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Tucson Salvage 

A white Superfly, a Golden boy and the waning Desert Dust

click to enlarge James Golden in his Desert Dust.

Brian Smith

James Golden in his Desert Dust.

You swear the bespectacled guy wearing the beret with the angel pin introduces himself to you as Boothill Saloon. The name somehow makes sense when he unballs a full-length vintage leather coat from his dirty gym bag, slips it on over a black T-shirt and dark shorts and models it for you. You tell him the leather makes him look like Youngblood Priest, only white. He tells you he's debating wearing the coat out on the street.

"I'll get the dirty looks," he says.

It's the hottest goddamn day on record in Tucson, and he's on foot. Swampbox humidity winnows your fleshy body parts and offers scant bulwark from the heat. You tell Boothill that Youngblood was a badass who'd wear it outside.

Barely two minutes pass and Boothill has fired a dozen non-sequiturs at you. You learn of his goat-killing Pitbull and military-grade crossbows, of booze-injected oranges and the tattoo etched on his right underarm below his elbow, which he proceeds to proudly show you, but not long enough for you to decode anything save a blotch of blue, crimson, and black. "It's a tower," he says. "I got it before the towers fell."

Then he laughs at you in that disapproving way that says you're from some straighter world and therefore incapable of hearing his wisdom and lingo from the street. Makes you flush. He launches into another round of sizzling non-sequiturs and you sense his alarming fondness for the Vietnam War, and suddenly you understand his many war-inspired tattoos. He's a Nam fanboy. You pick-up that he's 58 years old too—but he appears older—and how he regrets being too young to have served in the Vietnam War.

You ask is his name really Boothill?

"No!" he laughs, again in that way that shows disdain.

"Walter Caho!" he says, stuffing the Superfly leather back into his bag. "Lived in Tucson my whole life."

He loses interest in you, and turns to the register. He fingers a vintage President Nixon lapel button while purchasing a $6 necklace of fake turquoise. He says, "I'll give it to a gal or something." You imagine the gal.

"Boothill is a killer name," you tell him. You are sincere in saying this.

"I'll be back tomorrow after I get a tattoo," he says to you and James Golden, the store proprietor. Then he collects his red-stained Styrofoam Eegees cup and street-ready bag, pushes open the front glass door and steps into the sunbaked misery. In that light you recognize in Boothill how desperation of desires—love, money, hope, security, whatever—had maybe recently taken its toll. You feel pity for him. You wonder at what point do you yourself surrender? At what point do you realize that you're left to flounder in that invisible part of the world haunted by unwanted people? Or at what point do you choose that place because there no one expects anything from you?

Golden's patient indulgence of Boothill had passed. "Fried, died and laid to the side," he says, and you feel guilty for laughing. But you laugh more. You must laugh because it is suddenly so obvious to you how everything big and small that sits on either side of the smudged glass door of Desert Dust Thrift Antiques and Collectables, on Alvernon south of 22nd Street, is slowly dying. Such a fact has never been more profound to you than on this 116-degree Tuesday. That's what Golden is really talking about.

Golden is Desert Dust's proprietor, one part swap-meet crank, one part Tennessee gent. You're soothed by his slight southern honk, which is rounded off, and expressive, filled with one-liners ("this town is full of liars not buyers"). He's from a long line of raconteurs and moonshiners.

"My people were mountain people," he says, "the ridgerunners. They come from the Scottish, the highlanders." He laughs: "I'm still that way. As long as I got two goats and a bottle, I'm OK."

Golden keeps rolling tobacco in his shirt pocket and a holstered sidearm. He's thin with deep-set eyes and not too tall but looks like he could scrap with the best of them. He knows martial arts too.

Anyway, his Desert Dust is dying. Too bad. It's mind-boggling, a fantastical dusty surplus disorganized in orderly ways on shelves, floors and ceiling, a million and one pieces your mom or grandmother or eccentric uncle would use to populate their strange worlds—the sentimental symbols of indignities and joys, the tattered, the insignificant and the bountiful. It's like walking into the startling insides of someone else's stoner head—the deranged Santas and dusty Star Wars curios, distressed gargoyles, pistol BB guns, toe jewelry and Empire-era rockers, and glitter-heeled boots and 15-cent books and Reagan-era clothes and Lovin' Spoonful 45s, all hand curated, and priced as such. You tell yourself you could live here. You tell yourself you could die here.

It's like many in Tucson, big Going Out of Business sign slung across the front of the stand-alone cinderblock, a forlorn edifice soon to be joining the hundreds of other empty storefronts that populate so much of Tucson east of Campbell Avenue. Golden doesn't reckon the Tucson economy is coming back anytime soon, not the real-world economy, anyway. It's too hard for him to keep his doors open.

The man who hustled years in local swap-meets, on used car lots, in auction houses, who sold shoes, and who raised three daughters (all have helped him in his shop) with a sharp business sense and transmissible entrepreneurial spirit, who says he hasn't had a "straight job in 20 years," opened up this place in 2007 with "ten swap-meet tables full of stuff, a few show cases and a credit card with a $15,000 limit."

"That first year was the best year we had business-wise," he says.

You learn of Golden's dad, a huge inspiration for him and his two younger brothers. "Back in those days they called him a cripple—he had a fused hip bone—before it wasn't PC. After I was born [in the late '50s], my dad was driving a cab trying to make a living. Then he went to school to be a watchmaker in Decatur, Alabama. He could clean and oil 36 watches in a day. Ten and $12 a pop. That's a lot of money in those days..."

By the late '70s, Golden was doing the books for his Pop's watch and jewelry business. He says dad was called the Golden boy, the cripple who overcame physical and class odds to open his own jewelry and watch place in a Tennessee town still run by Klansmen, a good-old-boy network of bankers and politicians. "Corrupt as hell. But my dad knew business. They had nothing on him. And they thought we were Jewish." He pauses. Adds, "You can't cure stupid."

He tells you he was called a "nigger-lover." The shock of that word makes you cringe and wary.

He continues. He wasn't supposed to "associate with black people, and this was the 1970s. The Klan was everywhere still. Hell yes, I had black friends.

"You'd drive by the grammar school on a specific night and you'd see pointy hats and tommy guns. It was like Mayberry only with an evil slant to the people. But sometimes growing up white in the south wasn't easy either. You just had to be there."

He'd split Tennessee for the Florida panhandle in the early '80s, taught taekwondo there, did security in bars, but returned home.

"I had people from the Klan come down to Florida looking for me," he says. "I picked up a 30 cal. M1 Carbine with a jungle clip and went back to Tennessee. Then the Klan boys tried to kill my parents. They burned their house down."

Golden wound up in Tucson indirectly because of the Klan. His youngest brother married into a family with Klan members, and wound up trying to protect a child from them. FBI got involved. Long story short: the entire family packed up and moved across to Arizona in a caravan, 37 years ago.

He tells you his great great grandfather was "killed six months before the end of the Civil War." He talks of government plots to conceal John Wilkes Booth's death and escape and how in Tennessee's Franklin County Courthouse, "it lists my great great grandmother married a John Booth. My family claims they went off to Texas."

Golden says he's not long to do the same thing day in, day out. Another reason to close up shop. "I may go to Denny's and drink coffee all day. I may be on a trail in the mountains and wind up in Argentina. I may just go fishing. It may take me six months, it may take me a year—I'm going to get rid of everything in here."

You get that Golden's tired of operating a thrift/antiques store. He's tired of folks, and would rather be a survivalist on 10,000 acres, away from the numbers, that place where no one expects anything. (He now lives on an acre west of Tucson in a trailer. His brother and his mother each have their own trailer on the same lot, a sort of compound. He has a wood-burning stove for winter heat, scavenges the wood. A swamp cooler for summer.)

"We're all hunters and gatherers," he says. He looks at you like he does anyone else and says you are hunting and gathering, just like everybody. Fodder to sell to a publication.

"Prostitution isn't the oldest profession," he continues. "Pimping is. Buying and selling. It's all commodities." He looks around his dusty shop, and adds, "It's like the stock market, only a smaller scale."

Is he ever surprised what people will pay for here? "No," he says, "Look who they voted for."

He communicates his politics with gestures of politeness and civility. When he talks of the government and Trump and the media he bundles them together into some vague vessel of tyranny, convinced they're perpetrating the long con. You choose not to argue. Why? Because you understand whatever inner need he has to be away from the numbers.

Ulli Malcolm is an older white-haired woman with a wide smile and German accent who recently moved to Tucson from Las Cruces, New Mexico because her husband, who worked "in missiles," just retired. She purchases a wooden box display filled with a dozen or so aluminum Christmas tree ornaments. You remind her it's the hottest day in June. Hardly relevant; she's outwardly happy with her store discovery. Ulli and Golden joke about a public hanging of Washington folk and the unyielding virtues of Rooster Cogburn.

The dusty register rings and Golden offers up a total including the everything-must-go, 30-percent-off discount.

"I just can't believe this place is closing." Ulli says to you before stepping out. You wish it weren't so.


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