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Under the Tucson Sun

Afternoon tea is served in an immense library with dark oak tables, where I found a copy of The Smart Set Reader, published in 1934. Though I sorely wanted it, I showed some manners and left it, but to be honest, in my room. Which was huge, furnished with mahogany, and where the mini-bar, in the best WASP tradition, was empty. The only correct things to find in there would have been graham crackers, lemonade, and rusks.

I became obsessed with taking breakfast by the large but curiously private pool (Auntie does love her laps). The marmalade is made on the premises, thick, sweet, and rugged with peel. I'd do the New York Times crossword, whose clues somehow that week came from the same era ("Cotton Club singer"—Lena Horne), then put on my perfect denim Chanel picture hat—you need a hat in Tucson, and frankly also summer gloves to protect your hands—and set off to find the lost world of Tucson, a past that exists in swaths between the strip malls.

A local coolhunter named Curtis James Marshall guided me through it. He showed me streets with alignments of 19th-century territorial houses that demonstrated what the West looked like before the war, and houses made of bricks, in dollhouse proportions, huge courtyards behind rammed earth walls, low sidewalks, an exiguous "Teatro Carmen." He made me peer inside the windows on Convent Avenue, where the architect Rick Joy has disseminated an aesthetic that is uniquely Tucson's: a post-industrial recycling of humble houses and walls of rusty corrugated steel panels. Nothing quaintly Southwestern, no references to Santa Fe here; the adobe is painted white, and there are few of the Southwestern garlands of mummified chile pods called ristras next to front doors. "We use ristras as target practice," said one local.

The Hotel Congress, where John Dillinger and his gang were apprehended (and extradited to Illinois, so the drama stops there), advertises itself as a piece of the past, "where the summer spends the winter since 1919" with a flier in hues of cappuccino and blue. It's like a set for a Coen brothers film, all murky paint and startled details. The bleary and dense Tap Room bar suggests a fine historic context for blabbering at the barman while drunk. The hotel was built for the passengers of the Southern Pacific Railroad; now, it's as much of a magnet for nostalgic art types as for desperate people just off the Greyhound bus. At the hotel's Cup Café, the artist Dave Lewis, asked if he had any tattoos, blushed and confessed. "I was nineteen," he says, "and I wanted an image that I would regret the least on the other side of thirty. I looked in my kitchen. Arm and Hammer?Too manly. So..." He rolled up his sleeve to reveal the iconic Morton's Salt girl, peeking from behind the Morton's Salt umbrella, on the curve of his bicep.

The sick, the fragile, and the old have always come to be restored in Tucson, and despite many cures, no one makes it past the final hurdle. Their clothing can be found in immense shops, and their books at Bookman's, a secondhand store arranged like an extremely neat Borders, where the aisles are electric with cruising. Near the university, legendary thrift shops called Value Village, Desert Vintage & Costume, Buffalo Exchange, are daily scoured by style freaks and Japanese mercenaries for Go-Go this and Mod that. At a huge shop on a corner where the mealy fug of secondhand clothes grabs you at the door, Curtis Marshall spies two tall girls with pink hair slouching at the far end of an immensely long rack of slightly used khaki pants. "Sugarbush!" he says, "they're a band."

4. Tucson by night. This city has the two things necessary for a thriving young music scene: cheap rent on places in which to rehearse, and a real downtown in which to perform. The band Calexico was formed here in 1996, and others—among them, the Fashionistas—perform, often outdoors on the lip of a warehouse called Lucky Street Studios at night. The Tucson night is a soft and tangible presence, dark beyond velvet. The streetlights are kept to the hush level of mercury vapor so that Kitt Peak, 60 miles away, the largest observatory in the world, can have a clear view of the stars. The open-air shows seem to be held in some immense private space in an industrial neighborhood with no sleeping neighbors and no night traffic, until the train comes by, a momentous rumbling interruption that dwarfs the buildings, shakes the ground, and transforms the scene into an O. Winston Link photograph.

There are mid-century motels lined up on Miracle Mile, and they shine. Against the black sky, the sign for the Tucson Inn vibrates, each letter a different square and a different color, skewered like hairpins into the roof; there's also Mountain View, Ghost Ranch, Wayward Winds, Tropicana, Riviera, Sunland, Tiki Motel, and what is perhaps the original No-Tel Motel, which advertises "Wa Wa beds." A journalist from the local giveaway rag was assigned to spend a week at the latter, and fled in horror at the seaminess. He had it wrong, and Curtis, who worships these signs, has it right: it's the signage, the flat surface of electric color saturated by the blackness of the night that makes the magic, and that's all. Look, don't touch.

5. Shining colors in the dark. But sometimes when you look something touches you.

Until I sat at one of the pews at Mission San Xavier del Bac, I had never seen a retablo mayor, the sculpted, painted, gilded surface that fills the sanctuary behind the altar of Spanish Baroque churches. Here, a multi-colored hierarchy of saints and columns and angels surrounds the Virgin Mary and Saint Francis. A jubilation of color and details, the glowing shapes palpitate in the gloom. Your eyes try to read the statues, the architecture of it all, and gradually decipher a sculpted, red-haired God the Father, hand raised in a blessing, in the center of the upper arch, surrounded by two angels holding cords that raise the flowered blue draperies around the niche in which Mary prays below him; five more angels, you find, occupy the arch below her, two of them as caryatids, two others pulling up the draperies with more cords over the niche of Saint Francis, these draperies in turn held up at their gilded hems by more angels, perched on golden curves. The cord is the emblem of the Franciscan order.

To look at the main altar is to be drawn into a rare kind of worshipful daze. The paint, applied over silver leaf, makes the Prussian blue and cinnabar red shine, and then you discover rough-hewn painted Baroque angels hanging on the corners of the chapels and a pattern of mottled blue spots on some walls that are said to be the fingerprints of the original Indian painters.

No one knows who drew up the plans or sculpted the saints or painted the walls or made the doors or failed to finish the second bell tower of San Xavier del Bac. It was founded in 1691 by a Jesuit priest from South Tyrol named Eusebio Francisco Kino, at the Tohono O'odham desert village of Wa:k, which he called San Xavier del Bac. The Franciscans built the present mission in 1797.

There is a presence there: the Catholic church, holy ground, or the faith of the Tohono O'odham, Catholics since the late 17th century, who lost their priests many times to the succession of wars with the Apaches and the changing politics of the kings of Spain, and carried on worshipping the statues unaided by the Vatican. Arizona joined the Union in 1912, which is when the Franciscans returned to San Xavier after many generations away.


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