Best of Sacramento 2002

20 years later

As have past issues of the “Best of Sacramento” issue, this year’s issue has a broad unifying theme. This year’s theme is travel—here in town, and it’s part of my job to write a little preamble to our readers to cinch it all together nicely.

At first, I blanched at the assignment. Lord, what the hell am I going to say about traveling in Sacramento? First of all, I’m not a tourist in Sacramento. I bloody grew up here.

Not only that, but I officially left long ago, with the hackneyed contempt everyone has for their hometown. “Sacra-Tomato!” I would cackle, with my San Francisco buddies. “God, what a cow town!” a Los Angeles friend would poke, and I would just nod in agreement. I got the hell out when I was 17. I hustled as far east as I could without pitching headlong into the ocean and didn’t look back for two decades.

But, after living and traveling around the world, I’m here again, for the longest period I’ve spent here since I left for college. And I realize, as I drift around the city I once thought so white-washed, predictable and more than a little precious (what with it’s Camellia Festival, gold-dome capitol, and all), that 20 years later, this place is really new.

The biggest change I sense is that there’s an edge, a flintiness to Sacramento that wasn’t there before. It’s a kind of background static that Sacramento gives off now, as if the channel on which it’s transmitting is no longer broadcasting on a single wavelength.

Part of that “noise” comes from what puts any city on the map: a booming increase in population, a widening fan of ethnic groups and a vacillating economy. The unchecked swell of people moving here has taxed the environment and local resources, and I see the breach between the haves and have-nots is only getting bigger.

But, I also believe that, accordingly, the local art and music have become more engaging, the media sharper, and the politics even more consequential. Sacramento is a very interesting town these days.

I point this out because when I was growing up, my teenage pals and I instinctively sensed the comparative, protective cushiness of the place in which we lived. It made us a lot more cynical about the city and goaded us into thrill-seeking and sometimes outrageous acts, just to keep ourselves amused.

Some of the places we’d loiter around are no longer there—places I thought would never, ever go away, like the late, great Cattle Club, where some of the finest, up-and-coming punk bands played on their way to or from some gig in San Francisco. It has since become a gay nightclub named Bojangles. I never thought a place like Sam’s Hof Brau, a mock 19th-century saloon downtown, would go away either. There, end-of-the-line alcoholics fortified their habits with monstrous roast-beef sandwiches and stared plaintively at the working girls making their rounds out in front. This little corner was one of the unofficial red-light districts of Sac. Bored one night, two friends of mine dared each other into pretending they were prostitutes to see if they’d get a bite. They did, freaked out, and ran away from the would-be Johns, convulsing with laughter.

We’d also hang out at some of the iconographic places that visitors to Sacramento make a beeline for. Then, oblivious to or perhaps because of the inherent charm and import of these locations, we’d ignore or mock them and amuse ourselves instead with asocial pranks, dangerous stunts and, of course, beer and pot.

I decided, 20 years down the road, to test out a handful of these Sacramento-area icons. But, free of beer, pot and cynicism, I imagined I was a visitor just passing through, with one day to spend in the area, and that my mission was to visit some places and things the likes of which you couldn’t really find anywhere else. So I strolled around Old Sacramento, spent an afternoon at the State Capitol and groused with local fishermen for an evening in the Delta. And I found that all of these places had a fresh, insinuating appeal. Now, as a grown-up, I could unblinkingly recommend them to others, out-of-towners and locals alike.

I started my imaginary tourist day with Old Sacramento. As you probably know, Old Sac is the refurbished, 19th-century river port, with California’s largest concentration of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. It gets more than 5 million visitors a year. As teenagers, we thought Old Sac was terribly corny. We would hang out there and play a little game, pretending to be Old Sac tour guides, squiring unsuspecting tourists up and down the wooden sidewalks and chattering about the charms of the place. (I know, we sound like jackasses. But, actually, we were always really nice. We tried to be really convincing, and, more often than not, the folks we led around had a great time).

Now when I visit, I still see the jutting, touristy angles of the place. But I also recognize that even though some of the historic buildings are still home to candy and T-shirt shops, it’s a place of wonder. It’s not like this is some Wild, Wild West set on a back lot of MGM. This is where it all happened. It’s the Real McCoy. And the nearby, magnificent, California State Railroad Museum (at 125 I St., (916) 445-6645) still makes tow-headed little kids’ jaws drop.

Next, I went to the State Capitol (at 10th Street and Capitol Ave., (916) 324-0333), the boring destination of two out of three school field trips, I always thought.

Dumbass me. Since it underwent work in the 1970s, which restored it and its luxurious gold dome to its 1906 glory, the building has become one of the country’s most beautiful. Now, it gives me a little thrill (and occasional chill) to contemplate what’s going on in the red and green Senate and Assembly rooms (that are open to the public while in session). And it gives me a thrill to consider some of the extraordinary political careers, whose early years took place in that building: Ronald Reagan’s, Jerry Brown’s and Willie Brown’s.

Finally, in late afternoon, I took a scenic drive down Highway 160 to the Delta.

When I was 16, my friends and I regarded the Delta as a fascinating, kind of freaky place: a sort of outlawish border town, where we could sneak into saloons without ID and gawk at the wrung-out maws of some of the local barflies. (OK, we were jackasses.)

But these days, in some ways, it strikes me as some of the most gorgeous, Edenic country in the world, with fields of grapes and corn and plantation-like mansions.

True, some of the folks there are still a little kooky (and I’ve no doubt that teenagers can get their hands on some hooch still), but I see that now as part of the singular, eccentric expansiveness of the Delta. I think it’s a good thing there are still places like that in the world, and I’m grateful for it.

At the end of my day, I was quite infatuated with Sacramento and nearby parts. I don’t know if the true source of that feeling comes from maturity, nostalgia, reason or a little of all three. I don’t think it matters. I came back to this city after a long break without really planning to. But, even if I leave tomorrow, I’ll never take it for g ranted again.