"Are you Brian Smith from
Kenyon Drive? Your sisters are Julie and Marcia? Brothers are Barry and Stuart?"
Her cackle, raffish. "You know who I am?"
"I'm Debbie, from your old street. Marcia's best friend."
The floor dived when recognition hit. Debbie Beck was her name then. She forever represented a life of adventure and challenge to authority in my little-boy eyes. She met me right after I was born. When we moved from our old street to a house further east, sis Marcia sort of lost contact with her after that, several years and four miles apart, what happens when teen girls separate into two different high schools.
Now Marcia is one of my big sisters, and my dad outlawed her from hanging with Debbie, so of course that's what they did. A lot. Best friends. Once out of the house the skirt hems would go up six inches, hands shading their eyes from the sun walking the three blocks to Palo Verde park, the older boys and the weed. I remember a night Marcia stuffed her bed with clothes to make it appear she was sleeping but really she'd slipped out the bedroom window to meet Debbie and head to the street carnival at 22nd Street and Wilmot Road, a half-mile from our house. I could hear it, the trouble she got into with mom and dad. Oh, the neighbors could hear that.
The boys, the older ones my father disliked, the long hair, played in bands, and the still older ones, working on cars in front yards, 19 and hard and broken, back home from Nam. The albums the best friends got into no one else heard of, All the Young Dudes, The Stooges. I idolized my big sister and Debbie, both super intelligent. When I was a boy. Still do.
That was last year when Debbie Fields stood before me, it was some fluke, straight from that internal what-ever-happened-to file, this woman I haven't seen since I was 8 years old. Here she is: tight lips, wounded eyes, graying hair, hard roads. A classic portrait of a working-class woman in that way that the mere fight to survive is an assertion of life itself.
She was born in the late 1950s and I learn she knows well horrible conclusions of gender inequality, the endless 14-hour workdays in pizza places and maid services, the undervalue, the underpayment. Her fingers and body ache. There's no taking time off from work, never was, and there never was money for a babysitter, or a lawyer, or owning a home. There is no car. Call her a feminist or a survivor or a trailblazer or a sucker, she doesn't care, wouldn't have time even if she did care. "It is what it is," she'll say.
Debbie did marry an older Nam vet, who fought more than a year over there, but he died in the late 1980s, left her alone with her first-born Georgina. Her next husband, the father of her other three children, died young too; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, that one sent her reeling into anger and despair. Alone with four children.
In Debbie, the earned miles and detached wisdom make for scathing wit and a gnarly cackle that causes her to bend forward when things are especially funny, the self-effacing stuff. She learned long ago to pick her internal battles. "It is what it is, ha-ha, ha-ha."
Clowns romp and frolic on the TV behind us and children roll in and out from a backroom to the living room, eight up to the age of 6, two each by three of Debbie's kids, and two through her son's girlfriend Monica Wainhouse, who is sitting here tending to her newborn. Beautiful any way you spin it, these mostly mixed-race kids, different shades, sizes, temperaments.
Her trailer home on Tucson's southwest side is overworked and in need of repair, and is what she can afford. The grayish light, cluster of thrift-store tables and couches, a bookcase crammed of colorful G-rated movies, African folk-art arranged tirtha-like in a kitchen corner, feet from a kind of altar to her children and grandchildren, their photos and photobooks. Toys, milk bottles, murmuring toddler nonsense and racket from a dollhouse gathering down the hall. The kids, the cats, the dogs, and adults, 15 hearts currently beat inside this small three-bedroom trailer. It is filled with an air of festivity, a tick of miraculous organization and timelessness, smells of new babies and cooked carbs and dogs.
We collect around a table and the children regard me with stand-off impatience, this intruder to their private world. Debbie bends from her waist and heaves up two-year-old Tianah into her arms, an intuitive, brisk habit. In her 60s now, she's not in the best physical shape. I ask if her back hurts, might as well have asked if the earth was round. She deadpans, "It always hurts."
The blue-nose pit C-Note hunts Jazzy, the 6-year-old chihuahua, to terrorize her in subtle ways that won't earn a scold from grandma. C-Note protects, Debbie says: "If one of the kids is asleep, he'll hoist himself up to make sure they are OK. I had a dog. But now I inherit everybody's dog through life," she laughs.
C-Note belongs to Debbie's youngest, 26-year-old Richard, who is in jail awaiting sentencing on a weapons charge, his second stint. He went in at 18, a six-year run for drug paraphernalia and gang-affiliation. Public-defender time, all-white jury. She huffs, "A jury is human beings. You don't know what is in their minds. He did six years in prison. Murderers can do seven or less."
There you go.
Monica is Richard's calm-faced 26-year-old girlfriend. They have two children together (both here today, plus two from a previous union by a man she'd like to forget), and met between his jail stints.
"Ricky loves my first two like his own," Monica says. "He went to jail again and missed our son being born. They need to spend time longer than a prison visit."
Monica is not married to Richard but will be, and in her longing for him a reachable future is avowed.
"Maybe God took him off the street for some reason, Debbie says. "Otherwise he could be dead."
I ask Debbie if she thinks this round of jail will be Richard's last, that maybe he's had enough?
She pauses. "In my heart I think he is done."
Monica is a McDonald's manager, earned her high-school diploma through that company's Archways to Opportunities program. She earns enough at McDonald's, maybe, to support herself. Maybe. She has four kids. Government kick-in aid with day-care, medical and food. She says she couldn't do it without Debbie either.
"This is a kid house," Debbie says. "This to me is for their safety. There is not a PG-rated movie in my collection. Go look."
Richard gets sentenced on the same day Debbie's daughter Anastacia turns 30, a day Anastacia intends to marry Brandon, her live-in boyfriend. Brandon is a gentle giant with a finger-crush handshake and kickass hair, who I met playing football with the little kids in the trailer park. He too is looking for work.
"We'll go to the courthouse for sentencing," Monica says, in a way that's hard to tell if it is meant for laughter, "and then go watch them get married."
Anastacia steps in and out of the trailer, and she, like her younger sister Deola, resemble their mother, with more freckles, darker skin. The young women have an uncommon depth of beauty sans makeup that transcends culture-of-poverty trappings. Mom has succeeded in keeping her children from backing into shadowed corners where desperation feeds life choices and amplifies mistakes, even her jailed son, perhaps; Debbie says he just started hanging around with the worst kids, and she could do little. She's a maternal safety net here, because there is no one else, because she stands tall by her children and grandchildren. Anastacia has been unemployed and mom has been paying the rent on her trailer, which sits at the end of the row here, doors down. She recently began work at Home Goods.
Anastacia and Richard were the not the easiest to raise, in trouble with the law. "My son is a good person," Debbie says. "My daughter is a good person. Everything went wrong when they hit 16. You always say you are not going to become your parents, and then you do. There is no way around it."
She laughs, "I would tackle my kids when I caught them drinking, I was that mother. I was in my 50s raising teenagers by myself, working full-time, that makes me two generations removed from them." She squints her eyes for emphasis, a thing she does, which becomes that appealing cackle, and adds, "I had to learn to observe them in a different way."
Anastacia's two kids were fathered by a man Debbie despises. She says, "I pray him out of my life and the devil throws him back in." Debbie seems to only talk God when it comes to her family.
She adds, "I thought everything was going to be hunky-dory. Now I believe that when children reach a certain age, there should be a man in their life."
In any other instance she'd laugh to keep from crying. Talk of husband deaths and she all but wells up.
After Debbie and my sister drifted apart, Debbie enlisted in the Navy in Tucson post high school, tested high and got assigned to communications and intelligence photography. At six-months pregnant with Georgina, she got honorably discharged. (Georgina, who now lives in Florida, has given Debbie four grandchildren including twins.)
Debbie met Nam vet Jerry Fields, an operating room technician. The family wound up leaving Tucson for tiny Evelith, Minnesota where her stepfather and mother had been living, and Jerry got sick.
He told her, "Please get this orange pumpkin out of my stomach." The Agent Orange from the battlefields. When he died it was at home. "They wouldn't even let him out of the hospital for a cigarette so I took him home.
"Let me tell you," she adds, "I still had to work. I worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day at a pizza house." She worked there 12 years.
They put him on Dilantin to curb seizures he'd begun suffering. His over-toxic liver had him hallucinating. "He would search me when I would come home," she says. He thought it wartime.
Soon his liver shut down like a chronic alcoholic, one of most painful, horrific ways to die. He didn't drink much, didn't do drugs. The government said she's not to receive benefits, thank you very much.
"When those guys got out [of Nam] they were treated badly, by everyone," Debbie says. "I watched them get hurt by it. That's a touchy subject for me."
She returned to Tucson with Georgina, hurting. Found work at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and then Round Table Pizza in El Con Mall, where she stayed 12 years.
If death gives reason, then Fields' exit allowed her to fall in love with Richard Lawson, an African-American who, I'm told, was striking and smart.
Lawson (she calls him "husband" though they were never officially married) and their Lawson children, all born in the early 1990s, have Swahili middle names (Anastacia Tiamoya, Deola Chembuku, and Richard Maulana) associated with Dr. Maulana Ron Karinga, the professor of Africana studies and activist also known for co-founding the black nationalist group US Organization. Lawson had befriended Karinga years before.
Debbie rattles off stories of Lawson including one about how he hiked from Southern California through Mexico and got as far as Belize. His inner-discovery odyssey was to somehow culminate in Africa. "He was studying at Cal-State Long Beach, got disillusioned with race relationships, so he dropped out and started walking," Debbie says. "Once he made it to the ocean, he followed the coast down. But he got lost, was dismayed. He would befriend villagers and tribes along the way, and they'd put him up for a night. They must of thought he was crazy, a black man on foot with no money in the jungles of Southern Mexico. They'd never seen anyone like him before."
It is clear Lawson taught Debbie a lot, and her tone shifts to ascribe more meaning. "He saw how things were created to keep other things in perspective, this fear to keep people in line."
In Tucson, Lawson worked blue-collar and would go to the construction site and see "Go Home Nigger" written for him on walls.
He'd stand in their family's front yard and police would later knock to ask if she was OK "because they spotted a black man standing out front."
Once the couple were relaxing at a park and cops made her prove she was married to the man, that he wasn't her pimp. "I ain't no prostitute," she cackles. Adds, "But that was the 1990s, a long time ago." She pauses, says, "People will tell you they are not racist, but they are. It is within."
Lawson grew up in Compton, Calif. where tar bubbled in his family garage, a thing in Southern California then. "He said that was the cause of the disease. I thought he was out of his mind. Then I saw a thing on PBS that linked the tar exposure to the disease."
She knew something "was up because he didn't show me his blood work from the last doctor visit. It wasn't easy. They put him on a steroid, Prednisone, and that makes people mean." She pauses.
"He would take one child to chemo, which he had twice a month, he said, 'This way they will understand.'" He was going to school and working at the same time.
One day things got bad and she rushed him to hospital emergency. Debbie wells up in recall.
"I should've, could've been stronger. He told me what he wanted and he would've been around a little longer. This is something that stays in my head for years. It's all so clear. I can tell you all the drugs they gave him. They gave him so much morphine his blood pressure dropped. He said, 'Don't let them put the heart catheter in, that's how my mother died.'"
At one point, she stepped out of the hospital emergency to compose herself, for a minute. When she returned there was gauze on his eyes. "They had stuck the catheter in."
She never saw his eyes again.
The scene worsened when the hospital wouldn't let their kids see dad. "I said, you can sic the dogs on me, my kids are going to say goodbye to their father."
Anger consumed Debbie after Lawson's death. "I hated the whole world. I cried at night. I asked Richard for help every night. I asked him, 'why did you leave me all alone?'" She pauses, adds, "I asked God to take me instead of him."
She tossed away family belongings—everything, the toys, the furniture, the dishes—and left their house in Tucson, the five of them, to stay with Lawson's sister in Lynwood, California. Debbie used her sewing skills to make African clothes her sister-in-law could sell. She laughs, "I was white, a silent partner. You can't be white and make a dashiki."
The clothes were selling but her four children were miserable there. "Because the three are not black and they're not white. They didn't fit in. We lasted six months and came back."That was in the late 1990s. She went to work at the Greyhound Lines call center. Started over, back into the disregarded machinery, into some learned presentiment of catastrophe. The family would soon grow. Eleven grandchildren now and Debbie is the matriarch.
The first trailer into the court is alight in decorative Christmas optimism, blow-up reindeer, Santas, strings in blues, greens and reds. It is a weekday sundown and the trailer park is alive. A band of preteen boys swarm around a football in the dirt park drive, heaving bombs and taking the game with a ferocious seriousness.
Inside one we spy Debbie after a hard-day’s work, taking care of the dogs and cats, some grandchildren. On weekends the local grandchildren are all hers to care for, that cacophony. Don’t call it a nursery, she’ll say; that is too reductive and she’ll take mild offense. “I love my children and my grandchildren. This trailer is for the children. It keeps me smiling.”
Another hard-working woman who rides the bus and who now spends weekdays scrubbing fulltime for The Maids, a house-cleaning service where she has been employed 12 years. “Sometimes you call it slave work,” she laughs. “It’s not; I’d rather work for someone who cares for me as a person than some corporation where you are a number. Not an employer, but a part of your family.”
C-Note barks at one of the courtyard cats who tend to populate the area outside below her front door, and Hayden, Deola’s giant 6-year-old son shouts and spins, and a much smaller one pulls on the bottom of Debbie’s shirt, and the grandmother says, without irony: “It doesn’t look like much, but I’m pretty happy.”
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.