Bisbee: The Town Too Dumb To Die
[singlepic id=50 w=320 h=240 float=left]As my father’s family resides in Arizona, I’ve come to know our Western State pretty well. From Phoenix to Mesa we’ve been everywhere (in the Phoenix-Mesa area). But there is one place we continually come back to. That place is my father’s hometown: Bisbee Arizona.
Bisbee is the Town That Time Forgot, mainly because Time decided long ago to pull up stakes with the copper mining corporations and go elsewhere. The source of America’s copper in the early part of our century, Bisbee was the quintessential Western city, until the mine owners decided they could make profit by going overseas. The legacy of the copper mines is still around–a literal legacy left in copper slag heaps, cloudy drinking water, and a giant open-pit mine known affectionately to the locals as “the Pit” or “that giant fucking hole in the ground.”
Built into the mountains and hills, Bisbee is a town cobbled together from dirt and vertigo. Windy roads lead to houses on precipices overlooking abandoned mine-shafts next to town hall buildings, all adjacent to the Copper Queen Hotel whose cowboy/prospector clientele has given way to no clientele. Driving around, my father outlines the history of the area, mainly by taking us to all the places he was beaten up as a kid.
“See that alleyway?” he’d say. “That’s where the Unionized miners, the Wobblies they were called, were rounded up by the government, and also where a kid named Bobby kicked the ever-living tar out of me. Up ahead is the High School, one of the oldest buildings in town and where I got a swirly every day at 2 PM for four years.”
“Why are you taking pictures of these places?” my mother demanded to know as my father climbed out at a fence post where the first copper ores were found and where he was beaten up by a bunch of cowboys for running a pro-Marxist, anti-cowboy newspaper. “This is like an ex-prisoner going back to visit the State Penitentiary.”
“It’s my history,” he shrugged.
It certainly is history, layers of it, each one covered in copper dust and desert clay (and, apparently, my father’s young anti-cowboy, pro-Marxist blood) . It’s a place where bolo ties and big belt buckles are worn as your Sunday best, where backyards go for acres until they hit the wall separating Mexico from the U.S. At night we’d watch the Mexican city lights flicker on and listen to the uncles talk about how they used to walk over the border to buy cigarettes. Generally these stories ended with them being escorted back to the American side by machine-gun wielding teenagers hired by the drug cartels. Bisbee is a desert, eschewing attempts to grow grassy lawns and suburbs. Bluffs and badlands surround it, cacti and coyotes run through it, Black Windows live inside it.
“For god’s sake!” my mother cries as my brother and I shriek at a dead spider on the bed at my grandfather’s house. “That’s a garden spider! Black Widow spiders do NOT like to go inside houses!”
“Scorpions do, though!” my father helpfully supplies. Mom glares at him as Luke and I both volunteer to sleep in the car.
Despite the conservative, copper-covered, arachnid-filled parts that make the liberal city-girl inside me scream, I like Bisbee. Walk down the streets and you walk down paths used by outlaws and Sheriffs, Pancho Villa and the U.S. Calvary, Indian Chiefs and Copper Magnates. Unlike Tombstone, nothing has been sanitized for tourists. The good and the bad are stretched out in the sun for all to see. Bisbee is a place where you can run for hours without ever seeing your neighbors. It is a place where on quiet nights you can hear the guns from the drug cartel wars fire in Mexico. It is a land of unsurpassed beauty, of sunrises over snowy mountains, where you can toss apples to wild boars from your front porch.
It is a land ruined by people, a story of greed and abandonment told by a miles-deep hole in the ground.
Most of all, I like Bisbee because of its violent goofiness, as personified by my father’s High School Gym Teacher.
“He called it Combat Basketball,” my father told us over our last breakfast in Bisbee. “You’d get a boxing glove on one hand, and ball in the other, and then he’d blow the whistle and all the smaller guys would run for cover because the bigger guys would toss away the balls and just beat us up.”
“We also had Combat Baseball!” my Uncle remembered. We demanded to know why the two of them didn’t switch out of P.E. and into one of the other curriculars, like Glee club.
“We’d get beaten up in Glee club,” my father frowned. But you were already being beaten up IN CLASS, we argued.
My Uncle snickers. “Yeah,” he says, “But there’s a little bit of dignity in getting beaten up by the Jocks. There’s no dignity in getting beaten up by the Glee club.”