Dawn of a New Day–Grocery Shopping in Oildale

By Paul Gipe

Sunday there was a death in the family. Green Frog closed.

I went down for one last item and of course it—the item–wasn’t there, long since cleaned off the now bare shelves by the “bargain hunters” who had been crawling all over our neighborhood store.

I said my final goodbyes to the owner, Scott Hare, his sons Tyler and Jordan, and longtime employee Bryan.

I was toting my Green Frog cloth bag and Scott commented that they were the first in the state more than a decade ago to offer cloth bags. Yes, I said, and they were made in the USA too. That was something else you don’t see much of anymore.

To find what I couldn’t get at Green Frog I first went to La Mina. The Mexican Carcineria is hanging on—but not by much–the shelves there are nearly bare too. They had what I needed, but not much else, unless you were looking for manteca (lard).

Nancy and I gritted our teeth and then explored FoodCo, the next closest grocery. Just entering the parking lot was an experience that didn’t auger well. Trash littered the parking lot, shopping carts left willy nilly, the owners too lazy to push them the few feet necessary to get them out of the way.

A palm reader was handing out Virgen de Gualdelupe cards in the parking lot. I am not sure what the Church would think of that.

This was the kind of place where there were pallets on the shelves. We saw what we wanted on a pallet high up toward the ceiling. So we confidently strode to the aisle expecting to find what we wanted. Mistake. No, there were gallons of name-brand soft drinks that shoppers were dumping into their enormous, industrial size carts as fast as they could. But apple juice? Lost in the plethora of high-fructose corn syrup drinks. After wandering in a daze I finally asked for help and the friendly staff pointed me to the aisle where we’d just been. And yes, it was there, hidden behind the soft drinks, one lone box of apple juice. Must not be a big demand for apple juice at FoodCo.

After FoodCo we went home in a deep funk.

Monday was the dawn of a new day and we set out confidently to explore for a new grocery. We did it together, this was a family thing, for good or bad. We were going to face this together.

After FoodCo we felt we had nothing to lose, so we pointed the car toward Oildale.

Now if you don’t live in Bakersfield the name “Oildale” may not hold all the meaning that’s associated with it here. It’s where the Okies settled during the Dust Bowl, those that didn’t make it to the camps. It’s not a town. It’s not a suburb. It’s simply a (census-designated) place, Oildale with 30,000 inhabitants. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and the Bakersfield Sound all came out of Oildale. Gerald Haslam, another native son who made good–the William Saroyan of Oildale—writes lovingly about his rich childhood in Oildale.

Oildale is “across the river”. That too has meaning. At one time people of color didn’t go “across the river”.

Oildale, like most American communities has seen better days. Many of the shops in its one-time commercial center are boarded up. But it still has its library, and it still has grocery stores.

Sure, Oildale has a Von’s and it has everything we would ever want. Von’s is four miles and 10 minutes from our house . . . across the river. It’s clean, friendly, and we’ll be more comfortable there than at FoodCo. This was to be expected. We are their target market.

What we really set out for wasn’t Von’s, it was something else. We both felt Oildale was like a foreign country to us so we approached it that way and set out on a tour of exploration.

We first followed up a tip that there was a French pastry shop in Oildale. We found this hard to believe and indeed it wasn’t true. It was in fact a donut shop run by a Mexican-American (I assume the last part of that) who brought in frozen croissants from LA. They were good but were stuffed with meat for the sandwich crowd. There just were not enough buyers for the “pain-au-chocolat” that we had come for.

Next up was 11-C. Why it was called that remains a mystery. It’s been on our way to the airport for years. It wasn’t very well lit, but it had some produce we were looking for and it had many of the other things we would need on a regular basis. It was an OK store, smaller than Green Frog, but it would work. They didn’t have milk in returnable bottles, but, hey, they had milk.

There were two cashiers when we walked up. Ours was friendly and when I asked “How are you?” she replied “Blessed.” That stopped me in my tracks and told me, if I needed to be reminded, we were not in Green Frog anymore.

Next was Cope’s Foodtown. There used to be several Cope’s groceries across Bakersfield. This may be the last one extant, an endangered species.

There was a middle-age male employee freshening up the produce display when we walked in. The produce looked good and he smiled. The store was more brightly lit and they had people at the meat counter waiting for customers. When they asked if they could help me, “No” I said, but I took a good long look at what they had.

There were some items on the shelf we wouldn’t expect to find in a small grocery in Oildale, like Starbucks’ coffee and all-in-all it was well stocked with no bare shelves.

There was an oilfield worker cashing his check while we were there. It is Oildale after all. And above the beer cases was a big Budweiser banner with, what else, but a field of oil derricks. As I said, it was like being on tour in a foreign land.

They even had some cloth bags (Chinese) for sale and they handled our cloth bag without complaint, comment, or raised eyebrow. “This place will work,” I thought.

As we headed back across the river we faced a new view of Bakersfield in the warm afternoon sun. There were all the trees along the river bed that our friends had planted with their own hands. We felt good about that. We felt good about discovering croissants in Oildale of all places. And we felt good that we’d ventured out and found new places to shop, new shopkeepers to meet, and new places to explore in our own backyard.