I’d pulled into a trailer court to turn around after my visit to the Howdy Manor when a voice called out: “Hey, bro!”
It being a neighborhood that’s even sketchier than it was 35 years ago, when I briefly lived in it, I was going to pull out when I heard it again. “Hey, bro!”
So I rolled to a stop there in the driveway next to the Bucking Bronc motel and trailer court, a couple of motels down from the Howdy Manor.
Four people — three men and a woman — were sitting in front of a trailer enjoying beverages that included beer and vodka. One of them approached my car, with something in his hand.
Thinking he might have mistaken me for a drug buyer, I was ready to beg off when he passed it through my open window.
I hesitated to open it, fearing some illicit narcotics might be hidden between its pages — that maybe children’s books were the drug dealer’s delivery method of choice in this particular neighborhood.
Seeing my skepticism, he grabbed it back and opened it himself, showing how, through the holes in the cardboard, you could touch the fake fur and fake skin and get an idea what each animal — tiger, lion, alligator, polar bear, chimpanzee — feels like.
“Tiger, tiger, running through the grass, your black-and-orange stripes go quickly past,” read the first page. “Tiger, tiger, I can hear you growl, as you get ready to go on the prowl.”
I wasn’t sure why I deserved the book, and told him he really should give to a child. He explained that he saw the ohmidog! magnet on my car door, and figured I liked animals. I should have it, he said.
I was waiting for him to quote a price, but he never did. Instead he asked about my dog. I got out and popped open the back door to let Ace out. He greeted the man with the book, then went over to see the rest of the gang.
He snuggled with Sherry, and knocked over her bottle of beer. She didn’t mind at all.
Then he met Johnny, who said he was a former Marine and Vietnam vet who now sells newspapers to get by.
There used to be two daily newspapers in town. He sells copies of the remaining one, the Arizona Daily Star, where 35 years ago, I used to work as a reporter. The newspaper costs 75 cents now, but Johnny sells them for less. My suspicion — and perhaps it’s just my cynicism again — is he pays for one paper, then pulls them all out of the vending machine and sells them on the street. Call him an entrepreneur.
Ten minutes later, he was still looking. When you carry your life in a knapsack, things can be hard to find.
I asked them if they lived in the trailer court, and they said they didn’t — that they just lived “around.”
After another five minutes, Johnny’s search paid off, and he pulled a slightly rusty harmonica out of his bag.
Johnny sat on a plastic chair, Sherry on a cinderblock. I took a seat on the guest rock — actually a rock atop a cinderblock, which functioned kind of like a rocking chair. Everyone’s jackets hung on a nearby tree.
Johnny brought the harmonica to his mouth and started playing a happy but unidentifiable song. Everyone tapped their feet and hummed along, and one member of the group started howling like a dog, leading Ace to look at him with tilted head.
I love the tilted head — a dog’s transparent, non-judgmental way of expressing puzzlement when he hears or sees something different. It seems to say — and here I am wrongly interpreting dog behavior by human standards — “I don’t get this … I will turn my head slightly to the side and focus even harder to understand.”
If only humans could do that. Instead, when we see something different, we far too often judge, frown and walk away. As adults, our childish curiosity gets crusted over with cynicism — to the point we can get fearful of something as innocuous as a “touch and feel” children’s book.
Johnny played for about five minutes, and the song never really came to a distinct ending; it just kind of tailed off, once Johnny switched from harmonica to the vodka bottle.
I thanked them for allowing us to hang out, wished them all the best and headed for my car — feeling I’d made some new fleeting friends, but still, being human, expecting to be asked for money. They had, after all provided me with a book and musical entertainment.
As I started the car, the man who’d given me the “touch and feel” book appeared at my window. But all he did was shake my hand one last time.
“Vaya con Dios,” he said.