At just past 8:30 a.m., the neon sign flickered to life. Guthrie’s Alley Cat had put out the welcome mat for the morning beer-and-shots crowd.
The bar sits on Wall Street in Bakersfield, a narrow piece of concrete near downtown. My wife, Donna, and I are not nursing a nascent alcohol problem, nor are we particularly fascinated with people who prefer beer to bacon, or cocktails to Corn Flakes.
We are attempting to document California’s Wall Streets, places where people get their mail, go to work, meet their friends and, generally, live their lives. Not the “Wall Street,” where faceless investment bankers, accountants and — let’s face it — thieves make billions, not by producing anything but from the manipulation of money itself.
There are at least 19 cities and towns in the Golden State that possess a Wall Street. Some, like San Jose, are large. Others, like Independence, nestled in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, are tiny. In some of these places, the streets are more than 10 miles long — as is Wall Street in Los Angeles. In others, like Placerville, Wall Street is little more than a dead-end alley.
Two weeks ago, Donna and I drove 1,967 miles visiting, in order: Bakersfield, Shafter, Independence, Placerville, Sacramento, Auburn, Chico, Redding, Ft. Bragg, Livermore, San Jose and Cambria. Left on our agenda is Ventura, Ontario, Yucca Valley, Tracy, Stockton, La Jolla and, of course, Los Angeles.
Without a doubt, the best has been Bakersfield. I know. I would have lost that bet too.
Barrel-chested owner Kenny Reed bought the bar in 1976, right out of grad school. One of his fingers is missing a tip, the function of a mishap with his safe in 1991. He didn’t go to the hospital right away, “because I didn’t want to get blood on my new Lexus.”
Above that safe is an enormous, framed black-and-white photo of Reed, dressed in a suit and tie and looking, well, apoplectic. The photo was a gift from a photographer at the Bakersfield Californian, who snapped the image as a joke in 1984, when Reed was the president of the local Downtown Business Assn.
“My daughter said, ‘Make your mean face Daddy!’ and the photographer took it,” he said with a laugh. “Now I have a picture that says, ‘No one [expletive] with my money.’”
Behind the bar, John Madrid has taken four shots of whiskey in the hour since we walked in. Pouring first for the customers, of course. Irony alert: Madrid was fired a few months ago for being drunk at work.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and I kept coming back here to drink, and eventually they hired me back,” he said with a grin.
OK, full disclosure: This isn’t just an art project. It’s a collaborative effort that grew out of the worst news Donna ever received — her friend Jill Karnicki discovered at 42 that she had breast cancer.
It hit us hard, Donna because of her friendship, and me because I lost my mother to the disease two months shy of her 50th birthday.
Jill, who now lives in Houston, organized a team that will be walking in the Avon Breast Cancer Walk in that Texas city next spring. Donna and I are part of that team, the Hot Tatamales. No, I didn’t choose the name. Yes, I am the only male on that team. Pray for me.
We are fundraising for the cause and will host a gallery of images from this exceedingly random trip. We will enlist local artists as well as photographs from Jill herself.
What do images of California’s Wall Streets have to do with breast cancer? Nothing, at least on its face. But we needed a journey, a parallel, however microscopic, to the long road of chemo and the hope something beautiful might come from it.
DAN EVANS is the editor of Times Community News, North.