By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
When John regained consciousness, the nurse said with some puzzlement, "I didn't know you had black people in your family."
@body:For its size, Gila Bend is an oddly complete little town. It has Anglo, Mexican and African-American cultures represented. It has a weekly newspaper, which prints the temperatures for the week on the front page. It has an auxiliary Air Force base. It has an Indian reservation, although only 400 people live at San Lucy Village north of town. It even has an Indian bar, according to a business directory and street guide distributed at the Tourist Information Center.
"Shelby's Pass Time Bar, Native American Bar," it reads with a forthrightness unusual in tourist literature. Chicken-scratch music is played there on the weekends.
San Lucy Village in an outpost of a larger whole, the Tohono O'odham Nation, and has a life parallel to Gila Bend's. There are points of intersection, however, such as occasional lunch-plus-bingo get-togethers at the Senior Citizens center.
Other Tohono O'odham Indians live in town, Gila Bend looking bigger and more promising of opportunity than many spots on the reservation.
Annie Antone's family, for instance, is from a place with the unlikely name of Charco 27. Annie's picture is featured prominently on the color brochure handed out at the Tourist Information Center John Laird oversees. She is shown with one of her baskets, which are outstanding. The baskets have won prizes at the Santa Fe Indian Market, and attracted the attention of a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, who invited Annie to be a guest artist there last November.
Annie learned basket-making from her mother, and the two of them still go out together to gather the yucca leaves and the bear grass from which they will fashion their wares. Annie only turns out half a dozen baskets a year, which immediately find buyers, even at prices up to $1,200.
She is inspired by almost anything. She'll put faces on the basket, or butterflies or flowers. She laughs when she shows you one design--it's copied after a Norwegian ski sweater! Others mimic ancient pottery designs. When she was in Washington, D.C., she spent hours in the National Gallery, staring at the sculptures by Rodin. "I kept thinking, 'I wonder if I could do this on a basket.'"
Annie Antone is a large woman with long, dark hair and an open manner. Her phone seems to ring constantly, so she weaves her baskets at night after she's packed her niece off to bed and it's quiet. "I'm labeled as a contemporary artist," she says, enunciating the term carefully although it clearly means nothing to her. Annie Antone shrugs off labels and doesn't have any great statements to make about the meaning of the Native American artist in today's society.
She admits, even, that she was starting to get bored with basket-making before she went to the Smithsonian. Then all those Rodins energized her.
"Johnny knew I was going to the Smithsonian," she says, "but very few people knew I was going. I didn't want to jinx myself."
On weekends, Annie Antone works at the museum when John Laird is off. If she wants to, she can go look at the collection of old Papago baskets that John Laird's great-grandmother received as gifts from the Indian women who helped her clean her house.
@body:With all the businesses cutting back and closing in the 1970s and 1980s, town leaders in Gila Bend cast around for something that would pull their town out of a slump. They settled, as so many towns do, on tourism.
It was an odd choice. Visitors are invariably disappointed at how small Gila Bend is--1,750 people--how little seems to be going on, how little even seems to be there. Gila Bend appears to be a town without a center or focus. Most of downtown, for instance, is devoted to five lanes of asphalt highway without either parking spaces or a stoplight. It's designed to roll people through, so you never see pedestrians or shoppers or clumps of people just chatting.
But from his wanderings out in the desert, John Laird knew that there were more than a dozen archaeological sites nearby, ruins left by the Hohokam. One, in fact, the Gatlin site, is named for his uncle.
This is proof that if things are happening in Gila Bend, John Laird can be counted on to be in the middle of them. He knows where seemingly everyone is at any moment, whether the person you're looking for is working at the gas station today or is on vacation in Texas. A surprising number of people seems to turn up at the Senior Citizens center, which supplies lunch to a great many people of note.
John Laird has also been on the city council. And, by the way, he's the man who fried the egg on the sidewalk. He did it for a National Enquirer story a number of years ago, when that sort of thing was still news. It takes about half an hour.
And when Gila Bend had its moment in the national sun in 1973 when Sarah Miles' manager committed suicide during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and Burt Reynolds was questioned by the police, John Laird was there. He'd been eating dinner every night with Burt Reynolds, to whom he refers as a "good friend." He even got to look at the dead body.