Cities & Homes

Writer Cord Jefferson reflects on growing up in Tucson and what leaving his hometown taught him

In three decades as a person for whom tears come easy, the hardest I’ve ever wept is the day I moved away from Tucson. I’ve lived through heartbreaks, layoffs, deaths, my parents’ divorce, a couple of thrashings, an arrest in Mexico and sundry other traumas and disappointments. Yet none of the crying bouts stemming from those incidents have come close to the hiccupy heaving that ensued on the bright Saturday I hugged my mom, boarded a flight at Tucson International Airport and flew to Virginia to go to college.

In the years since, I've been back to visit many times, but I've never again returned to replant the roots I tore out more than a decade ago. That morning, as I stared out the plane window and watched the dirt and saguaros and triangle-leaf bursage shrink amid the hot, black roads below, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was experiencing the death of something important.

Now, I can only summon my years as a Tucson resident in chunks of eroding memories, and what's left of those is all mixed up. At a certain point in my life, recollections of my youth went from being chronological, manifold things to a fused jumble I've filed away as "My Childhood." When I was a kid the difference between fifth grade and seventh grade felt like ages, and conceiving of the experiences that composed those years in rectilinear fashion was simple. Twenty years on, it's become just as simple to imagine all of prepubescence as being nothing more than one shitty day. I now see my formative years in Tucson in only indistinct patches, like I'm looking at them with glaucoma. Yet I still feel them near my bones, as elements in me that sit dormant until the strangest of times. In one moment I'm washing out my French press in Los Angeles, and in the next I'm recalling the anticipation of rain in Tucson, and the smell of that rain when it finally fell. To this day a rain shower doesn't feel complete to me unless it's bookended by the lingering odor of creosote bushes.

I remember plants. I remember making blowgun darts out of needles and flower pistils pulled from prickly pear cacti. I remember the tremendous fear that gripped me when I first ran into a jumping cholla and came up with three of its segments impaling my calf; I screamed so loudly my mother said it sounded like I was being murdered. I remember what seemed like thousands of velvet mesquite and paloverde trees—perfect for climbing—punctuating the dirt behind my house, the backyard of which was unfenced, opening into a wide swath of desert cut down the middle by a wash bottomed with soft sand. I remember once, when the wash filled with rainwater, putting a G.I. Joe action figure into a small plastic Zodiac boat and watching it rush away, knocking into a felled ocotillo skeleton on its journey out of sight. I dreamed that the soldier ended up in Hawaii.

I remember dirt clod wars, "games" whose entire animating premise was that it was fun to throw clumps of dirt at your friends' heads and bodies. The good times would inevitably end when someone got hit in the neck or eye with a clod that was too hard or a clod that was actually just a dirty rock. Afterward, with the taste of earth coating my teeth, I'd spend hours picking pebbles out of my ears and my curly tangle of hair.

I remember the first person to call me a nigger to my face. I don't remember his name, but I remember him heading me off on a dirt path one morning as I pedaled my bike toward our middle school. He cocked his head and said it with a rise in the second syllable, as if he were asking a question or testing a hypothesis. He seemed unsurprised when I chased him onto campus, where we were caught quarreling and sent to the assistant principal's office. When I told her what had transpired she shook her head, sucked her teeth, and told me I could go; the other boy had to stay. On the way out of the office I caught a glimpse of a family photo: a pretty white woman—her daughter, perhaps—and the pretty white woman's partner, a black man.

When I tell people that my upbringing in Tucson was rarely marred by anti-black racism, many don't believe me. How could a city so white, in a state that makes headlines monthly for its extreme conservatism, not also be an inhospitable place for black families? Yet in my experience it wasn't. Incidents like the one involving the boy on the bike were uncommon. I attribute this not to the fact that Tucson was ever a haven of equality, of course, but to the fact that racism is about power arrangements, and the lack of black residents made it clear that we were not a threat to the city's status quo. Instead, it seemed as if most of the white people with whom I interacted reserved their racial animosity for Tucson's large population of Latinos, like when a high school teacher I had always respected allegedly told a friend that his job as a restaurant dishwasher was one better suited for "wetbacks."

"What?" said my surprised friend, a lanky white kid with a shaggy bowl cut.

"You know, Mexicans," the teacher said.

I remember using a Sharpie to scrawl my name on the wall of the bathroom at the Nico's Taco Shop at Fort Lowell and Campbell. While to most people it was nothing but a fast-food dive, for a period of several years that Nico's was also a de facto clubhouse for my friends and me, a place to congregate after high school basketball games or keg parties. On Saturday nights I'd order a pollo asado burrito with extra lettuce and extra sour cream and then watch as streams of drunken teenagers and 20-somethings poured in and the line snaked out the door.

At Nico's, the food was the price of entry for the spectacle that ensued within its greasy aura. People flirted. People had sex in cars. People fought. Once, a guy in Nico's knocked me down after my friend threw her Super Nachos all over him. I slammed my head on a table edge on the way to the floor and came to in a pool of my own blood. Another time a man tried to pull a gun on me after a friend and I intervened to stop him from beating a woman with his shoe. Because his jeans were so baggy, the gun fell down his pant leg, forcing him to hop on one foot until the weapon clanked heavily onto the concrete patio. Before he could pick it, up my friends and I had sprinted to the car and were speeding down Fort Lowell, frightened but giggling nervously in a state of tense exhilaration.

Easily my favorite Nico's memory is the time when a Marine misheard my friend saying, "Rancors are no match for the Jedi" as "The Marine Corps is no match for the Jedi."

"Did you say the Marine Corps?" the Marine asked.

"No, rancors, the monsters from Star Wars," said my friend. "But Jedis could beat the Marines, too."

The disagreement over whether American Marines could defeat an army of Jedis grew, spilling into the Nico's parking lot before concluding with the Marine punching out my friend's rear window as he drove away.

It made me sad on an existential level when I returned home a couple of years ago to find that they'd scrapped that Nico's—not just closed it, but razed it, so that all that remained was a dirt lot. I did a double take before trying to understand why the disappearance of a mid-grade taco shop where I'd been attacked on multiple occasions made me feel so low and out of place. "I didn't even get to say goodbye," I told my mother. "Good riddance," she said. Nowadays, if I get my hair cut short enough, barbers will sometimes ask how I got the 3-inch scar that jags like a worm across the crown of my head. I never tell them the truth.

I remember the music I listened to in Tucson, and when I do I conjure smells, like a bizarro synesthete. The tejano sounds that wheezed from the tinny speakers of Mexican families at barbecues in the park smell like tri-tip. The music my friends made—punk songs about crushes and burritos—smells like sweat and the dusty parking lot that abutted Skrappy's, a youth venue at which I occasionally moonlighted as a teen roadie. Destiny's Child smells like a girl I once knew, her perfume and the glittery lotion that smeared my lips when I put my mouth to her neck and chest and thighs. The jazz that rattled the windows near my father's record player at 9 a.m. on Sundays smells like my mom's French toast. "This is our church," he'd say as we ate breakfast under sax-solo bombardments. "John Coltrane can be our Jesus."

I remember the animals that roamed Tucson, shocked and dismayed at the residential and commercial encroachment that monthly spread farther and farther into their dwindling homelands. The resulting clashes between wilderness and civilization lent our modern suburb flashes of pioneer-style thrills: house pets mauled by coyotes, scorpions hiding in running shoes, javelinas tearing apart cactus gardens, rattlesnakes on swimming pool covers, a horny toad splashing a polo shirt with blood spurted from its eye, a rabid bobcat beaten to death with 7-irons after running deliriously onto a resort golf course.

Though I've always been frightened of snakes and spiders and the like, it nonetheless made me feel special and flinty to grow up in the midst of creatures that bit, scratched and pinched. The sun beat down on us relentlessly in Tucson. The flora was thorny and the fauna was unsociable. And yet there we lived and thrived, going about our days in the hard-baked rocky desert, laughing about the triple-digit heat. In a scene in Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Dryden tells Lawrence, "Only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods." We were not Bedouins in Tucson, and so we must have been the latter.

I remember getting my first fake ID, which said I was 18 so I could go to bars in Mexico. We found a check-cashing store south of the Tucson Mall that issued its own ID cards for customers who couldn't obtain anything else. "We don't verify any of the information you put on these," a woman said from behind bulletproof glass as she pushed the paperwork through a slot. "Write whatever you want." That's how my friends and I ended up with slips of laminated paper that listed our addresses as "420 Weed Ave." and "666 Satan St." In my photo I had a wispy mustache that curled upward with my nervous smile. My name was "Tony Montana," like Scarface.

In Nogales they'd glance only momentarily at our toy IDs before patting us down and ushering us to a cash register. Twenty bucks bought you all you could drink in a crumbling nightclub that smelled of Pine-Sol, alcohol and, later in the evening, vomit. The ambiance seemed to matter little to most of the clientele, scores of eager teenagers down for the night from Tucson or Casa Grande, sometimes even Phoenix. When the clubs closed we'd make our way through town to strip bars so dark inside that you'd barely notice when a boy next to you stood and ambled back to an even darker private room with one of the dancers. I was always too prideful, and scared, to pay for sex, but I would listen intently every time a friend emerged from the back giddy with the urge to talk. I wonder today if the people who complain about Mexicans coming to Arizona to raise their families know how many of Arizona's sons cross the border to grope at manhood under cover of night and inebriation.

I remember countless hot weekend mornings spent en route to my soccer games at Golf Links Sports Complex and Fort Lowell Park and Dennis Weaver Park (which is now called James D. Kreigh Park, according to Google). My father and mother would listen to NPR on the rides, my mom sipping hot tea, my dad sipping coffee and puffing on Dunhills. In those days it was not uncommon to see my father smoking, particularly when he was drinking, which was also not uncommon. He's since moved away from Tucson and mostly given up his old vices. Last year, unprompted, he said to me, "I think the reason I drank and smoked so much in Arizona is because I was bored. I loved our family, and I thought we were interesting, but everything else was boring, and so I drank."

In my last two years of high school I also began to feel the weight of the doldrums. Prior to that, Tucson's omnipresent graying population and its scarcity of diverse job opportunities were trivial concerns to me, because I was a kid, and what makes being a kid equally wonderful and dangerous is a total unconcern for the future. Eventually, when the joy from dirt clod wars and boozy trips to Nogales dissipated, it became time to think about what my adult life might look like, and Tucson shrank overnight.

Our museums became paltry when compared to those I was learning about in school, the ones with deep and prodigious pedigrees strewn across Europe. Our shopping malls suddenly seemed inadequate and bereft of anything cool, a notion also held by some of the fancier girls in my classes, who would leave town in order to shop for prom dresses. And while kids in New York were going to see Biggie perform just a few blocks from their houses, in Tucson my parents were banning me from going to a Wu-Tang Clan show in Phoenix because I had a soccer tournament that weekend. On Monday my friends would tell me that even if I had gone to the concert I wouldn't have seen my favorite Wu-Tang members, who had decided to skip the Phoenix date. I came to understand then that the big boys didn't come out for Phoenix, and nobody came to Tucson.

My mother once told me that these were the years that I grew a permanent smirk on my face, like I was always thinking of a joke not worth wasting on the people around me. A healthy portion of my attitude was surely due to the anger I'd built up following my parents' split and the general weight of my teen angst. But what had also risen inside me was the sense that I was a loser for living in Tucson, as if I'd come up short in a geographical lottery and now needed to take it out on the yokels too dumb to understand how dreary our days were in comparison to those being lived out elsewhere. I became the embodiment of the truth that there is nothing in the world crueler than an embarrassed person attempting to save face. I got meaner than I'd ever been. My temper grew shorter. I said hurtful things to people who loved me and even more hurtful things to strangers who crossed me. When people called me on being rude or malicious, I ignored them. What did they know? They were from Tucson.

When it came time to pick colleges, though I could have gone to the University of Arizona or Arizona State, I applied exclusively to schools on the East Coast in an effort to put as much distance as possible between myself and my hometown. I wanted to go somewhere covered in grass and ivy-covered walls, somewhere steeped in history, and thus every college to which I applied was founded before Arizona was even a state. I eventually decided on a small school in Virginia, a school where my father had studied law a few decades earlier. When I sent in the forms to make my matriculation official, it felt like an unbridling, as if I were no longer just staring into the motley vastness of the world, but being invited to join it as well.

One great benefit of leaving a place is that it allows you to better suss out what part of you has been you and what part of you has been your circumstances. In college, like many malleable juveniles before me, I went to work piecing together my worldview in earnest for the first time in my life. I started self-identifying as a liberal and using terms like "ascribed status," "gentrification," and "heteronormativity." I stopped calling people "fag," a slur I'd tossed around casually in my early teens, when the only openly gay person I'd ever known was my mother's hairdresser. The year I left Tucson a friend I'd spent countless hours with in high school came out as gay, and for the first time in my life I had to engage with homosexuality as a real thing, a thing that was a part of life, a thing that colored the existences of people I loved. When my friend broke the news to me, I realized instantly that his sexuality didn't at all diminish my good feelings toward him. Then my face went hot as I attempted to recall all the times I'd said "faggot" around him over the years, all the times my boys and I had glibly participated in the belittling of a person who had looked to us to help him thrive.

It wasn't long after I started coming back to Arizona for holidays and summers that I understood the person into whom I was growing was increasingly incompatible with the place I was grew up. Most superficially, my tastes were changing: I was now interested in vegetarian restaurants and contemporary foreign films and staying out late at hip, dark bars. Less superficially, the guns and racism in Arizona began to scare me. As a child I'd accepted a Glock on a civilian's hip in the Starbucks line as a natural part of everyday life. But now the sight gave me the same sense of unease I got standing next to a cliff. Whenever talk turned to immigration, I began to take notice of the numerous Tucsonans whose opposition to "illegal aliens" could be better described as an opposition to any and all Mexicans.

Before I left for college a handful of adults bestowed upon me the piece of dime-store wisdom that one could never return home again. At the time I assumed that meant things are always in flux, and thus the home a person leaves will always cease to exist. That's true, but what I had neglected to consider back then was one's own internal flux, the constant roiling within human beings, who have the opportunity every single day of their lives to decide that everything they once thought was the truth is wrong. When I left home and came back, even the things that hadn't changed no longer felt inviting or warm the way they once had, because I had transmogrified and grown and become more finicky in my absence. Years later I would get the same sensation going into an apartment where I once lived but which was now occupied by strangers. I recognized the door frames and the windows, but I also bumped into tables that seemed to spring from nowhere. It wasn't mine anymore, because nothing is ever ours. Everywhere is just a place we put our stuff until it's someone else's turn.

For its part, Tucson—or elements of it, at least—seemed affronted by my presence whenever I came back. I'd grown apart from many of my friends, and others had moved away. In darker cases, people I'd once known had gradually fallen through the cracks, until the only thing anyone would say about them was, "I wonder whatever happened to him." These were the people who went from drinking beers with everyone at parties to drinking beers and smoking weed with some people at parties to taking oxycodone at parties to taking oxycodone alone at home to, in one boy's case, asking his parents to physically restrain him from leaving his childhood bedroom until his heroin withdrawals subsided.

When I went out to my favorite haunts they were totally different. The staffs had turned over and they were now filled with customers I no longer knew. In those moments I also recognized that, besides feeling different, I now looked different, a fact I could see on some people's glaring faces. In one bar bathroom a man joked about my "gay" pink T-shirt. Another guy looked me up and down at a steakhouse one night before saying, "Nice jacket, douchebag."

The incident that gave me the most clarity about my new relationship with Tucson happened on my first night back in town after graduating from college. I'd spent a few hours barhopping with a friend—we'll call him Patrick—before ending up at Nico's for another late-night burrito. I was at an all-time high in my life: I was excited to be done with school, excited for the future and in the midst of a great night with some of my closest friends. I'd only been in Nico's for a second before a shout came from the corner of the restaurant: "Cord and Patrick are homos! Cord and Patrick are homos!" I turned to see that the screams had come from a burly guy I'd gone to high school with but hadn't seen in years. He was wearing a cowboy hat pushed low on his forehead and smirking. Everyone stared at me, the out-of-place homo, and at that moment I wished I could be anywhere else in the whole world as long as it wasn't Tucson. A couple of months later I moved to Los Angeles, and I haven't been back to Arizona for longer than a week since.

Today I live in L.A. again after stints in New York and Washington, D.C. Though I still don't find myself enchanted by Tucson the way I was when I was a boy, I'm also ashamed of the era in my life when I used to thumb my nose at my hometown. Over time I've reached the conclusion that my snobbery and disappointment were mostly just the thrashings of an insecure kid with a world of opinions about a world he didn't actually know.

To my surprise, the coastal cities in which I've lived for the past decade were not the earthly paradises I had expected. Despite being filled with architectural beauty, culture and diversity, L.A. and New York are also noisy, expensive, filthy and choked with traffic and people. Police helicopters wake me up regularly at night, as do intermittent screams and phlegmy hacking from the halfway house I live next to. For all that Tucson lacks in its supply of art house cinemas and nightlife, it's also a place with a certain easy tranquility to it. It feels comfortable in its own skin the way other cities to which I've been don't, not to mention it's a city where one of my friend's mortgage payment on a four-bedroom home with a three-car garage is only slightly more than what I pay to rent my 650-square-foot apartment. Essentially I've gotten old enough to understand that just because I don't want to live in Tucson doesn't mean it's a poor decision for other people with different interests and motivations to want to live there.

I would only be telling half the truth if I didn't admit that I sometimes wonder what my life would look like had I stayed in Tucson. In some pockets of American society, namely metropolises situated on the coasts and populated by lots of transplants, it's considered a kind of failure to never leave the city in which you were born. The Onion skewered this mentality recently with the headline, "Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown." For a long time—even just several years ago—I subscribed to that manner of thought, holding fast to the idea that everyone I knew who was raised in Tucson and then decided to stay there for adulthood was drained of passion and risk-averse. Now I think that perhaps I was the one who took the easy route.

It's good to remember that all of the world's villages, cities, states and countries are nothing but the grand products of collective hallucination. They're what happened when some people with a little foresight and grit looked at a parcel of land and thought, "We'll live here." Generations later, you have Moscow and Lagos and Paris and Tokyo, all achievements that stand because people once saw something where there was nothing. Now the world's most grandiose cities fill their apartment buildings and tax coffers with people like me, people who have somehow convinced ourselves that the only way to make our mark on the world is to leave our homes and families behind for somewhere bigger and brighter, somewhere more talked about.

And so we leave, and we move to New York or L.A. or Chicago. And after we've taken our progressive ideals to places where they are common and entrenched, we then spend hours speaking snidely and confusedly about what a shame it is that our own hometowns have never progressed as quickly as New York, L.A. and Chicago. We brag to out-of-towners how incredible the art museums are in our cities, all without ever setting foot in them unless asked by a visitor from out of town. (To be fair, Arizonans do the same thing with the Grand Canyon). Most hilariously, we eventually start to complain when our new homes become filled with redundancies and groupthink, as if we didn't know there would be thousands and thousands of like-minded people in our adopted lands, as if that's not part of the reason why we moved in the first place. I can't in righteousness mock every writer I've met plying his trade in New York who tells me without irony that he is sick and tired of reading books about New York, because I did the same. "It sure would be neat to read something interesting about Tucson," I'd think. Then I'd renew my lease in Brooklyn and complain about how expensive it was.

Making a city is hard. Changing a city that's already established and set in its ways is surely even harder. I love New York and Los Angeles, and I still don't think I'll ever move back to Tucson. But I'm now willing to admit that one of the reasons I left is because the thought of making a home in Tucson was too daunting for me. It would have been difficult to live and work among so many people who disagreed with me and so many businesses that didn't cater to my tastes. And so, rather than stick around and try to improve the areas I thought needed it—as many of my Tucson friends have done over the years—I jumped ship. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and given the chance I'd probably do it again. But there was a lot wrong with believing it was necessarily nobler and more rewarding to leave than to make my home in the same place my parents made theirs. Even worse was then having the balls to mock Tucson's weaknesses, like a deadbeat dad who screams at his son for not winning the spelling bee.

A few years ago I remember hearing about a group of Tucsonans who had since moved away coming together again one night in Tucson and complaining loudly about how terrible their hometown was, how backwards, how uncultured and boring. A young man with whom they'd grown up who still lived, worked, and made music in Tucson quietly listened to them bashing what was now his city for a few minutes before asking them one question: "What have you done to make it better?" Nobody responded, because what could they say?

I used to think I cried so hard the day I left Tucson because I was sad to be leaving. I now think I wept because deep down I knew I was giving up.