After the movie I drove up the long, long road, past the endless strip malls on the mile-long blocks, back into the University District. It was Friday night in Tempe, and I was wholly unprepared for the scenes that were to unfold before me.
The streets were jammed with cars dangerously skirting the pedestrians that spilled off the sidewalks. A constant flow of teenagers, fraternal members, and yuppies promenaded both sides of Mill Road, crowding and swaying in the warm, clear air, their yells and shrieks mingling with the occasional high-octane rev of a hot rod. Yikes. I'd walked into Friday Night on the Strip.
I passed a group of bikers hanging out in the First Interstate parking lot. Strapping young men all, with brightly colored phalli of steel and molded plastic and a sizable harem of teased-hair waifs in tight black leather skirts.
Across the street was a large crowd surrounding a group of street preachers. They were being heckled in that particularly juvenile and ineffectual way common to teenage punks, consisting mostly of antagonism. As the police began erecting barriers to keep the crowds on the sidewalk, the God enthusiasts broke into a song entitled "Once I Was a Homo, but Jesus Set Me Free."
After the preachers cleared out the small open area turned into the territory of the Hippie Sexpunks, that 90s hybrid revivalist teenage chic. Carefully dudded down in Haute Peasant with a carefully sloppy dash of drab, they exude a raunchy sexuality most often manifested in loose jeans and bared midriffs. I disturbs me somewhat that the currant fashion among sixteen year-olds happens to correspond exactly to one of my Ideal Female Types.
Things seemed to be settling down in front of the Coffee Plantation so I set out up the street to walk my laps. The other end of the street seemed to concentrate its groupings around well-dressed diners and club-goers, fascinating in entirely different ways. Many of these folks, especially the college-age ones, look like experts in self-torture. Bound by muscles or bathed in blush, they exuded nothing beyond stiffness. Their smiles are rigid, their skin is crisp, and I don't believe they are capable of unclenching their butt cheeks.
About halfway up to the bookstore I noticed something highly amusing in the median strip: two cops, one with a flashlight and one with a laptop, gathering data to enforce Tempe's anti-cruising laws. One would read off license plates to the other, sitting at her card table, who would type them into the database. I always wondered how they enforced this sort of thing.
On my second lap I passed a trio of Deadheads sitting on a bench counting the laps. They nodded, I accepted their tacit invitation, and I sat down to chat. Todd, Styx and Jared could very well have been their real names. I spent the rest of the evening with them and was happy beyond belief. They were fairly typical heads: house-painters who variously call upstate New York, Marin County, Seattle or Boulder home. In fact, they were so in tune with my Deadhead image that as the night wore on I became increasingly convinced that I'd not only run into them numerous times at shows but had actually known them for a long time!
And they were the nicest, coolest guys in the world. You cannot even hope to describe the feeling you get when, after traveling by yourself, full of lonely yearning and staring for weeks at a time, you are instantly drawn in to the kin of fun and fascinating people without hesitation or reservation. It was the kind of thing where Todd, recently moved here from San Anselmo, said "Betty's Bakeshop", I replied simply: "Corn Pizza", and we screamed "Yes!" together with arms high, praising the sky in the glory of shared distance.
We hung out for a while and then walked back to their apartment. Todd and Jared seemed to be about my age, but Styx was about 18 and did an immensely successful job in re-establishing my confidence in the Younger Generation. All three were fun, creative and witty folks with a refreshingly down-to-earth and reasonable attitude towards drugs. These were not the dull kids drawn to excess I saw in New York.
We hung out, enacting various Freak Brothers skits until about 2 a.m. I told them about the Mother Earth Mind Jam III (an eco-music festival the next day) and they sounded really psyched. A host of warm good-byes and maybe-I'll-see-you-tomorrows and I was ready for my walk home.
I learned many things on my walk home, the first of which is why I don't often walk around strange cities at night. Me, who so rarely gets scared of dark streets, was terrified of the weird buildings, the stark lights, and the bizarre landscaping. What was so alien to my West Coast sensibilities was, I'm sure, quite normal to your average Phoenix resident. The situation was irritated by my previously mentioned grasplessness of Phoenix. I had no idea what neighborhood I was in nor what its reputation might be. One set of buildings scared me particularly: a vast array of one-story cinder-block bungalows in clumps of six. They looked very much like some of the worse projects in Oakland and were fronted by a line of hot rods and rusty Darts. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized these were in fact medium-income apartments! Quick housing in an exploded city.
My exploration of Night Paranoia continued. What makes late night such an intense time is the sparseness of everything. Gone are the rivers of people and cars, the white noise that we are so accustomed to ignoring. Every detail stands out clearly and there is nothing to distract you except the Man Approaching You or the Squealing Car. Social interactions expand to fill the vast emptiness of the nighttime street. There is no way to avoid attention, no crowd to blend with, and you can see for blocks. You must deal, in one way or another, with every living thing you encounter.
So the lengthy walk progressed. Absorbed in my revelations, the time passed more quickly than I'd expected and soon I was cozy in the back of my truck.
I spent Saturday morning hanging out and then wandered over to the Mystery Castle. It was well worth the minimal admission fee, and I'd recommend it over the Garden of Jesus' Suffering to the Phoenix visitor. It was also on the way to the Mind Jam III.
Mother Earth Mind Jam III at the Baseline Mansion. Where do I begin? The Baseline Mansion is a beautiful old house in the middle of an orchard. It has a large, grassy backyard with a goldfish pool and a stage. No one seemed to know who owned it, but rumor had it that three years ago a small group of women (one of whom might or might not have been the owner) got drunk one night and decided to put on a benefit for Earth Day. Thus was Mother Earth Mind Jam I. Number III was an all-day event attended by about 250 hippies, weirdoes and eco-warriors entertained by something close to 13,000 bands, drums circles, sitarists, yoyoists, jugglers, and crazed warblers. It was cacophonous; it was glorious. Mere words will never describe it.
What first struck me about the Mind Jam were all the friendly people. More friendly people! I can't stand it! This is the kind of thing that makes me want to settle down finally. As soon as I stepped out of my car, a guy named Steve greeted me warmly and offered me a pipe. We walked inside together and he led me to his group of friends: four of them altogether had driven down from Pinetop. I sat and talked and drank with them for a while, watching the parade of fascinating people. All the things I like best about Dead shows were here, but it was all smaller and felt better. The second thing that struck me about the Mind Jam (and this one had actually been building for a couple days) is how much a sense of community there is in Phoenix. For all it's sprawling ugliness, Phoenix is a very nice place to live.
The third thing that struck me? The fact that 80% of the people at the Mind Jam came by chance. I happened to see a flyer in a bookstore. Steve found one on the ground. And both of us were extremely happy with the Fates. Steve was practically bubbling over with enthusiasm (and beer) and I began to wonder if he was on X. It could have been merely that he had been lacking such community and liberalism in his small town and was overjoyed to find it here. They were probably the most 'normal'-looking people there -- Steve's friend was in tight jeans and Oakley's. I never did quite peg them down, though. At one point Steve's girlfriend asked me out of the blue if I liked Thomas Pynchon!
After a while I got up and walked around, at which point Strike Four hit me: it was grapefruit season and we were in the middle of an orchard! A huge crate of the freshest, sweetest, most juicy grapefruits in the whole of creation graced a center table, free for the taking. And every info or crafts table I passed was using the yellow globes for paperweights.
Soon I made my way back to Steve's Spot. Steve showed up from the parking lot again with Nathan in tow. Nathan, like me, had been befriended by Steve and dragged, slightly confused, to this spot. Steve continued to be a great source of introductions throughout the day. Nathan and I hit it off instantly. He had just recently moved down from Maine in order to find a job, and so we chatted Travel and Maine.
Nathan wandered off eventually, and I went out to the car again with Steve to smoke some more. Steve was extremely paranoid and insisted on hiding amongst the cars while smoking. We met some suburban headbangers and smoked with them. They had just been driving by and stopped in to see what was going on.
Later, Steve introduced me to The Little Old Man -- y'know the type you always see at shows: miniature, nut brown, mostly naked, with flowing white hair and a tangled beard, usually dancing in the company of fifteen young women. I never got this one's name, but he was very nice and I sat and talked to him for quite a while. He was from Rochester, NY and had been wandering his way towards Sedona for the past year or so. He'd just recently been dancing in a disco in Galveston during Spring Break, where a group of born-again Christians requested "Loosing My Religion" for him. We talked about UFOs and cranial tuning. It was an extremely rewarding conversation for me because every time he'd try to express an idea I'd come up with a concise phrase for it, at which point he'd smile broadly in appreciation and knowing.
Steve, by now off somewhere else, was starting to get a little weird. He kept asking to make sure I was his friend and that he wasn't insulting me. He also kept ranting about Truth and being From the Heart. I poo-pooed the former and he asked if I was his friend. I assured him yes, but dissuaded from further talk on the subject. After a while the conversation turned to music and he asked if I played. I told him I fiddled on drums a bit and he became greatly excited, telling me they were going to jam tomorrow and needed a drummer.
Now, here begins the night's Major Moral Dilemma. I said yes, I'd love to jam with him. He seemed nice enough (if a little enthusiastic) and I've been dying to jam again ever since I left Ann Arbor. Well, it turns out that his place is a four hour drive into the mountains. And he just wouldn't stop getting weirder. By sunset he was drooling drunk and grabbing my head, stabbing at my pineal gland and yelling "The Truth is Inside!" This was the last time I saw him.
So, in the interests of World Friendliness, I should have gone to Pinetop. It's not good to let people down on something they're really looking forward to -- and Steve really was. And I really wanted to jam, too. But Steve was a little strange and I feared he might be more so on his home turf -- visions of rural ax-murder cults flitted across my vision. And it was 250 miles....the greatness of which didn't quite register with me until the next morning. And it didn't help that I'd thrown the hexagram 23 LOSS: "Do not travel." This is one of the reasons I stopped using the I Ching: good omens are encouraging; bad omens are hard to ignore. So do I spend four hours and risk bad for really good or do I bag on him and increase the level of disappointment in the world. I migrated to Nathan's Spot and asked him. "Bag it." No question about it, Steve was way beyond Nathan's tolerance for weirdness. I did, but have the option of going through Pinetop later....
The music on stage throughout the day had ranged from Gothic Funk to Electric Sitar to Improvisational Poetry, and now, as the sun was setting, switched to Group Meditation. I haven't yet mentioned the severe Earth Day slant of the Mind Jam primarily because it was concentrated passively in a couple tables and pamphleteers. Now, however, with the World Beat Music and Dance Theater taking the stage, it came to the fore in a most unpleasant way. The meditation, though good in spirit, nevertheless required the undivided attention of the entire audience. Try that with 250 people on drugs on a nice day. From there things just got worse, the emphasis on group mind increasing and the spewing of eco-rhetoric becoming intolerable. The entire pedantic, church-like display was run with an iron hand by a tall man with tiny eyes who just radiated evil intensity. While explaining drums as if to four year-olds he'd encourage audience participation. Not likely, pops, even if we do agree with your propaganda. The crowd began ignoring him and his frustration mounted. And they weren't even any good at drumming. Towards the end The High Priest mentioned they were starting a 40-acre artist's commune near Flagstaff. Yikes.
The music got better again, someone started a bonfire, and I left for an hour to get dinner. At around midnight I began fading fast and left for good. Todd, Styx and Jared never showed up.
Sunday I ambled downtown by way of REI to check out Art Detour, the local open-gallery day. I spent the day wandering between galleries and chatting with artists. Contrary to most urban galleries I've seen, much of the work here was actually to my taste. It was a fine, hungover day and I finished it up with dinner in Tempe.
After dinner I took a walk up Big A Hill to watch the sun set. From the viewpoint just below the big, yellow, concrete "A" you can see just about an eighth of the Phoenix Metro area, stretching away in giant, mile-long blocks. 727s on their approach to Sky Harbor skimmed the top of the Hill, gliding a hundred feet above my head towards the bright orange horizon, looking strangely like models suspended above me.
Sitting on the wall with me was a nameless man from Helena, MT. He'd arrived in Phoenix five days ago, running from a recent divorce and tired of the snow. Five minutes after stepping off the bus he'd been hit over the head and his wallet was taken. He'd been sleeping in a cave up by the viewpoint ever since, waiting for his mom to wire him some money, thankful for the warm weather. He was bitter and confused and aimless, and his impression of Phoenix was far different from mine. I thought about the last five days of mine and how wonderful they'd been, and I kept my mouth shut. So many people, so many worlds.
I left for Tucson the next day.
No Simple Highway:
Last modified: Wed Feb 18 23:55:50 1998
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