him down expressed their regrets later. A court reporter was quoted in a magazine as saying, "Had I known about Tab's inner reserves of strength, I would have accepted his offer to play miniature golf. But at the time he just creeped me out. He reminded me of Keanu Reeves on Thorazine."
Tab couldn't even get the weather right, which was why he was on location that day, reporting that the Fourth Avenue Street Fair would in all likelihood be blighted by rain and probably hailstones, though any housecat could see the day was sunny and clear. It was almost as though Tab was so focused on his instruments and weather maps that he couldn't believe his own eyes--this was his fatal flaw, but it was a flaw he overcame spectacularly when the moment called for it. Just before the event, as you recall (pay attention, you youthful ingrates), Tab was standing in a flood of sunlight, his blond hair lit up impossibly bright on camera, pathetically warning us about impending precipitation. Behind him shoppers milled, starved for giftware, plodding in circles through the handicraft booths; it seemed more than a few of them wore funny hats. Tab finished his report. And that was that.
Except for the rumbling. It was as though a monster truck rally was taking place just off camera, and many viewers assumed it was some sort of macho entertainment connected with the Street Fair. Of course, we know now that it was no such thing; we know it was the unholy, parturient stirrings of a wicked being. According to the archives, at that time Della Viramontes was just leaving the downtown café where she worked as a waitress. She had changed into her street clothes and was walking home, taking the long way to the west of Fourth Avenue because, and I quote The Arizona Daily Star here: "I'd do anything to avoid that greasy street fair. It made me sick to see my neighborhood taken over by mimes, smelly food booths and tacky merchandise."
Those of you who know Della only from her statue in front of City Hall may be under the impression that she was a rock musician and a waitress without ambition (part of the "Slacker Army" that commandeered the carriages), but in truth she was an accomplished and intelligent young woman who was studying Materials Science at the University and only played in a rock band on weekends when she didn't have a paper due. The electric guitar and the bronze tray of food are meant symbolically; to honor the Army and the woman who led it, but there was far more to her than any symbol could summarize. As, of course, the events made abundantly clear.
THE CONFUSION BEGAN at 1:11 in the afternoon. The witnesses who survived the attack reported that the rumbling grew so intense that windows began to vibrate and shatter in the nearby West University neighborhood. Then a shadow fell across Fourth Avenue, occluding shoppers and booths and a legion of folksy, handmade craft items: titanium wind chimes, cactus-shaped mailbox stands, Mexican-style berets, beads fashioned by rainforest tribes from animal dung, aromatherapy potholders, etc. The air grew humid. There were reports of a smell--like the odor of hands after grasping live fish. And then, with a slurp, it was gone--the entire Street Fair: booths, shoppers, storefronts, cars--they were all just gone. Excised. And in the absence, a steaming, glistening pit, coated with lime-colored slime.
Down within the hole, a thing of evil crouched.
The confusion that reiged was reflected by the news coverage of the event. The first flash from the local affiliate focused on a series of noise complaints from the nearby West University neighborhood. The national news coverage was more effective but, it is agreed now, they lacked the experience and knowledge of local wildlife necessary for effective identification of the creature. We remember Dan Rather on the evening news, solemnly reporting from his desk in New York that "a calamity of unknown nature has befallen the sleepy town of Tucson, Arizona." He went on to report that "A giant creature, probably reptilian, has caused extensive property damage and loss of life with razor-like precision to a limited portion of this quaint desert town." There was some grainy, aerial footage of the beast (nobody wanted to get too close), hunkered down in the pit, motionless and apparently drowsy from its enormous meal.
Of course, we were stunned. It seemed that everyone knew somebody who was shopping at the Street Fair that day, or had intended to stop by. It was the uncertainty that was so unraveling, the anticipation of grief that was so painful, even before the shattering details had been divulged. In those moments we were desperate to know what had happened; we had to know--for, as difficult as it was to bear our losses, it was even more difficult to face an unknown monster. It was like discovering the goblins from our childhood closets had gained the ability to walk and move and scratch behind the ears. And to eat.
The area around the crater had been cordoned off with those thick, velvet ropes used to keep customers in line at banks--no one knew why, exactly, except that it was being handled by the Tucson Police Department, who greeted the event with incredulity. The local news showed the cordons, and we hoped they would show the beast and explain the destruction as well; surely, we thought, they would be able to fill in the gaps the national media had so unfortunately missed. But what greeted us when we turned on our televisions only increased our confusion.
When our regular anchorwoman began the broadcast, we realized something strange was occurring. "A local calamity spawns nation-wide news coverage for Tucson!" began the anchorwoman; and then, as the videotapes have shown, she continued to report on the manner in which the networks had covered the event: "Dan Rather led the Evening News tonight with the story of chaos and destruction at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair," she continued, beaming brightly. She went on to describe exactly how the event had garnered the attention of the networks. They showed a clip of the report Dan Rather had just delivered minutes before, and offered no new information.
That was when the panic began. As a community we felt helpless, and lost. We just wanted the events described so that they could be understood and contained. I know some of you young punks think this is all a big joke, and that you're indestructible, and that nothing could ever go so wrong that you would suddenly find yourself living in an world made dangerous and unrecognizable. But lest you forget: it can happen. It happened in 1998. It could happen again.
Out of sheer habit, or so it seemed, when it came time for the weather the news dutifully shifted us to Tab Whiteman. He stood at the lip of the crater with a blanched face. Tab had seen it all--we didn't know this. We knew Tab as the butt of jokes, as the weatherman who reported sunny skies while it was actually raining. But on that day Tab overcame all that. He used his eyes. He opened his mouth.
"There's been rain predicted here at the street fair all afternoon..." Tab looked at the camera, rumpled and upset. "The weather, I mean. Shit. The weather doesn't matter today folks. Let's just tell the truth about this. Incredible as it sounds, a carved wooden gecko came to life, swelled to gigantic proportions, then went on a bloody rampage and actually ate Fourth Avenue! Fourth Avenue is gone. Because it has been eaten."
EATEN! OF COURSE, kids today have never seen a crafts fair gecko--naturally they were outlawed after the event. But those of you who were alive then may remember the proliferation of these "cute" ornaments, usually three-dimensional wooden or metal cut-outs, vaguely lizard-shaped, intended to be hung on an exterior wall for purely, and dubious, aesthetic reasons. Real geckos are small, lizard-like creatures with the cunning ability to cling to a variety of surfaces, including glass; crafts fair geckos were large, lizard-shaped handicrafts that had to be nailed to the wall. Later (much later), it was discovered that the monstrous, engorged gecko that ate Fourth Avenue was larger than its handmade prototype to the same degree that a decorative wall gecko is larger than the average real gecko, a ratio of approximately 200:1.
Science has yet to account for this fact.
Or for any of the events of that Saturday, for that matter.
The response of the community was phenomenal, and quite weird. Almost immediately the area surrounding the former Fourth Avenue was thronged with thrill seekers and the curious. Bizarre as it sounds, the area took on an almost carnival-like atmosphere, but more desperate, wilder. Some combination of excitement and grief, the heady knowledge that an unearthly, vicious creature lurked in our humble hamlet--perhaps heralding the end of time--inflamed the city's youth. Tipsy college boys and girls in single-gender packs roamed the area, drinking from open containers and setting off firecrackers. They climbed on one-another's shoulders, hooting, and straining to get a glimpse of the thing in the hole. Girls took off their shirts and waved them around like flags. Boys mooned each other. One group flipped over a car and smeared themselves with transmission fluid. Panhandlers set up shop at the crater's edge.
Della Viramontes, quite by accident, found herself among the revelers. She, too, had witnessed the catastrophe, and I'm sad to say, the contents of her own apartment were at that exact time being boiled into a foul-smelling salsa inside the belly of the creature. Confused and grief-stricken, she wandered for a while, trying to figure out what to do. Now, I'm sure all of us believe in our capacity to act sensibly in the face of adversity or indeed, in the face of pure evil, which is what some have theorized the giant gecko embodied. (Others say she was God, but this has been vehemently denied by nearly all organized religious groups.) But the fact of the matter was, when faced with such a large and disorienting emergency, most individuals feel an intense sense of powerlessness. They feel insignificant. They believe the authorities will respond promptly. The nature of this catastrophe was so singular, however, that most of the agencies who might have dealt with it--the fire and police departments, the National Guard, Game and Fish--treated the disaster with disbelief. It was like a science fiction movie from the 1950s--the authorities didn't act, because they simply couldn't believe the reports they were hearing were true. They were embarrassed. They believed themselves the victims of a prank.
Della, though, was a fast-thinking young woman who wasn't afraid to take matters into her own hands. She also had an assortment of geckos living on her front porch. They came out at night, walking upside-down, arranging themselves in a loose circle around the porch light. Della spent many evenings just sitting in an old recliner, watching the geckos stalk and eat the bugs attracted by the bulb. From these observations she knew that a hunting gecko will remain very still, essentially frozen, until a particularly tasty looking treat moves into range. It is then that it strikes.
What worried Della were the groups of revelers partying on the edge of the crater. They shook up cans of beer and did the Macarena in the spray. They played hackey sack in the rubble. They started making out. They reminded her of insects, actually, in the way they moved, so frantic--almost fluttering--well, she wasn't convinced that the monster was actually sleeping. She thought the monster might really be hunting.
Of course, history has borne out this conclusion. The women of Delta Phi have a beautiful memorial garden dedicated to the sisters who were eaten that afternoon. They have planted a lovely lilac tree for each girl--and truly, their deaths were not in vain. The five girls were picked off one by, "like bon bons," Della said, "the kind with alcohol in them," by the forked and caustic tongue of the giant gecko.
"But that's how I got the idea to use the horse and buggies," Della told the Daily Wildcat. "I saw how attracted the gecko was to warm, prancing, agitated bodies. When that enormous, green head came up out of the pit, covered with a crust of dirt and slime, and slurped down those poor women, I came up with the idea of creating a diversion. I thought horses and buggies would be better than people, though."
IT WAS WHILE she was making her way south, towards downtown, that Della came across Tab Whiteman. Tab has lost his habitual air of distraction. Like Della, Tab was a man who came into his own during an emergency. He was calmly but firmly warning sightseers away from the edge of the pit, while explaining the nature of the danger. For years, Tab had been futilely dealing with the future--predicting what would happen--while all along his talent lay in managing a crisis in the present.
"There's a dangerous, giant gecko loose, folks," he said, "Please step back. Step WAY back. Killer gecko. Ma'am, do you really want to bring your baby here?"
His face was flushed and his sandy hair has broken free of its dorky, hair-sprayed style. When Della saw him she recognized something--a can-do spirit, a competence--and there was something else, too. Something she liked about his eyes, even though she had always found his weather reports annoying and insipid. Later, she said she just knew that together, they could destroy this thing.
Tab recognized a kindred spirit in Della too. Rather than shooing her away, he let himself be led aside, where Della whispered her plan into his ear. It only took a moment. But it was a moment that changed Tucson history.
Who knows what might have happened if these two young people hadn't taken matters into their own hands? There were rumors that the military was planning a nuclear attack. There were rumors that the President planned to quarantine the entire city. Thank God Della and Tab had the courage and foresight to implement their plan before we were bombed to kingdom come. Thank God young people back then had more sense than they do today.
The rest of the story is familiar to almost everyone. Della went downtown and enlisted help from the assortment of waiters, artists, and useless coffee shop patrons who naturally hadn't paid much attention to the disturbance on Fourth. This was the "Slacker Army," a group of anomic, alienated kids who nonetheless were roused by Della's call to arms.
"I just told them," Della reported, "that if we didn't do something to destroy the monster in our midst, there would be no more coffee, no more cigarettes, and no keg beer. I told them it would be like a war zone--no luxury goods. No whiskey. No Sweet and Low. No city-subsidized studio space. Of course they were willing to fight for that stuff."
Bravely these citizens followed Della's orders. It was the afternoon of a downtown Saturday night, and a set of horse and buggies waited in a dirt lot. Later, they were to take groups of curious eastsiders on a tour of our city center where they would glimpse "local color" from a distance. But instead they were trotted around the gaping absence that was once Fourth Avenue. The slackers drove the horses to edge of the open pit (Tab had effectively cleared the area). They moved slowly, with care, making no sudden movements. One brave poet tied her beloved dog to a piece of curled rebar at the edge of the hole. (Named Arfer, his statue is located outside the Humane Society). The horses, harnessed to their buggies, were slowly walked into position behind. This was done with smoothy and with stealth. All was quiet.
Then the Army began banging on pots, pans and drums. They began to prod and spook the horses. Arfer barked. The horses whinnied. (Some vegans in the group protested the use of animals, but declined to take their place at the pit's edge.) Night was falling and the sky had gone orange. There was a kind of desperate, restless energy being stirred up, an end-time keening that stank of celebration and last kisses and despair. Della said it reminded her of stories she had heard of the griefstruck dances the wives of drowned sailors would do as they prepared to throw themselves off the cliffs into the sea. There was that sense of bravery and loss. The Army chanted and howled. The horses pissed vigorously into the dust. Little Arfer lifted his snout to the sky and howled.
When the monster struck, it was with suddenness, force, and not a breath of warning. Suddenly, said a witness, "that little dog wasn't barking no more." But Tab's senses were sharpened that evening to superhuman levels.
"I could actually feel it coming," Tab said, "the way some people say they can feel bad weather."
He already had the trolley moving forward when the creature attacked. A lot of people had been complaining, back then, that our beloved trolley was of little use. (Those of you too young to remember may not realize it only ran a few blocks, rather than traversing the entire city as it does now.) But Tab and the Army made good use of it. They had lashed a sort of spearhead to the front--a hulking piece of sharpened metal from the wreckage--and attached it to a telephone pole, where it protruded before the trolley like a lance. And there behind it, like a jousting knight, stood Tab Whiteman.
Surely you've heard the rest. The unholy gecko lunged, frenzied with appetite, at the prancing horses. Tab propelled the trolley at its scaly breast. The spear pierced the reptile's hide, releasing a stream of cool, green liquid and some partially digested dream-catchers. Tab himself was only inches from the creature's serrated teeth (each one gleaming like a sharpened door key) when the trolley skidded to a halt. The creature clawed the air and made a soft chirping, like the call of a baby bird. Then it died.
Tab was covered in slime and disintegrating crafts objects. Della didn't care. She kissed him anyway.
Arfer popped out from the creature's wound and shook himself off, gooey, but quite intact.
You ignorant kids who ride your skateboards--even if you haven't paid attention to anything in all your wasted days, surely you've seen the head of the beast. You can't miss it, stuffed and mounted on the roof of the International Museum of Wildlife, looming so large that it casts a shadow across much of the main building, reducing the cost of air-conditioning it considerably. You may or may not have heard the story of how the City Council subsequently voted to pump CAP water into the giant crater, thus creating the artificial ocean (and employing hundreds of lifeguards). But surely you've played in the surf. Even if you don't know how much we sacrificed for you, you've reaped the benefits.
Tab and Della married, of course, and shortly thereafter moved to the Pacific Northwest, "because being a hero is sort of exhausting," explained Della, and besides, Tab wanted to go back to school to become an EMT.
Slowly, over the course of years, the emotional tempo of life in Tucson settled. We began to feel safe again, as though our lives would calmly continue, with a smooth and unruffled surface, forever. The only waves in our lives seemed to be the artificial ones we kept carefully controlled in the wave pool downtown. Once again, it seemed that nothing could touch us. Once again, we become convinced of our invincibility.
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