This is Mike Powell’s final column about living in Arizona. Read the rest of “Zonies” here.
In July 1986, a DJ in San Diego named Randy Miller debuted a novelty song he had written called “Zoners.” The song, sung to the tune of “Rumors,” by the Timex Social Club, documented the peculiar habits of one of San Diego’s least-loved populations: tourists from Arizona. “Look at all these Zoners / surround me every day / They come up here from Phoenix and sometimes they want to stay,” Miller sings. “Look at all these Zoners / I can’t take it no more / They’re on the beach, two towels each / Stealing sand from shore.”
The connection is well established. About 10 percent of San Diego’s tourism comes from Arizona; the longtime Arizona senator John McCain has joked that visiting San Diego gives him a great opportunity to connect with Arizona voters. And yet the Zonie—or the Zoner, or the Zona—is, to both the Arizonan and the San Diegan, strictly second class. Like a secret girlfriend into whose window one shamefully crawls under anonymous night, Arizona is necessary to the San Diegan’s machinery but expendable to its identity. Want plays no part—they need us.
Walker Percy has a good essay called “Why I Live Where I Live” that opens by breaking down the various types of places in which a writer can live. Being Percy, the structure is methodical but the content is mystical, felt, like an instruction manual on how to fix a microwave using poems. If I can locate myself in Percy’s particular rubric, it is in a section about what he calls “total misplacement,” the process by which one moves to “an exotic place, which is so strongly informed by its exoticness that the writer, who has fled his haunted place or his vacant nonplace”—terms explained by Percy elsewhere—“and who feels somewhat ghostly himself, somehow expects to become informed by the exotic identity of the new place.”
Percy classifies this move as “a real bummer.” It has been fine by me so far. The idea of Southern Arizona does, without a doubt, have a flavor, one unusually strong given how little actually goes on here. Say Fresno or Louisville and some image may come faintly to mind—a clock tower, maybe, or an old bank—but they have nothing to do with Fresno or Louisville and everything to do with one’s hereditary blueprint of small American cities. Say Tucson, on the other hand, and Arizona generally, and something appears: a cactus, a scorpion, an airstream, a retiree wearing a straw hat and golf duds, crystal in one hand and revolver in the other. I am constantly noting movies, books, songs, and television shows in which a character—usually a peripheral one—ends up crash-landing in Arizona as shorthand for the untethered romance of the American vision quest, or—and sometimes in addition to—suggesting that the character in question has flunked life.
What Percy doesn’t discuss—and not, I don’t think, because he didn’t have the foresight to but because he didn’t make the time—is the singular pride one gets from claiming a place other people think is second-rate. Many times—especially on coasts or in large cities—I have had the experience of telling people I live in Arizona only to see their eyes flicker with pity, as though I had failed in ways I didn’t even have the capacity to understand. How did you end up there, they ask, as though reasons for living elsewhere would be self-evident.
I first heard the term Zonies from my mother-in-law, a proud San Diegan who could imagine few worse fates for her daughter than to end up in Arizona, living unwed (at the time) with a man who still harbored reservations about his Bar Mitzvah. The bridge between us was not easily built. The more she insulted our new home, the more pride I took in it. Fascination flourishes under free will but true love is forged under duress. My wife still keeps her New York driver’s license, out of, I think, a strange filial responsibility to the woman her parents hoped she’d become.
We went to California last week, a good visit overall save for the fact that our two-year-old son had recently given up his bottle and was struggling to adjust to life without it. One afternoon, he fell asleep on the couch—a first—and woke up an hour later, sobbing and disoriented. The more I tried to comfort him, the deeper the tantrum got. He wailed, threw toys, reached for things and forced them away. I struggled to get him into the bathtub, where he kicked and slapped me. That’s right, I said, Dad’s head is a drum, but he kept slapping. At times he seemed possessed, functionally beside himself. Looking at his face—this bottomless, bottomless pain—I had the sensation I was seeing my own past, not a specific memory but the general condition of childhood, a state where everything is powerful and confusing, where one is constantly being displaced by new experience. I had been here before. Eventually he quieted down, ate some chicken, watched a few clips from Dumbo, which made me cry, in part because Dumbo is sad and in part because parenting doesn’t care if you have anything left to give or not.
We went back to Tucson a couple of days later. It’s a surprisingly eventful drive, the landscape shifting every hour or so, from the green hillsides outside the city to the swirling sands of the Algodones Dunes, through Martian piles of rock and manure-scented agricultural fields where bugs die continuously against our windshield. People from anywhere else always seem surprised to learn that we go through at least one, sometimes two Border Patrol checks on these drives, the dogs walking furtively around the cars, the agents always looking indifferent and bored, either because they are actually indifferent and bored or because they have to feign indifference and boredom because they feel ashamed of their own power. I wouldn’t know how to deal with it either.
In any case, it takes about six hours, more if you need to stop and change diapers, which we do. By the time we got off the highway, my three-month-old was screaming and my two-year-old was nearly asleep. My wife and I had been arguing pointlessly about a particular decision she’d made on the highway, one of those arguments that only takes hold when a child is screaming and we are stuck in a car. I realized that I had lived in Tucson long enough to find something to like about every hour of the city, how the light plays, how empty it feels when you want it to feel empty. As we pulled around the corner to our house, my two-year-old suddenly kicked my seat and said, Hooom. Yeah, I said. That’s right. Hooom.
As for Randy Miller, the DJ from San Diego, he wrote a few more novelty songs, including one called the “Illegal Alien National Anthem,” sung to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.” He left his job at KS-103 shortly thereafter, citing financial issues, and went on to leave or lose similar jobs in Richmond, Pittsburgh, Charlotte and Kansas City. My jury is out on the subject of God, but it does seem like some are doomed to roam.
Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.