Within the culture of methamphetamine and heroin addiction that festers on the poverty-wracked south side of Oildale are some heart-wrenching stories. I stumbled upon a few of them there last year peering into dank garages and illegal gambling parlors, trying to interview twitching junkies, menacing bouncers and solemn street preachers.
Today I want to update you on one of those stories.
Last December I wrote this vignette as part of a much longer piece about the tragic desperation and hopeful activism that defines a section of Bakersfield's unincorporated neighbor immediately north of the Kern River:
Danielle, 27, is sitting at a picnic table outside Young's Drive-in, a 1950s-era mom-and-pop burger joint on Oildale Drive. Danielle — not her real name — is high on meth and talking to her boyfriend, Bobby, in a speed-slur that defies comprehension. She is thin as a reed, except for the football-sized paunch that juts from her abdomen. She is five months pregnant.
Her mother, Ali, at times frantic with grief, at times resigned to her daughter's circumstances, has just pulled away in her little Hyundai, having met Danielle and Bobby here just long enough to buy them burgers, french fries, fried zucchini and milkshakes.
This is Ali's third trip of the week to south Oildale, having paid two nights ago for a medium-sized pepperoni at Santa Barbara Pizza & Chicken for Danielle to pick up later. The tattooed manager there knows Danielle's mother well by now and his gentle demeanor speaks to his genuine empathy.
Ali has tried pleading, ignoring, screaming and recruiting others to help get through to Danielle. She has tried guilt, prayer and tough love. She has entertained but rejected the idea of a forced abduction or some kind of trickery. Now that Danielle is pregnant, Ali has taken another tack: the welfare of the baby. Doesn't Danielle want a healthy child?
Young's Drive-in is exactly one block from an Omni Family Health Center — and a second Omni is close by, as are two medical offices run by Clinica Sierra Vista. Ali has assured Danielle that an appointment, even a walk-in visit, will be free or almost free of charge, and the doctors won't judge her. So far it hasn't worked; Danielle has previously promised she'd go, but in the end her fear that they'll take away her drugs wins out.
At least Danielle is communicative. If this were a heroin jag instead of a meth binge, Ali wouldn't have heard from her daughter at all. When days, sometimes weeks pass without requests for fast food or groceries, Ali knows.
So the dance continues. Maybe tomorrow night Ali will return and take Danielle grocery shopping at the 99 Cents Only store just west of Decatur Street. And then, in the parking lot afterward, she will plead or scream or try to reason with Danielle — or just give it a rest this time and go home and cry.
Danielle — real name Ashley Danielle Griffith, now 28 — was so wisp-thin from drug use she hadn't realized she was pregnant until, she later realized, she was almost halfway into her third trimester. She gave birth just two days after my column, "Where We Live: The fight to save Oildale," was published, believing right up until her water broke that she was only about five months' pregnant.
Her baby, whom she named Mason, saved her life.
On the day he was born, Ashley wrote last week in a Facebook post, "life as an adult started for me."
"Mason was born Christmas morning at full term. He weighed 6 pounds, 14 ounces, and that is the biggest blessing considering I had zero prenatal (care)," Ashley wrote. "I was at (the) all-time lowest point of my life when I gave life to this little boy. No health insurance, not even an i.d., no place to live. The only thing I had was an addiction. A bad one. I had given up on myself, stopped taking care of myself."
Ashley left the hospital without her baby. Kern County Child Protective Services, wisely and appropriately, took Mason from her side and placed him in foster care.
"I have no excuses," Ashley wrote. "I was selfish. I'm an idiot."
She saw only one path to redemption.
"I was broken, lost. So hurt, ashamed and just completely disgusted that I had let this happen ... I did not know what to do. The only thing I knew I had to do was get my baby back."
Ashley was eventually able to see her son twice a week, two hours each visit. The opportunity to hold her perpetually laughing, blue-eyed boy was all the motivation she needed to stay on course.
She enrolled in a 16-week parenting class, which she has now finished, and a six-month substance abuse program that she'll soon graduate from. She continues to be drug tested three to five time a week.
She has full but conditional custody of Mason: She is subject to random, unannounced CPS home inspections.
"I've never worked for anything so hard in my life," she wrote. "... I could just kick my own ass for not stepping up when I did find out I was pregnant. It still gets me down when I think about it. But one thing I can say is I am proud of the person I've become for my son. ... I'm not where I want to be, but I'm not where I used to be."
Drugs made her a selfish idiot. Motherhood snapped her out of it. Providence blessed her, despite everything, with a happy, healthy child. They have a chance now, both of them.
Ashley is doing what she needs to be doing, but she also must become the person she was meant to be, beyond the walls of her baby's nursery. She needs an education, a career plan and a healthy amount of self-love.
Against what must have once seemed like insurmountable odds, she has started down that road.
Ashley's mother's prayers, once so seemingly futile, are being answered after all.