The first group I approach are some people congregated in an alley behind a convenience store. One man sits against the fence, his head down, all in black, staring at the ground, mumbling to himself. Another woman, wearing clothes that resemble a tablecloth at a county picnic, walks along, her steps a little too jerky. She looks up at me and considers the water bottle I am offering her.
"Can I have two..?" she asks, and looks up at me, a small stream of sweat slipping from the headband she has on.
I pause for just a second and hesitate and she must have sensed it.
"...I need to wash the pee off." I hand her a second bottle, and consider a third, but there are a few people here and I had only brought a small sample.
The next two people I encounter are standing by a car. The door is open and I can see papers strewn about. Some clothing sits on the seat. By the look of the vehicle and the way that it is parked, I can tell that it is not just used for transportation. The front seat looks like a living room.
My suspicions are confirmed in the dialogue I have with the woman named Lisa.
"What, you think you can come here and give us water? This is my space," she says.
She stands in front of me straight up and looks as if she wants to pounce. I am slightly taken aback, but amused as well. However, I realize there is open space behind me and for a moment I wonder if I should worry.
She has long red hair that looks like it was recently washed. She runs her fingers through it. And when her face is turned to the side, she smiles. Her expression changes when she turns my way.
"I'm independent you see," and points at her chest. There is a cross - the kind of cross you don't associate with churches - in her midsection. Designs and some other calligraphy surround it. She was obviously a fan of tattoo, but I doubt she visited any professional parlor establishments to acquire the markings.
"Between this and the two S esses (I know what she means by this) on my leg, that's what I am." She stares at me again. Where her eyebrows should be are some worn out scribbling that I cannot decipher. The writing looks like it was acquired in a correctional facility, probably when she first entered the system many years ago. It's faded, but even if I could read the words, I probably would have ignored the messages.
"What? You think I'm pretty?" she says and I can hear in her physical language that she isn't searching for a compliment.
"You're a very charming woman," I say. And try to smile. The man standing next to her straightens from his slouch.
"I'm Mr. Lisa" he tells me.
She looks at me again, and flails her arms straight down as if she were preparing for a yoga marathon. She picks up a bottle of colorful liquid, pulls it up to her thin lips and sips. "I stabbed a caseworker once. Went to prison for it. Right now I am drunk. Or rather," she pauses, "I've been drinking."
And I don't think asking for a copy of her rap sheet would be a good idea, even though I am wanting to verify if her proclamations about her experience with the California correctional system are authentic. Trust, but verify I think of the adage.
"This interview is over," she tells me. "This is my territory. My home."
I know it is time to leave, but they remind me anyway. I walk away, a little confused, even though everything makes perfect sense.
I head north on Highway 99 and get off on the Oildale exit. Oildale is a community north of Bakersfield, some say a place of it's own. The woman at the 7-Eleven I spoke with earlier, the one with writing for eyebrows said to me "over there is Bakersfield, the city. This is the county. Wild country. It's own," as she pointed toward the bridge that crosses the Kern River.
I pull into a gas station parking lot and find a spot of shade under the tree to rest my car. Already the noise of the traffic has slightly dissipated, muffled by the brush and the flat open space that looks like the surface of another planet. As i walk out toward the tents I see shimmering in the distance I notice some piles of empty butane containers. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. And boxes.
Butane is a popular ingredient when people manufacture wax from cannibals. Wax is a more potent form of the substance known for its visual appeal and its powerful intoxicating qualities. A little further down, it almost looks like someone demolished a house and buried the remains above ground. There are several chucks of rocks that were obviously not placed here by mother nature.
I see the man stepping out from the tent and realize that I could be seen as a threat. I am also worried because many of the people I've encountered on the street have dogs. Some of them vicious.
"Hello," I say, lifting my hands in the air. I identify myself. I assure him I mean no harm. "Would you like a water?" I open my palms and pause to show that I am not carrying anything.
"Yeah sure," he responds. "Let me tell my girl to hold the dog."
I hope it is a nice dog.
Dogs, Signs, and Shady Characters
As I approach the encampment, I see a woman underneath a tarp - for shade obviously. The temperature around us feels like someone opened an oven during a Thanksgiving dinner although the discernible aromas in the air no way resemble that of a cooked poultry.
"Why do you have dogs?" I ask, knowing the answer as the question leaves my lips. I'm the type that likes to confirm the obvious.
"Well, everyone needs some lovin'. My other dog gave birth and this is the puppy. Dogs give protection too. They keep us feeling safe."
I ask them about the groups in the community that offer assistance. How helpful they are and what people out here really need.
"Clothes, a tent" they both chime.
"They put me on a list but everyone gets help but me. Section 8. For me no deal" the woman says.
I look around and see a sign. "Did you know him?" I ask.
"Yeah. He was our friend," the man says.
When I ask them permission to take a photo they tell me yes. They thank me for asking. I talk to them about the tiny house program, would it work here? In Bakersfield? I have read about programs that design shelters, basically sheds, for the homeless. Some communities have entire tiny houses designed for those struggling with permanent shelter. I ask them what daily life is like in the camps.
"A lot of scandalous people," he tells me.
"They steal your stuff and sell it back to you twice what you paid for it?" she says.
"People are pretty grimy," he says.
"How does that make you feel? What do you do?" The obvious in me decides to make another query.
"You pick your battles," she says.
My Sweet Fentanyl
The boy who the memorial was designed for was killed by a fentanyl overdose. The drug has become a serious problem recently with Oildale being one of the main segments of the city hit hardest. At least what you hear on the news. People on the street tell me different though.
"It happens in the rich areas," one says, "they just cover it up better."
"Yeah," chimed another. "Think of the Bakersfield 3."
One story in the local news cites that this new kind of dope is "a synthetic opioid that serves as a powerful painkiller useful in cases like advanced-stage cancer. But it has now been appropriated for the illegal drug trade." The number of overdoses reported has increased dramatically. It isn't unusual to see people nearly passed out, sitting down, their backs against the wall of a building. Especially in this part of Bakersfield.
I noticed one earlier, when I parked my car under the shade. I don't ask any of the people I talk with about drugs or substance abuse. In most cases, it is a given that people on the street are struggling with issues. One wonders whether or not substance use contributes to homelessness or if it is a result thereof.
In treatment, there are conditions which are co-occurring in which a mental disorder is initiated at the same time as addiction. Co-morbidity refers to a medical condition that is present when addiction begins. Many people who experience homelessness are also suffering from other mental health issues which may be contributing to the fact that they are in the place in which they find themselves.
I think about the young man who died. The one the sign was erected for. There are bouquets of flowers and strands of glittering garlands that sway in the wind. It is large and colorful and looks as if were painted by loving, talented hands. From a distance it almost seems like an invitation to a party. One that everyone is invited to.
And eventually, I know. Everyone will attend.
Some links to local fentanyl stories
Some Comic Relief
It was quite amusing. I noticed this vehicle with what appeared to be stickers all over it. I was curious. They were not your usual adornments you see on the bumpers as you navigate through traffic. These covered the entire car like a well negotiated paint job, by an artist under the influence of some spiritual persuasions.
I approached cautiously because I noticed some milk crates on the ground, behind the fender facing away from me. That meant there was probably someone there. I saw a man at the trunk as I approached and asked permission to snap some photographs.
When I spoke to him, I found out he was a comedian - his website is posted on the vehicle and I'll include a link to it in the next section. When I asked about the writings, he informed me that they were done by homeless people and that he sometimes performed at shelters.
We talked briefly and I didn't want to encroach too much on his territory because I could sense an importance, a focus in the activities he planned for the day. And besides I was a stranger with a camera asking some very direct questions and capturing images of his transportation, perhaps some of his living quarters.
I found out that during his performances, he would ask for donations of clothing, which he then handed out to some homeless camps.
I offered him a few tips on where to look for groups, but I have noticed that many of the encampments diminished slightly. Some have disappeared.
I would find out why as soon as I headed back into Bakersfield....
Elvis Comedy: The Sock and Undie Show
- Elvis Comedy - Elvis Ali
Elvis Ali. Gorilla Comedian, Goat Lover, Bosnian. Elvis is on his Socks & Undies tour performing stand up comedy benefiting the homeless.
As I leave Oildale, I head back into Bakersfield, heading up Chester Avenue. It is a Friday afternoon, and traffic is tight and I am always a little bit nervous moving through a roundabout. You have to be cautious about this one in particular because there are two lanes in the circle itself and some drivers enter the inner lane when they should have chosen the outer one. This causes confusion when their chosen exit is where your entrance is. The Garces circle as it is called - there is a statue of the Franciscan missionary and explorer in the center garden - has five thoroughfares.
I see the truck parked near the western side of the overpass, and the trailer portion is filled with material. I see some smaller trucks next to it. They all have the name of the city on them, under some sort of civic seal.
"They come up and put your stuff in the back,. And it has a crusher on it, like a garbage truck and they grind it up right in front of you!" one man told me.
"If you live at the river, they will come with the dozers and dig holes and bury it. And you cannot stop them, or push it into the river," another woman told me earlier.
I didn't have time to see what this municipal vehicle was up to, nor could I properly identify if there were special mechanisms in the back. I noticed that the groups of people usually here - the temperature is quite comfortable, even in the Bakersfield summers- were absent.
Politicians and Street Politics
As I head home, I see I have a few bottles of water left. I stop to offer some to a woman who looks a little too well dressed, standing in front of a shopping cart. She turns away and says "No, I'm good". I'm a bit slighted and chipped by her refusal, but then I realize she probably has reasons for her suspicions. And of course, she is a she.
I offer another to a man with one leg, trying to push his wheelchair and he shakes his head and ignores me.
Then I see a two carts draped with rugs and blankets. I pull up and a man steps out, so does his dog, who jumps up and smells me and moves away.
"She don't bite, she just wants to say hello," he tells me, smiling.
We talk a bit, and he tells me his story. "They came by and said 'be out by 12:30 or we'll come and move you'. That's all they do is move you. Move you around and there's no place to go. How come you think there's so many in the city now? Cause they moved them all out from the riverbed where it's safe and we're hidden where you don't have to look at us. You can't go anywhere now and they come along with the trucks..."
I have heard the stories about the bulldozer monsters on the river at night and been told about these mythical vehicles that come in the day time, so at least you can see them.
"All the shelters are filled and they don't got enough space. You need referrals for most of these places unless BPD brings you in." BPD is the Bakersfield Police.
He talks to me about the code enforcement officers, about the business owners who force him to move from in front of buildings even though they're abandoned. "This one man came out and told me you can't stay here. It wasn't his shop, I was next door and it was burned out and almost demolished. No one could see me. He said I was scaring his customers."
I think about what it must to be a nomad in a modern world. It must be truly maddening.
He looks at me and says, "We all got a plan sometimes we think to dress up in a three piece suit to go in to use a restroom and then when we are done, we change clothes. I've never been discriminated in my life for anything before. It's a double standard."
As I get in my car to leave, I take another look at his tent and the dog he is playing with. I can see another against shelter huddled against the wall, almost too close to the restaurant drive through lane.
As I drive home I think of trucks that are hungry enough to devour shopping carts whole. I think of bulldozers raising their arms above the tractor machinery and bringing them down along banks hard enough to create bowels for homes. I think about a world where dogs and people live together in the strange monasteries that hover below freeway overpasses and along the islands in the Kern River.
They turn off all the water and lock the restrooms. They plug up all sockets so we can't use them. He was talking about the parks where some took refuge. There was access to running water once, and the toilets were available. There were outlets for televisions, microwaves, computers and more.
As I wait at the light, I find myself becoming irritated when my signal turns green, but there is still traffic moving through the intersection long after they should have stopped.
And then I breathe.
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.
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