Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sorry, But I Like Air Travel

It’s common for travelers to complain about flying, while writers and comedians make rueful comedy about it. George Carlin most notably dissected airline P. A. announcements, from the idiocy of “pre-boarding” to the jaw-droppingly naïve instruction to “breathe normally” when an emergency oxygen mask drops ominously in front of your face.
            I like to travel by air. I fly my own airplane for fun, but I travel by commercial airliner. I won’t try to convince you that all aspects of it are pleasant; you know better. But I have convinced myself that any unpleasantness is much magnified—or greatly improved—by attitude. Take, for example, the matter of luggage. A car encourages you to fill its trunk. Trains and buses suggest by their size that they have room for anything you can bring. Only air travel demands that you ask yourself what is necessary for you to pack. I realized long ago that the pilots’ and flight attendants’ tote on top of a small rolling case made all kind of sense and was probably a restriction arrived at through compromise: what the crews absolutely needed for stays that could be unpredictably long versus the airlines’ necessity to provide space for the paying rather than the paid souls on board. I may be odd in enjoying the challenge of choice or rejection of that stylin’ sweater, and I positively enjoy the game of reducing weight and bulk in my shaving and medication kit.
            When a jet leaves the ground, the pilot raises the nose to a steep attitude for the climb out. To a person like myself trained to fly in small non-jet planes, it’s an impossible angle that I know will result in a stall, after which the plane will drop immediately several hundred feet; since we are so near the ground, we will crash. It doesn’t happen, of course, because the thrust of these jet airplanes allows them to practically stand on their tails, but for me, it’s one of several moments in commercial flying when I am forced to think about the imminence of death. Another such moment is the landing, which in a jet takes place at a speed entirely too close to two hundred miles an hour. Again, landing my own small plane is different: it is an exhilarating feeling of being the only one responsible for getting this puppy safely onto the ground, but it takes place at speeds that quickly slow from less than a hundred miles an hour to less than fifty.
            I should make clear that I don’t think occasionally imagining that one’s death is close a bad thing. We don’t do it often enough, I believe. Those who don’t fly or those fliers who are utterly indifferent to the experience never feel those moments of near-terror that others of us do: the volaphobes—I think I just made up a word—or those of us who don’t fear flying, but who carefully observe the stages of flight that are the most dangerous moments. Most automobile drivers, I suspect, have had a near-crash experience when they do momentarily feel the brush of the dark angel’s wing. Flying is exhilarating for me partly because of such moments in the air, brief as they may be.
But most of the exhilaration of flying commercial is in the sheer unlikelihood of it all. That feeling when the wheels leave the ground and their unpleasant vibration gives way to smoothness and freedom, for example, is always increased for me when I’m looking from the back of a 747 across eight rows of seats and forward most of a football field’s length to the front, thinking, “this is a building that’s launching itself into air!” And even at altitude, flying comfortably along, with a drink on the tray in front of me not even vibrating a bit, I often think how truly wild and strange it is to be going five hundred miles an hour six miles up in the sky without even having my hair ruffled.
No excitement attends waiting in airports, going through lines for security checks, or driving to and from airports, and any one of these chores might end up taking as long as my flight. But these tedious matters enable me to experience the flight itself, a method of travel still astonishing and as different from ordinary modes of getting across land and sea as the soaring of an eagle is from the crawling of an ant. And at the end I am deposited in a different time zone, on another continent, or even half the world away.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Like a Palimpsest

            To illustrate the way the mind can hold past and present together at once, Freud begins Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) with a striking image. Imagine looking at the city of Rome, he invites us, and being able to see all the buildings that have ever been there, at once, past and present: the palaces of the Caesars, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus as well as the building that replaced it, Nero’s Golden House and the Coliseum occupying the same space at the same time, Etruscan structures in the same view as the edifices that were built on their ruined foundations, and so on.
            At times I see Tucson this way, as a palimpsest where the layers are transparent and what lies beneath is visible even while I read the writing on the surface. Jacome’s department store and Steinfeld’s facing each other across Pennington on Stone and, across Stone, the Pioneer Hotel before the fire are visible to me in my mind’s eye as I look at the buildings there now, or their absence in Jacomé Park. Jacome’s closed in 1980, and Steinfeld’s had been demolished six years earlier. That was four years after the fire in the Pioneer that killed Harold and Margaret Steinfeld in their penthouse apartment. When the hotel was redone as an office building, its façade completely changed, that little section of downtown Tucson had been transformed as if by Neronic fire and rebuilding.
            Less dramatic change transforms much more mundane edifices as well. When I pass the Moose Lodge on Ruthrauff, I think of its last incarnation as Country West, where my wife Katharine and I stopped the night Johnny Cash died to hear that day’s band play their homage to his music. Before that, Country West had been The Branding Iron, if memory serves. Memory, and sometimes the archives of The Arizona Star, can be all I have in these reconstructions.
            In the last year one of the old watering holes closed: the Rusty Nail, on Wetmore and Flowing Wells, shut its doors for good after 44 years of dispensing reasonably-priced booze to its patrons. The last tap on the rusty nail started me thinking of other, more familiar dives that are no more. The first of these to go was the Green Dolphin on Park. Aside from the pool table that always had quarters sitting on the rail indicating players in line to use it next, the major attraction of the Green Dolphin was its closeness to the University of Arizona. In those days—the place was active from the 1960s to the 80s—there was no string of bars on 3rd (now called University) Street at the college gates. I suppose the Green Dolphin attracted a fairly eclectic group of students, but I always remember the place in the mid-sixties as being full of Anthropology and English graduate students. As the closing hour approached—it was one a. m. in those days—the serious drinkers would line up at the bar for depth charges—shot glasses of whiskey dropped into glasses of beer—or beer and tequila shots. From several parts of the room would come a badly harmonized version of “the Athabascan bastards caused the Great Pueblo’s fall.”
            By the late 80s, the Green Dolphin’s trade was being squeezed by bars closer to the dorms, and in the early 90s I read in the Star that the owner had committed suicide in the building after going bankrupt.
            My memory says—and the Star is no help here—that four or six pool tables were an attraction at the Grant Road Tavern, which was also cleaner, better lighted (some like those sorts of things) and with a slightly tonier clientele, although one day my friend Bob Ackerman and I heard the two guys at an adjoining pool table discussing their recent release from jail and their next move. “We could steal a car,” said one of them. The Grant Road Tavern burned in 1987. Shaffer Mabarak, who owned half a dozen Tucson bars at one time or another, chose not to rebuild. I think it’s interesting that when the Star published his obituary in 1999, Mabarak’s owning of the Grant Road Tavern showed up in the first couple of sentences.
            Some bars just stay there while the area around them morphs into something else. The oldest bar in Tucson still operating in the same location is The Buffet, which began life as The Lantern Buffet when it was built in 1934 to serve railroad workers from the depot nearby. The depot is long gone, and the area is now a sedate lower-middle-class neighborhood, while The Buffet has settled into being a neighborhood bar that just happens to have its walls completely covered with graffiti layered like a palimpsest.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Trailer Park Flora

No, this isn’t about Flora, the golden-hearted prostitute who makes the rounds of the trailer parks. In Tucson, when you see a big stand of the tall, thin palms called Washingtonians, you’re probably close to one of the city’s old trailer parks. The slenderest and tallest of the palms are a naturally occurring species in the Sonoran Desert, Washingtonia robusta, which can reach eighty or ninety feet high. A slightly thicker and shorter variety, the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, can be found all over Tucson as well, but has less of the slim elegance of robusta, which is sometimes called the Mexican fan palm.
            The settled communities that these old trailer parks have become defies the association of transience and impermanence trailers have. There are 430 trailer parks in the county, representing ten percent of the living spaces. Many of them exist because about a quarter of Arizona families spend more than half their income on housing, and trailers are an answer to that huge economic bite. But the culture of the long-established trailer parks is that of an older, more well-off, and economically more stable crowd. They live in trailer parks, yes, but ones that have become settled communities, rivaling neighborhoods of pre-WWII houses, and adorned with some of the oldest and most magnificent tall palms to be found in the city. Some of the people in these parks may still be winter residents only, but a lot of them clearly decided a long time ago that this was the place to be year-round.
            Not as visible as the palms from a distance but usually bordering these parks, equally aged and impressive, are the Burbank prickly pears that massively hedge and enclose them. At the beginning of the twentieth century Luther Burbank hybridized two Mexican varieties of prickly pear to produce these cacti. Burbank was looking for a cactus that could feed cattle, and found it. But in this part of Arizona people saw these heavy, substantial, thornless cacti as good substitutes for hedges and fences. Occasionally a property owner would back up a line of Burbanks with a simple post-and-rail fence. But with or without the fence, the arrangement required little maintenance and the plants needed no water beyond the sparse desert rainfall.
            Tall palm and giant prickly-pear trailer parks are not everywhere in Tucson, but there are enough to be familiar landmarks in the cityscape. Another kind of flora, less conspicuous from a distance but equally old, marks a separate group of trailer parks.
            I suppose the palm and cactus plantings were appealing to those ready to embrace the move to the southwest from wherever they came. But a park with more greenery might have appealed to people not ready for a clean break with the grass and shrubs of the states they left behind. And there are parks in Tucson where the plants, though as old as the cactus and palms in other parks, offered more shade and verdant prospects. Typical of the latter is a trailer park on Limberlost Drive called Vista del Norte—and it does indeed have a splendid view of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north. This park is bordered with the tallest oleanders I’ve ever seen. I think they may be twenty feet tall, and they challenge the overhead phone and electrical wires in places. Twenty feet is the maximum height for oleanders, according to the scientific literature.
            These are white-flowering oleanders. Red and pink ones are popular elsewhere in town, but almost all the old ones I see are white. Nerium oleander is so widely cultivated that no one knows in what part of the world it originated, but it was probably somewhere in south Asia. Like the palm and cacti, oleander is also drought-resistant, though it needs some watering beyond the local rainfall, and it is not easily swept away in gully-washers when the rains do come. When it grows to these sizes it is virtually opaque to prying eyes and thus functions well as a boundary hedge.
            Possibly the only disadvantage of the plant is that all of its part are toxic to people and some animals. A fanciful etymology has its name deriving from the Greek ολλυω ανδρα, “I kill man.”
            Vista del Norte also has some very large eucalyptus trees. This is the Australian coolibah, the tree under which the swagman camped in “Waltzing Matilda.” Eucalyptus microtheca has been a very popular import in southern Arizona because it grows fast and resists heat. The tree is dense enough to be useful for shade and as a windbreak, like the oleander.
            Surrounded by palm and cactus or by oleander and eucalyptus, the folks in these trailer parks have been living there long enough to qualify as real desert rats—a term of affection around here. Children and grandchildren have been born and have grown up while these plantings around them also matured. Now the palms, oleander and eucalyptus are tall enough to be landmarks and as elegant in their way as the landscaping in much richer neighborhoods.