Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Spoils of my Tucson trip have caused some consternation among the Permanent Residents.

Miss Hanzo: "This bag has such style."
Shira: "Yes, and don't you think it's more nearly my style?"
This past Saturday, I went to Tucson, largely to ride the "modern streetcar" that started running last July. I'd put off going then because walking around in summer heat did not appeal -- but what I didn't know is that Tucson-by-streetcar is a carefully curated, walkable, funky, small-scale urban Tucson, not the enthusiastic sprawl I'd encountered on car trips. In the rain, it strongly resembled downtown Ithaca, except with tile roofs  and palm trees.

Here comes the streetcar at Main Gate Square.
Though I found a surprising quantity of accessories for the gals (which will be shown off as we go), nobody got to come along for a photoshoot because I was worried about damage from the weather. It rained for the entire day. Sometimes it drizzled. Sometimes it poured. This is novel enough in Arizona that it was enjoyable, but I was very glad to get out of wet boots and socks when I got home.

And there goes the streetcar, from the Mercado stop at the west end of the line.
The way you get to Tucson from Phoenix without driving is to take the Arizona Shuttle, which leaves from the airport baggage claim every hour or so and costs about the same as gas and parking to make the trip oneself. (Greyhound is cheaper, but the Phoenix terminal is proudly inaccessible by city bus.) At 6:30 in the morning, I had a van all to myself -- and it's a heck of a deal for private limo service.

My first move upon being dropped at the edge of the University of Arizona campus was to find brunch. My second -- since it was still too early for anything to be open -- was to ride the streetcar to the eastern end of the line, then back again to the far western end.

The official map from the Suntran site.
The eastern terminus is a spot on the UA campus that is distinguishable in importance only if you work or study there, though it does have a statue of a large head.

Going west, the streetcar passes along University (student-oriented shops), Fourth Avenue (student and graduated-but-stayed-hippie shops), downtown (frantically staving off decay with mixed success), and thence across open fields out to Mercado (flat spot, possibly amid slum turf, slated for affluent resettlement).

The pavement of the Mercado stop has inset tiles for various local icons, including my favorite: El Lowrider.
Oddly el lowrider has found a puddle to splash through.
The centerpiece of this neighborhood -- really, the only major destination -- is the Mercado San Agustin, which is possibly one of the twelve most hipster places on earth. It's just a chunk of territorial-style building, and when you go through the iron gates, you enter a patio lined with little food markets and the occasional shop. I can strongly recommend the apricot chimichanga at La Estrella, which I took home and revived by waffling it the next day.

Adjacent to the Mercado is a little cluster of rowhouses arranged around paseos and patios, doing their best impersonation of a Mexican village that's been there since before American settlement.

In a little Spanish town...
It was mostly built after 2010, as part of planned development for downtown revitalization (started in 2006, with serious setbacks in 2008). I would guess that the target buyers are people who work downtown or at the university, as there really isn't much else here, and the streetcar runs only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (But it's adorable to watch from the Mercado platform as the streetcar zips across the open fields on its little pantograph, coming to rescue commuters from their outpost on the frontier.)

Unlike Phoenix, Tucson also has usable, active, actual historic buildings from the Spanish/Mexican period, over in the Lost Barrio. The stores there largely sell furniture and fairly high-end art, so I didn't make that detour this time.

However, Mila and Kaylee did score some throw pillows for their rehabbed bedroom at the gem show I visited next. The pillows are "dress flowers," which are apparently Afghan in cultural origin.

When I said "we should put an Afghan on the sofa," this is not quite what I meant.
Gem shows take over Tucson in late January-early February, and since I'd never been to one, it seemed logical that I should fix that on this visit, especially since the Pueblo Gem and Mineral Show was right at a trolley stop.

Raw ruby and zoisite.
Inside the Riverpark Inn, gem buyers and gem sellers spoke in hushed tones over tastefully lit displays of polished and set gems.

Outside was a bazaar in Samarkand: tent after tent, displaying ropes of gems, bins of gems (needing to have water dumped out periodically), lumps of gems, gems polished, gems unpolished, gems the size of plover's eggs, gems the size of good-sized floor lamps, and handfuls of gems sold by the gram. Since I know nothing about gems and had no intention of buying any, it was soothing to wander from stall to stall in the rain, admiring the pretty colors with no responsibilities whatever.

Geodes like the tusks of prehistoric beasts.
Then I chanced upon the stall for Tika, which sells things that are less like lumps of rock and more like beads. This is how Mila and Kaylee also got a new cat.

Meet Marfil (though he's actually made out of bone, not ivory).
And a cheerful ornament for the mantle.

It might be a little creepy that the skull is made from real bone.
Ownership of the Cretan snake handler has not yet been determined.

Lift the snake... hold for a count of five...
As well as a parrot, a matryoshka (I got an extra for my mother, who might need one), an owl, and a scarab (because every home needs a scarab).

The parrot probably will NOT be going to live with Mila, Kaylee, and their three cats.
One large tent of finished rock items had these boxes way cheaper than I usually see them, presumably a wholesale price.

Somebody must need storage... or a seat... or something.
After wandering the gem show until I was thoroughly gemmed-out, I took the trolley into downtown in search of the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, which is pretty sparse (lots of posters explaining things, very few actual things, one engine sent their way by a local park that no longer wanted it), where only out at the train could I get any staff to acknowledge my existence (not even in the gift shop!). It was a flashback to going to model train shows with my father and having the guys ask Dad if he wished he'd had a son (for the record, Dad happily played trains with me).

So I'm not even putting up a photograph of it because I'm unforgiving that way, but here is a particularly lovely piece of Tucson historic local architecture.

Hi! I'm one of many reasons people talk about Tucson having more character than Phoenix!
I then proceeded up Fourth Avenue to wander through the shops, with a detour to the site of the Old Pueblo Trolley. A really excellent Italian lunch at a place that had been in its same spot since the 1930s (very risky in Phoenix, oddly less so in Tucson) left me in a mellower mood, so when everybody at the trolley museum looked right through me as if I wasn't there, I calmly... ignored their No Trespassing signs and got myself some decent close-ups of the rolling stock.

Not just out of service right now, but existentially out of service.
Hey, there might as well be some benefits to not existing, right?

Meanwhile, Katie shows off new talavera vases, which were on sale at a fair-trade outlet store. Fourth Avenue is the exactly the kind of neighborhood that has not only import shops and fair-trade stores, but outlets for import shops and fair-trade stores. The other major industries are tattoo parlors and pubs (but much less oriented to "chicks in tight T-shirts" than the equivalent neighborhood by ASU, as AU is not a legendary "party school").

I really don't know where I'm convincing Hayden to put more of these.
A close-up is necessary, as these are nicer than my existing talavera vases.

Look how detailed we are!
After wandering through the university area again -- obtaining the all-important white-chocolate-coated gummi bears and peach gummi penguins that never show up in Phoenix candy stores -- I had coffee and then went to wait for my shuttle home at the ultimate UA landmark: a convenience store that sells bongs and runs Jeopardy episodes on the patio.

The streetcar sadly waves goodbye.


  1. Looks like you had a fun trip. Here in Michigan, we are sadly lacking in a good public transportation system, even in Detroit. I think my favorite things that you got are the stone box and the vases that Hayden is showing. All very beautiful!

    1. Thanks! I have read about Detroit's downtown loop that nobody uses, and part of me wants to go ride it just because.

  2. Hi Smaller Places, it was quite an interesting trip! I love these posts of yours.You found so many little treats for your girls, the vases are incredibly beautiful!
    Kisses Billa

    1. Thank you! I was surprised I bought anything at all...

  3. Uhmmm, chimichanga. And why not let the parrot live with the cats? Sylvester and Tweety have taught us that birds and cats get along famously.

    1. Well, that's a point... I'm now peering at the houses... it may depend who has space for the really big miniature bird cage.

  4. OMG!! This is a great post! The gems are very nice! The one that looks like amethyst is my favorite (my birthstone). I love love the vases. I pick them up every time I see one at the thrift store.

  5. Aw, thanks! Another talavera fiend!

    If I had a big atrium and a huge budget, I'd be sort of tempted by geode tusks. I do have a little one from a trip to Bisbee a couple years ago -- hmmm... I should work that into Katie & Hayden's patio.

  6. I have the Raquelle doll. She is amazing !

  7. Lucky you, getting to go to the gem show! I've been wanting to go for years, but since it's not at all close to me, I've just gone to the bead show in Milwaukee. But one of these days! It's been years since I've been to Arizona, but I love so many things about it.

    Also... peach gummy penguins sound amazing.