248 Tucson, AZ: The City

Tucson was settled more than 12,000 years as an Indian village called Stook-zone, meaning "water at the foot of black mountain." The non-Spanish-sounding Hugo O'Conor established the Spanish Tucson Presidio, and settlers began arriving in 1776 to the town known locally as the Old Pueblo.

Now, the city (Tucson, not The City) had a smallish business center downtown, sending tendrils of housing developments deep into the furrows of the surrounding desert mountains. None of what passed for high-rises seemed tall enough to provide the dizzying perspective in Hopper's painting. The largest was about 20 stories. In Tucson, you're more likely to get vertigo by staring up the pole-like shaft of one of the ubiquitous saguaro cacti, whose blooms are Arizona's State Flower.

Downtown Tucson's architecture was a bizarre mix. A squat 1900s brick-fronted building jostled a 1960s office building sided in blue and brown glazed brick. Downtown streets were deserted, and the event center was for rent. Seemingly everywhere in town, I heard trains rumbling past or blowing their horns.

Like Jodi had said, the town was home to a large number of theaters. The Fox Theater sported a southwestern mosaic of glazed tile. The Spanish-style Temple of Music and Art housed the Alice Holsclaw Theatre and the Arizona Theater Company. The Teatro Carmen was on Cushing, where the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson was presenting a play, "Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright."

Hopper might have used these as subjects. Or he might have chosen the Grill Café, which retained its old black-and-white sign that promised, "Open later than you think."

But perhaps the most Hopperesque place was the Hotel Congress at Fifth and Congress, perfectly preserved from the night in 1934 when a fire raged through the upper floors. Some of the guests so frantically begged firemen to save bags that were in their rooms that the firemen peeked inside the bags and found Tommy guns and cash. That's how some of Dillinger's gang came to be arrested in Tucson. True to the fire's era, the rooms have no air conditioning or televisions. (Hopper's friend Brian O'Doherty reported, "[Hopper] possessed a radio but no television.")

Behind the counter squatted an old switchboard to call up to the rooms. Standing beside it ready to dispense cigarettes, candy, toiletries, or sundries stood a guy with shaggy hair that had random blonde highlights, either from the sun or a bottle. He wore an old white shirt with a thin red tie. He had a boy-next-door look, and his gracious attitude seemed tailor-made to be the clerk at an old-time, service-oriented hotel. "Dave," read his nametag.

"I saw his [the Hopper] retrospective at the Whitney," he began. "It was an overwhelming tour. He's an incredible painter. I have a copy of one: it's a bunch of people just sitting fully clothed in the sun."

"People in the Sun?" I asked. "He claimed that was Tucson."

"That's fantastic," he gushed. "Hopper to me I've never associated with the west. You see all the great old pictures in the Smithsonian and they're all eastern seaboard."

"You're a native of Tucson?" I queried.

"Tucsonian," Dave answered, "yes."

"Do you think people in Tucson are as isolated as the characters in Hoppers paintings?"

"Not any more. Although, if you notice, the town is isolated geographically. But it isn't isolated. Like any place you go to now, there's television and the Internet; everything is here. Frankly, I think it's such a homogenized world now. That being said, we're certainly aware of our surroundings. We are aware that there is miles and miles of desert between us and anyone else.

"Just living in the desert, to me, is still a Wild West analogy. Our isolation is keeping us together. We have our own tempo. There's nothing else really influencing us. There's a certain lifestyle that we've come to know and like and operate. It's slow. It has a certain vibe. Lot of people tend to like it. Great town. It's right, if you're self-motivated. Cheap rent, great Mexican food, Mexican women-all great things in my humble opinion.

"I have no idea," he mused, "what brings a person into Tucson. Not that I don't think we have enough attractions. But I can travel around the country and find great things and certainly great places. I guess we are the quintessential western town. We're the largest city right outside of Tombstone if you're going to the Old West. We have the beautiful saguaro desert, unlike the northern deserts. So you get a lot of bang for the buck.

"Here [at the hotel], we get mostly artists, foreign travelers. That's usually our demographic. My job would be helped immensely if I knew Japanese and German. But it's very European. We don't have air conditioning. We don't have TV. Let's face it: it's not a Motel 6."

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