Nov. 29, Yuma, Arizona – Every brooding tale of fear and loathing needs the occasional interlude of sweetness to leaven it and keep it from running straight into the ditch of despair.
Here at Starbucks International House of Bitterness, we just had such an interlude. I sat by myself, struggling to find words appropriate but not too garish to describe our recent experiences. A group of high school kids took up residence on the couch opposite me. They were mostly quiet. I thought about striking up a conversation, but held off for fear of falling into the role of creepy old guy talking nonsense at Starbucks.
When Becky and Max returned, I was emboldened. A beautiful wife and a charming kid couldn’t help but make me seem less creepy.
What’s cool about Yuma, I inquired.
One of the boys spoke up immediately, suggesting no visit to Yuma was complete without sampling Mr. G’s, a Mexican restaurant on South 4th Avenue. The other one tapped Highway 95 Cafe, a Chinese place on, of course, Highway 95.
Then the first, Nicholas Mendoza, ribbed his buddy, Tik Aw, whose parents own Highway 95 Cafe. What Nicholas didn’t tell me is harbors his own bias: His mom works at Mr. G’s.
I was taken by Nicholas’ T-shirt, which touted the Yuma High baseball team, aka the Criminals.
The Yuma Criminals.
Awesome, I thought. I immediately went to Google for verification.
A year after it opened, the original Yuma Union High School was destroyed by fire in 1910. The school, according to the ever-handy annals of Wikipedia, moved into the vacant cell blocks of Yuma Territorial Prison, which had closed in 1909.
When the Yuma Union football team traveled east and beat the Phoenix Union Coyotes for the mythical state championship in 1914, the disappointed home fans dubbed the visitors “Criminals.”
Thankfully, the name stuck. Yuma remains, per Wikipedia, the only high school in the U.S. nicknamed the Criminals, and the only school to copyright its mascot.
The Yuma Criminals rivals the Orofino (Idaho) Maniacs for the best high school nickname I’ve ever come across. And as a defrocked sports journalist, I’ve come across a few.
While Nicholas pitches for the Yuma baseball team, Nathalie Barraza and Byanka Delgado play for the Criminals soccer team. They say the traditionally moribund program is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Just this afternoon the Criminals routed the Lake Havasu Knights, who traveled 157 miles for the privilege of getting handed a 6-0 whitewashing.
Anyway, without exercising too heavy an editorial hand, they are sweet kids. Tik’s family emigrated from Malaysia five years ago. The transition wasn’t exactly easy, he said.
“It took me a year to learn English, another year to speak it and another year to speak it kind of efficiently,” he said.
As a group, they recommended seeing the territorial prison, the Colorado River crossing and, of course, Mr. G’s.
I asked if there were any crazy people of Yuma I should seek out and interview.
“If you go to Mr. G’s and ask my mom, she’ll tell you,” Nicholas said. “If you sit there for an hour you’ll see people who went to high school here 20 years ago. Everybody hangs out there.”
What’s the worst thing about Yuma?
“There’s no ping-pong,” Tik said. “That’s a regrettable fact.”
They got ready to go, and I asked if I could take a photograph. They agreed.
And then they took off, but not before leaving us with a hopeful feeling.
Then: horror. I’d forgotten I’d taken out the camera card earlier to import photos to the laptop.
I checked the camera. Bad news: “No image.”
I handed the camera to Becky and wandered out into the parking lot, hoping to catch them. I couldn’t see a thing. Then a car started up, an older model Mercedes.
I must’ve looked awfully foolish, but that’s a role I’m comfortable in. Someone rolled down a window and said something. It was Tik.
I told them the sad news and asked if they’d come back for another photo shoot. Tik turned off the car, they all filed out and back inside the Starbucks and onto the comfortable leather couch.
The day was saved. Despite my bungling, we have a photo of five of the nicest Criminals you’re likely to meet south of Interstate 8.