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Tucson Salvage 

A stuffed Caesar, some gunshot scars and a sparkly mobile home christened Abella

click to enlarge Gustavo Orozco

Brian Smith

Gustavo Orozco

A speeding Oldsmobile swings onto Lee Street off of Columbus Boulevard and nearly mows down a woman pulling two cheilitis-lipped children in a red plastic wagon. She pretty much ignores the car but stops walking anyway. The singlewide glittering in the sun caught her attention. She pulls the wagon around and centers it on the edge of the street so that the trailer frames the fidgety kids. She steps back, lifts her phone and snaps a pic. She clutches the wagon handle and continues towing the kids down the center of Lee Street.

It’s no wonder the woman stopped. The singlewide illuminates—no, completely raises hell on—the otherwise dirt-toned, faintly creepy milieu at the Casa Dulce trailer court.

Hundreds and hundreds of compact discs are glued in seamless vector to the outer surface of the mobile home, data side out. In the daylight, when the sun refracts just right, it could be the bottom of an enormous wishing fountain filled with gilded coins, and when headlights hit the trailer at night it becomes a hazy cluster of crescent moons flaming in orange and gold.

The trailer sits on a double lot, which butts up to Lee Street. A flipside to Bosch’s earthly delights: Among a few trees, bushes, and a prickly pear, sit a gimcrackery of stuffed bears and monkeys, cracked ceramic lambs and pigs, and dollar-store angels atop pipe fixtures. There’s a sun-bleached San Marcos wolf blanket decorating the gate, and next to that hangs a blue bedspread showing a heraldic sun and a half moon. Coal-black tennis balls form scrums on the dirt, and plant stands uphold fake flowers. There’s sun-blackened wreathes, hidden rosaries, fabricated metal frogs, and dozens of neatly arranged hubcaps. And so on.

It’s chimerical and absurd, but there’s whatever-works ingenuity, and some artful nuance. It’s shaped by a lack of cash, a lack of modern technology, and so it’s a show of resourcefulness, and patience. It’s a proletariat proclamation that says the owner of this trailer, Gustavo Orozco, could be an absolute madman. Or it could be that he’s grateful to have made it to retirement age alive, and he’s simply reveling the win.

When asked the inspiration behind such decorative flourish, Orozco says he “just did it.” He thinks a moment. "The CDs reflect the heat, and that’s why I started putting them up. Soon people were just leaving CDs for me outside.”

The word “Abella” is spelled out in large ornate script in two places on the trailer. Tossed-away storefront signs from a local business.

“Abella is an Italian word for beauty,” Orozco says, “and I do my best to make this beautiful.”

* * * *

It’s a sunny day, the birds are chirping and Orozco’s giving me tour of his mini compound. He’s wearing cop shades, an NRA cap, a cowboy bandana, a vest and Levi’s. Trailer glam. His horseshoe mustache and dyed-on muttonchops enhance a storied face Walker Evans would’ve loved to snap.

A black cat slinks the ankles. “That’s Cyrus,” Orozco says, cigarette angling off his lips. “He came around and I started feeding him. He lives here now.”

Orozco flips the latch on the heavy wooden gate that opens to a tiny path that leads into the secured Arizona room of his trailer. He hobble-walks through it. Reaching a hand around he rubs his lower back and winces. “I fractured my spine once,” he says, “Cutting marble. A giant pile of it fell on top of me. I landed my back on sharp piece of marble.” Two wheelchair years and “doctors said I’d probably never walk again. What do they know?”

Then one day he spied a guy breaking into a next-door trailer. The prowler slammed Orozco’s lower back with an iron bar. “Oh, man. I wound up in the hospital again. But I’ve had about six of my bikes stolen. My tools. I’m not going to let it slow me down.”

He pulls up his shirtsleeve and with detectable pride points to a shoulder scar about a half-inch in diameter. “That’s one,” he says. His forefinger traces down to other places on his body — his chest, lower hip and leg. He slowly counts aloud, considering each: “Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.” He nods, pleased. Says, “I’ve been shot six times.”

With his fingers he massages his upper chest, hunting a bullet fragment lodged between his shoulder and rib cage. It continues to create health problems. He laughs. “Doctors thought it was cancer, but it was just a piece of bullet.”

Born in San Juan, Texas 65 years ago to migrant workers, Orozco was the youngest of 12. With few, if any, advantages, it’s no stretch to understand the family burdens were comprehensive, white bloodlines, education and money rewarded. He’s worked odd jobs. Spent much of his life in Gilroy, California, but he has picked potatoes in Idaho, garlic in California, cotton in Arizona. He’s worked in a cannery, cut tile, and is an expert landscaper. He dealt drugs too, hence the bullets.
He says he took a rap for drug-dealing buddies and did time in California prisons like San Quentin. “I wouldn’t want to be a snitch,” he says.

He moved to Tucson to “settle down,” but arrest records show busts here, smaller infractions including disturbing the peace and traffic violations. “When they put the handcuffs on me, I don’t know what happens. I can’t be put into a cage. I turn into an animal; I’m not going to deny it.

“I did all my time,” he adds. “I just want people to leave me alone.”

He’s never married but he has two adult daughters in California (“I talk to them as often as I can; I miss them so much it hurts”), and a grown son he doesn’t communicate with, saying he’s in a Salvation Army adult rehab “getting help,” but Orozco won’t elaborate.

He shows me around the trailer’s added-on Arizona room, which he partly assembled from a vintage wrought iron bed (a gift from the owner of a neighborhood bar), slats from baby cribs hauled from street curbs (“you’d be surprised how many people throw away cribs”), and a wall-sized chunk of metal siding from an outdoor patio a nearby bar and grill discarded. All secured with wires and chains and heavy canvas drop cloths.

Several fetching street-rod bikes abound—even a three-wheeler—which he painstakingly built from parts he’d find in junk piles and refurbish, sometimes ordering pieces from a nearby bike shop. His prize pony is painted San Francisco 49er red and gold, after his favorite team. A matching trailer goes with it. No car means he peddles everywhere, the Laundromat, the store, the bar.

* * * *

It’s murky and dark inside Orozco’s trailer, filled with eerie silence. Smells of baby powder, fried eggs and bug spray. Dusty slices of sun cut through gaps in covered windows. One holds a little AC unit. The interior is a darker version of the exterior—clown figurines, zebra-print blankets, tiger faces and countless toy guns (despite the NRA cap, he says “doesn’t mess around with real ones”) surround every inch. A big-screen in a lounge-y area. One could die here and no one would notice.

A kitchen TV monitor shows the outside, the front of his place and main entrance to trailer park, the comings and goings, the lost and the lizards and dogs. Orozco’s been broken into so many times.

He spends $100 a month fighting cockroaches. “The whole park is infected, he says, “and I’ve only seen one in my place. This place was filthy when I got it. It took three months to clean before I could move in.”

Spending a monthly Benjamin on insecticide is a lot, considering Orozco fixed income of social security and disability totals, he says, $800, plus food stamps. It’s $275 just to keep the trailer at Case Dulce. He collects aluminum cans with his friend, Albert Lomeli, who’s here hanging back in the shadows. Looks about 30. Lomeli won’t reveal much about himself except that he’s unemployed, and once lived in the trailer across the way. He stays with Orozco now, helps him with his bikes, collecting cans, working on the place.

“It’s always work,” Orozco says, “and I can’t really lift anything anymore. So I haven’t done much to the place lately.

Strolling back into the sun, he says, “But I do hope people will drop off more CDs. We need to put more up. What’s that saying? ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’”

Trash, treasure, whatever, even the display on the rooftop swamp cooler is telling of its owner. It’s shielded front and back by heavy acrylic sheets plastered with evenly placed CD-Rs. Precariously bungee-corded to the cooler is a toy horse with stuffed monkey perched in its saddle. The monkey, which Orozco named Caesar, wields a pair of toy machine guns, a faded American flag, and he’s posed as leading charge.

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