OF YUMAN BONDAGE

Imagine my shock when I found out last week that Money magazine had released its annual list of the top 300 U.S. cities to live in, and Phoenix had come in at the lowly 94 slot. Finished third in the entire state of Arizona. That's third out of three, mind you, beaten by Tucson. And Yuma.

Tucson, well, that's practically a suburb of Phoenix, anyway, but Yuma? This little burg of 120,000, stuck between a couple of bombing ranges and Mexico? And--in scoring based on stuff like housing, crime, economy, education, weather, leisure and the arts--it whipped us by a whopping 18 positions. What else did Money base its survey on, availability of Mexican radio? Murder schmurder, so what if Phoenicians like to play rough? Look, we easily have more Circle Ks and 7-Elevens, and--what with the Heard Museum and Planet Hollywood--I dare say Phoenix has culture out the ass!

But I was curious about Yuma; I'd never actually been there. Could it really be almost 20 times better than the Hot Lady of the Desert, my Phoenix? Friends scoffed at the notion, offered comments like:

"Yuma? It sucks."
"There's nothing in Yuma."
And, "Yuma? It really sucks."

I called the Yuma Chamber of Commerce and spoke with one Don Scarff, who gushed about a few of the city's highlights.

"A good place to stay is the Shiloh Inn, right off the freeway as you come in," he said. "There's a lot to see; we have the Territorial Prison here, and we have the Yuma Crossing, which is an old fort they've fixed up. And there's a gift shop there." A gift shop. Don tried tempting me with food, bragging about "a real old Mexican restaurant" whose name he pronounced as "Krih-TAINS." I asked how you spelled that.

"C-r-e-t-i-n-s."
"Like cretins?"
"Yeah, it's just like cretins." (Don was wrong. The place is spelled Chretin's and was not named after a type of idiot found in the Alps.) He continued: "There's also the Red Lobster, and the Home Town Buffet just opened up on Fourth Avenue, and it's pretty good."
But so much for cultural and culinary sensations--what about leisure activities? "If you like to watch the Harrier hover jets, you can sit out by the runway and watch 'em fly in and out," Don suggested.

"Do people really do that on the weekends?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. And those jets are pretty loud."
According to Don and Money magazine, Yuma, the town that bested my town, was a safe, pleasant place filled with employed, educated, Home Town Buffet-fed citizens who thrilled to the movements of Harrier jets. I'd never seen a Harrier jet or eaten at Red Lobster; I hung up, got in the car and started driving away from Phoenix.

Three hours later, I was heading through Telegraph Pass, some 17 miles from my destination. The setting sun was heating up my face, I had a Jolly Rancher candy in my mouth and a Spanish version of "Alone Again, Naturally" beamed in strong on the AM from a station across the border. I-8 led me out of the hills, and there it was. Yuma. The second-best city in Arizona, a lot of flat buildings in the heat, next to the Colorado River. I drove on in looking for accommodations, but passed on the Shiloh. I'm sure it's wonderful, but I have an aversion to staying at hotels named after battles where more than 10,000 people were killed. It's just me. (I later found out Sylvester Stallone, a man of impeccable taste, stayed there during the location filming of one of his Rambo epics. Say no more.)

I tooled down Fourth Avenue, the main drag, sizing up the place. There was Tai San Chinese food, a big yellow building that looked like a Mississippi riverboat. House of Vacuums, Gonzo's, Mr. Z's Bar and Grill, the famous Red Lobster with a sign out front: "New--15 Dinners Under $10.00." Ray's Chat and Chew, the Flag and Kite Factory, and, looking like a 3-D Edward Hopper painting, Brownies Cafe.

I realized something: My left arm was dangling out the window, I had one finger on the steering wheel and was keeping the speedometer at 26 miles per hour. Nobody was riding my bumper, and I was making all the lights. Tooling. The street was set up for the slow cruise; it was like American Graffiti or something. Is this what the boys from Money were talking about?

The Yuma Cabana Hotel caught my eye, not hard to do as it has a blinking two-story neon sign and the sentence "Probably the Best" out front in movie marquee letters. I figured I should probably stay at probably the best in town, and I was right. For in the lobby of the YCH, I met Carmen and Judy (daughters of Yuma, Kofa High, Class of '68), and Dee and Jeana, Cabana employees. They were to be my first links to the strangely attractive world of Yuma.

"My family's here," said Carmen, who has spent her 45 years in the city teaching English as a second language, running a dry cleaner's, and working in the jewelry business. She's a grandmother, presently works as a nurse, and is about as pleasant a person as you would want to meet. But it's not like we don't have pleasant people in Phoenix.

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