OK, it was my first time there and it was also a really good excuse for a road trip taking those convoluted routes I’m so fond of, this time including more chunks of Route 66 and Highway 99 through the Central Valley. This time, the raod led through Bakersfield and Pixley and Barstow.
Like it or not, you have to be impressed by Las Vegas’ unchallenged status as “white trash cultural capital of America”. Plus there’s really cheap food, 24 hour bars, and more neon than the mind can fathom.
So my friend Duncan e-mails me from Charlotte and says “wanna go to Vegas?”. He was going to be there for a convention and invited me along to share in the fun. Being unemployed and bored, how could I say no to a good road trip and dirt cheap (OK…free…) accommodations? So, equipped with my newly acquired “NAC Green Book”, the 1941 auto club guide to the west coast, off I went.
As always, I ended up leaving later than planned. And as usual, I took the old road as opposed to the new. I’ve developed this real fascination with Highway 99, which was the main California north-south route before I-5 was constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Having done the Fresno and Sacramento/Stockton portion of the journey, I was excited about finally hitting Bakersfield.
Highway 99 is great. It’s easy to see the remnants of its former dominance, and the towns scattered along it have not been gentrified and modernized into a generic mess like most of coastal California. My first major sighting on the road was an abandoned Horne’s Restaurant near Kingsburg. I knew it was going to be a good trip.
Several miles down the road, I found the Elmo Highway. Anyone who really knows me knows how exciting this moment was for me. I don’t know where it goes and I didn’t drive on it, but I’m glad to know it’s there. More towns followed, and I felt compelled to take the “99 Business Route” (the old highway) through most of them. Interesting sights all around.
Pixley! Suddenly, there it was in the distance. Seeing Pixley was more than I’d hoped for. Although there were no traces of Hooterville or Bugtussle nearby, I was happy to see that the commercial tradition started by Sam Drucker’s Store was alive and well at the Pixley Mini Mart and the Pixley General Store. After watching a train go by (I don’t think it was the Cannonball), it was time to leave and make the rest of the journey into scenic Bakersfield.
The only information I had about Bakersfield was from maps and the song “Far Away Eyes” by the Stones. I was delighted to see that it looked just the way I’d imagined: flat, dusty, and a little bit trapped in 1962. Block after block of old motels, coffee shops, and drive ins caught my eye. While I’m sure that an “80’s strip” full of chain stores and the like exists somewhere, I was mercifully spared the sight of it and my fantasy remained unchallenged. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Lord. (Thanks Mick…)
The terrain was flat and low-lying. The streets were wide. The buildings by and large were not “modernized” (which in the 80s and 90s usually means stripping away the original modernism in favor of something which is neither modern nor aesthetically pleasing).
I decided this would be a dang nice place to spend the night.
Downtown Bakersfield was great! Traditional “historic district” types would not be impressed, because the whole area seems to have been built between 1940 and 1965. Of course, this was right up my alley. Old department store buildings, a cool Woolworth’s, and an old Kress store brought back to life as the City Planning office. Overlooking it all was the Padre Hotel, in all its seedy beauty, with coffee shop and “casino room” intact. There are also a couple of great old theatres and a really exciting drug store which I managed to see prior to its repainting in tones of “corporate blue”.
OK…maybe it was because it was Sunday night. I don’t know. But the nightlife just wasn’t happening. The queer bars were not jumpin’, there seemed to be no one out on the streets (except the police, who were very much in evidence), and live music was not happening at all.
All the same, I managed to hit a few spots, none of them tremendously populated. First on the list was the Casablanca Club (1030 20th Street). It was a friendly type spot; the bartender, Rick, was out front and bored and greeted me upon my arrival. I will say that walking in was a bit intimidating. There were about eight people sitting in the darkened room, IN TOTAL SILENCE. Apparently, the juke box hadn’t been fed recently. When the music started again, it was country. Had two beers, talked to a couple of people and got recommendations on other spots, and hit the road…
…to the Cellar (K Street between 19th and 20th). A sign out front warned that parking was limited to 36 minutes. I didn’t use all my allotted time. I was in and out in about ten. Scary place. It tries really hard to be “nice”, but the music was horrible and the crowd was desperately seeking something I was unable to define. Probably a good thing. This bar reminded me a lot of the Palms in Greensboro, except that I like the Palms.
The evening’s last stop was The Place (3500 Wilson Road). The never accurate Bob Damron Guide listed this as a “country western” bar, so I was a tad leery. Needn’t have been; it was standard generic faggot disco in a strip mall setting. It wasn’t a particularly bad place…just not my scene. It was, I will admit, the only place in town that seemed to have any sort of energy.
Home. Bed. Alone.