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[JANUARY 2011.]

The Safeway at Oracle and Ina

Absolutely, that was my turf. Less than a mile from the four or five houses and apartments where we took turns living. We did our shopping there. Not that you could tell this from a photograph; you would have to distinguish it from eighty other such parking lots in Tucson, using the configuration of that particular Safeway against that particular Walgreens against that particular Schlotzsky’s Deli, and you only notice such configurations if you grew up there, and had to make them part of your map. The mountains will always give you the compass points, but one Safeway is like another, and at least once a week you end up a block or two awry in some grid direction from where you thought you were. That's one thing about Tucson.

I left the city a couple of years before Gabrielle Giffords was first elected; but though I was never one of her constituents, I did try to take note of things from a distance, because she was young and seemed smart, and made me feel a bit better about things back home. A fiscally conservative Blue Dog, yes; vocal on border security but reliably against bigotry and hysteria; serious on solar, which of course is a matter of geography but still a better bet than the ethanol lobby from Illinois. All in all, not bad for a district as frightened as Arizona’s Eighth.

What frightens Arizona is what frightens the other states in the Union, with local seasonings. There is the retiree voting bloc; the reluctance to pay anything to any government (my 16th-birthday driver’s license cost me four dollars and was good until my fiftieth birthday); the assumptions that the federal government comes from another planet to crush your livelihood, that the neighboring states are stealing all the water, that the drug lords across the border, and their beheadings and assassinations and feeding of people to lions, must have something to do with all those dark folks who were hired to build all those new houses on the northwest side that the land can’t possibly support.

Jared Loughner came from one of those northwestern houses. His high school is in a part of Tucson that, when I was growing up, was nothing but empty gullies and creosote. Jared Loughner is frightened like Arizona is frightened, and so we ask: what radio stations did he listen do, what websites did he visit, who got him started on his syllogisms about the gold standard. These are questions about causality, and we are in a realm where causality founders. I would suggest that instead we talk homology, or metaphor—admitting frankly that we are doing this—because it is already the fate of Jared Loughner to have become a metaphor and a symptom.

So, you are in your early twenties and your thoughts are coming apart. You distrust both language and currency because they are the scaffolding of your life, and because they are mediums of exchange in which the exchange goes on forever, out into fathomless systems. You can’t name those systems, so you call them the United States government. That word is the best tool you have. Your difficulty in organizing your own thoughts, the rigid premise-and-conclusion format you have to follow in order to hold onto any train of reasoning at all, shows just how deep it is rooted in you. Its language is in your head and its currency is in your pocket.

You want to be autonomous. You have a right to life and liberty.

The system promotes blindness to the system; others do not fear the system; hence others comprise it. You are the lone autonomous being. Keeping hold of your autonomy is horribly hard. Every day you touch United States currency. Every thought your mind mouths is in the English language. You declare your independence, but you are a mote against the system; your smallness is like the smallness of living in northwest Tucson without a car. A block stretches a mile. You walk an hour on pellets of crushed white quartz along a road eight lanes wide, under a sun that wants to kill you; every hundred feet there is a new brown house erected in the last year, every mile another traffic light and chain supermarket and gas station and drugstore, and this is so clearly sinister and wrong, so impossible to sustain over the barren land, that it must be the system’s malevolent dream. The thousand cars on the eight-lane road and thousand shoppers in the supermarket are accomplices. The government takes the fruits of your labor. The government forces its grammar on you. The government seizes your weapons, sells you its medicine, exerts all power of life and death. You can’t keep yourself individual; you can’t walk autonomously through the repeating dream. In this entangling world every step is a compromise. You have to use language and currency to hire a taxi, and that gets you just as far as the Safeway at Oracle and Ina.

C'est Tucson, for real.

You, sir, are just a hell of a writer.

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