How the Other Half Lives on the Streets of Bakersfield 2: CJ and the Motels
A Little Hideaway
What Makes a Home?
You may have heard that Home is where the heart is and for some of the people who have a home, that's enough.
For most of us, a staying in a hotel means a vacation. A visit to a faraway place; a planned getaway. All the amenities and comforts one would expect: a place to rest, a place to clean up. Sometimes the perks of coffee maker or a refrigerator. Television for entertainment. Temperature controls.
The hotel is a place to stay when visiting a city you are touring, a place to rest while on a long drive.
All the comforts of home, away from home.
For some though, a hotel may mean a way of life. A safe refuge from the streets.
And for most of these folks in the later category, nothing is guaranteed.
Don't Tell about the MotelClick thumbnail to view full-size
Places Seen but Unnoticed
You have probably passed by these places while driving along the roadway, or walking downtown to a local cafe or lounge. Every city has them.
In Bakersfield, they can be found along the drag which once served as the gateway to the city. Union Avenue splits the city in half, dividing East from West. The urban Great Divide.
Because it once served as the Golden State Highway, there are numerous motels along its border.
It serves as more than a measure of demarcation. The busy and decaying street is also a small city of its own, home to a unique subculture.
A view of one of the hotel parking lotsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Are you from Bakersfield?
A Room of One's Own
There are the flophouses as well, downtown, within walking distance of the bus or train depot. Simple rooms with beds, and shared toilets and baths.
It's possible that at one time these establishments were aesthetically pleasing and perhaps even regal. Places where travelers would be happy to rest their heads after a weary journey.
In those days highways were two lanes wide, cars drove 55, and a trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles could take two or three days. And it was the journey that mattered most, not the desire to arrive.
Looking at the internal architecture of some of these places - tucked away closets that were possibly kitchenettes, one can imagine this room being a home away from home.
And the same could be said of the current residents. Even though the rooms are dilapidated, the comforters torn, the curtains ragged, it's still a room of one's own.
A bed; a stall; a windowClick thumbnail to view full-size
CJ and the Grand Designs
"They are set up to draw in criminal activity," C.J. tells me. We are sitting at the table of a Frosty King restaurant. The black Guns and Roses T-shirt she is wearing is cut low to reveal her small, but alluring cleavage. The vintage 1990s jean jacket she dons, is stained with coffee and cigarettes.
C.J. has been living in Bakersfield hotels for the past 4 1/2 years since relocating from nearby, Lake Isabella.
"There were more services here," she says, "I thought I could get the help I needed". After losing her father and when her former fiance sold the house, her job with IHSS (In Home Support Services) became too much for her to handle. Soon she found herself homeless and living on the streets.
After being sexually assaulted while trying to sleep in an alleyway, she turned to drugs for solace. "I wish I had some stability and a man..."
Since then, her life has been a story of addiction and survival.
What you see is what you getClick thumbnail to view full-size
Have you stayed in one of these hotels?
All for a Purpose
The places run about $50 - $55 a night, even though the sign on the marquee says $45. Plus there is a five or ten dollar key deposit. Sometimes it depends on the feel the proprietor gets from you. The rates are raised during the weekends as well because those are travel days when the hotel can expect visitors.
"They have a room set aside to attract new tenants," CJ says. "These are nicer rooms for out of towner's or people they want to think the hotel is nice so they'll stay longer."
Looking around the unit CJ has checked out today, I find it hard to imagine there is such a room in this establishment that would even be passable. I am actually surprised that someone from Code Enforcement has not shut the place down.
"These places are set up to draw in criminal activity," CJ explains. "Porn channels encourage prostitution and rooms rent by the hour."
Heroin and meth are the drugs of choice for the patrons that live here.
The next step up would probably be a Motel 6 which is another ten or twenty dollars. When you're on the street though and don't know where your next dollar is coming from, that could be meals for a couple of days, maybe a week if you are frugal.
In addition, some of the people who reside in these hotels don't have proper identification or live lifestyles that are not tolerated by some of the national chain establishments. This is the only place they can find that will accept them.
Non-substance; little styleClick thumbnail to view full-size
At $50 dollars plus key deposit, these rooms are cheaper than a $60 Motel 6
Very Basic AccomodationsClick thumbnail to view full-size
"A lot of addicts, sometimes a homeless person who got lucky. Someone bought them a room or they saved up enough to afford it," CJ explains when I ask about the people in her neighborhood. "All walks of life. Sometimes Mexicans that work in the fields. They'll get two or three per room."
CJ inhales a cigarette, and fumbles with the stained oil burner on the bureau next to her bed. "Most don't speak English or understand the culture."
"This place is probably a luxury to them," I add, half-asking and half making a statement. To the day laborer who comes from a third world country, these hotels may be a blessing.
"Every day is another day in paradise," she says. "I once found some needles in a unit. The maid forgot to clean up. Another time there was a used condom on the toilet seat. Nasty."
I can imagine the other things these rooms are used for besides sleeping. It is hard to imagine anyone can even rest. The cracked and badly painted walls team with layers of cigarette smoke and perspire with the loathsome despair of previous tenants.
A Room of One's OwnClick thumbnail to view full-size
"I had a maintenance guy just walk into my room and start smoking up. He wanted to see if I was a bag whore," CJ responds when I ask her about some of her experiences in these places. "This was downtown, off of 19th."
She is referring to one of the flophouses that are probably residential homes for people on very fixed incomes. Many of them have substance abuse issues or are disabled with mental conditions that render them unsuitable for an established housing program. Unlike the motels on Union and other older parts of town, the hotels downtown have shared bathrooms. The rooms are much smaller as well.
CJ talks about the bag whores who live there. "They'll do anything for a rock. For their next hit. It's kind of sad," she muses.
"What is a night like in one of these places?" I ask her.
"Scary. A lot of stuff going on. You don't know what is happening outside and you don't want to look. It sounds like people get raped or beat up. Crazy."
Greetings and Salvations
As I walk around the parking lot, I am approached by a character with facial tattoos. It is late in the evening or early in the morning - I'm not sure which. Time has a way of standing still in this environment. It is like a nostalgic visit in a time machine taken back to a place not found on any map.
"Hey, maaan! You look sharp!" he almost yells.
I pause for a second, and look in his direction. He is alone, but a little excited and smiling, and I'm not quite sure why.
"Thanks," I say.
"That's a cool looking vest. Man, you are dressed to the nines!" He jumps up and down when he says this.
I'm a little confused for a minute because I'm in pretty casual attire. In fact, dressed down compared to what I usually wear. At first I feel a little sorry for him that he interprets my wardrobe as being "dressed-up".
Part of me is slightly afraid of offending him. I understand that he comes from a different background and that his current experience of living in a place like this - or on the streets - isn't pleasant.
Part of me is aware that he may be sizing me up and very interested in my clothing and anything else I might have.
I am not afraid of him physically, although I do not wish to have a conversation.
"Are you staying here, man?" he asks me, as I head back into the room to finish my interview.
"Yeah," I say and turn away. "I am," and shut the door.
A Not So Clean, Dimly Lit PlaceClick thumbnail to view full-size
Star Light, Star Bright
The television in CJ's room is on and on it are a couple who are working at each other's clothes.
She - the woman on the television - has obviously had some surgical implants and the fake eyelashes make her look like she has pasted oriental fans on her face.
He - her partner - has a protruding stomach that looks like he might be in the beginning stages of a pregnancy. His perfectly trimmed, five day old beard, contrasts with the juvenile tattoos of Mickey Mouse above his left nipple.
CJ smokes a cigarette and turns around looking at herself in the mirror. She smooths out the dress she picked up at a thrift store earlier. "I hope no one steals my clothes again," she says. "Someone is always taking my stuff. My phone, my clothes my money. It's hard out here on the street. I'm a good person."
I look around the room again and wonder how anyone could live like this. I try to imagine what the place looked like in its heyday. I wondered what it was like for those who were traveling along the main highway in the Golden State, in California. What did they think of this place?
"It probably wasn't much," CJ offers. "Not any different. Maybe a small kitchen."
As I step out into the night, I think I hear some noises from another room - or from the area behind the hotel. I pause for a minute and remember CJ's advice: "You just ignore it."
"Thank you, CJ, for your story," I say.
"Another day in paradise," she says.
The Bakersfield Homeless Center
- Bakersfield Homeless Center
If you need help, please reach out: The Bakersfield Homeless Center creates a strong safety net for homeless and at-risk families by providing a broad continuum of services which begins with basic shelter.
Should these hotels be closed down?
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.
© 2019 Finn