Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues.
In the Neighborhood
The hotel is located along one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, Union Avenue. This street once served as the gateway to Bakersfield. The Golden State Highway - which it was once called - would take you south to Los Angeles or north to Fresno and points beyond. It serves as the East/West line of demarcation and is still a chosen route for commuters because of its accessibility to newer freeways.
There are still popular businesses - fast food places, gas stations, auto repair shops - that cater to local residents. There are many hotels - which were grand places in days past and provided a comfortable resting place for weary travelers. Most of these have gone into ruin and some of have been converted into halfway houses for those in rehabilitation from substance abuse or release from prison.
The Desert Star is one of these places that still remains, but has been closed for business for many years.
Caretakers and Comedians
I see the man walking through along the pavement as he heads to the yard near the entrance of this motel. He is carrying some items with him: a ten gallon plastic water bottle, a gas can and another jug. He bends down and twists a metal spigot and holds the containers steady, wipes the back of his hand across his forehead and then looks around. The sound of the traffic from Union is steady, but light. The hotel is recessed back away from the busy thoroughfare. The thick palm trees act as a buffer from the urban noise.
"Can you help me with one of these?", he asks, setting down the three containers filled with water. He is Hispanic, probably in his thirties. His hair is cut short and he has a nicely trimmed mustache. His thin build reminds me of the fit Norteños you see on the prison yard, training for an upcoming riot. The Bakersfield sun beats down in the early morning and the cool water is a precious commodity and I think he is fortunate to have access to it. He isn't wearing a shirt and looks pretty fit, but I can tell that he is an addict.
I pick up the larger container which is the type of bottle you see in water coolers they keep in an office or a gym. It is half filled with water. He picks up a yellow container which looks like it was for anti-freeze and a large one gallon gas can. Some of the liquid drops onto the asphalt and quickly dissipates in the heat. We both walk toward the back.
"How far do you want me to carry this?" I ask.
"Oh, just to the room."
"At the end down there?"
"No, just up halfway," and then he stops. Seeing me struggle with the awkward canteen, he sets his items down. "Here, you take these and let me get that one. It's lighter."
We walk back toward the end of the hotel. I look around and wonder if there is anyone here. I see a brick wall covered with graffiti, small shards of glass from the shattered windows glitter, clothing hangs from a clothesline made of concertina wire.
What do you think is the main cause of homelessness?
We move toward one of the end units and when I step inside, I am impressed. The walls look smooth and freshly painted. The floor is a clean, undisturbed tile. It almost appears as if this were designed to be a unit on the real estate market.
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"Do you mind if I look around?" I ask.
"Sure," he nods confidently and sits down. He pulls out an oil burner - a glass pipe used to smoke crystal meth - and sets it on his lap.
When I enter the bath area, I am in awe: new tile adorns the walls. The same tile covers the shower area. The toilet is in tact. A vanity sink is under an open window with a screen.
"Someone is very talented," I say, looking around. I moved back into the living area.
He smiles and looks down. "Yeah," he says.
So would you like to talk? I ask. I pull out my camera and ask "do you mind if I take some photos?" I take pictures of the walls and the stylish bath area. I look out the front window and snap a couple of the "courtyard". When I turn toward him, he speaks up.
"No, not of me."
"Okay, how about one of your feet? I want to show people." His feet are bare and his thin legs stick out from under a pair of khaki shorts. He is holding the glass pipe now and it looks like he is searching for a lighter.
"Well, this is getting kind of weird. Is this goin on some X rated web site?"
I am a little taken aback, but know that he is joking. His odd and quirky nature is already visible. When i ask him his name, he responds by singing:
"Alexander the third" he pauses and nods, "Washington," and laughs. "C'mon, you have to have a sense of humor."
The Commendable and the Condemned
Jimmy, the neighbor who I spoke with early comes by. Jimmy is 22 and says that he once worked in the fields.
"The oilfields," I ask.
"No. Grapes, the vineyards. I worked for Grimmway once," he says. Grimmway is one of the local carrot distributors and delivers products all over the world. Jimmy says he woke up one morning, scared, and that things just became different. He has a hollow look in his eyes and seems to be seeing something far away that only he can make contact with. A young man like that doesn't belong here and I wonder about some of the troubles he may have encountered. How many were due to his ethnicity - he appears Filipino - and the disappointments he may have experienced.
Many of the people on the streets of Bakersfield are addicts, but others are mentally ill. One study completed by the National Coalition for the Homeless states that roughly 15% of those living on the streets have some form of mental illness. I personally believe the true numbers are much higher.
I turn to the man who said his name was Alexander Washington. "How old are you?"
He seems to almost be the manager of some sort. I am told that some of the units here still have running water. There are places where it looks like the walls were covered with mirrors, along the corners where a bed would fit.
I find out that many of the people who stay here manager to survive comfortably, even though the building is officially condemned. With access to clean water it would be easier to maintain than on a riverbed. Many of the rooms have smooth floors on which you can sleep. Occasionally there are security officers that come by, but I am told most turn a blind eye to the inhabitants.
"I wouldn't do interviews, I wouldn't do drugs, and I would wear shoes..." Washington says to me when I ask him what he wants. "...because there is glass here."
The two men smoke and drink bottles of Dasani water. They lean up against the wall and open their eyes. The expression on their faces remind me of the look I've seen on athletes after a marathon run. Small clouds of smoke fill the well lit room and disappear. The light through the window casts cool shadows on the wall. I look at a new light switch and push it and then up at the lamp to see if there is a response.
"It's not set up yet" says Alexander and gives me a look that tells me not to touch things.
"Well it looks like you are coming along pretty nice here," I offer. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't touch things."
"No worries. Once when I was in kindergarten the teacher told me I was fat, so I punched her." He exhales.
"Really? You remember that?" and I think about some of the other traumas he alluded to during our conversation. An abusive father, who could be loving as well. Some of the violence in his community growing up. The other barriers he must have faced and the roles which were imposed upon him.
"Stop it, Adrian, they tell me," he laughs.
I go back to this location the following week, to check on Jimmy and Adrian aka "Alexander Washington" - and to see if I could find the couple I ran into previously.
I came to a door that read "Come Back Here" and had an arrow pointing around the corner. The door started to shake and someone pointed his head out.
"Hello?" I called out to the figure.
He had a couple of small face tattoos - a teardrop near the eye, some lines - and was wearing blue knee length athletic shorts and an A shirt. In the neighborhoods, these are referred to as "wife beaters".
"Hi. What are you doin?" he asks me and squints his eyes in the sun. Behind him, I see some furniture in a darkened room. I hear someone else shuffling around.
I explain to him. And he invites me in, but I wait at the doorway. He pulls what appears to be a gun, ejects the clip and tosses it toward my feet. I look down but don't know much about firearms.
"Don't worry, it isn't real," he says holding it up in front of him. "It's a bb gun, but it is supposed to look real. To scare you."
A young girl emerges. She is wearing jean shorts that are about two sizes too small for her. She has on a thin bikini top which also doesn't fit. Her skin is taught and tanned from the Bakersfield sun, probably from strolls along Union Avenue.
"Are you a couple?" I ask looking at them both.
"I'm her..." he pauses and looks up at her. "I'm her friend."
I know trafficking is a concern in this area in particular. I am not sure though, he could be a friend of some sort. He may be her manager/provider. I know enough however, not to press the issue too much. I can walk away from this place.
The Woman with the Eye Shadow Shoes
I have been back to try to find these two, I wanted to talk to them about living in this abandoned hotel. The young woman told me she was 23 and that this room was hers. She wanted to do a video interview, but I didn't have my phone.
I have been back there twice but have not seen them. The door to the room however, was always shut. I knocked and no answer.
Today I meet another woman, she is in her early thirties and seems meek and scared. She says she needs to be able to have a caretaker and misses her father. She doesn't make eye contact with me, but instead seems preoccupied with painting her shoes. She lets me look around and answers the questions I have for her. She lets me take pictures of the room she is in.
She says her name is Sabrina and that she is 32. One of the many young people who ended up here. She used to work for a grape packing company. She spent some time in Chowchilla (one of the women's prisons) for battery. I can tell by her child like demeanor that she has been down many roads and only come back from a few. I don't know if she would ever be able to make it on her own, even if given the opportunity. The experience of being homeless is a heavy burden and reverberates.
I ask her if she knows about the couple that stays next door.
"No," she says, and looks away.
In Some Nearby Galaxy, But Still Far Away
Not too far away from this place are lands rich with thick oil. Derricks lift along the horizon like thirsty lazy horses. The derricks are clear markers of the wealth in this dusty valley, reaped by the large oil companies that have an influence on the world economy.
In the shadows are young people - men and women in their twenties - who probably should be on a college campus, or in a neighborhood with friends, looking for a mate or beginning a family. Their faces are tired and their bodies worn and dreary from the dust and the sun.
Many of them may be suffering from mental health issues. Most have experienced some sort of trauma. Who can attest to the other social barriers they have faced. Why the world lets some people escape into freedom and shackles others is a mystery to me. The idea that we are all responsible for our condition is true to an extent but we can only navigate within the waters in which we are set.
I think of the people who I have met today and the few who have poked out their heads and then recessed back into the shell of their rooms. Their efforts are a testament to the survival instinct of the human species. Some people are more adept than others though and I wonder if I could spend more than an hour in these hot rooms where the heat and the sounds of traffic echo through broken windows with shards of mirror for wallpaper.
I watch the clothes whip on the barbed wire. They look like tiny flags, raised in front of this small fort, and the distant mountains look like a paradise. Like a promised land hidden beyond the stark horizon.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Fin