But the thermometer, as Duke will be only too happy to show you, is out around the back of the motel, amid a jumble of junk that includes an old Best Western sign and a couple of broken swamp coolers. Duke's theory is that the temperature becomes cooler as it travels all the way from the thermometer in the backyard to the digital display in the lobby, traveling as it does under the cool, overhanging eaves of the Space Age Lodge.

Irv Haynes very patiently explains that electrical impulses do not cool as they travel. They are not like water, he explains. He also explains that Bullhead City is hotter than Gila Bend because it is 200 feet lower in altitude. If Gila Bend were at a lower altitude, it, too, might be hotter. He suggests that Gila Bend might like to dig a big hole and put its thermometer at the bottom of it.

@body:If you're coming from San Diego, you arrive in Gila Bend after driving through the dullest stretch of highway ever built on the planet, I-8 east of Yuma. If you're coming from Phoenix, you arrive on State Route 85, after having endured 35 miles of tailgaters during the daytime, people who refuse to dim their goddamned brights at night, and merciless semitrucks no matter what time it is.

Almost everyone who has passed through Gila Bend has eaten at Duke Fox's Space Age Lodge, because the Fifties funkiness of the place has given it a certain reverse-snobbery cachet. There is, in fact, another restaurant in town, one that specializes in soul food. An elderly eyewitness recalls a visiting Southerner jumping up in joy after biting into the Green Tree Cafe's fried chicken, something that has probably never happened at the Space Age Lodge.

The Green Tree Cafe is run by Rebecca Williams, who is 77 years old, which explains why the restaurant is only open between 2 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, except if it's July or August, when it is closed altogether. Rebecca Williams needs her rest.

Her restaurant is located in what is generally known as "Mexican town," that part of Gila Bend located on the south side of the railroad tracks. From the outside, it looks like a shack. There aren't any windows. Inside are six stools at a counter, eight tables with oilcloth covers and five sweet-potato pies sitting on a counter, tempting you.

Rebecca sits behind the counter talking, because she's not officially open yet.
Her parents were agricultural workers who homesteaded land south of Gila Bend in 1929. They'd been working for an outfit in Bakersfield, and wanted a place they could call their own. They raised vegetables and chickens on their property, and after it was taken over for the Air Force base, her mother opened the Green Tree in 1944. "Black people couldn't eat downtown," Rebecca says. "They didn't used to let blacks stay on the north side after dark."

Rebecca got a wine-and-beer license for the same reason. She got tired of black men having to go around to the back door of the bar.

Before she discovered her true calling--feeding people--Rebecca picked cotton, and, rather than looking at that activity as a sign of the indignities her race had suffered, she sees it as a task that can be done well or sloppily.

"You should start from the bottom and work toward the top," she explains. "Get your hands just as full as you can get them before you go to your bag so you don't lose time. You should get at least a half a pound in two hands." She moves her hands, demonstrating the easy, skillful swing up through the white bolls and into the bag, free of wasted motion.

Even after she went to work as a cook, Rebecca would take a little time off from the kitchen and go out to the fields to pick. She loves the sight of those cotton bolls, white against the green, waiting for her.

If she could find someone with her energy, she might be able to slow down, but her standards for cooking are as exacting as her standards for cotton picking. You learn how to do it right, then do it that way. Rebecca remembers one young helper who complained it was too hot in the kitchen. "That's because there's a stove in here," she explained with some asperity.

Rebecca remembers who's been good to her, in a town where people will still drop the term "nigger" into casual conversation. Bud Posey, the car dealer. He was the first man to sell her a new car, and she's been buying new cars ever since.

And John Laird, who gives people directions to the Green Tree Cafe when they stop at the museum and ask about a place to eat. Turn south on Martin Street, drive a few blocks and keep a sharp eye on your left. It's diagonally across from Ben's Bar.

John Laird is allowed to call the owner of the Green Tree Cafe Aunt Rebecca. This all began a few years ago when John got into a wreck driving his ATV out on the desert and was put in the hospital in Phoenix. Rebecca came to see him. She had her niece with her. Somehow, things got all mixed up and the nurse on duty thought Rebecca was John's aunt, and let her in, even though only family members were to be admitted.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets