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Tucson Tales


Monsoons, a hot weather phenomenon of stupendous thunderstorms, is a time of trembling dogs hiding in closets – or maybe just cowering by your comforting knees. They hate that ear-pounding, floor-vibrating noise. We once had a peach of a friendly golden retriever who tried to escape the booming by hiding under cars. RIP dear doggie Pandora. Once a tow truck had to be called to raise the car to get her back home.

It’s the season of rushing waters scouring dusty arroyos, runoff waters that leap from banks and cover low bits of roadways. Terrifying in their violence, sometimes that outflow swallows cars, and you’d best not be in one. It’s a time of hope and excitement for this parched place, a time when electricity charges the atmosphere with zippy negative ions. Those ions stimulate cilia in your ears and nose, making you feel perky and happy. Did you know that?

When I was little and dark clouds rolled in, cool downdrafts brushed our cheeks as we youngsters ran jumping for joy in the first fat sprinkles, sticking out our tongues to catch a drop. We joyfully whooped and jumped, bounding around like baby lambs till our mothers scooped us up and dragged us inside.


Ah, childhood. Now we stay in and watch the show through the windows.
Monsoons have their own season?  Yes, Tucson has five seasons, not four. Fall, winter, spring, summer – and monsoon. Five. I have that on authority.


Apps are made for your cellphone whose notifications are whimsical rumbles, warnings if any storm action is in the offing. Also, the app will notify you of nearby lightning – or even to tell you that you need to scramble for high ground, if you’re in flood zones. We are reminded that floods can happen way downstream from the deluge; around dry Tucson, water rolls off the mountains.


NOAA also patches in texts of alarm for high wind gusts and hail, naming places to avoid. You can get maps of lightning strikes, cloud cover, and distance from the nearest display.

“Quick! Grab a chair Maudie!”

You settle yourself on the patio to watch the light show, cloud to ground bolts splitting the black sky. And you stay on the qui vive to high-tail it indoors when the forecast proves right.

No garage? Well blanket up your car, do your best to avoid hail damage. Nature’s showtime can extract a tiresome price.


The deluge comes. If you’re lucky, the barrage can be wild and wonderfully overwhelming. Puddles turn to pools, pool surfaces dance with the downpour, snakes slither out of flooded holes and seek high ground, usually draping themselves over your sun-heated driveway. Watch out.


The afternoon’s oven-hot air that drove birds to find shade under patio chairs, that nice spa temp for the cold-blooded snake, has now climbed aloft and cooled at condensation levels. Clouds have bloomed and become towering rain factories, firing off decibels of radar returns from their busy cores. You can hear it happening.

Aircraft beware.

Earlier, you watched as buildups rose. Little white puffs began to peek suggestively over distant ridges. Then you saw them pooch out and billow up. They continued rising, reaching high over peaks. They spilled over, crept toward you, escalating to fanciful cloud towers. That dazzling white suddenly morphed to threatening gray, slate floors for castellating turrets, the odd thick veil of rainfall sweeping out below. Were they coming your way?

Looks like it, doesn’t it? That app could have told you. The air is split by a ripping bolt, and the dog heads for the closet.

Grab a chair and enjoy the show.

Or The Rule of OysteR

Some of us are oyster addicts, yearning hopelessly for the gray flaccid treasure lolling moistly, inertly in its rough little casing, the shell lined with a subtle shining nacre, poor cousin to the shimmering abalone’s. But the succulent meat of the oyster way outshines the abalone, that rubbery delicacy of the Caribbean. Abalone fritters? Only if you’re desperate. The oyster comes in toothsome stews, elegant spinach creations labelled Rockefeller – and the mouth-watering naked pleasure of nestling oysters on crushed ice plates, cocktail sauce at the ready. And those stupid oyster crackers, their raison d’etre totally mysterious.


My personal affliction took hold when I was two-and-a-half and my Army Air Corps mission-flying Daddy returned to Ohio from New Orleans with his crew, bearing a gallon jar full of freshly shucked oysters. They swept me up onto the kitchen counter to perch beside the jar, grinningly offering a slippery morsel. They knew full well that of course I would be revolted by their sliminess, and looked forward to my wails of protest. Silly men.


I remember how big they were, and how they crowded the little kitchen. While they debriefed among themselves about their DC-3 junket to the South, I dipped in to help myself to more. I greedily slurped down about a quarter of the jar before they noticed. In horror, they saw what I had done, and rapidly plopped me onto the floor. My mother giggled and patted my little blonde head.


It was the beginning of a lifelong, world-wide search for more perfect oysters, a reprise of that pre-WW2 moment in that kitchen.


On Australia’s Gold Coast, there were oyster shooters, wallowing in saki and wasabi. Then there were New Zealand South Island’s bluff oysters, a gustatory destination unto themselves. Truly, it’s said New Zealand grows the best of the best.

But it’s a tad out of the way, no?

As is South Africa, home of the biggest oysters we’ve ever seen. HUGE. We were on a motoring tour of South Africa, a nation full of marvelous beasts and vistas. This stop wasn’t on the list of must-dos, but a coastal town? That called to us. It was on our track.


        Knysna, rife with marinas, fishing boats and a plentitude of bars and restaurants, pulled us in. Turned out it offered the most enormous and delicious oysters we’d ever seen. We stuffed ourselves and waddled out nearly delirious with our discovery. Years later, in Tucson’s Scordato’s restaurant bar, we met a man who lived just uphill from Knysna. He knew about these oysters.


Now, we settle for northern hemisphere troves. And there are plenty. Maybe not so huge, but surely as flavorful.


Our favorite haunts for the fattest oyster lie around the continent – first found was the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., play place of news folk and congressmen in the shadow of the capital building. The Ebbitt usually flaunts a menu of six imports.
Then we have Texas with their Gulf oysters – and of course, New Orleans, where it all began.


We’ve been lucky with our finds. Just down the road from Alamos, our charming Mexican town, there’s a source on the Sea of Cortez. Shrimp as big as your fist – and gloriously large oysters. We do indulge, from time to time.


But in Tucson’s dry southwest, far from the oceans, how could we sate ourselves? Aha! They import, of course, from everywhere. To reliably satisfy cravings in Tucson, we aim at Kingfisher’s imports, or the Valencia that trucks them up from Mexico. As good, would be Sullivan’s. All have decent oysters, but sadly the rule of “R” is written in stone, in North America. I have a story….

Once, overnighting in Fayetteville, N.C., en route to a Christmas in Texas, we were directed to Fayetteville’s popular 316 Oyster Bar. We were so enthralled with the succulent oysters spread before us, we had two dozen each. Ooooff. So, when flying past there again a few months later, we stopped to indulge ourselves again at the 316. Mouths watering, we ordered a dozen each.


We anticipated the same excellence we’d found before. But no. What were placed before us were wee marble-sized niblets – not the eye-popping wonders of six months before. What was the problem? We summoned the waitresss.


“Gee, ‘at’s the way they’s comin’ th’u these days,” she said.
Baffled and annoyed, we asked to see the manager.


“Hey, we made a special trip to have your great oysters,” we whined to him. “what’s this miserable offering, those pea-sized things?” we queried.


“Oh, ah’m so sorreh – we kin give yuh an extruh dozen to make up fuh that. But yuh see, this idn’t thuh raht season for oystuhs and we are not puhmitted to get them from thuh public bids. So we buy them from private bids, jes’ tuh have em, since folks expect us offuh oystahs. You know that rule? In months with AHR, oystahs ahr in season. This heah is June, an the oystah idn’t grown big yet. No ‘ahr’ in June.”


After downing the sad offering, and muttering between us about this horrid development, the light went on. “Bids” was southern for “beds!” Oyster beds. And we had totally forgotten the Rule of OysteR.


Those tiny things show up in Tucson as well. We try to control our lust till we enter the R months.

It’s now May.

We have a wait.


(But not “willywaws” – those are something else.)

The world-wide plains of our continents are full of them, those mysterious rising ropes of writhing dirt. Even the oceans have them, where they’re called water spouts. Skinniest of tornadoes, if you will, a rotating tight spin of air sucking up loose things that make them visible. Thermals, those rising columns of heat that top off with a cloud formation at condensation levels, can take that whirling dust up thousands of feet.
Once, flying north out of Mexico on approach to Phoenix at 5,000 feet, we spotted one a mile or so off our wing, then a few others here and there in the hazy distance.

I called the controller and expressed my surprise and awe. I could visualize his blasé shrug as he said, “First time out here, or what? We get those all the time.”


The ones I remembered from childhood dotted the desert, reflected in mirages, bringing to mind cowboys and cattle and the song “Cool, Clear, Water. ” This was way different. I meekly responded with a “Roger.”


Once we saw one on a taxiway at the Tucson airport, an oddity that appeared ahead of us, as thin as a pencil, moving along the route to our tie down. Was it dangerous? We stopped, mesmerized, and announced our dismay to Ground Control, then watched as it wandered off and dissipated.


“Yeah, we get those sometimes. They’ll spoil your paint job,” replied Ground.


From our hillside Tucson home in the Catalinas, selected for its fine view of Old Pueblo (Tucson’s original name) and the wide Sun Corridor around and beyond it, now and then we spy a rise of dust, a fat puff forming into a vertical thread, coming off perhaps a downtown construction site. As the air mass moves it, a wind shift probably, the dust column is directed away from its source. It breaks up and falls away. Usually.


Sometimes they turn into those “Devil not a man” things, showing us that the far west spirits are still there. Populate the plains as much as you will, you can’t cover it up. The Tohono O’odham Indians, a large group whose territory abutted the peaceful Hopi, were here first; their culture influences life today. You find traces in names and beliefs. Their dancing fertility god Kokopelli, the flute player, celebrated on tourist paraphernalia, is one. It was believed the hunchback tootled babies into being – and rain. Many of these agricultural peoples farmed in flash flood waters and mountain runoffs. Those thermals can rise up to bring us storms – when there’s enough moisture in the clouds.


If you look with eyes clear, then squint, sometimes you can see Kokopelli dancing with his flute through the climbing haze. They say the Tohono O’odham see him.

Maybe so do I.


Our patio fountain, home to a few flitty goldfish (not koi, no chin whiskers) is a big draw for the Cooper’s Hawk. This fly-in hunter regards it as his private buffet. The fish, on the other hand, do not – and are uncooperative. They flee into shadowy hide-outs under lily pads and tumbled pots; they must detect his approach from way off. Coop soars in and lands on the top of the fountain. From this perch, he scowls intently down at the water, hoping, hoping. In vain. Frustrated, he settles his bottom half in the second tier of the fountain, and dips himself repeatedly, bobbing up and down in the water, fluffing and flapping his tail feathers in a whimsical cooling cleansing. It’s his spa.


When he’s done, he flies aloft and dries himself on the roof, whence he sorties to the neighbors’ to check for edibles. He’s handsome; I’m glad he considers us worthy. But I, the finches, and the goldfish are relieved to see him go. At his approach, the smaller birds had flown away in a frenzied startle, fanning out to make poor targets. Now they return to the thistle and sunflower seeds, doves too, to their ground level pickings from the feeder debris. And all take their own turns at the fountain. Late afternoon comes – the desert sun’s rays angle in to light up the red and yellow breasts of their last sips before they drift to the trees for the night.


Then, in season, comes the cautious single-file parade of hatchlings up from the lower garden, next to the grape arbor. Under the cumquat, just under the comforting edge of a spreading juniper, quail positioned their nest. The eggs have popped out tiny teetering fluff-balls, chicks who by are now are ready to move up into the larger world of the patio. The black-plumed caps topping adult heads jiggle like antennae as they lead their babies from the protected nursery, ultimately guiding them into the daunting vastness of the Catalina Foothills preserve. That will be their new home, where by instinct all quail belong. They carefully pass by the patio ramada, disappearing into the dense hedge haven of oleander bushes, exit route to the Great Outside. We will see our quail again later on, down on the road, busy crossing from one cactus patch to another. The chicks lose their adorableness – they’re entering their teens, bigger each day, skilled at ducking predators.


That garden exit path alarms me, because the occasional transient bobcat also pads into that floral dimness. It’s every animal’s covered departure path from our walled garden. He doesn’t come often – just checks in now and then for small live stuff.   And so comes the bobcat. We sneak hushed to a window to observe his arrogant strut across the bricks. He is muscled, strong, catlike but not – and handsome. When my husband first saw him he said, “Come here! Look at that huge cat out there.” But the  short, curled tail identified him as not a house cat…and he was big. He comes around looking, I think, for the odd prowling rabbit. Senor rabbit finds cover under long leaves arching out from our tropical bird of paradise. The bobcat wanders on to the neighbors, dissatisfied with us.


But to me, the most surprising drop-in was the roadrunner.  The chaparral. He advanced slowly, placing one dainty foot in front of another, his spikey black crest leading his speckled body, trailing his long tail. Cocking his head, beady eyes checking side to side, he made his way to the water source. A quick hop, and up he went to the bottom lip around the fountain. A few dips and sips, and when I turned back – he was gone. Never to return. At least not when I was looking.


Owls perform at night, hooting from their high watch on the iron gate. A flashlight illuminates their eyes… they glow eerily. Annoyed, the owls silently flap off, insulted. Our cookout guests have been entertained. They head off into the desert nighttime, saguaros looming like guards. We go in to bed.


I love Tucson.


THE COCKROACH – but who doesn’t know that?

The American cockroach that lurks in our kitchens and forages through our trash bins is about an inch long; it’s just one of thirty varieties that plague us. There’s also the creepy large version that lumbers about on longer legs throughout the South. Nearly mouse-size, they look possibly edible (if you’re desperate enough). Scary things, those.


And smart. There was one whose movement caught our eyes at the El Paso airport. He was scurrying intently across the terminal floor, skillfully avoiding large feet, aiming at the automatic door. Arriving at the exit, he paused to one side, seeming to wait for a human to activate his egress. We were fascinated. Someone came; he made his getaway. Clearly it was a process he’d used before.


A droll ditty exists about the cockroach, the popular toe-tapping Mexican “La Cucaracha” (origin unknown), the critter that doesn’t get around because he’s out of marijuana. For an entertaining summary of its lyrics and history, click on:


The ubiquitous cockroach, brown insect of the 4,600-member order Blattodea, is a survivor of everything. He’s known to have existed through life-threatening perils for 350 million years. The insect shifts its venue at will, living on dribs and drabs of anything. The cockroach has been known to lodge in furniture, even in a clock, and thereby change its residence with a cross-country move. They’ve been known to hitch a ride all the way from New York (big center of infestations) to a new dwelling thousands of miles away. The unsuspecting homeowner dreamed of being rid of them, to have left them behind in his now abandoned dwelling. Silly twit. If the cockroach can live for years behind wallpaper, what’s a clock to conquer? Its life, though threatened in today’s world by countless poisons, continues undiminished.


It knows only to scour for food – and propagate. Which it does abundantly. At night, mostly, furtively scuttling in dark places to nosh and poop, leaving behind its e. coli and/or salmonella tainted feces. Oh – and dysentery, among countless other contagion. Even dusty dried up cockroach poo can cause annoying issues, like asthma and allergies. It has no social bias. It burrows in slums on neglected garbage; it lives in kitchen cabinets of elegant homes in upscale neighborhoods.


Once years ago, at a League of Women Voters meeting in the most upscale town outside of Boston, I was asked to please look for coffee sugar in our leader’s kitchen cabinet. Dutifully I went to the kitchen, opened a  cabinet, throwing light suddenly onto open boxes, marmalade jars and cans – and an alarming, writhing blanket of small brown cockroaches, their antennae waving inside those gaping cereal boxes.

I shuddered, closed the cabinet door, returned empty-handed to the living room, and avoided my hostess’ inquiring eyes.

Faces turned towards me.  I announced to the group that she was out of sugar.


Our cockroaches? In Alamos Mexico, our home is free of them. Mirabile dictu. If you are anti-pesticide, I hang my head in quasi shame. But they are rife there, especially that big black tropical one – and it’s them or us.


In drier Tucson, the moisture-seeking insect tries to access our house through drain pipes, an age-old sneak, probably since the advent of lead pipes in ancient Rome. We foiled that by putting borax in drains, a desiccating and poisonous item for them; they collect and carry the powder away on their little hairy leg bristles where ultimately it dispatches them.
That works.


Our Tucson house sits in a covert but busy wildlife haven, an area designated eco-friendly to the desert plant and animal. The street is even an uncivilized, unimproved dirt road. Coyotes yelp in groups in intense southwest sunshine, sounding just like kids laughing as they scramble up the sides of the neighboring wash. Not kids – danged coyotes. But in the night, the bad-tempered, fanged javelina also comes poking about, trailing its young – if it’s that season. No denying they are incredibly cute in their warthog ugliness.

This tusked beast likes to patrol en famille, sharp little hoofs tripping across the road between washes, cruising warily between properties, sniffing for nice dead rats, foraging truffle-style with earth-moving snouts for tasty roots. We’ve seen their hoofprints left from furtive foraging in the dark of night. They’re unbelievably tough, blissfully munching on heavily thorned barrel cactus fruits.


They’ll also check trash bins for leftovers. My friend and neighbor once raised her garage door to a family of five. They froze in place while rummaging through her rubbish. They locked eyes. She said a hands-on-hips “Beat it,” and they obliged. She was lucky. They are known, when challenged, to offensively charge and gore with their impressive mouth tusks. You see, like famous Rupert the Rhino, they’re quite near-sighted. Probably they really aren’t so fierce, but they can’t see for their sniffing. Great olfactory glands.


Those who know say they’re as toothsome as the wild boar. In Mexico, local hunters of the countryside consider them a delicacy. Like pork. But know this – though variously called “wild pig” and “skunk pig,” they are not any type of pig. They are a variety of peccary.


This saguaro-festooned hillside neighborhood, sloping upward from north Tucson’s busy avenues, is a special place. When, years ago, entreprenurial builders decided to create an architect-designed housing development, it was immediately designated by its home-owners association as a de facto wildlife preserve. That is still in effect. And although the original houses may be way behind the times in modern accoutrements, they carry the cachet of history. And the nighttime view of the city is breathtaking.


The wildlife, of course, including the near-sighted javelina, is unaware. They’re low-movers patrolling close to the ground. (Occasionally we hear the bobcat on the roof – another story. Might he appreciate those distant city lights shimmering in the vast valley between far off mountain ridges?) We watch for headlight-lit eyes as we slowly motor the road, being careful not to run into any trit-trotting family parade as we wend homeward.


Oh. Do not try to tame or feed them. Because of their unreliable natures, you could jeopardize your well-being. Their near-sightedness could cause them alarming confusion. A good-hearted animal lover in the Phoenix area is trying to recover from deep slashes to her legs, which her neighbors attribute to her feeding the ungrateful javelina, and which she does not deny.


The Wily Coyote

The city of Tucson, Arizona’s ever-growing interloper of the plains, stretches out across the curious Sonoran desert. Its reliable sunshine and warmth, so kind to aging joints, has called to seniors across the nation, its subsequent accommodating buildings of home and hospital creeping relentlessly out across the desert. It has encroached on the wildlife, ergo has its share of ferals. They were here first.


Of the desert menagerie, to humans coyotes probably are the most obvious. The scruffy dog-like hunter slyly slinks around housing developments. Dog-like maybe, but not our kind of dog. Beware – he’s not looking to merely riffle through your garbage – he’s searching for meal-sized cats and dogs.


Few pets are equipped to match this hunger-driven ur-dog. Our neighbors guard their fluffy yappers carefully. If one should sneak out, its fate would be written. Canis domesticus has a sad instinct to rush into the chase of a prey… to its doom. Especially frenzied lapdogs. We have, in our eco-protected area, a few handsome tawny coyotes who brazenly patrol our yards and driveways, occasionally catching a human’s eye before fading into the pucker brush. They are fearless, but non-confrontational. And then some are leaner and hungrier, more determined?


One evening, not long ago, a friend’s smallest member of his pet trio, a sleek dachshund, naughtily whizzed out between his master’s legs, joining his larger buddies for a night’s prebedtime widdle. He normally was never ever allowed out off-leash; he saw a gleeful chance at liberty and grabbed it. His buddies were big German shepherd bruisers, well-fanged males capable of conquering any feral encountering. (Well, maybe not a puma. We have the odd puma, too.)
Joyful, brave, naive and foolish little dachsie. He did not return.


At four in the morning, his master was slowly searching the streets by car. Suddenly a coyote trotted across his headlights’ beams. To our friend’s horror, he saw his feckless pet’s body-less head and chest gripped in its bloody fangs.


They are surely there, eyes gleaming and focusing in the underbrush, looking and awaiting the careless move of an untended pet. Thus the wily coyote survives.


They roam nationwide, this wild dog. Years ago in San Antonio, place of my birth, the local paper’s police log reported a call from a woman in an upscale residential area. She, a warm-hearted animal lover, was not having success feeding and bathing a homeless dog and could the police come get him. “He is just so uncooperative,” she said.

The police snickered upon their arrival. “That ain’t no dawg, lady – that’s a coyote.”

Similarly, in rural Massachusetts, I was idly motoring home when suddenly a dog hurled itself off an embankment, just missing its opportunity to cross safely, whanging itself into my right front wheel. It spun through the air and landed, twitching, roadside. I quickly stopped, everyone stopped, and we looked at the handsome beast as he convulsed his last breath. No collar.


“You’re going to have to call that in to the animal control, lady” said one oh so helpful bystander.

“Hell, lady – that ain’t no dawg, thassa coyote,” authoritatively pronounced another.

The woman in the car right behind me said, “Coyote? Can I have it? My husband is a taxidermist.”

Nonplussed, I shrugged and said “Be my guest.”

She snatched a large trash bag out of her trunk and with bystander help, stuffed the corpse in. He was thick-coated, handsome, muscular and deep-chested. No wonder we figured him to be a pet.


The excitement over, the kerfuffle resolved, the dead animal pulling away in the taxidermist’ wife’s car, I too departed.
What an odd day.


From New England to Texas, from there to Arizona and beyond, the wily coyote prowls our neighborhoods for morsels. They eat our mice, rats, squirrels – and our pets. Don’t even think about trying to woo and tame one. They are not our kind.