High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.
Trinity Street in Mojave, California is short. It runs three blocks from Highway 14 (Sierra Highway) to the Mojave High School football field. The football field has grass, unlike most of the yards on Trinity Street. Dirt yards are good for saving water, bad for a sense of suburban decorum and manicured gentility.
This street is a cross-section of the lower economic strata of the United States. It begins with unemployed, transient populations without anchors passing through the community. In a short distance, the housing turns into lower middle-class homes, with families employed in the economy yet struggling to make ends meet. The street also has a self-appointed “king” who we meet later. He wanders through the area, confused, disoriented, and searching for his family, which is located in another town. Whether drugs, alcoholism, extended incarceration, mental illness, or all four are causes, King Joey represents an extreme example of what plagues the area, the state, and the country. If poverty is to be addressed in any meaningful way, Trinity Street is a template worth studying to better understand our social and economic challenges.
The road has bland architecture trending towards cream-colored stucco and unadorned fences. It is nearly eight o’clock in the morning, and no one in the three blocks has apparently left for work. The residents generally appear unemployed. There is no headlong rush out the doors to be on time for work. Fifteen minutes later two mothers, one in pajama pants, both in slippers, are herding children to the family cars to drive them to the elementary school three blocks away. The parents are unwilling to let the children walk to school. A few people stride by from other streets, neither rushing nor dawdling. They appear to be on errands or on their way to work, but they have allowed enough time.
Otherwise, Trinity Street is empty, although most houses show signs of habitation. There feels like something is wrong on Trinity Street. Is it the unemployment rate over ten percent when the rest of the country is approaching five percent? Looking down the street, large green energy projects, both windmills marching into the wind and large tessellations of solar panels announce that once there were jobs here. They required trained technicians and construction workers, not just uneducated day laborers. Now, minimal teams are left to maintain, monitor and inspect these cutting-edge industrial projects.
Our original goal had been to capture the sign in front of the Liquor Jr. Store that advertised “Ice Ammo” the evening before at the “golden hour.” Photographers love the light of the hour just at dawn and then again at dusk. The CalTrans sign hovers next to the highway, bracing as the periodic pulses of traffic signal the after-work stampede to somewhere else. The sign says “No Parking Any Time” but somebody, presumably the storeowner, has posted larger, distracting Rockstar billboards there. Our debate is always how much to alter the composition to perfect the image.
Customers are constantly coming and going. Each time there is a shrill, annoying din as if some warning was needed to announce each person’s presence. They are happy, at times almost joyful, as if they are picking up party refreshments. They are generally people of color. There is a strong, if superficial, sense of sociability. Is that an indication of a more durable community or just an ingrained protocol of strangers crossing paths and asking “How’s it going?” For some imperceptible reason, they don’t manifest as embedded in the local economy. Nothing and no one is really connecting here on the street corner. Other customers are morose, sullen with eyes downcast. America has an alcoholic culture where booze is necessary for relaxing and having a good time. Alternatively, people use liquor for self-medication or to kill the pain of depression, a sense of uselessness, and isolation.
A woman comes by as the photographer continues to work and asks, “Are you taking it for the Mojave page?” She wants to be in the picture.
“My lonely desert” the photographer whispers as he waits for the vehicle traffic to subside before shooting.
A rumbling train starts to move past Mojave in tedious, onerous passage. It is determined by sheer force of weight and locomotive power to deliver its freight to market. A potpourri of exhaust fumes, effluvia and industrial flatulence mix and ooze up Trinity Street to where the shell of a burned-out house remains. A whiff of BBQ drifts down from somewhere on the next block. But a feeling of waiting for some unnamed, absent person permeates the stillness. In fact, he never comes.
The torched house has the anthropomorphic dark grin of a toothless meth addict; the empty windows are lifeless eyes, the burned door a deadpan nose, and the mouth formed from stairs blackened with debris and decaying fire ash. A black man comes out of a similar house and, when asked, says the structure burned about a month ago. The curious passerby might wonder who once lived here.
The sooty roof beams enclose the skeleton with a rib cage. Inside the charcoal smell is persistent. Piles of blackened ash and cinder litter the floors and pile up as the setting sun shines bravely through the window facing west. A sullen sadness of the ruin of one of the many banal buildings that line the street marks the vapid life of the low-income family in our rich country. As darkness falls, a fuller understanding of this neighborhood requires a return in the morning.
The golden hour in the morning necessitates an early rise. Somehow this day it is not nearly as persuasive with the beauty illuminated by lemon light that one might expect. In the daylight, there are intimations of humble lives poorly kept. One yard is a diminutive junkyard full of objects saved in the name of recycling that unlikely will get used again. There is the junk car cliché, hard to imagine it will ever move again. It is stored for the future nonetheless. Plastic toys have weathered in the scorching desert sun of summers past: a pink scooter, a multi-colored play set, a red trike with a yellow basket behind. The gate chain is secured with three padlocks.
A car pulls up and parks on a worn-out lawn. In an area swept perennially by desert winds, the trees have been bent permanently towards the east. While most of the houses have recent roofs, they still have the look of rentals and impermanence. With each block — the closer to the Mojave High School, home of the Mustangs — the homes and yards are better maintained. In three short blocks, we pass from one economic class up the ladder to the next.
Back by the Economy Hotel, providing a place to crash for twenty-five dollars a night, a man comes out of the liquor store carrying the familiar paper bag, a reward for making it through another day. Then he pauses at the green dumpster of the motel, sets down the square bag and hitches himself up to the edge, sliding gently in for a “dumpster dive.” In America, with one of the richest standards of living, people still go hungry. Living off the cast-off food, articles, and rejected or unneeded items of the rest of population is a skill honed by the poor. The money saved is something they become adept at finding, giving the term “the art of the deal” a very different, ironic meaning to living a subsistence life among the relatively wealthy.
Kris Kristofferson sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” His pessimistic view is only half the story. We are enslaved, as much by the things we don’t have but crave to own, as by the objects we possess. The poor keep on living side by side with us, but they are no freer than those deeply embedded in an American culture subjugated by materialism.
Now a large beer truck pulls up and parks. A rangy man with a wife-beater t-shirt and complex shoulder tattoos sidles up and nonchalantly asks about us. His skin is brown, either from the desert sun or his Aztec ancestors. We do not suspect that we are in the presence of the street’s royalty. Soon he has agreed to pose for photographs but asks for a dollar so he can buy a beer to recover from last night’s drunk. He is “King Joey B” he says, and he has come here from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Atwater Village to be nearer to his two daughters and wife in California City. He disparages his parenting as an “f’d-up dad.” He loves his daughters though. “I’m a good dude, not crazy,” he assures. He has an aura of someone lost that no one much notices.
King Joey is 41 and says his end is near. He is dying, that’s what it comes down to. “I’ve lost everything and everybody from alcoholism. My uncle is an alcoholic too. I’m a stone cold drunk. Nobody took me down but myself. From 1996 to 2006, I was in prison. I was in Tehachapi for 8-years solitary and was on meds. I was the phantom. I stay out of the way, and nobody sees me.” He speaks with street-honed words yet clear enough articulation.
Gradually, his self-diagnosis of desert dementia begins to manifest. He pauses and wonders to himself if these men (us) are just hallucinations. He shakes his head. “My father was Thomas Hewitt, the father in the real-life Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You know the movie. I never got my dad. I have a tattoo of him.” He pulls back his wife-beater, and a gruesome face reminiscent of Frankenstein becomes visible. That is his father he says. “I was abused as a child, and my mother was a heroin addict. I’m just 41 and a drunk. Not that much time left. My trailer has black mold. It is a 25-footer. The mold caused a two-headed child. I’m not delusional. At night, I dream and zombies and monsters walk Trinity Street. They are real.”
A man saunters up. King Joey turns over the dollar he is holding to the guy to buy them both beers. Neither the man nor the beer ever shows up again. King Joey poses to look tough, but his alcohol-racked body is emaciated, and he reiterates he’ll soon die. No one in the world, not even on Trinity Street, will notice his passing nor acknowledge he was ever there.
The high school, the scattered, and the shopping areas at both ends of town present that people can find, construct and live happy American lives. Many complex social, economic, and psychological issues play into the success of living here, just as they do in the desperation and misery we also see. Mojave is a major transportation hub, and many people are merely passing through. With those who settle, individual hard work, persistence, learning, luck, and spirit leads many to find their way. Sadly, still others falter and ultimately are lost.
Trinity Street makes me want to better understand the people of poverty living in the context of a country of wealth. I am white, raised upper middle class. I have never been poor, never even known others caught in poverty until I joined the Peace Corps in Iran.
King Joey appears mentally unstable and delusional. His self-diagnosis could be right on target. He has no hope now. Others here may have made poor personal and economic decisions that led them down dead-end streets. The new economy may not offer enough jobs, or jobs for which these workers are qualified. They live a day-to-day life and suffer from the inability to make plans and implement them. Life then is wherever the day takes them.
Must I be satisfied with the idea that the poor are always with us? If they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, will they have no profitable future? My moral compass dictates I should address the poverty around me. Yet, I don’t know what to do that would have a marked positive effect. Today after Trinity Street I ache for a better promise, a better way, a better community.
As the sun sets, it envelops this world in golden light. The hustling crowd fresh from work abates. A kind of provisional peace from the long day’s journey into a partial acquiescence of one’s fate settles on Trinity Street. All too soon the cycle will begin again with the promises of a new day. Then passing time and human ennui will again erode the hope for something better.
Top Image: Stop-Liquor Jr Market – Mojave, CA – 2016 | Osceola Refetoff