Best border town
To my childish eyes 25 years ago, there was a flatland plainness to the landscape of Sacramento. I grew up in the foothills of the city and always zoomed down Highway 50 with the same misbegotten sensation that the Kingdom of Oz would loom before me, abruptly, divertingly. But Sacramento was still groomed and shorn as a cornfield after harvest time then. Everything seemed orderly, monochrome, painted in reassuring colors with very little that lured, turned one’s head or distracted.
But Sacramento has become multifaceted and has taken on some of the qualities of a border town, where suburbs blend with metropolitan sin, depending on which corner you round, which choice you indulge. It is starting to gamely compete with its closest urban rival, San Francisco, even as the geographical lines between the two stretch like taffy, with more and more housing and corporate development slowly bringing the cities closer together than perhaps either of the cities’ residents would like.
So, what I set out to do was retrace the familiar, what was known to most lifers, and see what impression I was left with. I thought I’d give a chance to what seemed the cliché—the presentable side that visitors to Sacramento seek out. Then, I’d wander through the darker side of Sacramento, spending time with the lost boys and girls of “the grid,” a circumscribed area downtown where the ratio of dive bars and liquor stores seem almost equal to the population that lives there.
Here’s what I saw on the safe side: I took a friend on a riverboat cruise, a comely and relatively preserved vessel known as the Spirit of Sacramento, run by the folks at Riverboat Cruises. Coincidentally, it was a Tuesday evening, and the boat was almost fully booked by state school administrators, with the ubiquitous state bureaucrat look, bearing name tags and getting cheerfully, elegantly blotto on chilled glasses of chardonnay. The next day, school would begin, and it would be business as usual.
The sunset was unassailable. There were clean, watercolor streaks of tangerine and fading robin’s-egg blue. The river, churning calmly beneath us, never seemed more powerful or poignant. The Sacramento River is the reason Sacramento exists. I never absorbed that fact until that very moment.
The serenity was broken only by the territorial blare of some tipsy boaters, speeding past us in a sleek, wasp-colored and noisy speedboat. Here, we had sin meeting suburb. Nobody else seemed to notice or care, so I filed the disruption quietly away, too.
After we disembarked, it was just a few steps to a jazz-and-gin joint of iconographic proportions in Old Sacramento. Here, the clichéd and seedy seemed to blend nicely. Women with towering beehives threatening to topple ceiling lighting ducked their heads knowingly. A shot of ouzo, poured by Nico, perhaps the smoothest bartender in town, punctuated the end of a full and enriching Sacramento day.
The next night’s agenda was a River Cats game, something that has become one of those safe things Sacramentans do on summer evenings. Being a Giants fan and a baseball snob—it will always be “The Stick” to me, the lovely new Pac Bell Park notwithstanding—I was a skeptical attendee.
But unbeknownst to me, the River Cats were first in their division—they have since won it—and the crowd was as excited as if it were watching the last game between the Dodgers and the Yankees, when both were vying for the crown of New York.
The stadium was almost full. The crowd was as riveted and loyal as it would be for the unassailable Kings. This was real baseball, fought in the trenches, and the men playing it were reaching beyond themselves to get to their next goal, “The Show.”
I wandered up to the press box to find my public-relations connection. While I was waiting for him to appear, I took in the usual lineup of laptop-pounding reporters. The men were all young, perhaps in their early 20s. They seemed Boy Scoutish and eager, and very much a part of this place. I realized they were like their athletic counterparts on the field. They, too, were looking to make their way out of here into the next step, “The Major Dailies.” This, ideally, was their stepping stone. At the end of the cub-reporter line, there was one anomalous, older, gruff-faced scribe who was harder. Perhaps he was circling back around in his career, after a series of missteps. Or perhaps he was there for the love of the game. I hope it was the latter.
I chatted with Mike the public-relations man, amiable and charming, and went back to join my companion. The River Cats were steps, a play or two, from winning, and so we left. It seemed appropriate that we would run into an imperturbable River Cats fan, Dave Kelly, a longtime restaurant manager and, not coincidentally, the son of the man who used to own Edmonds Field, the old home of the Sacramento Solons. He grinned and observed, “They just keep rounding the bases,” don’t they? Indeed they did.
After having my skepticism swept away by the River Cats, I was more than a little anticipatory about the California State Fair. Only having charming, childhood memories of the event, I fully expected to relive them.
Instead, the fair seemed to have undergone the same sanitized whitewashing of Times Square. It had been Disney-fied. Sure, there were more rides, grander spectacles and a cacophony of bells and whistles and carny catcalls, but the place had been corporatized. And these days, the fair employees are cleaner and better dressed than the visitors. Frankly, I liked a little carny grease under the fingernails.
I decided that Cal Expo somehow had become the respectable side of the suburb-sin border of this town. So, the last place to end my journey was obvious: the grid—in some respects, the closest thing to driving over the border from San Diego to Tijuana.
The grid is a vortex, where politicos and winos are known to mingle with anonymous courtesy. I could name a few of the familiar standbys: Old Ironsides, the Press Club, Benny’s Sacramento Bar and Grill. But they all have a blurry, redundant quality and constituency, presenting a familiar living room to the regulars. You know the kind of joints—some of them even open their doors at 6 a.m. They present a familiar and soothing groove to their veterans. And, being an obviously delineated border town, one can walk a few paces or drive a few miles and be back in the safe cradle of a Land Park house; an old screening of Sex and the City; and a welcoming, wagging-tailed dog.
On the last Caligula-inspired evening I spent in the grid, some weeks back, I found myself ending it at pre-dawn, after the bars had shuttered closed, relaxing in a borrowed hot tub with friends and sipping a very smooth cabernet. On the surface, it seemed innocent enough. But we had crossed the border, and we knew it. And now it was up to us to make our way back to the saner side of town. It is a choice Sacramentans have available to them now. Best they make it deliberately and with wisdom.