Ari­zona state of mind

In a place known for sun­shine and fresh starts, a tragedy re­veals a cul­ture of iso­la­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY AMY SILVERMAN IN PHOENIX

Last Satur­day, Jan. 8, be­gan sunny and crisp in a tan­gle of leo­tards and tights, as I hus­tled my lit­tle girls across town and into the dance stu­dio — as al­ways, just a few mo­ments late.

I col­lapsed in a chair near an­other bal­let mom. We agreed we were ready to get back into a rou­tine af­ter the Christ­mas break. And she was more than ready, this mom said, to be rid of 2010. We’d talked pol­i­tics be­fore, and I knew how frus­trated she was with the mood here in Ari­zona. She’d sam­pled a lib­eral Cof­fee Party meet­ing not long ago and won­dered if that was the an­swer. Or maybe it was enough to sim­ply start fresh with a new year, the na­tional spot­light off our tongue-tied gover­nor, our anti-im­mi­gra­tion law, all the hate in this state.

“ You know, I just want this year to be . . .” At a loss for words, she swept her hand through the air— the uni­ver­sal sign for smooth sail­ing. I nod­ded. Then, as if on cue, my phone rang. As the day un­folded and the de­tails of the Tuc­son shoot­ings came to­gether and the horror set in, I vac­u­umed up ev­ery scrap of in­for­ma­tion about the tragedy. My ob­ses­sion went be­yond the odd co­in­ci­dences — I’m Jewish, a Demo­crat and a Scripps Col­lege grad­u­ate, like Rep. Gabrielle Gif­fords, and years ago, I worked on Capi­tol Hill. And I have a 9-year-old daugh­ter. This hit home in a dif­fer­ent way.

I am a na­tive of this place. A rest­less na­tive, to be sure, but whether I like it or not, Ari­zona is home. And this past week, I haven’t liked that much at all.

What Jared Lough­ner al­legedly did has noth­ing to do with Ari­zona — that’s be­come the mantra. It was an iso­lated in­ci­dent, peo­ple are say­ing. But it’s ex­actly iso­la­tion that de­fines him, that de­fines this tragedy — that de­fines this state.

Ari­zona is the 48th state; we’re not even 100 years old. Most peo­ple from here haven’t been for long. Ac­cord­ing to cen­sus fig­ures, the state’s pop­u­la­tion grew from 3.6 mil­lion in 1990 to 6.5 mil­lion in 2008. Peo­ple move here for a fresh start. For open spa­ces and hot-pink sun­sets and new op­por­tu­ni­ties, to leave their trou­bles be­hind.

Once they get here, many hide. And those of us who are al­ready here don’t come knock­ing with a plate of cook­ies. We hide, too.

It seems that much of what we as Ari­zo­nans, as Amer­i­cans, break over so bit­terly is not whether Pres­i­dent Obama is a so­cial­ist or whether Sarah Palin is fully cog­nizant of the deriva­tion of the term “ blood li­bel.” Those are just short­hand ways of dis­tract­ing and dis­tanc­ing our­selves from the real fights we are hav­ing in these un­set­tled times, fights about in­clu­sion and ex­clu­sion.

Who should have cit­i­zen­ship? Health in­surance? An or­gan trans­plant? A gun? Why should the guy across the street get his mort­gage pay­ments low­ered when I’ve been work­ing hard all these years and do­ing the right thing? Who is in and who is out?

And the truth is that few places are as ex­clu­sion

ary as Ari­zona, where butt-kick­ing cow­boys and Barry Gold­wa­ter pol­i­tics still rule the day, where any­one of Mex­i­can de­scent bet­ter fol­low the speed limit, or risk get­ting pulled over and grilled over their right to be here. We are lib­er­tar­i­ans. Stay out of our big green back yards ir­ri­gated with wa­ter we can ill af­ford to use. Don’t even come close. And don’t you dare ask for help.

En­ter Gabby Gif­fords and Jared Lough­ner. She, the rare con­nec­tor, reach­ing out to fans and crit­ics out­side a Safe­way. He, the iso­lated.

The scari­est part isn’t that Lough­ner was out there and no one helped him or stopped him. The scari­est part is that we don’t know how many more Jared Lough­n­ers are out there still.

Ly­ing in bed talk­ing the morn­ing af­ter the pres­i­dent came to Ari­zona for the me­mo­rial ser­vice — as 31-bul­let mag­a­zines were fly­ing off gun-store shelves all over town — my hus­band made a ter­ri­ble pre­dic­tion.

“ There’s go­ing to be a copy­cat crime,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I can’t stop think­ing the same thing.”

Ari­zona’s ripe for it. In a Gallup poll com­mis­sioned by a Phoenix think tank called the Cen­ter for the Fu­ture of Ari­zona, about half of the state res­i­dents sur­veyed gave their home high marks for beauty and phys­i­cal sur­round­ings. But just 12 per­cent gave the same rat­ing when asked “ how much peo­ple in your com­mu­nity care about each other.”

I’m not sur­prised. Peo­ple move here all the time and rave about how friendly it is — for a while. And it’s true that clerks in stores say hello, the Star­bucks drive-through guy wants to know how your day is go­ing, and a col­league at work might want to take you to lunch to wel­come you to the com­pany. Af­ter a few post-col­lege years on the East Coast, when I moved home to Phoenix I was amazed (and frankly, an­noyed) by how friendly peo­ple are.

On the sur­face. Live here awhile, and you might re­al­ize that you haven’t met your neigh­bors. I’ve lived in the same house for 13 years, and I can count on one hand the num­ber of times I’ve been in­vited into a neigh­bor’s house. And I don’t even live in an area with par­tic­u­larly high walls or in a gated com­mu­nity.

You don’t see peo­ple sit out on the porch much. Kids cer­tainly don’t play in the street any­more. And when we do ven­ture out­side, we climb in our cars, crank the A/C and the ra­dio, pick up the cell and don’t even bother to honk our horns. That’s how iso­lated we are.

Some­times I won­der where all the peo­ple could pos­si­bly be. I reg­u­larly take walks through the cam­pus of Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity — which boasts the largest stu­dent body of any uni­ver­sity in the nation by some mea­sures — and un­less it’s the mid­dle of a week­day, I might not see a soul.

The sun­sets are beau­ti­ful, sure. But liv­ing here can be in­cred­i­bly de­press­ing.

Par­tic­u­larly for the peo­ple who’ve earned Ari­zona the nick­name “ the doover state.” This is the land of fresh starts. Get di­vorced, move to Ari­zona. Lose your job, move to Ari­zona. Get out of jail, move to Ari­zona.

We’ve got open spa­ces, but what we don’t have is a de­cent so­cial wel­fare sys­tem de­signed to help these folks, let alone help our­selves. The state reg­u­larly ranks near the bot­tom na­tion­ally in al­most ev­ery im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor — from pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing to mental health ser­vices.

I have re­ported on Ari­zona’s ju­ve­nile corrections sys­tem for years. It’s a sad ex­am­ple of how an un­der­funded, over­looked agency can fail so many kids. The sys­tem is de­signed to re­ha­bil­i­tate ju­ve­nile delin­quents, not pun­ish them. But in­stead it’s a dump­ing ground for men­tally ill chil­dren. And it might be their best hope.

I fol­lowed a mom for years who moved here from Cal­i­for­nia, hop­ing for bet­ter ser­vices, only to learn that there was ba­si­cally no one to help her deal with her 11-year-old son, who was show­ing in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent ten­den­cies. Fi­nally, a so­cial worker ad­vised her on the sly to “call the cops.” So the next time her son hit her, she did.

He was ar­rested, and ul­ti­mately a sym­pa­thetic judge got him the help he needed. To­day he’s liv­ing in an in­sti­tu­tion in Texas be­cause there’s no suit­able place to care for him in the en­tire state of Ari­zona. The judge or­dered the state to pay for the mom to fly to Texas each month to visit him.

When we pub­lished this woman’s story, read­ers told us that the state was crazy to pay to care for the kid at all.

Even if you don’t ar­rive here down and out, you never know what might hap­pen when you rip your­self away from your sup­port sys­tem to fol­low some dream of new ad­ven­ture.

My grand­fa­ther up and moved his fam­ily from Queens to Tuc­son when my mother was 14, and then he al­most im­me­di­ately dropped dead of a heart at­tack. My mom and her fam­ily stayed. She was mis­er­able. At the time, Tuc­son High was the largest high school west of the Mis­sis­sippi. Her name is Su­san, and she tells sto­ries of walk­ing down the long halls, lost and lonely, and hear­ing kids call, “Hey Suze! Hey Suze!” She’d turn, hop­ing to see a friend, and no­body looked back. It took awhile to fig­ure out that in these parts, Je­sus (which sounds like “Hay-suse” in Span­ish) was a pop­u­lar name. That story is funny only now, years later.

Now that school is a fancy col­lege prep called Uni­ver­sity High. Gabby Gif­fords went there. And later, she didn’t in­tend to come home to Ari­zona. She talked about this in a 2009 com­mence­ment ad­dress she gave at Scripps Col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia. She ex­plained that she’d just fin­ished grad­u­ate stud­ies at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity and had a job of­fer in New York City.

“It seemed like the be­gin­ning of a grand and glit­ter­ing ad­ven­ture in the big city: posh apart­ments, pointy-toed shoes and maybe even my first mar­tini,” she told the grad­u­ates.

“But then an un­ex­pected phone call came from my fa­ther, who needed me to come home to help him man­age my fam­ily’s tire and au­to­mo­tive busi­ness.”

And so she did, “pack­ing up my heels and putting on my cow­boy boots . . . and head­ing back West” to learn the tire busi­ness from the ground up. That gave her a look at a south­ern Ari­zona where things “were not per­fect and needed to change,” she said. So she ran for the state leg­is­la­ture, to “put right things that were wrong and rep­re­sent those who didn’t have a voice.”

Gif­fords con­cluded, “ You are blessed to be liv­ing in a coun­try that gives its cit­i­zens the free­dom to bump around the scenery a bit, to try new things and make mis­takes and stretch your tal­ents and make ad­just­ments and to find ev­ery rich and sat­is­fy­ing thing, and it will still be okay in the end.”

But it won’t be okay. Not for the coun­try, not for Ari­zona. Not for the six peo­ple who died or their fam­i­lies. Not for Su­san Hile­man, who brought her young friend Christina Tay­lor Green to meet her con­gress­woman.

Now that’s a woman who knows what com­mu­nity’s about. The Hile­mans moved to Tuc­son in 2006, and the Greens ar­rived about a year later, Su­san’s hus­band, Bill, told CNN last week.

The sun­sets are beau­ti­ful, sure. But liv­ing here can be in­cred­i­bly de­press­ing.

He de­scribed him­self and his wife as “as­pir­ing grand­par­ents” and said the neigh­bors grew close.

When Christina was elected to stu­dent govern­ment, he said, “Suzi started look­ing for an event that she could share, as they have done in any num­ber of things. And Gabby’s event made all kinds of sense, both from my wife’s per­sonal po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences, as well as the fact it was a mag­nif­i­cent chance to pro­vide a pos­i­tive pub­lic fe­male role model for lit­tle Christina.”

Painfully, Bill re­called the moment when Su­san’s breath­ing tube was re­moved last Satur­day night. “ The very first thing she asked — she grabbed my hand, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘What about Christina?’ ”

He told her right then, he said. He had to.

How will Su­san Hile­man ever re­cover?

How will any of us?


Amy Silverman is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Phoenix New Times. She has cov­ered Ari­zona for 20 years.


A somber crowd at theMcKaleMe­mo­rial Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona lis­tens to Pres­i­dent Obama’s speechWed­nes­day hon­or­ing the vic­tims of the Jan. 8 mass shoot­ing in Tuc­son. The theme of the me­mo­rial ser­vice was “ To­geth­erWe Thrive,” but the tragedy also un­der­scored the iso­la­tion and lack of com­mu­nity among the state’s res­i­dents.

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