[Postcard] Hot, Silent, and Brand New | Harper's Magazine

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Back and forth across the Phoenix sprawl in triple-digit heat

All photographs by Andrew Brown

My friend Andrew, a third-generation native of the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, had the notion to spend some time in and around the city during the hottest stretch of the year to see what he could see. He doesn’t know why I would want to go with him—like Dallas, Phoenix is a sprawling, forbidding, and somewhat sinister place, famously unsustainable and especially deadly to pedestrians—only that I would. And I do.

Despite the fact that nearly fifty-five thousand people travel between Tucson (where I live) and Phoenix per day, a route second in volume only to San Diego–Los Angeles, you can’t make the commute by train. Instead, I take a shuttle between airports at a cost that seems to creep up a few dollars every year and watch a man in scrubs in the seat across from me drift in and out of sleep.

Andrew and our friend Aengus pick me up at the terminal, and the three of us drive east along the Salt River, hooking north into the Old Town district of Scottsdale, a neat little commercial district of Western-themed places and regionally denuded boutiques. As in much of the West, the word “old” fits strangely on Metro Phoenix, a place whose oldest architecture dates back only to the turn of the twentieth century but whose natural features—chiefly, Camelback Mountain, which rises from the middle of the city like a reminder—makes dating anything built by men seem pointless and vain.

To our left, subdivisions fan out with bright lawns and swirling topiaries, many of them still irrigated by flood in a region recently classified by the US Department of Agriculture as experiencing either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought––though I concede that the topiaries are beautiful in their own unapologetic sort of way. We head into a subdivision called Scottsdale Ranch and park at the intersection of North 98th and North 99th Streets. I make a joke about how this isn’t how street numbers work, but it falls flat. Aengus, an oral historian and audio producer who works for a university library back in Tucson, holds his tape recorder out like a Geiger counter looking for a sound.

We round the side of a house and descend steps to a narrow concrete pad overlooking the man-made Lake Serena. The water is dyed a radiant blue, not so much the color of water as the color of how one imagines water, or the color of a urinal cake: an abrasive freshness. The dye is said to be added to prevent algal bloom by mitigating the sun’s penetration of the water. Pontoon boats loll in front of their respective yards like parked cars. I am reminded not for the last time of Florida.

Farther northeast into Fountain Hills, home of the indefatigable Joe Arpaio. A former Maricopa County sheriff accused—and convicted—of contempt of court after refusing to adhere to a federal injunction stopping him from detaining people based on race, Arpaio recently received a presidential pardon and is now making his bid for the United States Senate. Like the topiaries of Scottsdale, there is something almost dazzling about the hubris of this, something defiant of facts and circumstance. I suspect he will do okay, and if he doesn’t, he will ignore the results just the same.

We wind our way into Fountain Park and find a parking spot next to one reserved for those wounded in combat. We are the only car in the lot. We sit under a tree and watch a group of people play disc golf, a sport for which the park, if such a thing could be said, is known. Andrew occasionally runs off with his camera to catch an older man jog doggedly up a hill. It is close to 110 degrees and will stay that way until dark.

Several minutes behind schedule, a huge fountain in the middle of the park’s hundred-million-gallon lake shoots a stream of water 330 feet into the air. Built as an attraction when the area was developed in the 1970s, the fountain was for some time the tallest in the world. It is this sort of insane novelty that the desert excels at. Not to mention water––always the presence and dream of water. If we were to come back on the Fourth of July, the stream would go even higher.

I close my eyes and feel the cool mist on hot wind. Our pump at the gas station reads $75, a suburban figure.

We boomerang back through Tempe for lunch and then head east on Route 60 for twenty miles or so, through Mesa and Apache Junction, toward the Superstition Mountains. As we crisscross back across Phoenix, into the bedroom communities that push relentlessly into the West Valley, I start to notice a pattern: shopping centers, many of them not too old-looking, the sort of thing you see at regular intervals in suburbs across the country, all of them half-abandoned. The businesses that persist are marked not by permanent signage but makeshift tarps: a ministry, a karate school, a clinic for urgent psychiatric care. Then, maybe an alfalfa field someone has decided not to sell. Then dirt.

Then, just as I begin to feel as though I’ve reached the edge of the world, I see a sign for 1,260 planned units, or stone pillars framing the entrance of a subdivision still unbuilt, and after that, another shopping center that looks surreally new, as if the whole enterprise had been shaken from a dream and bolted up, screaming. During an unrelated conversation with a land and real estate developer, this phenomenon was explained to me as such: if the municipalities didn’t make it so darned hard to develop, we wouldn’t have to keep moving farther out.

The cycle suggests a kind of biological imperative. This I recognized: driving through stretches of blank desert and commercial decay only to suddenly encounter an explosion of brand-new homes put me in mind of not a planned human effort but a disease, a cancer with which we are in no meaningful communication and whose overriding purpose is to spread.

At the edge of Apache Junction, we see a truck adorned with, of all things, a Confederate flag. I forget this is the case, that Arizona was Confederate territory, but then I remember. Of course. It was here, in the Southwest, that Jefferson Davis’s experiment to incorporate camels into the US Army started, and shortly thereafter, ended.

Davis had pursued the idea for years, first as a senator from Mississippi, then as the country’s secretary of war. Camels would serve as pack animals, he insisted, agents of cargo and exploration. It worked for a little while. Then came the dawn of the Civil War, and the country more or less let the camels go. Some were auctioned off, some carried mail, and some were reportedly killed by soldiers on account of being hard to get along with.

Others, as it happens, were used to help build portions of the transcontinental railroad, honoring—at least in an oblique way—Davis’s original intent. I can see them out there in the sun, agents of their own obsolescencethe instruments that would soon replace them piled on their backs.

For a little while, at least one such animal was kept at Davis’s home and library in Mississippi, where, in 2017, a woman from Florida sued the United States Sons of Confederate Veterans after being bitten during a visit. A brief phone call reveals that the camels are now gone, as the guys who own them came to pick them up. As to whether the camels were kept on the estate in tribute to Davis’s experiment, the man on the phone couldn’t say, as it was, like so many things, before his time.

We return to Glendale exhausted. The sun sets, and the heat starts to abate. Aengus prepares to drive back to Tucson in an old Volvo station wagon he has modified into some kind of metal-plated all-terrain vehicle. He has never done anything like this before—modified a car—but assures us the work has been vetted by freaks he trusts. The vehicle has no air conditioning and is, in his words, incredibly loud. He puts in his earplugs and waves goodbye, and we wave back.

In the evening, Andrew and I walk through Glendale and Andrew recalls a happy day from his childhood in which the canal was drained for maintenance and he and some friends discovered tens of fish flopping around in piles of gelatinous mud. (The fish were likely either carp or white amur. The former is legal to fish; the latter, which is not, is trucked in from Arkansas to help clear algae and weeds from the canals, and in recent years white amur have reportedly grown about fifty percent larger.) One kid picked up a handful of mud and pelted his friend with it. Another took his lead. They soon moved on to the fish. There they were, laughing at their own bad idea, with the silhouettes of fins and tails flapping against one of the hot-pink sunsets for which Arizona is so well-known. Andrew said he stank so badly by the time he got home that his mother made him throw away his clothes.

We stop in a dark bar called Jimbo’s and drink three pints of beer and at least as much water. Something funny catches my eye in one of the mirrors, and I spend a minute or so trying to figure out which one of the dozens of television screens is reflected. The bartender greets what appears to be a regular with the words “another day in paradise.” Between selected blasts of country music are long intervals of silence.

I wake to the sound of a toy horn and children screaming. It is 5:40 a.m. The house has cooled somewhat, but only somewhat. We head to a nearby mall, where people get in exercise walks before the stores open. Some of the walkers appear dressed for work; others are in athletic gear, headphones in and arms pumping. Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” plays quietly over the speakers, echoing off the marble floors and following us down dark corridors like a ghost.

Watching these people walking so early, the stores shuttered and the lights half-on, I feel my existence flicker. I think of a business park along the outside wall of I-10, overlooking a small cemetery whose dead are marked not by headstones but by oversize metal thumbtacks stuck into burnt grass. I think of the meticulously kept pet cemetery in the meticulously kept Sun City, twenty-five miles west, where a ring of plastic flowers frames a mausoleum for Miss Buffie and Miss Buffie II, and nearby lies the body of a rodent named after the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

I think of the surrounding neighborhood, where streets circle hypnotically around empty centers, where the plants look like toys, and rows of ranch houses look as if they were sets for a movie yet to be shot.

I think lastly of a cemetery in east Mesa, where an electronic billboard spells out in flashing letters the name of the employee of the month. Congratulations, Valerie. Death seems hard enough to handle even without all this life.

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