Spring 1973, Atlanta. My lover was a professor of psychology, a man more familiar with suburban angst and tenure and fretting about interest rates rather than whether the month is going to outlast the income. I was thirty-three, had lived with my three kids in communes for six years; started food co-ops and collective day care centers; and had seen my friends lug their hand-thrown pots, hand-dipped candles, and hand-woven shawls to craft fairs and tiny stores in the heart of the dying city in which I lived.
“You’re going to love this,” he said. “Underground Atlanta! It’s the next phase of what you and your friends have been creating.”
We descended by escalator into an inferno of neon and charm. “Dear God,” I said to my lover, “may you be wrong.” We were surrounded by chain boutiques, chain craft shops, chain yogurt stands, and what were then called fern bars — cutesy joints with fake antiques on their walls and menus some think tank had designed.
“No,” I said and stepped onto the Up escalator. I turned and looked back. He appeared utterly baffled. I was not. I had seen the future and it was a dazzling mockery of my life.
June 1983. I stepped off the west-bound train at 10:30 p.m. into the pine-sharp air of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was forty-three, and alone for the first time in my life. I hailed a local cab and was taken to an old spotlessly clean motel.
The next morning I asked the desk clerk, a college kid, for the name of a nearby place I could get breakfast with “real food, strong coffee, you know.” He did. “Macy’s Café is three blocks away.” He sketched a quick map and I headed out into a morning more brilliant than the heart of a geode. I was thinking like that. Like a writer. I walked the small town streets and I thought, “This is perfect. Honky-tonk bars with wooden windows and mountains carved from cobalt.” I’d come here to think like that. Like a writer.
I found the little café, one room with a counter and pastry case at the far end. I ordered, and by the time I’d finished my dark double house coffee and a Pear Cardamom twist at least ten inches long, I suspected I had found my home.
Later, after I’d driven up to K’westima and seen the golden ruin set in the golden cliff, and eaten Navajo fry bread in Tuba City and driven back from Chaco Canyon between mountain ranges blasted by lightning, I no longer suspected. I came into Flagstaff at twilight, ate at El Charro, and slept the first deep sleep of a decade.
The next day I walked through downtown, found Phyllis Hogan and Winter Sun trading post on Old Route 66, and listened for hours while she taught me about Katsinas and bear root and good manners for émigrés. I ate lunch at Macy’s, then wandered into Aradia Bookstore, where the owner took five copies of a women’s health guide I had published and introduced me to her psychic malamute, Mystic. I left the store plotting my new life.
Spring 2002, B.M.N.C. (Before McGaugh’s Newsstand Closed), from Super Downtown, in bonelight, ruin, and grace in the New Southwest:
My days of rest aren’t restful. Like most of us who haven’t gotten lucky, I use my free time to catch up on chores. I am grateful that my years as a divorced and working Mom are over. Those times make an afternoon of errands in down-town Flagstaff seem like play.
I’d begun at our state credit union, where Petra asked me how my novel was going. I cashed a check and headed over to Macy’s, a decades-old coffee house next to a laundromat presided over by no-nonsense manager Mary. I got the wash going and settled in at an old wooden table with fresh-roast coffee and bills to pay, finishing both by the time my wash was ready for the dryer.
I loaded it, walked two blocks for Dara Thai’s elegant five dollar red curry, ate and walked to the downtown post office. The clerk asked me how my novel was going. I stopped in at Winter Sun for osha wild-crafted by a woman taught by Navajo, Hopi, and Havasupai healers.
For ten bucks Porter’s jeweler fixed the catch on my late Mom’s bracelet and attached a charm. I browsed through McGaugh’s hundreds of magazines and stopped at Pesto Brothers for fresh mozzarella (which cost exactly the same as rubbery corpo-mozzarella.) The owner asked me how my novel was going.
Mary had folded my wash. For nothing but neighborliness. She asked how my novel was going. I stashed my wash in my truck and spent a half hour at Aradia bookstore, gossiping, ordering a book on casino workers, watching the malamute and rez puppy tangle their leashes. As the light cooled, I picked up mushrooms and garlic for lasagna at Mountain Harvest and headed home.
Four hours. A mile of down-town streets. Thirty bucks. Priceless.
September 2005, from a New York Times article on the closing of Kepler’s, a beloved old bookstore in Menlo Park, California:
“In a note posted on the front door of the store, Mr. Kepler, who took over the business after his father died in 1994, wrote: ‘The decision to close our doors has been one of the most difficult in my life. As much as we love what we do and would like to continue another 50 years, we simply cannot.’ The irony of Kepler’s demise amid the wealth and splendor of Silicon Valley was not lost among a number of those who have worked at the store in the past. They placed the blame not just on the giant book chains that have been steadily displacing the nation’s independent bookstores, but also on the rise of Amazon, the giant online bookseller.”
A writer friend emailed from Tucson to tell me Reader’s Oasis is closing. The owners said: “The big book chains combined with on-line book sales have left us no choice but to close our doors.” McGaugh’s is dead. Laundry Mary is dead. Kepler’s is dead. Aradia is dead. Reader’s Oasis is dead. Mountain Harvest is dead. If you are soothing yourself with some diluted Eastern philosophy about the ephemeral, cut it out. Think back over the last ten years. What and who have you lost? What was your part in it?
I remember that moment in Atlanta when I was an oracle. Later I’ll head downtown for what is left, for Macy’s and Winter Sun, for Starlight Books, and a dozen other endangered-species local shops and restaurants. I don’t need more books or coffee or that salve that is perfect for aching joints. I need our town, and a future that is not a mockery, a future that is real.
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