OF YUMAN BONDAGE

"Yuma's a good place to bring up family. It's slow, you don't have to worry about traffic. We have our share of drive-bys and stabbings, but in no way is it like Phoenix. It's a friendly community; I don't know a stranger here. It's kinda nice to make someone feel welcome, bring them into my home. Until they prove to be a serial rapist or a killer or something." I asked if Yuma was one of those towns where folks just stay put. "It's one of those things where you can't get away," Judy explained. "In high school, you can't wait to get away, then you go to college and you're gone for a few years, then you move back."
"Why?"
"Who knows?" The ladies had all heard about the Money ranking, agreed with it and couldn't care less how other Arizonans felt. "They've always thought of us as the armpit of Arizona," sniffed Carmen. "Granted, we don't have the big attractions, but we entertain ourselves. You make your own fun here."

Chretin's, home of the "killer nachos," is a big old place that has been serving up the Mexican food since 1946. There's about five decades' worth of stuff hanging from the walls; Jose Cuervo pi¤atas, sombreros the size of umbrellas, studio portraits of Chretin family members through the years. Wooden fans rotate slowly overhead, the kind Sydney Greenstreet should be sitting under.

The small-town ambiance is so thick you could cut it with a dull Bible. Nearly every table seems to be surrounded by three generations of folks, and everyone is getting along. Teens hold toddlers, grandparents laugh at the jokes of 20-year-olds. I eat the best chile relleno I've ever had. From where I'm seated, I can see into the kitchen, where there is a Hispanic guy washing dishes with shades on. I swill my margarita, chalk one up for Yuma. And the night is still young.

What does Yuma offer on a Friday evening? Two words are ringing through my brain--Harrier jets. I find the airport and confront a janitor, explain what I'm after. He leans against his broom and looks at me so strangely that I feel not only embarrassed, but just plain dumb. He reluctantly points me to the end of the runway. I drive over, and, after half an hour, there's nothing going on but blinking blue lights and black, empty sky. Not even a bird lands. Maybe Don was simply full of shit.

Across the street, however, there is the Sky Chief Lounge. And there is a pickup truck in the parking lot with a huge head in the back, a head wearing sunglasses. On the side of the truck, it says "I Wear Sunglasses." Inside the Sky Chief, I find a party of 15 happy people celebrating something, despite that the rest of the place is empty. A woman gets up and takes command of the bare dance floor, begins a kind of Greek hula with a cocktail on her head. Doesn't spill a drop. I don't see how things can get much better here at the Chief, so I split. The pickup with the head is gone from the parking lot.

I find another bar, Manske's, filled with young people boogieing down to the sounds of a band called Mirage doing "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." I try to make my own fun, but, for a man used to the heady nightlife of Phoenix, it just isn't working. Back in the car, I remember Carmen told me that locals hang out at Dairy Queen and Der Wienerschnitzel. I go over, but everybody's apparently someplace else tonight, so I make it to Walgreens for film and toothpaste.

The cashier is a bored woman named Terri. She's reading National Enquirer and is no fan of Yuma. "There's nothing to do here for kicks; it's all senior citizens, and it's tough putting up with them, 'cause they want everything for free," she says. "I'm from Monterey, and when we were kids, we used to ride our bikes down to my uncle's wood shop and call, and they'd pick us up and bring us back. And there's still more to do there than here."

Uh-huh. Back at the Yuma Caba¤a--in bed by 11:05--I watched the Judds on TV for a while, then switched the set off and tried to sleep. The room was so quiet I had to lay on my right side, because my heartbeat was keeping me awake.

Every Saturday morning at the old greyhound racetrack, they have a swap meet, and, along with a host of friendly Yumaites, I am there picking through the junk. I've been to the park 'n' swap in Phoenix many a time, and I can tell you that it's better than this. Swap-meeting was evidently a category Money neglected; we could've taken Yuma hands down.

I pick up an hourglass that says Aloha Hawaii in "real lava," and I meet the woman selling it: Peggy Barnes, who will be 74 this year. I tell her my grammar school principal was named Peggy Barnes, but she stabs the air with her GPC cigarette and says, "Ha! She's no kin to me!" Peggy loves Yuma, been here 23 years. "I'm from Ohio, and I'm too weak to shovel snow. I don't even want to see an ice cube! My husband has to make his own!" Yes, indeed, Terri was right, the seniors love Yuma. I give Peg a quarter for the hourglass and go to a stall run by two guys in their early 30s, Albert Vasquez and Jesus Ortiz. They grew up here and admit it can be a dull place.

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