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Greta, Joan, Aimée, Josiah, Cornel, Stanley, ... Several Other Minor Players, ... and Me
Like Josiah Royce, I sometimes write about my home state, and about what, as I see things, it means to be from here. For some of my other contributions to the genre of Californiana, go here, and here.
My primary purpose in the present essay, if I am being honest, is to cause it to land beneath the eyes of Greta Gerwig. My subjective probability forecast for this outcome is currently hovering around 66%.
As I see things, Greta and I are pretty much alone in bearing the responsibility for representing Sacramento to the outside world. Didion is dead. Mark Twain is long dead. Even Lux Interior is dead. Cornel West, my future Brother President, does not seem to have been all that much affected by his Sacramento years; the same with Stanley Cavell — though we might suspect, in this pair (this troika if we’re counting old Josiah from up in Grass Valley), something about the soil or the sun here that inclines towards, without necessitating, a pragmatist cast of mind. William T. Vollmann has reclused himself somewhere in the wasteland of Alkali Flats, I’m told — a light-rail stop, and I guess technically a neighborhood, with a name right out of Steinbeck. And don’t expect any hard wrangling with the meaning of the place from Tom Hanks.
On the Amtrak up from Martinez, where I arrived on BART from SFO, where I arrived, once again, from Paris, a young man got on when we stopped at Suisun. Of certain Mexican heritage (there are no Mexican “immigrants” in Alta California, there are only Californios), in a pair of Vans, Dickies with a chain on the belt, and a white tank-top, he had tattooed on his right shoulder in an Old English font the numerals “916”, signifying our local Sacramento area code. I suppose he was “representing” too, at least to the good people of Suisun, and it made me very happy to see him. But when it comes to essaying the place in words and not numbers, and to doing so for the sake of people in distant lands where our dialing digits have no resonance, few are around to heed the call.
Most Sacramentans who leave will end up denying or minimizing their connection to our city, not so much out of shame, but of an awareness that, by local standards, departure amounts to betrayal. Whatever is accomplished in the vast expanses beyond the Sierra Nevada might as well occur in another dimension. Thus, Didion:
What happened in New York and Washington and abroad seemed to impinge not at all upon the Sacramento mind. I remember being taken to call upon a very old woman, a rancher’s widow, who was reminiscing (the favored conversational mode in Sacramento) about the son of some contemporaries of her. “That Johnston boy never did amount to much,” she said. Desultorily, my mother protested: Alva Johnston, she said, had won the Pulitzer Prize, when he was working for the New York Times. Our hostess looked at us impassively. “He never amounted to anything in Sacramento,” she said.
She is right, even if this city has relented in her own case, and caused to be erected in the Sacramento Room of the Downtown Public Library a statue of Joan Didion’s frail, smoking, ninety-pound frame.
But the truly greatest Sacramentan has been celebrated here not at all since her death eighty-two years ago. Aimée Crocker (1864-1941) —or, more properly, Princess Aimée Isabella Crocker Ashe Gillig Gouraud Miskinoff Galitzine— a scioness of the Crocker dynasty, perhaps best known today for founding the splendid Crocker Art Museum, was an adventuress, an advocate for the dignity and self-determination of the Hawai’ian people, a libertine, a snake-handler, a collector of tattoos and amoureux and amoureuses, and, most importantly for my own purposes, a memoirist, who chronicled her life in Europe and in the South Pacific with a blunt style that does not exactly match for idiosyncrasy Didion’s frigid gaze upon the world, but that nonetheless adequately conveys the exceptional qualities of her life and person.
No one else but Aimée could conceivably have drawn not just Queen Lili’uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai’i, to Sacramento in 1878, but even, four years later, Oscar Wilde, as is still proudly commemorated —without any reference to Aimée herself, who was admittedly just a girl for the first of these visits but already seems to have been busily accruing social cachet— in the grand ballroom of the museum and former Crocker family home.
Her 1936 autobiography, And I’d Do It Again, barely mentions Sacramento —she claims to have ascended to the German aristocracy from a modest starting-point on a “ranch near San Francisco”— but Aimée is as Sacramentan as Jacques Brel is Belgian, and again, as Joan has already explained for us, the discretion of the Sacramentan out in the larger world has as much to do with one’s having been antecedently spurned by the place as with any unmotivated desire on one’s own part to spurn it.
The titular character in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), having gone off to college and met a boy at a party in Lower Manhattan (a Dimes Square podcaster scumbag, no doubt), similarly declares that she hails from “near San Francisco”. Didion and Steinbeck get their subtle shout-outs in the film, but our original and greatest party-girl, of whom I knew a few latter-day descendants in the eighties, remains absent. Now that Greta has detoured through the literal no-place of Barbieland, perhaps she will consider returning again to the familiar topos of Sacramento. After the absolute cultural nadir of the summer of 2023, perhaps we can put away the toys and hope, someday soon, for a big-screen homage, or at least a passing name-drop, to Aimée Crocker?
What is it to be from Sacramento? Any true Sacramentan will be able to tell you of the bump in the road in the Northbound lanes of 16th Street near the intersection with B Street, heading out of downtown and onto Business 160. The bump is said to have the power to launch cars right into the air, above a certain speed which every Sacramento teenager will have attempted to surpass. But just below that speed, perhaps between forty and sixty miles per hour, its precise curvature guarantees at least a split second of weightlessness and a thrilling landing, which, with the help of the vehicle’s shock-absorbers, has probably provided the majority of Sacramento’s children with their earliest sexual awakening. “The Devirginizer”, we used to call it in the 1980s. Lying just north of Alkali Flats, we may be confident in supposing that Vollmann has been over the bump; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he drives over it compulsively, that genius weirdo, fifty times a day.
A strange trope has been circulating on right-wing Twitter/X, according to which children should be kept away from LGBTQ+ materials since, it is reasoned, children “have no sexuality” and therefore literally can’t process information they receive of the sex-lives of adults. Leaving aside for now the merits on each side of the debate, or whether elementary-school library shelves really need how-to guides for the application of lubricant, we may at least regret what appears to be the total loss in our present century of Sigmund Freud as a cultural touchstone. This is, I think, part of the broader tendency I described last week as the “forgetfulness of childhood”. I mean, do you truly not remember how much, and why precisely, you used to love climbing poles? For everything he got wrong, Freud and his second-gen acolytes (Melanie Klein et al.) were perhaps the last major theorists to take childhood seriously, to truly strive to recall what it is actually like to be a child.
And what it is like, if I recall correctly, and if Freud is at all right on this point, is that it is a period of near-constant pullulations of unbelievable perversity, when desire is so all-consuming —even if we don’t yet understand it and even if the bodily locus of its greatest intensity is not yet settled— as to cause our developing minds to represent even topographical features of our inanimate urban landscapes as the sites of an almost infinite erotic charge, as mysterious places transfigured by their innate paraphiliac powers. Children have no sexuality, you say? Well then they must have grown up in cities with no equivalent of Sacramento’s 16th Street bump.
Once over the bump things smooth out again, as you move past Cal Expo, where the State Fair is on right now: nightly demolition derbies, amusement rides adorned with airbrushed art of Freddy Krueger, the heroine from Frozen, and what appears to be Kurt Cobain; contests of luck or strength for which you might once have won a mirror adorned with The Rolling Stones’ lips-and-tongue logo, or perhaps some artifact honoring Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, but now you can at best hope for some animé-inspired plush toy, or a miniature effigy of Bob Ross, who, like Davy Crockett or Johnny Appleseed before him, seems barely to have been a man at all, but has by now ascended into the pantheon of our culture’s divinities. Over in those giant hangars there are the 4H kids with their prize-winning livestock; and the Isley Brothers are playing tonight too, or what’s left of them.
But if, after the bump, you had taken the first left exit off of 160, onto Del Paso Boulevard, you would have found yourself in Del Paso Heights, and the old Iceland skating rink would have appeared on the right, but otherwise all the iconic art-deco diners and furniture showrooms will have been replaced by Dollar General outlets, or only by empty lots; and soon on the left you will pass the church where we used to have to go volunteer —if it is possible to have to volunteer— at Feed the Hungry; and then soon enough you will cross over I-80, and down below is where in 1988 I saw the dead kid lying on the road, and as traffic slowed to a crawl moving past the accident I looked out and saw that he had no head, I swear, and then the next day at school I learned he was R***, the skater kid from our class, who had been, as the official line would soon have it, “sucked out” of the back window of a Volvo in the course of some mild horseplay; and then Del Paso Boulevard turns into Raley Boulevard, and what used to be McClellan Air Force Base is on the right, and soon what used to be the Country Comfort Lounge will appear on the left, where that same year there was another accident I can’t even bring myself to describe; and then you go a bit further and the buildings grow sparser and the dry brown grass thicker, and soon enough you are in Rio Linda, decidedly not Joan Didion’s Sacramento, where my grandpa had a chicken farm, and where, strictly speaking, I am from.
You cannot go ten feet in this county without finding some signpost of memory for me — some spot where someone I could tell you about died, or got kissed, or broke the law, or had an epiphany. This is cognition in the wild, as you might find in the mind of a Micronesian outrigger pilot or a London taxi-driver who has demonstrated his possession of “The Knowledge”: navigation of an environment where the external markers of place are at the same time internal markers of one’s own motion through time.
For most of us there can only ever be one place that lays out so literally the content —or perhaps better, the structure— of our minds, one place that might properly be called the explicatio of our minds in the same sense in which some neoplatonist mystics said the body is the explicatio or unfolding of the soul, while the soul is the implicatio or enfolding of the body. The broader Sacramento area is that place for me: the place that seems to confirm for me the truth of a thoroughgoing metaphysical idealism, where my changing positions in space are experienced as motions through a sort of 3D read-out of the contents of my own mind and memory.
Here I am, now, in the guest bedroom of my mom’s house in the suburb of Fair Oaks, out 160 to Business 80, then you take the Auburn Boulevard off-ramp and go out Winding Way to San Juan, and you pass my first Alma Mater, American River Community College, where I went after dropping out of high school, and took a political philosophy class and got an A, and then got addicted to A’s and found I couldn’t stop. And back then we all knew exactly how fast you could take the curves on Winding, and we shared tales with one another of other kids who took them just a little bit faster, and lived, or a little bit faster than that, and did not.
If you had turned right on Norris from Winding you would have found again the high school that failed me as I failed it, and perhaps the faint traces of the spray paint that appeared on the pavement one morning at the intersection of Norris and Ronk, perhaps in 1985, and that stayed there for decades announcing to the world that “Stacy is a fat pig” and “Hillary is a cunt” (not the Hillary you might imagine, but just some poor girl at Mira Loma). Someone recently alerted me that the Wikipedia page for Mira Loma now includes me among its “notable alumni”, not at all far on this short list from Alex Honnold, that guy who keeps climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome with his bare hands (class of 2003), and Richard Chase, “‘The Vampire of Sacramento’: schizophrenic serial killer (class of 1968)”. We all must distinguish ourselves in a way that accords with our own natures, I suppose.
But keep going on Winding, and soon off to the right you will see Fairview Lanes, the first bowling alley in the county to switch to automated scoring. Go a bit further and you will see the dual-purpose Spirit-Filled Christian Center and Massage Parlor, though in truth this is a late-arriving institution and I have neither lore nor memories connected to it. Unlike the lanes, unlike the skating rink, unlike the bump, it is not really a part of me.
Nor is this house the one I grew up in, but the one she and her husband have lived in for several decades. It is filled with sundry bibelots whose stories I know inside and out. I do a little voyage autour de ma chambre like the great explorer Xavier de Maistre before me, and I see old photographs, framed, with celebrities (Teddy Kennedy, Henry Winkler, O.J. Simpson). I see books: commonplace books of golfing wisdom and humor, Alan Dershowitz’s Chutzpah (1991), Edward R. Murrow’s This I Believe (1952), Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers & How They Grew (1916).
I sit in here with the blinds drawn and I read my own books (Henry James, William Blake). In the evenings I take an edible and I go down YouTube rabbit-holes, of Pygmy polyphony, the Yaqui deer-dancers of the Sonora Desert, James Brown Live in Rome 1971, James Brown Live in Zaire 1974, the storm-and-stress of rap beefs (Melle Mel vs. Eminem, this time), the delight of shared discovery in the genre known as “reaction videos”, where I sit in this guest bedroom in Fair Oaks and I watch someone else somewhere else listening to a song for the first time, with Beats headphones in a gaming chair, and I see his face contort with ecstasy when the beat drops, and he pauses it, and declares it “Fire.”
The algorithms have figured out I’m obsessed with EZ Mil, and keep churning up more in-studio freestyles to draw me in and distract me (when that inspired young genius shifts from Tagalog speed-rapping into Ilokano, and then into Visayan, I feel as though he must be trying to impress me personally). I find myself wondering whether it’s too late for me to get into the rap game. I honestly think I’d be good at it. The truth is my whole life I’ve been writing rhymes and spitting bars inaperçu. Perhaps I’ll drop a video some day, if I really go insane. Perhaps I’ll start a beef with Louis Theroux. I find no small amusement in the thought that, if I were to do so, I myself, like Em back in the day, might still, with full authenticity, be able to include a line about vomiting up “mom’s spaghetti”. Even as I am writing this I can hear the call from the kitchen, announcing dinner is on. “Alright, mom!”
Have I mentioned I’m 51 years old? I am a civil servant of the French Republic; I have an asteroid named after me; I’ve just signed a six-figure book deal. I seem to remember getting a Ph.D. at some point, though I imagine it must have expired long ago and I never bothered to get it renewed. I’m happily married, without children but otherwise not without a fairly hefty portfolio of worldly responsibilities. Is this suburban California idyll of mine, this summer of great atavism, at all appropriate to my age and station? If not, why does it feel so good and natural?
Admittedly, I’m here for respectable reasons — not out of lingering dependency, in any direct sense, but out of the moral compulsion, perfectly common and expected around this stage of the life cycle, to return to my surviving parent at least a bit of the favor of having generated and raised me, and to offer what I can in the way of filial piety. But the debt is infinite, as David Graeber discerned, and cannot be repaid. This impossibility, under normal circumstances, practically guarantees that whenever an adult child returns home under some vague pretense of repayment he will find himself lapsing back into a familiar and fixed intergenerational dynamic that already carved its groove a half-century ago.
There’s nothing to do but give in, to accept these fixed positions. So I take mom’s car and I drive out San Juan Avenue to Fair Oaks Boulevard, past the bank Patty Hearst held up with her friends from the Symbionese Liberation Army, past the place that used to be Frank & Dolores’s Dance & Accordion Studio, the place that used to be Broadway Academy, where I had my inauspicious start in musical theater, past my old Village Montessori, as the Boulevard now curves from South, to Southwest, to due West, passing Watt Avenue, then Fulton, then Howe, all the great inventors whose names mean nothing here. I’ve got a wedding coming up in Normandy later this month, so I go to a tailor’s shop on K Street and —a first for me— I get fitted for a suit.
The tailor tells me a number of things as he does his work, for example that you have to join the Rotary Club if you want to make it in Sacramento. When I mutter something non-committal in reply he asks me where my accent is from. He was born in the Sindh Province on the night of the partition of India and Pakistan — one of “Midnight’s Children” he says, and is delighted when I know the reference. He refuses to believe I am from this place he has tried to call home for decades. “Be sure not to button the bottom button of your vest,” he says. “At least when you’re in New York or Paris. Of course you could get away with it here in Sacramento.”
Oh yes, Paris. That other place I’m from. Here is the early impression made upon Isabel Archer, of Albany, New York, upon encountering the American friends of her aunt who make that city home, in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881):
With many of these amiable colonists Mrs. Touchett was intimate; she shared their expatriation, their convictions, their pastimes, their ennui. Isabel saw them arrive with a good deal of assiduity at her aunt’s hotel, and pronounced on them with a trenchancy doubtless to be accounted for by the temporary exaltation of her sense of human duty. She made up her mind that their lives were, though luxurious, inane, and incurred some disfavour by expressing this view on bright Sunday afternoons, when the American absentees were engaged in calling on each other. Though her listeners passed for people kept exemplarily genial by their cooks and dressmakers, two or three of them thought her cleverness, which was generally admitted, inferior to that of the new theatrical pieces. “You all live here this way, but what does it lead to?” she was pleased to ask. “It doesn’t seem to lead to anything, and I should think you’d get very tired of it.”
My tailor’s quip about the ignorance of sartorial codes here in Sacramento, whose Rotary Club he had joined, for whose lobbyists and assemblyman and basketball players he had long ago learned to make the necessary big-and-tall adjustments that no doubt push at the very limits of his art, was echoing a very old trope. Again we can turn to Joan for precedent: “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal.”
But what Isabel Archer is seeing is a world at least as far from New York as New York is from Sacramento. New York is after all a great global engine of finance and industry. Things that happen there often “lead to something”, and these can often happen whether you look smart or not. A Californian, anyway, can go there and sometimes find a way to lead his life without “playing tricks with our natural mission”, to cite James again.
Of course if you just wait it out you may eventually come to see your mission differently. American residents of Paris will often seek to hasten this transformation through regular incantations, through proud insistence on the superiority of their chosen form of life and all the “distractions” it provides. Or so it seems to Miss Archer, when she encounters one Mr. Edward Luce in his adoptive city. Here is James’s account of Luce’s quotidian routines:
He passed an hour (in fine weather) in a chair in the Champs Elysées, and he dined uncommonly well, at his own table, seated above a waxed floor which it was Mrs Luce’s happiness to believe had a finer polish than any other in the French capital. Occasionally he dined with a friend or two at the Café Anglais, where his talent for ordering a dinner was a source of felicity to his companions and an object of admiration even to the head-waiter of the establishment. These were his only known pastimes, but they had beguiled his hours for upwards of half a century, and they doubtless justified his frequent declaration that there was no place like Paris.
I like to go to the salad bar at our Whole Foods on Arden Way, to choose exactly as much as I want of each of their many items, their edamame, their asparagus, their quinoa, and then to proceed to the self-checkout counters, and to eat by myself, with biodegradable cutlery, at one of their little tables. The machines there never ask me where my accent is from, nor in silent and contemplative mastication, brought to me by Amazon, do I ever doubt my natural mission.
Greta’s own high school was strong in the arts. I know this because in 1986 I was in an El Camino High musical-theater production of West Side Story, and I saw the ingenious solution our director made to the quandary of my placement in the ensemble. Unable to sing or dance, but racially speaking quite Scandinavian —what the great Paul Beatty would call one of California’s aboriginal blondes—, they dyed my hair black, gave me a spray-tan, and declared me Puerto Rican.
As you will recall the heroine Maria is herself of that island territory, while her beloved Tony, a Jet, represents the generic American male. Because Maria and Tony both have their respective entourages of the same ethnicity and gender as themselves, it follows almost logically that the American Jet girls, and the Puerto Rican Shark boys, will remain the least visible members of the cast. In brief, El Camino High School made me wear brownface in order to keep my talentless ass from ruining their foray into Bernsteiniana.
When my suit is ready my mom is out at another medical appointment, so I take a Lyft downtown. The driver is Iranian. He asks me how many languages I speak, and I say five. I say a few things in Persian, which I don’t speak (khoda hafez, bad nistam, that’s pretty much it), and then we settle on German together to amuse ourselves for a while. He is a horse-trainer for Olympic equestrian events —in Teheran he had had a teacher from Germany who initiated him into the art of the Mächtigkeitsspringprüfung—, and his Lyft driving is only a side-hustle. He says he asks everyone how many languages they speak at the beginning of each ride. He knows no French, and asks me the word for “flower”.
“Farine,” I say, and he writes it down and says it’s beautiful.
“Well, maybe it’s just beautiful because flowers are beautiful.”
And I say: “Sorry about the homonymy. It’s not farine, but fleur,” and he says that’s more beautiful still.
I pick up my suit and order another Lyft. When it arrives I check the license plate to be sure it’s the right car.
“That’s smart to check,” the driver says when I get in. “There are some crazy motherfuckers out here. You don’t know who’s gonna pull a gun on you.” We get to talking and I ask him where he’s from.
“I live in Turlock now,” he says, and then he asks me: “What accent is that?” He tells me he’s one of the only Black people in that Central Valley farming town due South of here, and he tells me stories of all the crazy motherfuckers he’s encountered: MS-13 gangsters from El Salvador (“More like goddamn death squads”), neo-Nazis, Sacramento County Sheriff’s officers.
We turn left off of J Street and head North on 16th. By now you will know what this turn portends.
“I don’t do this full-time,” he says. “This is just a side-hustle. I’m a phlebotomist.” We pass the Alkali Flats light-rail stop, move North past E Street, then D, then C, and then, like every Sacramentan teenager since the invention of the automobile, he speeds up. He tells me he’s 51, just like me, and declares unprompted that he is terribly upset by the death of Sinéad O’Connor.
“I used to watch her on MTV when I was a kid,” he says. “My mom was like, ‘Who’s that bald bitch?’ And I was like, Who cares if she’s bald, she’s hot!” He pauses for a second, and then he says again, incongruously, “Yep, there’s some crazy motherfuckers out there.”
He is going well over the speed limit by the time we hit the bump. Each of us levitates for an instant, and then we descend, and he gleefully declares: “Gotta love the bump.”
As for me I confess I felt nothing this time, other than the bare mechanical jostling of the car and the bodies in it. I really don’t know what the problem was. We were certainly going fast enough. Maybe it’s just not doing it for me anymore. Or maybe the bump itself has grown old, lost its magic touch — lost, that is, what the Scholastics would have described, in reference to those special miasmatic zones well suited to spontaneous generation, as “the power of the place” [virtus loci]. Or maybe —just like everything else about this town— it was in my head all along.
—San Francisco International Airport, International Departures Terminal
13 August, 2023