Arizona state of mind
In a place known for sunshine and fresh starts, a tragedy reveals a culture of isolation
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.