Star-crossed summer

Or how I learned to love the Southern Caleeforneeization of Sacramento

Illustration By Elwood Smith

Their arrival in Sacramento initially went unnoticed. Invasive spores of an alien culture, the yellow star thistles began tumbling into the foothill grasslands in the 1930s or ’40s. Traveling on the undercarriages of tractors and road-repair vehicles, they insinuated their way into our ecosystem and were welcomed with open wings by the local bee population, which used them as a source of nectar and pollen to make sweet star-thistle honey. But there also was a bitter side to the star-thistle invasion: Horses ate them and developed brain lesions. The star thistles depleted moisture from the soil in the Sacramento River watershed, causing an annual economic loss believed to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Ultimately, the yellow star thistle became such a concern that, by 2000, California instituted Noxious Weed Management laws to fight the infestation.

Today, a newer yet similarly seductive invasion is well under way in Sacramento. This time, the spores are not being carried on the undersides of farm vehicles, but in the lofty cabins of yellow Hummers and black SUVs. They bring with them an alien yet somehow familiar culture, a latte-fueled landscape of tony nightclubs and tawny physiques. You’ll find them this summer at newly developed downtown hotspots like the corner of J and 16th streets, eagerly cueing up to pay for valet parking even when a half-dozen empty spaces are still visible along the street.

They are the new Sacramentans, and this is their summer: would-be Schwarzeneggers and Shrivers whose hearts and souls still access Hollywood even as their bodies cruise the steamy streets of our Central Valley refuge.

I know them well, because I am one of them.

Well, sort of. I originally staked out Sacramento as an East Coast transplant fresh out of college, when a guitarist and I traveled out here to reunite with our old singer, who was attending California State University, Sacramento then. What we envisioned, of course, was a cultural composite of every California myth, the Beach Boys’ endless summer preserved for eternity. What we got, of course, was a sweltering July heat wave, during which the singer endlessly fought with his girlfriend and the electricity would go out every time we turned the amps on. When our singer’s friends told us the best summer diversion was driving down to the river and blowing bubbles—there must have been some drug involved that made that interesting—I began plotting my escape. Within a week, I’d moved out to the coast, never expecting to return.

Yet, many years later, I came crawling back, this time as an honorary Los Angeles transplant in the summer of 1997. The town itself didn’t seem all that different—maybe more streetlights and less foliage—and it no longer had to compete with my romanticized images of the California dream.

Plus, I could afford air conditioning.

Being part of the vanguard, the advance troops, if you will, of this imminent occupation, we Southern Californians kept a lower profile around here back in the 1990s. We waited patiently for Sacramentans to catch up in the realm of cell phones, SUVs and fine late-night dining. We let the Bay Area’s high-tech diaspora do the heavy gentrifying, content to sit back and wait our turn. And then, while the city slept, valet parking services began springing up like thirsty star thistles.

Sacramento valet magnate John Neumann, who got in on the ground floor of the local parking industry 10 years ago, credits restaurateur Randy Paragary with the vision thing. “Randy has always been a valet-minded guy—service, service, service!—and other people have followed suit,” said the founder of Neumann Enterprises, whose valet accounts have nearly tripled in the last three years. “There’s much more to come, too—under construction, planned construction—and those are just the ones you know about! Then there are the guys you don’t know about that are now formulating their own game plan to get in on that wave.”

Neumann also credits the Kings with making Sacramento safe for valet parking, but he regrets that “we wouldn’t get to touch” the Governator’s ride. “The governor’s vehicle is an armor-plated Lincoln with a security detail that’s like no detail we’ve worked with in the past,” he said. “I was asking the guy how many miles to a gallon that vehicle gets, and he says, ‘No, it’s more like how many gallons to the mile!’”

J and 16th streets: The aliens are among us.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Our White House-bound, Hollywood-import governor certainly deserves credit for helping give his homeland du jour an extreme makeover. After all, it was Schwarzenegger who went on late-night television and road rallies fervently pledging to clean up Sacramento. And although Arnold and his many friends from Florida, Texas, Washington and, yes, Southern California, haven’t done much actual sweeping so far, the onslaught of TV cameras that’s followed him up here is inspiring many Sacramentans to dress much better.

Meanwhile, the viral marketing campaign has gone into overdrive, as Sacramento undergoes more cosmetic enhancements. Our incumbent mayor began airing campaign commercials about how people laughed when she originally talked about revitalizing downtown. But, the narrator reminded us, they’re not laughing now. In fact, they’re smiling.

And so they are—at least in the commercials, in which happy couples endlessly cavort outside newly opened restaurants to what sounds like a smooth jazz vamp from Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.”

On a balmy evening earlier this month, there were many smiles on Capitol Avenue just outside Joey B’s, the recently opened hybrid venue where sports-bar camaraderie, supper-club chic and the now-obligatory valet parking all shimmer in the reflected glow of the Capitol dome. Glued to a big outdoor TV screen for a crucial playoff game, a crowd of 40 or so spectators had gathered on the sidewalk and began chanting “Na-na-na-na-hey-hey-goodbye” as the Kings ran down the clock. Afterward, the odd mix of sharply dressed revelers and neighborhood vagrants dispersed, revelers shouting into their cell phones, vagrants mumbling to themselves.

Out into the summer night they went, into a Sacramento that may never be quite the same.

Occupation-force things to do

• Valet parking at Empire Events Center, 1417 R Street, (916) 448-3300. Valet fee: $5.

• Valet parking at Esquire Grill, 1213 K Street, (916) 448-8900. Valet fee: $5.

• Valet parking at Joey B’s, 1629 Capitol Avenue, (916) 444-2224. Valet fee: $5.

• Valet parking at P.F. Chang’s, 1530 J Street, (916) 288-0970. Valet fee: $5.

• Valet parking at Sammy Chu’s, 1431 R Street, (916) 669-1400. Valet fee: $5.

• Valet parking at Tunel 21, 926 Second Street in Old Sacramento, (916) 447-7577. Valet fee: $6.