Step right up
Professor calls upon newbies to discover Chico’s hidden charms
When I was a child, long before Chico sprawled out of its former borders, long before riots, infanticide and a water-intoxication death stained Chico’s public image in the national news, long before Highway 99 had two lanes in each direction, I would travel from my grandparents’ house in Durham to my other grandparents’ house in Chico up the magical byway called The Midway. It held all of the requisite amusement-park associations. On the way into town, we passed the gem that was the Starlight Drive-in Theater, and downtown was a carnival midway of its own. In addition to the revolving cast of bars, restaurants and stores that still make up downtown, it was full of the people who lent Chico the character that set it apart from other valley towns.
Chico was also like those other valley towns, though, in its agricultural roots and the measured pace of its semi-rural lifestyle. The train ran right through the middle of town up to Chico Nut on The Esplanade and people would take the time to stop on the street to watch it pass—enough of a novelty to notice without being a distraction. Once or twice, I caught a glimpse of hobos jumping off the train as it slowed and mixed with traffic out on Park Avenue and, to my mind, they represented the keepers of the hidden Chico, guides to a magical underworld. They might have been Little Jack Horton, the circus little person, midway barker, and racetrack “hotwalker” who once stole a train with “the poet laureate of Skid Row,” Charles Bukowski, or Chico’s own “circus freak” Capt. Don Leslie. Whoever they were, they seemed to represent the idea that Chico was a magical place. Yet, even then I understood that this magic was hidden from the uninitiated, that it had to be approached with open eyes and that most people didn’t see it all.
Then, as now, Chico seemed to shout out like the carnival barker, “Everyone’s a winner, step right up and win a prize.” I’ve moved through many layers of Chico over many years. I am now a professor of American literature at Chico State, and I still feel like I’ve won a prize by ending up here. I also still feel that the “real” Chico continues to reveal itself in subtle and surprising ways. Many of its charms continue to be hidden; they are still downtown. Despite what most Chico locals imagine, they are much more than knowing the location of the old Oaks Hotel, or what door used to lead to the Chalet Room, that Robert I’s was a bar to avoid, or that Randy, the bartender at the Towne Lounge, didn’t tolerate swearing. Chico still holds the same magical charms it did when I made my earliest trips up The Midway so many years ago. You just have to see it and you have to see it in the people who make it: Go to Bloomsday at the Blue Room Theatre, or a concert at the Senator, or the Thursday Night Farmers Market, or Duffy’s when The Pub Scouts are playing. Then you will see that the real Chico is still hiding in plain sight and that it is still missed by most people who walk right past it every day.
My journey from the timid fringes of the university as a Butte College transfer student to a member of its faculty has shown me an institution as complex as the town that houses it. Chico State is a perfectly nice place to move quietly through classes, making yeoman’s work out of “figuring out” the system. It will offer up a relatively painless path to graduation and a job. There is enough of a herd and an overwhelming enough workload for your professors to assure that, if you choose, you will never rise to the level of recognition. Open your eyes, though, answer the invitations to come in, and you will find a faculty more committed, more accomplished, and more willing to help you actually learn something than you really have any right to expect.
There are still two ways through Chico and to the university. Highway 99 will take you right past Applebee’s, past the mall, past the sprawl. It will look just like you expect it to look, just like where you are coming from and, if you choose it, just like where you are going to. The Midway will also take you to the university, but it will go through Chico, the hidden Chico, the real Chico. It will take you past scrap yards, thrift stores, dive bars with padded doors, past theaters, coffee shops, Collier Hardware and all of the people you might come to know—everything that makes Chico a different place than where you came from and everything that can make it a place where you can shape a future worth having. That Chico will welcome you, if you look for it.
It will call to you, but you have to answer.