On some nights there is theater here. Tonight, it is the harmonica man. He pulls in behind the wheel of a Jeep compact SUV and The Who’s “Magic Bus” thunders from his car stereo. He parks, lifts a harmonic to his mouth and with a startling, kick-out-the-jams passion, involving his upper body, lungs, head and elbows, he transforms, pushing The Who tune to even greater messy heights. The song ends. He changes harps, and repeats to The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.” It is like he’s center stage in a packed hall, blowing mad melodies and lurching back and forth and it looks like catharsis, but he is alone in the front seat of a car on an otherwise warm and lonely night.
He stops, steps from the Jeep and into the store, big chest, sweaty brow, dark moppy hair. There is something introverted and taciturn about him. He purchases snacks, exchanges a few words with store employee Jill Steventon and moves back out and into his car. Jill follows him outside and lights a smoke. The parking lot is silent and empty, nary a car motoring by on 5th Street. He scrolls through songs, finds Lenny Kravitz in a suitable key and blows hard. Soon he pulls the harmonica from his head and screams along: “Are you gonna go my way?” Lips pursed, eyes squeezed shut, he jerks his head out the car window to accent the final vowel, face aimed at the starry sky. “And I got to, got to knoooooooow!” Song ends, that’s it, show’s over. Jill and I, his only audience, clap at the performance. The harmonica man gives us a slight nod, stashes his harp away and motors off.
Jill, standing in the fluorescent glow of the Speedy Mart lights, turns to me, and says, “He’s here all the time. I think he’s coming home from work. This is his unwind time.”
The hums inside this Speedy Mart vary in tone but create a comforting nighttime hush, summer waning; the soda-dispenser ice machine, the floor ice-cream refrigerator, the lighted beer cooler, the store’s air-system. There is a cozy sleekness here that sidesteps sterility because, maybe, it feels opposed to change and arouses nostalgia, or maybe it’s the age of the building (1960s), or maybe because at night it is a tiny beacon on a dark strip of roadway, which cuts the mile in half between the Swan and Columbus intersections on 5th Street in Tucson.
No gas pumps outside so the store’s stoic standing as a straight-up “convenience store” recalls days long before the sweeping gas-station minimarts muscled in on major thoroughfare corners, calculated for auto traffic and the quickest in-out purchases imaginable, all but killing the neighborhood store. This place was once a Circle K years ago, the vaguely mid-century modernist roof design and wooden ceiling beams intact.
I’d step in here sometimes for one of my last remaining addictions, Diet Coke. The store’s recent changes are obvious; clean, well lit, lower-priced. On recent visits I would watch employee Jill, usually working alone, hair pulled back, jeans, benign face filled with stories. There is a humble, tender quality of egoless service about her, almost subservience, yet dignified. A manner one sometimes assumes when feeling lucky and thankful to be alive. Jill reveals genuine pleasure in meeting non-regulars and greeting the patrons, curious to all, an observer without prejudice. It was obvious, too, her dry yet genuine fondness for the hurting and defeated, and that she is well-acquainted with many in the neighborhood strapped for food and cash. Get people from all walks moving in and out of a small space and community can emerge. When she is here, Jill is queen.
Jill works fulltime, some days, some nights, been here since before the new owners took over, a holdover because, well, she is good. Her work is filled with seemingly needless tasks, wiping counters, cleaning the pop and coffee machines, collecting trash outside the store, with the skill and attention of an OCD housekeeper. She makes change and operates the behind-the-counter machines as instinctively as she inhales, born of work in grocery and clothing stores. I am told she’s a key reason the store’s floors shine so, why the aisles of goods gleam. She is rarely still, minus downtime moments where she can step outside for a smoke. She’s been on her feet six hours, since 2 p.m. today, two more to go, and she is going, if she is tired. You don’t know how hard this work is, each customer requires a degree of energy in thoughtful communication, beyond the trained greetings of “hey, how are you.” She knows many by name, their personal histories and gossips, which she keeps close to her chest. She’d make a winning drinkslinger in a neighborhood tavern, a set of ears attuned to the nuances of passengers who travel mostly unnoticed in daily life. Yes, fatigue sets in, but social interaction keeps her buzzing; beyond the store’s paycheck, she appears to be exploring connections beyond herself, and patrons respond in kind, even those impassive to the outside world. She is slightly nervous at first, get her going and she is remarkably frank about her life.
A diverse clientele calls themselves regulars here, a mainstay from in the adjacent working-class neighborhoods; house painters and roofers, students from UA, frail men who live on fixed incomes, kids on bikes, women with leashed dogs or children, tattoo enthusiasts with facial creepers, unemployed with EBT cards, and pretty much every working-stiff sort you can name, sometimes in a suit. At night it is those dressed in home comfort, an old Slayer tee-shirt and PJ bottoms here, bed-head and headphones there, and the occasional neighborhood lonelyheart who sometimes hangs around for company. Ruddy-cheeked folk in unmissable hangover glows going for Milwaukee’s Best Ice 32-oz saviors in cans. A lucky few cash out lottery winnings and walk out with packs of Eagle 20’s Red 100’s. Late-night liters of Mountain Dew and Pepsi, diapers and tortilla chips, sold and bagged in black plastic, swing out the big glass doors.
The regulars feel this place is their own. One protective gent, buzzcut, round jolly face, 40s, grilled me hilariously tonight on whether I was a cop. A surly woman in an ankle-length plus-size dress, who could take me out with one swing, is suspicious of a person with pen and pad keeping Jill company, avoids eye contact with me and centers on Jill:
“Are you OK, Jill?
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure you’re OK? I’m just making sure.”
She exits, a suspicious eye on me.
There are a few halfway houses in the area and certain live-ins come here three, four times a day. “They have really good people in them,” Jill says. “Some ask to come stand in here at night to make sure I’m OK.” One guy who lives close by gave Jill his number and said “if anything goes down you can call me. I’ll bring a gun if I have to.”
Store robberies have been subjects of conversation among regulars. Things have gone south. Jill considers it her obligation to chase away the “zombies,” those whose obvious menace is amped up on crystal or whatever. She keeps pepper spray holstered on her hip. She tells a cryptic story of a night in which a car surveilled the store from a neighboring parking lot when she was all alone in the store, they slowly pulled in. She knew what was up. The car had no plates, and “that got me.” She closed the store and went in the back and called the owner, and waited. The car pulled away.
The store circulates stills from the always-on surveillance cameras among other stores in the area; one guy who jumped the counter here, and later got popped at a Circle K. Since the new owners took over, several regulars and Jill tell me, robberies are on a swift decline, the “riffraff” has moved on.
Behind the register, working Speedy Mart’s nightshift, Jill explains her stroke in excruciating detail. She was 22 and her condition flummoxed doctors. She was too young, too healthy. In high school, at Tucson’s Flowing Wells, she was a star athlete chasing a childhood dream; she ran track, a state champion and record holder, and accustomed to taking good care of herself. This stroke had nothing to do with booze or drugs, she steers clear, this was an inherited condition, a clotting disorder; her blood is four times thicker than the average person. Alongside that is the artery disease, heart problems and painful medullary sponge kidney disorder. “As my doctor said, I’m a ‘genetic screw-up.’” She suffered cervical cancer and a hysterectomy at 23. She knows well the lifeless interior walls of hospitals.
The health problems follow her now into her 40s, and she smokes (“I know I shouldn’t”).
She graduated high school in ’95, and, a few weeks before turning 18, joined a sales company who traveled the country peddling magazine subscriptions door to door. She wouldn’t trade the sort of coming-of-age experiences, the joys, the terrors, the idea of a traveling family separate from her own relatives, even if she was stalked by a creep in one state and held captive for hours by drug dealers. “I grew up a lot,” Jill says. “I learned.” In Kansas City she collapsed, the first sign of her health maladies. She returned home to attend college. At 19 she was pregnant with daughter Makayley, married the father, later discovering he was a cruel drug addict. He’d beat her up. She took her daughter at two months old and left him.
Jill was close to her parents, who died too young, especially her England-born dad (“he was my best friend”), a Nam vet, who guided her running. She later worked with him as a parts manager in his field of semi-trucks. When he died she broke up with a longtime partner, and parted from his child, whom she helped raise. She spiraled into the blackest of depressions. She sent her daughter to stay with a relative for two weeks, because she was too unwell to care for her. That added to the pain. In 2009, doctors told her she had three years to live. Her eyes wet when she talks of that era. But soon, she says, she met a good man, got married. “Stress gone, my stats went up, he pulled me out of a dark place.” In context, that part feels pretty simple.
When she speaks of her married daughter and her grandchildren her face goes radiant. “You know,” she says, “she was my miracle baby. I was blessed. I was told I couldn’t have kids.”
She shifts to talk of dogs. A dying one she rescued here named Max. He was hanging around outside. She nursed him back to health and found him a good home with a customer.
It is a Thursday afternoon and store proprietors Jason Redondo and his wife Corin are in, around a sectioned off desk. The store is an entire world for the Redondo family, a central act in a love story. An enterprise sparked on the idea of working for themselves. “We’re not getting rich, but we’d rather do this, and lay groundwork for our kids in the future,” Jason says.
He’s an upright guy, Italian-Latino, 43, a living embodiment of the word responsible; dutiful family man. A steady work ethic in his carriage and speech. Hell, he made a career as an underground miner, a driller, 20 years in before walking away. Born in Phoenix, Jason grew up in tiny San Manuel and Oracle, Arizona. Attended high school in Globe, Arizona, out with a GED. “Other than working for the military, that’s the only job you can get operating million-dollar equipment,” he laughs. Mining was in his blood, third generation, after his grandpa and dad. His dad recently retired from the Globe-Miami mines, spent years working in the smelter.
Corin was Jason’s sister’s friend growing up. She had a crush on older Jason since she was a girl and it was inevitable they’d fall in love years later. After six months of courtship they moved to Elko, Nevada for his new job in a gold mine, got married a year later in ’06. The couple have a son, 14, and a daughter, 12.
In Nevada, while raising the children, Corin learned accounting, bookkeeping, did corporate taxes, eventually partnered in a business in Nevada. “She is a talented woman,” Jason says. “I’m lucky to be with her. She was a major part of how we were able to get the store, the payroll, the business entity, she set up the business for us.”
Corin, who grew up in tiny Oracle, Arizona, a daughter of a construction journeyman dad, is whip-smart, prepossessing, and a total mom; she laughs a lot, especially relating tales of their children, and talks safety of her own kids, and those who frequent the store on bikes. They adore each other, and, away from one another, say so out loud.
Last year the couple sold their Nevada home for a profit, with enough to purchase the store and live on for six months. Moved back to Southern Arizona, closer to cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces, siblings. One goal, after lifting the store from decline, was to earn back the neighborhood, which they’ve done with waterways of sweat and some tears; word-of-mouth, lowered prices, cleanliness, keeping employees like Jill, which isn’t easy. They’re down to two full-time employees other than themselves, and are shocked at how hard it is find suitable folk looking for gainful employment.
They purchased the franchise in January from a gentleman who owned other Speedy Marts, who had purchased from the locally owned Quik Mart chain. The store opens at 6 a.m. closes at 10 p.m. Twenty-four hours is too much trouble, based around a fear of robberies. They each put in hours behind the counter, where it’s hard to imagine Corin employing muscle. “I had somebody hop the counter the other night on my wife,” Jason says. “This gentleman—well, you’re not a gentleman if you do something like that—jumped the counter to steal lottery tickets and she had to grab him and force him to leave, had to Mace him. I said to her, ‘You learned bookkeeping and corporate taxes and now shoplifters. You thwarted a robbery, you’re a superhero.’”
He pauses, adds, “It’s a little different than what we’re used to.”
But it is nothing like the long days in the mine when Jason would miss his family and the “winters when you’d see zero sunlight.” The accidents, electrical fires, cave-ins. Once he was laid up for months after a mine incident required back surgery, another time trapped for 18 hours, saved by a 15-feet by 30-feet refuge chamber stocked with water, and breathable “scrubbed” air.
Jason plays this stuff off with a retiring shrug, suggesting the injuries and such are rites of passage in a miner’s life. Corin not so much. The money was sweet, sure, but she’s elated her husband is out of the mines. Especially for the family. “We do outdated family activities, the other day we went bowling,” Jason says. “But now I can reflect. Yeah, I sometimes miss the work, I miss the guys.”
“It feels like home,” Corin says, standing in the center of the family Speedy Mart, surrounded by that which keeps them afloat. It’s the anti-corporate simplicity of a life she left behind with Jason in Oracle.
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now worldwide on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. You can also pickup his collection of short stories, Spent Saints (Ridgeway Press).