Tucson Salvage

Ever wonder about the voice in a drive-thru speaker?

Hannah Theriot: “What even are we without love? So why be mean to people?”
Hannah Theriot: “What even are we without love? So why be mean to people?”
Mom goes and throws up and that is weird because she never throws up, but things seem OK when she sits back down and lights another cigarette. Soon she stands again and this time falls and Hannah is shocked and jumps up to sort of catch her, and holy Christ mom is convulsing.

Mom foams at the mouth and Hannah holds onto her tongue so it does not get swallowed, and leans into her crying, begging her to be here now, while phoning 911 and shielding a horrified three-year-old they are babysitting.

The paramedics, CPR and defibrillation do little, and mom's face soon vanishes behind the body-bag zipper. They had the TV on in their living room an hour ago, Hannah yakking with a friend on the phone.

Brother, what kind of agonies for a 15-year-old girl as her biggest fan dies in her arms of a massive heart attack. The nightmares do not go away.

Hannah's mom had a run of bad luck but was sober from a debilitating gambling habit. She had done jailtime for theft and gambled off the ex's child support meant for Hannah and her sister. The water and electricity would get shut off, that kind of thing.

Hannah talks about her mom and stops, a rare breath between difficult subjects. She continues: "It's an injustice for people to assume others aren't going to change just because they used to be a certain way. My mom cleaned up and was getting her life together and it was so beautiful. You should always want people to be better than who they were. You should always want people to evolve."

Mom died seven years ago in Louisiana, and nothing has been easy since for Hannah Theriot. She lives in Tucson now and works at Chipotle and Starbucks.

The gleaming hybrids and
SUVs at an eastside Starbucks. If not for Tucson mountain ranges this could be outer Omaha or Raleigh or suburban Ohio.

Hannah is working the drive-thru window here and like any customer-service employee, she gets shit sometimes. If, say, the Chai tea latte is not perfect, it is as if she actually created the drink herself when it is obvious she did not. I watch her chuckle and diffuse and appear to make theater with false happiness and animated gestures, exaggerated head tilts and quick wits. "I just love all of my customers!" she says to no one in particular, spinning in a circle wearing her headset.

And Starbucks is not McDonalds, but it kind of is. At least at McDonalds you know exactly what you are getting and it closely mirrors the world in which we live. In that way it is closer to truth, as awful as it is. Starbucks over-brands a false sanctuary, the all-in corporatization, the tedious chit-chat and pricey doo-dads manufactured to look unmanufactured. As if it can somehow improve our crappy lives, as employees earn a nickel above a pittance.

But condemning fast-food commerce is easy and dated. Truth is, Hannah is grateful for the work, sometimes giving up more than 60 hours a week to her employers. She usually starts early at Starbucks and ends at Chipotle, the one located right across the street. She doesn't have a car mainly because working two service jobs is what is needed for a 22-year-old woman to simply survive on the land. Also, she never learned to drive. She rides her bike the few miles or her boyfriend gives her a lift. She is too tired for much else. She is offered healthcare but it would eat too much of her check. Two jobs, no health insurance. There is that. And this—the good thing: both companies will soon offer her help for her schooling, and that is why she chose to apply and work at Starbucks and Chipotle. If she loses one job she will have the other to help.

Hannah tends to hundreds of faces daily, sometimes for 14 or 16 hours. She has done this for months and there is no end in sight. She rings up, counts, greets, tracks, huffs, never sits and offers, from what I can tell, unending kindness and energy to all. It is hard work, physically, emotionally. One cannot be a featherweight and be employed at such places.

She says there is no theatre involved in her work. "Honestly, it's exhausting to be kind and thoughtful of everyone and everything, but at this point I just believe that is always going to be a part of my personality. I changed my perception years ago as a way to cope with my mom's death because being kind to people made me feel less guilty about being alive when my mother wasn't. Because I don't know what kind of day they're having ... I try to remind myself that they may need some extra kindness too. Also, what even are we without love? So why be mean to people?"

Hannah's one-bedroom
apartment on Tucson's near-eastside is dark, and should be grim but is not. Too many things suggest curiosity and joy: Shelves show too much tonnage and books—from Poe to Camus to Shel Silverstein—for decent order. Her bike is a happy blue-green. Butterfly stickers decorate the refrigerator ("I love stickers; they're tattoos for inanimate objects"). Scattered musical instruments include a keyboard, acoustic guitars, a melodica, ukulele, a sax. Hannah has taught herself to play them all, and now tackles violin. She has been writing songs half her life and her singing voice employs a tender but soaring, soulful quality. Says she's a singer first and rapper second.

A bed in the center of the living room takes all space in front of the flatscreen, "the air-conditioning works better out here," Hannah says, and laughs. And that is her boyfriend's bed, "and he loves it."

It is around noon on a weekday, and Hannah's boyfriend (24-year-old Chris Harman) is off backpacking in the Catalina Mountains. She sits cross-legged in a loose top and black pants on the living-room bed. A full ashtray accepts her cigarettes. On the other side of the bed, Tricks and Nikki play a Horizon Zero Dawn videogame but mostly it feels like Hannah's recent friends are here to make sure she is OK from this unknown visitor, or to maybe neutralize her aloneness. Either way Hannah inspires fast friendships. Her direct and approving grin and sense of instant familiarity seem to contain her. Even her face answers questions. Not that it should. She comes loaded with verbal buckshot and wit; her stories can exhaust, so many details peppered with on-target imagery lift on fat narrative arcs. No wonder she was endlessly enrolled in advance classes for smart students. She attended nine different high schools yet graduated with a 3.68 average after missing extended blocks of time. She was hospitalized five times in mental health facilities after mom died, and treated for PTSD, chronic depression and extreme anxiety.

She was born and raised in Louisiana Cajun country, blip towns and family nets of cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the grandpa who nicknamed everyone. ("It's almost like the water and the natural disasters make for a tight-knit community.") Cajun cultural tropes mark conversations, such as the food she misses catching and eating—the crawfish, crabs and shrimp, the sacalait, Blue Channel catfish and sheepshead. "Even the flying mullet fish, even though we always throw them back because they taste nasty as hell!"

Mom came in from the left, and dad, an oil-rig cementer, from the right. They married, had two kids and split up because mom gambled too much. Hannah says her mother was a really "sad person" thrust into a dutiful way of things that didn't work. "She worked so many jobs, Taco Bell, Subway, a bingo hall ...

"My mom," Hannah says, "couldn't be responsible and my dad couldn't be sensitive. I never needed anything at my dad's, except love." She laughs, adds, "My mom would make a dinner called "fuck it" and it was this kind of Shepard's pie with no vegetables in it. She was great, that's the thing. She wanted everyone to have equal. She will always be the example for how to love someone."

When mom got arrested, Hannah boarded with her father and stepmom. Dad drank and stepmom told Hannah she had ruined their marriage. Hannah once told dad to get his balls out of her stepmom's purse. "I would get angry back then when things weren't fair." A car accident injured her back and her lower spine is severely inverted. Pain is chronic.

By 12 she was on Prozac and Zoloft. Soon it was others for sleep and ADHD. "I son't think they did me an injustice, putting me on Adderall and Vyvanse at the same time," she laughs. "They made the drugs traumatizing for me!"

Upon mom's release from jail, Hannah bounced between various houses.

Hannah snapped after mom
died. As if to harden the tragic nature of the universe, her dad and stepmom sent Hannah back to a Catholic boarding school in Mississippi ("Jesus camp for white people who want to feel like they are better than other people," Hannah says).

She can't imagine what her classmates thought there. "I would be late for school. I fell asleep in English and woke up crying—I'd pass out because I was afraid to sleep at night and was so tired from that. I'd get paddled. Yes, paddled. That was creepy, and with the dorm parents watching. I felt helpless, having nightmares about my mother dying. I kept getting in trouble for mental illness. And the last thing I wanted was these Jesus-ass freaks feeling sorry for me, telling me to 'Give it to God!'"

One day she beat up her sister. It was the second worst day of her life. "My sister was 18 and I was 16," she says. She pushed me and she laid into me verbally—she was bigger than me, and I wanted her approval. I got violent. She said 'you're killing me' and that is when I stopped." She drops her head. "I fractured a bone above her eye socket and gave her a concussion. Later I cut myself. I was cutting myself then."

The next day she entered a mental-health facility for the first time. Involuntarily. "I was told I was going to counseling after school and my stepmom took me to the hospital instead." At one point she entered a long-term behavioral health facility in Tennessee, stayed two months.

"In a way the hospitals almost taught me how to manipulate people into believing I'm healthy just so they would leave me alone. However, I did meet a few people here and there that made a lasting difference. The first huge step in my treatment was realizing I control how I treat others." She describes her relationship with her sister now as very close.

She wanted out of Louisiana and moved to San Francisco to live with relatives. She was feeling better and graduated high school there. She found work creating musical content and personalizing playlists for Spotify. Gave that up for a boy in Tucson whom she had met online ("We never exchanged nudes," she laughs. "It wasn't like that.") He was smart, and autistic. They'd leave Skype on, talk everything from music to multiverse theory to the cosmos, and fall asleep together. At 18 she moved to Tucson to be with him. He began to beat her up, sometimes bad, her scars prove that. Holes in walls prove that. Finally, a landlord called the police and she went and stayed briefly at a home for battered women.

Why did she stay with him?

She says, "I had big compassion. To be that high functioning with that autism. He would get overwhelmed. But I never said any of the abuse was OK. He choked me so hard once I shit myself and hit back. I left him because I had to; I can't be treated that way. It isn't about what I need, it is about what I deserve. I love fearlessly, unconditionally, and I knew how I loved him was genuine. And I don't doubt he loved me. He'd bike 20 miles to Smash Burger to support us when I had no job."

Hannah itches to go back to school, hence her options Starbucks and Chipotle. She is keen to work with children, teach a wisdom passed from her mother and childhood, and the fire to break out from a grinding way of life. "They [children] are so smart and no one listens," she says. "It is that entitlement of getting older, thinking you are more because you are not a kid anymore. Some children, or adults, may have never experienced genuine love from someone before, and not just love, but truly unselfish, unadulterated love from a stranger who just cares."

And she talks hierarchies of human needs in ways detailed by Maslow and Freud, and a simple cure-all desire to self-sustain through kindness and love, minus the cynicism that masks truth. Sometimes it takes years to learn that. She knows. She is wary but optimistic even when woefully depressed, which is often. It's easy to imagine the burden of her particular intelligence at 22, the circular thinking that upholds emotional discomfort that cannot be easily turned off. Her new boyfriend is kind, she says. Supportive. She likes Tucson. And there are no prescription drugs for her now. No more of those.

But the nightmares you'd never know from the voice on the drive-thru speaker.

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.