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.