When Brian Jabas Smith found himself unemployed in Detroit, it was both a blessing and curse. Brian was an editor for Detroit’s Metro Times, and when the alt-weekly faced personnel cuts, he was among those who lost their job. Without steady work, Brian had some spare time to complete his debut book, “Spent Saints & Other Stories,” a collection of short stories based on his experiences as a journalist, a national class bicycle racer and a recovering addict, but he also began to stew in his depression. Unemployed, broke and heartbroken, he moved back to his hometown of Tucson, perhaps, he said, with the intention of committing suicide.
Desperate for work, he reached out to Tucson Weekly with an idea for a column called Tucson Salvage.
“I just wanted to write about people I shared something with, because I’ve been homeless and strung out on drugs. I had a sympathy for people like that, and that was always my first attraction as a writer,” said Brian. “I was just writing stories about people like me. After a couple of years it just kind of snowballed.”
What originally started out as a means by which Brian could make money has turned into somewhat of a cult phenomenon, detailing the lives of so-called deadbeats and the downtrodden. And three years later, he’s released “Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections from La Frontera,” along with a 30-minute documentary directed and produced by Maggie Smith, based on his column which runs every other week in Tucson Weekly.
The success of the column and the recent publication of the collection have caught Brian off guard. He stumbles over himself trying to express his gratitude. It all comes as a shock— from the editors at Tucson Weekly eagerly accepting his column proposal to one of his literary heroes, Bonnie Jo Campbell (author of “American Salvage,” to which Brian’s own column is a nod) writing a blurb about his debut book. Brian sighs at it all and lets the silence talk. He didn’t set out to do anything crazy. He was just doing what came naturally. And what came naturally to Brian was capturing the rawness in vulnerability. In a place like Tucson, there’s much of that to go around.
“I’ve always been attracted to people that others ignore, and they were always my favorite people, the ones that have gone to battle either internally or literally, like a battlefield in some far-off land or some sort of drug addiction,” he said. “These are the people that make up our world. These are the people who work and survive and create an existence for all of us, particularly people who are working really hard blue-collar jobs, and Tucson is full of that. These are my people in many ways.”
When reading “Tucson Salvage,” you get a sense that Brian is revealing as much about himself as the people he’s writing about. As we learn about bartenders and legless graffiti artists and men who stare at the sky, we’re also learning about Brian, about his past and how that relates to the people he’s meeting now, how their lives are impacting his own.
“The thing I most admire most about Brian’s work is his empathy and his ability to be non-judgmental no matter how strange or potentially societally outcast people are,” said Maggie. “It always comes from a good place of empathy. It comes from an open-hearted nature and not being afraid of people, and I think that’s something that all of us could take a serious lesson from.”
Getting to that lesson, though, and breaking through to those people wasn’t always easy. It took time.
“For me, approaching people who don’t want to be written about and who have never shared their story with anybody and who aren’t skilled in PR at all, that’s really the most difficult part,” said Brian. “But the trick is you have to invest a lot of time and let their story unfold before your eyes.”
“Most often the characters he chooses to present to us are people that suffered, but they’ve lived through the suffering, and their spirit is rather indomitable,” added Maggie, who finds beauty not just in the sadness of Brian's work, but the hopefulness it presents. “I really get a strong sense of transcendence when I read the column.”
That sense of transcendence comes through most in her documentary. Maggie weaves five gut-wrenching stories together in a beautifully directed short that’s as raw and vulnerable as Brian’s column, who assisted with writing the documentary. Lending itself to that beauty is the way Maggie shines a light on the face of Tucson that isn’t often seen.
Maggie’s directions to her cinematographer, Tim Gillis, were more simply said than done. Pause, wherever you are, look at something, look away, then look back.
“Whatever you notice when you look back is probably what you should focus on for this documentary,” she recalled telling Gillis. “Whatever resonates with you because you took a deep breath, whatever at first you pass over because it’s not glossy or polished, it’s something real, that’s what we want to get at.
“Sometimes it’s simply finding beauty in the ugliness, but I think it’s actually much more complex. It’s really breathing in the place and slowing down to really meet it at its own pace, taking away your filters and your biases, and looking at it and appreciating it for what it is. And I think that’s what Brian does so well with his people and his place, and that’s what I was trying to do with the documentary.”
Brian and Maggie began working together when Maggie approached him about editing her novel largely centered on the burgeoning music scene in Phoenix, of which Brian was involved with his band Beat Angels.
Brian edited the novel and Maggie went on to produce a number of short films based on the stories in “Spent Saints.” Soon after, their working relationship, which started out as a mutual respect for each other’s work, developed into a more personal relationship. We can even get a glimpse into their early lives together in a story titled “A Love-Stoked World.” The two are married now, still working together and raising a 5-year-old. Even now, they’re focusing on expanding the “Tucson Salvage” documentary into two more 30-minute pieces.
As they talk about each other’s work, they interrupt with "aww" and "thank you," their love requited in simple expressions, and then it’s back to talking about work.
“We have enough similarity in aesthetics and what we’re trying to do,” said Maggie, “And I think both of us have been those people that kind of stopped and listened and helped people throughout our life, and we have a lot of overlap that way, and so I really fell in love with the project of ‘Tucson Salvage.’”
Telling stories in the most honest and empathetic way is telling the truth, they said.
“I’m about the truth, and I know that sounds corny, but I really want to convey some sort of truth about humanity,” said Brian, chuckling. “Boy, that sounds corny to say out loud. And to convey any truth about humanity that takes empathy.”
“Empathy,” Brian repeated. “It’s the word of the year, man.”