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Steve Willis


I just drove from Flagstaff, Arizona back to Oakland, California to resume my job rebuilding Steinway (mostly) pianos. Two months on the mountain, the longest time I’ve spent since leaving in 1992.


Lockdown. It’s prison terminology, but when you’re 67 years old and so in the high risk category for Covid-19 it seems more like a lockout. All those people who don’t wear masks, who believe in the conspiracy theories and want to breathe on you to prove it, locked out. At least as long as you stay home.


We haven’t stayed home. We’ve walked.


I was a teenager in Flagstaff, and a teenager who didn’t much want to drive. I walked everywhere. Across McMillan Mesa from the East side and on downtown where I could spend an hour or so in McGaugh’s Newsstand, checking out the paperbacks and comics and admiring the carved meerschaum pipes in his display case. Now that I’m a Senior I live south of the tracks and go north to get to downtown. McGaugh’s is gone. All the old businesses are gone, unless you count Babbitt Ford.


With the quarantine the streets have been empty, even emptier than they were in 1969, when I was seventeen. Walking has been a pleasure. We could cross Santa Fe without a light! There are a lot more gigantic, flat roofed housing structures all around, presumably built for all the University students who may now never come back. But the old West Flagstaff, Thorpe Park neighborhood is mostly intact, tree lined and quiet.


I remember all those houses from the past. I lived in a half dozen of them, had friends in more. After hours parties, late night rendezvous. Car accidents. Suicides. ODs. Band practices. Barbecues. Piano lessons.


The houses mostly look good. Real estate values are high in the older town, and people have invested money into improvements and upkeep. It’s good to see them taken care of. Of course, my modern equivalent probably can’t afford to live there.

When I arrived in Northern Arizona I was 15 years old and the Summer of Love was just starting. Not that you could tell, except by reading Life magazine. The town population was maybe 20,000. Now it’s estimated to be 75,000. I do still see some of the people I’ve known since 1967, but not many. A lot moved away. Some are just gone.


Flagstaff’s emergence as a more-or-less hip place to live is pretty recent. When I was coming up it was regarded as an ugly town in a beautiful setting, primarily because visitors saw the strip of Santa Fe/Milton/Route 66 that didn’t have much besides motels, gas stations and mediocre restaurants. And what with the paper mill and using the Rio de Flag as an open sewer line, it smelled pretty bad over there near Butler Avenue (a dirt road past the sawmill).


It’s cleaner now, and the trees planted alongside the road have improved the view. The town’s old-boy network must still exist, but the old-boys now aren’t all aging white businessmen, so I suppose that’s an improvement. The old houses in the old neighborhoods are being restored by new owners, or torn down for those hideous multi-unit places.


But right now, it’s quiet and a lot like 1967 as I walk around town.

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