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A local writer discovers his new surroundings—on foot.
I have started rambling my home neighborhood again. Turning corners on a whim. Entering random cafes, and stores I didn’t know I was interested in frequenting. Walking along alleyways and seeing what new graffiti has gone up, or what detritus has been left behind by one or another of the city’s nomadic denizens. I can ramble once more, because now I live in midtown.
IN THE PRE-WORLD WAR II YEARS, author John Fante used to roam the streets of downtown Los Angeles, looking for characters and hoping to capture the ambience of the city in its hidden passageways and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. “Los Angeles, give me some of you!” he wrote. A half-generation later, Jack Kerouac did much the same in San Francisco. The flaneurs of centuries past made Paris the literary capital of their world, in part through their stories of roaming its desperately romantic streets. In the post-World War I decades, George Orwell spent a good portion of his youth on ambulatory circuits of Paris and London. And so on.
The London author Iain Sinclair, who has written numerous novels about the shadowy geography of a great city, of the things one can only know about such a place through living in it for years upon years, wrote in “Lights Out for the Territory”: “The faster we walk, the more ground we lose.” Walk slowly, amble through a city, walk for the sake of walking rather than simply to get somewhere, and one sees more, keeps ahold of more of the experience.
It’s no surprise, then, that writers and cities establish their mutual relationships at least in part through foot traffic. By walking a city’s streets, you see and hear and smell, even touch and taste it in a way you never can from behind the wheel of a car. You become familiar with its splendors and also its quirks: the tiny cafes you would never notice and suddenly realize you should have been frequenting for years; the ramshackle buildings, exteriors left unpainted for decades, that give off an air of witches and rats, perhaps of heartache and loneliness; the homeless person who frequents the same bench, or the same bus stop, day in and day out; and the nattily dressed lawyer who sits at the same lunch counter eating the same meal at the same time each day.
It’s one of the things I loved about living in New York for a decade and, before that, growing up in London. These were quintessentially walking metropolises, places where history and mystery blended effortlessly, and you could find something new to explore—and, of course, to write about—around pretty much every corner or up every staircase. It’s the fun of reading an author such as Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century English civil servant, most famous today for his enormous diary mainly written during the 1660s. Reading about his perambulations around London, you can almost become a part of that dense, plague-ridden, fire-torn place; see the taverns he stumbles in and out of, the women of ill repute he encounters, the churches he frequents. And you can, of course, sympathize with his tired legs when, late at night, he finally makes his way home to write his signature sign-off for the day’s entry, “and so, to bed.”
When I first moved to New York as a 21-year-old, I would often spend entire days just walking. There’s something marvelous about wandering through Times Square at 4 in the morning, after almost all the late-night bars and peep-show dives have finally closed, before the morning rush begins. It’s suddenly quiet, with discarded newspaper pages blowing around in the wind; the subway roar comes up from the vents in the sidewalk, now almost obscenely loud. The pace of the place, usually so frenetic, slows to a crawl. Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, you see the city’s skyscape change from one moment to the next; each step, you see new patterns, new plays of light upon metal and glass and stone. Wandering through Harlem, or the Lower East Side, you see all the vibrancy and chaos of a densely peopled neighborhood. You hear the competing rhythms of different music and languages, and you smell the food sold by street vendors and little storefront restaurants.
It’s one of the things I found hardest to give up when I moved to Sacramento 13 years ago: that sense of walking out the door and not knowing quite where I would end up—or why. I came to enjoy Land Park, to love the community on our block, to enjoy the beauty of the park on a nice spring day, to take my morning stroll down to Freeport Bakery. But walking to the one good bakery in the neighborhood isn’t quite the same thing as turning one corner after another, knowing that something good would likely show up within a few minutes’ radius, but not really having a clue as to what that something good might be.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, my family moved to midtown. We hadn’t been planning it. In fact, after the November election, my thoughts about moving had tended more toward getting the hell out of the country and relocating to somewhere gentler, more politically sane. Maybe Canada or Costa Rica. But, of course, we didn’t move, and instead we moped. One day, out of the blue, my wife phoned me. She had tried to cheer herself up by, on a whim, going to a showing for a 1904 Craftsman that was for sale in midtown. It was, she gushed (an event noteworthy in itself, since my wife—she would be the first to admit—is not prone to gushing), completely spectacular; I had to come look at it. And so I did. And it was indeed spectacular—a house built by a wealthy merchant back when horses still were moored to hitching posts on the city’s streets. Its interior was filled with redwood walls, ceilings and floors. The walls that weren’t wood-paneled were covered in stunning, intricately patterned wallpaper. Each doorway and window was perfectly positioned to create its own set of internal views. From one living room, you could see the wooden staircase and its thick, heavy banister curling upward to the bedrooms. From the other, you could sit and look through the house, and out, and watch the street unfurl to the north. Each room had its own character, from the bathroom once used by a resident ballerina as a training room to the creaky floorboards of the master bedroom.
Our family was smitten.
Everything about the place spoke elegance, a quiet, confident sense of permanence. It was the sort of place to hunker down in during a time of political turmoil, open a good bottle of wine every few days, sip on aged whisky, all while waiting for the storm to dissipate. It reminded me, in some minor-key way, of the dining halls at Oxford, the ancient university I attended as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. The colleges at Oxford simply ooze history and, in so doing, always manage to put the present and its troubles into a larger context.
Six weeks after we first looked at the house, we moved in. After a burst of decorating—putting pictures up on the wall (including a color-tinted photo, left by the previous owners, of the house perhaps a decade after it was built, with a Model T Ford on the street outside, the skyline largely lacking the great trees that today we associate so much with the center of the city), buying dark wooden cabinets to match the walls, filling the built-in bookshelves with our many books—we turned our attention to exploration.
We were now only a 10-minute brisk walk from the Capitol, a not-insignificant perk for a political journalist who was busily setting up interviews about how California’s legislative leaders would stand up for the state’s values over the coming years. As I also soon found out, we now lived within a few blocks of many of the city’s best restaurants, cafes, bars and galleries.
There was the little cafe on K Street, Quality Boutique and Bru, a two-for-one experience with strong espressos and trendy clothing for sale. One could sit there, reading a good book, drinking a great latte, wondering what one would look like in that shirt if one were just a few years younger and a good number of degrees cooler.
There was Cafe Marika, a tiny little Hungarian bistro on J Street, which charged absurdly low prices for absurdly good goulash, chicken paprikash and schnitzel, and had for dessert great hunks of delicately sugar-coated apple strudel that reminded me of the wondrous pastry my grandmother and her cousins, all from families hailing from Eastern Europe, used to make when I was a child in London. The owners told me that it had been around for 30 years, give or take—certainly for all of the time I had lived in town—and yet, despite my going to midtown often, I’d never previously noticed it. Why would I have? It was a tiny little place, cash only, with four or five tables, squeezed in between much glitzier, larger businesses.
There were the outdoor German beer gardens, one of which came complete with a pingpong table, and the upscale restaurants, filled to the bursting with enthused diners, clustered around Capitol Avenue and 18th Street. There was the Capital Stage theater, the Saturday morning farmers market running along 20th Street, the barbecue joints, the cocktail bars.
In short, there was no shortage of places that I could spend my money in. That’s the pleasurable downside of urban living: It is full of temptations and ways of lightening the wallet.
For my wife, and for the kids, too, there were new places to experience. My teenage daughter rapidly discovered the wonders of thrift-store shopping. My 10-year-old son ramped up his LP collecting. Both decided that they needed to walk to the Trade cafe on a regular basis to buy their beignets or, on warm spring evenings, stroll down to Devine’s to pick up some gelato. To my amazement and delight, they also both announced that they liked Indian food. (They had walked around the corner one night to Bombay Bar & Grill.) My wife started frequenting estate sales, coming back with antique furniture, delicate ornaments that meshed with the decor of the house, even old flower pots, the floral contents of which could help make the front yard a riot of color. She began cycling to the natural foods co-op.
THERE’S A QUIRKINESS to the streets of midtown, a sense of personal fantasy in play: Some houses have turrets, others magnificent stained-glass windows. Some look like pastel-colored Victorian wedding cakes, whimsical like the holiday homes on Martha’s Vineyard a continent away. Others are magnificent, colonnaded and very self-serious mansions. The people who commissioned these houses a century-plus ago, California grandees from a new town on the up and up, clearly wanted to make an impression.
Generations on from their construction, a good number of the houses are still lived in, some by single families, while others have been broken into multiunit flats rented out by the room. Many of the houses now host businesses: law offices and medical practices, hair salons, clothing and book stores. In front of all of these, the gardens—and in the clutter of houses in midtown, it is invariably the front gardens that are large enough to show off one’s green thumbs—are a glorious mixture of Californian/Mediterranean flora and English country garden. There are azaleas and cacti, and also an abundance of ivy and roses.
These days, the front windows of many of the houses host political signs: posters from the women’s marches back in January; statements about love triumphing over hate; messages affirming the rights of gays, of Muslims, of Mexicans; colorful slogans, some crayoned onto cardboard, in defense of the environment. On demonstration days (and there have been many of them at the Capitol in the past few months), our neighbors come out from their houses with their banners and gamely troop down to the Capitol’s grounds to add their presence to the crowds.
Midtown in 2017 feels vibrant: a place of cultural renaissance and political resistance. It feels, somehow, different. Just a little bit Berkeley-esque. Maybe it’s just that I’m now experiencing, as a resident, something that has long been there. Something I should have gotten to know years ago. Maybe, too, it’s changing—becoming more hip, more radical, more urban-cool than it was even a few years back. There’s something in the air here: houses being renovated, new apartment blocks and mixed-use developments going up at a brisk trot, radical sentiments being plastered to windowpanes and scrawled onto walls.
It’s a fun place to live and a great neighborhood to wander around. When I left Brooklyn 13 years ago, part of me wept for the streets I’d left behind, places that stayed alive throughout the 24 hours of the day, places where one could wander aimlessly and, without trying, encounter stories for the telling. I wept for the chaos of random urban encounters. Now, in midtown Sacramento, I think I might just have found them again.