Sacramento after hours
Drunken bro brawls, cabbie confessions, ambulance rides and lap dances—our writer goes into the night for a true moonlit Sacramento experience
Sacramento has taught Mark Jackson how to take a punch.
The veteran cab driver, currently with Yellow Cab Co. of Sacramento, the largest local outfit, has been hocking a leased taxi in one town or another for a cumulative span of a decade. He’s worked for 13 different cab companies in various cities—mostly San Francisco and mostly after midnight—and never came too close to danger.
But in the short eight months he’s been cabbing the late, late shift around Sacramento, Jackson has been slugged in the face three times.
The cabbie is learning: This city plays rough.
That’s why I’m riding shotgun in Jackson’s nicotine-stained hack on an unholy Tuesday night. I want to see what makes the capital city tick when the sun recedes and the night crawlers come out to play. Before my own late shift is over, I will split tours with the lap dancers and drunks, cabbies and paramedics, scrappers and wanderers who prop up this city’s eventide economy and keep Sacramento company when she’s at her most lost and vulnerable.
A week earlier, Jackson got called out to Land Park around 11 p.m., where “a big black guy” waited outside a church. Jackson was suspicious. The information from dispatch said this would be a residential address. The man’s request to be taken to Oak Park and then on to North Highlands gave the cabbie further pause.
It was outside a North Highlands apartment complex that a fellow Yellow Cab driver was shot dead during a predawn robbery in October 2010. The three suspects in the case are currently being prosecuted in Sacramento Superior Court.
“You got money for the ride?” Jackson asked.
“I got a card,” the man replied.
“Well, how do I even know if that card’s gonna work?” Jackson challenged. “If you don’t have cash, I can’t take you.”
His fare grumbled that he was a regular customer.
“I don’t care,” Jackson said. “Please leave.”
Jackson pauses before sharing what came next: “And then he smashed me in the face.”
Jackson called the police, but was told he needed to come to the station to file a report. The punchy customer, meanwhile, lingered on the corner for an additional 15 minutes, trying to arrange another taxi. Jackson shrugged and went searching for his next fare.
It was yet another moonlit lesson in Sacramento’s twilight personality: Like a shark in water, the Sacto night never stops moving.University of Yellow Cab
Cab ride, Wednesday, January 16; after midnight
Our first pickup happens somewhere in Midtown. A couple of tipsy girlfriends are heading out to celebrate a friend’s birthday at TownHouse Lounge, one of the few spots on the grid that has live music this time of week. After learning I’m a journalist, they joke that they should be on SN&R’s next cover.
“We’re both 5-[foot]-10, so we’re like models,” one says.
“But we’re not as skinny,” her friend clarifies.
After they slide out, Jackson grins. He likes interacting with drunk customers, he says. Hell, he likes interacting with everyone. He’s naturally inquisitive, peppering me with questions about my profession and long-term career goals. He boasts that he picked up a foreign diplomat the previous night, and says his cab is like a college attended by every kind of person imaginable.
There are no areas in the county Jackson refuses to take his cab. Even last week’s sucker-punch encounter hasn’t put him off Oak Park or North Highlands.
“I wouldn’t be worth my salt as a cab driver if I were to discriminate like that,” Jackson says, pausing. “But I try to avoid Walmart. I hate Walmart. That’s not to say all Walmart people are bad. But most of them.”
Jackson’s next fare takes us to a house off 27th Street and Broadway for a run-in with a minor celebrity. It’s 12:39 a.m., and Terry Robinson and his girlfriend, Eliza, are heading to TownHouse as well. The energetic Robinson spits out his résumé in record time: backup dancer who toured with MC Hammer in 1991, got fired by Johnny Gill, closed out his professional-dancing career with Tony! Toni! Toné!, and now represents Bay Area rapper YC Lopez.
Eliza says she used to date Deftones singer Chino Moreno. Both she and Robinson are Sacramento natives, but escaped for long stretches before reluctantly returning. Eliza doesn’t want to tell that particular story; she says it’s full of pain and heartbreak. Instead, she and Robinson talk about trying to take the local music scene to the next level.
“Sacramento has a lot of potential for that,” Eliza says. “I think people are tired of all these bands coming from cities like L.A. and New York.”
Jackson muses on the subject later, saying the lack of a robust live-music scene translates into a citywide inferiority complex.
“I wish Sacramento had a better image of itself,” he says, cupping the point of a smoldering cigarette in his palm. “This is a major city. Where’s the music?”
The cabbie is one of more than 90 taxi drivers working for Yellow Cab. But on this night at this time, he’s probably one of only 10 drivers combing the streets for fares, says company president Fred Pleines. While the company doesn’t tabulate how many customers it serves, Pleines estimates an average of 1,200 dispatched calls a day.
“Most of the drivers work daylight hours,” he says.
There’s a reason for that: On a late summer night this past July, a cabbie waiting on a fare outside the downtown Amtrak station got a knife plunged into his chest several times by a stranger.
At 1 a.m., we’re parked in front of a home on Third Avenue. Jackson rings up the residence on his cellphone. A woman slides into the back on the driver’s side. Behind me, standing on the curb, there’s a towering presence.
“You the guy,” the faceless customer starts to say. He turns to his girlfriend. “This cabbie’s hella racist.”
Something clicks in Jackson’s eyes. “Are you the guy who punched me in the face?” he asks.
“Hell yeah,” the man declares unapologetically.
The face puncher backs away, but not before challenging Jackson to another round.
“No, come on,” his girlfriend says wearily, walking toward the house. Her boyfriend dutifully follows.
Jackson doesn’t bother calling it in. Yellow Cab doesn’t have any kind of system for red-flagging problem customers. The cabbie merely shakes his head.
“I’m a racist,” he scoffs.
Suddenly, Jackson’s computer is pinging with requests from East Sacramento, Freeport Boulevard and Roseville. He wants to scoop up as many as he can, so he drops me off near K and 10th streets. I’m left to wonder whether he’ll survive the night.Niners-Ravens brawl
Downtown bar, Saturday, January 12; just before midnight
Some sports fans just can’t handle victory.
A few hours after the San Francisco 49ers outgunned the Green Bay Packers to earn a trip to the National Football Conference championship game, one red-shirted reveler has let success—and too much beer—go to his head. This mountain of a bro is in a heated barroom argument with a Baltimore Ravens fan.
“Don’t ever doubt me. Don’t ever doubt me,” the Ravens fan says, staring at one of the yellow walls inside Bulls Restaurant & Bar on H Street.
“Say that to my face. Say it to my motherfucking face!” the Niners fan hollers into the guy’s ear.
A rough shoulder shove from the Niners fan beckons cooler heads in from both sides to quash the silliness. It takes a few of the home team’s stoutest fans to pull the aggressor, an ex-Marine fresh off two lengthy tours in Iraq, outside the bar.
It’s inching toward midnight on this face-numbingly frigid Saturday. A motley crew wanders into this downtown saloon; I’m tagging along to celebrate a buddy’s upcoming nuptials, but this hoariest of premarriage male rituals—punish the liver, muddy the soul, dog some chicks—has provided a golden opportunity to crack my latest assignment: Who is Sacramento when the moon comes up?
Much like the inebriated, mid-40s woman now struggling onto a mechanical bull’s back, Sacramento at nightfall is kind of funny, a little bit tragic and all kinds of random.
This woman—dressed scantily and caked in melting face paint—wants her turn in the spotlight to be seductive, but the bull is having none of that. A tall, black cowboy in the corner twists some knobs and awakens the legless bovine to grinding life. One violent pitch spills the woman’s breast out of its insufficient packaging; the next leaves her a crumpled heap on the canvas. The young men encircling the ring leer and titter.
Sacramento can be cruel like that.
As the laughed-at madam picks herself off the mat, the Ravens fan appears and tries to corral the bachelors toward the exit. It’s time to go. A squinty-eyed drunk hugging the bar perks up at the mention of our next destination.
“Where ya goin’?” he asks hopefully.
“Uh, I don’t know,” the fan replies.
It’s a white lie. Turning back to his emptied beer mug, the old man resumes being ignored by an entire generation that considers him creepy.
But on this night, creepy is a relative term.Lap stance
Strip club, Sunday, January 13; 2 a.m.
It’s bizarre having a conversation with a stranger who’s sitting in your lap. I don’t know how Santa Claus manages. Then again, this isn’t the North Pole.
Sure, there are poles aplenty inside the Day-Glo warehouse of the county’s most prestigious gentlemen’s club. But being the most prestigious strip club is like being the soberest alcoholic.
There are also plenty of those here at Gold Club Centerfolds, planted on an isolated commercial strip in Rancho Cordova. A surprising number of co-ed groupings scatter around two large stages, on which a couple of girls, who look too young to vote, dip and writhe.
This place is like a female version of Logan’s Run: No one makes it past the ripe old age of 28.
To keep up the mystique, each performer is drenched in colored lights; the audience is cloaked in anonymous darkness.
The business’ website tells its employees to smile and make eye contact, to make each mark (my term) feel like he’s the only guy in the room. It tells girls the minimum height for their heels should be 3 inches—“anything shorter and your gut will stick out and your legs will look like tree trunks.” Body fat, vulval grooming and educational pursuits are also helpfully covered.
Maybe this is why I’m struggling to formulate an initial question to the dancer in my lap.
I tell the girl, whose name sounds like “Kahlúa,” that I’m researching a story on Sacramento after hours. It sounds like a line. I offer to give her my business card. This also sounds like a line. She’s been warned against customers who use their jobs to grift personal information. I’m just another perv in the perv parade.
At Centerfolds, Kahlúa and her fellow dancers have to fork over $60 a pop nightly just for the right to work. Whatever they make on top of that is their take. This includes the wrinkled dollars tossed at them onstage and the 20s they get for private dances. The previous weekend, Kahlúa made 40 bucks. A crappy economy is hell even on exotic dancers.
As we talk, the deejay announces two-for-one private dances that come with a free porn DVD. The bargain hunters in the crowd pick their ladies and stumble toward a scarlet curtain.
To make up for leaner times, some girls subsidize their incomes by performing illicit sextras, Kahlúa says nonchalantly. These deals complicate her job, in that some customers now expect her to make with the hanky-panky if they name the right price. As a result, she instructs each customer exactly what they’re in for (and what they most certainly are not) before any business is transacted.
“It saves them the embarrassment,” she smiles.
A grease-pated lecher with a trembling mouth bellies up to a stage to ogle a young blonde. He rises from his seat and cups a wad of bills over his face, crumbling them down his leathery neck and paunchy stomach. The gesture momentarily freezes the blonde, but then she starts crawling toward him. I turn away, not wanting that image seared into my brain.
I locate a seat close to the door and wait for my cab. I shoo away three dancers looking to recoup their $60 deposit. They’re persistent. When I tell one I have no money, she replies, “We take cards now.”
I extend my leg onto the chair in front of me. A dancer who calls herself Talia saunters over.
“You also put your feet on your mother’s furniture?” she asks with a hiked eyebrow.
“No,” I say, “but I’m pretty sure my mother’s furniture doesn’t have semen all over it.”Tinny dancer
K Street Mall, Wednesday, January 16; just before midnight
I’ve done away with the entourages and found the only place on K Street with a pulse at this hour.
Inside Dive Bar, a mopey deejay works to approximate the vibe of a David Lynch film. I wander halfway down the popular nightspot’s narrow esophagus and seat myself at the plywood bar, a narrow stage propping up the elbows of several actors tonight. A single recessed bulb finds each one like a theater spotlight.
A tipsy woman on the left confesses her feelings for an aloof, married coworker to her bearded buddy. To the right, a squealing trio takes turns giving each other unsteady lap dances following a second round of fireball shots.
A black-tied bartender does laps beneath a notably empty aquarium. The mermaids have the night off.
The local economy slows to a crawl between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. Once the bars and clubs empty out, there are even fewer places generating sales-tax revenue, says Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of the Midtown Business Association.
“It’s really that hospitality piece and a very small percentage of that overall hospitality piece,” she says.
Outside of a few all-night restaurants, the kind of business that gets transacted this late belongs to the underground economy.
Around 12:30 a.m., for instance, cops will stop a car at Havenside Drive and Riverside Boulevard in the south district. A parolee-at-large will jump out of the passenger seat and make a run for it, but officers will snatch him up and find drugs on both him and the driver. Just after 1 a.m., it’s reported prostitution activity that draws police to the 7800 block of College Town Drive. Officers will talk to a couple of folks and file a report, but no arrests will be made.
“When you go to sleep, when I go to sleep, there are a lot of people who aren’t asleep who want to commit crimes,” says Officer Doug Morse, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department. During the graveyard shift, the department is a stripped-down version of itself—gone for the day are the administrative-support workers, problem-oriented policing officers and bicycle cops—which means one homicide could upend the whole night.
“All it takes is that one big case,” Morse observes.
At the bar, I bury my drink and shamble outside into the cold. A street performer on 10th and K streets is slathered head-to-toe in silver paint. He looks like an LSD-fueled hallucination, so I tiptoe closer to make sure the whiskey wasn’t spiked. The tin-colored man dances with his reflection in a darkened storefront window. A small boom box (painted silver; he’s consistent) squawks a generic R&B song from the ’80s.
“I’m here just about every night,” he says quietly, “but I’m not interested in being interviewed.”
He grudgingly accepts my business card, then goes back to making robot moves at the window. A crude container sits by his feet, showing few donations to his cause. A young guy headed for Dive Bar drops a buck, telling the dancer he’s from the Bay Area where street performers are more prolific. His donation is an act of solidarity.
When I roll by again in a couple hours, the silver man will still be there, dancing with himself.The B shift
Fire station, Wednesday, January 16; 3 a.m.
Waiting for tragedy to trip up an unsuspecting stranger’s life is an awfully morbid way to wile away the graveyard shift. But that’s exactly what goes down at the Sacramento Fire Department’s Station 2, which houses one of the city’s busiest ambulance units, on I and 13th streets.
Station 2 averages more than 4,000 annual calls, representing nearly 6 percent of the 70,000 the department handles overall. During this night’s graveyard shift, the station will respond to three emergencies.
Battalion Chief Scott Williams leads me through a cavernous garage into the first level of the station’s darkened living quarters, where banks of comfy recliners face a sweet entertainment center.
The chief just returned from one of those emergencies—a small garage fire in Northgate. It looks like it might have been caused by a couple of smoldering cigarettes. The woman who lives there lights her smokes with a toaster, Williams notes wryly.
He whispers so as not wake up the 10 men on duty upstairs. The crew is on the first night of a two-day shift. “They call this your second family, but in reality, this is your first family, because you’re spending 48 hours together,” Williams observes.
His men cook, clean and socialize together. They razz each other with inside jokes and pitch money into communal funds for groceries, cable and coffee. For some guys, this schedule is hard on families and relationships. Williams likes it.
I slump into one of the recliners as the chief turns on the flat screen and fiddles with the settings. The screen flickers awake to some bizarre survivalist program on the Discovery Channel. Williams is dog-tired and can’t stop yawning, but he dutifully keeps me company.
While these graveyard shifts are unpredictable, colder nights typically mean an influx of calls involving homeless people wanting to get off the streets and into a hospital waiting room for a few hours. Williams says the department is also getting more calls from young adults who don’t have health insurance.
“The bulk of our calls are medical, and those can be anything,” he explains.
But sometimes there’s just something in the air. The day before the Newtown, Conn., massacre, for instance, Williams says his unit responded to nothing but 5150s, which is code for involuntary psychiatric holds.
The television screen snatches our attention. On an arid, cracked-earth plain, one of the show’s obnoxious hosts uses a machete to hack away at a maggot-invested bull and retches into his handkerchief. Despite all that Williams has seen during his two decades with the department, this is a bridge too far.
“That’s grossing me out. I’m a city boy!” he chuckles. “That makes me want to throw up.”
No matter how long you do this job, there’s always something you haven’t seen.
A piercing alarm startles us. For a second, I think aliens are invading, but its the notification for the ambulance crew. We hustle out to the garage where two bleary-eyed men in boxers yank rubbery trousers to their waists. We exchange quick nods and jump into their boxy, red ambulance.
Time to go to work.Drunk shuttle
Paramedic ambulance, Wednesday, January 16; 4 a.m.
As a shadowy ambulance rumbles toward Old Sacramento, rotating siren lights glitter through the hull, but there’s no wailing scream to accompany the light show. A black computer screen smudged with analog text shorthands the reason for this twilight journey: a 38-year-old male respiratory call.
When we arrive, two fire engines wedge near an otherwise deserted stretch of old town, which looks like an abandoned movie set this time of night. A small man shivers on a bench. Beside him is his girlfriend; both are bundled in multiple layers, but their blue fingers and faces betray the toll of a relentlessly gelid night. Big men in baggy “Sacramento FD” coats gather over them like a cloud. The tallest one walks over to me.
This very couple called 911 earlier today, explains Capt. Michael Walter. They arrived today by bus from Reno, Nev., without much of a plan for what came next or the money to improvise. The man, Travis, was hoping to detox here for his alcoholism, but the cops wouldn’t take him in because he didn’t have three weeks worth of seizure meds. The captain jots something down on a clipboard.
“In 15 hours he managed to move one block and get drunk,” he observes.
There’s no judgment in Walter’s voice. This is the job.
Two paramedics take over. The men work in dazed autopilot, but gently escort the sozzled, unsteady Travis onto a wheeled gurney before loading him onto their rig. Travis’ girlfriend stays planted on the planked walkway; she seems to know she’s not allowed on the ambulance. The girlfriend will have to hoof the 28 icy blocks to Sutter General Hospital on L Street on her own.
In the ambo, Travis complains of back pain, gastrointestinal problems and body aches.
“I’ve been traveling a long time,” he slurs. “I’ve been drinking a lot, too.”
The younger paramedic, Eric Green, dutifully jots down the menu of symptoms, takes Travis’ blood pressure and radios Sutter’s emergency department to let them know we’re coming.
He looks half-asleep. I ask him whether he’s adjusted to his fitful schedule. Green smiles wanly.
“It’s exhausting,” he says.
When we arrive at the hospital, Green and his partner Brian Davis wheel their package into the ER. A chipper intake nurse takes one look at Travis’ Denver Broncos snowcap.
“He can come in, but he has to take that beanie off,” he deadpans.
“They lost anyway,” Davis challenges.
Within moments, Travis disappears to a small white room, and we’re back on the rig, rolling home. Davis, strapping and good-humored, is a 12-year veteran. Some nights he feels more like a taxi hack than a licensed paramedic, shuttling drunks from bar stoops to hospital ERs.
“Sacramento doesn’t take care of itself,” he shrugs.
That seems to be the night’s consensus.
Back at the silent station, Green and Davis drop trou and step out of their gear, leaving them on the garage floor in case they have to jump back in again. Green pauses before going upstairs. Even in his daze, he’s a good host.
“You know where the bathrooms are?” he asks.
“In the sink, right?” I crack.
Green’s too tired for my limp joke to register.
“No. Lemme show you,” he mumbles, following me into the station house and pointing out a door in the hallway.
After he retires, I wander around the empty quarters, listening to the ticking second hand of a wall clock. The city is dead quiet, but I’m sure somewhere there’s some restless drama cracking its head through the Sacramento night. Standing in the dank, petrol-stained garage, I spot a handwritten sign hanging over a cluttered workbench.
“If you’re not having fun,” it reads, “then why are you here?”
I heed its words and slip out a side door. My footfalls trigger a flock of black birds to explode out of a nearby tree. Dry white blots spackle my car.
Even when you want it to, the Sacramento night doesn’t leave you alone.