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The Sun Also Sets: Or, Living

In Phoenix In Summertime?

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by Susan Vespoli

“Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Did the Lovin’ Spoonful live in Phoenix? At this time of the year, many people hightail it out of town, pulled by oceans and mountains and forests. Sometimes I leave too, but lately I’ve realized I actually kind of like it: the sparser seasonal population and the adventure of living on the moon or Mars.

I know I have it cushy, though, and that there are those who dwell outdoors in daily occurrences of triple-digit temperatures. I know this because I see them: holed up in libraries for the AC or sleeping in tunnels where I bicycle. In the winter, there are whole seas of tents pitched along the canal, but by June, the numbers have dwindled to a few solitary cave sleepers who hunker down in the shafts beneath the streets, pathways for bicyclists like me to practice our gears riding the in-and-out, down-and-up swoop of the concrete caverns.

For me, this is kid-thrill, leg-muscle build and burn. For me, this is verve and a companionable excursion with my companion, John. But for those who sleep alone or head to foot in duos against dank cement walls, those tunnels are shade and protection. The underpasses offer a certain amount of privacy for the canal sleepers until we bicyclists slice through it.

There was that one inappropriately laughing woman who seemed glad to see us, as she squatted in the middle of the cave beneath Peoria, the tunnel that smells the most of pee and once housed an unclaimed suitcase for several weekends in a row until the day it sat popped open to reveal nothing but a nest of empty plastic grocery bags. As we pedaled through, that woman had shot up, smiling and calling to us like she was the Wal-Mart greeter of tunnels, sing-songing, “Hello! Hello!”

Last December, the tent-pitchers along the north block wall backing the canal seemed holiday-merry, probably fresh down from snow country. Their community of campers had bicycles hitched to covered trailers, tools, and ladders. I once saw a handsome black-skinned woman Zen-combing the dirt near her tent with a rake and a facial expression more blissful than any of the motorists I’d passed in my car on the road that day.

One evening when I was instructing my ENG091 class about how to write an essay about goals, I said something about goal-driven lives keeping people from ending up homeless (as a figure of speech). A young woman who often wore her hair tucked into a knit skullcap mentioned that she had been homeless for a while and it was one of the more peaceful times in her life. I have to watch my preconceived notions, like when I was going to complain about my numb mouth after dental work to a shop clerk who I suddenly noticed had few teeth.

Birds and ducks congregate along this man-built creek and creek-bed, too, especially in the cooler months. We’ve seen triangles of floating mallard families, flocks of green parrots peering down from branches or electrical wires, and explosions of kiwi lovebirds bursting into the air from Palo Verde trees.

By late June, early July, most of the makeshift campers and winged wildlife have flown to more habitable spaces. An occasional duck can still be seen skimming the mucky water en route to somewhere, or tucked into an alcove along the canal wall. John says solitary fowl, “…didn’t get the memo.” Upon bicycling east past Sprouts and near the Biltmore, large fish can be spotted swimming beneath the murk year round.

John hates Phoenix, especially in the summer, and talks of throwing me into a burlap sack and kidnapping me to Portland or some other non-sweltering X on a map. So far, he hasn’t, fearing I would emerge, “like a cat damp with piss,” crying, “My life once had purpose!”

And yes, it is like walking around inside a clothes dryer during the evenings when I trek the neighborhood streets with my leashed dogs. And yes, there are boarded-up buildings and graffiti and sirens and helicopters searching for ne’er-do-wells and murderers. And yes, it’s like the meth capital of the world and there was that blond woman shooting up in broad daylight at the opening of the tunnel on 19th Avenue. And yes, there was that guy at the bus stop that popped the other guy in the jaw with such power, such grace, that the other guy flew into the air like a dancer and it was actually quite beautiful and I was confused, wondering if a man flying backwards like a thrown doll was an act of violence or art.

So, yes, there is heat and pain and blight in the valley of the off-season, but there is also wonderment. Like that couple sitting outside one of the tunnels whom I was at first scared to pedal past. John was too far up the path ahead of me and the sun going down, and I pushed the rungs with my feet warily, not sure what I’d see when I got to the top of the incline.

And then I saw it: the tangerine fireball of the sunset splashed across the western sky.

That’s what they were looking at too, the man and woman whose worldly belongings were crammed in the black bag back in the belly of the tunnel. They had their arms around each other and were looking west, awestruck, too.
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