Street Walker

Tucson takes on a different hue when you aren't in your car.

The world is different at different speeds. Driving fast across Tucson, the city is a blur of aggressive signage broken by the occasional long, hot wait at a light. Driving slow, it's a succession of neighborhoods and districts.

The classic, 30-mph Tucson-as-it-is drive is Sixth Street, from its mysterious, pseudonymous source in the Tucson Mountains all the way to its eccentric demise in the parking lot of St. Michael and All Angels.

The view keeps changing. From the hills down through the old business district around Fourth Avenue, past the ever-morphing south face of the university and on to the reassuringly stable Rincon Market corner, along the exciting curve at Country Club and onto Fifth, and then out through the sturdy '50s 'burbs to Wilmot Road, the street stays narrow and houses still front most of it, thanks to the profound stubbornness of the neighborhoods. Generally, there's room to walk, but no sidewalks. Lighting is erratic. It's the axis of home.

On a bike, you see another Tucson. You're going slower than in a car, yet you have such a sense of movement of a bike that you feel as if you're going faster. And since you aren't roofed in, you can see the sky and the whole horizon. Bicycling, you have the leisure to notice what's going on with individual houses and yards--the wall that's nearly finished, a new junked car added to the front-yard heap, a stand of Mexican primroses hitting the height of bloom. (How do they keep those hungry little black beetles off them? Mine always get ravaged just as the buds start to swell.)

On foot, the detail comes up even more. Walking the dog, I have, predictably, been made to notice every bush along our invariable three-mile round--plus the areas into which food is commonly pitched from moving vehicles. Biggest score to date: Two small pancakes so desiccated that it took even Fu, whose every yawn recalls Little Red Riding Hood's remarks to the Wolf, a while to reduce them to fragments small enough to bolt.

The pancakes made me stop and think: Did the litterers pitch them out all floppy, or did they let them age into a Frisbee-like state before winging them towards the Petco sign?

There are other things to wonder about, at least while I'm not being muscled into urgent segues. A new flock of bank swallows swirling around the post office on Rosemont Boulevard in the twilight--have they set up house under the metal awnings of the AOL building next door? The affable yellow lab who waits for us in his chainlinked yard, barking disconsolately if we give him the go-by--does he ever get to go in the house? The bird with the beautiful voice deep in the green cover of the wash; the kids still waiting for their rides outside the middle school; the girl crying at the bus-stop; the guys out talking on their cell phones on their patios and in their driveways. (Why is it vaguely not OK for men to walk along chattering into their phones the way women do, and what is it that they talk about that compels them to step outside? Can anyone explain?)

Then there are the major landmarks along the way. Crosswalks on Broadway Boulevard are nerve-wracking: Most drivers are alert and intensely polite; a few yell obscenities or come bombing through on the left-turn signal, blind to everything but making it. Other, less dangerous spots also call to us--the opening in the high wall to Barnes and Noble, the place where the dog snarls through the drainage hole, the fascinating Street of Many Cats.

Nothing, however, presents more continuing and unpredictable thrills than the big construction site on the west side of Craycroft Road south of Broadway. Security fences with open gates migrate in and out, traffic cones and "Sidewalk Closed" signs come and go, ditches appear and are filled again. One recent night, the fence was out to within a foot of the orange cones, meaning that a pedestrian (namely me) had a few inches between her dog, herself and the hellbent southbound traffic on Craycroft Road. This has happened a couple times, but still beats the old days--before the cones and big yellow arrow but after the fence and "Sidewalk Closed" signs. Then, a person, with or without a dog, simply had to walk on Craycroft Road, coneless.

The thing that's most truly Tucson Department of Transportation about these arrangements is that there's a major school crossing--to St. Joseph School--smack in the middle of this hairy stretch: "Slow - School Crossing" signs are often propped against "Sidewalk Closed," creating a thoroughly absurdist tableau. Kindergartners, apparently, are expected to pick their way along the racing Hummers and pickups on Craycroft Road on their way to school. Must wake 'em up for the Pledge of Allegiance.

These kids have made the mistake of walking in Tucson, so too bad for them. Construction is sacred here, and developers are unable to build temporary sidewalks. Witness another closed sidewalk, the one at the corner of 22nd Street and Alvernon Way. Here, at the southeast corner of Reid Park, signs and plenty of barbed wire and chainlink endeavor to keep people on the multi-use path from turning the corner and possibly annoying the construction workers heading in and out. None of it works. (There's actually a "No Trespassing" sign blocking the sidewalk around the corner.)

To sit at the light is to watch the ambulatory world ignore the signs and squeeze around the fence. I've seen little girls on bicycles, folks on skates and one smiling couple with a stroller ease around the tiny space between the fence and the right-hand turn lane.

They think they have rights as pedestrians and as park-users. And anywhere else, they would.