Phoenix without apologies

Why does half the city descend on San Diego in the summer?

In the 1940s, when home air conditioning was a rarity in most of the U.S., it was already commonplace in Phoenix.
  • In the 1940s, when home air conditioning was a rarity in most of the U.S., it was already commonplace in Phoenix.
  • Image by Margot Sheehan

Phoenix in August

Traveler, consider our Phoenix. An hour away by air, this flat, posh suburb of Greater L.A. is your finest summer vacation bargain. For the price of a bad weekend in a tacky Pacific Beach motel, you can live it up in style at one of Arizona’s finest resorts and rent a Cadillac into the bargain.

We have our carton of grade AAs and our spatula out.

We have our carton of grade AAs and our spatula out.

The heat is horrible — that’s why we went there, to find out, first hand, why half of Phoenix seems to descend upon San Diego in the summertime. But Phoenicians can cope, and so can you. For the latest refinements in climate control, for the leading edge of artificial environments, come to Phoenix, where they’re all ready to colonize the hot side of Venus.

Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong — they visit Phoenix every summer.

We crack one against the curb and plop it in the street.

We crack one against the curb and plop it in the street.

Gnash your teeth and rage and blow, ye dogs of summer — bring on the global warming! Phoenix has seen the future and made it work.

Primeval World

Some of them are walking dogs — small, easily cooled dogs without a lot of hair.

Some of them are walking dogs — small, easily cooled dogs without a lot of hair.

The pilot makes his welcome speech during the ride to the gate. ...‘.‘Currently, Phoenix is partly cloudy, 101 degrees, with winds out of the southwest at four miles per hour.”

"This is nothing. It’s been a cool summer,” a bronzed woman seated across from us says. "I lived here for six years. I live at the beach now. That’s what we call San Diego.” As we shuffle and stretch for stowed carry-ons, the woman recommends area restaurants, denigrates the local cultural scene. She chats on as we enter the jetway, which is warm and snug as an electric blanket.

"People who live here pretend they like it” is the woman’s parting shot. "But they don’t.”

Sky Harbor Terminal 4 features a moving walk from concrete terminal to concrete parking garage. Stepping from the main building onto the ramp, the heat hits us as if we’d opened the door to a clothes dryer, except that it’s all around, in mouths, ears, wafting up skirts, burning eyes. Sweat forms instantly between my hands and my luggage grips.

“This isn’t so bad,” my friend suggests. She flips her sunglasses down over her eyes and opens her mouth to gasp for breath. It’s ovenishly, wokishly, kilnishly hot. I look around for an exit to the outside. We are outside.

I discover that if I stand still on the conveyer belt, the heat doesn’t press against my skin as hard. We glide along at two miles per hour through cactus garden landscaping. The moving walk runs under a four-story structure, but the garden on either side is dramatically lit by open sky. Primeval World. Little sand hillocks sparingly decorated with saguaro cactus, barrel cactus.

In the shelter of the parking garage, where car engine heat is trapped, there is no smell of exhaust fumes. In fact, there are no smells at all. No jet stink, no desert perfume. This leaves me free to obsess about the sweat inside the padded shoulders of my jacket, along the top of my back, inside the waistband of my pantyhose. Toes burn inside leather pumps. The hairs on my neck are curled and sticking to my skin. A smirking car rental attendant waves us toward a Cadillac Sedan de Ville. Open doors, install luggage, turn on engine. An immediate arctic blast from the dash vents, 60 degrees, V-8-engine impelled. It’s a blessing, a reprieve, a beautiful, beautiful thing, air conditioning. I’ll never ask for anything again in my life.

In Phoenix They Create Their Own Reality

Phoenicians are pioneers in heat-deflecting devices. In the 1940s, when home air conditioning was a rarity in most of the U.S., it was already commonplace in Phoenix. Arizonans also popularized windshield sun-reflectors, plastic key-sleeves, and ice-bucket hats.

Need to insulate yourself from the weather? If the problem has anything to do with heat or light, Arizona will come up with an answer.

The Problem: Hot, dry air that keeps people off the streets.

The Solution: Spray-mists over sidewalks and pedestrian malls night and day.

The Problem: Skin cancer from the unyielding sun.

The Solution: Phoenicians now avoid the sun whenever possible. They stay indoors in the daytime and play outdoors at night. Compared with Californians, they’re pasty white.

The Problem: You can’t jog in this heat.

The Solution: Runners do their laps in the mists and air conditioning of shopping malls, open from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

The Problem: No ocean or lake nearby for water sports.

The Solution: Big Surf, a manmade lake with artificial waves.

The Problem: High electric bills from constant air conditioning in the summer months.

The Solution: Solar heaters to avoid hot-water expense.

The Problem: Treeless desert landscape.

The Solution: Transplanted flora from all over, watered constantly.

Nightlife

Sweat chilling on skin, we drive along the lamp-lighted decrepitude of 16th Street. We are insulated, muffled, protected in a mobile cocoon of leather and cushions. A tap on the accelerator takes us soaring over the posted speed limit.

A tap on the brake pedal and we slide forward on the seat from the damp on the backs of our thighs.

Low buildings, the remnants of postwar boom, line the wide street. Faded cocktail lounge signs in neon script, windowless brick bank branches, condominium and “garden apartment’’ complexes in the same Spanish Colonial style so often abused in San Diego — here, it vies with Pueblo Indian and Old West motifs.

There is a plush artificiality to Phoenix and Scottsdale resorts and shopping centers and golf courses.

It’s like that old episode of Tije Twilight Zone, in which the man finds himself in a beautiful, well-appointed home, but he can’t see out the windows. He’s trapped, until one day the barriers are removed and he finds he’s in a cage in a zoo on Mars. The residents of the Valley of the Sun would make great colonists for Mars. They move from one air-conditioned, fountained, landscaped environment to the next, contending that they’re acclimated to the heat, but simply avoiding the issue entirely.

There are no pedestrians here. Barge-like sedans slice along the streets, all windows sealed. The Caddy’s exterior temperature gauge records 101 degrees. It’s 8:30 p.m.

We drive toward Tempe along Van Buren Avenue, lined with used-car lots, run-down motels, the Arizona State Hospital (more windowless brick structures, set well back from a high chain-link fence). We pass baseball games conducted in blue-white, moth-flecked light on ultra-green fields. Lawn sprinklers circle everywhere. As an experiment, the Caddy’s air conditioner is turned off, windows glided down, the night air sampled. Nothing. No agriculture, no exhaust. Just desert blankness. Then out of the darkness drifts the spice of hot dogs grilling. It stays in the air for several blocks.

At 9:20 p.m., Mill Avenue in Tempe is crawling with students from nearby Arizona State University. A rebuilt old main street, there are buildings dating from the turn of the century around which newer structures have been designed. On their exteriors, jets fastened at second-floor level spew a cold mist on sidewalk tables and on hundreds of jiving kids in T-shirts and shorts. They all seem to have bought their clothes at the Gap. They are clean and cool looking. Some of them are walking dogs — small, easily cooled dogs without a lot of hair. There are twinkling white lights in the skinny trees between sidewalk and street.

The more serious students — long pants, long sleeves — hunch over notebooks and cigarettes and iced cappuccino at the Coffee Plantation, where it’s as cold as a supermarket frozen-food section. In the courtyard outside Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, long-haired waifs dance from one cluster of friends to another, squat next to tables for chitchat. Everywhere are bare, brown, flat tummies, glittering jewelry, gauze skirts.

The apex of activity is Hayden Square, an open area of shops and restaurants around a patch of green. An outdoor concert has just let out its audience. Beer cans and jumbo plastic beer cups are strewn everywhere. Roadies dismantle movable crowd barriers. It smells like spilled beer on hot cement.

Set back from the street, rhythm and blues, air conditioning, smoke, and sweat blast out of a club called Chuy’s. A black saxophonist strains muscles onstage, sweat rivuleting down his brown-blue cheeks. My face feels gritty. My lips are chapped. My hands are sticky. My feet burn.

In the parking lot between Hayden Square and Mill Avenue, a mounted policeman tickets a pickup truck full of squealing teenage girls. Diners departing local restaurants stop to pet his horse’s nose. Officer Bale looks crisp and friendly despite his dark uniform and leather boots. “Oh, me and Chico are just fine,” he assures us.

“I don’t ride him when it’s over 100 degrees.’’

Hands on saddle pommel, Bale grins out over the scene. “They’ll be as many as 10,000 kids down here some nights,” he explains. “There’s not any more problems in summer than winter though. It’s a myth that the heat makes people’s tempers short. At least, I haven’t seen it. The only thing that happens is, people drink in the sun all day, the alcohol reacts. People’s judgment gets a little, uh, impaired."

A bank’s entrance alcove radiates heat like a fireplace. Sitting on a step there, a moon-eyed boy with long blond hair strums out Led Zeppelin tunes on a guitar. Another boy and girl, their shoulder-length hair ropey with sweat, sit behind him. The cut-open plastic milk jug on the sidewalk before them contains only the quarters, pennies, and a dollar bill they dished out themselves to encourage donations.

“I don’t expect to make any money. We’re here,” the guitarist shrugs, “because there’s nothing else to do.” The other two snort and guffaw. “You can go tubing on Salt River, float around getting sunburned. You can sit around the house all day doing drugs.” The girl jingles her bracelets, breaks in. “Most of us stay up all night, sleep all day, wake up around three, and come here after dark.”

“It’s too hot to do anything,” the second boy says. “Except swim. Or have sex!’-' The blonde wriggles her eyebrows. “Hot and sweaty!” “Except my girlfriend doesn't like it,” says the guitarist. "It’s always, ‘Yick! Turn the fan on.’ Or 'Leave me alone, come back later, after dark.’ ”

“You know what I really, really hate?” The girl wrinkles her nose. "The way you can feel the pulse in your arms and legs after you go inside when it’s really hot. Do you ever get that?”

‘‘But the worst,” says the guitarist, “is this type of hairdo girls do. They style their hair big, high on top, and it’s, like, they stand there with the hairspray and go chshshsh — " he makes a circular motion around his head — “until the can’s, like, empty. Then you stand next to them when it’s so hot and it’s like you’re going to suffocate, man! That’s the worst!”

It’s almost 10:30 p.m., and down to “maybe 93 degrees,” according to one passerby. Cars blasting music stop in the middle of Mill Avenue, doors open, kids pile out, more kids pile onto the laps of kids in the back seat, doors slam. Genuine cruising.

A jeep full of blonds in stretchy black tops and cut-off jeans, radio blasting Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” drives slowly down Mill. A boy runs up and humps the side of the jeep. The girls howl and pull themselves up and down by the roll bar, gyrating, shimmying.

“I keep thinking I have to shield myself from the sun,” my friend comments as we head back to the Caddy. “But it’s night.”

Driving north and east, away from Phoenix and Tempe, we soon find ourselves in desert blackness. Nothing but road reflectors and warm wind. A well-lit intersection in the middle of nowhere, a left turn. Then in the pitch to the left of the Caddy, a rectangle of light, moving pink faces in closeup on it. Another, trapezoidal, featuring a car in a white cement cityscape. Big pictures fixed in space. They loom larger as we speed towards them. Scottsdale Six, reads a suddenly visible sign. A drive-in sixplex movie theater. A faint glint of light hints at the hoods of cars parked on the lot.

Phoenix Style: An Introduction

Phoenix sits midpoint between the style epicenters of Los Angeles and Santa Fe and incorporates most of the design points of both. From L.A. Phoenix gets the desert motifs of 1920s Art Deco and that tile-and-stucco “hacienda” architecture that is Southern California’s weird notion of Spanish Revival. (Weird because it is based more on Father Serra's California missions than on authentic Spanish dwellings.) From Santa Fe, Phoenix takes Amerindian patterns, tan stucco, and affectations of rusticity (exposed rough-hewn beams, bolo ties, wagon wheels in the front yard). L.A. likes rose hues, Santa Fe likes turquoise, and Phoenix has both.

But there’s a big difference between these styles as presented in L.A. and Santa Fe and their incarnations in Phoenix. In SoCal and New Mexico, original buildings and their modern inspirations sit side by side and you can compare them. In Phoenix nearly everything is new, new, new. If you drive down Van Buren, through the older, unrebuilt, shabby parts of town, you can still find evidence of a Phoenix 40 or more years old. No Los Angeles or Santa Fe here, just run-down small-town America: one-and two-story brick and masonry structures that once housed banks and middle-class shops but now are turned over into bodegas and offices for used-car lots (“We Carry Contracts!”). That’s the last of the pre-World War II Phoenix. Within a decade it’ll all be gone.

There is such a thing as Phoenix style, but it does not dominate the landscape. A type of architecture native to the area was planted decades ago by Frank Lloyd Wright — long, low stone-and-glass-walled homes. These are often terraced into the sides of brown, jagged mountains — Camelback Mountain, Squaw Peak — that look for all the world like fresh mounds of topsoil dumped out of some titanic wheelbarrow.

Phoenix also has a frog thing. It’s a risky business for a city or person to ask to be called by a catchy nickname, and usually it doesn’t work. In the 1960s, Mayor Lindsay wanted to call New York “Fun City.” For the last 20 years, Portland, Oregon, has been trying to promote itself as “The City of Roses” or some such. These embarrassing monikers have never caught on, any more than Philadelphia is thought of as “The City of Brotherly Love” or St. Louis has positioned itself as “Gateway to the West.”

Phoenix apparently wants to be known as “City of Frogs” or “Town of Toads.” No one knows why, and the Chamber of Commerce denies that any such appellation is sought. But the evidence is everywhere. Popular nightspots outside the city are the Horny Toad and the Satisfied Frog. The new Phoenician resort, built by fallen S&L mogul Charles Keating and associates, boasts an upscale trinkhaus named Charlie Charlie’s. The happy figure beckoning you to get yourself soused at Charlie Charlie’s is not Mr. Keating or even Mr. Chaplin, but a green frog dressed like a maitre d’.

Other cities vulgarly deck their public places with dolphins that vomit and cupids who urinate. Phoenix puts spouting-frog fountains into its malls.

There are many possible reasons for this froggy obsession, and two spring immediately to mind:

  1. The Amphibious Urge. Phoenix —indeed, Arizona —is hopelessly landlocked. It’s also mostly desert, despite a smattering of coniferous mountain forests in the north. The desert rats of Phoenix consume endless amounts of water. Rationing is unheard of. Phoenicians mist it on their sidewalks, water their lawns night and noon, and expend billions of man-hours on pathetic little attempts to engage in water sports. They ride inner tubes down the Salt River, a stream about yay wide. They bring surfboards to the waves of the outsized toilet bowl called Big Surf.Phoenicians, in short, are dead set on telling themselves they have a watery culture. Fortunately, a constant flow of tourists keeps them reined in to reality. Otherwise the local tourist industry would slip its moorings completely, and we’d see such humdingers as “Phoenix — Your Water Sports Capital” or “Arizona, Your Amphibious Playland.”
  2. The Chuck Jones Mystique. Chuck Jones is the Warner Brothers animator whose Road Runner cartoons, with their surreal desert landscapes, gave most Americans their first idea of what Arizona looks like — flat terrain, roads leading off to nowhere, red cliffs, lots of saguaro cactus. Chuck’s cartoons took the terror out of the desert landscape and redefined it as a free-for-all playland where anything could happen. The wilderness isn’t fearsome, it’s a cartoon. Laws are bad, regimentation is bad, the prey always outsmarts the dull-witted authority figure in the end.

Anyway, Chuck’s most famous and characteristic cartoon is not a Road Runner opus but a thing called One Froggy Evening, a dialogue-less short in which a green frog in tie and tails does an Al Jolson number.

And that’s why Phoenix has a thing about frogs.

All right, the point is strained. But where else in popular culture do we find the anthropomorphized amphibians that Phoenicians adore? They’re not based on Jim Henson’s Kermit, nor do they owe anything to Kenneth Grahame's Toad of Toad Hall. We rest our case.

Plush

The sprawling, pseudo-Spanish Colonial resort where we have a room is the called the Pointe at Squaw Peak. You shuttle from building to building in golf carts. Everywhere green depths of vegetation (imported from kinder climates), tangles of vines shade arched balconies, surround trickling fountains. Our haciendalike room offers minibar, minifridge, room service menu written in French, two TVs, two king-size beds. Our balcony overlooks a glittering swimming pool from which rise echoed splashings and mur-murings in French.

I fill the ice bucket in the exterior hallway outside our suite. I intend to empty the ice into a towel and wrap it around my left hand, because I have burned my index finger trying to flip aside the trunk-lid keyhole ornament on the Caddy. The thin slivers melt over the sides of the bucket during the three-yard walk back to my door. Beyond the building, I can see the close peaks, barren pink and grey ground, chunked with white stones and scrubby bushes.

The air conditioner in the room clicks on and off. My refuge. I feel I’m waiting for something. Waiting for my body to feel normal, which it won’t in this cold, odorless wind tunnel with beds.

I buy newspapers in the hotel gift shop. Local dailies — the Phoenix Gazette and the Arizona Republic— feature opulent weather pages: color maps of state and nation, air-quality index, lawnwatering guide ("shortage” is not a word compatible with Zonie lifestyle), pollen and mold index, pollution index, dew-point forecast, sun intensity, pilot advisory. At the bottom of the weather pages are cheery reminders to watch KTSP Channel 10’s special report on cancer checkups.

The Arizona Republic's sun-intensity index notes that at 3:00 p.m. it will take 27 minutes of sun exposure to redden untanned and unprotected Caucasian skin. The paper’s pollen-mold index (a courtesy provided for those asthmatics and tuberculars who moved here eh masse during the ’50s) reports a high concentration of Cladosporium mold; medium concentrations of miscellaneous pollens and Alternaria, lep-tospherulina, penicillium, and smuts; a low concentration of Bipolaris mold.

A radiant cartoon sun decorates the map next to Phoenix. Flagstaff, high in the mountains to the north, will only reach 77 degrees. Phoenix, in the center of the Valley of the Sun in the center of the state, will reach 106.

Today, the front-page story in the local papers is headlined “Tot missing after car is stolen.” Police and parents desperate to find the two-year-old boy, afraid he may be abandoned with the car in the over-100-degree heat.

I call the local office of the National Weather Service. "Why,” I ask Chris Reith, a weather service specialist, "is it so hot here during the summer?”

To my surprise, he does not laugh and hang up. "Well, there are basically four reasons. First, the low elevation. Phoenix is at 1100 feet. Anywhere you go on Earth, the higher up, the cooler it is; the lower you go, the warmer. That’s why Death Valley is always so hot. It’s below sea level. Second, the humidity is low, which means air warms up faster because it isn’t evaporating moisture and cooling off. Third, the latitude. We're at about 33 degrees latitude. The sun is almost directly overhead here in the summer months. Fourth, high pressure establishes itself at this latitude at this time of year, which means the air is sinking, and when air sinks it is warming more. The westerlies and storm tracks present here in winter retreat north, up to Canada, during the summer.

"But this has been a relatively mild summer, and drier than usual. We’ve only four-hundredths of an inch of rain so far. Last summer was really hot and wet. We had a day it got up to 122 degrees. You can always remember the date because it adds up to 122: 6, 26, 90. June 26th, 1990. Planes couldn’t take off. They had to shut the airport down for several hours. You see, density is a function of temperature. The hotter the air, the less dense. Planes didn’t have enough lift to take off."

Cocktails and French

At the hotel pool, 12 bodies, motionless in chaise lounges in the shade of palms. Men in Speedos, smoking, chatter in French. In the pool, several sulky children dive from the steps and swim around the spots of pool still in direct sunlight. The sun has retreated behind the four-story building around the courtyard. The courtyard is now half shaded. The air is motionless. It’s 4:30 p.m., 102 degrees, and time for "management-hosted cocktails” in the poolside cabana.

My friend and I order. “My God,”

the bartendress chuckles. "It’s so nice to hear English!” Behind us we hear barely intelligible calls for Margaritas and tequila sunrises and "whee-skee wees coca.” We pad past a fake volcano made of fiberglass and paint to take seats at a blue-umbrella’d table. Seated at a table near us are women in tank suits, speaking French and busily scribbling postcards. The water around us — pool, tiered fountain — creates some humidity and a faint musty odor. Speakers hidden in the planters pipe in soft jazz, music that suggests trade winds, tropical waters, an ease I do not feel.

Smoking, we discover, is less fun in the heat. You can’t tell the difference between air and cigarette smoke. I keep my hand wrapped around my plastic cup of gin and tonic. There is no condensation on the outside of the cup, but the ice inside it has a soothing psychological effect.

Even well-watered-down alcohol has an immediate and potent effect in this heat. Soon a soupy feeling pervades my muscles and brain. My pulse begins to pound in my forearms. I lean back in my deck chair and close my eyes. And open them; the sweat has loosened the sunscreen on my face and squeezed between my eyelids with a sharp sting.

"Y’all right?” A cocktail waitress in hot-pink tank suit and flippy tennis skirt bounds up to grab my empty cup. "Gotta watch that in this heat!” She chirps, enunciating with exaggerated clearness.

“We speak English,” my friend informs her.

"Oh, great. What a relief!” The waitress pulls out a chair and sits down. "The men keep saying things to me in French,” she complains. "All I understand is their room numbers.”

Out for an Afternoon Stroll

Walking in this weather, small degrees of coolness become important. You walk on grass when possible, in the shade if possible. If there is no grass, you opt for shaded white cement. If there is no white cement, you walk on the white-painted borders of the parking lots or streets. Through the leather soles of my sandals I can feel the threat of extinction.

I move in a cloud of soap and moisturizer smells exploding from my pores as the sweating starts. I walk squinting, with my mouth open. The inside of my lips dries instantaneously. Sweat slides under my sunglasses, under the band of my wristwatch.

Squaw Peak rises behind bleached, exposed-looking condos at the end of the block. Its outline is crisp and two-dimensional. The sky is a pitiless blue. The only sounds are breeze ruffling the puny trees, an occasional plane's roar, the buzz of air conditioning units behind every building.

Twenty minutes later, I collapse, exhausted, in the room. The sharp temperature change — from 107 to 65 degrees — makes my heart pound. My feet ache. My eyes hurt. The insides of my thighs are slimy.

I think about heat stroke. Nausea is an early warning sign. Then lightheadedness, perhaps you faint. Your skin might flush or turn pale, your head might ache, you might run a fever, but you don’t sweat.

"The intense sunshine," my Fodor’s notes, "can turn cars into ovens within several minutes, and every year several children and dozens of pets die because they were left trapped in unventilated vehicles.”

My friend staggers from bathroom to the sink at the mirrored vanity facing the beds. At 4:00 p.m.t the temperature is 105 degrees. She changes her shirt. Three times. From smaller to smaller to smaller shirts. "I guess it doesn’t matter,” she concludes, throwing a tank top on her bed. "I’m going to be hot no matter what I wear.”

A Town That Works

So why live in Phoenix at all? We decided to find ourselves a workaday Phoenix native and put the question to her.

Bonnie Howard is with one of Arizona’s growth industries: credit card management. Arizona has created a tax structure very congenial for credit card operations, and, as a result, many purveyors of plastic have moved here. Bank of America has its Visa back-office headquarters there, and so does Sears’ Discover Card. Bonnie’s company, American Express Travel Related Services, has done all of its west-of-the-Mississippi transaction processing in Phoenix for over 20 years.

Amex’s Western Regional Operating Center (“double-u rock” they call it) is a monstrous affair on Lincoln Avenue, a long, low hive filled with hundreds.of worker bees whose whole purpose in life is to field transaction queries from merchants and Amex cardholders. These are also the fine folks who ring you up when your American Express bill is overdue. The pay’s not great, but, hey, work is steady. American service industry at its finest.

Our Bonnie doesn’t work there though. She’s a manager of POS — point-of-sale transaction terminals — and keeps an office in the more genteel Amex digs at 16th Street and Camelback. This office building, the Camelback Arboleda, is four years old but looks as if it opened last weekend. It’s not hard keeping things spanking clean in Phoenix. As a famous jurist once said in a completely different context, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Bonnie took a few minutes from managing the point-of-sale terminal business to sit out on the sweltering patio. "It’ll be more comfortable out there,” she said as we left the 70-degree comfort of her Herman Miller modular office. Comfortable for her, maybe — she’s been here most of her life. As for us, we sweltered.

Out on the patio she enthusiastically gave us the top five reasons for living in Phoenix:

  1. Cost of living. A middle-income person can easily buy an eight-room house with swimming pooland tennis court.
  2. Outdoor recreation. Snowcapped mountains are a two-hour drive away; the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River a bit farther.
  3. “Phoenix is very family oriented.”
  4. No water shortage.
  5. A growing economy. The state government actively promotes tourism and a congenial business climate. It’s a right-to-work state (no closed-shop unions).

"But how do you deal with the heat?” we asked.

"Swamp coolers and air conditioners. I didn't mind the heat at all when I was little. I do now, sometimes. I think it’s hotter now.

All this building going on — the concrete and asphalt retain the heat.”

Melted Candy and Fried Grandmothers

But not all is heaven in the Valley of the Sun. One bad move and the heat will dry you up like a dead lizard. Last year a Phoenix woman drank vodka and fell asleep in the broiling sun. She was found a few hours later, dead — dehydrated from the alcohol and the air.

A skinny old codger at an office complex newsstand tells us a sad tale about melted candy bars two years back. Seems a 1989 heat wave wiped out the electrical system for a while. When he came in the next day, he found pools of Kit Kats and Baby Ruths all over the floor.

"Not a pretty sight, you can imagine!” he says, shaking his head.

“All melted?”

“All melted. ’Cept for the candy I had in the freezer. That was still good. In fact, it still is. I still eat some .of it every now and then.”

Mall Culture

Phoenix shopping malls surprise the visitor. They are seldom totally enclosed, because they’re designed for the two thirds of the year when Phoenix is a very pleasant place, with highs in the 70s and 80s. On summer days they’re virtually deserted. To navigate your way around and through them, you must scurry like a rat, hugging closely to the walls where you find cool mists and sometimes a bit of shade.

Out in the sunlight you can’t tell where you’re going. Shop signs spell out cryptic messages. At the Arizona Center we read GANDHI IS A LADY over the door of what appears to be a glass-walled restaurant. We stand up close and the lettering resolves itself into GARDENSIDE FOOD COURT.

About half the humans you see in the malls are under the age of two. Babies and strollers, strollers and babies, but seldom together. The mothers load their parcels onto the strollers and leave the babies in a restaurant or in a palm-shaded, misty nook. You turn a corner and suddenly come upon a litter of them, laid out side by side in their plastic carrying cradles like eggs in a carton.

Sometimes mother stays with baby and sends the au pair out to do the shopping. We got into a mall elevator with an enormously fat girl of about 20 who was pushing a plush stroller containing only a Leatherette wallet and a shopping list.

“Where’s the baby?” we ask.

"He’s in the restaurant,” puffs the fat girl.

"You forgot him?”

“No, the mom’s with him.”

A half-hour later we see mother and baby. Baby is in the arms of the fat girl, who is still pushing the stroller, which by now is loaded down with packages. Mother brings up the rear, dawdling at the jewelry store display as she passes.

A hallmark of American mall culture is a sense of placelessness; the mall in Cincinnati looks like the mall in Tallahassee. One traditional clue to a mall’s locale is the regionality of certain retailers (Bullock’s in the West, Neiman-Marcus in the Midwest and South), but even this is passing, and in Phoenix it’s already obliterated. Saks and Magnin, N-M, and Bullock’s sit side by side with Gucci and Ralph Lauren Polo. Upscale restaurants and patisseries let you know that even if you’ve got to go to the mall to have fun, you needn’t feel you’re in a hick town.

An ex-New Yorker is startled to find a Sam's Cafe at the Arizona Center. Sam’s Cafe in Manhattan, a little hole-in-the-wall “Southwest” bistro, was founded by Mariel Hemingway and her husband. Has Mariel started a national chain? Turns out a Texas restaurateur bought the rights to the logo and theme and now runs two imitations — one in Dallas, one in Phoenix.

Downtown

Only 94 degrees at 10:00 a.m. After lengthy preparations to face the day (shower, deodorant, sun block lotion, SPF 8 Chanel makeup base), we submerge in the superheat of outdoors. In five minutes, moisture has collected under the waistband of my shorts, down the sides of my body under my arms, in the small of my back, under my breasts, in the folds of my rolled shirtsleeves, on the insides of my elbows and the backs of my thighs, especially my knees.

At midday (102 degrees), the Borgata of Scottsdale (a glitzy treatment of Italian village life with blazing flagstone pathways), the Biltmore Fashion Park (tarpaulin-shaded breezeways, greenery, cold mist jets), and One Arizona Center (massive, elaborate fountains and gardens, two stories of retail shops) are nearly deserted.

Everywhere are pretty outdoor dining terraces, tabletops menacingly bright in the sun, devoid of patrons. I stop a tanned woman in a flower-print dress, toting a small child. “We don’t eat until after dark. For one thing, it’s too hot to cook. Also your appetite just dies in this weather. I make a lot of salads. Fruit salad, tuna salad, taco salad.”

What some people do, she says, is fight fire with fire. “Chili is real popular here for that reason. Really spicy foods that make you sweat.”

"It’s hard on the kids. They’ll just run around until they fall down. He—” she points to Jamie, three — “rode his trike around the back patio until he fainted one time.

I just had him lie down on the couch and sip water very slowly, then have quiet time for the rest of the day. So you have to keep them busy indoors, give them things to do. That’s maybe not so bad for their imaginations. But it's hard on the moms too.”

At 2:30 pm., it's 103 degrees. My feet inside my sandals are so hot and itchy I want to press them naked against the car’s A/C vents while I drive. My friend’s face is slack and expressionless, her eyes glazed. Hot, wide, near-deserted city streets on a Friday afternoon.

We stop at the Mercado, a virulently pastel-colored mixture of Spanish-, Indian-, and Western-themed buildings two blocks long. We are the only visitors. Half the retail spaces have “For Lease” signs pasted to their glass windows. The woman in Frontier Corral Western Wear tells us, “The weather’s too hot and we don’t have the mist jets here. Everybody’s over at the Arizona Center, we suspect. The governor had a hand in this mall. He’s lost a bundle too, I bet.”

A Marketing VP in Thongs

It is 107 degrees and I don’t feel it anymore. I accept the drugged-ness of my muscles and the discomfort of my skin and the difficulty in breathing. We try One Arizona Center, an office building and shop/restaurant/club complex. There are people here. Family groups — grim mouths under reflector sunglasses, fussing babes — wander desultorily from level to level.

Lombardi’s, an indoor-outdoor Italian cafe at the Arizona Center. Under a giant umbrella and mist jets, near the curving edge of the patio cooled by a terraced waterfall. Five others are dining in an area that seats perhaps 300. At the next table is a man in tropical print long shorts, white T-shirt, thongs.

Phil, a marketing executive based in Chicago, has his Phoenix lifestyle strategy all worked out. He is a happy man. He drives a convertible, but only in the early mornings and late at night. He swims before dawn. He eats light salads and gazpacho in the evenings and takes his main meal at noon. In two years, he hopes to move his entire family out to Scottsdale.

“The great thing about this place,” he tells us, “is you can walk around dressed like this, even into the nicest restaurant in town, and nobody will bat an eye.”

Egg-Fry

Near Sky Harbor Airport it is now 106 degrees. We stop at the end of a deserted road behind a rental car service yard and a dirt lot stretching all the way to the I-10. It is not 122 degrees, it is not even 110 degrees. Still, we have our carton of grade AAs and our spatula out and we are squatting on the asphalt, ankles burning in the reflected calefaction. We crack one against the curb and plop it in the street. We wait in the Caddy, air conditioning at- full blast. Five minutes pass.

“The white is bubbling...a little... ”

It lies there, the yolk listing badly to one side of the circle of white.

Skyward

In the Terminal 4 cocktail bar, the TV screens are playing more of ESPN’s coverage of the PGA International, and double shots are only a dollar extra. Outside the picture window, the line of mountains to the south is like a piece of construction paper torn against the grain.

The flight is full, bumpy, and a half hour late.

In Lindbergh’s east terminal, the outside air is pumped in. It is naturally cool and full of vague scents: perfume, food, plants. It is the air of San Diego. In the parking lot are San Diego sparrows, to whom, half-drunk, I scream hello.

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