Trolling the Capitol
A music writer wanders the halls of Sacramento’s most curious building
It’s a little bit after 8 a.m., and downtown Sacramento appears fragmented in the morning light. I only have eight bucks and don’t want to pay for parking, so my car is in the Macy’s lot; I’ll go back every three hours to get my ticket validated in the men’s department, re-park and then head back to the Capitol. There, I’ll hang out all day, riding the elevators, eating, poking my head in and out of doors and getting a general sense of the ecosystem of what is sometimes known as “The Building.”
I walk past the Greyhound station where a few cab drivers stand outside, their bodies slumped against the opened taxi doors like lizards on yellow rocks. They’re smoking and yelling back and forth in their native language. A woman who looks as if she’d never even thought about wearing a bra stands outside of a residential hotel facing a man and a woman. “You fucking bitch,” she yells—a string of slobber clings loosely to her chin. Her eyes are crusted over and nearly shut, but she hobbles toward me, every now and then turning around to challenge the man and woman who wait for her to disappear. Apparently the woman ran out of money and overstayed her welcome.
I continue on to the Capitol building as the belligerent woman staggers toward the bus depot screaming obscenities.
As we well know by now, the state of California is currently in the hole $15.2 billion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—visibly less bad-ass and fatter than in his Conan the Barbarian days—is scrambling for a solution to this year’s budget crisis while legislators on each side stand their ground. Democrats, of course, want to close California’s deficit with spending cuts and tax increases, while Republicans oppose any new taxes but have yet to offer their own budget proposal. Either way, I figure it’ll be a strange vibe in the Capitol and a good time to poke my head in.
On the sidewalk, I wait for a shirtless man with a transistor radio and a scarf wrapped around his head to finish yelling at the sky so I can continue down the sidewalk without disturbing him or the gods he’s chastising.
My phone rings.
“Is this Josh Fernandez?”
Goddamnit; it’s Yvonne, the hypervigilant credit card lady from FBCS. From 2000 to 2004, I spent nearly $10,000 on whiskey, cocaine and hospital bills and am in the process of repaying the collections companies who want their horribly spent money back. And they’re not nearly as impressed with my superficial repayment gestures as I am.
“Yeah, hi Yvonne.”
“Why didn’t you call me back? I was expecting a call from you.”
“I know, you’re not the first person I had to talk to, though. You’re actually No. 8 on my list of credit ladies to call, so … ”
“Oh,” she said. “You know, when I was your age—”
“Yvonne, can I call you back?”
Outside the Capitol, a Highway Patrol officer stands with his hands crossed; he’s muscular, with tightly cropped orange hair underneath his Smokey the Bear hat. He’s scanning the perimeter, as they say on television, but really, he’s just looking kind of predictable and a little cliché.
“So what are you doing here?” he asks after I greet him.
“Just wandering around,” I reply. The way his jaw clenches, it looks like he’s chewing on wood screws.
“You must be doing something here,” he says.
After finally convincing him that I’m just there to wander the halls of the Capitol building as a taxpayer, he lets me walk away.
“Hey,” he calls behind me. “Really, do you know about something that’s about to go on?”
“No,” I say, honestly. “Do you?”
My phone rings. I press the ignore button and walk through the Capitol’s entrance, through the metal detector and stand in the giant, empty lobby. It’s dark. And regal. No matter who you are or what you’re doing there, the Capitol is an intimidating place if you’re not working, wearing a suit or on a tour. With my Nike backpack and extra-large headphones, I feel like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air getting his first glimpse of the Banks mansion.
“Where’s the cafeteria?” I ask the information lady, a portly woman with an easy smile. She walks up to me, puts her soft, warm hand on my shoulder and points down. Then she walks me to an elevator where there’s an elderly lady with glasses sitting on a stool waiting for a passenger. The whole scene reeks of a Stanley Kubrick film.
“Where are you going?” asks the elevator lady.
“Down,” I tell her, and she pushes the appropriate button. As we descend, she faces forward, staring at the illuminated numbers, and I don’t dare ask her how much she gets paid to do so.
Downstairs, the cashier takes my $4 for a coffee and prepackaged apple muffin and points to the carafes. They’re all out of French roast and, strangely, they’re out of the Capitol Blend—so I pour myself a hot cup of Snickerdoodle and take a seat.
It’s lonely in the building. Aside from some construction workers, I’m the only one eating breakfast. Anthony York, editor of Capitol Weekly, warned me earlier that the halls of the Capitol would be empty today. “Both houses are in recess,” he said, but he also said there are other things to do at the Capitol, like—well, he actually couldn’t think of anything offhand. As I sip my horrible coffee, I realize that it’s cold and stuffy in the building’s basement and that I might be suffocating.
I walk outside to get some fresh air and there’s a full-scale protest underway. Hundreds of state workers are holding signs and damning the governor’s budgetary decision to reduce their pay to federal minimum wage, which is $6.55 an hour. Service Employees International Union communications guy Jim Zamora runs up to me.
“Are you R.V. Scheide?”
“No, I’m Josh Fernandez,” I say, wondering how he knew I was even with a newspaper.
“Aren’t you a music writer?”
“Yeah,” I say, feeling a little exposed. But it doesn’t matter to Zamora, who pulls Sharla Smith—an HIV and STD educator for the state of California—out of the picket line for an interview.
Smith has an advanced degree and was making between $75,000-$80,000 per year, she says. But now, thanks to the governor’s rash political posturing, she’ll be making less than I made as a busboy when I was 15.
“It makes me really disappointed in the system,” she says. “They’re not going to balance the budget on the backs of state—”
Smith’s voice is stifled by the hundreds of other pissed-off state workers who are yelling, “This ain’t funny, don’t mess with my money!”
“This is not how you groom people to be members of a republic,” she continues. “This is why we have less voter turnout on every major election, except for American Idol. And why? Because people have faith in that system.”
It’s hard not to be distracted by Assemblyman Dave Jones, who’s standing at a podium on the Capitol steps with a truly excellent hairdo. Somehow he always manages to look elated, even when giving a damning speech about workers’ rights.
“Josh; it’s Yvonne.”
“Hi Yvonne. I’m working.”
“What’s that noise? It sounds like you’re in a wind tunnel!”
“I’m at work.”
“Well, you said you’d call, and we’re going to have to—”
“Hey, Yvonne? I gotta go.”
I decide to head to the new half of the Capitol building and exercise my rights as a taxpayer by knocking on doors and seeing who answers them.
“Hi, is the boss in?” I ask Sen. Darrell Steinberg’s secretary. She looks at me, then tries to find the proper words to match her thoughts.
“Is … he … expecting you?”
“No, just saying hello.”
“Yes, he’s busy.”
“Can you tell him Josh from SN&R stopped by to say hello?”
She scrambles around for a good minute trying to find a Post-it note and I leave. I try Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia’s door, which is locked. Surely Assemblyman John Laird will be in the office. He’s the chairman of the budget committee, for God’s sake. But his assistant says I just missed him.
The whole scene reminds me of when I used to work at Macy’s in San Francisco. I’d punch in, then leave for the rest of the day and come back when my shift was over. And I made $14 an hour, more than twice federal minimum wage. Although there’s absolutely nobody in the building to speak of, I’m relieved, because I wouldn’t know what to ask them anyway.
“It’s good that you’re trying to fix your past, not do it, then hang up on them all day,” she says.
“I know, I’m sorry. You’re right. I just have a lot of shit to pay. It’s overwhelming.”
“I know it is,” she says. “I was young once, too.”
I’m a half-hour late getting to my car, and I have to cough up a buck and 50 cents to get it out of the lot. Yvonne understands my credit dilemma, but she’s still pretty pissed. As I rifle through my wallet to find the quarters, I realize that I want to make it up to Yvonne, to myself and to everyone I’ve ever ripped off in life. I pay the parking guy in nickels and throw my empty wallet back in my bag. Honestly, though, where in the hell am I going to find another $1,000.85?