In 1998, when I moved from Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, to Petey Mesquitey’s Sonoran Desert, I thought I’d moved to Mars. My mother had given me a packet of sunflower seeds to plant in the yard of my new home as a way to remember where I came from. I scratched a line in the dust out by the garage between the stand of prickly pear cactus and the drooping aloe vera plants. I watered those seeds diligently every morning with my corningware measuring cup. They came up about one inch, then curled, then died. But the aloe looked much better.
Those sunflowers ended up being the perfect metaphor for my move. I tried to keep all my previous knowledge watered, but everything I knew before was useless in the desert, so I had to start all over again. Tucson was tough love, but after the pain faded I was stronger for it. Wear your sunscreen, and watch out for the jumping cholla.
That first year, I was convinced my skin would bubble and melt right off. They call it dry heat, and say it’s easier to cope with, but I’m not sure. It’s easier in the same way that standing in a 100-degree kiln is easier than standing in a 100-degree sauna. One gives you crusty skin, like toast, the other slippery skin, like salamanders. I guess some people prefer toast.
In the desert, everything waits for the sun to set. That’s when the moon shadows everything in shades of silver. The horns of the freight trains, annoyingly loud during the day, become eerily mesmerizing. Christmas lights blink all year, strung around saguaros and olive trees. Cheap beer and margaritas taste decadent when served in colorful courtyards scented with night blooming jasmine.
It didn’t take long for me to embrace the Southwest. Soon my footwear alternated between hiking boots and cowboy boots. I learned to like country music. I got married. I tended a cactus garden. I learned to turn red clay into bowls and sold the pottery in shops around town. I kept a battered copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire floating in the back of an equally battered Jeep Wrangler.
It’s been about ten years since I moved away, but I think about it every once in a while. I met some amazing people down there, some of whom I still talk to, some I don’t. And I remember some amazing places. Today I’m thinking about a bar on 9th Street near 4th Avenue called The Buffet. I looked it up on the internet and found some sketchy reviews. For instance, on urbanspoon.com a reviewer wrote,
“Not a friendly atmosphere. I once saw some poor soul buy a drink for the one kinda hot girl there, she said ‘thanks’ slammed the beer and then turned her back to him. Bartenders are not friendly. They sold me on some special they were having and then complained to me after I paid for it that they hated the special that it was a ripoff for them tipwise.”
That sounds about right.
I want to say that I loved that bar, but really, it’s the idea of that bar that I loved – the grit of it. Most of my memories of being at The Buffet are hazy – it was always the last place we went after a long night. But I do remember the jar of pickled eggs that sat behind the counter. Since it’s Easter today, I’m thinking about those eggs.
I think I’ll make pickled eggs with beets on Tuesday. I’m not a cook, so the endeavor could be disastrous.