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Tucson Salvage 

Cigar faces, ‘miracle’ crucifix, love and lymphoma

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At first 29-year-old Jason Duran tolerates the anti-maskers who laugh at him and his mask because he has to. Tolerates right-wing cigar-faced rhetoric because he needs the money and his 26-year-old girlfriend, who is suffering from cancer. Cigars are what he knows, encyclopedically, and he is surrounded by thousands of them, arrayed in pleasing fetishistic displays, up to 60 hours a week at Anthony's Cigar Emporium. Or maybe he tolerates this for two other reasons: One, there is the beauty in the well-crafted cigars themselves, the construction and tobacco magic, the social intercourse afforded inside the smoke and buzz, and Anthony's is among the best anywhere. Two, because his grandfather, who was on his death bed until the day Duran was born and brought to see him, got up and lived another seven years to teach his grandson important things in life, like fishing and harvesting cactus and seeking benevolence. Duran listens for things beneath the surface of people he'd otherwise steer clear of and finds some humanity in there, and so he often ruminates on his grandpa, whose extended life some in his family called a miracle. "The biggest impact on my life was my grandfather," Duran says.

Take Vic, a 75-year-old cigar-store regular. He's a sturdy garrulous man born in Texas hill country, who hated his mother, quit high school and left home young. He's a Trump man with a very hardened idea of what constitutes being an asshole, his spectacularly wide parameters into which others fall to be one. He'll talk with intimate detail of more than three decades working long hours in the mining pits, gold, silver, copper, in Nevada and Arizona. His three years in the CIA beginning in 1971, how he got in through his stepfather. He'll talk. And then he'll run a store bank errand for Duran and get a stogie gratis. There is something sad and even tender about this old crank Vic, on this day in the cigar shop, his obstinate views, the fear, living alone, never married. Vic and Duran have gotten into gnarly shouting matches on subjects involving politics, and today it's "Hey, Vic!" "Hey, Jason." We're good.

In his two years working here, Duran has heard all Vic's stories, and those of many who station themselves in the smoking lounge with its deep leather chairs and TV, bring-your-own sipping whiskeys and masculine conversation.

Now Duran has been a fan of cigars since he was 16, a kid fascination-turned-career, so his work here is kind of the alcoholic slinging drinks at the corner bar. He smokes three or four cigars a day at work, is sucking one now. He is into them, "like how some people get into music, or cars." Hanging behind the register in Anthony's main room, which is a humidor, its tangy pong of a million cigars, in a low-pitched stone edifice at the base of the Catalina Foothills, on Campbell Avenue and River Road. To him a good cigar is not only a joy to huff, it is an elixir. Pick any cigar in the emporium and he'll relate its history, construction, tobacco source and blend, where it was rolled, the genesis of its wrapper leaf, the color of the ash and its burn rate, testing the smoke for complexity and richness.

I pull a random stogie from one of many warmly lit shelves, a Fuente Opus X, and Duran launches into its history.

"Oh, yeah, that one is put out by Arturo Fuente, they've been around more than 100 years. It's barrel-aged from the Dominican Republic. The son Carlito runs the business and he tried for years to make a cigar that would impress his father. One day he blended the Opus and that was the one."  

It is Thursday morning in late September and Duran is dressed in his customary black T-shirt and black jeans. He is an American of full Mexican descent, a bespectacled and smart boy-faced dude with a gentle demeanor, the son of a retired paralegal mom and a dad, a cop car fleet tech, who grew up on dirt floors on Tucson's south side. Born in Tucson, Duran is a Tucson High grad, just like his mother and grandmother. But he never really saw eye-to-eye with his pop. "I let him down often," he says, knocking cigar ash into a wide tray.

Duran's mother's family lived in the Tucson area since the early 1800s. His savvy, jewelry designing grandmother, Pauline Romo, who died six years ago at 87, was a Tucson rodeo queen in the 1940s. He partly grew up in the house where Romo had erected an honorary grotto and crucifix more than a half-century ago, the El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles) shrine. To talk of Duran's family is to talk of miracles. Visitors from the world over would (and still do) arrive to pray at the 500-year-old crucifix, which still sits in an enclosed grotto in the yard of his grandparents' Menlo Park house, where Duran's uncle now resides. 

click to enlarge Jason Duran: “It had power, and I can’t explain it.” - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Jason Duran: “It had power, and I can’t explain it.”

The story goes, Duran says, his great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were riding a train in northern Mexico in the early 1900s. It was raided either by Natives or a Poncho Villa militia. His grandmothers huddled around the cross and were left alone in a brutal bloody scene that saw all other passengers murdered.

He explains the crucifix's lineage traces back to Spain, it was brought over to Mexico, and had been passed down to daughters in the family for generations. It's been said the crucifix saved his abuela Romo in the 1960s after she ate glass at a diner and doctors said she wouldn't survive. The crucifix was brought in as a last resort and she later built the shrine in her front yard to honor. Word spread internationally.

Duran, an only child raised Catholic, who grew up surrounded by Catholic iconography and symbols, doesn't believe in any god now, and explains away any miracles, his grandfather for one, by calling it "love." Another, his parents had been trying to have a baby for a decade before mom prayed at the crucifix and got pregnant at 40.

He concedes the crucifix has certain epistemological juju. "It had power, and I can't explain it," Duran says. "I remember playing in the yard and if I kicked a ball near it I would be too afraid to go get it."

Duran remembers distinctly as a boy witnessing an old woman miracle-seeker crawling on her knees, had come miles that way, her legs a mess of scratches and blood, to the foot-tall crucifix at his grandparent's house.

* * *

There is the threat of catching the virus, and Duran is pretty worried, for his girlfriend Gianna Mattio, mostly. A sense of some trust exists between Duran and the older mask-free cigar regulars who park themselves and smoke, yet most stogie-buying customers who stroll in and out wear masks.

Duran met his girlfriend Mattio at Hotel Congress in Tucson four years ago, fell in love, moved in together. In 2017, Mattio was a server at Buffalo Wild Wings while saddled with a full school load working toward her Master's at UA in public health/epidemiology. Simple breathing suddenly became a chore, pain seeped into her upper chest, and she began to lose weight. In the next months, she hit three different urgent cares in Tucson and they all insisted it was heartburn, and left it at that. Three different opinions whose advice was, incredibly, over-the-counter antacids. One day at work she about collapsed from suffocation. Her pain and frustration led her to a primary-care doctor, and not much changed in the bogus opinion department. "I knew something was really wrong with me and the doctor looked at me and said I was too young for anything serious and couldn't advise going to a specialist." The doctor's lazy recommendation? Antacids. The advice could've killed her. Meanwhile, the chest pain was so horrific and the breathing so difficult she had to sleep upright, or risk suffocation. She'd lost 40 pounds.

By that year's end, fright led her to an emergency room and a CT scan revealed shocking news: a mass in her chest the size of a football. The couple were, of course, devastated. Mattio soon learned she had stage 3 Hodgkin's-lymphoma, a cancer that started in the white blood cells and attacked her immune system. Such lymphomas are treatable and often curable if caught.

"I had a lot of symptoms and I wasn't listening to my body," She says. "I was out partying every weekend, doing recreational drugs." She also went to work, hit the gym for two hours and schooled, adding up to 15-hour days. "I'm sure that didn't help the cancer," she says.

Duran says, "She was raised to push, push, push. She was taking a full load of school, working, all with cancer. And," he adds, "she was my biggest cheerleader. There is no one like her."

In a phone conversation, 26-year-old Mattio talks openly of the effects of cancer treatments, and the dodgy medical advice thrown at her before landing at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, which she got in on luck, angled in by a single nurse the couple call "an angel." The cancer has taught Mattio to trust herself. The day before this conversation, she endured her last cancer radiation treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, which is necessary before the bone-marrow transplant. In several weeks she will undergo her second such transplant. (The first, in 2018, was an ill-advised autologous transplant, which used cells from her own body). This bone marrow is arriving from a donor, an allogeneic transplant, and they'd found a perfect match through DNA in a young Italian person living in Israel, who is munificently donating. In all likelihood she'll be OK, for now.

She is upbeat and articulate in the voice of one attending to her life and disease with the eagerness of an astronaut about to blast into space. She turned her new abnormals into a version of personal happiness and evolution, and, after staring death in the face, gained a total understanding of self-reliance. She eschews sympathy.

Duran and Mattio each say the other has been great. "I don't think there is anything that will break us apart," Mattio adds, which echo comments from Duran. "I remember telling him before the first transplant, 'It's your chance to leave, before things get messy.'"

"Her first transplant tore me up the most," Duran says. "Seeing her bald, weak." He overcame his gnawing sense of helplessness with shuttered outward emotion. "You have to be there for her, just suck it up and be there," Duran adds, shaking his head. "To see her in that state, I stayed straight-faced as possible."

click to enlarge Gianna Mattio: "The realization of death is probably the best thing that can happen to somebody my age." - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Gianna Mattio: "The realization of death is probably the best thing that can happen to somebody my age."

Mattio, who was born in an Italian-American family outside Chicago and grew up in Phoenix, learned to self-nourish on a decision to live. She began to force personal change, day by day, the little things, spiritual and otherwise, that alter the big things. After a second of five radiation treatments saw the cancer actually grow, she completely shifted her diet to a non-processed organic one, got into gardening and juicing, meditation and yoga. The sense of ceaseless enclosure from Covid and cancer, and the formidable lattice of love and family, afforded her reminiscences of growing up, the attendant estrangements.

"You have a lot of time to yourself," Mattio says. "Going through this is a lot, and I had no self-esteem. So this cancer, in its way, builds confidence. The realization of death is probably the best thing that can happen to somebody my age. I ate processed foods my whole life and was feeling like shit. I didn't know how much food affected me until I was sick. Just before I switched my diet. I spent three weeks thinking I was going to die. A fear of death, that was it. I think the hardest thing for me was putting my family through death. The holistic approach made me feel like a different person. I was on track to study and work my life away, which is no way to live." She earned her master's last year, after missing much of 2018 due to the failed transplant. "I don't know how I did it," she says. "I just did."

She adds, laughing, "It was hard for me to find a wig that wasn't gray!"

After this next marrow transplant, and myriad medical hoops she'll jump through to get there, again, she won't leave the house for months, except for doctor visits, so the purity of home weighs in, which is why, fiscally, Duran must work the long hours in the cigar shop. But she should be OK.

The conditioning process for transplants essentially brings one close to death, making room for new blood cells to grow. "It basically kills your cells," Mattio laughs, "and the transplant brings you back to life."

Mattio is now more than skeptical about so many deeply flawed medical processes, the gaps in public health, and doctors not listening to females in health issues. When she regains her health, she plans to dive in, use her degree toward good. "People are getting sick younger, which is not a good thing, and the system is just dated."

* * *

On a Saturday afternoon, Mattio and Duran meet inside the cigar emporium for a photo. Its interior humidity ensures fresh cigars and sticky air. A bigger-than-life life-sized Native American wooden statue keeps watch, a dark humorless caricature of a tired stereotype, once used as a cigar advertising tool to represent Natives introducing European settlers to tobacco. Duran, dressed in his uniform black, shrugs at the foreboding woody slur.

It is pretty obvious Mattio is the kind of person others struggle to keep pace with, an inner and outer strength and attraction exudes a studied order to chaos around her. Her straight, shoulder-length raven hair matches her black jeans, black turtleneck and black mask. There is the ease afforded by the tight lover-bond between them, situational grimness upended by an overriding optimism and a specific joy of each other.

Today Mattio joins Duran in his work, an effort to expedite his duties so they can get off on time to a vacation before she lands back in the Phoenix hospital for the high-dose chemo and transplant. She'll be deathly sick again. She'll lose all her hair again.

Talk turns to the El Senor crucifix in Duran's family.

"I thought about visiting it a few times," Mattio laughs. "But I'm not really religious. Maybe I should before my transplant for a little bit of good luck, but who knows? Anyway," she adds, "Jason's mom probably will have done all this for us."


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.

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