Bakersfield is the type of haunt you tell new friends you’re from, not a place you grew up in. To survive, you have to make peace with the sun, wind and of course the dust. It’s a place from the past and a place from the future, always just over the horizon. I know this city, if you can call it that. It’s a crude city built on the oil from dinosaurs, where Roundabouts, Roughnecks and Drillers work derricks for steady paychecks and cheap liquor.
Bakersfield awakens sweaty at sunrise and doesn’t shut down until the last pulse of neon flames out. I’m sure some folks say good things about my birthplace. I choose to say nothing because I have nothing good to say.
Don’t judge me though. It was Steinbeck who waxed in The Grapes of Wrath, “There ain’t no sin, and there ain’t no virtue.” That makes me about even.
Everyone knows Chester Avenue. It’s where you go when you want to forget. The bars are thatched in rows, as tight as scales on a snake. I’ve spent so much time at the end of a bottle, everybody knows who I am, where to find me. What they say about me is mostly low. “He’s temperamental, a hard worker, mean as hell, he’s a drunk.”
I grew up in a poor household, not a home. Momma got Kern County welfare, spent most of her waking hours working hard at doing nothing. As far as a daddy was concerned, he was the man other boys had. Since he left us, our Momma grew restless, I know for a fact. In the summertime, I slept outside in the screened-in porch, near her dreaming wall, next to the window, the one covered with tobacco-stained tinfoil. I couldn’t help but be part of her nightmares, as she groaned and caterwauled, in her search for him. When she woke, she didn’t remember a thing, but she never denied dreaming either. All she would say is, “I just recall running toward something, and being lost.” I guess she missed his sarcasm and her black and blue eyes.
Sometimes she’d find time to shop and cook with the leftover money. Her two or three friends would trade her food stamps for cash, so she could buy unfiltered Camels and Coors. When she cooked in the kitchen, she’d stomp back and forth, march like a Russian soldier from the chipped porcelain sink to the two-burner stove, cutting and cooking.
She’d smash her Cossack heels into the floor when the smoke seeped through the cracks in the wooden tongue and groove floor. The ones nearly patched with the cut-out tuna can lids. We’d laugh in the earthen basement below, blow smoke rings toward heaven, in her direction above, like counterfeit halos. Then we’d howl like wolves and say, “She’s crazy as a shit house rat.”
Before she died, somehow, Momma raised us four kids. On her death bed, she said, “I never quit loving my wicked man.” But it was never clear when she passed if she missed him, or the silence he left when he was gone.
Of us four, I was the tumbleweed of the bunch. I blew all over California, and then rolled clean out Route 66 to the shiny black high rises in Chicago, the hawk. Everywhere I roamed, my excuses took root.
Most of my life, trouble was something that followed me, a lost puppy that needed nurturing, with a spiked leather color. And nothing changed that in Chicago. A lot of us good-for-nothings in the city enlisted in the service. In those days, blue ribbons were given for killing. I got good at that. Can you imagine a government check for being angry and worthless? Every day was a holiday set aside for hunting, a Day of the Dead, if you will. After my close friend lost his liver in the dirt in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I quit the force. Not because I was tired of death or sad, but because I was bored.
Returning to Bakersfield was like returning home as a hero to–– not a single God-Damned soul. But in my shaving mirror, I was always James Dean, but evil, with a need for speed and sour mash. Tehachapi, Mojave, Delano, Jack Daniels, and Southern Comfort, places I frequented.
The young government shrink was so excited. He couldn’t wait to assign me a DSM label in exchange for my bad behavior. PTSD he called it. I asked him, “Doc, can you have this since you’re born?”
After the service, things got real convoluted. I had more chips on my shoulders than a sawmill floor. It didn’t take long to get into some permanent trouble. I killed a hot-blooded farmer in Delano, at one of my favorite watering holes, just eight days shy of the Fourth of July. I was celebrating early. Long story short, I relocated my residence from Kern County to the suburbs of San Quentin.
I’ve seen the city of San Francisco on occasion. It always looks windy, alien, and cold. Most of the inmates in here would give an arm or leg to ride the Market Street Trolley as a free man or enjoy them some Dim Sum in Chinatown. Me, I have no sense of longing, regret, or need for such lofty dreams. Besides, for someone like me, the walls will always be too high to climb or escape.
I am exactly where I was meant to be. A place you keep those when self-punishment doesn’t work.