Welcome to America

A sign in front of an eatery at the intersection of Stone and Speedway in Tucson, Arizona.

We arrived in Tucson just as the sun was setting and checked into the Best Western on the southwest corner of Stone and Speedway. We know the intersection well. When passing through Tucson or coming up from Mexico to run errands, we have stayed at hotels in the area. Over the years we’ve watched the intersection fall into despair. 

Anza Park on the southeast corner of the intersection has served as an encampment for the unhoused or a place for them to hang out. It is a forlorn, edgy, trash-strewn, some would advise dangerous area. We’re not so convinced of the danger designation – that’s just how lucky people tend to think about the places inhabited by people down on their luck.  

The motel is caddy-corner from the liquor store – we wanted beer – and Popeyes –connoisseur David wanted to try their new blackened chicken sandwich. We set out on foot. Why would we drive across the street? There was an assortment of people walking on the streets or across vacant lots or sitting at bus stops. A couple of them were tattered and babbling. 

I am disillusioned by America. Disillusionment spawns an all-encompassing negativity that is hyper-judgmental and biased. It suffocates the least little breath of joy. It pulls the shades on the least glimmer of optimism. Objectively, I know this. I admit I have cultivated my disillusionment to a point that is almost detrimental to me and certainly unnuanced and unforgiving about the country of my birth. I know countless acts of kindness, beauty, genius, and goodwill occur every second of every day across the U.S. Yet here I am at the intersection of Stone and Speedway wanting to scream out to passersby, “Can’t you see? This place is heartbreaking. This is America unraveling before your eyes.” 

Of course, people in their cars wouldn’t have heard me, and therein lies a big American problem. The automobile. Sixty years ago, a car to a white middle-class teenage girl – me – was the embodiment of freedom and adventure. But, really, even then and certainly now, the car has always been a cage of isolation. Cars, in every way, shut us off from others. They have prompted the design of impossibly wide streets that accommodate drivers but ruin the lives of pedestrians. People who never stand on a street corner in a big American city have no idea how loud the sound of traffic is. It is deafening. It is enough to drive you crazy. It is the hideous Muzak for people who chose to be pedestrians or have no other choice. 

Much later, I realized that David and I were like players on a stage where an American tragedy was being performed – except the audience wasn’t paying attention.  

Coming and going on our errands, we had to cross two wide streets. We waited for the WALK signs at each crossover, then I speed-walked across the street to get to the other side, moving faster than David. It was starting to get dark, which made everything sadder and slightly creepy for me. I am more easily weirded out than David. 

We are white people. I have shockingly white hair, ergo I am an old lady. I was wearing a dress. Who wears a dress anymore? We had no prominent signs of disability, poverty, or mental illness. Neither of us was pushing a grocery shopping cart or carrying a black garbage bag. We were pedestrians. We did not fit the perception of this intersection. 

We knew where we were going. We had been in the neighborhood frequently.

The liquor store has a drive-up window and a regular entrance. When we bought beer here during COVID all purchases were via the drive-up window. Tonight – it was dark now – we walked up to the front door where a sign on the plate glass said “After 5:30 pm use the drive-up window.” We started to head to the window but heard a man inside saying it’s OK to come in as he unlocked the dead bolts. He was profiling us – not as a potential threat or a menace (i.e., a black male, a schizophrenic of any race) but because we looked harmless (i.e., old, white). What were we doing here, at this intersection at this time of day, on foot? 

He was a big white bearded swaggering guy. I can’t remember all his banter, but I recall insinuating remarks – did we know where we were, didn’t we know better than to be walking around this neighborhood? He was making it clear that he thought we were stupid. I do remember his telling us with great bluster that he keeps a gun under the counter, his father was a Marine, and that he’d have no problem blowing someone’s head off. Well, OK, then. Welcome to America. We bought our beer and headed to Popeyes.

Telling us his daddy was a Marine seemed a little weak-kneed to me. 

At Popeyes, we fell into Alice’s surreal, slow-motion twenty-first-century rabbit hole. The absurdity of the place – the catatonic wait staff, the zombie manager, the paltry number of customers milling about evermore impatient – was amusing at first and then it wasn’t. I wondered if we would ever get out of there. The young woman who took our order, which I specified to go, could not get the order straight. She kept asking me to repeat, as her eyes darted back to the kitchen where her colleagues seemed to be in gloomy chaos. I came to think she was furious with her circumstance. After ten, fifteen, twenty minutes of watching her, asking her a couple times about the status of our order, saying could we just cancel our order, while other customers fumed, she threw back her shoulders and said to me, “Your order will be up soon” and walked out the door. She was still wearing her work headphones. Perhaps she was taking a break. I like to think she quit. 

At one point I noticed that a large piece of plywood was covering a panel of the plate glass entrance door. An enraged customer? An after-hours break-in? 

The other few customers were resigned, semi-cordial. They wanted their orders. They knew the drive-up window customers outside were getting priority as was a wiry woman inside with us, also wearing headphones, who was picking up multiple orders to deliver to other customers. I certainly did not begrudge her. She was working hard to make some sort of money. 

I became less sympathetic towards a tall, skinny pale white fellow who walked in to place an order. He reminded me of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He wore big black boots and had various chains hanging from pockets to which a wallet and other items were attached. He had a crooked, unfriendly smile and was missing several front teeth. None of these descriptors in of themselves is negative, and I have friends and acquaintances who fit them, and I believe he was compromised in terms of one or several pathologies. He challenged my tolerance, which tells me a lot about myself. He was known by the wait staff, who dealt with him with extraordinary patience. He immediately began to complain because some item he wanted on the menu was not available. He sat in the plastic booth behind us. He chattered about rightwing political stuff, hoping I think to bait us. 

Then he learned they had run out of hot sauce. You don’t have any HOT SAUCE?” For him at that moment it seemed to represent the collapse of civilization. I wondered if in his mind-world he had been warped by Trump or decades of the whiners who preceded Trump. 

Somehow, against all odds, our bag of Popeyes chicken sandwiches arrived. Now we had to cross the same big intersections to get back to our motel. 

As we were crossing, a white woman driving a car paused and rolled down her window. She said, “Are you OK, do you need a ride?” We said no but thank you so much. It was a kind gesture and telling. We had been profiled a second time. She perceived we did not belong there. Welcome to America.       

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