Zip code survey, #3

When my family first moved from Ojai to Bakersfield, California, we rented a place that was next door to the airport, Meadows Field. The street was named Melody Lane, which in retrospect was really odd given the noise level of the place. At one time, it was labeled among the more dangerous airports around, and the only thing I remember was being able to watch the Blue Angels while standing in the middle of the street.

The section of town was called Oildale; filled with trailer parks and redneck bars, it started out as a Hooverville. I didn’t even know what a Hooverville was at the time, but my dad did. Being part of the second wave of immigration, my mom and Dad had been to the Central Valley before. Mom came out to Visalia in the 30s, as a teenager, before she met my father. But Oildale is kind of unique among the valley towns; they chase out people of color. The basic character of the place hasn’t changed much over the years. Poor white trash, mostly. It’s a depressive, oppressive place, but it wasn’t where I grew up.

I’ve got hazy memories of Melody lane though; I liked airplanes, and I wasn’t aware of what the place was really like. I’m not surprised by one Melody Lane address listed on the web:

Bakersfield Depression and Manic Depression Association
1520 Melody Lane
Bakersfield, CA 93308

The Bakersfield DMDA sponsors a support group for people with depression or manic depression. Meetings are held twice a month. Call for meeting times and locations.

It all makes sense, it was ground zero for the whiteboy blues. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, the prototypical Bakersfield Sound wraps its roots around every street and alley of Oildale. We didn’t stay there long, Dad was hoping to transfer to Oklahoma, but that didn’t happen. So we bought a house, 6412 Mignonette Street, on the other side of highway 99. Though it’s the same zip code, the atmosphere was totally different. Young families in new tract homes. Suburban America. Grew up there, you know?

My older brother Steve embraced Oildale, calling it home for many years. He’d hitchhike from the burbs into Oildale, chasing dope mostly. I didn’t go back until years later, and when I did, it cost me. Where I grew up was an island, away from the main demographic:

Dominant ACORN: 6F (Low Income: Young & Old)

This market encompasses the very young and the elderly, supported by a relatively young working population. Nearly half of these households are single-parent or single-person. High unemployment and poverty afflict this group. Single-family units, duplexes and quads are the housing of choice in these urban neighborhoods found in metro areas concentrated in the Midwest. They spend on products for the elderly and young children: denture cleaners, over-the-counter medications, baby products and children’s vitamins. They watch television and read soap opera magazines.

2000 Population by Race
White 87.9%
Black 2.1%
Asian Pacific Islander 1.0%

2000 Income Figures
Median Household Income $38,596

2000 Housing Figures
Average Home Value $107,882
Average Rent $354

It may have been my zip code, but I didn’t live there. My street had several two and three story homes, with a contractor responsible for building upscale housing living just at the end of the street. He was a religious man, and every Sunday he’d show films in the little church he built next door to his house. I suppose that’s where my interest in film began; the time lapse stuff meant to show the majesty of god actually showed me the power of images to move people, capturing experience in a way that slips by us if we don’t pay attention. One of my friends fathers was quite wealthy, and I’d walk past his ’29 Lincoln touring car and 47 Packard on my way up the drive. In an upstairs bedroom of the three story house, I first heard Jimi Hendrix and I had to hear more. Music and pictures became my way of life.

I did watch a lot of television, but I never read any soap opera magazines. My mom never fed me vitamins. We had 1/3 of an acre, and dad grew a jungle out back, feeding half the neighborhood with his fruits and vegetables. It was a land of plenty. My school was out in the middle of vast fields, with no houses around anywhere. I was in a gifted program, and edited an ecology newsletter for the school. It was all so whitebread. I had no idea that Jimi Hendrix was black until years later; I was scared of things like drugs, but I was fascinated. As I rode my bike to Milt’s coffee shop next to the freeway to read Kerouac and Hemmingway, I began to wonder about what the world was really like. I knew that my neighborhood wasn’t a real reflection of the way the world was. I never crossed to the other side of the freeway, like my brother did. Big changes were ahead for me, because we left this comfortable place when I graduated the sixth grade. I never went back to this manufactured version of society again.

In my early twenties I found myself stranded in the ghettos of Oildale and it was a hard fight to get back out. My memories of this place involve a lot of drugs, a lot of guns, and a lot of psychos who would sometimes be seen sitting on the doorsteps of their apartments with automatic weapons. I kept to myself mostly; sticking your head out the door in this place was fairly dangerous. But I got out; it seems strange to me that I had to become homeless to do it. But once a place like this gets its hooks in you, it’s hard to break free.

1 thought on “Zip code survey, #3”

  1. I did my time in Oildale to. My black friends used to sneak in under the cover of darkness and we would drink wine and laugh about the lynch mob on their way over. Oddly, as dangerous and strange as the whole trip was, it was also one of the happier times in my life. If you can be genuinely happy in Oildale then I guess you can be happy anywhere. As Joan Armatrading once said “Poverty can be romantic, in black and white it looks like art.”

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