Today marks 20 years writing this column. Follows is where it started, taken from a column I wrote in April of 1990.
The jukebox plays, I had a girl, Donna was her name, followed by Soldier boy, oh, my little soldier boy, followed by Wake up, little Susie, wake up. The sound is nauseating, but I will admit the barkeep has flawless 1950s musical taste. Me and Colleen pile dollar bills on top of the bar in case the music box
falters and patrons consider, for even one moment, reverting to television.
We’ve set base camp at Elvira’s Cocktail Lounge, said lounge nestles in the belly of the Delano Bowling Alley, said bowling alley is of Delano, California, a town of 20,000-plus located a half-hour north of Bakersfield. It’s 6:45 p.m. and not a bowler in the house. The place looks like a vast underground bunker bathed in blue fluorescent light, dressed in blue carpets, blue molded plastic chairs, and blue bowling scorecard tables. Forsaken and alone.
We have laptops open, busy at our work. I on the column, Colleen working on her feature story. Her piece is 12,000 words on tomatoes. I do not need to know more than this.
Earlier, we evacuated our motel room at the Islander, a ranch-style motel in the just-released-from-prison category. Next door to us, a nest of locals were attempting a Delano motel parking-lot barbecue. There is the ancient pickup truck, an open chest of iced beer in its bed, and one half of a rusted oil barrel resting on little toy wagon wheels. The thing contains too much charcoal and pieces of bloody chicken. The chicken sacrifice is tended by two males with no shirts and two decades’ worth of tan. Two females stand to one side. One says, “I’m just here till Thursday. That’s my court date.”
It’s been an instructive trip. Since we were driving around looking for 80 degrees and sunshine, it didn’t matter where we went as long as it kept getting warmer. So, we breezed into the San Joaquin Valley, drove on farm roads, came upon small towns.
Most of the towns — Wasco, Firebaugh, Kerman, McFarland — are depressing collections of empty stores and middle-aged men leaning against cement walls. Walk around these towns and you’ll notice Mexicans run most of the still-functioning businesses.
The trade is Mexican jewelry shops, Mexican restaurants, and Mexican markets. There is the Spanish-language movie house. Seems like all the posters and handbills are written in Spanish. Everyone we talked to spoke Spanish.
What’s happening is the recolonization of California. When you hear about it, most people think of L.A., but the tide is most
visible in small towns. Since there’s year-round agricultural here, tens of thousands of somewhat-legal or not-at-all legal Mexicans come up to work American farms. They need services, and as an unintended but happy consequence of that need, the downtowns of small San Joaquin Valley communities are being kept alive by Spanish-speaking employers.
That was then. I was working a new job in a new profession and traveling with a new love. I had made the impossible transition from Alaskan laborer to employed California journalist. The longest of long shots came through.
Picture a double bed in the now-demolished Hotel San Diego. We two, my back propped up against the wall, hers against the bed’s backboard, our legs stretched out and overlapping, writing our stories on tiny Toshiba laptops for 24 hours straight, only going out for vending-machine food and beer.
Then getting up in the next morning with a hangover, setting off to interview strange, unpredictable people in neighborhoods that sucked the breath out of your lungs. It was cold-calling criminals and asking for interviews on topics that could send them to jail. Then coming back at day’s end to the dive hotel, soaked with sweat from fear and adrenaline, writing up the day’s material, interrupted now and then by, “Listen to this,” as one read a particularly good sentence to the other, then laughing because it was so much fun.
I was doing things I didn’t know I could do, in a job I did not believe I’d ever have, holding a ticket to talk to anyone in the world. True, I had to learn as I went along, and the mistakes and missteps are unending and on view for anyone to see. Fair enough.
This was never a sports column — it’s always been about nothing in particular, about what the world was offering up on column day. Themes emerge as they will. It’s been a glorious ride, and I thank you for your company.