big buts at the train tracks

Jon Henner

Jon Henner
November 26
full time father, full time deaf activist, some times writer, most times thinker, all times wandering.


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JULY 8, 2009 12:36AM


Rate: 37 Flag

The temperature in Phoenix is finally above 100.  It’ll hang there until September, at the earliest.  Walking outside is like dredging through molasses.  The heat slows everything down.  Occasionally, a jackrabbit makes a mad, almost suicidal dash across the pavement.  If the cars don’t get it, the blacktop will.  Each hop draws water from the bottom of its soles, and water has been scarce lately.  We are all waiting for the monsoon rains.  Some areas received a light sprinkling, but out here, in the west, we’ve only had the metallic wet smell of dusty air (get over here, already).

Our plants are suited for desert life, but after weeks of no rain, even they begin to look weary.  First, the tips of their spikes/leaves/feathery things begin to wither.  Then, the limbs.  Finally, the entire body turns brown.  Some plants are lucky to release their roots and flee across the desert landscape after dying, but most become some sort of biomass on the ground.  Eventually the rains come, but not yet.

I haven’t heard much about the recession in the news.  Perhaps I’m not reading the right outlets, but it seems to me that many Americans have come to realize that if they were going to lose their jobs, they would’ve by now.  Or, maybe, Americans are focused on more important things, like Obama smoking cigarettes, celebrity deaths, and whether or not Jon and Kate fuck as hard as they fight.  If Marijuana were legal, we could all take a drag and go man, whatever man, fuck it man, but it isn’t so our drugs are on T.V. and in the trash rags that line the Supermarket check out aisles.  Farrah’s hair and Brittany’s cellulite provide some small comfort; a little toke to remind us that even the wealthy have nasty bodies and sickness and sucky things.

Phoenix is a desert plant, nestled in the valley of varying mountain ranges.  In the west, there are the White Tanks.  The southwest has the Sierra Estrellas.  In the south looms South Mountains.  There’s also the SanTans, the Superstitions, the Goldfields, the Usery, and the McDowells.  It hasn’t rained for a bit and the tips of Phoenix are dying.  In the Northwest area, where I live, massive door locks and for-sale signs are as common as lizards bolting when the front doors of any building open.  Daily, we observe the moving trucks barrel down our residential roads.  Two years into this Recession and Phoenix is still slowly dying.

My wife and I play morbid games to keep us entertained.  “Remember that sushi place we ate at a couple of months ago, and it wasn’t very good.  They didn’t even have any eel?”  “Yeah.”  “Well, it shut down the other day.  Not only that, but the pizza place next door to it, and the gelato place behind it closed down, too.”

“Remember that custard place we really liked and where Hellspawn found that he could get free sweets by batting his eyelashes at the girls?”  “What about it?”  “Well, it went.”

“Remember the BBQ place that your parents took us out to about a week after we announced that I was pregnant?”  “I remember that place.  They offered free salsa but all the tomatoes in it were canned.”  “It folded.”

We drive past blocks of empty office buildings, with commercial lease signs hanging in their windows.  There must be hundreds of thousands of available square feet in the five-mile berth.  It’ll be years before they’re all filled, if they’re filled at all.  Our town isn’t exactly a business magnet.  Before the Housing Bubble, the Northwest area of Phoenix was known for three things: its legions of old people, its legions of medical buildings, and its legions of services targeting old people.  The Bubble brought in a younger demographic, and a shadow demographic of investors that shriveled and died when the banks combusted.

Across the street, there used to live a family of four.  The youngest daughter was around Hellspawn’s age.  He used to sing to her and then attempt to steal her sippy cup.  They’re gone.  About a month ago, they found out that the owner of their home hadn’t been paying the mortgage.  The house went into foreclosure and was auctioned off.  The new owners wanted the family out within thirty days.  So, there was a lot of trash and cardboard boxes, and one afternoon, a moving truck barreled down our residential street and they went.

Every morning, Hellspawn learns to swim at the local pool.  In the beginning, there was I, and a lot of mothers.  They looked askew at me.  Lately, I’ve been noticing more fathers splashing in the water.  More pasty beer bellies.  More sagging chest hair.  More baldness.  Less breast implants and bikinis.  Most of Phoenix’s economy relied on construction and other typically male, blue-collar work.  Everyone’s out of a job and everyone’s finding that the gender dynamics are flipped, perhaps irreversibly.  It’s more fun to take the kid splashing in the pool than it is to wake up and grind through traffic.  No matter how demanding the kid is, one can always put them down for a nap.  No one can force an adult boss to nap.  And, no matter how hard stay-at-home moms complain, stay-at-home dads are finding that the work really isn’t that hard (if one doesn’t mind the stinky diapers and the incessant whining and sometimes one just wanna, ooh).

My biggest fear is that eventually, the tips of Phoenix will crumble.  We’ve been lucky, so far, that where we live is a retirement destination.  Their money will keep some of the local businesses afloat.  But, we need the rains to come (jobs, lovelies, jobs.  I could use one), otherwise the whole of Phoenix will barrel down the desert, likely in the direction of California (with a large smattering back towards the Midwest, were a lot of us came from).



Pretend_Farmer has a nice response-cum-appendum that I think deserves reading in addition to this post.  You can find it here

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Very well-written and gently compelling, Jon.

I could see it all.
Gosh send that heat here! It was 49 last night. (And yes, I do live in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the middle of summer)
Hate to be a downer, but Phoenix's tips are doomed to crumble. 5th biggest city in America built in the middle of a desert. Limited water supply. You are living in the biggest future ghost town in America. May as well build a big statue to Ozymandius, and wait for irony to set it. Maybe your bbq-eel shop has moved on to a better place, someplace with water, Montana, Alabama, Detroit.
I have to concur with Craig Johnson. I've been visiting the Phoenix area for over 30 years. My grandparents moved to Sun City in 1977 and my dad move to Sun City West in 1995. The growth over that time has been ridiculously insane. Every year we watched the progession of development towards the White Tanks. There's no way the current population can be supported by the available resources. It's horrible for the people who have lost jobs and home appreciation values, but Phoenix is way to big and my family has helped contribute to the insanity.
Your heart shows in this piece - wonderfully - every word counts. It reads to me almost like a meditation, hoping for hope.
A sizable chunk of my relatives have lived in Phoenix since the 50s, and I've been there a few times. It's too darn hot. The winters are nice, but omigod, the summers. I could never take it. All my relatives are from the Northeastern Ohio area, so it gives you a small idea of how population moved from cold snowy places to warm places -- but only because of two things, which Jon should have mentioned -- WATER and AIR CONDITIONING.

My grandma died a few years back at age 93; she spent more than 3 decades in Phoenix. It was my late grandfather's dream to live the snowy Midwest and live in the desert, but he died two years into the dream, leaving grandma to fend for herself. She often told me about the terrible heat, the impossibility of gardening (except maybe cactus), putting wet sheets in the doorways and having fans blow on them to get a tiny bit of coolness. Before the late 60s, Phoenix was a tough place to live and not for weaklings.

But then came...air conditioning. And water piped in from other places. And out went any sort of common sense that this was the DESERT, and you needed to grow desert plants and live in harmony with the desert environment. Transplants like Grandpa, from Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Pennsylvania (all left behind to die a Rust Belt death), turned out to want to recreate Ohio....IN THE DESERT. They wanted cool, comfy homes and air conditioned stores and air conditioned cars....they wanted green lawns and swimming pools.

Basically, I recall my visits to Arizona as running from the air conditioned house to the air conditioned car, so we could drive to the air conditioned supermarket or mall. The desert can be beautiful, but it is brutal and you end up only glimpsing it in tiny bits.

Phoenix and other desert cities are basically unsustainable...not unlike New Orleans (or much of California for that matter), they are built in places where people are not really meant to live (or at least, not very many people). They only DO exist, because we drag in water and electricity, so we can make Phoenix (or Las Vegas) seem a heck of a lot like Cleveland or Pittsburgh or the sense of green grass lawns and cool summer nights, breezes and periodic rain, deciduous trees and colorful flowers, plenty of fresh fruits and veggies in the markets...and so on. BUT...Phoenix is NOT the Midwest and it never will be. You can't dump all the problems of the Rust Belt, but take all its good parts along with you on the trek Westward.

Keeping people living comfy middle class Midwestern-style lives in the desert is a HUGE problem -- it's expensive, it harms the environment, and ultimately it is unsustainable.

So y'all -- and I mean the Henner family, Hellspawn and all -- need to think about moving back here. We need you; we've lost a lot of population. It's not perfect here BUT, we have a sustainable environment and a LOT of housing (cheap too!) and most of all...we have the water. Lots and lots of water...20% of all the fresh water on Planet Earth is here in the Great Lakes.

That's something to think about in the coming years.
Beautiful writing, Jon. And very true.
When I first moved to the SE Valley (phoenix), I could leave my house on a bike and within 10 minutes be surrounded by nothing but farms. 4 years later that isn't even true by car.

Now many of those buildings are empty. However what disturbs me most are the unfinished housing developments where they built a handful of houses but built the streets, curbs and sidewalks for hundreds of houses.

I live within walking distance of a dead strip mall, it used to be vibrant but after the grocery store closed each of the stores closed one by one. I watched the stripmall being built, have new stores then over the course of 2 years languish into nothing but a bunch of "for lease" signs.

Rated, because you're right
So true, Jon. Andy and I went to the Superstition Springs mall this past weekend and were shocked at how empty it was. There had to be four employees to each shopper (or non-shopper, as the case may be - most were empty-handed).

And I've got to second Cindy on the temps - we didn't take the A/C out till the end of October last year.
Craig: Maybe so, but right now, our water reservoirs are overflowing and a lot of technology is being developed to help us capture and reclaim water. Desert living may not be practical, but our experiences will help drive innovation that'll help everyone once the water crisis hits full force, if it comes.

ksgirl: In spite of the crumbling city structures, we're not quite Detroit yet. Things are chugging along, thanks to the Sun City, Sun City Grand, Sun City West, Sun City Festival, and I think there's another one that opened up somewhere around here. Old people may ruin local restaurants and they may be scary on the roads, but they bring money.

Cindy: I apologize for the dig, but the local stay-at-home moethers have been horrible to me. For the most part, they didn't let me into their groups, and the one group that did let me in kicked me out because they couldnt handle having a male member. Whenever I brought my son into an entirely female group, they all ended up forming cliques divided among gendered lines. And, if you think that stay at home moms don't get respect, you ought to see the dreck dumped on stay at home dads (you dont work? you mooch off your wife? you're a lazy piece of shit and not a real man).

Laurel: I hear you, but all of my family is here, and my wife's as well. If it weren't for Hellspawn, we would've fled long ago. But, we feel that Hellspawn deserves to grow up in an environment surrounded by doting aunts and grandparents.

The wife and I are always befuddled by people who plant grass. It's not all transplants, too. Some of the natives want full fields of grass (at least that's what I've learned from House Hunters, on HGTV). The folks that xeroscape? They get it.

waking, malusinka, owl, and odette: Thanks for reading!
Phoenix--like Las Vegas, only less intensely--and other such towns experienced rapid growth during the boom years. And it stood to reason that places that had experienced said growth were probably heavily reliant on the sort of hot money that we knew (even then) couldn't last forever. Once the real estate bubble burst and the credit crunch took hold those towns and cities were obviously going to suffer great strain.

The problem, of course--and not to be too gloomy for you, Jon--is that the sort of boom that sustained such places is now probably gone for good. Phoenix, like other cities of its kind, will have to re-jig the basis of its wealth if it is to experience a renaissance.
Sueinaz: Back when Hellspawn wasn’t anything more than a zygote, the wife and I looked for homes in the SE valley. It was in the middle of the boom years and the cheapest homes were way out by the SanTans. A 2 bdr, 2ba, 1000sqft home was selling for $150,000, and it was way, way east on Bella Vista, far beyond any sort of economic infrastructure, such as food stores and gas stations. Some time ago, we were in the area again, for whatever reason. Those housing developments were half finished, and the promised food stores never came. But, at least it isn’t as bad as Maricopa.

Not: When I lived in Chandler, I used to go to Superstition Springs to watch the Open Captioned movies. East Mesa looked really clean and bright, then. I’m sorry to hear that it’s crumbling so quickly.

Rene: Re-jigging our wealth really is the way to go, but the old guard up in the legislature is still focused on the three Cs of Phoenix wealth – Copper, Construction, and Corruption.

Umbrella: Tucson is a different beast that Phoenix, but I understand his sentiment.
Excellent post, Jon. I have the same kind of feelings about Nashville. We're doing relatively well here, but there are ominous signs, among them a giant crater on one of our main thoroughfares, where they were supposed to be building a huge luxury condominium complex, and the money ran out . Lots of empty storefronts. A half-renovated home a block away from us that is beginning to rot away.

It seems like we're all holding our breath, waiting to see what will happen.
The housing boom in Phoenix was unreal. My dad moved there in 1987 to Surprise. He lived right next to the desert. Every year that we'd visit starting around the late 90's the place became more and more unrecognizable. He now lives in the middle of many housing developments and the desert is no where to be seen. And although I'm sure Phoenix is losing jobs and businesses by the boat load it doesn't beat my home state of Michigan.
In Phoenix right now on business, and the heat is unbelievable. We get over 100 in Sacramento quite often through the summer, but it feels nothing like this, just as you said, like walking through molasses. I've made several trips to Phoenix over the years, and it seems like the sprawl is going to be the death of the city and it's many suburbs. Sometimes it feels like it can take 2 hours to get to places at opposite ends of the city on these vast concrete monoliths you guys call highways. And Jon, I have to agree with you on the stay at home dad gripes, I did it when we first had our child and I could never really break into the stay at home mom play groups. Here's hoping you get some less than suffocating weather in the near future.
I've been going to Phoenix once a year, every year for 40 years. I prefer the little desert outpost of the mid 1970's to the vast strip mall of today.

But if it gets you a job, keep the strip mall.
I hear you, Jon. I'm from Imperial Valley, and it's worse than all Arizona combined - hottest summers, worst employment, craziest people-on-the-edge.

Don't come to California, though. We have +/- 10% unemployment, and that's just the official figures. We are still waiting for those stimulus jobs we were promised - and are so desperate journalists are calling Michael Jackson's death a "boon to the local economy."
Very insightful writing. But it's not just in the desert where things are drying up. Many businesses here in the DFW area have closed in the past six months and, quite frankly, I don't know how a lot of the others are staying open. My husband and I went to two different malls this past weekend to see movies and the parking lots were jammed, but no one was carrying bags. I think people just went so they could walk in the conditioned air.

We are fortunate enough to be able to take just the two of us out to dinner at least once a week. The places where we used to have to wait in line now have many empty tables waiting for us. And there are more "specials" for us to choose from.

The highways I drive to work in the morning are not as crowded.

Not just the desert is drying up.
I live in far northeast Scottsdale, just outside the city limits. I hate it here a good part of the year but you might know that already. We thought we bought at a good time, 2004, but we've lost the equity we had in our home and we put down almost half. Thankfully, my husband has a good job but I am a prisoner in my home. My health issues make trying to tough it out in the heat impossible. I want to leave but have lost our $200,000 investment. I wish I had never heard of the place. Bitter much.
Jon, I get it that the oldsters bring money with them, but do you really want more of those Sun City developments to be built. In 10 years there'll be no desert left between the 303 and Wickenburg. Plus, do you really want to bring even more conservatives to AZ. Heh. Seriously, my family are raging racists who have the gall to blame every bad thing on the 'Mexicans', i.e. people who were there long before their lily white asses arrived.

FWIW, I'd like to share with you a poem I wrote after a visit to Phoenix this past April:

Phoenix, U.S.A.

At the end of this ghost town cul de sac

Pothole streets jar dim memories

Storefront skulls grin vacant on abandoned avenues

And dog-eared faded billboards catalog forgotten desires

That once burned bright.

So much friction in our broken-down congested engine

Everything combustible now.

Under the weeping willow wires sagging from fractured sun-bleached poles

Over the buckled ribcage of paint-peeling pickets

A rusted swing set skeleton creaks time with the empty wind

Feeble echoes rebound from within

Hollowed-out sockets, long-term parking for the soul.

On the browned and dry-crackling tindered grass

Puffs of dust announce each step just passed

As if to say, what once was here, is gone.

Beyond this there is a building, once a home.

And in front, there is a sign.

And the sign reads:

future site of how it used to be
Wishing rainy downpours and cooler, better times ahead for you, Jon. Hate to hear you sounding so down. And I'm pissed about those moms who won't let your child into the playgroups. Back when I was a mom of toddlers, so very few people stayed home. The few friends I found would have been delighted to welcome you, and Hellspawn, too.
But Obama is creating jobs LOLOLOLOL
I always wondered when Phoenix was going to get top heavy and crash over. There didn't seem to be any substainable industry in the area plus the ever growing problem with the water supply. I figured it was just a matter of time. Hopefully thing will continue to go well for you and your family.
Nice. Rated. I live in Las Vegas. See my post "The Next Anasazi Ruin?" Two million residents in an area that could maybe ecologically support 20,000.
Oh, and, for the record, "ConservativeCrusader" is a TROLL. Do Not Feed.
beautiful post. i hope things improve there for you. when i was in texas last year, i heard a piece on the radio about the origin of phoenix. about how it was built on the bones of a disappeared city.

my mother is from new orleans, and we live right on top of the san andreas. there are no perfect places.
Living in Mesa, I see it. The half built condos that get abandoned, entire strip malls empty and deserted. And the heat, GOD in Heaven the HEAT. My poor kids have been going stir crazy forced to stay indoors. My particular area has been hit hard because a large amount of hispanics that made my neighborhood a vibrant community left after the employer sanctions law came into affect. My already trashy apartment complex has downgraded into a full fledged slum.
Phoenix has been dying for a long time. Bad and kooky state legislature. See this site for why
Well, seeing as so many of us live in the Phoenix area, I vote for drowning our sorrows with alcohol. It would be a drive for everyone to come out here but I do have Kiltlifter on tap. Otherwise, how about something fairly central? Would anyone like to meet me at the Yard House in Desert Ridge? Soon?
A very moving and skillfully written report. Here's wishing you all the rains, of all types, that you need.
Jeanette: Even in Nashville? I thought that would be one of those towns more insulated from the housing boom, but it seems that avarice is universal. Just how many luxury condominiums did people think the market would bear?

Sactogator: They’re expanding those highways, you know. One area of the 10 is slated to be one of the largest in the world, if not the largest. I forget which. Although Hellspawn hasn’t been able to find a playgroup yet, I haven’t given up. I’m working on finding him free, local things to do.

Alexzola: Scottsdale and Ft. Launderdale: Where old Jews go out to pasture.

Runaway: I’ve driven through Imperial Valley many times on our way to San Diego. At one point, we even though about moving there. The heat does attract the meshugga, doesn’t it?

Julie: I’ve never met anyone who enjoyed living in the DFW area. I’m sorry it’s dying too.

Pretend_farmer: No one know what was going to happen in Phoenix back in 2004. Prices were going up, for sure, but I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted the frenzy of 2005 and 2006. I’m sorry you’re suffering. It’s especially tough living out in the middle of no-where.

Ksgirl: I’ve heard more rants about the “Messuhkan” than I’d like to admit. They, the fear mongers, keep Sheriff Joe in business and drive out anything that resembles a culture. If a lot of folks had their way, this would just be a hotter, dryer Nebraska – with less things to do and more grass.

Nikkos: Lovely poem. Thanks for posting it.

Bstrangely: Indeed. There are no perfect places. But, there’s something to be said for areas of California, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and the Great Lakes region. I also like Central/Northern Arizona, the lands around Albuquerque, and possibly southern New Jersey. Central Illinois isn’t so bad, either, if you get used to the corn. Oh, and I like western Tennessee too.

Nerdyjen: I hear you. The Employer Sanction law was a piece of stinky shit designed to appease the “fear de brown people” crowd. I wouldn’t cross the street to piss on Pearce if he were on fire.

Incandescent: I haven’t been to Detroit, but I once watched Robocop, 8-Mile, and Roger and Me. Does that count? I’ve no idea why Detroit is failing so. It’s a prime location, with water, a beautiful state, and four-fucking seasons. You’d think that it’d survive. There must be something in the culture that causes Detroit to crumble, or perhaps it’s the corporate need to only establish vibrant locations in California or Washington State.

Pretend_Farmer (again) I’m down for that. Let me know when and I can work my schedule around that.

If I didn’t name anyone, don’t take offense. The Hellspawn will awaken soon. Thanks for commenting and reading. I appreciate it.
Neil: Not all of us want that Sheriff. He's a controversial figure, even here. Don't judge the entire county because of the actions of scared, old, and/or ignorant people.
I wish I had never heard of Sheriff Joe, pink boxers, or chain gangs. I remember how horrified I was at seeing chain gangs by the side of the road when we first moved here. Horrid, horrid man.

I say tomorrow or Friday around six or six thirty. I'm leaving next week to escape the heat and won't be back until the 20th.
I read PF's first, but then came here...I remember the Phoenix of the 70's...and maybe in the late 80's I stayed at the Biltmore...I remember it was way too hot and have never wanted to go back.

I live about 15 miles from the ocean (but in a deser-like community) and I keep wondering why someone doesn't come up with a way to save the water I see in the creek winding its way to the ocean? I also wish someone would figure out a cost effective way to make potable water from saltwater. So much abundance, yet we rely on old methods for too long.

Good post...congrats on the cover too!
Very interesting and well-written post that deserves to be on the cover. A good post brings out good comments as well.
You captured our city brillliantly.
Belated congratulations on the EP & cover!
I was stationed at Luke AFB until 1985. My ex and I started to buy 5 acres of land, with water, about 336 Ave. We didn't because it was to far out.

Now I wish we had.
Well written, Jon, I always enjoy reading your posts. I used to live in Tucson, which I know is nothing like Phoenix, but I miss the desert.

The future of the housing market is dim and in places like Phoenix, where many of the homes are labeled "vacation" or "second" homes there is a very high number of "abandoned" homes. (This is also the case in Miami and other "vacation" cities) The biggest problem isn't so much that there is a housing glut, as has been reported, but that the banks have targeted the housing industry. They refuse to lend money to builders, who haven't defaulted or abused the mortgage system, so they can't buy land and their workers are laid off, the cities can't get their taxes and fees for schools and parks so city workers are laid off, construction is halted and those workers are laid off, and no one is spending money. Furthermore, people who don't have bad credit, but whose credit isn't good enough, (but less than a year ago that same credit was deemed good enough) can't buy homes. And it is pretty standard that 10% of the homes built must be affordable housing. This includes apartment building, not just single family for sale homes, so while a family might not be able to afford a fancy home, there won't be any apartments for them to rent either. $16 billion/year is being lost because the banks won't lend money to the builders. The banks are destroying the economy, not saving it, and they are the ones that got us here in the first place.
Good stuff. A lot like Riverside County here in SoCal but with more white trash and less old people.
The entire DC area where I live is, for the most part, artificially afloat with government jobs. But even at that, you can't ignore the deflated housing market and the people who are hurting because they aren't working for Uncle Sam.

My artist best friend teaches kid's art classes in her north-of-DC studio every weekend, just as she has for years. Every month she has more and more parents that come to her to withdraw their children. She always insists the children stay anyway - so now her classes are still full, but her pockets are quite empty :-)

Thanks for this bittersweet post. I always enjoy your skillful & expressive writing, but his one is a hard, sad read.
I've been dreaming about moving out that way, just to not have winter for 1/2 the year- do some nice year round planting. ;) You've popped that bubble but good.
It must be really nice for your kid to have you around. Sucks to not have a job, but your son is lucky to grow up with his dad right there.