One afternoon when I was about fourteen years old, I was riding my bike along Huntington Drive where the Pacific Electric tracks ran between Atlantic and Granada, when I saw a rather large group of people who looked out of place and as though they were lost.
There were several old cars that had baggage and furniture tied to their running boards, fenders and roofs. Camping gear and cooking stuff was spread under the trees. They had set up camp in an orange grove there. The men were plenty tough looking there were many scraggily kids and women nearby.
It was kind of scary for me to happen upon these people, but curiosity got me more than fear so I stopped to watch them. Finally, I suppose I said, “Hello.”
That was enough to start a conversation. It was obvious that they wanted badly to talk to someone and a kid was just right. I didn’t have any of the preconceived prejudices that came with people who drove around with furniture on their cars! They knew this and didn’t want to talk to anyone who would ask a lot of questions or worse, call the police.
The first question they asked me was, “Where do you live?” This was probably a dangerous question for me to answer, but somehow, these people seemed more needy than threatening. “I live up there,” I said, pointing across the tracks. I didn’t know if they wanted to go to my house, which certainly would have been a problem, or if they wanted to know if I was local. I was wrong in both cases.
After a little while longer the shaggy looking man got to his next question, “What town is this, anyway?” “It’s San Marino,” I said. “What’s it near?” “Los Angeles,” I said. I still didn’t know what they wanted, but I could tell from their expressions that they were satisfied with my answer: Los Angeles.
Looking back, I have figured it all out. They were Okies who had traveled west from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. They had come out on Route 66 from Oklahoma, through Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, Barstow, and San Bernardino. Finally, they’d come to Foothill Boluevard and then to Huntington Drive. They’d stopped me, a kid on a bicycle, because I was curious and ready to talk. They didn’t want to know a thing about me. Without a map or a friendly person to help them, they had no way of finding answers. What they really wanted to know was where they were.
Once they’d reached Foothill, they must have come down through Arcadia and past the Santa Anita Race Track. There, they had followed Huntington Drive and the Pacific Electric through San Marino and stopped at the orange grove at Oak Knoll Ave and Granada Avenue, the very place I happened to be riding on my bicycle that day. They could see that the streets were increasingly residential, so they felt comfortable stopping here for the night and making camp.
We talked awhile longer. Finally, it was late afternoon and I had to get home. Before I took off, they asked me to come back the next day.
(Part 2 of “The Okies in San Marino" next week!)