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Phoenix at the wrong time of year

Posted on 2015.07.30 at 14:11
Phoenix seemed to be all about upsetting my expectations.

I mean, I expected the heat. Sedona is in the mountains; even at this time of year, it's only marginally hotter than this same season in, say, Worcester, Massachusetts. Phoenix is the desert. There are saguaro cacti here. The heat is pounding. If I park in the sun, my steering wheel gets so hot that it's painful to touch. When I drive, the heat coming up from the road, through the floor of the car, makes me worry about the engine overheating. When I'm outdoors in daylight, my hat and my water bottle are always with me.

So it makes perfect sense that the main public library here should have part of its parking lot covered with sunshades that are also solar panels. My first thought was, man, they should cover the whole town with these.

Then I got inside. It didn't smell like a public library. At first I though the climate control might be malfunctioning, but then I got to the end of that first hallway and I saw it. The pond.

What on Earth is a pond doing in a library? Especially under a staircase, one of those modern, minimalist staircases held up by a few sturdy steel rods, separate from the rods that hold up the railings so that the ascending space isn't enclosed, and the steps are connected to one another only at the ends. Somebody drops a book on that staircase and, splash!

Then I went to the Whole Foods. It had a bar. With about eight kinds of beer on draft. And returnable growlers if you want a quart of draft beer to take away with you. And a TV. It gave me a serious case of cognitive dissonance. I mean, a bar in a health food store?

So I decided to spend the heat of the day at the hostel. Now, every hostel has its own personality. The Grand Canyon Hostel in Flagstaff, for instance, is at the edge of the hipster entertainment district and tends to draw wilderness jocks. You know the type I mean: they do river rafting, mountain biking, challenging hikes, that sort of thing, so they're in top physical condition, but they also party fairly hard. The Road Runner Hostel in Tucson is more internationally focused and it's bookish. Got little bookshelves here, there and everywhere, with a selection ranging from old New Yorkers to the usual hotel-room Bible to popular science stuff to a collection of Kipling's short stories which I greatly enjoyed. There were also some ancient historical guidebooks. In one of them I learned that certain local cacti are fruiting right about now and that it's a traditional part of the native cuisine. I love new food, and I immediately wanted to try cactus fruit.

In Phoenix, the HI-PHX Hostel and Community Center is a little island of college town leftie alternaculture in the great sea of golf-playing, Scotch-drinking, football-watching libertarian and neoconservative culture that is the Phoenix mainstream. At HI-PHX, there are posters that say “Honor the Treaties” and “End Internalized Oppression.” There is a weekly poetry slam. There is a Saturday open mike night. And on Sunday afternoon, the hostel kitchen is turned over to the local branch of Food Not Bombs. In case you hadn't heard of it, this is a national movement that “rescues” merchandise from local food stores (including the Whole Foods) and restaurants that is too old or damaged to sell but is still edible if used promptly, that would otherwise get dumpstered. Some of it is ready to eat as is. The rest, they cook up into stews and salads and so forth, which they then serve for free in a public park to whoever shows up. Their target demographic is the homeless, but they end up feeding a lot of ordinary poor people, too. I happened to be in the hostel when they rolled in around noon. Suddenly the place was full of boxes of day-old bread, spotty produce, cans and bottles with stained labels, and enthusiastic volunteers. I hadn't planned to, but inevitably I got drawn into the food prep process. I cut spoiled bits off onions and found utensils for people and just generally made myself useful. It was actually fun, and by the time they all rolled out with the finished food, I was completely socialed out. So I didn't go with them.

The next day I went off for my little side trip to Tucson, about which more later. When I got back, I had not found a source of cactus fruit, so I asked Katy, the front desk person who checked me in, whether she knew of a source for it. She recommended an outfit called Ranch Market.

Some of you, my Massachusetts readers, will be familiar with H Mart, the big Asian supermarket and food court out on Route 3 in Billerica. Ranch Market on Roosevelt Street in Phoenix is like H Mart but for Mexican food. There were a half-dozen types of produce I'd never even heard of. There were organ meats I'd never seen for sale. There was a salsa bar. There was a deli, ye gods, that deli! Wandering the aisles of this amazing store, I found myself thinking for the first time about what it might be like to actually live in Phoenix. I'd try all those new foods, one by one. I'd slow-cook the organ meats in the solar oven. If I got to feeling ambitious, I could build a solar stock-pot that would simmer three gallons at a time. The power of the sun here is definitely up to it.

However, I'm still inclined to take seriously that reading I did the other day. Tomorrow I will collect my mail from General Delivery and attempt to write about my Tucson experience. After that, I'll start out for home.

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