I was looking for the woman in the wheelchair and who plays the ukulele. Amputated legs, a Mary of Guadalupe crest on her bag, wedding band. Flies a sign that reads: “Husband died, need money for mobile home.” She lives out here somewhere. Her friend too, the one who busts out songs on acoustic guitar, all Woody Guthrie on street medians, hustling coin from cars in turn lanes. I spotted him at Swan Road and Speedway and by the time I got the car around and in the Circle K parking lot he was gone. They were gone. The affable guy with a reddish Rasputin beard and heavy gold loop earrings behind the K counter said he sees him too, “He’s homeless, comes and goes.” Went looking the next day but it was rainy out, late-January chill, no sign flyers on the streets.
The following day, Sunday before noon, Church day, and you’d think givers might be out, but not really, so says this other guy, Jeremy Kimble. He’s got a guitar too, a three-quarter length purple thing you can’t hear over street squall.
First, I parked at Just Right Mattress and watched Jeremy for a good 20 minutes, figured some base morality divided me from him, and felt ashamed for thinking that. How easily that could’ve been me. Resignation and sadness, all there. He is crouched atop his backpack in the thin tip of the median, the turn lane onto Speedway from northbound Craycroft Road, three-quarter guitar on his thighs, a thick radiator hose, and a cardboard placard with the scrawled words, “Hard Times, Anything Will Help.”
I walk across the busy street to the median and Jeremy offers a fist-bump. Even on the skids, he is polite, in that way associated with dollar-store clerks and jewelry polishers, in that way which leaves you incapable of noticing any social pretense, the barker hustle of the panhandle notwithstanding.
I nod at the corner Circle K and ask if he could use something to eat. He collects his pack, that radiator hose and his ill-fitting mountain bike with the flat rear tire that’s been leaning against a pole across the street, and we move to the Circle K.
Says he’s tired, sleeps wherever in a sleeping bag that’s stashed nearby. “It gets fucking cold at night.”
We are in line at the K and I’m buying him a pack of Lucky Strikes, a multi-grain muffin and large coffee, what he calls it a humble survival kit, or something. He keeps an eye on his bike leaning against the store’s front window.
Jeremy stands a good three inches shorter than my 5’ 11,” is 40 years old. He looks older, that perceptible coagulate of street torment and a wall-less world where a musty sleeping bag guards against dark. Deepening facial crevices and sinking cheeks, hair short and splotchy. He’s somehow backdated, like a tough Harry Crews character able to hold his own in a drunken brawl with the local sheriff. His smoky blue eyes show tiny sparks of youth and optimism, something gentle, and I imagine they got him into better places in life.
He’s talking COVID (“I don’t worry out here. I’m vaxxed”) and prison.
“Yeah, Bushy Mountain Penitentiary, 155 years old, almost as old as Alcatraz,” he says. “On top of a mountain, a pink castle in the shape of a cross, beautiful landscaping, beautiful building—not so beautiful when you are inside looking at walls.” The prison is now a museum, he points out, turned tourist just after he was released. He did time for robberies. “I was on the streets. One time I didn’t like the people who worked at this little store so I broke in and took their money. Went to prison. Never do that shit again.”
We step out and hang in front of the Circle K, and he says, “We gotta move, they’ll kick us outta here.”
He collects his bike and continues the thought as we walk. “They all discriminate against homeless around here, everyone. People are programmed to do the same thing, like being in prison.” Nice cars, peopled with well-dressed folk pass, Sunday churchgoers with salon hair.
Jeremy stoops to collect a shimmer in the gravel, a road-squashed Mp3 player. He plays with it a moment and tosses it back. “Ah, it doesn’t work. Too good to be true.” A simple thing would go lengths, some music, any music, or talk.
Some guy on a bike rolls up to us on the sidewalk and stops. Grave face, ’70’s stoner hair, push-tit hustle. He’s got shit to trade. Trade for what? It’s unclear. Jeremy doesn’t have anything, and anyway he ain’t interested. We keep moving. We cross the street and sit at a concrete table in front of Subway fast-food.
An outdoor speaker plays “Rocket Man” softly in the background, and Jeremy sings along and wolfs the muffin down in two gulps.
He points to a dark figure across the street, cattycorner from us in front of Walgreen’s. A sad stoop and shopping-cart effects. It’s a corner scene ubiquitous now in this town, so discounted as to become invisible.
“That’s Pops, that’s what I call him,” Jeremy says. “He’s probably in his 70s, legally blind. All he can see is blur, almost got hit by a car the other day. I’m kind of his caretaker, not legally, just helping out. He’s stubborn tho, man. Just like my grandfather. I gotta keep an eye on him. He’ll go wherever, get into trouble.”
I ask about his life. He offers the faintest suggestion of a smile, signaling more disbelief than pleasure. He lights a smoke and works the coffee. I can sense the buzz of his mind, some isolated place he disappears to in recollection.
“Never met my dad,” he offers. “He was supposedly a biker, last I heard he was in Gary, Indiana, but I was born in Oakland, California. I have other siblings, don’t know where they’re at. Haven’t seen my mom in years, don’t know if she’s even alive. I was living with her in a trailer in Rogersville, Tennessee but haven’t seen or heard from her in 12 years. That’s the Bible-belt, man, and the town had a post office, a store and five churches.
He continues. “Man, my mom had my baby sister murdered. That’s very true. She was on the street and didn’t want to raise a child. She was biker trash, a ‘scooter tramp,’ they’d call her. A drug addict, would do any damn drug there was.
“And Grandpa hated my guts, I burned down his barn when I was a boy, it was an accident. He knows how to hold a grudge. My grandma, she was a bad smoker, don’t know if she’s still alive. She was on oxygen last I saw her.” He pauses, “She was the only family I ever cared for.”
The action on his guitar is too high, and the thing won’t tune, he tries and gives up. He hands it to me across the table and I manage to get it about playable. I hand it back. He strums, sings, begins a song that sounds at first like some country ode but is really Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” In his grip the mixed-metaphor sap-fest takes on a peculiar sadness and depth, the Dumpster-won guitar, his bag at his feet, the broken bike, the stashed sleeping bag, the lost childhood. He finishes and says, proudly, “One of the first songs I ever learned how to play.”
“You write songs,” I say.
“One, about a wedding that went bad.”
“Ever been married?”
“No,” he says. “No kids either. I’ve seen the bad things go worse. I like to get laid, sure, but that love stuff ain’t for me.”
He never really had a home. Grew up in and out of foster homes, group homes, where “they tossed me all over.” He lived everywhere mom went, mostly, Oklahoma, Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee, California, Ohio and more. “Mom did have partial custody,” he says. “She once kidnapped me from one group home. We got on a bus and went to Oregon.”
Talks of a time at the old Arizona Boys Ranch (now Canyon State Academy), the campus north of Tucson storied for inhumane treatment of boys, including deaths, run paramilitary style. There, at 13 or 14, Jeremy got all the kids out and torched it.
“Me and a friend Earl, we burned it, on purpose, it was very abusive, sexually abusive, the whole thing.”
He worked years in tobacco fields in the South. “It was dangerous as fuck. You have a row of tobacco in the field and then you got a line of people to go through that row, you take a Bowie knife and chop the stick and you hand it to the guy behind you and he has a stick with a spear on it and spears the tobacco, and so on. Farmers paid under-the-table, not that well, and people got hurt all the time.”
He supported himself building fences, painting houses and other things. “I do portraits now, too. Started when I was in prison, so I had years of practice. I draw people. That’s what I did in prison to make my money. Goddamn sure I wasn’t sucking dick, and I didn’t have nobody sending me money so I had to learn to hustle, and that was my hustle. People wanted pictures to send home to family and shit. I’d make cards and portraits, sometimes they have pictures of their family and I’d draw them and they’d send it back to their family. That’s how I made my commissary money.
“I need supplies and paints,” he continues. “That and a sketch pad. I just been finding cardboard out of Dumpsters and drawing on that with markers, no good. I tried to boost a sketch pad the other day from Dollar General. They have good ones, and quite a good selection of art supplies considering they’re a dollar store.”
I wonder aloud, did he ever dream of things. Does he still?
“I used to. I get so depressed and tired of the shit. So I still do G [meth], to get out of it. I try not to. I guess it’s good it’s not around anymore. It’s all bad blue pills out here, now, fentanyl, I guess.” I try to envision sleepless days and nights on the streets fried up on meth.
Jeremey recounts the miseries of a street existence with a blank expression, like he’s reciting boring transcriptions of bad dreams—flat monologues, indifferent—his only compensation is this: “people leave me alone.” Adds, “Most guys out here are pussies, like to beat on women and shit.”
Jeremy journeyed to Tucson for a woman, hitchhiked a few years ago from the South. (“It’s a bitch, no one picks you up”) The woman kicked him to the curb, knowing he had nowhere to go. Back on the streets.
After a long while Jeremy steps over his bike, flips it over, quick releases the back wheel. He produces that weathered radiator hose. He rifles through his backpack until he finds a pair of pliers. Things fall out, street life vestiges, hints of self-care and perseverance: a tooth brush, a steak knife, Jergens Ultra-Healing lotion, Old Spice deodorant, a flashlight.
“This bike belongs to a lady friend,” he says, squatting down, wrestling with the rear wheel. “She’s in a wheelchair now but knows it helps me get around and make money.” He pries the tire off.
Of course, everything gets stolen. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he says of the bike. “I sleep on the damn thing.”
He wrestles with the radiator hose and finally gets it over the rim of the wheel and inside the tire. He stretches the tire into the lip of the rim and inserts the wheel back onto the bike, adjusts the derailleur and chain, and it’s fixed. He flips the bike over.
I marvel at the ingenuity.
“Might have a bump in it,” he says with some pride. “Where the hose doesn’t quite meet inside the tire, but that’s alright.”
He looks toward the Walgreen’s corner for Pops, discovers he’d managed to cross the road for Circle K. The way street survivors’ cross streets with intrepid expertise, hyper darts around obstacles, cars and lights. Pops must be a bat, guided aurally, even with a bone ailment corrupting his gait. Jeremy shakes his head. “He knows better than to walk over there alone. Man, he’s stubborn.”
Then hops on the 12-speed and peddles, his knees rise too high to accommodate the small size. Heavy coat, big backpack, little guitar, the slight bump in the rear wheel. Maybe in the direction of Pops, but, really, who knows? Where do you go when a hunger in dreams no longer plays out?
Later, there was little through records to verify much of what Jeremy said, but on that day, in that moment, I believed him. No reason to make this shit up, he told me. And less reason to slip down into self-delusion.
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.