Tuesday, June 29, 2021



There are more pawn shops, tattoo parlors and bail bondsmen in downtown Bakersfield than grocery stores and pharmacies

Returning from Bakersfield, only a tab of Xanax washed down by a Grey Goose dry martini, olives, splash of dirt, saved me from commitment to a place where medication and counseling would be far more intensive and invasive.

It starts as a lark, summer approaching, when my artist friend Van Stein and I embark on a road trip to the “other” California—that is to say, the Central Valley, two hours inland from the coast.

Cruising along 126 is smooth enough, a left onto The Grapevine, until Gorman ushers us into the enormous valley with an electronic sign that flashes “gutsy winds.” 

I should have known right then that descending into a surreal stew of red necks, beer, country music and Basque grub would probably not be good for our psyche, much less our intestinal health.

Wiki Travel tried to warn us off—“This city will never be a tourist destination”—but it only beckoned us in, the masochists we are, laughing and yakking about art and letters, creativity and madness, in a never-ending and highly random stream of duo-logorrhea.

The big road forks and we veer right onto 99, California’s 66, and it sure feels upside down to us, hurtling through urban sprawl and decay until a magnetic force yanks us into downtown Bakersfield, which at first glance is underwhelming and second and third glance, much worse. 

Cold Spring Bridge
The view from rock bottom
By fourth glance, we realize we are quagmired—a rock bottom worse than the dry creek below Cold Spring Bridge, where we’d descended a year before to better understand suicide.

Home-town hero Merle Haggard is singing Gin and Misery on the CD player as we draw up to the Padre Hotel and I empathize with his misery as we amble in to enquire about accommodation.

“We’re pretty full, just one room left,” says a trim Caribbean-American.  “Big bike race in town.”

The Bakersfield Hotel
Van Stein and I don’t share rooms so this doesn’t work and deep inside I’ve already decided I’d be better off not staying overnight in Bakersfield but instead be gone before midnight, because if we can’t stay at the Padre—renovated two years earlier after being boarded up for a couple decades—we ain’t overnighting anywhere, least of all the old Bakersfield Hotel down the street, which might just as well advertise its bed bugs in neon.

Bakersfield's version of the Eiffel Tower

We take in the main landmarks: a couple of communications towers.

Next:  refuge in a thrift shop, having discovered there is more old stuff for sale in downtown Bakersfield than new.  

Thrift shops, pawnshops, tattoo parlors and bail bondsmen account for the shop-fronts still open, while the rest are shuttered with boards or iron bars or both.

This is one-stop shopping for young adults, who can pawn their mother’s jewelry and buy a new tattoo (to compliment a dozen others up and down their torsos and extremities) during one quick excursion into town.