I'm Going Back To Arizona (And You Should Probably Come Too)


I have a friend I’ll call Patrick who lives in Tucson, the small southern Arizona town where I spent 14 years of my childhood. A six-four wall of a man, softened in parts by pints and whiskey, Patrick and I have been close since high school, when his family — a big, pasty, Irish affair — moved to town from Phoenix. Once, on a trip to a low-budget Mexican beach community named Rocky Point, Patrick and I conspired to eat our vegan friend’s entire supply of peanut butter and jelly while he was in the shower, leaving only his toothbrush in an empty jar of Skippy. While he screamed, “Do you know how hard it is to fucking eat vegan down here!?” Patrick and I held each other and laughed until we cried. Patrick burned me my first copy of “Orange Rhyming Dictionary” and gave it to me when I went away to college. I listened to it every chance I could, especially when homesickness, precipitated by waves of Dave Matthews Band, left me doubled over in loneliness.

In the years since moving away from Arizona, as any fan of the “coming home” film genre should expect, Patrick and I have drifted apart somewhat. But whenever I return, we’ll still get together for at least one evening of karaoke and a seeming ocean of Guinness. Even when I’m away, I’ll occasionally get texts from Patrick saying things like, “Just wanted to tell you that your latest article was great. Proud of you.”

Patrick is my friend and I love him, which is why it broke my heart a bit to hear that he recently went on a rant about how black people are shiftless and cheap. Apparently, over late-night burritos after a long bout of drinking, Patrick started complaining to our mutual friends that, at his job as a waiter, black diners always tip less than white diners, even after demanding extraordinary service. Despite everyone’s protestations, Patrick’s conclusion was, “They’re cheap, lazy bastards.”

I was disappointed, but not surprised.

When I left — to school, Italy, LA, New York, Saudi Arabia, etc. — Patrick stayed in Tucson. He dropped out of community college and, though he made a living delivering pizzas for a few years, that ended when he loaned his car to his roommate, who totaled it. Patrick couldn’t afford insurance after that, so he had to find a new gig. Eventually, he started serving food at a decent-for-Tucson restaurant, where he’s been ever since. I’m not sure he’s ever worked somewhere that didn’t require he wear a uniform.

Patrick loves music and film, but few bands worth seeing or movies worth watching ever make their way to the Old Pueblo, so he fills his time with other activities. He drinks a lot and dates younger women who do the same. A few years of mixed martial arts training — a growing obsession throughout Arizona — have left him more eager to fight than ever, with the rage that always coursed like blood under his pallid skin now dovetailing perfectly with technique. One of my friends says he thinks Pat hit his last girlfriend, but he can’t be sure. I’ve personally seen him smash a guy’s face into a steel-barred window before casually walking over to a keg for a refill.

Patrick is poor, uneducated, sad, bored and angry. And while some of that is his fault, I’m confident that a great many external things contributed to his predicament. His father is a cold man and, from what I’ve heard, a racist himself. Arizona’s public education system is notoriously abysmal, a mismanaged, ramshackle thing that found the state ranked “stupidest” in 2007. As of 2000, fewer than 23 percent of Arizonans between 25 and 34 had a bachelor’s degree or better.

More funding might help the schools a bit, but what little money there was in Arizona went away in mass quantities once the overinflated housing bubble burst. Since then, Arizona’s construction jobs have shrunk by almost a third, leaving natives to battle each other and immigrant labor for what little work remains. In all sectors, Arizona’s unemployment has hovered close to the national average of about 10 percent.

Of course, not everything is deflating: There are now more than 10 Walmarts per million Arizonans, and more than 50 Starbucks per million.

Though they have no major breweries, Arizonans drink as much beer as the citizens of Wisconsin. In fact, in 2008, Arizona was ranked the 17th drunkest state in the union. And when it came to alcoholics “needing but not getting treatment,” it was 8th. When not getting smashed (or probably while getting smashed), Arizona youths are more likely to smoke weed than any other state’s young people.

The Cato Institute notes that, in 2008, crime in Arizona was the lowest it’s been in 40 years. That’s true, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2009, despite the prior year’s drop, Arizona was still the 7th most crime-ridden state. Tucson itself has for years had above average rates of practically every single crime (save for white collar offenses), including twice as many rapes and more than double the larcenies/thefts. And according to a March 2009 New York Times article, over a period of about 12 months, Tucson police officials counted more than 200 violent home invasions, more than three-quarters of which were linked to Mexican drug cartels.

On the heels of all this comes Arizona’s latest bout of insanity, a law requiring authorities to determine the legal status of anyone suspected of being undocumented. As a thinking person, I’m appalled by the law and the dark, chaotic forest I fear it’s planted. But as an Arizonan, I’m just as taken aback by the national response to its passage.

Besides the blog comments proving Sarah Palin and the anti-elitists right — “the only business in [Arizona] is brewing meth and building Taco Bell McMansion kits (to brew meth in)” — I’m especially troubled by the calls to boycott the state. From the New York Times to Raúl Grijalva, a Democratic congressman from Tucson, it seems that every liberal with a slight platform (and Shakira) is asking Americans to stop buying Arizonan goods, and to not travel there. The assumption is that what worked for MLK Day will work now.

But a boycott is exactly the opposite of what Arizona needs, at least in the long-term.

I’ve tried hard, to no avail, to think of any time in which calling a destitute population stupid and making it even poorer has effectively engendered in its people new ways of thinking. Indeed, a boycott might force Arizona legislators to overturn their new law — which 70 percent of voters supported, by the way — but I think it’s likelier to just frustrate and further impoverish a whole lot of people who are already frustrated, broke, mad, jealous and increasingly worried that the East Coast is out to tell them how to live their lives. I’m not saying I have the key to unlock the Arizona of my dreams, but I can’t believe the answer is calling its citizens unwashed meth-heads, canceling your reservations at its resorts (which employ illegal immigrants), or sapping even more money from its public schools (which educate illegal immigrants).

What’s more, I wonder what good it is to commit one’s progressive self to not visiting Arizona from now on. If this new immigration law is proof of anything, it’s that more rational people are needed within Arizona’s borders, regardless of their purpose or destination. In fact, if you really want to change Arizona, move there. Houses are damn cheap.

My friend Patrick is a lunkhead and a bigot, but I’m going to call him when I’m home next month, because to abandon him is to make him that much more insular and neglected. I’m going to hug him and buy him a beer, and then I’m going to remind him that not all black people are cheap and lazy.

Cord Jefferson is a writer-editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GOOD, The Root and on MTV. You can reach him by email here.