July in Retrospect: Car Fires, Utopian Visions, and the Fourth
I. Angel's Trumpet
“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire."
-T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets
There's this quote at the beginning of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, where it gets its title. It essentially states, and I'm paraphrasing, that in Genesis the rainbow was a sign sent from God, a solemn promise, that He would never flood the earth again. That next time, He would simply set it on fire. Pardon my sacrilege, but that always struck me as kind of a fucked up trade-off. Especially so when I was crammed into a Sunday School class every weekend as a child and felt at the mercy of this view of the universe, with all its wrath, judgement, and damnation. I remember even trying to make compromises with my beliefs, thinking that maybe I could take the life of Jesus, with the love and compassion and forgiveness, even the gory bit at the end with the passion and crucifixion, and ignore the apocalypse and its whirlwind of fire—its thousand years of darkness, its tribulations, and beasts that eat mountains and forests.
It seemed almost Mephistophelian, like the kind of loophole the devil would exploit if you tried selling your soul to him. Is there anyone who, given the choice, would rather burn alive than drown to death? It’s a complete no-brainer. But then again, life isn’t that easy, is it? Sometimes things do burn down, sometimes it is the worst case scenario. Am I going to try and insulate myself from that as an adult? God or no? That sometimes the world, the very nature of life itself is wrathful, discerning in a cold ruthless way that feels very much like judgement, often as a direct result of things I did or did not do.
You can only curate the realities you choose to acknowledge so much, so diligently clipping and pruning them with ideologies and belief systems and simple self-deception from within a filter-bubble, before they swell beyond capacity and come crashing in. In fact that act of putting one's head in the proverbial sand is oftentimes the very reason the fire, or flood or whatever other catastrophe, burns out of control and into a full scale conflagration.
On the flip-side of that equation, the Japanese have a saying, "Shoganai", which essentially translates to "It can't be helped". It's commonplace in daily life there, like a mantra, steeped in a tradition of Zen Buddhist philosophy. It's used to acknowledge and accept suffering, whether it be in a traffic jam or the aftermath of an earthquake. And though this a bit healthier than in western culture, where we like to ignore the reality of death itself for as long and in so much as possible, it's also a complete submission to suffering, unquestioning assent to things as they are. Why try to change unhappy circumstances when misfortune is so immutable? Sure, sometimes, oftentimes, the best way to deal with things is to simply accept them, but the ability to change is integral to being alive, conflict and resolution, learning from failure.
It's a tricky territory, pain. And as the root of the word apocalypse would suggest, it's also a revealing, the truth comes out when the mold is shattered. And that is something my generation struggles with, not just pain but the very concept of defeat. Not to sound like a Boomer or anything, but that may very well be one of the major drawbacks of the participation trophy generation. It brings to mind an article I read recently, suggesting that we are the most anxious generation in America since at least the Vietnam War.
Not that it's something that should be sought out, just the opposite. But there is an odd sense of magnetism towards disaster, as repulsed as we are by pain and discomfort, as comfortable and rigorously streamlined as so much of our culture is, evidenced by the slew of Netflix true crime shows and documentary series like Dark Tourist. It's like the way people slow down to check out a car accident on the shoulder of a highway or stand and watch a burning building. It could've been me, it could've been me, but it wasn't. And relief washes over, soothing an ache that never quite goes away but only numbs itself at times, into the background static, until it finds the opportunity to surface anew.
I guess it does feel a little Old Testament, a bit cold and exacting, that we should be the people who make up the country during the point in which it looks most likely to fall apart at the seams—If you look at the list of best-selling books on Amazon for instance, it seems like they're usually either books for Trump, against Trump, or self-help manuals dealing with anxiety or depression. We're caught between a rock and a hard place, in that many of us spent our youths getting everything more or less handed to us and then we grew up to find there were barely any available jobs and the housing market is in shambles. And me, I remember winning the "Most Helpful" award at elementary school graduation, speaking of participation trophies, so I wouldn't feel left out because no one knew what else to give me. I'm more anxious than anybody, how do you think I know it so well?
So there was the car fire early last month, maybe a couple days before the Fourth. No one really knew how it had started, other than one of the managers from Angel's Trumpet who said that it had caught fire initially with the driver inside and that he had leapt out and ran to get clear. And she also told us that the car was burning right near a gas line, so everyone should stay back. Though it had become pretty obvious when the fuel tank exploded and the power line caught fire, the flames climbing up it rapidly and burning over the configuration of metal nodules and bundled cables at the top. I saw fiery pieces of the wooden post falling off and eventually, after all the circuits near the top burned for awhile, the line started fizzing and popping, sparks raining down in flurries over the pavement.
I remember thinking it was almost festive looking, like fireworks a few days early, the sharp cracks and tiny explosions echoing through downtown. We watched at first from the public parking lot across the street, the four of us, Brandon, Marzana, Julio, and me, all seated on the curb. The car itself was burning in front of the motel, on the corner of McKinley and 1st. There was a steadily growing crowd behind us, people who had come out from the restaurants and bars, others who had just pulled up, watching from the parking lot. I remember even seeing a stringer, standing beside his van with a high-end video setup, filming the blaze for TV news. But as the fuel tank popped and the power line started catching fire, we realized we should probably move, as we were right underneath the thick black cables that ran from the burning post across the street to the next, directly behind us, near La Flor De Calabaza and Pomo Pizzeria on the other side of the lot.
So we crossed and joined a crowd of people, all about our age, with their cellphones out, recording from behind the cars parked along the meters on 2nd Street, like a safety barricade. I remember it took awhile for first responders to arrive at the scene, even though they'd been called well before we arrived. And the smoke was visible from at least Desoto Market, where we'd seen it, on Roosevelt and Central, it was so thick and black that we thought a building was burning down.
The first sign of help was a single squad car that rolled slowly down East McKinley, coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the street, the officer got out with a serious "Oh shit" expression on his face. He radioed for help from behind the open door of the squad car, all the while watching helplessly as the car burned and the flames scattered themselves across the nearby bushes and climbed up the post. It went on and on as more squad cars and firetrucks arrived with lights flashing, they all initially seemed surprised and confused as though it was way worse than any of them had expected. A real fifty-fifty mix of shock and awe.
We talked with our fellow onlookers and predicted what would explode next and if the power would go down in the neighborhood, and if so how long would it take them to fix it. A waiter from Angel's Trumpet came outside and watched for a moment, telling us the lights were still on but that they could lose power at any minute. Brandon told him he better start cashing people out before the computers and POS system went down. The waiters eyes widened and he ran back in.
As the firefighters and police massed on the scene and contemplated the blaze, deciding how best to approach it, the smoke poured into the sky and billowed out over us, a light drift of falling ash coming down in hot flakes. I coughed a few times and stepped back under the cover of a tree, wondering then for the first time how toxic the fumes must be that were pouring out from that melting hunk of metal, automotive chemicals, and industrial plastics. Eventually they brought out a hose, spraying the car, and then sprayed the power line with fire extinguishers little-by-little, as hitting a live-wire with a 200 psi jet of water might not help matters.
As things died down I watched the crowds begin to loosen and break up. There were a few stragglers milling around, basking in the haze of the clearing smoke and the still flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, the soundless strobes of red and blue washing across the contours of the darkened motel and neighboring streets. Some looked down at their phones and absently began walking, maybe away, maybe not, looking up at the clearing scene every so often and taking their time, not wanting to miss it if anything else happened. A few people jumped in front of the parked squad cars and got video of themselves dancing and snapped selfies. One girl in a bikini even got right up near an officer with her friend filming, going live and shouting out to her Instagram followers from the scene of the conflagration. Where the ordinary scheme of night-to-night activities had come suddenly undone and erupted into flame.
Afterwards we had food and drinks in Angel's Trumpet for a little while. The power never went out and as we sat there and talked the power line was visible out the back window, its topmost section sticking up over the cinder block fence that encloses the back patio. There were small tongues of flame dancing on it as the firefighters continued to spray it every so often with fire extinguishers, letting it burn out slowly. We mostly just looked at the video we got of the blaze on our phones and watched the boxing matches on the restaurant TV.
When we were done, we all walked outside and looked at what remained of the car, all of the emergency vehicles had cleared out by then and were replaced by two Cox vans, surveying the damaged line. It was little more than a charred skeleton of a vehicle then; the windows all blown out from the heat, the frame a warped black crust, and the engine and parts under the hood looked almost melted, as if the inner workings of the machine had softened and caved in on itself.
II. Utopian Bell Song
"The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!"
-Hart Crane, The Broken Tower
The materials used to make the bells, the ceramics and bronze, are culled from the surrounding desert where the partial architecture sits on a mountain plateau. The plateau is the rise just an hour north of Phoenix, if you're a local you probably know it. When you're headed almost anywhere in that direction, like Sedona, Flagstaff, Southwestern Colorado, you usually have to cross it. The structure itself is built on top of a bed of silt, just off the I-17, in Yavapai county, which they use not only for the bells, but for the walls of the buildings during the initial construction. To make the bells, the silt is mixed into the clay-like raw material in a structure they call the foundry apse and the bronze is melted in the furnace right beneath it, after which they're poured into molds and casings.
The bronze is coated with a patina finish and sometimes steel brushed and burnished with a blow torch, creating spontaneous flares of iridescent color across the surface of the bell. The ceramic molds on the other hand are etched and powdered with oxides, before being fired in the kiln, creating a similar effect as the burnish. The sales of these bells, with their nice crisp song that sounds itself out in the passing breeze, are one of the primary sources of funding for the entire project. And indeed, many of the volunteers must learn to become artisans in order to craft them and sustain the vision—the vision of sustainable living.
The vision is known as Arcosanti, we decided to make a day trip there on 4th of July—Brandon, Marzana, Sureya, Jorge, and me. The five of us left in morning, cramming into Brandon's Jeep, and headed off with a packed picnic basket for lunch after the guided tour of the grounds and some half-frozen bottles of water, which in this weather would melt quickly into ice water.
They call it an "urban laboratory" and fashioned it as a living, breathing experiment. I say a partial architecture because only a very small percentage of the grand design was ever constructed, back in the 1970s. It was envisioned as a city of tomorrow, without waste and completely self-sustaining. It was built from an architectural philosophy Paolo Soleri referred to as Arcology—in other words an architecture built totally in-sync with its surrounding ecology. And on paper it's a very good idea.
I can attest to that pretty literally, as in the gift shop at the beginning of the tour there was a series of folders for tourists to look at, containing a sort of over-arching manifesto for the project. Imagine a xeroxed ten-commandments kept in plastic-laminated white folders, rather than on stone tablets, detailing an atheistic communal way of life that would eventually, given time and effort, under ideal circumstances, grapple with some form of cosmic consciousness. Admittedly it did have that classic top-down quality, as though it were being imparted from what was meant to be the pinnacle of an ethical hierarchy—unquestionable and beyond reproach, no real asking why it would simply be the way.
And given the way I am, I'm naturally going to distrust anything I can't question. In fact one of my major personality flaws could be said to be that I naturally assume any gathering of people in a group is the beginnings of a cult or witch hunt. However for a Utopian commune, given the number of ways this thing could potentially go off the rails, if that's as culty as it gets, frankly that's a pretty good sign. And of course it was hard to criticize when one first walks into this place, observing the sheer architectural ingenuity of the structure and marveling at the very fact that it exists in the first place, for the purposes of conservation and sustainability no less. And when the very fruits of the labor themselves, the bells, in all of their artistry, were dangling in beautiful displays all around us in the visitor center gift shop—catching the sun, through the large windows and skylight, and shimmering magnificently.
After we were done looking, we asked the man at the front desk about the next tour and he directed us to wait in the rows of blue plastic chairs in the far corner of the room, which were lined up in front of a TV. We were planted there for maybe ten minutes before anyone showed up. I'm not saying the chairs were torture, but my ass definitely got pretty uncomfortable by the end of it. Eventually one of the volunteers came over and began adjusting the TV with a remote, he was wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top. He looked like he'd been sweating, either working outside or somewhere indoors and hot, for the past few hours. As he was fiddling with the TV, he paused and looked over his shoulder at us, "Is anyone here a veteran?" he asked.
We all looked at each other.
He added, "It's for a grant we're applying for..."
We all looked at each other again and then there came some mumbling and scattered no's from everyone. He nodded and went back to the TV, cuing up a video presentation.
Throughout the presentation, which was a short documentary on the Arcosanti project that looked like it had been produced in the mid-90s, I kept adjusting in my seat. I thought that if I shifted my weight to one side or the other I'd eventually be able to strike a balance on the hard plastic surface. Which, even though it was clearly aged, the video was full of interesting information, so it was kind of annoying being in a constant state of discomfort during it. This isn't an indictment in any sense of the facilities though, by way of petty complaints about their seating situation—I'm not a Yelp reviewer here. If anything this just illustrates how incredibly neurotic I am, and maybe my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, because it happens to me basically when I sit in any plastic chair anywhere I go and I can't ignore it. By the time the video was nearing its end I'd stopped shifting and just accepted that I was gonna be sore as long as I was sitting, and then, shortly thereafter, my ass went blissfully numb. My ridiculous plight was over, but the more serious global one at hand is the problem of our urban centers being by their very definition unsustainable and deeply impractical, as the video explained.
And I mean it's only common sense that industrialization run amok is going to literally poison and suffocate our planet, but a lot of people still struggle with that. We industrialized our society with reckless abandon in the 20th century, continuing to spread and build in every direction as soon as technological advances took place. It only stands to reason that if you cover large sections of the earth's surface in a skin of concrete, steel, and glass, that inhales valuable life-sustaining resources and exhales toxic fumes, it's going to become a problem.
And our current economic system's strategy, in as much as I understand it, in all matters, and the environment in particular, is to run things as hard and as fast as possible until the wheels utterly fall off. However, as much as I've thought about this, and stressed about this, being not only a lover of my own survival, but the outdoors and nature, something just wasn't sitting right with me about Arcosanti.
First there was the video, sure the place is funded through donations and volunteer work, but the fact that it looked as if it were transferred to digital from VHS wasn't encouraging. It suggested that maybe things have stagnated a bit here in recent years. And also there was the glaring fact that construction had completely ceased in the 70's and that was basically the end of it. So for decades there had been no substantial additions and there didn't seem to be much hope of trying out this experiment elsewhere, in other ecosystems.
Finally our tour guide arrived, giving my ass just the reprieve it sorely needed when I finally lifted it out of the rigid plastic seat to begin the tour. He was extremely personable and charming, a kid—I say kid, he was probably a year or two younger than me—who'd eventually told us that he moved here from New York City for school, when he heard about Arcosanti and became interested. He cracked jokes often and had an endearing ability for self-depreciating humor. Of course this is to say nothing of his strikingly Barack Obama-esque speech patterns, which put me immediately at ease. As they did for much of America between 2008 and 2016, admittedly no matter what was happening.
It occurs to me that no matter how dicey things seem now, they've been pretty clearly headed this way in a relatively unbroken line for some time now. From not just the tumultousness of the Bush years, but even before that, to policies set under Reagan, and before that to Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower. And it isn't restricted to politics and law, but spans technology, media, urban development.
Speaking of the Obama years, remember the Occupy Protests? People had lost so much faith in banks and financial institutions, from the housing crisis that took place under Bush, then the economic disparity of which that continued into Obama's administration, that people literally wanted to do away with money. I vividly remember standing in a Barnes and Noble in Texas looking at a book about the Occupy Movement, written by Noam Chomsky (titled simply, "Occupy"), thinking that this thing was getting big. In fact back then, in 2012, the terms "the 1%" and the "99%" were as big of buzzwords as "alt-right" and "fake news" are now.
And, as someone who was living in Texas at the time and going to high school, dealing with assholes who were raised by asshole parents, it was very obvious after the 2008 election that we were in fact not living in the myth of a post-racial America. Just the opposite. After the election results were announced a crowd of black students danced down the hallway and sang "Obama! Obama!" and almost immediately I started hearing snickering, and jokes being made, by white kids that when he was assassinated, they'd dance down the hallway singing, "No-Bama! No-Bama!". As it was sort of taken for granted by them that a black man in a position of office that high would never make it through a term, let alone two. Not in their country, they thought, despite being around their black peers every day and receiving, a not great but certainly passable, modern education.
And this was to say nothing of the mass shootings, one of the burgeoning symptoms of the violent upset of the white male. They really picked up at the beginning of, and continued all throughout, Obama's second term. These were—are—crimes of complete nihilism, a highly destructive mode of suicide that echoes Paul Schrader's comments on his reasoning behind his screenplay for Taxi Driver. As far back as 1976, he had said, basically, that in a country like Japan if someone wanted to commit suicide they would quietly close their window and end their life in private, whereas in America one would fling the window open and begin firing randomly into the street. That Americans, at large, lack the capacity for careful self-examination and as a result project their pain outwards onto their environment.
That reality became more and more chillingly real as time passed and American life moved from the 20th century into the 21st, with crimes like Columbine. Which later gave rise to things like Sandy Hook, the shooting in a crowded Aurora movie theater, and finally Dylan Roof entering a Georgia church and opening fire on its all black congregation. These can't even be called crimes of passion, because of how utterly cynical they are, so perhaps they are crimes of an almost inverse passion. A disaffectedness that arises out of an incremental detachment from and warping of reality, like the way space curves and twists around a black hole. Maybe it starts as hate or depression, but eventually it becomes a complete negative emotion, like a dark matter of the spirit, heavy and super-dense.
And these instances are almost mimetic, the way they repeat and hideously replicate themselves, evolving into things like Orlando and, very recently, Las Vegas—which was the most thoroughly planned of them all and as a result the number of victims was staggering.
The point being that I'd hoped Arcosanti, however naively, would contain a solution of some kind for this. As we followed the young tour guide, with his candor and very Barack vocal affectations, he explained that the community was built to conserve as much space as possible, to both maximize energy and resources. This was abundantly clear as we moved up staircases and walked through small modular hallways that gave way to tight corners, leading from one essential space to another. It was very cleverly designed and looked as though it could easily be mass produced many times over, in slight variations. This also maximized social interactions between residents, strengthening an overall sense of community while also giving them a necessary sense of space and privacy in their own respective quarters. This, along with everyone's daily tasks, intimately involved every single person in the Arcology with its essential goals and functions, meaning that everyone has a role to serve and everyone matters in a very real and tangible way.
The thing about these mass shootings is that they are carried out almost exclusively by white males who live in middle-class suburban areas, usually with a history of mental illness. The suburbs, where people are spread out just far enough to never have to interact with one another, who usually work standard 9-5 service level jobs for large corporations that cause no discernible effect on the world they're living in. The only pleasure in this scheme of things is getting to go out to eat at the chain restaurants, which are all more or less the same, and shopping at big-box retail outlets. Maybe, once in a great awhile, you'd go on a vacation. But at a resort somewhere, a place without much fuss that has very clear rules and parameters, so not to add to the constantly winding mental stress of an unsatisfying job and exhausting routine outside of work. All the while being inundated at all angles by a relentless celebrity and advertising culture that bears no actual resemblance to your every day life, other than the brand names that appear.
It's easy to see why some cognitive dissonance may begin to occur. They say the suicide rates are also higher than they've ever been in this country. But of course, some people choose to react by changing professions, taking sculpting classes, or going on hiking trips. So I don't think these conditions are wholesale creating these people, in as much as offering conditions in which the people who would've been capable of this kind of thing, in any time or society, are catalyzed. And this isn't in any way meant to excuse any of these horrific acts at all, but merely to illustrate the environment in which people like this are being cultivated. Namely in a society in which every aspect of daily life has become holographic, symbolic rather than implicit. Where everything is viewed through the screen of digital technology and the skewed lens of mass-media; this is the realm of Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault. In the vernacular of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte: This is not a pipe. Or, fitted to our dilemma: This is not a life.
This makes it easier to detach, to disengage from things. And if the disengaged party in question is one who has an inclination towards violence, we have a very serious problem on our hands indeed.
Which does a lot to explain why entertainment is utterly oozing with irony these days as well as post-modern aesthetics and deconstruction. Everyone's so wise to the game at this point that irony itself is almost ironic, to the extent that it seems like every cable TV show and commercial is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. When a pattern is repeated enough times, eventually the system will recognize the pattern and then analyze the pattern itself. Dissecting it, poking and prodding it, like Burroughs with his word cut-ups or Kathy Acker and her literary collage novels that would extract and rearrange entire passages from other works.
My hope was that Arcosanti's way of life would illustrate a means by which to mediate this issue, namely in supplying man, in his confused and volatile state, with a community and sense of greater purpose. A very real and tangible sense of things and their values. Life is after all enough of an existential horror show without needing to exacerbate the issue, we're on such tenuous grounds with the universe and our place in it as is.
And as our guide walked us through the facility and showed us the foundry apse, the exterior of the furnace, the vault, and the amphitheater, it finally hit me. This entire place was still just a prototype, and had been since the 70's. Nothing more or less than that, almost an artifact, that a few enthusiastic volunteers maintained because it remained a popular destination, an oddity in the desert.
What were they doing here then? I wondered. How long does the experiment run and what are its goals? If we are to seriously integrate this into the mainstream world, there needs to be some kind of aggressive outreach, there needs to be a clear mission. There's gotta be an attempt to get people interested beyond throwing music festivals and putting on live shows. I'm talking finding large benefactors who believe in it, attracting the attention of people involved in setting policy. Whereas it just seemed like a loosely staffed alternative lifestyle retreat, I don't think anybody there had any real interest in making these concepts apart of a city, but keeping them separate from the city altogether. An isolated reprieve from the harsh rigors of industrialized metropolitan life rather than a real solution to it.
The people weren't cultists either, they weren't ideologues, they just struck me as hippie architects and scientists who wanted to see if they could make this thing work. And it did, but then what? I mean it's easier said than done to push this thing on the world, but it just seemed to me that there was no longer any attempt to do anything but sweep the ruins and keep the lights on.
After the tour was over we stopped into the cafe for food and water. And I was really keen to check out the visitor hiking trail, that started underneath the facility and wound out into the desert a short distance. Brandon was the only other person who wanted to go with me, so we found a shady spot for everyone else to sit and took off down the rocky path, into the small ravine. It led to a few interesting spots, at the bottom there was wall with a small recess on it near the ground, like a shelf, that looked almost like a fire place but there was no chimney. We continued up the path and it wound up a hill, at each turn there were prayer rocks stacked, and eventually it took us to an area at the top covered partially by a canopy. It offered a great view of Arcosanti from a distance, and there were rocks scattered around on the ground in different shapes, a large peace-sign and the word "Love" spelled out.
I turned from the view of Arcosanti and looked at the dead-end the path made, with stacks of prayers lined up there, tall and short stacks of varying sized rocks. The terrain got rugged past the end of the path, rising up steeply in grooves and jutting rock, it led up eventually to a sheer rock wall, and on top of that would be more level ground, a continuation of the plateau running into the foreseeable distance. I imagined what it would be like to find a place far out there in the desert and have a small cabin, where I could keep a mountain bike, some books, and something to write with that doesn't require electricity, maybe some notebooks or a typewriter. Though admittedly I've gotten more used to the digital means at this point. I discussed thoughts and impressions of the place with Brandon, the cluster of eco-friendly ruins across the shallow ravine from our spot under the canopy, the vision. We both felt the same way about it.
I remember wondering if technology could ever become more humane, but given that the tools themselves are in essence neutral, it would require a change in human beings first not the machinery. It all comes from the top down, a ripple from the center.
III. The Fourth
“Long enough have you dream'd contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light
and of every moment of your life”
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I wanna be an optimist, I really do. But things seem so bleak these days, as if we’re on a steep downward slide and there’s no coming back. Whether it be the rapidly changing environment, or the state of global politics with its demagogues, or an economy fraught with massive corporate monopolies. It's like our systems are freewheeling and ready to careen out of control. But that's the problem with living in the present, there's nothing to compare it to but the past, and it often feels, as a result, totally unprecedented.
We stopped off at Total Wine and More on the way back from Arcosanti, hot and exhausted, slowly drifting through the isles, grabbing a bottle of tequila and a few cases of beer to watch the fireworks with. Which would be visible from the roof of the parking structure at the apartment complex, Steele Park being right across the street. On the way in I watched a heavy-set old man in the parking lot, with a wispy white beard and a Bass Pro Shop hat, scold a young woman petitioner who was collecting signatures for RedforEd. I saw him again, later on in the store, and he still looked fired up from that exchange. His shoulders sloping forward and his eyes beaming, fleshy red hands clasped around the handle of his shopping cart as he squeaked between isles. His bulky form drew the eye with the bright red shirt he wore over it. Did he think increasing teacher’s salaries meant Big Government would dip it’s ever-present hand even deeper into his pocket? I don’t know. I only caught bits and pieces of what he said, but he seemed real mad, this proud American, with his white beard and red shirt. An antithetical Santa Claus who never laughed, kept his bowl-full-of-jelly stomach tight and close for protection, and didn’t give any hand outs.
And then there was Arcosanti, Brandon and me had been bummed out since we left. I remember when I first heard about it, having seen an exhibition of Soleri’s models and architectural drafts at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art one night. I did further research, watching videos about it online and reading up on his theories and philosophy. I remember thinking, “Someone did it, someone actually found a solution.” Only to arrive at the physical place and see it with my own eyes, the chaotic potential of fantasy and expectation focused into a singular disheartening reality, that it was little more now than a well-maintained artifact, a ruin even. A museum commemorating a point in time fraught with idealism, just another Utopian dream unrealized, and now a woo-woo lifestyle destination, people arriving in droves wearing tie-died and indie rock t-shirts to stack prayer rocks alongside the scenic hiking trail.
Of course I almost expected it by then, as it was just a few months after the Art Museum visit that I'd heard about the allegations leveled against Paolo Soleri by his own daughter, of repeated sexual abuse. And those allegations colored my whole perception of the place, it was impossible to totally remove myself from that knowledge and be objective. It was as if everything was all wrong, perhaps even from the beginning. Despite the critique of our civilization being absolutely correct, despite the essential philosophy of Arcology being sound and workable. The center just didn't hold. Can this all really be attributed to the sins of Paolo Soleri's life? I doubt it, at least not completely. But somehow, the thing just didn't scan, it didn't actualize.
And on we go, still searching for something.
We all went back to the apartment, the whole group from Arcosanti, Tyler met us there and Jorge ended up having to leave. We drank for a few hours, watched movies, and talked. Eventually we all went out to get some food at Hula's down the street, cramming the six of us into a five-seat car, with Marzana having to sit on Brandon's lap. And after we finished eating the sun had mercifully set, the concrete was still hot but the harsh rays gone, which was enough. Between that, the cramped car, and everything that was swirling through my head, I decided to walk the few blocks back to the apartment on my own, while everyone else stopped off at Fry's for grilling supplies.
As I walked down Central it went from dusk to night and the sidewalks were getting congested, especially down by Steele Park where the fireworks would be in less than an hour. By the time I got down the street to the George and Dragon I had to start dodging people as they circulated towards the park and find my way through the thick stream of bobbing heads and shuffling feet. As I walked I passed a parking lot a few doors down from the bar, there was a family gathered in the back of a pickup truck, with the door down and their legs dangling over the pavement as they waited for the fireworks to start. The father was wearing a black t-shirt and shorts, the durable steel rod of a false-leg hanging out from one side, glinting in the yellow-orange street lights.
A veteran, I thought, not just from the leg, but his build, his expression and posture, the phased-out military haircut, that's outside of regulations but still kept shortly trimmed as force of habit. His wife was rationing out snacks and water to their three small children, who were bouncing around as they waited. All the while he just watched the ambling figures and the buckling mass of humanity as it passed with absent eyes, swelling down the sidewalk and across the crosswalk to Steele Park under the direction of tired police officers. As I was passing them there was a woman was standing in the same lot, beside a cooler with her small daughter as helper, holding water bottles in each hand and extending them to passersby, "Agua?" she asked. I said no but thanked her and continued down the way, turning the corner to the apartment complex.
I am a patriot in my own way, I celebrate my nation and its history.
For example when I try to express myself my words get tangled up in Melville's long sprawling sentences, his rambling poetic allusions with commas followed by em dashes. My sense of human psychology is utterly ensnared in the spiraling descriptions and metaphors of Faulkner's south, making me sick for home only in that it reminds me vaguely, though is disconnected in time and place—he was from Mississippi, I grew up in Texas—of something that once appeared in a great American novel. If I've wanted be more concise lately, I'll go to Edith Wharton, and my social sense will become trapped in the gender and social dynamics of the gilded age.
I want to be able to say what I want to say in a deft and succinct manner, I dream of being able to string a sentence together as naturally and cleanly as a David Sedaris, or a Bret Easton Ellis, who even when I don't agree with him, I appreciate how lucid he is. I'd like to be able to do that, with whatever it is I believe.
But much like our nation at this moment, I long to express myself, only to get wrapped up in all these conflicting thoughts, meanings, structures, the phraseology becomes split, fractured into small pieces, and entangled again in a mess. At times it seems like I'll have to be more of a William S. Burroughs or Kathy Acker, without clear identity, cutting what I write apart and liberally using the voices and words of those that I venerate in a muddy, anarchic collage. But that wouldn't be honest, would it?
Much like the Anti-Claus at Total Wine, who I found it so easy to mock and despise, to use at the brunt end of my slipshod social commentary, I am clinging to a system that doesn't even exist anymore. Print publishing, with the advent of the internet and the ubiquity of self-publishing, has become nearly impregnable—tightened and rigid like so many recently troubled industries—the odds of being discovered now are nearly one-in-a-million. It doesn't mean I won't try, knowing me I'll slam my head against the thing over and over again, even if it turns out to be a brick wall.
Which is probably how the Anti-Claus from Total Wine feels, about his, in my opinion deeply misguided, Libertarian views. The world has a way of pressing down on the things we want to preserve, superfluous though they may be, in other cases out-right harmful. As that very impulse gave rise to one of the more disastrous presidential elections in modern history—you know the one I mean.
So how long does one hold on to their principles, the things which they treasure, and when is it time to give up to change? The change and constant movement which is the very essence of the observable universe, the ever present ghost haunting time and space. So it makes a very strong argument. I guess, as best as I can tell, the difference between something you should hold onto and something you shouldn't, is whether or not it does harm to others and how much it does to you.
However if you can hang onto it without doing harm to anybody else, maybe its worth sticking with, if you love it enough. Yourself can be a bit of a different story though, I'd try not to lose an arm or a leg or develop a serious crack habit, but following your dreams can be pretty difficult, possibly even life-threatening, work. If that irks you, you might wanna find something more safe and stable—if such a thing can be said to exist anymore.
There is a danger, which is implicit in being alive, it's the trade off for drawing fresh oxygen into your lungs and continuing to speak. The truth is nothing is safe, especially not a goal or, dare I say, a passion. Passions are volatile things, they can be painful, but also intoxicating, beautiful, and fulfilling. And given my own temperament, if I wasn't doing this I'd probably lose it very quickly and go off to do something even more reckless, like joining up with a crab fishing vessel in the Bering Straight or working tourism in the Amazon rain forest—And, believe me, they'd all still just be pit-stops on the way to writing, adventures and experiences to generate material like some latter-day Joseph Conrad.
No, the way I see it, I don't have much choice with the particular cross I carry, which more or less is the need to support myself with writing and possess, what basically amounts to, complete and total creative freedom. It's a tall, somewhat blindly idealistic, order for sure. A sort of Jonah and the Whale situation, if I try to turn tail and run from doing the Lord's work—in this case writing—I'll just be tossed off a ship in a tempest and swallowed by a sea-beast, of my own making generally speaking, until I submit and agree to start all over again, being vomited onto dry land with some sort of plastic sealed computer or writing machine.
I have no desire to live in the past, I like my time period, warts and all. I have no inkling to collect typewriters, though I think they're cool, or live out a fantasy as a penniless genius in an attic handwriting by candlelight—No need really, the machines and the words on them glow these days. I'm interested in a similar sensibility sure, but more modern. This is the future and I am a new man, from Melville, from Faulkner, from Edith Wharton, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, or even David Sedaris and Bret Easton Ellis. So I will adapt and transform, but will I give up on my passion?
I look up from the roof of the parking structure, now joined by my friends, surrounded by onlookers in camping chairs, drinking beers and in still-wet swim suits, and the displays begin popping and catching fire across the sky, burning in all of their many colors and falling arrangements, traces hanging after they're gone in murky wisps of hot sulfurous smoke. And watching it I think something like: I'll hold on to me, I'll hold onto me until the end of the world if I have to.
The circumstances aren't ideal, but it's a Happy Birthday to America, because we are alive and well for the time being. And in this moment, with a controlled fire in the sky, rather than one on earth scorching our backs, everything is eclipsed for as long as it lasts. One day, we can dream, that everything will be alright. The present will always feel totally out of hand. And yet, here we are, still alive, still dreaming with vivid colors falling through the sky.
Note: Footage of the car fire and thumbnail image shot by Julio Copelly. Follow him on Instagram @jcop22.