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Monday, February 06, 2006

Delta Blues


I'm all about saving the environment, using public transportation, recycling stuff, and taking some cloth bags to the store with me. And in our home, as a rule of thumb, if it's yellow let it mellow – if it's brown, simply, flush it down.

Trust me: we do our part, and then some.

But God bless the automobile! Oh, that fossil fuel consuming, dangerous at any speed, 2 tons of fun!

Because without the car, what would we take road trips in? A frickin' horse and buggy?

And really, a road trip down some lonely highway is almost more American than all of these other little things, you know, like civil rights... and separation of church and state... and public libraries.

I mean, you can get that stuff in Scandawhoovia!

Earlier this last week, I felt something missing. Something vaguely absent and an urge to fulfill an undefined empty space in my soul.

What I needed was a road trip.

In a panic, I emailed Bruce at work and suggested that we take a road trip this weekend. Luckily, I didn't have to whine at all (and I was all ready, too!), as he was as excited to take one as I was.

But where to go?

I'd love to go to the desert right now, but that's way too far. I mean, that's practically LA. And if we're going to travel that far, I'd rather just go to Pink's in LA or some of the cool places I hear on Evan Kleiman's radio show.

Hey! The desert isn't going anywhere anytime soon.



What we finally decided on was taking a drive up Highway 160, which extends through the California delta all the way from Contra Costa county to downtown Sacramento. On the way to Sacramento are cool little towns like Isleton, Rio Vista, Locke, and Walnut Grove.

These cool little delta towns have roots that go back 100 years, but are always under the threat of flooding due to being the California equivalent of New Orleans. Most towns are situated precariously close to levees built many years ago and which require constant maintenance (ie, state funding) and are, for the most part, underneath the level of the water from the levees.



In fact, Highway 160 itself runs on top or underneath of a levee practically the whole way to Sacramento.

Nevertheless, the delta region is just beautiful. Lots of wildlife and lots of agriculture, such as the pear orchards that run along 160. The other amazing part of Highway 160 are all the 2 story Victorian mansions that dot along the highway and practically butt up against the levee. Some of these old-school monster homes are just awe-inspiring. I don't know their history, but Bruce suggested that maybe they were originally built as country homes for wealthy people from San Francisco or Sacramento.



I'm not kidding about how beautiful these homes are. Someone should do a frickin' coffee-table book or something.

Our first stop was the town of Locke, to grab a bite to eat and to check out this amazing little town. While there's lots of information on the web about Locke, I'll share with you some of what I learned.

Basically, Locke is the first and only town in the United States that was founded and built by the Chinese. These Chinese had been farm and railroad workers who previously lived a mile or two down the street at another mostly Asian town called Walnut Grove. Around 1915, the Chinese section of town caught fire and made homeless many that lived there. Because the Chinese were excluded from owning property back then, an industrious Chinese businessman convinced the local white landowner to lease him the property on which Locke was built.

Pretty soon, a fully functional small town was built, complete with restaurants, schools, gambling parlors, hardware and grocery stores. To call it a "Chinatown", in my opinion, seemed wrong. It was a town, not just a section of a town that is commonly referred to as "Chinatown" in whatever cities around the world the Chinese happen to settle.



As times changed and Chinese-Americans were granted the same rights as Anglo-Americans, the Chinese population in Locke diminished as they moved on for other work or to be closer to the suburbs of larger cities like Sacramento. In fact, driving up Highway 160 into Sacramento, you notice more and more signs with Chinese lettering the closer you get to the city.

As its original inhabitants moved away, some Chinese stayed, but a good deal of whites moved in. Today, it is estimated that out of roughly 80 residents, only 10 are of Chinese descent. However, not enough of both ethnicities seemed to be able to afford upkeep on these old and historic buildings and many of them have fallen underneath the pressure of time, despite the constant changing of ownership of the town.

To look at the buildings, one would easily assume it was a ghost town. And even though I know that Locke has many operating businesses and people who live in town, I just found it hard to believe that they live and work in these buildings. However, we saw with our own eyes a father and his daughter hanging out on the second story of one of these dilapidated-looking buildings. And we peeked into many of the shops that happened to be closed that day.



When we got to the town at 11:30 AM, we seemed to be the only ones there. But as we left around 1 PM, the town's parking lot was full!

Of course, most of that traffic was for the very un-PC Al the Wop's. Al the Wop's is the only other restaurant in town, other than the Chinese one that sits along the highway, and was the first white, or "wop", owned business in Locke. And while most of the clientele were white the day we were in, the people working in the kitchen were Chinese (that would be 3 of the 10).



At one point long ago, Al's changed their name to "Al's Place" as some thought the wop reference was offensive, even though a couple of doors down was Jimmy the Cracker's, Jose the Wetback's, and Jean-Paul the Eurofag's.

Go figure!

Al the Wop's (or as they say, "Althewops") is best known by weekend warriors motorcycling through the area, the local roughnecks, and old duffers for their famous steak sandwiches. Also, everyone seems to get a kick that on each table is an open jar of peanut butter and jelly with a butterknife stuck in each; no doubt an OCD's worst germ nightmare.

After walking through the eclectic bar and the even more eclectic bar characters, one is seated in the dimly lit restaurant in the back. While the set up is pretty divey, I have to admit I was impressed by the condiment selection at each table. Hell, give me some toast and I could've made a peanut butter/jelly/grey poupon/A1 sauce/yellow mustard/ketchup/worchestershire/tabasco/salt and pepper sandwich!

The lunch menu is pretty standard and not long at all. Steak sandwiches, burgers, chicken salad sandwiches, etc. The dinner menu was practically the same. Al's has a chili cook-off every year, but oddly enough, chili was missing from the menu.

Sparing no expense, I ordered the famous large steak sandwich (rare) for $15 while Bruce had the cheeseburger (well-done) for $7.50 plus a side order of fries.

Before our food came out we were brought the house salad, which was a pizza parlor combination of iceberg lettuce, some kidney beans and garbanzos, shredded carrots, and topped with a good healthy serving of bottom shelf Thousand Island dressing. I know it sounds bad but trust me, sometimes this just works. And considering where we were, it worked like a motherfucker.

To say I was a little speechless when our food came out is an understatement. Normally, when I hear steak sandwich I envision cut steak being sandwiched between two slices of bread, and with something extra added. What I got was a steak, 4 slices of heavily buttered and toasted bread, and a painfully dull steak knife.



Bruce's burger wasn't much more, although his meat was actually sandwiched between cheese and bread. But everything else was to the side, including "California black olives" that long saw their golden years pass them by. He realized later that he didn't need the extra order of fries, even though they were pretty decent.

A large glass of ice tea, a side of mayo, and a little A1 sauce helped me work the steak sandwich down my gullet as I sawed back and forth on this huge slab of meat. The steak was good, if not a little too gristley and a little too raw and cold in the middle. I probably should've asked for medium rare.

Bruce's burger was cooked to order, perfectly.



Perhaps the Chinese didn't just disappear from Locke. I have a theory that they were killed off by Al the Wop's steak sandwiches, olives, and bread so heavily buttered I felt like I needed a bypass after it was all over. I can just see it: Al, the Italian communist, sent by the Comintern to assasinate leaders of the local Kuomintang.

It totally could happen.

After Al's, we drove back to Walnut Grove to take a look around. Walnut Grove is slightly larger and less run down than Locke. The town at one point was mostly Japanese and Chinese. Even though many Chinese moved to Locke after it was established, others stayed and continued to raise their families in Walnut Grove. Today, very few Asians live in Walnut Grove and the majority of the residents tend to be either white or Mexican.

Nevertheless, the surviving buildings and layout of the town are just amazing. It's like I just want to scoop the whole town up in my arms and give it a big fat kiss. Most of the architecture is early, early 20th century with signs and storefronts almost frozen in time.



Yet while so much of it seems like walking through the land that time forgot, it is apparent that life still renews itself and continues to thrive here. There are Mexican children playing with a dog in the street, a black mother pushes her baby in a stroller down to the corner, an old Japanese man quitely sits up on his balcony staring into the home across the way, a community garden lies in wait for the warm season, and a young homie sits outside the lone convenience store speaking Spanish into his cell phone.

The streets are real quite. Quite enough to hear your thoughts.



We leave Walnut Grove and continue up Highway 160 to Sacramento, which is only a short distance away but what seems like a world away.

Sacramento likes to be known as the City Of Trees, though entering it by way of Highway 190, the noticeable lack of anything but a few mistletoe-ridden trees seemed to be anti-climactic. However, Bruce reassured me that there were definitely more trees; he's seen them!

We weren't here to see trees, but to see this so-called "old town" we had heard of but knew nothing about. Along the way, we kinda got lost and had to stop at this art supply store on J Street called Art Ellis. The two darling little ladies were so much help in not only giving directions to the old town, but also by giving us directions to several bookstores we had asked about.

And so, if you happen to be reading this and find yourself in or going to Sacramento, will you please swing by Art Ellis and heap money or love or something upon them? Seriously, they rock.

After navigating Sacto streets (pretty simple since they run in numbers and letters), we came upon a huge traffic jam migrating into Old Sacramento that sent off several red flags; red flags such as A) why are so many people flocking to what I thought would be like San Francisco's Jackson Square, and B) have we made a terrible, terrible mistake?

Indeed, as soon as we found parking in a parking garage, taken the stinky elevator to ground level, and had walked underneath the freeway, passing dozens of tourists listening to a piped in jazz medley from the tunnel speakers – as soon as we saw sunlight and could breathe the fresh air, I smelled that familiar aroma of funnel cakes, cigarettes, and the human herd.



Around us we could see tall and impressive Wild West buildings that were just amazing until you looked towards the ground and saw the long line of cars looking for parking and throngs of candy and hotdog-eating pedestrians and endless souvenir shops, chain and gimicky restaurants, and international food courts and Christian bikers and crusty old lechers, crazy homeless men, and Indian women in saris taking pictures of the son they came to visit wondering why the hell they were brought here and pretty much the whole unabashed working class in all of it's tacky glory.

Maybe I'm a snob or maybe I'm just insecure, but whatever the reason, whenever I'm put into this environment, I get cranky. Really cranky. My heart starts beating faster. My head begins to pound. The skin on my back begins to twitch like an annoyed cat.

Despite the Fisherman's Wharfified Old Sacramento, I really tried to enjoy the historical feel and look to Old Sacramento, which is the most impressive and largest old-time preserved Western town I've ever seen (other than Nevada City).

But as soon as I did, this always came up.



Bruce and I snuck out of that mess down a cool, shady, and quite back alley whose touristy value was lost on garbage bins, rats, and fire escapes.

If we had left Sacramento then, I would've been just as bitter as I've left every time I've been up to the Capitol for one protest or Lobby Day or another. Luckily, the beautiful ladies at Art Ellis gave us the address to Beers Book Center, a new/used bookstore that was frickin' awesome!

Not a big bookstore, but definitely well-stocked and with damn good prices. Oh, and if a bookstore has a cat in it, that just shoots it through the roof for me. This one had a "dead" little kitty stretched out over the new arrivals when we walked in.

Both Bruce and I scored big time with the booty we ended up taking home.

What did I get?

I may be dating myself, but remember Land of the Lost? I found a DVD reissue of 4 episodes for $10! I knew the show was cool (I loved it as a kid), but I never realized how many cool Sci-Fi writers wrote the scripts.

And of course, I got cookbooks – 3 fat cookbooks that were hardly used and that contain invaluable information. And dirt cheap to boot!

They are: Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing by Rytek Kutas (503 pages, $5.50), Cutting Up In The Kitchen: The Butcher's Guide To Saving Money On Meat and Poultry by Merle Ellis (215 pages, $3.00), and Mrs. Seely's Cook-Book by American Antique Cookbooks (430 gilt-edged pages, $7.50).

Score!

So we left Old Sacramento, Kinda Old Sacramento, and New Sacramento and headed down I-80 for a quick exit home.

Well, not so quick. I asked Bruce to stop at Murder Burger in Davis since I've always heard about about it and never had a chance to try it. The place is now called Redrum burger after they opened a new location in a hypersensitive area of California, where the angry and highly, fragile emotional citizens forced them to remove the killing part from the dead meat they were about to consume.

I was totally amped up for a Murder burger cheeseburger and fries.

Geez. Was I disappointed.



Not only was our order taken by what can only be called a brain-dead mumbling fool, but after waiting forever and a day, they still couldn't get it right that we told them we'd be waiting out front and to call our names through the window.

And then, when we actually got our food, it was cold/slightly warm. My fries were in the following order: cold, limp, burnt, overly salty. The burger? Nothing special with a boring bun, on top of a lot of shredded lettuce and a whole lot of mustard.

Bruce's BLT wasn't much better. And the breaded mushrooms were just gross. Overly breaded and greasy.

We both kept telling each other that we should've gone to the In-N-Out Burger across the street in yet another case of a chain (or small chain in In-N-Out's case) betting an independent's pants off.

You know, there's no use in fighting for independent coffeehouses, burger joints, hardwares stores, etc. if they just plain suck.

Aftertasting the greasy mushrooms along the way, we headed into the sunset towards San Francisco, not yet aware of the painful, hour long crawl from Albany to the toll plaza to come.

I know this last part sounds quite sad and pathetic, but all in all we had a great road trip! The drive up 160 was sweet and truly something every Northern (or Southern) Californian should do once in their lives.



If only to experience Al the Wop's.

k.

PS For many more and larger pictures of the trip, including those not shown here, go to my Flickr page.

2 Comments:

Blogger drbiggles said...

Holy crap, cheers on an excellent trip and an even better write-up.

I'm sitting here shaking my head. See, just a few weeks ago I was checking out maps an flyers and online brochures for the delta area. I had a few extra pennies and thought it'd be nice to spend a few days up and around there.
About an hour in I was up to Herman & Helen's Marina brochure, when I realized what I'd done. I quietly put them away and pushed the thoughts of a road trip out of my mind, pronto like.
It wasn't soon enough. One week later, last week, the transmission in my truck started making 'those' noises, sigh.
So, thank you again for taking my trip for me! Maybe next year, eh?

Biggles

3:17 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

Hey thanks for finally giving our town of Locke a little press...I'm one of those resident ghosts who have recently opened an art gallery in the town. Not sure whether or not the "delta blues" author would be willing to help us out with a little bit of press for the store and or the opening celebration which will of course include some delta blues music, local wine and good art...

I fear that the difficulty of getting people from the bay area to drive out 1.5 hours might defeat my attempts to stage this nice summer street party but with press like this a world of possibility opens up.

Would the author consider writing a blurb about "Strange Cargo, Art and Collectibles, for the easy rider" located on main street in Locke. Our big opening celebration is planned for saturday june 24th featuring wine, blues and good art. 4-8pm, in Locke.

More info as well as artist and muscian contacts avail at bulbousart.com

And thanks again for giving our cool spot some much needed press!
We love it here....

dd

12:03 PM  

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