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Finding a way

By Mary Fan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 24, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Mary Fan

I stood on a half-lit street corner in South Tucson Sunday night, a liquor store behind me and salsa music scratching from a nearby low-slung Chevy, feeling inexpressibly moved.

Home again.

I grew up in South Phoenix - Phoenix's equivalent of South Tucson - though I never slept a night in that city. If I can say I know the people of any place or feel deeply for the people of anywhere, it is for the people of South Phoenix. Places like that.

The fruit vendors and tamale sellers. Telemundo 21 on loud. The street men with the bottle in a bag, the women with their carts.

I used to fit into this fabric too. As a kid, I sold grapefruit in supermarket parking lots in South Phoenix. Dawn till past midnight. Talking to the matrons and Navajo and Hopi coming off the reservations during the day; the laborers just getting off towards dusk; the easy, cool gang kids come cruising through for a quick six-pack at night.

The beat of the ghetto blasters took me through many a miserable, blistering day on weary feet.

We - my brother, sister and I - were the chinitas, there every week during grapefruit season, three grimy kids holding our bags and selling our fruit from a car trunk.

We had our regulars and we regarded them with a fierce devotion akin to love. Our people.

That is not to say I didn't hunger - want more than anything I have wanted then or now - to leave that place. To chase the dreams and enter the world we all know so well in college now.

And I did. And my freshmen year here, I sometimes major-switched as much as once a month, trying to find a combination that would bring all the glories toward which we, the soon-to-be elite top layer of America possessing a college degree, strive.

I was a college kid now and I could feel it, all the angst and grand worries about where I am going. All the hunger to achieve.

You know. The gated home in some California enclave a world removed from the grime and squalor of places blocks away. Island vacations, a nice vacation ranch.

Worshipping the popular gods. While still looking for something compelling and real, something to believe in.

So I found myself in South Tucson at night. Doing an assignment for one of my classes, believe it or not, and I got to talking with this manager at the Ice Plant, a big liquor store on South Sixth Avenue.

His name was Chris Bell and he is 27. Grew up in that belt between Sixth Avenue and Los Reales, once dubbed the kill zone by the Tucson Police Department because a whopping percentage of all murders in Tucson went down there.

Both his parents were killed in a 1996 bar robbery along with the bartender. And he spends nights keeping order in a store where many surly, often volatile patrons come cursing through, as one did the night I was there, many of them hopped up on drugs. He tends the cash register before an open door until midnight.

Don't get me wrong - there are good people in South Tucson, strong families, faithful church-going hard workers. But there are places where you see the worst.

"One night, at 6, 7 o'clock, a gentleman walked in that door with his throat slashed bleeding profusely from a drug deal gone bad," Chris recalled.

It's enough to make anyone dream of getting out.

But that was not at all close to his dream. His hope is to get on the South Tucson police force and work on community policing. The boys in blue who come in at the most volatile points in a volatile city and keep the peace for those who live there, go to church there and want to raise kids in safety there. Do this for wages most here in college wouldn't want, even at an entry-level job. Doing a job many could not stomach.

Because you are doing something real. Good you can see and know every day.

And I thought that is so clean. So right. Here in college, most of us grew up in a nice safe place, or if we didn't, by some great smile of fortune we got to one.

And so often, draped in opportunity we bemoan our inability to decide. Or we collect this list of tools - majors, internships - and have not an idea where we want to go or do with them.

Have not a single real, clean dream but some hasty borrowed image of wealth and ease left over from the '80s.

If you're not sure where you're going but you think you want to get rich or grab the glory, really think about it. Is it you feeling here?

I think we've all got a South Tucson we've half-forgotten for the celluloid images of "success" beamed down every day on the tube.

And to every wondering one out there I wish you a half-lit street corner somewhere like home and a stranger to come and make it real.

Mary Fan is a journalism and international studies senior and perspectives editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. Her column, Skyfall, appears every Thursday and she can be reached via e-mail at