Sometimes entire lives are invested inside a single shopping cart.
Never wonder about the woman who walked the streets when youth had her back, before the sun carved canyons in her face, and speed jacked all her nutrients. After all, she explains, she lost each of her six children, and who cares? Back in the 1980s it was only the weed. It was so illegal you couldn't have any in your system, especially if you had children. Trailer park, nosey neighbor, Child Protective Services—goodbye kids. All yanked from her white-knuckled grip. The weed she could not stop smoking, and she'll tell you she can't help that she is part hippy because she tried so very hard, but weed for her is life and medicine and harder to quit than even cigarettes. Of course it didn't help she cheated on her husband, to get back at him for leaving her at home with the kids while he went to a company Christmas party, back in the early 1980s. She met a liar at a bar who really was a 15-year-old boy gutting life on a fake ID. Busted. Jail. Restraining order. Pregnant. That kid is now a middle-aged con in a California clink.
"I was so stupid," she will tell you. She is Darlene. She is half-wary. She says it again:
"I was so stupid. And when pot became medicinal I hit the ceiling."
It is Sunday. Late July, 1 p.m., 109 degrees and no shade. She is ocotillo thin. She is sitting on the curb with her broken bike and shopping cart and she flips you off.
She leaves her cart unattended to rifle a Circle K dumpster for food because you wouldn't believe the still-good packaged edibles they toss away, and she is mercifully not shooed off by an underpaid store employee, and that is when her shopping cart gets robbed. Tucson Boulevard and Glenn is not an area one might consider shitty, really, but people who screw with other people rarely screw with anyone their own size or bigger and don't care if they fuck with someone inside a shooting-gallery motel or from the goddamned desk inside the Oval Office. Bullies rule, OK? This woman's shopping cart: Purse, gone. All the money she had in the world, gone.
Oh, and one of her kids taken away all those years ago was murdered less than a month ago in the desert near Irvington Road. That would be Christina Leonard, 33. "She was a pharmacy tech at Walgreen's," Darlene says. "Shot in the back of the head." The murder stays unsolved, just another dead woman like hundreds found in deserts south of Tucson.
One day recently Darlene pedaled her old steel bike all the way out to South Cactus Wren Avenue, the exact spot of her daughter's murder, "to find something, maybe answers about why she died." Darlene and her daughter were not close at all, they rarely saw each other through the years and Darlene doesn't appear to be sad as much as devastated, and yes there is a difference.
Yeah, Darlene flipped you off as you rolled by in your air-conditioned world. She did not have to flip you off because her desperate, agonized expression telepathed a pretty good fuck-you. Have a nice day.
It is Monday. Dark rain-pregnant clouds bloom over the Rincon Mountains. Relief, she tells you. Her apartment sits near the Tucson interchange of Alvernon Way and Grant Road and inside there is a wheel-less bike upturned, a Trader Joe's shopping cart and dollar-store treasures. Lipsticks and rouges and eyeliners fill a plastic bucket beside a floor mattress. A single black cocktail dress clings to a nailed-up hanger on a wall like art. Gloom and stuffed animals and toddler-sized dolls become tense opposites, give a creepy pall to things, like a young girl's room in a house whose occupants abandoned in a hurry.
She takes a seat on the mattress and asks if it is OK to smoke, and lights one up.
"The stuffed animals," she nods. "Someone asked me once: 'do you talk to them? Do you laugh with them? Do you have sex with them?'"
She suppresses laughs and answers the question: "No!"
Four homemade girl dolls hang on the same wall as the dress in a way that suggests peculiar meaning but she offers none, except a shudder and a story involving a woman outside of a Tucson recovery center who gifted Darlene the dolls. They resemble ventriloquist talkers and each represents one of her taken-away daughters, yet this woman did not know anything about Darlene. Only that "I needed them."
"It's about defiance," Darlene adds.
She elaborates: "I guess it's not good for people who live in the past." Her voice is forever coarsened yet remarkable because it is cool and soft and soothing.
You ask her to elaborate more.
"Maybe I'm attached to my kids, but in a bad way."
A big brown teddy seated upright at a wall, with a strange fastidious countenance, pulls Darlene's attention. This time she laughs out loud, her jaw crooked from years of dental disasters. "I imagine this one talking to me. He'll say things like, 'Oh, shut-up, you old damned whore, I don't have your food card.'"
The teddy reveals more, like staggering resentments wrapped in a single story about a little boy in dirty diapers who'd knock on her door at the old place, whose mother ignored him because she was busy entertaining streams of men partial to freebase, and it was Darlene who lost her kids.
"They moved out one day," Darlene says. "There was a knock at my door, and it was the mother. She handed me that big brown teddy and said, 'Here, my son wanted you to have this.'"
Telling details anchor Darlene's anecdotes. She is a talented storyteller, and in your experience, talented storytellers are the smartest people you know. You sense no one has ever listened to Darlene tell her stories. She sometimes has trouble remembering years and dates in her history even though you sense she occasionally resides there now. Her laconic yarns sometimes involve sugar daddies and cops and storied Tucson villains including the guy back in the day who street folks called the "Miracle Mile Knifer." He made a game of stabbing homeless folk and prostitutes and Darlene once befriended him at the Hacienda Motel on Oracle Road. She marvels at this guy's bizarre obsessions and how he always managed to know which girls were out walking the streets and at what time, and boy does she count her lucky stars she was never on the receiving end of his blade. There is the "The Prime-Time Rapist" infamous in the 1980s for raping dozens of Tucson women during peak TV hours, and when Darlene met him and went to his house where his parents also lived near The Bambi Lounge, he was freebasing and her friend Melony was like "don't steal my dude."
Darlene says she would never steal anyone's dude. "It was a moral thing. I have my morals." She adds, "When I heard who that dude was I was floored. And then when the cops found out who he really was he blew his brains out right in front of them." One time a cop showed her some white powder and his dick and she fell for it and the second offense got her six months in jail. Never was a third offense. No way. That would've ended her freedoms for years.
She knows well, in the language of a fellow anti-authoritarian, the ins and outs of courts. She sought help through the years from groups who have helped ease her pains, such as La Frontera and COPE, among others. Once one doctor insisted for her neurological disorders (such as ADHD) she ingest huge amounts of Klonopin, "enough to trank-out a horse," and she did for years. The chick who turned her on to crystal meth is long gone but the drug that made her feel normal (Mom had her on Ritalin as a child), while turning her nervous system inside out, rages. ("It was not like throwing seeds at a paper and rolling a doobie.")
Darlene does not communicate with her children but did once, on and off, and it never ended well. She severed whatever relationship with her parents after they sided with her ex-husband all those years ago. Her parents are now dead and contriteness comes easy: "Mom always wanted to see me, whatever motel or dive I was staying at." She adds, "My ex-husband really was a good dude."
Born in that desert scrubland called Barstow, and in Tucson since the age of 3, Darlene was the only girl to four older brothers ("I wanted to be just like them, and they were mean to me"), a control-freak Marine (Korea and Nam) dad and a mom who used to say to him, "She is not one of your recruits." Had her oldest child at 17, was soon married and her parents put the down payment on the trailer. By 25 things headed south.
She is no longer homeless thanks to a Social Security law and she no longer gets lonely because she got "used to being alone." The sugar daddies who helped with food are now shadows lost to reminiscences, like so many facial and eye wallops, and you wonder how she can stand at all, but she has energy and a certain calloused way to overlook ugly things in her path.
Darlene is hardly strange, only mysterious because she seems eternally unknowable and even detached, but there are no mean spirits inside of her that you can detect, only looming kindnesses and absolute resignation. She tells you she knows better now about many things and no longer sticks pins in dolls and you understand that. Her fierce abilities to survive blow your mind, even if you discount the chronic homelessness, the addictions, the street prostitution. "I have no hate or energy toward anyone now," she says. Years ago, she "couldn't ever sleep. I was lost. I only wanted my kids back."
Your affection for her is unmistakable and when she laughs at herself it brings you joy if for no other reason than because there should be some joy in life if we are all indeed human beings.
"I'm too old to hook now," she chuckles. You believe her because, as it is said, sex is legal and selling stuff is legal but selling sex is not, but pornography is and practically everybody watches it, and at the end of the day Darlene has risked body and soul to survive in some version of the skin trade. In some small way she is here to show how that is and not drop her head in shame.
"I got out of the game before the game got me out ... barely."
All these reminders of her youth, and of her children, of where did the time go? "Once," she says, "one of my daughters stopped at a streetlight on Miracle Mile when I was working and tried to help me. She said to me, 'I know what you are doing out here ...' And she tried to give me food. My ex-husband was driving and wanted no part of it."
Darlene goes on about a high school boyfriend she ran into not long ago, and a deeper something creeps into her eyes and face, like her quota of terrors has long been filled and now there is a kind of cheery despair. Seeing him was not at all horrible.
She produces a pair of yellowing photographs and holds them up to her chest so you can see her childhood self, a happy girl captured in '70s Kodachrome, with her dog beside her.
"It was a long ago me," she says. "And it was yesterday."
The rain dumps hard, the big brown teddy from the little diaper boy does not move and Darlene climbs into your car and you drop her off at a nearby house. It is a certain time of day and it is all about her medicine.
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.