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ON CALIFORNIA

Of Okies, and All the Rest

September 08, 1993|PETER H. KING

LEBEC — It was Labor Day, late afternoon, hot. Traffic over the Ridge Route was backed up almost to Bakersfield. At the top of the grade a roadside cafe beckoned. It was located in a big red barn. Painted statues of horses and oversize chickens stood watch. A blue plastic tarp provided shade for patio dining; there were no takers.

Inside, Merle Haggard was yodeling on the jukebox about how the roots of his raisin' run deep. Behind the cash register a thin, middle-aged woman was perched on a stool, pasting labels on beer bottles. She wore a tank top and tight, white shorts. On the back of the tank top was printed this message: "You'll Never Forget Your First Okie Girl (or Your Last)."

That settled it. This was the Okie Girl restaurant, and that would be the Okie Girl herself.

*

"A dust bowl baby is what I call myself," the former Mary Lynn Jones of Broken Bow, Okla., was saying. She had been asked to tell her story, and she began right at the beginning. She told how back home her father had scratched out a living--"dirt farming, 50 cents a day." They moved west at the tail end of the great dust bowl migration. Her father found work near the Oregon border, and they lived in a tent in "Okie town," learning about our fine culture from the bottom up.

"What I remember mostly," she said, "is being called a 'dumb Okie.' I remember one day I went home from school and asked my mother, 'Mother, are Okies dumb?' And she said, 'No dumber than anyone else.' "

Her mother took the lesson further. Not only were her people not dumb, but they were hard working and honest, a source of pride. This the daughter accepted with a vengeance, and as her accent faded, as she began to "fit in," Mary Lynn Jones took to calling herself "a little Okie girl."

Mary Lynn's story would take many hard turns. There were resettlements in Alaska, Tennessee and Los Angeles, three husbands, three name changes--she now goes by Chess--kids, jobs, a mystery disease and a bar in Canyon Country she named the Left Hook, in honor of the ex with only one arm. "That would be Smith," she told her listener, who was by now hopelessly lost. Well, what does it matter? She wound up here in Lebec--halfway between L.A. and Bakersfield, a place where many visitors arrive on the hook of a tow truck--and opened a barbecue joint and brew pub.

She named it the Okie Girl, and at once found herself in a high-profile fight with Caltrans over a road sign. The state of California, which once passed laws intended to turn back dust bowl refugees, now informed Mary Lynn that 'Okie' was a slur. Such is progress. State officials also weren't tickled with her logo, a silhouette of a young woman in bib shorts and a straw hat. After bales of publicity, testimonials from the Oklahoma governor and finally a lawsuit, the Okie Girl prevailed. She got her sign and $32,000 in damages.

"An Okie," she said, "stays until the last dog is dead."

*

The little Okie girl, as you might have gathered, is no waif when it comes to self-promotion. Mary Lynn wants her life made into a movie; wrote the script herself. Her restaurant is decorated with family snapshots and newspaper clippings. The menu comes wrapped in an "Okie Gazette" that chronicles the experiences of her people, and herself. She has plans to open an Okie museum upstairs.

No, she's got a gimmick, and she's running with it, but all that aside a larger point remains: It happened. Half a century ago her people flooded into California, looking for work, trying to hold together families. And Californians then reacted in a way that should sound uncomfortably familiar now in this time of overheated border rhetoric. They became scared of these newcomers, who spoke with twangs and worked for low wages and lived in boxcars. And that fear became a hot button for politicians to push, and push it they did.

In this context, perhaps the most interesting thing about the Okie Girl is not the historical decor, the collection of Route 66 signs and Tom Joad portraits and the rest. Rather, it is the crew of cooks and dishwashers and busboys who, from time to time, emerge from the hot kitchen, sweating. Their faces are brown and, while they don't say much, it's not difficult to imagine why they have come here, to see, as Mary Lynn sees, how they "are very much like the Okies." Maybe in 50 years they can open a museum too.

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