Autumn Phillips: Defining times

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We are close, and we are strangers. We are held together by a thin strand as fragile as a spider web that we have agreed not to break.

There is a picture in my mind of her and me at 23, walking on the football field at Arizona State University debating the meaning of life and the creation of the universe. Our hair was long and our skirts were long.

We worked for a man named Billy who lived in a storage space on the edge of downtown Tempe. He was a recovering alcoholic who spoke fluent AA.

In his "home" there was a couch he slept on, a coffee maker that was always brewing and a desk he sat behind to hold court. The rest of the space was full of bike parts and bike grease and a fleet of bicycle taxis that a group of us peddled around downtown Phoenix to make our living.

Those were the days when rent was $200 a month. When we worked, we worked at night and stayed up late in Billy's shop after we counted our money and put the bikes away.

I was there for only one winter, but I remember every detail of those four months. I remember it because once or twice a year I get a phone call.

My friend from those days keeps me on her e-mail list, and almost every day I get one of her stupid forwards to check out this "hilarious" Web site or to sign the NPR petition again.

I know the phone is about to ring when the e-mails don't include every address on her contacts page. She starts to write straight to me with work updates and boy updates. And, finally, she sends me her phone number.

"It would be fun to talk," she writes. I usually put off dialing her number for a few days, and when I finally do, I find myself hoping her voicemail will pick up.

What are we going to talk about? It's been so long.

When I do call, she picks up. We catch up on where and what job and within minutes the conversation meanders to the real reason she wants to talk.

"Remember when we ..." she says. "Can you believe we ever ..." And we reminisce about that life in Arizona when we barely had to work, when the winter was warm, before life had taught us to avoid people like Billy.

I admire who I was back then. I was confident. I was curious. I was naÃive. And there is a part of me that likes rehashing those times. But I am not the one guiding the journey. I know it is her, because the characters who surface are people I barely knew, and the memories we walk through are not mine.

We do not discuss Elvis the Cat, the strange Mexican man who always showed up to walk me home late at night, the meth addict who sold the homeless newspaper near where we worked or the strippers who passed out fliers on the corners of downtown Phoenix and talked to us while we waited for customers.

For me, Arizona was a confusing time, but I go on this walk with my friend, once a year, because I know that this is her "defining moment." When life gets difficult, or worse, boring, she holds up that time as a reminder of herself the way she was before bills and stress and blinders.

I started thinking about her this week while I was talking to Scott Ramsay from Duckbutter. The band was popular in Steam--boat about the time that I was living in Arizona peddling drunk, fat men from Hooters to the basketball stadium to the strip clubs.

Duckbutter gets together once a year to play at The Tugboat Grill & Pub, its old stomping grounds, and relives a chapter of the band members' youth.

This is not about living in the past. My friend and Scott Ramsay are fully entrenched in their current lives.

But everyone does it. We all hold on to one or two defining moments from the past that help us make it through parts of our present. For many people I know, college was the golden age. For many in Steamboat it's "the '70s."

I have my own personal slideshow that I thumb through, but I won't bore you with my mental photographs. I'm sure you have your own.

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