Ray L. of Tucson
Gem cutter Ray L. has dealt with disabling pain for over 20 years. But with the support of family, a loyal service dog and medical cannabis, he still finds the sparkle in life.
Although he walks with a shiny purple cane, it’s not the first accessory you’d notice on Ray L.
Far more remarkable are the unusual goggles the 56 year-old constantly sports on his head, a pair of industrial-looking glasses with heavy magnifiers.
“Oh these! I always forget they’re there. I guess people wonder what they are,” laughs Ray, who uses the eyewear for his work.
“I’m a lapidary artist, which means I’m a gem cutter. I have to look real close to be able to cut and polish the stones,” he explains, setting both the goggles and cane aside as he sits down to chat.
“Turquoise, quartz, tourmalines, azurite, malachite, garnets—you name it.”
Ray is part of the storied gemstone community of Tucson, which has hosted its famous annual gem and mineral show since 1955 that draws thousands of visitors a year from around the world to shop for and ogle the earth’s most magnificent treasures. Ray works for a British gemologist who sells his finished product to various gem dealers, allowing him to work from home, where his studio of machinery and piles of glimmery rocks takes up an entire wall of the living room.
“I’ve always had an interest in gems. We used to go hunting in the deserts of Southern Arizona when I was a kid, and I used to come across all the abandoned mines and find all kinds of materials,” says Ray, who continued to educate himself by hanging around the gem show as a teenager.
“Slowly but surely the guys noticed me getting throw out all the time, and one of them took me under his wing and became my mentor.”
He’s added to his skills over the years to do some faceting for precious stones like diamonds, rubies and emeralds, and he also crafts a bit of silversmithing for private clients. But lapidary artistry was just a hobby until a series of health issues derailed his life 20 years ago.
He had been working as a sales rep for large alcohol distributor when his chronic back pain became too much to bear. While recovering from double prosthetic hip replacement surgery, he contracted osteomyelitis, an aggressive type of staph infection that attacked his spine and pancreas and left him bedridden for six months.
“I spent a total of two years in rehab. They didn’t think I’d walk again,” he grimaces, tapping his cane. “It was real rough.”
During this time, his wife left and took the kids, compounding the difficulty and depression of his condition. Ray turned to the stones for solace, though he depended on a “huge amount” of opioids to manage the pain. He began using cannabis in 2014 at the behest of his doctors at the University of Arizona, relying on it even more after a state crackdown in opioid prescriptions.
“My gastroenterologist and my spinal guy were the first ones to suggest it because I just wasn’t eating, and they’re ‘think-outside-the-box’ kind of guys,” he recalls.
“I’d been smoking dope since I was a kid back in the 70s, but I’d stopped because I was tested for my job. Then all this heath stuff happened to me, and it’s really helped as an appetite enhancer instead of a suppressor like the opioids.”
Ray smokes for daily pain management and uses edibles to help with sleep and anxiety, preferring indica-forward hybrids that relax the body without dulling the mind. He was elated when Harvest HOC of Tucson dispensary opened down the street from his home in 2018, and appreciates the staff’s attention to customer service and their knowledge of the inventory.
“I know my cannabis from way back, and they know what they’re doing,” he says with a chuckle.
He continues to experience health challenges and relies on his sister and brother for rides to the doctor as well as emotional support. The close-knit family has been rooted in Tucson since the pioneer days; Ray’s father used to tell stories about witnessing bank robber John Dillinger being captured at the nearby Hotel Congress in the 1930s.
His constant companion is a 3 year-old Queensland Blue Heeler named Lucy, part of a papered line bred for a working ranch in Buckeye. Known for their herding instincts, good nature and high intelligence, Blue Heelers also make excellent service dogs. Unfailingly well-behaved and responsive, Lucy accompanies Ray on his doctor appointments and often dons her official service animal vest to visit nursing homes around the area and spread the love. Her owner also reports that she’s very protective of the garbage cans, barking at them to make sure they stay in their place on the sidewalk on pick-up day.
“She is so smart. She even speaks Spanish! How about a beso, girl?” laughs Ray as Lucy leaps up to lick him on the cheek.
The gemcutter admits that it can be tough living with the pain, but he’s grateful to have Lucy, his family and his work, which he usually pairs with a loud stereo dose of The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival or Grand Funk Railroad.
“Like I said, I’m a 70s kid,” he says with a wink, sliding the goggles back on his head. “I got the rocks, and I got rock ‘n’ roll.”