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Crashing the gate

by Brian Clarey

Crashing the gate

In the desert…

I’m writing this on a Monday, early evening, as the sun glints hard through my office window. I want to go home, but there’s this last matter of business to attend to — my column — before I can leave my desk and horizontalize myself in front of my TV. We got back from Tucson last night after four days at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual convention, and you should know that I am completely exhausted. There was much to do and see out there in the desert, surrounded by dusty hills that rose off the valley floor, littered with saguaro cacti and creeping with snakes, scorpions and javalina — wild, bristly, tusked swine that scurry through the brush and, reportedly, possessing a nasty temperament. I never did see one of those nasty little buggers, nor did I see any scorpions save for the ones preserved in keychains at the gift shops. Snakes, both literally and figuratively, were everywhere. Tucson is known for more than its strange flora and fauna, its searing desert heat, its dry riverbeds and its magnificent sunsets that bathe the big sky in celestial fire. And over the course of four days, five members of the YES! Weekly staff and myself managed to drink in as much as we could. And again, I’m speaking both literally and figuratively. Most of the year Tucson bakes under the desert sun, hot enough to flake skin and dry out eyeballs. But our trip coincided with monsoon season, a four-month period when the city gets about half its annual rainfall, about six inches. I saw it fall in fine drops from clouds the color of bruises, awakening the scents of sage and mesquite from the desert floor. A cab driver named Julio told me that the hard, dusty surface resists absorbing the water, which floods the dry riverbeds in fastmoving currents and sometimes entices the saguaro to drink until they burst. Overindulgence, it seems, is part of the landscape. It’s a fine city of perhaps a million souls nestled in the Catalina Mountains like a dusty gold nugget in the craggy palm of a wizened prospector’s hand. The people are nice, the air smells fine and the food is fabulous. But I was especially enamored of downtown Tucson, where the street grid cuts through low buildings from the 1700s and glossy, glinty skyscrapers that capture the riot of color that is the setting sun.

Let me take you there, to my new favorite Tucson hangout: the Hotel Congress, built in 1919 in a nook along the old Southern Pacific rail line. I’m sitting at the bar with the editor of the Tucson Weekly, Jimmy Boegle, who sips a Dillinger sidecar, named for the famous gunman who once holed up here with his gang. The drink is fabulous, as is the barroom, which has a quick-handed, wisecracking bartender and a floor paved with pennies. John Dillinger and his boys got here in January 1934 after a prison break, a string of bank jobs and a daring raid on a police department arsenal. They took rooms on the third floor the very same night a fire nearly took the place out. The gang escaped through the windows, and later bribed a couple city firemen to retrieve their luggage… which was stuffed with guns and money. The firemen led Tucson police to Dillinger and his gang, who were arrested and sent back to Indiana where they were imprisoned. Dilliinger escaped again, this time using a fake gun carved out of wood, and worked his way up to Public Enemy No. 1 before he was killed by FBI agents in Chicago just six months after leaving Tucson. I fared better in Tucson than Dillinger, who was buried in his home state of Indiana at age 31: I managed to get out of there without getting arrested, for one.

***

It would be remiss of me, I suppose, to neglect to mention the strange cluster of celebrity deaths that hijacked the serious news outlets in the last week. Yes, it was all very sad. But c’mon: Didn’t everybody know Michael Jackson would die young, suddenly and under strange circumstances? And Farrah Fawcett, who I will genuinely miss… I mean, she was quite a bit older than she looked and she had been battling cancer for many years. I might have killed the loudmouth from the infomercials myself if I ever bumped into him on the street. And Ed McMahon? Man, I thought Ed McMahon was already dead. I will make exception for David Carradine who, at least, went out with some style. Not unlike Dillinger, who was taken out by a squad of police in a Chicago alley, also with his gun in his hand.

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