Neverland, Midtown Sacramento 1990s
I arrived in Midtown in 1990, crashing with my brother Andy in his one bedroom at the Bradon Manor Apartments on H and 24th. It was supposed to be a temporary stop, but I never left Sacramento.
Midtown Sac is a grid spanning 16th to 29th Streets going west-to-east, and A to X the other way. In the early 90s Sac was a sleepy government town, an obscure third-rate metropolis of low-rise bureaucratic buildings, victorians, bungalows and a dense canopy of oaks and sycamores that shaded us on hundred-degree afternoons. Midtown was a bohemian paradise full of weirdos, hipsters, punks, musicians, slackers, scenesters, freaks, bicycle heads, Dead Heads and every other kind of street-level, ‘just hanging out’ kid with nothing particular going on.
Social life consisted of yard parties, impromptu porch fests, picnics at McKinley Park, swimming down at the river. We all lived in run-down flats, duplexes, fourplexes, all sorts of hideouts in alleys and basements. We hung out in dive bars like the Zebra Club, the Round Corner, the Preflight Lounge, the Press Club, the Torch Club on L, Fox & Goose, Pine Cove, Sam’s Hofbrau. Several of these spots noted on their signs "Open at 6 a.m.," courting the patronage of the shabby but harmless winos and barflys who subsisted in crappy old flop houses all over town.
There were a lot of establishments that had seen their prime in the analog 60s, 70s and 80s, and were just hanging on at the end of their runs. They’re nearly all gone now: the Camellia Coffee Shop, The Market Cafe in the produce loading docks, the Distillery, the Monte Carlo, Jim Denny’s, The Townhouse, The Post #61 VFW Hall, The Hereford House. Back then, we walked and biked everywhere on this Neverland grid, and often nowhere in particular. We were kids who didn’t want to grow up, didn’t want the corporate gig, and were sort of alienated from the legit world of aspirational yuppies. Keep midtown janky, indeed. That’s what the homemade bumper stickers said. Fuck yeah!
Maybe the best way to try to capture the time is to go through the different intersecting circles and subcultures, the unique personalities and the episodes that live on in my overly romantic memory. Sure, lots of people cling to memories from their twenties, the formative years that are somehow inspired, rarefied. I’m guilty of this exact bit of vanity. But man, before all the recent modernist condos and upscale restaurants, Midtown was just this small, tight knit community, and we broke-ass, punk-ass townies had dumb youth on our side, and we had the run of the place.
Shortly after I arrived I got a job at Tower Books on Broadway. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the perfect first job in town because Tower was one of the hubs of local culture. Our crew of booksellers was actually dedicated to the store, and handled the ordering and organizational tasks with uncommon responsibility, especially since we got paid nothing. We were knowledgeable and well-read and tapped into the subterranean world of zines, indie publications and obscure foriegn stuff. Like a lot of wise-ass, know-it-all service workers we prided ourselves on being just a touch more hip than the frumpy Land Park intelligentsia who patronized us…and we found subtle and not so subtle ways of expressing our presumed superiority.
The book store was across the street from the iconic art deco movie house the Tower Theater. Tower Records was right next door. By that time, the Tower music empire was at the apex of its global fame. The management was well into cocaine-fueled parties and entertainment industry largesse (see the documentary All Things Must Pass). They were just a few short years from the rapid collapse of an outdated business model—owing to a fatal inability to evolve to the online marketplace. Russ Solomon, the pudgy white bearded founder, would show up here and there, always flashing a big grin. He was a genuine celebrity in town because in the early sixties he truly saw the future before anyone else, and was able to build a music brand and culture that was meaningful to so many people, including the rock-n-roll greats themselves.
At Tower I met my friend Guphy, who managed the children's book section. She was this wise, sassy, snarky free spirit. Guphy hailed from Whitefish, Montana and was tapped into the best music and books, and seemed to know everyone, always at the center of things. A cast of characters revolved around the Tower crowd, like Seamus Couts, a punk and artworld guy, and British pseudo lit scholar, Paul McHenry, an acerbic chap who cherished the chance to outwit any fool who dared spar with him. Matias Bombal, self-styled emcee and historian of the vintage cinema, would sweep into the store in a tux, en route from some swanky event.
Chris Davis was a bike racer with boyish charm who hung with the skinny velo boys. You know, shaved legs and proudly wearing all the spandex multi-colored team gear. The bike racer scene revolved around City Bikes on K. There was a quiet guy with a crew cut named Steve Rex who built high-end frames in a little barn-like garage on Capitol Ave. He continues to take custom orders from all over the world. The bike racers would do a Tuesday evening ride down the Sac River, and also what was called the “Generic” ride, a particular route through the Carmichael suburbs. Greg LeMond, the famous cyclist who lived for a time in Rancho Murieta, joined occasionally.
Being flat with not much rain, Sac has long been an ideal bike town. The machine of choice on the grid was a simple one-speed cruiser or the classic 3-speed Raleigh town bike, or the Schwinn steel frame ten speeds. There was no end to tricking them out, with custom baskets, crazy handlebars, sissy bars, stickers and artwork. The American River bike trail runs 24 miles from downtown out to Folsom. It’s a pristine stretch of riverscape that is one of the great things about Sac.
The Tower Books crew would hit cheap little chinese restaurants on Broadway, and Zeldas, a down-home joint bathed in a rich pervasive I-talian food aroma. They would sling excellent Chicago deep dish pizza, and were noted for (loved for) the surly service from old bitties with bouffants. We’d go to Ye Old Tavern after work, which we started calling the Murder Bar after someone got capped there. Our favorite bar was Old Ironsides, run by Kim Kanelos and her family. Her grandfather started it in 1934, the first establishment to “officially'' open up after prohibition ended, thus the oldest bar in town. Old I, as we called it, was nautical themed, had nagahide banquettes, and before they added the stage there was a brick fireplace that bands would play in front of.
The most memorable of the many local bands was Cake. They are the only ones who made it big, with a unique sound that was groovy and danceable--Vince blowing his trumpet in the lulls, and frontman / songwriter John McCrea’s deadpan, flat-toned vocals, the smart, ironic lyrics. Cake honed their chops at Old I, Cafe Montreal and other joints in front of small audiences. Eventually they played international tours and performed before thousands on the music festival circuit. Their songs were in movies and they got booked on the late night TV shows.
You would see John going around midtown stapling gig flyers to telephone poles. He hustled and it paid off. We loved Cake and hung with them early on. A Waldorf School kid from the suburbs, John would show up at yard parties and play Sheep Go to Heaven and Stick Shifts and Safety Belts on a beat up little guitar. You could tell he was talented and original enough to make it big. A guy with a real stage presence, between songs he did this schick where he acted sort of intentionally pissed off. It was so deadpan that you weren’t sure if it was a put-on or real. It was this stern anti-hero persona, sort of calling bullshit on the whole self-satisfied rock-n-roll hero.
There was a real homegrown music scene in Sac in the 90s, a lot of it promoted by an empresario figure named Jerry Perry who put on shows at Old I and the Cattle Club. He put out a rag called Alive & Kicking and booked Nirvana before they were big. He also started a Friday afternoon Music in the Park program that had an organic, low key vibe…before it got really big and a bunch of corporate sponsors got involved—they ended up kicking Jerry out.
There was live music at The Press Club, Malarky's on Broadway, and the Crest downtown. Bands like Pounded Clown, Mike Blanchard’s Tattooed Love Dogs, Sex 66, Beer Dogs, Papa’s Culture, Go Dog Go, Daisy Spot fronted by Mike Farrell, The Tiki Men, No Kill I, Draw Pinky, The Trouble Makers, The Knock-Offs…so many others. Dutch Falconi had this over-the-top vaudeville spectacle, a 20-piece twisted big band ensemble complete with dancing girls and all manner of sideshows.
And there was always a blues band at Sam’s Hofbrau on J and 17th. At night, Sam’s was a venue, but in the day it was a cafeteria-style buffet where you'd push a tray through the line and the guy would carve you some roasted turkey and scoop mashers onto the plate and top it with a ladle of gravy. Or you’d get meat loaf or pastrami and slaw and all the trimmings. Out front of Sam’s there hung the greatest old neon sign featuring a pudgy chef carving up a ham. Iconic.
John from Cake worked as a waiter at Greta’s Cafe—like Tower, another epicenter for Midtown life. At 19th and Capitol, Greta Garverick ran a busy, hip coffee shop that served breakfast and lunch—all scratch-made dishes, soups, baguette, lasagna, and her renowned salads. Every morning they baked croissants, muffins and scones. Greta’s served a combination of the business crowd and us kids, and somehow it all worked. Folks like Tony Duke worked there, and tall, handsome future professor Steve Jacobs, and “Angry” David Feldman. RIP Dave. Greta presided over the place in her white apron like a mom to the misfits and slackers. Greta and her homicide detective husband Ron drove around in an old yellow VW bus from which they did catering. They were interesting and cool, more grown up than everyone else in that scene.
It was at Greta’s where I first saw my future wife, Megan Whetstone, Greta’s sister. She was starting her career at IBM and driving around in a little VW Cabriolet. I married into the Whetstone family from Rancho Cordova. Meg’s older sister Amy had worked down the street at Java City Cafe. She was a jokester and a big partier, the one who rallied group bike rides and pub crawls. She married a guy named Rick Alfaro from the nearby town of Davis. There’s this great photo of them riding a tandem bike in formal dress at their wedding reception. I actually met Meg at one of Amy’s house parties in Curtis Park (read the story). Stacie Robertson and her man Scott were good friends with Amy.
Photos by Rick Alfaro (the four above and the cover)
The oldest of the Whetstone kids is mild mannered brother Chris who played in a celtic band and became a public school teacher. He married Sandy Fong, who became a well known sculptor of whimsical figurines sold at the Crocker Museum of Art and several other galleries.
There was a whole cast of characters orbiting around Greta’s: Ray Reel, Ground Chuck, a grizzled punker in tattered clothes who endlessly walked around town lugging a boombox; and long-haired bike messenger Brad Gleed. Scott Burton drove around in a bomber vintage convertible Cadillac. Keara Fallon, from Curtis Park, worked at Gretas and then another coffee shop, New Helvetia. She reminds me of a lot of themed dinner parties that happened back then. Keara designed several Cake album covers and ended up moving to SF and getting into web design in the technology space. There was this group campout every spring called Mike and Bob’s Easter Extravaganza that drew 60 plus midtowners to Yosemite and other Northern Cal campgrounds. That trip is going strong, in its 37th year.
And then there was Mark Miller, a lanky bespeckled fellow, a fixture on the Midtown scene for years. Mark has a bemused curiosity after niches and quirky things, an esoteric knowledge, and a wide, diverse circle of friends. He’s fond of the overlooked things and the free things—night canoe trips, campfires, vintage country music, any number of random and obscure destinations. He’s a mysterious character, sort of a Midtown version of Kramer from Seinfeld, but less goofy. The son of strip club owners, he never had a regular job—rather a combination of things, including architectural salvage, double-hung window restoration and dealing antiques on Craigslist.
Greta operated her cafe in the years right before the corporate coffee franchises Starbucks and Peets took over America. Her place was local, homemade and had a big heart. Eventually she and Ron had kids, and realized waking up at 4 every morning to bake bread was incompatible with family life. So she got out after a memorable run from ‘90 to ‘98.
At some point I moved from the Tower gig to working at a dumpy little T-shirt printing shop called Echo Shirts. I started at the bottom, cleaning screens with solvent and a pressure washer. I was a college grad with a couple years of advertising copywriter experience and I’m doing this nasty work. But that job was life-changing because I taught myself computer graphics and printing and design. In that hot, uninsulated warehouse space we printed for festivals, schools, church groups, reunions and any event or organization you could imagine. We did thousands of shirts for the Sac Jazz Jubilee, now long gone. It was a big dixieland jazz fest in Old Sac, the Gold Rush era historic district down by the river. I honed my design and graphics skills by replicating on the computer handmade design concepts that customers would bring in.
We printed for Cake. I remember a simple black-and-white illustration of an ant that was the band’s first graphic offering. We printed for Old Ironsides and Greta’s and the Rubicon, a microbrewery on Capitol that was a forerunner of today's craft beer overload. The Rubicon had a real Dead Head vibe and became well known for an ale called Monkey Knife Fight. The printers at Echo were dinosaurs living at the tail end of analog printing technology—Stat camera film output and cutting rubylith masks by hand—just as computer graphics were on the way in.
There were many production deadlines and good times in that little shop with Vic, Bruce, Stan and a young redheaded kid named Steve Hall. Steve was a rocker who later bartended at the Round Corner, and eventually became a rock tour manager, working all over the world. We still talk about how he air-drummed through an entire Tom Petty concert at Arco Arena. I moved from Echo to a few local design studios and then staff marketing gigs, and eventually started my own graphic design and marketing business.
There was this crazy old drunk musician character named Bobby Burns who was a fixture in Midtown. For his alcoholic enthusiasms he was beloved by the twenty-something crowd of midtowners. There was an unconfirmed story floating around that he had played with some of the jazz and big band greats back in the day. One time a freak parade was organized around Bobby, referred to as the Doo-Dah Parade. A crew of shirtless guys wearing fez hats and shades carried Bobby and his drum kit on a liter like some kind of pagan deity, while ladies fanned him with giant palm fronds. The procession rolled down Capitol with Bobby wailing on the drums. A sight to see! Here’s a video John Milne shot:
I wrote this prose poem about him, called Bobby Burns, Time Traveler
The ghost of Bobby Burns shambles along, flashing a sweet, missing-teeth, wasted grin, hollering across the street: ‘Yabba Zabba, Baby!' His signature hepcat greeting shouted with magnanimous wave and flourish, maybe a little mock jig, in loud plaid pants and shiny white shoes. Yeah, there were always vague rumors that he had been a session man on the drums for the likes of Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey—a time traveler from the black and white age of ballrooms and natty suits. The facts of his biography mattered less than how a whole crowd of kids a quarter of his age adopted him, drawn to his singular genius for life, a particular vintage alcoholic, swaggering enthusiasm.
He's a ghost now, and every year a few guys go drink whisky on his grave. Midtown is full of ghosts now—all the stuff that’s disappeared or left behind. The Sam’s Hofbrau sign just got pulled down this year. Odd to see that neon icon unceremoniously hauled away on a flatbed truck, the pudgy, pink cheeked man in a chef's hat still offering up a piping hot roasted ham; and that friendly little spot hidden in the concrete bowels of the downtown shopping mall, with it’s unlikely transportation backstory. In the dark subterranean catacomb of the Preflight Lounge the swingin’ 70s were archivally frozen in time. It was just razed to make way for a glass basketball arena that will resemble a spaceship.
The list goes on: a secret lunch counter in the produce docks, the Beat Records, finally swamped over by the inevitable wave of digital music…now it's a suburban chain store. And the Monte Carlo, little corner tavern whose sign boasted ‘Open at 6 am.’ Where are the haunted winos who sat in those dive joints? Sunk deeper into dementia? Or finally reached the last call?
Our crowd of janky midtown punks, scenesters and art freaks rails against the new luxury lofts, high concept eateries and bro bars. But we are getting old and fat, clinging to our antiquated eccentric, late century, counterculture memories. History doesn’t give a shit about our finely honed vintage aesthetic. Time churns and swallows us up as we puzzle over why the things we treasure just don't matter to the newcomers. This is their time, and we have crossed over, the way Bobby Burns did, to some sort of far side from which things must have looked a little strange and unrecognizable. Say it now, with a knowing, wasted sort of enthusiasm: ‘Yabba Zabba Baby!’
One of the organizers of the parade was a legendary guy named Steve Vanoni. Steve was pretty close with Bobby. He was a bit older than my immediate circle and was tapped into the original Burning Man art crowd from San Fran. The Cacophony Society was an inspired group of art scensters, pranksters and independent thinkers who were completely out on their own jag.
Steve painted big brightly colored canvases that looked a bit like the Yellow Submarine album artwork. He was tall and trim and had a certain rock-n-roll look, with a trademark leather jacket, pompadour and a chiseled, weathered face. He looked striking, like he was a model or some kind of refugee from the Berlin art scene. Nice guy, who also taught art to special needs kids at a clinic called the Short Center. He ended up moving to Estonia. My wife Megan and I went to one of his art happenings at his Gallery Horse Cow up on Del Paso Blvd. Several people in jumpsuits and goggles were squirting paint on a naked girl who was gyrating to blaring techno music. Art world bizzaro!
Vanoni was close with a guy named John Soldano, who had a gallery called The Toy Room where he sold art influenced by comic books, the rat rod/dragster scene, skate punks, latino culture. He was one of the early gallerists to sell Shepard Fairy’s OBEY silkscreens, and the works of other street and outsider artists.
Vanoni was friends with Bob Stanton and his wife Kim Alexander. I became close with Bob and Kim much later, in the aughts, when we were all involved in a ghost town “project” way out in the Nevada Desert. (read the story).
Another guy generally in this circle is Vince Sterne. Around the beginning of the 90s he started a Thanksgiving day group bike ride called the Appetite Enhancement Ride, a free-for-all where people would dress up, decorate their bikes and go deep into holiday revelry. In the early years the small group met in Vince’s garage. By around 2015 the ride had grown to a bigtime event, with a pre-party totalling 1,000+ revelers, food and drink vendors, bands, and all manner of craziness.
The craft hard cider brewery Vince started in the mid-90s also grew significantly over the years. Today, Two Rivers Cider makes a whole line of beverages at their south Sac brewery. Their cider can be found in bars, restaurants, stores and supermarkets throughout the Sacramento region. He was one of the first craft cider brewers in California to use fresh fruit instead of concentrate.
One of the other guys involved in the Bobby Burns parade was a dude from New York named Scott Warnash. He was briefly in Cake and for a time roomed with my brothers, Andy and Mike. Scott ended up moving back east and became a forensic archaeologist. He discovered an iron coffin at a construction site in the Bronx and ended up doing a documentary about it for PBS. We’ve reconnected with him periodically over the years.
We were friends with these guys over on 25th Street: Pat Williams, who worked with Meg, and Mike Mahoney, an editor at the Sacramento Bee. Pat and his wife Elise moved to Santa Cruz where he’s worked for Google for decades. Mahoney, a lovable absent-minded professor type, became a high school English teacher and married a gal named Patty who happened to jog by his front porch one fateful day. Through them, we got to know Buck Busfield, who was just founding the B Street Theater back in the early 90s. It was a modest repertory company in a tin warehouse by the railroad tracks. The B Street has come a long way from then, now anchoring a performing arts complex on Capitol Ave.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Milt’s Deluxe Barber Shop, next to the Zebra Club on 19th. There were always several guys waiting in the small shop, because a cut was only $4 and Milt’s down home vibe was way better than going to a salon stylist. Milt was a small white-haired guy. His gravel-voiced rap was peppered with old world vernacular and each visit he seemed to work in a mention of going to “Barber College” after WWII. He’d point to a poster on the wall showing different cut options, “You want the Flattop Boogie?” When he got done with the electric razor and shaving around your ears he would lean in and ask in a low voice, “You want the massage?” If you said yes, he would slip battery-powered electric devices onto his hands and rub down your scalp, neck and shoulders. I would decline this service. Innocent though it was, the intimacy was more than I could handle.
Eventually, everyone grew up and these carefree times faded…Peter Pan and Tinkerbell flew back to the land of make believe for good and we all moved on to other stages of life. Meg and I got married, moved to East Sac, bought a house and raised kids. People took state jobs. People moved out of town. Some left for the dreaded suburbs. Some died young: RIP Jennifer Iribarne, Chris Davis, David Feldman, and Steve Locke from Tower. I’m still in touch with lots of people from that era on Facebook, although everyone’s settled into their own lives. Time rolls on, indeed.
Sacramento has become a desirable destination city, a gentrified urbanscape of luxury lofts and wine bistros. But every so often you happen across traces of that forgotten time at the end of the millennium when we lived our own janky mythology in the beloved lost Neverland of Midtown.