ne cold Friday morning in September I hopped BART to the Oakland airport and took a Southwest flight to Phoenix where it was sunny and almost one hundred degrees. I rented a white piece of crap Chevy Cobalt from Enterprise and drove up 17, took Cactus over to 24th and the retirement home where my mom lives.
y brother and I flew back to Tennessee last year and packed her stuff and moved her to Arizona, since she's in her late 70s and having increasingly serious health problems. Within the first few months of her arrival in Phoenix, mom fell and broke her collarbone and then fell again and broke her hip, but now she's up and wheeling around with the help of a walker. At first she lived with my brother Gary and his wife, but eventually he found her a nice little one bedroom apartment across town at a place called Christian Care. Mom doesn't like it because she lives on the fourth floor, and complains about not having a front porch like she did in Tennessee.
he could ride the elevator downstairs and sit outside in the ground floor patio, but ever since I was a kid, mom has had, shall we say, some difficult psychological challenges, and is too paranoid and agoraphobic to wander that far from the controlled safety of her apartment. When we were young, my brother grew up with our dad in Phoenix while I grew up with mom in Tennessee, and although Gary regularly visited her, he never experienced the full extent of her mania the way I did after living with her as a kid, and now he's dealing with her mental problems more than he ever has before. When Gary found the apartment for her, she wanted to remain living at his house instead, and in a fit of anger she told him he was a horrible, selfish person who only thought of himself and didn't care about her at all. Now Gary is one of the nicest, most easygoing people I know, never says a bad word about anybody, and not being used to it, was a bit rattled by mom's pathological selfishness.
om answered the door when I knocked, looking better than I expected given her health problems over the last year or two. The first thing she said was she thought I had lost weight, and she made me weigh myself on the scale in the bathroom. I hadn't seen her place before, and told her I thought it was a much nicer apartment than the one she had in Tennessee. She said she hated it because it didn't have a porch and she didn't have a car and couldn't go anywhere. I told her that she could go downstairs and sit outside, and that she wouldn't be driving anymore even if she was still in Tennessee, but it didn't make any difference, mom is a glass half empty kind of person. Then she got mad at me because she thought I didn't seem excited enough about seeing her. We loaded her suitcase and her walker into the car and drove over to my brother's house in Glendale.
ary was still at work and his wife Martha answered the door. Martha looked good, she'd recently had a facelift but the skin wasn't stretched overly tight so it looked pretty natural, although she still had red scars in front of her ears and the swelling had impacted her hearing. We squared mom away in the guest room and Martha made us lunch. Gary came home a couple of hours later, we all ate dinner and then watched TV.
sually when I visit Phoenix, either my dad or my brother will pick me up at the airport and drive me around while I'm there, and since they go to bed fairly early I end up watching cable late into the night. This time I researched bars and dance clubs around town before I arrived, and told Gary I was going to rent a car so I could go out at night. Around nine o'clock, as mom was getting ready for bed, I told her I was going to a club, knowing there would be drama. Mom gets panic anxiety whenever she is separated from me or my brotherher two "safe" peopleand she freaked out and tried to talk me out of it, but I calmed her down and went out anyhow.
drove downtown to a Latin gay club on East McDowell that on Friday night hosts an indie/Britpop/underground dance club called Hot Pink. It took me a minute to figure out that many bars in Phoenix have parking lots in back and the entrance to the club is in the rear of the building. Once inside, with the exception of a smattering of gay Latin dudes, the kids there looked just like the twenty-something trendies at popscene or Club ID, and I dug the music even more, the DJs were playing rockin' stuff that I hadn't heard a million times before. Not as much of the crowd was out on the dance floor as you'd see in a San Francisco club, but I waded in and got my groove on. A good lookin' gal with a kind of dive bar Shania Twain thing goin' on kept shaking her ass at me, so I grabbed her shoulders from behind and backed her booty into my lap and we freak danced or dirty danced her or whatever you call that bump and grind move so big in hip hop videos.
ot home about two in the morning and crashed out in the day bed in the extra room at my brother's, and about six o'clock mom opened the door and wheeled her walker over to my bed and shook me and said, James Ed I'm going to wake you up every hour this morning so you'll be too tired to go out again tonight. I rolled over and back to sleep, and thankfully she didn't bother me anymore until I got up around ten.
aturday morning after breakfast we all drove over to Washington Mutual because mom wanted to add me to her bank account in case Gary and Martha were killed in a plane crash or something and she needed me to get her money. Then we went to Shepler's, a western wear store over near Metro Center where I bought a white cowboy shirt embroidered with retro-looking stitching of four poker card aces, and then home again and a swim in Gary's backyard pool.
hat afternoon Gary and I were talking about Hurricane Katrina with his next door neighbor, who relocated to Phoenix from New Orleans a few years ago. When I told him I used to live in the French Quarter this guy says, Boy it sure didn't take them long to start playing the race card down there, did it? and starts complaining about the blacks. I'm always amazed at how often Southerners assume bigotry is socially acceptable. I read Internet articles written by various health care workers who attended a conference in New Orleans that weekend, all describing their experiences after being trapped there when the hurricane hit, and a common thread that ran through the narrativeswritten by white people who lived in other parts of the countrywas that they were ashamed and appalled by the blind hatred directed at black people by the local residents, people who in every other respect were incredibly generous and kind and helpful when they were aiding refugees of their own color.
hat night we ate dinner at Red Lobster, which I discovered has tasty vanilla bean cheesecake, and on the way home we stopped at Blockbuster to rent a couple of DVDs. Gary and Martha had seen most of the new releases, so I recommended Garden State, which we watched when we got home. A subplot in the movie is that Zach Braff is needlessly taking antidepressants prescribed by his psychiatrist father to keep him sedated, and after the movie ended mom wheeled into the living room and I told her I was going out dancing. James Ed, she said, oblivious to the upcoming irony, I've got some sleeping pills, why don't you take one and then you'll be too tired to go out tonight, just take one and you'll go right to sleep. Gary and Martha and I laughed, but mom wouldn't give up and tried two or three more times to get me to take a sleeping pill until I finally jumped in the car and split.
drove over to Scottsdale looking for another indie dance club called Shake at a punk rock bar called the Rogue, but I couldn't find the place, so I went to a bar in the old downtown section called Anderson's Fifth Estate, which reportedly had 80s DJs in one part of the club and goth DJs in another. The crowd was pretty conservative, only about five or six goth kids in the place, and reminded me of the dance clubs I went to when I was in college in San Diego. I danced for about an hour, and a heavily made-up blond told me the way I danced cracked her up, which I pretended to take as a compliment and told her thank you, which seemed to puzzle her a bit. Got home about one thirty in the morning and before I went to sleep I left my shoes and clothes lying in the middle of the floor so mom couldn't wheel her way over to my bed, and sure enough at the crack of dawn I heard the door open and then a long pause as mom realized she couldn't make it across the room and closed the door again.
unday I swam in the pool some more, and mom and I drove over to Target where I bought some socks and T shirts, which you can't find cheap anywhere in San Francisco. Gary grilled steaks that night, and I thought about hitting an early evening blues jam at an Irish bar downtown, but I knew mom would raise a fuss, and depending on how the jam worked I might have had to sit around all night and then only gotten to play a song or two, so I decided it wasn't worth it and waited until mom had gone to bed, then drove down to 7th Street to a dance club called She Bop at a lesbian bar called E-Lounge. The club was 18 and up, which legally in Arizona requires keeping kids under 21 physically confined to one side of the bar, unable to mingle on the over 21 side. The dance floor was inside of a wire mesh cage, and there were about thirty people there, mostly women and a few guys. I'm pretty certain I was the only straight male in the place. The crowd was more interested in doing the grind and playing grab ass than serious dancing, and I had a few lesbians back their booties up to me and do the freak. Eventually a guy came over and made the same move but I just couldn't go there, and starting to feel a little out of place I split and went a couple of blocks up the street to an R&B club called Char's Has The Blues, a roadhouse style bar where a slick all black Motownish group was onstage. The clientele was mostly black, the first bar there I'd been in with a predominantly non-white crowd. I didn't know there were many blacks in Phoenix until someone told me a few years ago there was a black section in the south part of town.
onday morning I packed mom and her suitcase and her walker back in the car, and we stopped at Basha's for groceries on the way back to her apartment. At the retirement home I carried the groceries upstairs and called dad across town to tell him I was on my way over. I said goodbye to mom, who started to cry as she always does whenever I leave after a visit, and then drove across town to my dad's house in Mesa.
ad answered the door and the first thing he said was he thought I'd gained weight, so he took me out to the garage where he kept the scale and weighed me. While we were in the garage he showed me his new car, a silver 2005 Nissan Altima. I was a little surprised, ever since I can remember dad has owned one Cadillac after another because he refused to buy a car made by foreigners. He thinks being an American is synonymous with being white, and everyone elseMexicans especiallyshould get the hell out of the country so his tax dollars will stop being wasted on welfare checks. Which can lead to uncomfortable moments at the dinner table because Martha, my brother's wife, is Mexican, and dad will sound off while Martha is there and my stepmom Kathleen will kick him under the table to shut him up.
or most of his life Dad was an Air Force fighter pilot and a bit of a hard ass when he was in the military, and I had a few Great Santini moments growing up. He was still making cross-country motorcycle trips up until a few years ago, when at 80 years old he biked from Arizona to Canada and back. He finally sold his Honda Gold Wing last year, because he was getting a little too frail to ride anymore. He's a sweet, ultrafriendly old guy now, still a little bossy but we get along fine these days. A lifelong Republican, I was astonished that he voted for a Democrat for the first time ever in the last presidential election because he can't stand George W. Bush. The more he ages the more he resembles his father, Papa Brown. Years ago when Papa was still alive, dad said whenever he took Papa anywhere, Papa would wander up to total strangers out of the blue and introduce himself and bend their ear a while, and dad said he would get embarrassed. Now he's exactly the same way, although when Kathleen points it out he denies it.
e went back in the house and encountered Tinkerbell coming down the hall.
Dad didn't like having pets when we were kids, whenever he went overseas on a tour of duty we would get a cat or dog and when he got back he often made us give it away. But one day a couple of years ago Tinkerbell showed up at the back door, lost and starving, and dad and Kathleen took her in, and now she's the furry little apple of his eye.
e visited with Kathleen, who was taking it easy in a recliner in the family room, recovering from bypass surgery to repair an artery in her leg. Kathleen is a great lady, and in many ways I got along better with her growing up than I did with either one of my natural parents. She was a classically trained singer when she was young, had perfect pitch and went to college on a singing scholarship. Her adopted father was a well-known rancher and political figure around Arizona who wrote his own Will Rogers style column for one of the state's newspapers. She told us a new municipal art gallery had just opened in downtown Mesa and suggested we check it out, so dad and I drove over and saw a few exhibits of pretty good modern art, although there were no cowboy artists on display so dad wasn't much interested.
riving around downtown I saw a shop called the Mesa Typewriter Exchange and I went in and talked to the owner, Bill, whose grandfather started the business years ago. I told him I had a 1926 Underwood in perfect working condition and had no idea what it was worth, and he said it was a very common machine and he would probably sell one in good shape for around $200. He told me that around the turn of the century there were hundreds of competing typewriter designs and manufacturers, but when Underwood brought out their No. 5 it became the most popular typewriter ever made and by 1920 that one Underwood model alone accounted for half of all typewriters sold and every other manufacturer began to imitate it.
hat night dad and Kathleen and I went out to dinner at a nearby Mexican food restaurant, and after they went to bed I drove over to Indian School Road to the Rhythm Room to catch a psychobilly band from Texas called the Tombstones. A cowpunk band called the Wrongsiders was onstage when I arrived, not many people were there, mostly guys in the opening bands and their rockabilly girlfriends, and eventually I found out that the Tombstones had cancelled because the singer blew out his voice.
uesday I woke up and went for a swim in dad's pool.
Floating on my back in the water and staring up at the clear blue sky, I thought about how materially comfortable my dad and brother are. They both own their houses, and I mean own, mortgages entirely paid off, both have nice pools, nice cars, Gary's SUV has a built-in DVD player with a video screen that drops down from overhead like on an airplane, and though dad sold his motorcycle, Gary has a tricked out black and chrome Harley. I always feel a deep sense of financial inadequacy I when I visit my family, whose lives seem so secure and pleasant and free from uncertainty and monetary worries.
ad and I drove over to a local mall so I could shop for more cowboy duds at a western store called Saba's but I didn't find anything interesting. I stopped at a Red Lobster on the way home and got another piece of vanilla bean cheesecake for dessert later that night after dad grilled steaks for dinner. Kathleen and I played a game of Scrabble before they went to bed, and that night I drove over to Mill Avenue and checked out the shops adjacent to the ASU campus, which were mostly chain stores like Borders and Urban Outfitters and Bath and Body Works and Ambercrombie and Fitch. Then I headed over to Hollywood Alley, a hard rock club in a little mall between Tempe and Mesa, which on Tuesday nights has a band showcase called Gimme DangerRawk Wave Punk Powerpop Psycho Stoner Glam Goth Sleaze. I dug the place as soon as I walked in, the walls were covered with movie posters and one of the two main rooms had a large stage and oversized chrome and black vinyl padded booths. Dawn Of The Dead was showing on video screens over the bar, and in back was a small TV room with black vinyl sofas and a large wood cabinet television set with the sound turned up so you could really watch the movie. The other main room had two pool tables and a bunch of old school video games and pinball machines. Lots of rocker cowpunk biker musician dudes and dudettes in cowboy hats and leather pants, so I felt right at home. The headliner was a punk band from L.A. called A.D.H.D. whose singer Mikey Backstage had an entertaining thrash around on the floor Lux Interior kind of thing goin' on.
ednesday morning I packed my duffel bag, said goodbye to dad and Kathleen and Tinkerbell, filled the Chevy up with gas and returned it to Enterprise and hopped a plane back to San Francisco. The wife of a folk musician buddy of mine was on the same flight, and her car was parked at the Oakland airport, so I caught a ride right to my doorstep after we landed. And San Francisco was still fucking cold.