Margie Bakker zig-zags through 22nd Street traffic driving a sparkly red Fiat compact, laughing, "My cars get smaller and I get bigger!" Tour laminates dangle from her rearview—RuPaul's Drag Race 2018, and A Drag Queen Christmas: The Naughty Tour—and the car is immaculate. She is talking as freely as her lane-change abilities are perfected, focusing on her disparate life; from the shitty (a brutal childhood, homelessness) to the good (family, a new Tucson coffee house). Someone said skilled drivers have an innate ability to overcome internal and external odds. Was that Evel Knievel?
Bakker is many things to countless people, an LGBTQ+ freedom fighter, a mother of five, a foster mom, a businesswoman, a miner's wife, an employer to those others consider unemployable, a child runaway and abuse survivor, a woman versed in the universal struggle to better herself for her own children, and to leave something behind for them. She's a kind of butterfly collector, or den mother, to the marginalized or suffering, to misfits and transgender kids, social and family pariahs. (After telling of one abused woman she took in, she "had to make a deal with my husband to stop bringing people home to stay.")
She talks about the ex-husband too, the 12-year marriage, how it hastily darkened a golf-course-fancy existence in a gated community, triggering her own predilections for self-abuse. "Then he switched to heroin," she says. "If anybody told me that's how it was gonna end, I would never have believed it. When I saw a pattern I said no, no, no."
That was suburban Chicago. She looks too young to have a 30-year-old daughter from that marriage ("I love her fiercely, and she's a hard one"), and a 24-year-old son back in the Windy City, a nationally ranked MMA fighter. This is Tucson and Bakker is remarried. Her family here includes 13-year-old twin boys and a daughter Mina who, Bakker says, at "11 years old is already years older than I am."
Young Mina might be older than chronology suggests. Last year she took mom for ice cream (mom paid) and an announcement.
"She came out to me," Bakker laughs. "She was 10! She said, 'I see myself with children but I don't ever see myself with men.' She's deep, I'm telling you. Maybe you should do a story on her!"
Mina (named after the Dracula character) is a budding drag star too. In fact, Famous RuPaul dragsters Michelle Visage, Detox and Willam Belli (also from FX's Nip/Tuck) have been known to sing "Happy Birthday" to her.
Bakker and her husband Chad used family savings to take over Big Heart Coffee, which sits on a somewhat forsaken stretch of 22nd Street, between Swan and Craycroft roads, purposely away from downtown Tucson's displacement-gentrification generation. The community east of Swan along 22nd Street—an area looked down upon by so many—appeals to Bakker. And she lives near here. It is an area with slim chance of commercial oversaturation; the coffee shop finishes the west end of a beige-tinted, stucco-sprayed late-'50s strip mall (Mayfair Plaza) and shares a wall with Slim Shop Martial Fitness. An abandoned Chinese restaurant decorates the east end, USA Pawn beyond that. It's incongruous, sunburned and working-class Tucson, busted-pretty. Metaphorical, then.
Inside, outcasts blend with blue-collar regulars; art, queer culture and community intersect. Cutting-edge local art and the homespun, pastels and woodgrain, and sweetish tangs of Mexicali—a new flavored blend Bakker has stocked she can't seem to keep on small shelves. (Big Heart coffees include locally roasted iced and hot, and custom Big Heart blends, and fresh baked goods and local female bakers, including Sheryl's Sweets and Treats and Sweet Rush Boutique, soups, salads and myriad teas) Cops converge mornings, church-workers, and yoga moms. Then young poets and trans folk too. And a slowly rising number of working-class regulars sharing board games and brews in cups colored with a big red heart.
One regular, James, an effusive ex-prison guard, donates time and does not accept pay. For example, one day the weeds out front were gone. Big Heart inspires selflessness in kind. James stays long hours and has been called in these parts "the smartest man" in Tucson.
"At first, I thought, my God, what a know-it-all," Margie laughs. "But, it turns out, he really does know it all."
Bakker stands in line at a 22nd Street Chase bank, wearing vintage cat-eye specs, blue jeans tucked into gold lamé booties, blond hair pulled into a single pigtail and held in place with a glitter bow. Heart-shaped peace-sign earrings complete a walking wall of fetching pop culture. It's easy to be in awe of someone in moments such as this, how boldly they interact inside a compressed institution like a bank. It isn't confidence, it's more about how she rolls.
She is talking her twin 13-year-old boys, Blye (after the captain pirate) and Julian (after Lennon). "What do you do when your kid is into terrible music? You find yourself at a Wiz Khalifa concert," she laughs. She's a Rob Zombie fan and Blye and Julian now are fans of his movies, some of the most brutal around, and she doesn't mind.
She's inside that world where few ever age, while others wrinkle and fade out. Caught between the haves and have-nots, where progressives and narrow-minds are equally hateful, hatching a plan for some never-never land. A version of the new suburban mom.
Without realizing it, she talks mortality—a delicate balance between life, death, children and home in Tucson. ("Sometimes Tucson is like another country. I'm middle-aged, and white and Tucson is still not easy. It's supposed to be progressive? It really isn't at all.")
Makes her point on a gentleman in attendance at one of Big Heart's occasional drag shows. "He looked up at me and said, 'I'm disappointed.' He told me that I didn't have the 'faith.' I'm like, what? This is a community coffee shop. We don't tolerate intolerance."
Bakker employs those few others would. It is "her duty," and because she herself never fit in–-not here, not in Idaho, not in Chicago, not in Kansas, not anywhere. Not with the wealthy and not with the poor. Archetypically American.
Jeena Doucure is a 23-year-old Hispanic who was at the end of her rope, looking to prostitution to survive. It is not so easy for trans folk to find work in Tucson. Doucure's mother tossed her out of the house the night she discovered girl's clothes in her son's bedroom. "Then she was couch-surfing," Bakker says.
"It's true," Doucure tells me later. "And no one would hire me because of my sexuality. And I may or may not have prostituted in the past, but that's all I'll say. Margie hired me in December. She told me, 'If somebody disrespects you for your sexuality you don't have to serve them.' You could say she operates a safe space for youth, makes a safe platform."
Bakker helps foster kids, including Marissa Romero, a tough girl born in Sinaloa, Mexico. Her mother is dead, her dad a homeless addict. Marissa is a poet too, and works at Chili's. Her debut book is called All Pretty Things Rot, which was debuted with a party at Big Heart.
Big Heart, Bakker says, is a community as much as a business (part of its unironic tag: "Love and espresso served daily"), keeping in line with a vision from previous owner Scott Shaw, who'd spent a year building it in 2015, from the ground up. Bakker took over August last year.
"We're using many of the things he brought in, and adding our own," Doucure says. She offers a quick tour of the place, the coffee bar built from lanes of Tucson's long-gone Cactus Bowl, booths from an old Tucson Black Angus restaurant, stools fabricated from old school chairs, a wood-planked wall and multi-hued light fixtures from Appleby's, a bookcase Bakker and her husband hauled in, stately steel tables fashioned from doors at IBM. An event room in back.
Bakker donates time and money to charities and organizations, from cancer research to suicide prevention to feeding the homeless. Her Big Heart profits are slim (they are now at least breaking even, Bakker says) yet she donates a good portion of her sales to charities, which currently include Janie's Fund (for abused women and children). Big Heart is also a drop-off location for food and resources for animal shelters, Southern Arizona Food Bank, St. Francis Homeless Shelter.
I ask how she can donate when she's not yet turning a profit?
She half-laughs. "Yeah, my husband is pretty worried."
Husband Chad (who Margie describes as her "polar opposite, a computer geek in khaki") is a dozer operator at the Asarco copper mine at Sahuarita—"he literally digs the big pit"—and was a tank driver in the Gulf War. He's good with money, and savings paid for Big Heart. Bakker hopes for the coffeehouse to become more full-service with food, and to maybe open another.
Mortality talk continues in the car. How after many miscarriages and costly medical procedures Bakker has three kids with Chad. By the time she drives through Arby's (Her embarrassment: "I don't eat like this every day!") and onto a pickup at Arbuckle Coffee, a storied Tucson coffee roaster and distributer near the airport, I know of her adopted mother, who moved to Tucson and died 12 years ago. How Bakker moved here from Chicago to take care of her. That's how she met Chad. How she'd never thought she'd see 50. "And I'm 50."
Biological families don't often have what it takes to love, so we find other families. Bakker's biological mom didn't care for her or her younger brother so she gave them away as toddlers. Real dad was studying medicine, had served during Nam and stayed overseas post-war to perform autopsies on dead soldiers. Adoptive dad was a big earner at an international chemical manufacturer. He was a big beater (and drunk) too, and beat his new kids often. Bakker wears scars. "My dad used to knock us out," she says. "When I was 9 I thought he'd kill me." By 12 she was breaking into the liquor cabinet for abuse elixir.
"I was drinking in junior high. Drugs came in high school." She'd get into fights with boy and girls.
The family moved around the Midwest, and new mom was often absent, in hospitals or traveling as far as Tibet to cure her sicknesses. "She was an abused wife, too," Bakker says, adding she'd always kept a relationship with her.
Bakker learned young never to trust adults. She smiles, and says, "My hatred of my dad formed my opinion of things. He was big on keeping up appearances." One day, after talking to a school counselor about what was going on, she got home from school "and my dad was waiting for me." Soon a friend "heard my dad beating me" called authorities and family services turned up at school. So her biological grandfather took her for a school year but she wound up back with her adopted parents, now in Idaho. She ran away for good at 16 with a pocketful of cash vigilantly saved from a job. She and a friend wound up in Chicago in someone else's car with a bunch of stolen weed. Soon she was homeless, getting high, befriending street urchins, the pros and the dealers, and, just as it is with the unwanted, families formed. Many months pass before an older woman saw in Bakker ambition and smarts and invited her to stay on her couch in her tiny apartment, on the condition she return to school. So Bakker lied her way back into high school. She worked in bakeries, graveyard shifts at Denny's, and hit paydirt on a fake ID working at a chi-chi Chicago club. She went to college. She fell in love with a cop, and married. They had the two kids, and took in foster children.
"My foster girl that stayed with us longest, she came to us at 14. She stayed with us until she was 27. It was originally supposed to be three months while her mother went to rehab. However, her mom went to a psych hospital after rehab, suicide attempts, back to rehab, jail," Bakker says. "From what I understand, no one really wants the older kids so, we kept her ourselves."
On a Wednesday afternoon, Bakker meets Big Heart needs with domestic composure, as an on-duty barista, a phone answerer, a supply-order placer, small business problem-solver, all while attending to her other full-time gig, her own children. Face-to-face conversations with regulars prove Bakker to be more clever and tongue-in-cheek, except for that guy James.
Big Heart is more feminine, soft and secondhand than your average coffee joint. Many things to favor without really knowing why. Even the classic-rock on the in-house stereo is a kind of dispensation, a welcome familiarity.Other employees here include Acacia (who followed Bakker from a previous job running the kitchen at long-running, now-shuttered Mother Hubbard's Café) and Tucson drag queen ViPer, who happens to be, Bakker says, "amazing at full-transformation makeovers."
Big Heart is community and acceptance, Bakker will say, and not by accident. "Gays, transsexuals, drag queens all of them, I embrace them because they accept me. Look, people have to stand for their rights, but other people have to stand for those same rights too."
She considers her adoptive father, whom she labels a racist and from whom she learned what not to do with her own children. "Maybe hanging around people he hated at first came from a negative place, maybe to get a rise out of him. But it contributes to a much better world." ■
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.