One critic’s beginnings: A sojourn in the desert

Young man’s blues: Getting lost in the desert was a formative part of critic Piers Marchant’s postgraduate education.

I first went to Tucson, Ariz., back in 1990, when, like Zack Mayo in "An Officer and a Gentleman," I really had no place else to go. I had graduated college the year before, and had no prospects -- or, really, any direction -- at all. In the ensuing year, I had lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a month; worked a disastrous last summer at a Y camp in the Poconos; moved in with a band in western Massachusetts in the fall; moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn over the winter; and had just about run out of cash and wherewithal by that spring.

If it sounds like a song, one of those groovy, '70s-style anthems about running aground on the way to adult self-actualization, I can assure you that period of time was anything but romantic for me. I woke up each day in that house in Massachusetts (a beautiful, old two-story Victorian place that had been lovingly restored in dark woods, that sat on top of a small hill), with absolutely nothing to do.

I couldn't get a job. To begin with, I wasn't qualified for anything. But that region, a picturesque spot surrounded by the Berkshires and nestled roughly equidistant between University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amherst, and Mount Holyoke -- the band figured there would be plentiful gigs between all those schools -- was pretty dead, employment-wise. It didn't help that I had the unruly stench of the unemployable.

At one low point, I got rejected by a tiny shop in Northampton called Mr. Donut; later in the year, in December, I tried to volunteer as a bell-ringer for a Salvation Army collection urn, and was told they had more than enough people already.


I tried to write. I worked on the beginning of an absolutely terrible novel about a man who went to the movies (imagine that!) with his girlfriend, and died in his seat, heading up to an afterlife that he found wanting. I did focused morning workouts on my core in hopes of getting a six-pack (not particularly close). I wandered around Amherst and Northampton and made myself breakfast, and hung out with the band when they rehearsed, and spent a lot of time with the lead singer, a skinny, sun-kissed Californian, who had a wheezy smoker's laugh, and had fabulous stories about his travels in Greece a couple of years before.

Two of the band members had known each other before, from their time in an elite prep school somewhere else in New England, and their proximity living together only exacerbated the long-simmering tensions between them. When the band hadn't really taken off after several months of playing gigs in the region, those tensions boiled over at last, and over Christmas, they broke up, and moved out of that wonderful house on top of the hill to go their separate ways.

I scrambled to find something else to do, somewhere else to go. I ended up moving to Brooklyn, to live with a college friend, about a block from Prospect Park. Then, the area was pretty rough. We were just up from Eighth Avenue, but if you started walking west, anything below Seventh was sketchy, and, like Dante's levels of descending hell, you did not want to walk below Sixth if you valued your life.


There, too, I struggled to find a gig. I applied to be a security guard at a cheesy West Village sex toy shop, but realized I had little chance after I spied the 2-inch thick stack of resumes sitting on the desk of the woman conducting the interview. I tried to find restaurant work, but had no experience, and made the mistake of calling one place at the start of their busy lunch hour and got chewed out for it.

Eventually, I got a job as a market research encoder with my quasi-landlord -- a volatile dude who was handling my sublet with the grace of a gargoyle -- in a cramped office somewhere in Gramercy Park. I had to assign prearranged numeric codes to the hundreds of responses written down by field agents conducting live market research interviews with consumers from shopping malls all over the country.

In my time there, we handled several major accounts, including the release of a new kind of chewing gum that had been embedded with dank "flavor crystals," designed to release waves of flavor over a longer period of time. It got deadly boring sitting there, going through report after report in this way, having to parse the test responses, and figuring out what people meant in their rambling assessments of the products.

Over time, I noticed a couple of things: One, amid the various yes/no questions, and number ratings, there were a couple of spots which that had more open-ended types of queries -- was there anything else the consumer wanted to say about the product, after sampling it? -- and, two, those responses were written in pencil.


I wondered what would happen if I added a peculiarly specific response to just enough of these questionnaires to have it show up statistically on the final report we sent off to the company.

It was worth a try, I thought. For the gum, then, bursting with flavor crystals and whatnot, I took a random handful of the responses, and added the comment that the gum smelled like fish. Just that. Smelled like fish. No further explanation or identifiers.

It was silly, and definitely immature (there was, it turned out, a reason so many would-be employers weren't terribly interested in bringing me into the fold, after all), but it felt like a victory to see, a few weeks later, after we had complied the final tally, among the various other statistically insignificant comments that had been noted, a small percentage of complaints that the gum, while tasty, smelled of fish.

Emboldened, I went a bit further on the next campaign we handled, a new line of frozen breakfast items that included a package of microwavable pancakes that came with a pair of finger-sized sausages. For that one, I pushed the absurdist envelope further and penciled in the comment that the sausages "tasted like human." Unfortunately, those complaints weren't included in the final report.


After living in Brooklyn a few months, and barely treading water, another opportunity suddenly arose: My mother, who had spent the previous semester teaching at the University of Arizona, was leaving in May with an apartment lease that went through July. It was a free place to stay, in other words, in a part of the country I had never been, which was more than enough, it turned out, for me to drop the marketing research gig and head out again into the great beyond.

For that one, I gathered a motley group of friends to join me for the cross-country journey. There was a dude I'll call Steiner, a friend of mine I'd known since middle school; J., one of my best friends from college, a charmingly boyish artist who'd just started the film program at my school; and a fourth dude I'll call Herman, also from my college, a fiendishly smart, rough-and-tumble fellow with a long, complicated back story -- he'd been in the military for a while, stationed in Germany, and had lived much more of a life than any of the rest of us had.

We lit out in two cars from my parents' house upstate. Over the course of the next two weeks, we dealt with tricky driving conditions (one car very nearly got splattered by a semi somewhere in Indiana); skittered down one of the most dangerous roads in the country (a tiny, two-lane number in Colorado that weaved through hairpin turns and blind curves with a precipitous, several thousand-foot drop on the right side and no guardrails); and much infighting (Herman, it so happened, was a world-class s***-stirrer, and worked to make all of us feel insecure by setting us up against each other), to finally arrive in Tucson in early June.


We had no idea what we were doing. My mother's apartment, a pleasant one-bedroom bungalow, was in the foothills of the Catalina mountains, which were seemingly nearby. That first morning, three of us headed out to hike the closest mountain. We took with us three small bottles of water and, somewhat inexplicably, a length of rope (you know, for climbing). It was 112 degrees. Walking outside from the air-conditioned apartment felt like stepping into a blast furnace. Your body had no chance of acclimating to it.

We walked for about 45 minutes, weaving through neighborhood streets, before realizing that the mountain was still about the same distance away from us as when we started. I made the decision to abort the mission, giving the other two the water I had remaining. They trekked on, as I tried to make my way back through the maze-like streets of subdivisions. Eventually, I found my way to Oracle Road, the main thoroughfare, which I knew eventually would lead down to the apartment complex.

The problem was, my body was totally overheating, and I had no water. I started stumbling down the road, busy, as always, with multiple lanes of traffic hurtling past, as my brain began to fry. Mumbling incoherently to myself, I managed to cross the road at a traffic light, and came to a fancy hotel with a circular fountain in the front, which I lay down in for several long seconds, before finally making my uncertain way back to the apartment, where I drank a gallon of water, and lay in the complex's well-appointed pool until the other two, having made their way to the foot of the mountain at last, before passing out in the shade of a rock, called us from a Circle K payphone, begging to be picked up.


The desert could be cruel and unforgiving that way. It demanded to be taken seriously. But it could also yield hard-earned vision, if you were lucky. A month later, after my driving companions had all returned back East, I was working at an upscale cafe in the Downtown section of the city -- mostly deserted, especially after business hours, when you could roam around the empty sidewalks and desolate office parks completely on your own, like a scene out of "28 Days Later."

By that time, the lease on my mother's place had expired, and I had no chance of renewing it. Instead, I lived in various month-to-month apartments in the seedier parts of town, some already furnished with a dubious bed, and worn-down couches, some nearly empty except for the roach traps, and desiccated insect carcasses on the window sills.

It was a day in late July, as I recall, working as a coffee barista at the cafe for the early morning crowd -- a bunch of demanding, petulant types who prefaced their orders by telling me what they "needed," and mewling plaintively if we ever ran out of cream -- that I was finally inspired with a plan. I was running coffee cups through the sink-cycle, hot and soapy, cold and clean, when it suddenly hit me: Living on the outside was for the birds, I was going back to school.

I went home that October -- a long, exhausting trip that included a major car breakdown in Newton, Iowa, that took forever to fix because the mechanic had to special order all the Mazda parts -- and started furiously applying to graduate schools. I was going to get my Master of Fine Arts and become a writer.

How little did I know what that would entail.