Tucson Salvage

Popeye and Tina: Love on Wheels

Tina riding, and steering, Popeye’s motorized wheelchair.
Tina riding, and steering, Popeye’s motorized wheelchair.

The ugly world spun hard but Tina's walker kept her from flying off of it. Squealing rubber and human screams seared her brain and sucked her back to this: Popeye's filthy shoes, arranged and neat, facing the same direction, as if waiting to be stepped into. Right there, in the crosswalk. His wedding ring too.

Another horrible momentum forced more horrible action.

The big new Ford truck slammed Popeye through the intersection, beyond the Burger King and Wal-Mart, dumping him in a bloody mess of shattered bones and pulp near the Subway a block down from the crosswalk on Grant Road at Alvernon. He was pronounced dead en route to University Medical Center.

It was a coma, and a month and a half at UMC, and brutal rehab for Popeye.

* * *

Mocha and celeste yap holy hel
l and it's dark inside the studio apartment. This guy Thomas answers the door. It is his tiny place, behind chainlink over near 22nd Street. Tina and a coughing Popeye are waking up on the mattress on the floor.

Tina flips on the nearby lamp and most darkness lifts to a gauzy, flesh-smelling room with a blanket-covered window. Everything looks grayed-out in that way absolute poverty defines things. Dollar-store scores and dumpster spoils augment curbside furniture. All Tina and Popeye own is here, duct-taped inside a box or towering in a corner. The oppressive room seems to cradle them.

Mocha and Celeste are ushered outside until they behave. The chihuahuas dislike strangers, as does Tom—not the Tommy who answered the door, instead a bald old hippie who appears to exist in a cloud of felony menace and lives to himself in the camper shell just outside the front door. A power cable runs from the apartment to maintain electricity for his television and light. The camper sits on a broken-down pickup. No shirt, no shoes, no service. Must get flesh-cook hot out there come June.

The kickass-haired Thomas looks all Skynyrd biker, matches the Skynryd poster on the wall. The Skynyrd albums up through Street Survivors rule, I say. All three agree, heartily.

I'm told Tommy blew up a building back in Ohio. He knows explosives and is diagnosed schizophrenic, with the meds and doctors to prove it. He's a kind sort, allows the homeless Popeye and Tina to exist on the floor. Down-numbed by heavy medication, he hunches on a stool and quietly observes the morning unfold.

The couple help care for Tommy, provide food, for which they panhandle. (They receive but $40 monthly in food stamps.) Tommy covers rent.

Popeye talks of the time when one late night Tommy wielded a machete in one hand and a knife in the other, screaming bloody murder. He was protecting the couple. Convinced Ninja Turtles were busting the door in. Crazy going. Popeye felt horrible calling the cops.

Brian Smith

Popeye remembers nothing from that 2013 accident. The driver dodged an arrest bullet; he wasn't drunk or speeding, and no one could prove he ran a red light. It took six pints of blood to help save Popeye. Once the coma lifted he could only remember his "name and birthdate." Complicated surgeries pieced him together again. Metal packs his knee and ankles, screws everywhere. The skull fracture triggered a slow onset of dementia. His right kneecap now faces sideways and one hand is forever flat. He weighs, maybe, 120 pounds. Docs cut off his Percocet because he was getting strung out. His hip radiates chronic pain. "At least my ribs don't hurt anymore."

"Popeye" is his old biker nickname. He is Bill Beason. He was adopted and stepdad was a tough alcoholic who favored poker. They moved to Tucson from a 2,500-acre Kansas farm at age 10. He later bounced through a number of Tucson high schools.

"My stepdad told me it's the service or homelessness." Popeye chose Nam. Saw cleanup action in the South as war waned, "looking for dead bodies and dog tags. It was brutal."

As a means to ease headfucks, some soldiers smoked opium and heroin in Saigon, sometimes with their commanders' help. Relative few were disciplined. But not many decked their commanding officer.

Popeye got popped smoking opium. A pissing match erupted with his C.O.

"I'll knock the shit outta you!"

"Oh, yeah? You're not big enough."

Popeye knocked him out cold. MPs swarmed him and he spent the next five years in Leavenworth. Five long years in the military correctional facility.

Popeye shakes his head. "I went outside once a week. Twice if I was a good boy." After a long pause, he adds, "I really blew it in the service. Could've used that money now."

Later he hooked up with the Dirty Dozen bikers in Arizona prison, Florence, after getting popped forging his own checks. "Again, I was young and dumb," he says, with a chuckle. Adds, "I got to see where they electrocuted people. Scared the shit out of me."

He got out in the early '90s and the Dirty Dozen "had my colors waiting for me." One night at Tucson's old biker hang, the Bashful Bandit bar, the Hells Angels "came in and took our colors." Sonny Barger, Hells Angels founder, "took me under his wing. He'd beat me up just to make me tougher."

Popeye had married too, worked fulltime blue-collar for years, landscaping, construction. Biker by night. The arrangement worked out swell for only so long.

He began running meth between California and Arizona and did so many drugs he burned out his nasal septum. His teeth rotted and they are gone. (Tina's too: "They pulled out the last 13 in one sitting," she says.)

Popeye rolls a smoke from his sleeping position on the mattress and talks of his children, and an ex-wife in Tucson. How his two oldest sons made it on their own. How his eldest daughter adopted two of the younger children. "I appreciate what she did," he says. He wasn't well, the drugs, the jail. Suffered two heart attacks too, and a minor stroke.

The Angels eventually took his bike back. "I ride a wheelchair now," he laughs. "And I figured I'd get social security when I became disabled. Nah."

Tina adds, "They figure he's not disabled enough."

That state-owned wheelchair is five years old and it's about time for an update. When it breaks down they borrow a phone and call AHCCCS, who locates a person to repair it. They wait hours and it takes an entire day sometimes. Since Popeye's injury, his temper flares, especially when the chair breaks (or when they're turned down for services after waiting hours, weeks, months). This electric machine is their transportation. Tina operates the controls from Popeye's lap. They travel all over Tucson like that, up to 20 miles a day, to panhandle, to buy groceries, to survive. Tina on a pillow on Popeye's lap. Motorists snap photos and sometimes create condescending Facebook posts.

Popeye and Tina - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Popeye and Tina

I meet Tina and Popeye one day as they roll down Dodge near Flower Street. They whir on the side of the road where bikes go. They offer fat grins in stoner glows. But they're not stoned. He and Tina say they don't drink or use now. Weed on occasion, when they can, for pain.

She suffers from Parkinson's disease and is prescribed medication for anxiety. Sometimes walking isn't easy for her. Sometimes a walker is needed. None of this is ever easy. None of it is ever fun. None is ever above humiliation and there are always new ways to incite interior shames. New ways to let addictions slip through.

Tina's body weight should hurt Popeye but nerves in his legs are dead. He likes her there, and she "doesn't weigh much." It's easy to see he's grateful for the one who consoles him, loves him in return.

The two feint and joke like lovers do, but neither is ever a punchline. Sometimes it is desperation, each a source of sustenance for the other, and last-line defenses against loneliness. But their love is reciprocal in the purest sense. Keeps them joined at the hip, night and day, and almost literally on the wheelchair. Tina survived the hit in the crosswalk because Popeye shoved her out of the way as the barreling truck slammed into him.

That is love, right?

* * *

"It's hard to be a twin without your twin," Tina says. "I think about her every day."

Tina's twin got sick and died at 5 years old. A slightly older sister was murdered; tossed out a sixth-floor window. Of nine siblings, two are left. The father of her daughter is serving multiple life sentences for cartel-related murders. She gave permission to his parents in Texas to care for her one daughter, who's now 25. She was lost to drugs when her daughter was a girl. Another relationship involved a brutal and cruel addict, and she got into shooting it. How sweet the tincture when you're busted and bruised. A halo of tragedy circles her. She knows.

Tina's sharp-boned and her dark skin reveals Native American and Mexican heritage. Now in her 50s, the bilingual woman once dreamed of becoming a doctor. She cared for dad because she could—mom suffered arthritis—and he died when she was 14. (He was in his 80s.) She got out of a San Antonio high school with a GED and wound up in nursing school caring for her mother until she died several years later. "I took care of her as one of my patients," Tina says. The cocaine nearly killed her.

"I got down to 60 pounds," she says.

A Texas friend took her on a life-saving journey to a shitty motel in Ohio where she couldn't get high and was forced to clean up. In 2008 she moved to Tucson for a man "and ended up here alone."

Brian Smith

One day Tina was riding a Speedway bus and spotted Popeye. She gushes, "he was walking up on the street and he pulled his glasses up and I saw his eyes. That was it." She created a stir for the driver to stop. "Everyone on the bus was like 'let her off!'"

Popeye had no home so he basically moved in on the first date, and she was out of work.

The undercurrent of love is tragedy and soon the pair were homeless, sleeping under a Jesus statue at nearby church. "We knew the groundskeeper and he'd let us hide there," Popeye says. "Going homeless for the first time I was terrified," Tina adds, nodding to Popeye. "He taught me the ropes. And I said, 'Lord, please help us.' I talk to God a lot by myself."

They procured a tent and camped in desert lots. Saw rattlesnakes, starved. Staved off drinking and drug joneses; It's not easy staying clean with another attempting the same.

Soon they were helping run the problem-plagued homeless charity Giving Tree, which shuttered in 2012. Its director married them. Tina says Popeye wanted to get hitched in blue jeans, "and I didn't let him. He had to have a suit."

They found an apartment and caretaker work at New Beginnings, a center for homeless. They were walking from there when the Ford truck mowed Popeye down. They lost all they had.

They have nothing but there's been a shift, and they each acknowledge it and say it is the other person. There's none of that obsequiousness of the manipulative, of those who skate by on cheap scams and hustles. They have lived hard enough to have earned some wisdom and virtue, to have erased self-pity. Tina once got caught stealing shoes from Target, her first and only attempt at such. Cops let her go. "They saw how I had to take care of Bill," she says. "And they were good people. I was pretty shocked."

Popeye acknowledges it took years and prison for him to become a version of a person he can live with, as broken and homeless as he is. "Look, I never lie to anybody, ever," Popeye adds. "Not anymore. You can't.

"And we try to help people out," he adds. "And I'm not worried about the men. It's the homeless women and children I worry about. So we don't turn down any gifts."

Some passersby show compassion. Gift them whole bags of food, or Target shopping trips for female supplies. Bottles of water. Grocery gift cards. Once a woman gave them beer, the assumption they were alcoholics. They don't drink now. What they don't need or use they give to others who do.

* * *

Tina rises from the mattress wearing a white, long-sleeve T-shirt and blue jeans, which she slept in. Lights a strawberry and chocolate incense, says "Ha! You can tell we're old hippies.'"

She readies for the day, as if preparing to leave for work. Brushes her long, thick gray hair, cleans up around the floor by the mattress, feeds the dogs—"There's a church that gives us dog food, or there's people around here who help out"—straightens up the kitchen, prepares the wheelchair, which takes up a good portion of the kitchen, and hunts for Popeye's missing wallet. The familiarity in their lives.

She stops. Says to Popeye, in a soft tone. "Why don't you go and get your pants on."

"OK, I'm up." He stands and moves with Tina's help to the bathroom to change out of his sleeping sweats and shirt.

Tina looks to Tommy on the stool, whom they met at a homeless shelter years ago. Says about him, "Sometimes we fight. We're two Libras in the house. But he's kind enough to let us stay here. I look after him too. Somebody has to."

When Popeye returns from the bathroom he wears a knee brace over black jeans and gray slip-on walking shoes. Up straight he is tilted and frail, a saguaro skeleton with sunken features, thinning gray mane stiffened in oily residue. An older Ratso Rizzo. Yet his face is set in contrast because it is anything but unpleasant. It shows contentedness, a joy even, like his body isn't really attached to his neck, like it's hardly a burden.

"God is on our sides," Tina says later over lunch at a nearby Denny's. "When he was in a coma I used to read to him. The nurses complained and said, 'He can't hear you, he's in a coma!' They just didn't know any better."

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.