Having spent most of his working life as a tow truck driver, Jesse Sensibar said the job was “constantly surrounded by sudden, tragic loss of life.”
Sensibar has lived many lives in his 50 years. He's been a tattoo shop owner, a strip club bouncer, even a private investigator. Now he's organizer of the Northern Arizona Book Festival and co-founder of the Narrow Chimney Reading Series. But he said his life towing vehicles is what has shaped him the most. Living that close to death affected him, changed him.
“In my career in towing, you become the keeper of the physical space sometimes in which people die,” he said. “You go out on a fatality accident, and you end up with the vehicle, the literal space in which, you know, somebody or more than one somebody sometimes, has lost their life. In addition, you also see some pretty awful things, some things that are hard to forget, perhaps impossible to forget. For me, that became a little spiritual.”
Over the years he’d tow many wrecked vehicles from the highways. Often at the locations of the accidents, Sensibar would later see makeshift shrines and memorials pop up with images, objects and stories attached to them, connections to people lost.
“They weren’t just these weird distractions on the road. I mean to some people they’re just a distraction, and to other people, they’re kind of folk art,” said Sensibar. “But to me, they really came to have kind of a profound meaning.”
In 2005 he began documenting the shrines, posting photos and short descriptions of them on Facebook. Along with a collection of 10 short stories and non-fiction vignettes, Sensibar compiled the posts in his first book, “Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway.”
Published with Tolsun Books, Sensibar admitted that the book is hard to label. He said it’s half documentary and half biography.
It might be difficult to tell which stories are fiction and which are non-fiction, but of them, Sensibar said “The Lucky Shirt” is true. The story concerns a truck in Sensibar’s yard and his failed attempt at sensitivity with the parents of the man who died in that truck. When he cleans out the vehicle, Sensibar finds $940 in the front pocket of a burgundy and black plaid L.L. Bean shirt, which he decides to keep. He writes, “And your shirt becomes my lucky shirt, not because I found 940 dollars in it, but because I have seen so much death up so close, so many people die as you have died that I have become so familiar with it, perhaps too familiar with it.”
He still has that shirt, and he wears it because death isn’t such a stranger to Sensibar.
“What do you think the chances are of two people dying in the same shirt?” he asked with a laugh.
In “Sometimes, Nothing Will Save You,” Sensibar recounts a wreck on Highway 89 North in harrowing detail. In others, couples drive to their death and a man commits suicide by train. These stories are intermittent among a series of shrine posts, sometimes unkempt and old, occasionally lavish and new, but all representing a sort of silent beauty, the kind of silent beauty that can only be expressed through a sudden loss of life, if you could find beauty in that sort of thing. In some ways, Sensibar has.
Watching families, friends and survivors maintain the shrines and even maintaining a few himself affected Sensibar, made him see these memorials as both public and sacred spaces. What’s more, there was something beautiful in the impermanent nature of these shrines. He talked about an accident on I-17 involving the death of three Northern Arizona University students, wondering what will happen when fellow students, who were freshmen then, graduate and move away.
“That shrine will eventually disappear, probably. Right now it’s very vibrant, very full of life, and full of loss, too, but eventually it sort of goes away,” he said. “So I started documenting them mostly because they were interesting to me, and it turns out that it’s a shared interest.”
In “Blood in the Asphalt,” Sensibar doesn’t necessarily give these shrines a second life so much as simply a nod to their existence, an “I see you” to the lives lost along the highway. He wears the weight of the things he’s seen and the deaths he’s been involved in, sometimes literally, as in his lucky shirt.
On the wall of his kitchen, a handful of rosaries catch the light of the midmorning sun peeking through the window. Sensibar said he removed them from vehicles he’d sent to the junkyard. Hanging on the kitchen wall, they are the permanent reminder of the impermanence of life.
“I’ve seen things and have been involved in things that won’t ever leave me,” said Sensibar. “And I think part of it is about trying to attach some meaning to it and some value to it and part of it is about trying to make some peace with it in my own mind.”