“So, do you guys want to spice things up?”
I heard the words, but the meaning was slow to seep into my sleep deprived brain, still foggy from a red-eye flight south from Anchorage to Phoenix. Was the nice young man behind the rental car counter offering us salsa packets? Trying to put us in touch with some kind of escort service specializing in couples?
“Yea, maybe a Mustang?”
No, he was just trying to up-sell us, anticipating perhaps that the pasty, vitamin-D starved pair in front of him was a sure thing for a convertible. But, no, we stood our ground. “Just whatever we booked, please,” which turned out to be some kind of Mazda sedan with lots of trunk room and a perfectly functional air-conditioner, a good thing because the weatherman was telling me that the coming days were going to be hot.
We wheeled our carry-ons into the garage, located our car, and in no time pulled out from beneath an awning and into traffic, causing C to let out a cry and bury her head into the crook of her elbow. “Aiiee! It burns! What is it? What is that pernicious source of radiation?”
“That? Oh, just the sun. Best get used to it. After all, it is the whole reason we are here, remember?”
Back in the still frigid days of late spring, we booked a trip to Phoenix, anxious for searing heat and charmed by the off-season rates and direct flight access that Phoenix offered. Our goal was to keep things simple. Find a place to stay with a pool and keep our schedules free of any obligations beyond the need to stay fed and the desire to do some trail running in the early hours before the day’s temperatures started to soar. We had no idea at the time that as soon as we set foot on our red-eye south, Anchorage would settle into a weather pattern that C’s co-workers later described as the nicest days ever seen in the Anchorage bowl. True, they may have been dabbling in hyperbole, but there is no question that the days we see here warming into the upper seventies are few and far in between. But as nice as it was going to be at home, we could still hold these truths close to our hearts: how ever warm it was going to be in Anchorage it would not settle anywhere near a temperature that makes outdoor pools seem like a good idea, and the desert trails in and around Phoenix were guaranteed to be snow and mud free for running, a luxury we would not find at home for weeks to come.
A consequence of the red-eye, we found ourselves turned loose into urban Phoenix with a number of hours to kill before our room would be ready for us to take occupancy. So with no agenda, we pulled into downtown just to take a look around. A parking garage rose up on our left, with a temporary sign promising “Comic-Con Parking.” Comic-Con? Isn’t that the event where everyone dresses up as their favorite monster from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual? Orcs and Gelatinous Cubes? Maybe this was just the spice that the rental car guy was talking about! Why the hell not, C and I agreed, taking a parking spot and risking various degrees of sunburn by walking a city-block to the Phoenix Convention Center.
Crowds of people were funneling in all around us. A shocking number of people, really. We found a nice woman, possibly the mother of an attendee, working behind an information booth. She told us that a daily pass would cost $30, which was also shocking. In the exhibition halls, vendors appeared to be hawking comic books, action figurines, and role-playing games, while people lined up outside of the meeting rooms for panels discussing important topics like “The Science behind Zombie Eradication” and “Inter-Species Sexual Politics on the Starship Enterprise.” We decided we didn’t need to part with the $60.
But we did find a bench in the hall and enjoyed the people watching. Whole families trooped by, little boys decked out in Hulk body-paint and cut-off shorts, little girls dressed like Princess Leia in the classic white robe with hair done up in matching sticky buns. I recognized some of the characters on parade—Bobba Fett, Marvel characters I remembered from the eighties—but for the most part the costumes were over my head. Who were all the girls with yellow and red horns, looking like demonic candy corn had sprouted from their head? And the guys with giant keys? What were those keys supposed to open? And were the nerd-girls in barely-there costumes made from three cocktail napkins and some LED lighting really nerd-girls, or local strippers hired to walk the grounds and draw in ticket purchasing legions of science fiction fans who see that much exposed flesh precisely once a year at Comic Con?
In that vein, we watched a woman saunter into the hall in a push-up bra and cut off jeans. Who was she supposed to be dressed as? Captain Kathryn Janeway after a night of too many vodka tonics? Whoever she was, she was quickly approached by another attendee with camera in hand, a man with ample girth possibly dressed as an un-groomed fur trapper. We were too far away to catch the conversation, but clearly the trapper was requesting a picture of the vixen. She obliged, and the services of a third stranger were sought to snap the photo. The trapper draped an arm about the vixen’s shoulders and a flash fired. As the vixen and stranger relaxed, expecting perhaps to go about their mornings in the warrens of the convention center, the trapper put forth an uplifted index finger in the universal signal for “Wait, one more!” The trapper reached into a coat pocket (A coat? In these temperatures?) and pulled out a pair of lacy, bright red women’s underwear. These he stretched between his two thumbs to better suggest that the trapper had just, mere moments ago, coaxed the vixen out of this very pair of undies in what I can only imagine would have been a rapid, uncomfortable, and sweaty session of love making, and that the vixen, so taken with his deft attention as a lover, insisted that they record the moment forever with a photographic trophy. The trapper nodded at the stranger as if to say, “Take the picture! Quick!” and smiled sheepishly. A second flash fired, and the whole awkward exchange came to a close.
It all reminded me of an earlier awkward exchange I observed involving beautiful women, an awkward man, and Phoenix (if only peripherally). In 2001 I was on my way from Fairbanks to a friend’s wedding in Phoenix, on a flight with a layover in LAX. My gate shared seating with a flight heading to Las Vegas. One after another, stunning young women were approaching, gorgeous girls, the kind of women you always suspected lived in L.A. while growing up in small towns anywhere east of the Pacific. They took seats near me, some alone, some in pairs. I like to think they were attracted by some base need to be near me, but strongly suspect they were each simply waiting for a flight. In time, a matronly woman waddled over with a stack of folios in one arm. She appeared to be the den mother, reading glasses sitting at the tip of her nose. One by one, she handed each of the girls a folio, embossed with a gold Playboy bunny. The girls pulled out plane tickets (this was back when you could still proceed through airline security without a boarding pass) and paper work—what looked to me like a schedule. I started to notice that most—maybe all—of the girls were wearing the Playboy bunny logo on t-shirts, sweatshirts, tight shorts, necklaces. They were heading to Vegas, and I started to suspect that, with all due respect to Jason’s wedding, where ever they were going to end up was going to be a better party than where I was heading.
Notwithstanding any fleeting fantasy of striking up a conversation with one of the girls and so charming her as to get myself invited to join the lot of them in Sin City for, well, sin, I instead kept reading my book. Which is probably a good thing because it kept me from being the awkward man in this story. Instead, a thin man in red pants played that role. He was sitting a few seats over, flipping through pages in a manila folder, looking up at the Playboy bunnies, flipping through the paper some more, and finally approaching a girl. It turns out he had a glossy photo, and was hoping to get an autograph. The girl barely looked up and half-attentively scribbled her mark. The man scampered back to his seat, looked through his folder some more, found another picture, and approached another girl. This went on for several exchanges. At one point, he neared me, handing a blond in sweats, flip flops, and bunny ear-rings her picture. She looked at the photo, looked at the man, and asked “What’s my name?”
“Umm,” is about all the man managed.
“I’m not signing this unless you know my name.”
You could tell the man’s attention was turning inward, searching deep in his memory, trying to find the answer, probably inscribed on the stats included on a centerfold he had pinned to his bedroom wall, listed right above her surely ample measurements and list of turn-ons, but he came up short. In the end, he took back the photo, scampering again to his seat to start the process anew with another model, and the girl went back to her book (suggesting that “reading” may really be a turn-on for some Playboy models). The whole thing was odd to watch, and raised one vital question: did this guy just travel around with glossy nude photos of his favorite models and luck into this particular bunny nest or did he spend all his time stalking centerfolds? Either way, I was left thinking he most lead a pretty lonely life, and I didn’t envy him his autographs. Now, in Phoenix some 12 years later, we decided to move on from the convention center before the trapper could find another scantily clad sci-fi character to drape in red panties.
Moving on from the convention center meant finding lunch. In his book on pizza, baking guru Peter Reinhart, James Beard award winning author, singled out Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix Arizona as having the best pizza in the United States. Following his proclamation, foodie forums are rich with gushing trip reports and tales of three and four hour waits to get a table. We had time to kill and I like good pizza, so we went to investigate. At lunch on a Friday, we had no trouble getting a seat in the cozy, brick-lined space with all seats staring into the maw of a brick oven, where dough went in a boy and came out a man, or whatever the equivalent is for pizza. C and I ordered two pies, a simple margherita and a white pie with arugula and roasted mushrooms. The crust was delicious and the pizzas were very good, but the best in the United States? I’ve walked out of pizzerias (primarily in Trenton and Boston) thinking, “I could eat that meal every day this trip, this month, this life, and not feel like I’m missing out on anything,” and that simply wasn’t the case for me at Pizzeria Bianco.
So, 2,000 words into this travelogue, and I’ve made it through lunch on our first morning in town. You might be forgiven for thinking you need to reshuffle your afternoon appointments in order to follow along on the fascinating details of rest of the trip. But frankly, the rest of the trip fell into a lazy blur, just as we intended. We booked a room in North Scottsdale. We went to the pool. Each morning we arose early, before the heat, and went to the McDowell Mountains to run a variety of loops past cactus and stone. We napped. We ate enchiladas on the patio at Frank and Lupe’s and chiles en nogada at the Bario Café. We went back to the pool. We read books. And we napped again. A successful vacation by any measure.
On our last day, we had to vacate our room by 10:00 am, but didn’t fly from Phoenix until 7:45 that evening. Needing to fill the day, wanting more sun and pool, and otherwise unsure of how to fill our time, we took advantage of the Scottsdale spa culture and booked what you would, I suppose, call a spa day at a fancy facility with plush robes and an outdoor pool. We had massages. C was scrubbed clean by a technician with a loofa. I cycled through the sauna, steam room, and cold plunge pool, with opportunities to recharge by sitting in the sun in the men’s solarium. Most of this activity took place in separate men’s and women’s facilities, but C and I rejoined at the outdoor pool to slowly swim laps with a prime view of Camelback Mountain. A fine way to spend the day, and I was thinking the spa was a very good idea indeed, until I was presented with the bill. I won’t embarrass you with the details. Suffice to say, we would have been better off simply booking our hotel room for another night, which would have provided access to a perfectly good shower and pool, and all of the Arizona sun we could tolerate, at a fraction of the price. The kicker? We get better massages in Anchorage, albeit without the plush robes.
So fortified against the ravages of the pending work week back in Anchorage, we made our way to Phoenix Sky Harbor, passing the miles and miles of Phoenix sprawl, windows down, air thick with summer. Topping off the tank as required before returning the rental car, I looked up at a nearby strip mall and saw a Victoria’s Secret store, all flirty in the late day light. I turned to C.
“We’ve got one more stop to make. I need to get some red women’s underwear. I have a last picture idea for the trip.”