Old Sacramento is a relic. In this historic, riverfront district of the City of Sacramento, you’ll find horseshoe-trodden cobblestone streets encircling Wild-West facades and storefronts. Faded, steely-gray train cars laden with tourists pulling away on the tracks nearby, gaining momentum from the strain of an old diesel locomotive. A bronze statue of a Pony Express rider, steed in full stride, standing frozen on a street corner, commemorating the city as one endpoint for the famed mail delivery service of the 1860’s.
My good friend José G. González was in town for a weekend’s rest — himself a tired messenger, having just blown through New York, Washington, D.C., San José, and Santa Rosa within a week. José is the founder of Latino Outdoors, a budding national nonprofit seeking to encourage Hispanic youths and families to connect with outdoor recreation and environmental education, while coaching parks and public lands agencies on ways to encourage natural resource stewardship across cultures and communities.
To unwind a bit, we took in a matinée movie at the now-ghostly Downtown Plaza mall nearby — the bulk of it having already been reduced to rubble, from which the future Golden 1 Center basketball arena has been rapidly rising. But the movie theatre remains open, among a sea of shuttered shops and a handful of pedestrians.
A tumbleweed would not have seemed out of place.
We walked out of the darkness, happy to stretch out our legs after The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Neither of us had visited Old Sacramento in a long while, so we wandered in that direction, away from the forlorn shopping mall, past an archaic Holiday Inn and into an underpass formed by the hulking I-5 freeway, which forever disconnected Old Sacramento and the waterfront away from Sacramento proper.
“Would four o’clock be too early for a drink?” José mused, as we emerged from the tunnel and into the afternoon sun. An odd birth through a darkened, concrete-lined tract, and into another time.
“Of course not,” I said, after chiding José for even asking such a question. “And I know exactly where we need to go.”
Besides tourists and history lessons, Old Sacramento is popular for one other thing: weddings. As José and I meandered through the wood-planked walkways and stone-paved alleys, we interrupted one photoshoot, eavesdropped on a set of vows being exchanged, and laughed at the complicated social-media-photo-sharing instructions coming over the P.A. system of a banquet.
The over-eager emcee was listing the official wedding hashtags for his ear-bent guests when we reached our destination — an open door on the shadowy, alley side of an ivy-covered building, with a small tavern sign protruding from the overgrown edifice overhead: “Back Door”.
“Here we are,” I turned to José, as we stood at the threshold and stared into the darkness once more. “What do you think?”
“Let’s do it.”
The Back Door Lounge wears its location and name well. No frills. Dim lights. A cast of regulars and out-of-towners, with the occasional wedding escapee. A piano in the corner sits empty, and as José and I settled into the far end of the bar, The Animals’ version of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” wafted from the jukebox and towards the chandelier.
We’ve long needed to catch up. José’s blistering travel schedule meant that months would fly by in between our treasured sessions of brainstorming and commiserating over drinks, coffee, dim sum, sashimi, or some other gustatory guilty pleasure of the day.
Such is the exhausting, vagabond life of a nonprofit founder. Blown from one corner of the world to another, proselytizing your cause to new flocks, training volunteers, leading field trips, answering requests to deliver lectures and workshops, and sifting through the eager and hopeful to build a team of trusted staff. And of course, finding donors and raising funds, while piecing together a meager income for yourself.
An assemblyman at a public hearing once said of José’s efforts: “You talked a little bit about ensuring that you’ve got a seat at the table, rather than being on the table. It sounds to me like you built the table.”
We kept our drinks simple: a rum and Coke for him, and a dark rum over ice for me. The $13 tab for two well drinks surprised me a bit, but I had to remember we were in Old Sacramento, walled off from the real world but where real people had to work. A back-alley hole-in-the-wall with as much history as this one still had to make ends meet.
The jukebox played out its last credits, and the lounge suddenly became too quiet. I fed a dollar into the machine — which turned out to be a modern one stocked with digital music — and cued up some Stones:
“You can’t always get what you want…”
We talked, as friends do, about whether we were any closer to getting those wants in life. José and I first met in college, and then we became roommates for those first few post-graduation years — he was earning his education credential and teaching middle school, and I was getting paid to wade in ditches and creeks up and down California’s Central Valley, collecting samples of water and insects. José taught me to cook and eat lengua, and many a summer weekend was spent mixing up giant batches of coctel camarón con pulpo, stuffing our faces full of seafood, Clamato, and tostadas.
Together with another dear friend, we then all applied for graduate programs in environmental policy, resulting in an epic road trip driving eastward towards our respective new schools, eating our way across America in a three-car caravan, readying ourselves again for the frugal student’s life.
Eight years later, perched in the corner of the Back Door Lounge, we find one another in different places, yet all the more familiar.
“We are wired for distilling simplicity out of complexity,” José spoke up, reacting to my rum-assisted rambling about the importance of using aesthetics and beautiful design to help explain environmental science to the public, a thesis I have been deadset on putting to test. José continued:
“People need patterns. We’re adapted to see the forest and separate out the visual information. We see the trees and the grass, and the things that move and don’t move. Our brain knows what to process as background information, and what to process right away as critical information. We block out the trees and the grass, so we can see the tiger coming at us.”
Of course, the greater irony is that most of us have become deficient in the dealing with the one construct humans were evolved to process in the first place: the natural environment. The one place where we can rest our eyes on the greenery and the blue sky or the rolling sea, with no exertion needed to translate the patterns from the noise, where we can recalibrate our senses to the movements of birds and the breeze.
“We have teaching requirements for K-through-12 for different subjects, and we even have requirements for physical education,” José added. “But we don’t have a curriculum for exposure to nature. There’s nothing that says at each age or grade level, kids should spend a certain amount of hours outdoors or have a certain amount of exposure to nature.”
José’s work is cut out for him, clearly not just in Latino communities.
My glass was empty, the rum long gone, the ice turned to water and sipped dry. The jukebox was now burning through a long list of requests — several people having lined up to put quarters in, either inspired by or in protest to my musical tastes.
Either way, it was time for us to make a move, back into the sunlight.
Back Door Lounge
1112 Firehouse Alley
Sacramento, California 95814
1 916 442 5751
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Story: Ben Young Landis
Photography: Ben Young Landis