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.

"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.

"They should have more activities for the juveniles; when we were kids, we played tops and marbles, flew kites, but they don't do those things anymore, those things are extinct," says Jesus. He used to pick lettuce here; now he and Albert demolish houses and sell stuff at the swap meet. Neither of them read Money, but they aren't the kind of guys who need a magazine to tell them where to live.

"Why do we stay here?" ponders Albert, who lived briefly in Scottsdale. "Because we like it."

If a historical point of interest is what you're after, go directly to jail. The Territorial Prison, to be exact, in business from 1876 to 1909; the place I've heard so much about. On my way, I pass one of those teenage benefit car-wash things, and stop to talk to two fellows standing by the street with signs flagging people in. Adam Hastings is 16, goes to Cibola High (whose team is the Raiders); Isaac Rodriguez is 17 and a Yuma High man (that's the Yuma Criminals, and he's on the soccer team). The Money 300 is old news to them. "We always hear about that," shrugs Adam, "but then they always mention that we're like the number one place for teenage pregnancy in the nation. There's always the good and the bad. And a lot of girls at school are pregnant."

But does it suck to grow up in Yuma? "Well, there's not a lot to do around here until you're about 16, and you get a car," he says. "Then Thursdays and Saturdays you go down to Mexico, there's a couple clubs, and if they think you're 18, you can get in. You drink and dance with the chicks and party. Then you come home at like four in the morning, and that's your weekend." Isaac isn't complaining. Drugs and gangs are yet to be a problem, he says; everybody gets along.

"Yuma High is pretty fun, everybody knows each other. And even the skinheads are cool."
They point me toward the prison, on the banks of the Colorado. I have to admit, when it comes to old prison museums, Yuma has it all over Phoenix. You can hang out in the horrific "dark cell" or check out the graveyard; they even have a list of what killed the cons who died behind bars. Jose Ramon--diarrhea. Sing Quong--suicide, hanging. William Douglas--suicide, swallowed acid. J.M. Edwards--dropsy and ossification of liver. John Pennington--received dead at prison. Chalk another one up for Yuma.

Close to the prison is the old downtown section of the city. It's so dead I find myself walking in the middle of the street, just for the hell of it. I saw a cat sleeping in front of a local government building, that was about it.

But Yuma is the kind of place where a cat can sleep downtown; it's still an anachronistic stronghold of family values, low crime, cheap rent, good grades. If that sounds good to you, and you can settle for the 74th-best place in the country, then call Ryder and head for Yuma. Nice place to visit, but give me the sinful, wicked climes of Phoenix. I don't know about you, but I just feel more comfortable in a place where crime, stupidity and low morals are rampant.

Right before I left town, I pulled into a McDonald's drive-through. A girl named Windi was at the window. I asked her point blank: Is Yuma better than Phoenix? "Well, it depends." Windi takes a second to think it over, hands me a medium orange drink. "Yuma is just better . . . but Phoenix is a good place to shop." At least we've got that going for us.

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