The best hedge against being hit too hard by any present recession is to live in an area that never recovered from previous ones.
I made it. I drove nearly three thousand miles (Well, I didn’t do the driving, but I was a passenger for every one of those miles!) and am now ensconced in a poolside apartment complete with central air-conditioning and a patio. It’s a veritable paradise compared to what I was living in before (an absolute dump for which I have yet to receive my security deposit. The filching hand of East coast casual criminality strikes again). Nestled at conjugal nexus of two glittering freeways, this apartment made of Chinese plaster and drywall awakens vague memories of middle-class luxury, the first of such memories I’ve had in years.
Despite the boxes scattered everywhere (I didn’t manage to throw away nearly as much of my Scottish woolen skirts and Swiss balance balls as I intended), I feel at home in this shoddy stucco box in the desert in a way that only someone who has given up on the future can. At night the gently aggressive hum of engines of speeding cars lull me to sleep, the vapid giggles of boozy sorority girls home from last-call hookups wake me in the morning. The sun beats mercilessly through my vinyl blinds every day without fail. Towering clouds gather ominously on the horizon but never deliver themselves of cooling rain, being held at bay by a dome of heat that rises from miles upon miles of concrete. Some might call my living situation hellishly empty, but I’m unabashed enough to admit that I haven’t experienced such creature comforts in years. An in-unit washer and dryer can do much to soothe the modern soul.
But when I gather the courage to walk out into the blazing heat my sense of peace — which, I’ll admit, springs from defeat — is disturbed. While doing time in my dumpy New England city I had read reports of how the recession blew apart the desert oasis of inflated real estate prices and strip malls where I now reside, but I couldn’t quite comprehend what such economic destruction looked like. For I was living in a city that never climbed out of the recession of the seventies. For four years I lived with potholes, dead malls, deader industry, and limited city services. My life was colored by economic dysfunction, liberally garnished with malfeasance and graft, which I realized only on an unconscious level which periodically manifested itself in a certain churlishness and despondence that would surface from time to time to the dismay of the people closest to me. When the big meltdown happened in 2008 nothing really changed in my postindustrial Nowheresville. There were just as many unemployed sitting on stoops and potholes in the too narrow roadways as there ever were.
My return to the West, however, has been a shock to say the least, because I remember this desert megalopolis being so different. When I was last here, everything was enlivened with quickening elixir of easy credit. Strip malls sprouted overnight. Entire housing developments appeared within the span of a week. People were drunk on the belief that their characterless, indifferently constructed houses were ATMs with ever increasing balances. It was a bad way to conduct one’s life, to be sure. But it was bad in a way that wasn’t scary. In fact, it seemed kinda fun, with everyone thinking they were going to end up some kinda of bazillionaire by flipping houses and buying stocks. A lazy optimism filled the air. Jobs were a dime a dozen and debt accrued to subsidize your cut-rate education or overinflated lifestyle that could always be paid off sometime in the distant future, at the point when you landed that perfect job or, even easier, when your house appreciated in value. It was kinda like being at a really fun party really far from home. You’re having a ball, downing the Polish vodka, doing lines, and talking up a storm, but with that faint nagging reminder at the back of your mind that you’ve got to somehow drive yourself home again. But the party’s too fun and you’re too damn witty, the vodka too perfectly chilled (and free), and the coke too perfectly perfect, so you continue to drink, all the while stacking the metaphysical cards in favor of a fiery three-car pile up on the interstate sometime later in the evening.
This city now resembles that three-car pile up, bloody and blown out on a grand scale that only accidents on the freeways of the Old West can be.
This city now resembles that three-car pile up, bloody and blown out on a grand scale that only accidents on the freeways of the Old West can be. I have yet to drive past a strip mall that doesn’t have at least one vacancy. My third day here a bedraggled woman in second-hand business casual approached me in the parking lot of Fry’s Supermarket with her phone number written on a pink Post-it note. “Please give it to whoever might need the services of someone trained in accounting,” she pleaded. On the freeway I pass rows of billboards advertising bankruptcy by phone, for-profit universities, casinos with all-you-can-eat buffets and strip clubs. Heat-weary, underfed toothless men fly past on pilfered mountain bikes in the meager bike lanes, expertly dodging SUVs with black-tinted windows and “Stop Obama” bumper stickers. Advertisements warning against the nefarious powers of identity thieves and credit card fraudsters litter sidewalks still in good repair. Entire subdivisions lie unfinished along the freeway, and their streetlights look blindly on roads never paved and lots never built upon and crumbling piles of imported drywall and uprooted cacti.
Sometimes I wonder why I came back to this city. Luckily the heat makes most of this seem like a fever dream, and I have ensconced myself in the most liberal and enlightened neighborhood I could find. But there is also a part of me that delights in the prospect of being situated at the epicenter of the recession. I suppose if I’m going to document the economic implosion that is to take place in this country over the next ten-twenty years, I might as well be where all the action is. According the recent unemployment reports, it looks like the situation is only going to get more interesting. Bloomberg reports that the U.S. economy is contracting again, with the unemployment rate expected to exceed ten percent (of course, we all know that it is well above that). And the Arizona Republic expects that prosperity won’t be riding the range for another six or seven years.
Perhaps by then I’ll be handing out my own pink Post-it notes (or I’ll have moved on to California). But until that time I’ll be your heat-prostrated reporter from the land of ghost malls, racist demagogues and eternal sunshine.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.