Tucson Salvage

A bus stop mystic, a girl called America, a still-operating porn shop, 24-hour tattoos, and other humble glories on nighttime 22nd Street

This white guy on the bus-stop bench is so pissed off. He caws, "Heygmm." It's threatening and mean in its way, and so the blood pressure rises and heartbeat quickens. Old fears fade hard—as if rooted in some form of PTSD—but I remind myself that I no longer live in situations where I find myself constantly dreadfully fucked. Anyway it's been awhile since anybody howled horrible names at me on the street or threatened to beat my ass. I consider how things are actually OK these days.

I keep walking along 22nd Street.

"Heygmm," and louder this time.

So I turn around, walk back and stand there. He looks up at me, and says, "I'm Kilgore, Army Special Forces." Then he pats the bus-stop bench. "Have a seat." 

Kilgore wears a backward trucker hat, but not in a street way, or a sexual statement way, or any silly way like that. Fits like he never leaves the house without it. He offers me a shot from his Sprite bottle but looks at it like he's missing something. "Uh ... shit, nothing in it." He pushes the empty back into the stuffed backpack at his feet.

Lights from passing cars reveal a thin face and glassy half-lidded eyes. Out of the blue, and just loud enough to hear over the traffic, he says, "You lost someone, and I don't think you're over it."

A woman with short, shagged blonde hair, dressed in black sits next to him on the other side. She rolls her eyes in that way that people do when they're damn tired of their partner being drunk but for some reason they can never leave them and wind up just being drunk, too. I know that look. My quick camaraderie with Kilgore is getting somehow dangerous, and she obviously doesn't want me around because maybe she senses danger, too.

"That's my lady next to me," Kilgore says. "Don't worry."

A long silent minute passes. He adds, "I'm Kilgore, Army Special Forces."

"Special Forces?"

"Damn straight."

His tone goes cryptic. The way he held my gaze, like a challange. "You lost someone, and I don't think you're over it. Who did you lose?"

I grew up in this neighborhood, and when I walk miles on 22nd Street I think about people who died. I reoccupy shitty facts about my life. Offer up inner false hopes. Swim in nostalgia. I get to own up to loneliness.

If you're walking at night down here near Kolb Road over near the Music Box Lounge, and EZ Money Pawn, and that tired car lot, across the street from tedious Starbucks/McDonalds commerce, it might be easy for someone to think you've lost someone and you're not over it yet. No one walks on 22nd Street at night. I love it.

I ask Kilgore where he and his lady are headed. Don't know why I asked, just did. Now I feel like a creep.

"Up to Country Club," Kilgore says.

The woman shakes her head in a way that shows even more disgust, and her face squinches up. She says to him, "Why are you telling him that? Why?"

Dusk is gone now and it's cool out. I stand to leave, and Kilgore goes, "Don't go, man. That's my lady. She don't bite."

I hear Kilgore behind me as I move toward Palo Verde High School. "Heygmm!" Smell fall's first chimney, the greatest smell in the world.

Darkness fills washes and sidewalk cracks and hides cats, and streetlights make scary shadows of big chollas rising over backyard fences. Giant towers look like ship masts and the electrical wires stretched between them hum when there's no traffic.

Life beyond the few streetlights gets lost in its own blackness, and though the desert that surrounds the city can’t be seen from this vantage, it feels claustrophobic, and won't let go. The desert can do that here.

This 22nd Street is now historic and broken and real, therefore lovely, with no overpriced craft cocktails in sight. Rose brick and cinderblock homes fill area subdivisions, mid-century boxes and converted carports repeat one end into another. Long ago purchased by ex-G.I.s or Hughes Aircraft employees during the second burst of post-WWII growth, these houses don't look identical anymore. Too many heartbeats have passed through. I could live in one of those pretty houses again. Celebrated seven christmases and eight birthdays in one once.

Up and down 22nd there's a peculiar assortment of mom-and-pops, and houses converted to businesses, with no nods to continuity or aesthetics, which is its own wondrous aesthetic: A tiny church next to a resale clothing shop next to a mystic candle dealer next to Cricket Wireless, next to self-serve car wash. The Tucson I adore. I keep walking west.

I watch a woman push a stroller whose one rear wheel thumps like it's got a flat and I guess it's probably uncomfortable, or maybe fun, for the baby on board. Four kids walk with her, two out ahead, looking down and not curious, like routine. Mom balances plastic bags filled with groceries. A guy in wheelchair waits for kindness in front of the Mercado Y Carniceria La Mexicana grocery. There's no else outside on 22nd at 8:30 p.m.

The Taqueria Y Raspados Jason food truck glows in wan gray-blue light on a big dusty lot past Wilmot Road, elaborate with a colorful wall-sized menu, picnic tables and sturdy overhang. There are a few boys and girls bounding between tables, and tired parents eating on the benches. Luis Gamez is one of four people working here tonight; he cooks the dogs off to the side. It's family run; cousins, brothers, sisters, wives … and business has been kicking, Gamez says. Naturally he says that. Walk-up traffic is rare, except for me. It's the second night working the order window for the owner's daughter, a girl named America. A high school kid whose buoyant interactions make the littler kids here feel at home. America’s learning the family business.

Food is home prepared, the salsa, beans, rice etc., and they're open every day. Whole deal wraps up at 10 p.m., and they park the RV-like truck at a nearby house. I don't eat hot dogs but I'm told they're Tucson’s best Sonoran dogs, and they’re cheap. Gamez, whose wife works here with him, sometimes makes hundreds of dogs in a day, even in summer when it's 110 degrees. No big deal, he says.

A thick swath of stars slices through the sky all the way down to the shock-lighted UnHoly Ink Tattoo and Piercing shop, which abuts Tucson’s longtime Mike Pierce Insurance in a little strip a few blocks west of the food truck. Like Denny's, UnHoly doesn’t close, it’s Tucson's only round-the-clock tat salon. It's clean inside, hospital bright. Flash art and tat designs decorate its green and black quasi-industrial interior. They're all bright-faced and happy here, which is disorienting, and the place smells of chocolate and vanilla. A trio of teen-girl customers huddles in the front, stirred by dramatics of their own conversations.

Jory Byerly is Unholy’s lead artist. He's tremendously bearded, handsomely tatted and disarmingly approachable. He says he’s worked the 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. shift and that’s where you get the tweakers and "all kinds you can imagine." No robberies, though, because “everyone knows we carry."

Byerly grew up close by. Nods at 22nd Street, and says, with a know-all sigh, "it's still pretty ghetto, but it's not like it used to be." Still, he was surprised when a sixtysomething guy came in for a full back tattoo. That’s something.

Marcos Rios mans the counter at The Party House adult shop, which sits on 22nd between the sprawling Craycroft Baptist Church and the El Gordo Smoke Shop. He talks of "tweaker zombies" wandering further down 22nd Street and near that Wal-Mart. He moved out his nearby apartment because it was routinely robbed. It got tiring. He was robbed here too, once.

"I just started and it was the graveyard shift. A guy comes in here wearing a Green Hulk mask holding a revolver. I carry a knife now." He lifts a hammer from behind the counter. "There's this now." Two youngish-looking guys step in and out quickly, minutes apart, each purchasing boner enhancements offered behind the counter. A graybeard strolls an aisle filled with Evil Angel DVD titles. Another occupies one of 22 arcades in back. The cramped Party House has got to be the loneliest party in all of Tucson. The affable Rios, early 20s, has been fulltime here for three years; that is, he's been wholly engulfed in porn 40-plus hours weekly in a windowless environment. Tonight, he's got Dave Navarro on some repeated reality show, for sanity. Says a lot.

He shrugs. "Yeah, it can get lonely."

By nature, porn is lonesome. You only ever feel worse when you're done. It's seductive like meth or coke, similarly alters your brain chemistry and nervous system, depletes dopamine and fuels depression, and stays with you, demanding more. I once reviewed porn movies for a living once and it nearly did me in. And who goes to adult shops anymore? Porn's free, as game as you want it.

"Well, some people think the government is keeping tabs on them, keeping a record of what they're watching on the internet," Rios says. "And maybe men don't want their wives or girlfriends knowing what they're doing, no computer trail."

"Any women come in?"

"Yeah. You'd be surprised. Four regulars a month I'd say."

A few hundred steps up from The Party House sits a tollbooth-sized truck called Churros El Rey, offering salvation in sugar. It's run by Isella Islas and her perpetually grinning elderly mother Sandra. They’ve located their mobile kiosk at various locations around Tucson in hopes of a good payoff. Now it's 22nd Street.

"It's so dead, every night here," Isella says, "so very few customers so far." Just then an SUV rolls up and a Latino family spills out.

Mom and daughter handle the orders in windowed isolation, practiced and efficient. Whiffs of fried dough and oily asphalt.

I walk more and meet up with a guy near Walmart. Next to him a sturdy backpack and a rolled-up sleeping bag. Anthony Lewis Brown, he says. He's stick skinny, huddled with arms draped over knees, back against the Dollar Store wall, a gold hoop in each ear. I've seen him before, nights in the same spot. Says he's a rock star in hiding so he can't have publicity, something about witness protection, and he doesn't want to talk at all. Declines any handout or money. He's so alone. So I leave him. The best I can figure is he too probably lost some people he's not over yet.