A young mother glances up from her phone screen for her child, moved by some internal awareness and a too-quiet pall, and leans to scan around the kiosk of body lotions and Christmas bows and its bored, stool-perched employee, for her kid. But the dark-haired boy is around, in his Spider-Man pandemic mask, hiding behind a giant Kusama-looking tree ornament three times his size.
The few milling shoppers here, braving the worst days of the pandemic so far, show diversity and color, they are thick and thin, holding hands or pushing a wheelchair. An up-to-the-moment barker, a kind of shopping-mall goddess, offers chocolate to lure a shopper into a jeweler.
Laughter from down in front of H&M fills empty mall square footage, the air softly scented of stale food-court French fries. A raised mural depicts a tiger and a roadrunner in matching Santa hats cavorting around a waterfall, skylight windows fill the area with the muted glow of a cloudy day, and dreamy merchandise illumination inside doors and windows seduces no one today.
The Christmas tree with its head-sized ornaments stands a story and a half high in the center of it all, a lonesome George Romero vision, a virus spell at Christmastime in the desert.
For me it is the colors and smells of weekday yearning, a nostalgia of some other life tradition, the way hometown sadnesses can paralyze an afternoon. Details wane over the years, but what stays are my skip-school bus rides to this giant aquarium, its two record stores, the counting out ones and quarters for imported punk rock, The Damned and Johnny Moped. Its Furr's cafeteria on Christmas holidays with my Wisconsin grandparents and their tender ways, where our dutiful buddy Don Brosnan bussed the tables, the greasy chicken stink and stewed green beans floating in yellowy slime.
Soon the boy with the Spider-Man mask reconnects with his mother, and together they hold hands and stroll through Park Place Mall. The two enter Pawsh, the Humane Society offsite center for adoptions and animal toys, once the entrance to that old Furr's, located across from the shuttered Sears, the exact source of my Toughskins pants, now a bowling "amusement center."Inside Pawsh, this kid's excitement hovers around him, kittens and puppies rush to his questioning boyhood. The mother's face is steady in contrast, an uneasy expression detectable behind the mask.
"I want that one," the boy says, pointing to Teela the shepherd puppy in her gated cage, who lets out a startling bark.
"These are not toys," she insists. "They'll poop everywhere and eat our shoes."
Mom adds with an emphatic, "maybe. We'll see for Christmas."
Soon she pulls the now-slouching boy back out through the door and into the sunny December day.
Every animal I've ever owned was a rescue, through the Humane Society, and when their lives expired it was as heartbreaking as losing a human. Every kid could use an animal, for any number of reasons, but mostly to teach one another.
This offsite Humane Society is not a shelter, it is an adoption center off its main campus on Roger Road, and it is sometimes filled with more than 100 animal heartbeats, from bunnies and gerbils to dogs and cats. It does not smell like animal feces, more like clean animal fur. Right now is a mini scene of pre-Christmas madness, at its max COVID-era customer capacity of six. There is a moon-faced teen volunteer, a part-time employee studying animal behavior at UA, Jovi on the radio.
There is life here, saved life, and it is alive with optimism, and the holiday stuff in that strict binary way, happy and sad—happiness for the rescued animals and joy on faces of new owners and caretakers and the sadness in the unimaginable suffering many of these creatures have endured, and the special needs some require to survive because of that treatment.
Susan Hendrickson, an animal adoption counselor, wears a COVID mask that shows a melancholy puppy and the words, "It's Ruff Out Here." She lifts her chihuahua, a jittery mirthful thing with trusting eyes and three legs, and a seasonal bow on her head. The little dog was discovered left for dead along the Florence Highway, cactus thorns sticking out everywhere and saddled with a rotted leg that needed amputation. She would make your heart scud, if you have one.
Hendrickson may not know it but in these moments she absorbs the dog's joy into her being. Her work-a-day body language shifts into a version of motherhood, a calm of love hedging against animal misfortune. Like any proud, concerned mama.
Hendrickson also has a child, and three grandchildren, now in Florida, and she misses them terribly. I watch her snap phone pics of two animal placards that when placed together spell her daughter's name, to send off to her daughter.
She produces another phone photo to show her animal-safe, screened-off back patio. Hendrickson is a retired child daycare specialist ("I couldn't find a decent babysitter when I had my little one, so I started my own service"). She talks of the built-in grief of bonding with newly arrived animals from the Humane Society shelter, a hasty attachment followed by a farewell to new adoptees, and how that feeling compares similarly to childcare. She's a queen of goodbyes.
Maybe the goodbyes explain why middle-aged Hendrickson has many dogs and animals in her 900-square-foot home. She began here as a Humane Society volunteer, got hired fulltime, and is now three and half years in. She laughs, wiping down a glass cage. "I'd be sitting on my butt getting fat, if not for the animals."
Her husband is a long-haul trucker, gone most of the time, and yeah, she worries hard. "He doesn't wear a mask," the Tucson native says, "I just want to slap him."
The Humane Society Southern Arizona, you'll note, has been around since 1944, it is a non-profit that survives heavily on fundraising. Yes, beyond the sheltering of dogs and cats and home placement, there are services—from animal cruelty education to lost and found. For the last few years, the percentage rate of live animals released has been around 93 percent, meaning about nine of 10 animals that passed through the HMSA, passed through alive. Of the more than 5,000 animals taken in 2019, most were adopted (more than 3,500) and nearly 1,000 lost pets were returned to their owners. The remaining 7 percent are animals who died in the Humane Society's care or were euthanized, that includes those whose owners were forced to put old or sick animals down. The Human Society does not euthanize animals for time or space. Pretty miraculous, and the non-profit falls in line with its vision of a community in which "all pets are cared for and loved."
This location, Hendrickson estimates, was adopting out 170 animals a month, up once COVID hit, now averaging about 80, even in holiday season. COVID-era fundraising is way down for the Humane Society, and they are fighting.
Ferrying puppies to and from temporary living quarters and cages, including 3-month-old sibling shepherds, Chelsea and Teela ("they will be gone by this weekend," they say), Hendrickson and John Steffens, the supervisor here, talk incessantly, almost indecently, of the many animals, mostly cats and dogs, they keep at home. Nearly two dozen pets between the two of them. Talk about how lives of animals contribute to the greater good of humanity, all that.
Steffens, a glistening stud earring, a wedding band tattooed on the finger, groomed gray hair and a festive holiday T-shirt, reveals benevolent sides all day here, hardly the hard edges one might expect from a retired staff sergeant. It is difficult to imagine this Steffens guy not long ago, alongside his trusted explosives dog Abbie, was sniffing out bombs in Afghanistan. Or policing 7,000 military men, the soldier-on-soldier incidents, tracking criminal stats, crimes against property and people, including murder.
"To say the crimes aren't going to happen is unreasonable. I wouldn't say you get jaded by it—more like not a whole lot surprises you."
He shifted from that to his next job, manning a kiosk at Park Place Mall, one notch above a Walmart greeter, which led to his work here. The contrast is overarching, to be sure. He is a guy who'd take pictures on his phone of dogs they'd bring around to this Humane Society before he worked here. He met Hendrickson, and she helped get him hired fulltime at the Humane Society.
"Sitting at mall kiosks established a community," Steffens says. "I know a lot of people who work in the mall. I mean, I was sitting at home, bored. I was playing with my motorcycle and cars. Who doesn't like to work on an old Volkswagen?" He laughs. "Yes, it was a culture shock, but a planned one. The real culture shock was basic training in Kentucky."
He looks out over the walls and shelves crammed of sparkly animal knick-knacks, collars, toys, litter boxes, manuals, and turns inward, calls out his own stereotyping of people. "Believe it or not, being at a kiosk in the mall was exercising my brain. I'm an observer of people. I got human interaction. I got to control and understand what my biases of people were saying to me."
He quietly talks about how animals are non-judgmental, brings it around to cancel culture, how some may think they initiate change by being as judgmental as possible. Animals are the sweet diffuser, extending the boundaries and life of the heart.
His own dog Bridgette settles in behind him at the small out-take desk, a lab mix born in foster care who offers up the occasional innocuous bark, but stays mostly reserved. Steffens rubs her ear as he talks.
And the bombs?
"It was a little stressful, especially when your dog starts sniffing and getting excited," he continues. "Look, I'm out there protecting children and innocent people, and keeping my other 36 men safe."
He minimized his bomb activity with his wife until he came back. "She didn't really need to know something that would worry her more."
Steffens got close to the dog he helped train to snuffle explosives ("She was my buddy"). He retired and tried to adopt Abbie, and succeeded. It was a convoluted process involving the State Department. Abbie was then in Columbia, where she was assigned to some other military duty. Abbie wound up going to the widow of Steffens' buddy who was killed in a car accident a week after completing his military service. She needed the dog more than anyone, he says.
Steffens' elderly parents happen to arrive with a tripod lab mix in tow named Rum. The talkative dad in a stars-and-stripes mask says Rum is an apt name because he is like a pirate. "Rum is the drink of pirates, and he's missing a leg."
A mom and her two young sons sit with Steffens to adopt a cat they chose with some consternation and much love. Steffens talks behavioral issues and vaccines with them. Peter Bisschop appears, a volunteer here, a retired elementary teacher who worked on the Navajo reservation. Those two boys are his grandsons. It is a community here, he says, there is nothing else he would do with his spare time.
At 18 and out of high school, Steffens studied at Pima Community College while working classic Tucson gigs (Eegee's, Circle K, a van detailer at Arizona Shuttle Service). First met his wife at his Amphitheater High prom, met again five years later and married. Three kids now, the oldest is 20, and his wife is a counselor, specializing in behavior coaching.
Steffens enlisted at 23 in the army, out of boredom ("there wasn't a whole lot I found exciting in Tucson"), and found himself flying through the desert at 50 MPH aboard a 60-ton fright machine, the M1 Abrams, "big battle tank, big gun, loads of fun."
He had cousins, uncles, aunts in the military. His dad served during Vietnam, shipped off at 18, arm-pit deep in nuclear ordinance.
The M1 tank was Steffens' launchpad to the military police. The military reveals everything: "When you think you know someone seven days to Sunday, you learn what this person is really like," he says, and shifts to the philosophical, a thing he does. "I give people the benefit of the doubt. People are inherently good. What they do beyond that is on them."
"Well, the Humane Society," Steffens continues, comparing his gentle, personally reward-rich world of animal service to that of the military, "it's a lot less dangerous," he laughs. "I think the biggest stress of this job is getting the right owner for the right animal."
His military career spanned two decades, lived with his family in Texas, Virginia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana. Spent a year in Afghanistan. He finished a criminal justice degree, which, he says, gave him new appreciation for the history of law enforcement, the good, the terrible and the horrifying. He retired grateful to have experienced other cultures. "If you don't see more, you have a really narrow view of where you are and what you are doing."
Steffens breaks off to chat dog outfits with Hendrickson. Her other dog Genna, a white terrier, wears a Santa Baby vest, a harness really designed for fat cats.
Soon Steffens and Hendrickson are walking their dogs through Park Place Mall toward the giant Christmas tree. They walk the dogs and talk banalities of their work, and all is important when considered together: The Humane Society volunteers, how essential they are. How the animals arrive twice a week from the main shelter. How at night they leave the radio on for the animals so they can get used to the human sounds. The inhumanities of for-profit puppy mills. How they won't adopt animals out to be given as gifts. "I'll say something like, 'Why don't you give a cat box, litter and a toy and then bring the person in to meet the animal," Hendrickson says.
Various mall employees step out, their smiles and actions toward the dogs happy and indulgent. They offer them treats.
This little adoption center is fueled on compassion, a microcosm of some larger arena that could surely teach.
I walk out thinking of the boy in the Spider-Man mask, how the kid's life isn't much fun right now, and for whatever reason he stays on my mind, maybe because the external world outside the Humane Society is sick, and such thoughts are a reprieve. A boy and his dog. I hope the kid gets his puppy for Christmas, the poop can be cleaned up and it is only temporary.