Nomads of the Desert City
Personal Stories from
Citizens of the Streets

Barbara Seyda
Vivian has lived on the streets for twenty years. She has had electro-shock therapy for her depressions, drank, "gave up on life." She says, "I came from a dysfunctional family."

Steve was in Viet-Nam, came back, did drugs and was an alcoholic, in and out of jobs, says he has "lots of anger." "They put a diagnosis of 'borderline personality' on me." He says that he is free: "In a moment's notice, I can be gone."

Deanna has been arrested for prostitution, for drugs. She says she grew up in "a dysfunctional family." She says she's afraid of dying. "Yeah, I know I'm dyin', you know." She dreams of a family,

    I dream of getting my family back together, having a normal life. Have my daughter. Do things with my grandkids like go to ball games. Go to parks, circuses. Just a normal life.

§     §     §

Barbara Seyda went out on the streets of Tucson and found thirteen homeless men and women to interview, to get their life's stories. They are presented here with photographs, and a brief description of them as she is preparing to interview them.

What's interesting is not the life stories they have to tell. You and I have heard these stories for years from people in front of the post office, those who stop us for money in the street, who come lumbering up to our cars in the parking lots. The stories are always of war in one form or another. When I was a kid, it was that they had been "gassed in the War" --- referring to world War I. Later, they would say they had been wounded Viet-Nam. Now it's the war of drugs and drinking and the police and guns and families and being committed to places they don't want to be committed to.

These people know social-work language; they use it easily, their own code for justifying their life in the streets. They have been Social Worked ad nauseam, and have cultivated the lingo. "Borderline," "I have anger," "I was abused as a child," they say. The vocabulary of the helpers is now their vocabulary. "Dysfunctional," certainly a $25 word, pops up again and again on these pages, as do the names of the social service agencies they can turn to with their legal, health, mental or housing problems: La Frontera, Desert Hills, AHCCCS, ACLU.

One lady, what we used to call "a babbler," compares herself to Anne Frank. An old guy says that he is ninety-five years old, reads the papers he picks up on the streets --- the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. The overriding theme is one of fear, with the necessary horror stories:

    They killed her. Some jerk killed her. Stabbed her ninety-nine times in the heart, cut her breasts off, sliced her face. I can't tell you who.

It's the fear, the fear from the streets, the fear from without, the fear from within:

    My grandparents were born on an island. We went down and insisted because my mother didn't survive. To pick up my grandparents on the way to this world. She died a horrible death --- something like those dolls over there. Yeah, I was old enough to hear all the screams, old enough to know what happened. She's always with me now...

    So where are brains made? Mastermind brains? Well, if your mastermind brain is an arsenal, a government-run arsenal to get away with murder and expecting that many benefits and that many returns and that many murders, that many possibilities, what do you think happens to a government like that? It self-destructs...

    I was a survivor in this world because they made me a survivor. Now they're on the second half of the story. The ending. Yes. For every ending, there's a beginning. Do you know why for every ending there's a beginning? Yes, well...

    I quit crying all my tears a long time ago. I quit screamin' all my screams a long time ago.

--- S. W. Frazier

Silent Extras
Arnon Grunberg
(St. Martin's)
Here, you'll find Michaël Eckstein, d/b/a Broccoli. He "drinks the way other people smoke." And Ewald Stanislas, the narrator, who thinks everyone is looking at his crotch. Friend Elvira is from Argentina, and is billed as a "femme fatale." She wants a man with a motorcycle and a sidecar.

They are movie extras looking for a job in Amsterdam, and this is Grunberg's second novel. It's gotten rave reviews --- they say he's another Woody Allen or Saul Bellow. Maybe --- but some of us have a low threshold for a story that has no intellectual fireworks, a tedious dialogue that tends to meander:

    "Shall I call you Michael then?" I enquired.

    Broccoli slammed his hand down on the table. He almost spat in indignation.

    "If you want to make sure I never look at you again, just be sure to do that. The chairman of the Association for Geniuses is called Broccoli, and nothing but Broccoli. Mr. Broccoli to the uninitiated."

It's easy to get past page 50 in a Bellow or an Allen, but I defy you to do that with this one without suffering an attack of The Yawns. If you manage to get to the end, we'll give you a prize: membership in the Association for Geniuses, where you can change you name to Turnip, or Parsley, Rosemary and Chives.

They say Grunberg's already sold the movie rights. Figgers.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

The Places
That Scare You

A Guide to Fearlessness
In Difficult Times

Pema Chödrön
Pema Chödrön believes in "mind-training," using the "slogans" of Atisha Dipankara of 11th Century Tibet. For instance, to rid yourself of anger, call on the slogan Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.

Pema Chödrön lists fifty-nine mind-training slogans, including cryptic ones like

  • Don't be swayed by external circumstances;
  • Don't talk about injured limbs;
  • Don't transfer the ox's load to the cow.
Unfortunately for the reader, Pema Chödrön's words do not read easily. The book has the feel of haste; certainly it lacks structure. It is also knee-deep in unfortunate exhortations: "Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts."

Her questions, instead of being helpful, are merely rhetorical: "How many of us feel ready to interrupt our habitual patterns, our almost instinctual ways of getting comfortable?" she asks.

Furthermore, some of the translations of the fifty-nine exhortations seem strange, as does the very word "slogan." It gives the feeling of something called up too often, a not-so-heartfelt cliché, like "God Bless America" or "This is Pearl Harbor all over again."

We don't doubt for a moment the faith and training of Pema Chödrön. Her personal griefs, as related during the course of this book, can be powerful. But it might help to have an organizer for her next effort.

--- Mary T. Walsh

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