Surrounding my former place of work are enough signs of societal starvation and decrepitude, that one could fill a library with the sad stories of the lives that revolve in and around it. To the west of our ‘campus’ is a schoolyard that, at times, is filled with little kids, some Hispanic, some black, and not too many white. The school is called ‘T. A. Edison School.’ Would Thomas Alvin be proud today if he happened to wander past? Would he look across the street to the south of my work’s building and peer into the depravity of the government housing projects that are filled with undreamed dreams and thoughts of what could have been, only if…?
On the east side of our compound is Edison Park, another shrine to the great inventor. This is the main source of entertainment for those children who were born, or otherwise brought into the Duppa Villa Projects. Our northern border is Roosevelt Street, named after the two wonderful cousin presidents. Little did they know that a street bearing their name would one day border the health department, the welfare office, the county hospital, the cemetery for the state hospital, and an inner-city, low-income housing project.
If only the president cousins could know that if they traveled just a bit further down their street, to Fifteenth Avenue, at the six-points intersection, they could pick up whatever kind of low-rent prostitute they could imagine having, what would they think? When they were done with her, they could also buy her a piece of rock-cocaine and celebrate the odds that they just gambled against in catching syphilis or HIV. Proud presidents they would be, having a street named after them that is nearly identical to another one that is just a bit further south from the health department, Van Buren. I haven’t read enough about him to know what the guy accomplished in his term at the nation’s helm, aside from sending thousands of Native Americans to their deaths on the Trail of Tears, but his namesake street has kept my department busy for over thirty-some years. It’s not the presidents’ fault, though, that the streets named in their honor just happen to be in the center of the town, where also, coincidentally, are much of the vice and crime. May they not turn over in their graves.
On any given rainy afternoon, you can walk into either of our parking lots and look to the eastern sky, where you will, sure enough, find a rainbow. If you look further, into the school-yard and the projects, and even over to T. A. Edison Park, where the winos often try to sleep off their latest buzz, you will find other souls looking skyward, searching out that historical myth-given promise from above that we won’t be destroyed again by the flood. Some of them however, will be looking further away still, trying to glimpse the end of the colored arch where another fable tells us there is a pot of gold awaiting the lucky finder. The neighborhood is full of rainbow seekers. The people who work in the dilapidated buildings of the health department and the welfare buildings who are our embryonic twins, evil stepsisters wrought in the same low-funded womb, also step outside to look at the beauty that has transformed the sky. The people here are often the ones who haven’t looked beyond too many fences to find what they might of themselves, but they will gaze skyward for a moment, hoping for whatever fulfillment that bow represents. They may wish upon the lacy reminder, hoping that it will bless their drawing of the night’s lottery numbers, or bring good luck to their four-year-old who will be performing in the lunchtime play at the school next door.
Who doesn’t wish for the better things that they don’t have? Who doesn’t yearn to be the lucky one to stumble over the pot of gold hiding beneath the Scottsdale or Tempe horizon? How many of our lives would be better if we only had that little-bit-extra that we are always wanting or actually needing?
I had a friend whose life was forever changed by an event that occurred on that Roosevelt Street that glides past our work-place. My friend went out to lunch one day a few years ago and ended up not making it to wherever he had intended to go. He had a diabetic seizure about halfway to wherever, and managed to turn the car around and get going in the direction of the clinic. The high curbs kept his car traveling relatively straight as he sped down the street, eventually plowing through a group of mothers and children who happened to be waiting for a bus. My friend’s car took out a light-pole and then came to rest against the side of one of the ancient palm trees that line the former K-mart, and present Ranch Market parking lot that was and is a favorite shopping place for many of the area’s people. Killed in this horrific scene were two mothers and two children. One other child managed to live somehow, and is now left with only his father.
I happened to drive past the backside of the scene that September day when the accident occurred. I drove through the K-mart parking lot and saw the smashed baby stroller lying in a contorted heap. I didn’t know the people whose bodies were covered with the yellow tarps by the fire department workers. At the time of my seeing those bodies and the stroller, I didn’t know that it had been caused by my friend whose car it was leaning into the palm tree.
I can imagine that the children used to run about the school playground; their families had picnicked at the park on Saturdays. The one woman’s aunt might have even lived in the projects nearby and had helped them make it across from Mexico where they had first seen their rainbow. Golden dreams that might have been assisted by the welfare check and food stamps issued from the building just outside of our back door were suddenly awash in the blood and life that had spilled into the street. Our little world of Eighteenth Street and Roosevelt had spawned, nurtured, and later, witnessed the death of the dreams that had begun right there in the craning necks of our very own rainbow seekers.
How life had changed in that first year after the accident. How our neighborhood had changed, in that year. For nine days and nights, we witnessed the mourning of the departed souls. The shrine that the locals had arranged reminded us, everyday on our way to and from work, of the ghastly mishap that had occurred there. Our friend was gone for two months. His work piled up some, our work piled up some. We had a fire drill and stood on the lawn of the welfare building to the south of our building, where, if we stood on our tip-toes and stretched our necks, we could see past the yellow honeysuckle-covered parking lot fence, and almost hear again the crunch and bump of a car moving over bodies and curb, light-pole and palm tree. If we looked, we could remember. If we looked, we could see their rainbow, lost, blowing away with the torn plastic K-mart bags, getting stuck for a moment on a stray tumbleweed, and then gone forever to that place of the unknowing unknown. We would have seen this, if we had looked.
The school has a new parking lot, and our parking lot has a new electronic arm to keep out uninvited visitors; the projects have a new lawn mower that swings through the open, grassy spaces between the barrack-type buildings and makes the if-watered-grass look like a cemetery with large yellow head-stones that say, “Here lies an undreamed dream,” and, “here lies an unfulfilled promise to ‘come back and get you and the kids,’ two generations late.” Markers of time and their undead dead.
Within the city real estate that lays between First Street and First Avenue, our Roosevelt cousins would find what the locals refer to as the ‘Triangle.’ Within these few blocks, at various times of the day, one can witness the vending of transvestite bodies. Here is a place where it is common for this special group of people to gather and see what types of business arrangements can be made. At other times of the day or night, the hustlers, or very young, male prostitutes, will barter their wares. Somewhere near is the den of different dreams. For reasons that we may never understand or want to know, this particular handful of men want to be women, so that they can be with men, naturally. They are held captive, meanwhile, in biological chains that are not of their choosing, and they, too, seek the eastern sky on rain-quenched afternoons. Who knows what they see there, while they wonder the same of us, standing in our safe parking lot, wondering at whatever whomever else is wondering at, together, in unison with the rest of us, rainbow seekers, all.
Some while ago, I met a young lady, Denise, during one of my many jail interviews. She was a prostitute who had syphilis and, maybe not so remarkably, came from our same cousin-presidents’ street. I spoke with her of many things that November morning, and finally, after much time, I asked Denise how it was, exactly, that she came to be involved with the drugs and prostitution. “I was eighteen years old, living in Texas with a man I had married for the wrong reasons. I had recently delivered a baby and had given it up for adoption without ever having seen it, didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. Shortly after I had the baby, my husband and I got divorced. Seeing as how my life was turned upside-down, and some friends had, several months ago, moved out here to Phoenix and suggested that I join them, I decided, ‘What the hell,’ and made the trip. After driving for two days, I finally made it here, and the only thing I wanted to do was to crash, and die to the world. So that’s what I did, I smoked a couple joints with my friends and then fell dead asleep. When I woke-up the next morning, I found that my ‘friends’ were gone. They had taken everything…literally. Every possession of mine was gone except the nightgown I was wearing. They had loaded my belongings back into my car and then drove off with all of it. Who knows where they are today.” They coveted what was not theirs, and given the first opportunity, they took it for themselves. What pieces of a dream were carried away in that one episode of thievery? How many fragments of the rainbow did they forever dislodge from the hopeful wonderings of that young woman? Considering that she was then viewing the world through the barred, jail windows that were between her and the rain washed skies of Phoenix on that particular afternoon, I think the shining bow may have been somewhat dim, if even glowing, in her eyes. I could be wrong, for after all, there is still tomorrow.
There will be another rainy day and the promising rainbow will again be seen arcing over the Phoenix horizon, and depending on how occupied we are with our work or other ventures for the day, or whether or not we might happen to need to stretch our legs for a minute or so, we may find ourselves outside or staring through a window with our eyes cast skyward making our own little wishes. It may be for worldly or material gain, safety for a loved one on a journey, success for struggling children or family members, an end to world strife, or for peace in our own hearts, but we will be there, looking toward the promising sky, seeking the rainbow, yet again.