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By the Time I Got to Phoenix

The Sugar Bowl, by eye35mm.com/Flickr

Years ago I shared a shuttle ride from the Dubuque airport to Galena, Ill., with a passengerial passel that included an elderly Russian whose family had fled the Revolution and settled in Paris. He explained to us that his mother had inculcated architectural discernment by taking him on carriage rides down the city’s boulevards and declaring “good house” or “bad house” as they passed each structure. As our vehicle crossed the Mississippi we asked the old man to play the game. He did, ejaculating “bad house, bad house, bad house,” until we happened upon a McDonald’s, which reduced him to sputtering, “That should not be allowed!”

My wife greatly enjoyed this story, and she took to playing “good house, bad house” with our young daughter, rolling her eyes at my sappy protest that “any house in which there is love is a good house.” When we’d sit by blue Ontario’s shore Lucine would play “good boat, bad boat” with Gretel, overruling my proletarian-tinged defense of Rodney Dangerfield barges.

The great Edward Abbey called Phoenix “an oasis of ugliness in the midst of a beautiful wasteland,” and I’d have tossed it in my “bad city” bin without a second (or even first) thought before five days in January under the chaperonage of our friends Jeremy and Kara persuaded me otherwise.

A good city needs ghosts, even if they’re only spooking transients. We lodged in the San Carlos, one of those faded-glory 1920s “Clark Gable stayed here!” hotels one finds along the southwestern penumbra of moviedom. The Hotel San Carlos is said to be haunted by the restless spirit of Leone Jensen, a despondent flapper who took flight from its rooftop after being spurned by a rakish bellboy. Some male guests have claimed that Leone’s specter has appeared at the foot of their beds, though she seems not to go in for succubal activity.

We heard plenty of strange noises in the wee hours, but instead of Leone’s apparition the only visitant we had was a t-shirted fellow frantically pounding at our door early one morn and claiming that his wife had walked into our room as we slept and been made “very uncomfortable” by the intrusion. You and me both, buddy.

Kara is of an ancient Phoenician family that has enriched the city commercially and musically, and her pride in her hometown is infectious. If you know the lore, if you can attach names and faces to the stories, if the legends give you a fillip, then your city is lovable: Concord, Duluth, Phoenix… hell, maybe even Orlando for all I know.

We play the hands we are dealt. I might have wished for my own town a cultural patrimony of Sarah Orne Jewett and H.L. Mencken and Duke Ellington, but I got the suicidal martinet General Emory Upton, the pleonastic novelist John Gardner, and accordion virtuosi. Phoenix boasts of Barry Goldwater and Alice Cooper, but it also has terrific Mexican restaurants, walkable neighborhoods, friendly craft-beer-pouring hipsters, and a football star (Larry Fitzgerald) who regularly visits the family dining room at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, where Kara works.

Our tour of Phoenix took a literary turn when our hosts brought us to the Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale, the ice-cream shop hangout of the late Bil (no second L) Keane, whose Family Circus comic strip produced a memorably sad moment in the Kauffman household when our daughter, then aged seven or eight, announced, “Family Circus isn’t funny anymore.”

Ah, time and the river. How our crests fell at that one. But at least, unlike Nancy or Doonesbury, Family Circus had been funny once.

thisarticleappearsThe Sugar Bowl might be an effective and humane substitute for Clockwork Orange-style aversion therapy. Its pink décor and walls festooned with Family Circus panels could turn Vontaze Burfict into Mr. Rogers.

My late mother-in-law, Marie Andonian, a faithful TAC reader, had occasionally sent us Family Circus clippings over the years, and from Phoenix we took the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles for a memorial gathering.

Marie was insatiably curious: the first time we met, she asked, “Why do you think it is that animals don’t play sports?” Almost 30 years later I still don’t have an answer. Marie never lost her farm girl tenacity—she once pulled a stump from our yard in a scene right out of Shane—and when my first book, a novel, came out in 1989, she must have called every bookstore in Glendale, Burbank, and Pasadena to order copies, using fake names and accents if necessary.

That’s what I call a good mother-in-law. Rest in peace, Marie.

Bill Kauffman is the author of 10 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.

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