If ever existed a city beacon of sugary optimism and hope, it is one of those Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robins combo things, all pink-orange chirpy and bright, and when the hot wind shifts just right, the smell of donuts sweetens the nauseating mix of car exhaust and melting parking-lot tar. Wreaks unholy chaos on an empty stomach.
The Tucson intersection is otherwise marked by wholly universal cheerlessness, the 24-hour Walgreens, a BBVA bank, a closed auto-detailing joint. Wait there in the shadeless, 106-degree parking lot like you're a cop, or like you're copping, or like you're waiting for some midday action, any action and there he is, moving by some internal force, pacing, between the Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robins sign (whose flashing message board reads "Order ahead and skip the wait") and the shaded bus-stop.
Soon there is some assessment of the enemy, the corner traffic signal pole, an elbow bump. Like a boxer he leaps a few steps back, featherweight-thin in a red bandit scarf, and lowers into fighter position, fists up, feet apart, and he fires, knuckles cracking street metal in precise rhythm, um-bip-bip, um bip-bip, yeah. He jumps back, satisfied, spins once, and again, fists pulled to face, this time a two-step dance, and, um bip-bip, um bip-bip, yeah ... If that official Department of Transportation pole were a person, he'd be down, man.
A snow-haired dude in a cowboy hat and crappy white pickup with a droopy front bumper parks at Dunkin', steps out and takes a seat beneath the chintzy orange awning, a meager overhang that only implies shade but hardly guards against bird shit, a cosmetic prop, like they don't really want people hanging around out front in daylight. He doesn't notice the boxer. A woman lecturing her son, hard-pointing a finger in his face, at the head of traffic waiting at the red street light, SUV air-conditioning blowing her hair back, doesn't see the boxer, though he's right there. In fact, the maybe hundred people in all directions at that busy intersection, in that moment, would see him, if they looked. There is no audience, and like something Paul Simon once sang, his story is seldom told.
Then the boxer sees green flash, vanishes across the street into a blur of storefronts at Grant Road and Swan.
He reappears later across the street in the outdoor shade shelter of the closed auto boutique, long ago a gas station. The boxer is A.G., "A.G. Gonzales." His aesthetic shows self-care, careful street-samurai lines, a hoodie hangs from his head, a knife and bandanas dangle from beltloops, black cyclist gloves decorate his hands. He wears white, sturdy construction-site boots, keeps his clothes folded neatly inside his two shopping carts, which are tied back to front and also contain boxes, backpacks and a serrated machete on the side, handle out. Hand sanitizer on top.
There are six others here, men and women, young and tough-wrinkled, huddled for the shade and the one working electrical outlet, their belongings and bagged ice, food items and loam. Veiled, tired and patient as livestock, as if waiting to be told what they're doing wrong.
The summer gawps before them—the run-on scorcher days, the plod of hours a vacuum, the traffic's constant ugly sizzle the shittiest song you can think of stuck on repeat, blasting from invisible speakers. There's indifference here, adept and smooth, and a few come and go, all energy subsumed into the horrors of street-living, that vain search for a tiny modicum of comfort. Might as well be handcuffed to a heating pipe. Yet there's peace and contribution here, a place where the have-nots share and reveal so much more—hell, everything—than the haves. It is unwritten benevolence, easy to see they value one another—there's an unspoken domestic bond, a kind of family surety in what they are communally.
A young woman with a fascinating swirl of a thigh tattoo, seafaring greens and blues, steps over and hands Gonzales a full container of apple juice. Another asks if he'd like banana chips. The collection of folks are not friends exactly, Gonzales calls them acquaintances, yet he trusts them with his carts if he steps away, his knowing sense of people, how to detach from the "liars and the thieves."
One guy with tremendous Jesus hair massages the back, shoulders and stomach of a woman perched on a front curb, the tenderness softens her face under long blond locks, exposing some urgent need.
Gonzales talks and doesn't elaborate on much, as if he sees himself as a sequence of hand-me-down anecdotes, a disconnect from himself and the world: He never met his father, has no desire to. He's 29 and been homeless for 10 years, been jailed ("everyone has") for trespassing, and is often hassled by cops to move along ("they're trying to get us to go northwest of here.") He suffers hard from PTSD, "abandonment issues" mostly; his mother had "her own life" when he was growing up, and she now stays somewhere in Tucson, he doesn't know where. He has siblings but talks only to one, a sister, who helps him with money sometimes, and on a rare day, when there is nothing left to share, he'll fly a sign on a corner for handouts. His Spanish is OK, which helps.
Born in Tucson, attended high school somewhere on "the east side" and studied for a GED, and the last time he laughed was yesterday, and it was a good one. "We have our shows," he nods, "and I rap some."
Gonzales suffers from bi-polar, ADHD, multi-personality disorder, "all of it." And the doctors? "They never helped."
"Honestly," the boyish man says, "I've been doing this too long, I'm tired of it." He pulls his scarf down for conversation clarity and a strikingly handsome face is revealed, that prepossessing blend of Native American and Hispanic genes did him many favors, the dark features, sharp with bits of facial growth, and considering the decade of insufferable hard road, he looks younger than his years.
When Gonzales stands still, his wiry frame gives the sense it could buckle under the pressure of the act. When he moves, he's boxer lissome. Makes sense, given the constant street hassles and persecutions, the unprovoked run-ins with right-wing assholes and elitist liberals.
"It's not like we're hassling them. Some want to help the community—the good side—yet they still make us out to be the bad guys. A lot of us do nothing to hurt or steal from anyone. Why be rude to us?
"They get to be in a house," he continues. "We have to make ours. They get to go to work every day, take a shower every day. "We're hurting. He adds after a moment, "I'm not houseless. I'm homeless. I can build a little house where I sleep with cardboard and my shopping carts."
Gonzales' street boxing is release, a kind of subsistence, a frustration in the wounds of a life so learned he can hardly recognize them. The machete and knife guard against that, though he insists he's never had to pull them on anyone, "but you never know."
He gave up looking for work after a few under-the-table jobs years ago. Beyond intellectual disabilities, someone out here stole his birth certificate and ID, another absolute nightmare to negotiate. He has nothing to show who the hell he is. And he won't hock stolen goods, himself or drugs: "Hell no. That will lead you to jail, death. That's crazy. My only drug is cigarettes and weed, which isn't even a drug anymore, if I can get it."
Fear of self relieves some struggles as much as amplifies the others. He'll explode if he goes to jail, or gets locked in handcuffs, or is sheltered in a temporary home like Salvation Army. There's the claustrophobia for one, the PTSD. "It's better that I don't, I don't know what could happen. I'll have blackouts so I don't know what the outcome will be in the morning."
He pulls a half-melted popsicle from a cellophane wrapper, the last from a box shared among his acquaintances.
"Ok, I'm going to get on with my day," he says, biting into what's left of the thing, careful not to spill the red liquid on himself. He half-grins, "I'm waiting to talk to some people who owe me money."
And the boxer steps to his grim shopping-cart motorcade, arranges a few things on top, and moves to begin the fight again, at least until the gift of nightfall arrives.
He turns and says, "The world is corrupt, people are intrigued by violence. It's one big mystery."