As I have told you before, loyal and connected reader, I lived in an Arizona copper-mining town for four years, having fallen in love with the place while on a hitchhike through the western United States. Globe is a town of steep cypress-lined hills cut by deep gorges near the San Carlos Apache reservation. Working night-shift at a Circle K convenience store there, I got to know many locals by name and by face. I had many memorable late-night encounters with Arizonans. Globe maintains traces of its wild-west character, which lurks just below the dusty surface. Anglo, Mexican and Apache inhabitants live together and mix in the round of daily American life, yet maintain distinct cultures and physiognomies.
I learned to love them all—and they haunt me still.
I did the graveyard shift for several years. Often, I served people high on crank and/or very intoxicated. Several times there were fights in or outside the store and police were called. Globe was, and perhaps still is, a hard-drinking and crank-addled town. One night I was manning the store alone. Things had quieted down, the beer shelves had been locked and I was alone in the store. A Mexican-looking man came staggering in. He weaved his way over to the microwave oven with a burrito from the cooler shelf in hand, breathing loudly. He made several attempts to heat the thing up, mumbling and cursing while fumbling with the timer, steadying himself by propping his hands on the red Formica countertop. I was concerned he might become difficult. Finally he gave up and called me, slurring his words heavily:
Say, hey . . . um, could you ah . . . show me how this damn thing works?
I felt relieved. He had no accent, he was Mexican-American; not some mojado reciente, unable to communicate. I left the cashbox to help him reheat the burrito. He stood back, swaying slightly while I set the timer for a minute and thirty seconds at High. He observed me from a few steps back. I could smell the liquor.
Well . . . well now; you’re a—you’re a bright young man . . . a gen’lman an’ a scholar. Thank you sir.
No problem, I said. The timer can be a bit tricky sometimes. He fished in his pockets for money and offered me some bills. I began to walk away from the microwave towards the register to ring up the sale.
He waited while the burrito reheated. I recall the silence and the whirring hum of machinery in the brightly-lit store. Through the plate glass windows, darkness reigned beyond the island of artificial light above the gas pumps outside. The microwave went “ding” and he carefully handled the hot burrito in its plastic sleeve. placing it to cool on a napkin. Suddenly he wheeled and turned towards me, fixing me with a drunken stare. In an intense voice, he burst out:
Hey— have you . . . have you ever read PROUST ?
My mind raced. Proust? Marcel Proust? French writer of philosophical vignettes? Is THAT what this drunken Arizonan wanted to talk about at 2 am? Not wanting to be at a loss for words, I said as confidently as I could at the moment:
I can’t say I have read ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ but I am aware of his writing. I believe I did read the short story where he re-lives his entire childhood in a Madeleine that he was dipping in some coffee or something . . .
He averted his gaze and swayed back to the burrito on the countertop. Several seconds of silence ensued. He busied himself with the burro and began eating it. More humming machinery in the dead of night. Then he looked up at me with a sly smile on his face. His raspy voice was louder than the last time, but not unfriendly:
Ahhh you’re a LIGHT WEIGHT !
He lurched past the register, through the glass doors which let in a wave of warm desert air when they opened. The literary customer melted into the Arizona night to the chirping of crickets.
I later found out he had been a law student and lived just a few houses up the road. His mother and sister were frequent customers in the store but I was not aware of it at that time. I will have to write about the time his hot late-thirtyish sister was so drunk she peed her pants in front of me while we were chatting, but that’s for another Global day.