A monsoon rages and the rainy rush and smell of oil-streaked streets and creosote saturates. It is Tucson electric, inside a moment that can shift life forever, physically or spiritually. Or your teeth might sizzle from your head. Comes on if you want it or not.
This electric metal door greets visitors to Patrick Carey's tiny silversmithing and lapidary studio connected to his house. And Carey is downed, as one great rock 'n' roll singer called it; mom died a few months back after he cared for her in waning days, and this small house near Swan and 22nd Street gets repossessed in 48 hours. Not a penny to his name, $600 in the hole.
He steps inside through the open metal door and lightning explodes. Voltage sizzles up flesh and bone, exits his head and cracks a nearby mulberry tree in two.
He's blown back through his little studio, around a slight bend and through a doorway into his garage and a pile of boxes. The electrical current disconnects when the automatic door closes. He comes to hours later, knees back to his ears, smelling of scorched flesh, singed hair, melted tooth fillings.
Scrambled eggs of a nervous system and the sink-in of facts: out for hours and not well, but not dead either. At least the blast didn't re-shatter his spine. He can't figure why he is still among us.
Days later he finds his pocket knife, many feet from the pocket from which it flew. Forget using a cellphone because whatever electrical weirdness inside of him caused distorted connections. He'd hand the phone to a friend and it worked fine.
One lightning-strike aftershock included a minor stroke.
In ways, the 2008 lightning cracked his life into the before and after. He gained a philosophical POV. Even his business name—No Name—subtexts how he relates to the world around him, and the attitude toward his business. Panic attacks he long suffered vanished. ("Ha, natural electric shock therapy!") Oh, and he now wears nothing but red T-shirts. He owns dozens of them. Red, a color of power. His uniform. His girlfriend's kids freaked when they saw so many red shirts in the laundry.
Carey explains: "When I was unconscious, somebody said, 'If you don't wear red, we can't save you.'"
Superstitions, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, rose post-lightning. For example, he's a "3" person, organizes things into sets of three. Doesn't sign his name much "because I don't want to be talked about too often when I'm dead. I'll be tormented." He sees ghosts now, which informs his stunning, home-fabricated Halloween costumes. Carey has since become a remarkable painter, oil on canvas, acrylics, chalk.
The lightning likely cleared a path for confidence, or at least freed his head. That and he has survived death—twice, really—and extreme poverty.
He is pleasingly unaffected in person. Comical, even. Thick flat-top hair, round brown eyes, and incisive sentences shoot like punchlines and match his foolish grin. His spine curves abnormally, as if coaxed by a snake charmer, which gives him a slightly ghoulish mien. See, he busted his back, too. He fell from a car lift to concrete. Few did much to help, not the muffler installer for whom he worked, nor the insurance company who represented said installer. He was 22 then, 30 years ago. His X-rays revealed a mangled spine from which his pelvic bone separated. He ought to be in a wheelchair but hard rehabbing returned him to the walking world.
Carey's bones healed funny (nine vertebrae fused together) and now he has this sway when he walks. His stomach protrudes, not because he has a gut (he doesn't, could be an undereater), but because his hips are tilted slightly.
The lightning left lingering damage, still the occasional shakes and tremors. He's careful with coffee. Little if any booze. His memory falters some. And talking was difficult at first. To lick the stutter, he sang to childhood fave Ozzy among others. "I noticed I didn't stutter when I sang," Carey laughs, "Oh, yeah!" He repeats "oh, yeah" fairly often. A verbal punctuation as an affirmation of his bad luck.
It is a workday and Carey is behind a caged door in a workshop the size of a prison cell. It sits inside the lovely American Antique Mall, a storied jewelry, antique and silver repository on Grant Road near Country Club in Tucson. Carey walked in here off the street two years ago and store owners Dwight and Christy Schannep invited him to set up shop. Here he freelances lapidary and silversmithing work, and they toss him shop jewelry repairs. It works out; both sides gush how lucky they are.
Carey works 10-5, five days weekly. It is forced normalcy, necessary discipline: "Working from home, you get into trouble. It's too easy to just nap."
He buses to work ("I won't let car insurance companies exploit me") from the far east side house he shares with his girlfriend, Jill Isachsen, herself a goldsmith at Tucson's Krikawa Jewelry. Carey calls her a "master goldsmith." He averages six or seven repairs or projects daily.
Shop owners and customers say he's a master lapidary, and there isn't a precious stone he hasn't cut or fitted.
Sandra Barr is this funny and self-deprecating UA art history teacher and Native jewelry expert. She comes in to see Patrick because she's heard he's the real deal. Seconds later, she's identifying each vintage Native American piece in the workshop, the artists who created them and the mines that gave up the turquoise. Barr and Carey talk fast, of splits and cuts and shanks. She's trusting him with a lovely Ernie Lister silver and turquoise piece for refitting and banding. When she leaves, out-of-state packages arrive for Carey, folks shipping pieces for alteration or repair.
"Now it's all I get are repeats," he says.
If this so far sounds boring here is one reason why it isn't: This guy is autodidactic, pulls extraordinary from ordinary.
Carey roars at his chosen craft. Behind said work are the guts and years that informed it, so his nimble fingers move about blades like no one's. Observe a while and theater evolves: The hums and clicks of lapidary and silversmithing turn weirdly intimidating and hypnotic. Long silences fill with alert authority. The delicacy and dare, the artfulness, and not just in the Native jewelry he often works with, but the gems he minces and carves and prepares and mounts. It is like watching anyone who makes artistry of a profession few others observe—an airline pilot, an album mastering engineer, a tow-truck driver, a distance runner, a rug weaver, a public defender. Earned expertise becomes a sort of grace. And he doesn't seem encoded in job-hating boredom. You get the sense he'd do it free, which he has. "I don't make squat now," he says, "but it doesn't matter. You end up where you are supposed to be."
The aw-shucksness of his responses whiff of insecurity, not fake modesty. Yet the effortlessness with which he works creates a mythology that says the same crippling internal messes that keep us from doing great things don't happen to him. His focus cuts through. Even while he's conversing about the metaphysical aspects of living in the here and now with few belongings, or how Native jewelry makers often get screwed in terms of fiscal return, he will fabricate silver pieces into certain loveliness, and cackle aloud at himself.
Didn't observe Carey working with his paint and canvases—his girlfriend Jill, understandably, wasn't keen on a writer invading their home—yet the paintings themselves transmit personal truths in psych-out whimsy. The concentric circles in aboriginal or African colors, the depth and layers, like something Timothy Leary would've hung at his Hitchcock estate. Maybe Jackson Pollock was a formative reference point. Carey says he never analyzed contemporary masters, or the old masters, for that matter. But there is command of composition and color that connects viewer to piece. He taught himself first by throwing paint on old drop cloths. Years of painting and working ensued, in a Grant Road storage facility, where he lived after the lightning strike.
Even his Halloween costumes lift on imaginative leaps. Pictures show street-to-sky beasts decorated with shrunken heads (a nod to grandma, more on that in a second), and monstrous 15-pound headdresses and Native American chest plates, wings with 12-foot spans, and ghostly plumes of feathers and fright eyes and ribcages on homemade platform hooves (from PVC pipe), which would take Carey three months to learn to walk on. Costumes recall those donned by Black Masking Indians in New Orleans Mardi Gras. He has won multiple local Halloween contests. "I like the engineering of it," he says.
Now let's back up: Carey was declared dead at 4 years old. But he wasn't. His Social Security number was likely mixed up with a dead boy, who haunts him to this day: Carey rarely keeps cash in the bank because his accounts tend to freeze, IRS-style. Letters inevitably arrive saying his SS number belongs to the dead, despite Carey's best efforts to fix it. He gave up.
At 13 Carey left home for the first time. Dad had moved the family to Tucson from Chicago three years before. His parents divorced, married and split, ultimately living in separate trailers on either side of town. Dad, once a head maintenance engineer for posh high rises on Chicago's Lakeshore Drive, owed money when he died, a fuck-you to his ex-wife and son.
"He hated me," Carey says. "He said to me, 'You ruined my trophy wife and I'll remember that.'"
Tucson public schools in the 1980s did little to stir Carey's intellectual curiosity and behavioral problems mounted. He hung on a couple years at Palo Verde and Rincon high schools, then bailed. Smoked a ton of weed. Meantime, he'd been intellectualizing mechanics, taking apart things, sundry electronics such as TVs, and, later, cars. Took apart engines in his waitress mom's living room ("she was super mellow") and built a street rod as a teen. He learned the audio mixing board and did live sound for metal band Savant at Tucson clubs. Soon he drifted to auto school, the now-shuttered ITT Tech, on government assistance, and mastered auto mechanics. Then he fell and busted his back at a Tucson transmission shop. The brutal rehab took years. But an ex-con took Carey under his wing while he living with mom in this "sort of Section 8 housing over near Pima and Swan," Carey says.
"It was mostly riff-raff," he remembers. "I was healing and sore, sitting there aching. This guy Tom Coffee lived there, a silversmith just out of prison who at one time worked as a goldsmith at J.C. Penny. He gave me tools, a torch, a pair of pliers. He took me to Starr Gems and bought me a little bit of metal. Said, here, make something. I made dagger earrings because I was into heavy metal. Tom's friend owned a tattoo shop, and I made a tiny gold tattoo-machine for the store owner."
Later Carey became an apprentice electrician. For a while he made acid resistant fiberglass tanks and installed them in copper mining towns around the Western states, even inside the Palo Verde nuke plant. Worked on and off at Starr Gems, a Tucson jewelry supply house. Mostly he ran little businesses from makeshift home studios. He learned lapidary on the fly; it said "stone cutter" on his silversmith card before he could cut stones.
Carey's stories of his mother's mom are a source of sustenance. ("I once made a silver shrunken head with rabbit hair as a tribute to my grandmother," he says.)
Grandma was born in Borneo to an indigenous head-hunting tribe. She wound up in a Mormon convent in Holland, and a promised bride. She traveled to Canada for marriage, and then walked to Chicago. No Social Security card, no green card. This brilliant woman who spoke five languages "scrubbed houses for money." His grandfather was likely gay, he adds, and vanished when Carey's mother was born.
So Carey's mom had darker complexion.
But you're white as all hell, I say.
"Well, my mom married the whitest Irish guy you could imagine."
Several days later inside the cage, Carey works a torch in welding goggles. He is like some sitting Buddha, but in the way a prisoner turns self-reflective and contrite after horrific events, minus the punishable crimes. He's a teacher too.
Standing beside him is his girlfriend's statuesque daughter Iona, who is fitting stones, polishing gems, and soldering silver with the eagerness of truancy. She's apprenticing with Carey for a few days, perfecting a hobby. Carey also taught her to ride a bike, and to catch fish. She is 18, an ASU student who made the dean's list. She has known her mom's boyfriend more than half her life and looks to him with a kind domestic admiration and respect that will occasionally draw eyerolls. He seems more of a mentor to her, a friend, than any kind of stepdad. He gifted her one of his paintings and she cherishes it.
Carey looks to Iona, says, "She can torch better than I can!"
They talk about Uncle Maxwell, a ghost haunting their house. Iona is not so sure she has seen it. Carey swears he has.
They talk his various fates. Like the brown recluse spider that recently got him in the ass. The bite turned bad and he suffered a painful surgery to save his life.
Carey laughs, and says: "After I got struck by lightning a couple friends said I wasn't the same. I don't see them anymore." With some hard eye contact, he adds, "And I wasn't the same. Oh, yeah!"
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.