I (almost) love Sacramento …

Local family tries to move back east, but can’t seem to get out of Sacramento

This writer and his family always thought they’d inevitably wind up returning to the East Coast after a brief stint in Sacramento. But they were wrong, oh so wrong.

This writer and his family always thought they’d inevitably wind up returning to the East Coast after a brief stint in Sacramento. But they were wrong, oh so wrong.

Illustration by mark stivers

Sasha Abramsky is an author, teacher and frequent contributor to SN&R.

I am from London, my wife from New York. We met in her city, to which I had moved after college, in the early 1990s. At the time, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but the Big Apple. We lived like 20-something middle-class New Yorkers live, eating out too often, staying up late carousing with friends in good bars, socializing with people who did all sorts of fascinating, wonderful, eclectic things with their lives. We were New York snobs, in love with the city and all its (overpriced) amenities. Our apartment, in Brooklyn, abutted a stunning old brick and stone house that, rumor had it, was lived in by the young Humphrey Bogart before he became Bogie the film star. Down the street from us was the Pratt Institute of fashion. A mile’s walk took us to the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge. Another mile and we were in lower Manhattan.

In 2003, work brought us out west. We spent a year in San Diego—my wife had a post-doctoral fellowship at the UC campus there, and our daughter was born in a hospital in the Hillcrest community.

And then we moved up to Sacramento.

Again, the impetus was my wife’s work; she had gotten a job as a professor at UC Davis, and I was angling to teach writing part time there and spend the rest of my time doing freelance journalism. Sacramento being a capital city, it seemed a logical destination for a political reporter—more sensible than living in Davis.

Since we both had extensive California connections, both had spent considerable amounts of time here, and both loved the Pacific coastal culture, it wasn’t a hard move—but nor was it one that either of us particularly saw as being permanent.

We were just in Sacramento for now, we told ourselves, and each other, but one day we’d wend our way eastward again.

Away we go

A couple of months back, my wife and I both lined up jobs back east, and everything fell into place for our family to pick up once more and return, triumphal, to the Atlantic seaboard. Flush with possibility, we lined up schools for the kids, and started the process of buying a new house and selling our current one.

It was hectic and exhausting—emptying our place in Sacramento, painting it, then keeping the children from so much as smudging a wall or dirtying a floor or putting greasy paw prints on the newly cleaned windows, so that would-be buyers could traipse through our showcase property and see it in all its pristine, naked finery. Weekends, we headed off to stay with friends, or in favorite hotels, in L.A., Santa Cruz and elsewhere, simply to give the real-estate agents free rein to show our property. Neither my wife nor I slept very much during those late spring weeks, and the kids picked up on the high stress levels—acting out, throwing tantrums, doing the things that little people do when their familiar routines are under threat.

But the whole experience was exhilarating as well.

Soon, we’d be thousands of miles away, starting a new chapter in our lives. The city we were about to move to would be older, steeped in colonial history; we’d be nearer New York and D.C. and all of the cultural riches of both cities; we’d be a mere six hours flight away from my hometown of London.

Perhaps most importantly, we would have that wonderful chance to reinvent ourselves that only a move somewhere far away can offer. Fast approaching 40, I looked forward to proving my vitality, my ability to turn several leaves simultaneously and resurrect the East Coast (the younger?) Abramsky.

As the move date approached, I began to think of all the things I’d miss, and not miss, about Sacramento. After all, it was in some ways an accidental city for me, a place I’d landed in by happenstance rather than one that had a decent claim upfront to hosting a long chapter in my life. And yet one cannot spend seven years in a place without its leaving a mark, without its texture, its secrets, its idiosyncrasies in some ways seeping into one’s soul.

And so, as I packed up boxes of books, dumped surplus furniture into storage pods, took bags of old clothes to the food bank and stacked years’ worth of kids’ toys in the basement, I took stock. What did Sacramento, the place where my beautiful daughter learned to crawl, then walk, then talk, then read and write; the place where my son was born and emerged into the sparkling young lad that he is today, mean to me?

Honestly, Sacramento …

Abramsky’s young daughter, Sofia, learned to crawl in the shaded courtyard of the Weatherstone cafe in Midtown.

Illustration by mark stivers

If I’m being honest with myself, I’d have to say I probably didn’t ever really give Sacramento a full chance to capture my heart.

I knew it wasn’t New York or London, I knew it didn’t really compare in excitement or energy to Los Angeles or San Francisco, and that was pretty much how I defined it. One could never be a “Sacramentan” in the same way one could be a New Yorker or a Londoner (witness the fact that the word program I just typed that sentence on underlined “Sacramentan” in red, highlighting it as a spelling error, a nonexistent word; neither “Londoner” nor “New Yorker” suffered such an ignominy).

I’d ended up in a city that I didn’t quite see as being a city, I told myself bitterly, in a place that seemed somehow slightly shrunken. There weren’t galleries that I could go to (on a first-rate public-transit system) to see Picassos or Rembrandts. There weren’t buildings whose halls echoed with centuries of intrigue, with epochal events that helped to craft world history.

No one could say, with a straight face, that Sacramento shaped a chunk of the human story in the way that London or New York so clearly did. Nor were there grand cathedrals or intimidating financial markets that defined how humans worshipped God or paid homage to money. Land Park was verdant, but it wasn’t really Central Park or Hyde Park. There weren’t newspapers of a caliber to compare with The New York Times or the London Guardian. And there weren’t a plethora of world-class sports teams to choose from. In fact, there seemed to be only one team of import, the Kings, in town, and from the moment I arrived they seemed to be trying to find a way to leave the city and break their fans’ hearts.

In short, I was homesick, and, like many homesick people I did the unfair thing—comparing the city I was in to those that I wasn’t, judging Sacramento not on its own merits but on those of other, vaster metropolises.

On the upside, I thought, if Sacramento wasn’t a world city, it certainly was a friendly place—almost Midwestern, some of our L.A. and San Diego friends had informed us, mockingly. In other words, went the accompanying snotty implication, it was fly-over territory.

Mockable though it might have been to outsiders, that Sacramento friendliness proved to be a saving grace. From the get-go, our neighbor, a retired public defender, adopted us. When he heard that I was writing extensively on criminal-justice policies and institutions, he invited me into his Saturday-morning coffee klatch, a meeting of miscellaneous lawyers, artists and general bohemians who would convene for several hours each week in the courtyard of what was then called The Weatherstone cafe in Midtown. Anywhere else in town, the group would have been glorious misfits; at The Weatherstone, they set the tone.

Around the shaded, cigarette-butt-littered patio, my daughter Sofia learned to crawl, then walk. On the knees of such friends as Tommy Clinkenbeard, an extraordinary lawyer who fought against the death penalty for decades—right up until his horrible, and untimely, death from cancer a few years ago—and Anci, a Swedish expat who wasn’t a lawyer but who loved the conversation and the caffeine and the fact that no one in The Weatherstone’s courtyard asked her to stop smoking, Sofia learned to talk.

Whenever it was even remotely sunny, Saturday morning was my Weatherstone day. If I got there early, I would do the crossword. If I got there late, someone would always grab a chair for me and make room as I dumped coffee, blueberry muffin and child down (not necessarily in that order).

Sunday mornings were when I’d go to the farmers market under the freeway downtown. The food was amazing. And, when one or another child was still young enough to be walked around the market in a Babybjorn, it was fun to see how pretty women at the market would flirt with me—not because I was me, alas, but because I was carrying a cute kid whose head protruded out of the bjorn like a tiny kangaroo poking out of its mother’s carrying sac.

Weekdays, I would haunt my local cafe, Freeport Bakery, treating the kids to cookies or cupcakes, treating myself to chocolate biscotti or cinnamon snails. When my home office proved too claustrophobic, I’d take my files down the street to the bakery and sit for hours. One time, early on, someone pointed out Wayne Thiebaud to me; I pretended to know who he was—went home, looked him up and immediately became horrified at my stunning ignorance of California art. In the years since, through exhibitions at the Crocker Art Museum and through other shows, I’ve come to love the styles and methods embodied by Thiebaud.

At the bakery, my wife, kids and I got friendly with several other regulars, and, gratifyingly, all the staff there came to know the whole family by name. We became fixtures, slightly dusty around the edges, but nevertheless treasured. It felt good.

And with those rituals set in place, the city began to feel more familiar to me, more homelike. We discovered its low-key, but fun, theater scene—the B Street Theatre, the Capital Stage, the Community Center Theater, the Wells Fargo Pavilion. Some of the plays were “regional” in quality; but others were first-rate. We saw Cyrano de Bergerac, his nose getting longer by the second; David Mamet’s American Buffalo; a David Sedaris monologue. We drove into Berkeley to see plays at the Repertory Theatre. Some years, I would go with friends up to Ashland, Oregon, to the Shakespeare Festival. Several times a year, I would splurge on concert tickets at the Mondavi Center, in Davis.

Gradually, imperceptibly, we started to plug the holes, started to find ways to recreate our New York patterns 2,700 miles westward.

Rhythm of the town

The family was pleased to discover Sacramento’s low-key but fun theater scene—the B Street Theatre, Capital Stage, the Community Center Theater, the Wells Fargo Pavilion.

Illustration by mark stivers

Not surprisingly, for now became an elastic term. We created lives here, filled our home up with clutter and with company, and learned the routines and rhythms of Sacramento. My wife gradually acquired if not a fully green thumb, then at least a light lime-shaded digit; she learned to compost, and started to grow vegetables in the back yard. For a woman who had grown up in New York not having any concept that different foods grew in different seasons, or even that someone had to farm the produce before it made it to the supermarket shelves, this wasn’t a bad accomplishment.

I took advantage of the mild climate, sitting out on my upstairs deck with my laptop and a coffee, typing up my articles in the stunningly dry Central Valley heat of summer. Our kids spent most of their time barefoot, probably upwards of eight months out of the year. They went to pool parties. I bought a bike and occasionally cycled along the river pathways.

Come Thanksgiving, we’d host an enormous party—upwards of 30 people most years—tilted towards expats and Americans too far from home to make the holiday journey back. As our friends had kids, and then more kids, the gathering grew in size. Gradually, two distinct parties emerged; the grown-up one, concentrated in the dining room and spilling out into the living room; and the kids’ party, which ate at the coffee table and then rapidly dispersed throughout the far reaches of the house. My friend Jason would come in every year, from Portland, or D.C., or wherever else he happened to be living at the time. We’d eat too much, drink too much and then burn off our excesses with a long walk through the quiet night streets of Land Park. I fear our conversations, on occasion, may have damaged that eerie suburban silence.

Winters, we would drive up to the snow and the kids would don helmets and miniature skis and take a few hours of ski lessons. I became a mediocre, yet happy, downhill skier, and a slightly better, and just as happy, cross country skier. En famille, we’d go sledding at the old Tahoe resort of Granlibakken, or at one of the many snow parks dotting the Sierra. Afterwards, we’d eat at any one of a number of great taverns in the towns surrounding the lake. It was fun, something to smile about, something that didn’t have to stand in the shadow of New York.

On Mother’s Day, we’d go to The Firehouse, in Old Sacramento, sit in the brick-walled courtyard, and eat the extraordinary buffet offerings. Roman in its scale of indulgence, it quickly became one of my favorite rituals. And I challenge any New York buffet to outdo it.

Usually, once the summer really got going, we’d take off on long, extended, trips to the East Coast and Europe. We crisscrossed continents, absorbing as much as we could, taking advantage of the generous academic schedule. We traveled to travel. And even though we were increasingly comfortable in our adopted city, we traveled, I don’t mind admitting, to get away from our adopted town and the Valley heat.

Looking back on it all, though, living in Sacramento worked out very well for us. On a daily basis, the city was comfortable, enjoyable, filled with warmhearted people and friends we loved. On a longer-term basis, when the going got boring, our schedule simply allowed us to skip town, to seek museums and opera, or simply the hurly-burly of life, of dense crowds of people, elsewhere.

A change of plan

Sunday mornings, Abramsky would gather his kids—sometimes when one or another child was still young enough to be walked around in a Babybjorn—and head to the farmers market under the freeway in downtown Sacramento.

Illustration by mark stivers

Two weeks before I was scheduled to drive my car east, with my son Leo as co-pilot, and three weeks before my wife and daughter were slated to fly out to join us, the jobs fell through. How and why isn’t important to this story—though it still burns a hole in my stomach lining even to think about it.

We took our house off the market and began the painful process of unraveling our East Coast commitments. At high speed, we had to psychologically reorient ourselves—after all, in our heads, we’d already left.

There was a lot of crying; sad, bitter tears. Not because we didn’t love California, and not because we didn’t like Sacramento. To the contrary, we live in a lovely neighborhood, have wonderful friends, and, as we realized in the weeks leading up to the aborted move, there are few places on earth with a higher all-around quality of life than Northern California.

No, the tears were shed more both for newness lost and the possibility of being closer to family nixed. They were shed for stillborn weekend visits to New York, for Sunday dinners with grandparents and for easy travels to Europe for birthdays.

But, in part, they were also shed out of relief: We were staying in California. The fates, or perhaps simply the blind messiness of modern workplace realities, had conspired to keep us in Sacramento—at least for now.

We spent the next weeks saying “hello” again. To friends and neighbors we had neglected in the run-up to the move, to places like Freeport Bakery that we were all too glad to keep in our daily lives. I tried to say a whiskey-lubricated “howdy” to the Shady Lady Saloon, but she’d had a temporary run-in with the alcohol enforcers and her doors were shuttered. And so I satisfied myself with a couple righteous pints at the Fox & Goose and a quick trip up to Amador County for lunch and a glass of wine at the Villa Toscano.

I was back home—for better and for worse.

The sun was starting to poke through the pre-June gloom, the McClatchy High School running track was dry enough to take the kids bike riding on and the bands were gearing up for the Sacramento Jazz Festival & Jubilee.

As I hammered nails into our newly painted walls, and started to rehang dozens of paintings and photographs from our many travels, I started to feel calmer again. We were back. And if Sacramento isn’t a true metropolis, well, at least it’s near San Francisco; and if it isn’t the most scenic place in the world, well, it’s not too far a drive to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the desert, the coast or the rolling hills of wine country.

Not a bad place to be, all in all. For now, at least, I’m just fine being home.