Sleepless in Sacramento

A somnambulist’s view of summer in Sacramento

Illustration By Elwood Smith

Hearing Sacramentans grumble about their city’s nightlife is almost as common as hearing old people complain about their bowels. Everybody exaggerates the shortcomings of the city where they live. I have even heard New Yorkers grumble about how nothing interesting ever happens in New York anymore. As the old proverb goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side,” and it is easy to dis Sacramento’s nightlife because you can jump in your car and be in San Francisco in a little more than an hour. Sacramento suffers from Philadelphia Syndrome—being overshadowed by one of our planet’s great cities.

My assignment is to venture out into the heart of Sacramento after midnight, to seek unknown thrills, to find unfamiliar places, to see just what the heck goes on in this city after they roll up the sidewalks and throw out the cat. Knowing that my two years in Sacramento isn’t enough to get me around, I am accompanied by two friends of mine, Brian and Elle, both lifelong Sacramentans.

Midnight: It just seems right to start this journey in the birth canal of Sacramento, Old Sac, a place where, for a hundred years, you could find any vice—legal or illegal—that you would ever want to have. Until the 1970s, Old Sac was filled with fleabag hotels and seedy bars. If you wanted heroin or a homosexual encounter, Old Sac was the place to go. Crooked policemen fought for transfers to the Old Sac beat. During the 1940s, the local dailies broke a story that a Sacramento police officer and his wife owned a building in Old Sac that was a known den for illegal activities.

In the cruel sunlight of the daytime hours, Old Sac is a tourist trap, full of ice-cream shops and trinket merchants. But, when the sun goes down, Old Sac miraculously changes to Baghdad with an Old West facade.

Counting the Sacramento River, there are only three ways to enter Old Sac—I Street to Second Street, Capitol Mall to Front Street, and the K Street underpass. The powers that control Old Sac have the place tied down tight. All of the alphabet streets have metal barricades blocking them, and civilian contractors staff checkpoints at all entrances and exits. They check my credit rating and tell us that we are only allowed to drive on Second Street. We are permitted the privilege of using valet parking or dumping $10 at the parking garage at Capitol Mall and Front Streets if we choose to park.

Like visitors at a wild-animal park, we drive slowly down Second Street, windows rolled up and doors locked, observing packs of drunken bling-bling and frat boys stumbling down the wooden sidewalks just like our city fathers did, in a drunken haze. After four short blocks, it is over. We drive under Capitol Mall and run a gauntlet of Sacramento’s finest, just waiting for someone to squeal their tires or show any sign of intoxication. Not sure if we’ve done something wrong, we circle through downtown, come back down I Street and enter Old Sac again. We strain our eyes trying to find a way to make a right-hand turn, but to no avail. We find ourselves in the police gauntlet again and then on N Street.

12:45 a.m.: We drive through the dead zone around the Capitol and make our way up J Street, where the Streets of London pub beckons us. The doorman asks me for ID, and I ask him to hold onto my walker while I open my wallet. Streets of London reminds me of the bars that I’ve been to in London—rugby on the televisions, drunken blokes throwing darts with a blonde tart, and an astonishing absence of minorities.

“Everyone looks like they come from nice families,” says Brian as he looks around the front room. I feel there is more to the place: 19 imported beers on tap, an overabundance of blond-haired females, and a jukebox with only British bands. The outside patio is packed with young, healthy-looking people. “Everybody leaves here before closing time,” said Kwanza, the bouncer. “I usually get out of here at 2.” Gulping our beers, we head out the doors while Tom Jones sings “It’s Not Unusual.”

1:35 a.m.: The A&P liquor store sits at 21st and K streets like a lighthouse on the Straits of Bukowski. There isn’t a soul in the place except for employees Gary and Ryan. They both have that “something is going to blow” vibe usually reserved for sailors and bike messengers.

“Some nights it’s dead-silent the last 15 minutes, and some nights we have to literally close the door on people,” says Ryan. “You get them knocking, flashing, yelling, screaming and crying to get alcohol,” adds Gary.

Ryan steps outside to have a quick smoke. His eyes dart around the intersection of K and 21st swiftly as he hot-boxes his cigarette. In less than a minute, six people have entered the store. Ryan reflects on his one-month career at the A&P. “It all blends together, no matter how crazy, how stupefying or shocking it is. It’s wow,” he says.

1:45 a.m.: Last call has been sounded, so what to do to make the evening more eventful? Saunter over to the G Spot on K Street, where you can buy penis gummies, truth-or-dare poker cards and blowjob vouchers, along with condoms of every shape, size and color. The guys that work there are really nice, but they aren’t allowed to talk about their customers, which is probably a good idea.

2 a.m.: We all learned back in high school that pizza is the best food you can eat when you are intoxicated. The combination of melted mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce and doughy bread settles the stomach and steadies the nerves. Almost hidden away at 1309 21st Street is Sacramento’s most beloved after-hours pizza parlor, Pieces. Dark as night during the day and bright as day at night, Pieces is one of the few places in California’s capital city where you can buy pizza by the slice. The best thing about Pieces is that it stays open late. “We’ll get a rush about 2 o’clock, and we stay open until people quit coming in,” says Jerry, the manager. “If there is still a line, we keep cooking.”

2:30 a.m.: In all my travels around the world, 2:30 a.m. has been a magical time everywhere. Emotions are on everyone’s sleeves, and stomach contents are on the sidewalks. The streets are filled with people laughing, crying, kissing and arguing. So it has been and always will be.

The Depot has the distinction of being across the street from Faces, one of Sacramento’s premier nightclubs. The Depot is quintessentially Sacramento: clean and functional and not very fancy, sitting in the shadow of a much larger and more entertaining place. A $2 cover gets you in the door.

“Why is there a cover?” I ask the doorman. “Because we are open until 4,” he answers.

Illustration By Skinner

The Depot—or, as it is affectionately called by the regulars, “The Deep Hole”—is sparsely furnished and surprisingly fresh inside. Proper ventilation is always a good thing in bars. The walls and floors are black, and the tables are stainless steel. The music videos are pretty mainstream: Madonna, U2, Black Eyed Peas. A couple of pool tables and pinball machines are in the middle room, and a great open area surrounds the back bar.

I’m told that there’s usually a swarm of people here after 2 a.m., but tonight it’s a little quiet. The crowd in front of Faces hasn’t dissipated yet, even though the lady at the hot-dog cart is telling everyone that she only has nachos left. “Everyone comes over here and looks for a little Dick and a little Crystal,” says a drunk named Dave, no doubt referring to some local celebrities. “It gets kind of crazy.”

3 a.m.: All night long, everyone has been telling me that I have to go to Ink, a restaurant open until 4. We drive past the ominous Sutter’s Fort, where, in a few hours, tourists will get a sanitized history of the first phase of Sacramento’s development by Caucasians. Does the park service tell the visitors that Old Man Sutter used to impale the decapitated heads of uppity American Indians on the spikes over the front gate?

There is a line of about 20 people standing out front of Ink. We approach with anticipation: What makes this place so special? Why is there a line in front at this hour? We look through the giant windows and observe what is happening inside, just like an exhibit at a zoo. The room has way too much red and brushed steel in it. Posters of old-fashioned tattoo samples hang from the ceiling and walls. A DJ is playing trance while red-nosed 20-something people poke at their food and plot their last chance at romance. A young woman starts crying and is comforted by her friends. In the wink of an eye, she is smiling again. For a second, I feel like one of the angels in the film Wings of Desire, but it was probably just the beer.

3:30 a.m.: Brian and I walk Elle to her apartment, a stone’s throw from Ink, which may be the reason she’s not crazy about the place. Hopping into my vehicle, we drive around Midtown, looking for a business that is open. Our options are shrinking: There’s Club Fantasy up on Richards Boulevard or 24 Hour Fitness at the downtown mall, but neither of us is in the right condition to even stare at people’s bodies, let alone work on our own.

“Safeway is open,” says Brian.

We call it a night. I’ve been to Safeway way too many times at 4 in the morning.

Dead-of-night things to do

Note: In order to make this directory less confusing for sleep-challenged readers, the following closing times actually refer to the morning after the night listed. If all this seems too confusing, you’ve probably had enough and need to go home.

A&P 21st Street Liquor Store
1101 21st Street
Open until 1:45 a.m.

Club Fantasy
851 Richards Boulevard
Open until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights and until 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday nights.

The Depot
2001 K Street
Open until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights and until 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday nights.

G Spot
2003 K Street
Open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights and until midnight Sunday through Thursday nights.

Ink Eats and Drinks
2730 N Street
Open until 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday nights and until 1 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday nights.

Pieces Pizza by the Slice
1309 21st Street
Open until whenever.

1025 Alhambra Boulevard
Open until Armageddon.

Streets of London
1804 J Street
Open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, until midnight Sunday nights and until 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday nights.