I grew up in Fresno. Even though it’s the 6th largest city in California, it’s always had a small town feel, which might be why it’s the butt of so many jokes by Californians. Like its cousin Bakersfield to the south, Fresno’s been the punchline to every predictable zinger about inglorious cow towns, dustbowls, trailer trash, rednecks, inbreeding….
It doesn’t help that the city is culturally torn between San Francisco to the north and L.A. to the south, with generous helpings of Mexico, Tucson, and 1970s ticky-tacky thrown in. Or that the approach on highway 99 is met with the aroma of cow manure. Or that summer temperatures regularly climb to 110 degrees. Or that you’ll see trucks, cars, motorcycles, and horses with gun racks. Or that K-Fed lived there—and Jeffrey Dahmer’s mom. Or that local radio stations play music that’s 15 years behind the times. Or that smog hangs low in the sky—the county’s air quality is ranked as the third worst in the nation by the American Lung Association, with 16% of Fresno children suffering chronic asthma; I still remember coughing up brown specks of blood as a kid.
But come on. Really. Fresno’s more than the sum of its punchlines. First, it’s not a small town—it has 10 high schools, 450,000 residents, and nearly a million people in the greater metropolitan area that serves as the gateway to 1200 majestic square miles of Yosemite national park. Fresno’s ag economy was worth $4.8 billion in 2006, making it the largest in the nation. The town’s produced a long list of stunning writers (William Saroyan, Gary Soto, Philip Levine, Deborah Blum), film stars (director Sam Peckinpah, singer-actress Cher), scholars, and yes, even athletes—can you guess which cow town clinched the 2008 NCAA national baseball title? That’s right. But best of all, Fresno’s the birthplace of Popping, which every dorky-cool 70s/80s kid has tried; I still remember pop-offs in my high school parking lot where a pair of poppers would clear a space between a Pinto and a low-rider Ford and get busy on the 200-degree asphalt; hell, you had to dance or your shoes would melt.
So in my hometown’s defense, here are my favorite Fresno memories of the 70s and 80s, abbreviated for your pleasure: jumping dirt hills in the surrounding fields on my banana seat bike while listening to “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall and Oates; dumpster-diving behind St. Agnes hospital at 4 a.m. where my brother and I would find used medical syringes, fill them with water, and spray each other while giggling; playing Marco Polo in blistering heat with my sister and the occasional frog in our pool; pretending to be a mannequin in the display window at Macy’s department store; running from the cops through the grape vineyards north of Fresno State; purloining beers at rich kid Alex’s house, and accidentally setting off his alarm system that caused steel riot shades to come sliding down over all the windows; Me ‘n Eds pizza at the corner of First and Bullard—best in the whole damn world, and I’ve tried them all from L.A. to Florence; KKDJ playing Depeche Mode, David Bowie, Sex Pistols, AC/DC, and all the rest; years of Karate at Way of Japan, where Sensei Robert Halliburton let me slug him in his rock-hard gut as hard as I wanted till my 12-year-old knuckles bled; eating so many cinnamon rolls at the Fresno Fair that I puked in the Arts and Crafts building; using a computer war dialer to get toll-free phone calls, then lying low when my older hacker friends got busted by the FBI; seeing Fleetwood Mac for the first time with my sister on a hot summer night; road-tripping to Berkeley’s hookeresque Flamingo Motel with my debate team pals where we caught roaches in our rooms, danced to New Order, and watched the underwearless ladies stroll by outside; breaking into a car, then getting chased down and wrestled to the ground by its owner, which turned out to be a female probation officer; dodging the ever-present school bullies; skipping through a dirt field with my brother and coming upon a sign that read WARNING: SOIL MAY CONTAIN RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINANTS; staying up late to watch kung fu films, then reenacting the moves in my backyard at 2 a.m. in pitch black 90-degree weather with my dad till one of us got socked in the dark; breaking windows and getting chased by dogs along my newspaper route; laughing so hard at the dinner table that milk came out my nose; getting so pissed at my sister’s eavesdropping that I threw her phone through her bedroom’s glass window; crawling under the house to collect little skeletons of insects and rats; dodging my granny Elda’s stink eye; and best of all, peeing into a plastic Spiderman cup in front of my brother as a joke…then watching his horror when my unknowing mom filled it with milk and set it down in front of him at dinner. He’s avoided Spiderman cups ever since.