I heart New York, I heart Sacramento

By David Watts Barton, Sacramento News and Review, February 14, 2013

I first came to New York City on a business trip with my parents in 1974. It was a graduation present, and we only spent a couple days here. But even then, I knew that I would live here. That was the dream.

It took a long, long time to make that happen. I visited here dozens of times, got married here in 1983 and came here to blow off steam when I was divorced 12 years later. I overstayed my welcome with some friends and pushed it with others. I took a year off in 2006 and sublet a place on the Upper West Side.

So, when I finally signed a lease last fall, it was a beginning, but it also felt like the realization of a decades-old dream. After numerous tentative starts, I can finally call myself a New Yorker.

My story isn’t unique. New York has drawn immigrants and dreamers for centuries. It even has a statue for it.

The city has drawn a lot of other people from everywhere, including Sacramento. I know a couple dozen here in the city, and there are many more I don’t know. It might be fun to see what New York has been like for our fellow Sacramentans—my fellow New Yorkers—and see how our hometown looks from a distance.

When people ask me why I came to New York after spending my whole life in Sacramento, there are three reasons I give. And, in talking to a dozen former Sacramentans here, I found that these were the same answers everyone else had as well: the energy, the opportunities and the people.

But it’s not just the number of people. It’s the kind of people.

Emily Best is a Sacramentan, a New Yorker of five years, and she just launched a new Kickstarter-like website for independent films called Seed&Spark (www.seedandspark.com). When it comes to New Yorkers, she says there’s unparalleled “inspiration to be drawn from the community.”

“People bring their A-est A game to whatever they do here,” Best says. “Banking, the arts, business—there are so many centers of different industries and arts here that it’s hard not to meet really impressive people all the time. … You strike up a conversation with someone in a bar or at a party, and you find out that they’re working in this amazing field.”

I’ve seen it many times: I go to a bar to meet a friend, and their friend is replacing the stained glass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A classmate in my writing workshop won a Song of the Year Grammy. Another is rehearsing to sing backup for Donald Fagen.

Everyone has these stories.

Dale Maharidge, long a reporter for The Sacramento Bee before he moved to New York to write books and teach journalism at Columbia University, says: “I was on the subway going to a speaking gig, and I found myself standing on the platform next to Philip Roth. Philip Roth!”

Maharidge, a fan of the groundbreaking novelist, says he was careful to observe the unofficial New York prohibition against gawking or approaching a famous New Yorker with fanlike giddiness, but admits that he couldn’t resist speaking to him.

“I asked him if he had the time,” he says. “He looked at his watch and told me. And that was enough.”

Maharidge then traveled on to the event where he himself was speaking, where one of his other favorite writers, William Kennedy, was there to hear him. They ended up having drinks and talking about writing afterward.

“That just doesn’t happen too much in Sacramento,” he says. “Or anywhere else!”

I spoke with Maharidge while enjoying sandwiches at his desk in his office, something he says he does a lot. In the hallway, we run into a fellow teacher, a woman who has written a book on gun violence. They discuss the number of talk shows she’s been invited to during the now-raging gun-control debate. And then it’s into his office, where a banner reading “Write hard, die free” hangs over his desk.

Maharidge, a boyish 56, lives in university housing just across Broadway from his office. A workaholic who is about to publish his 10th book in March, he says that he doesn’t often go out in New York—“I can be a cave dweller here. I didn’t come to here to go to the theater or eat at nice restaurants, I came to work”—but he still likes knowing that it’s all going on around him.

On the other hand, some Sacramentans who’ve moved here are out on the town almost all the time. Take C.K. Swett, 30, who has made a name for himself in New York as a charity auctioneer. He works during the week at the auction house Phillips de Pury in Chelsea, but on the weekends, he is usually found at fundraising events with beautiful, charitable people everywhere, including the Hamptons, Miami, Paris and Hong Kong.

Swett was featured on the cover of The New York Times Fashion & Style section in 2011. But while he is gaining notoriety, he doesn’t make a lot of money in his day job and refuses to take money for his weekend gigs, even though he says he could have made more than $100,000 last year doing them.

“One of my mentors, when I was first starting out here, gave me some good advice,” he says. “He said, ’When you have a choice between building up financial capital or brand capital, always take the brand capital.’”

Put another way: “I would rather do Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg a favor than be one of his employees.”

It’s a subtle, sophisticated distinction, and it bespeaks a comfort with playing on a big playing field. New York is intimidating, a very competitive place, and the challenge is figuring out not just how to make a living, but also how to distinguish oneself. On the other hand, even though there’s a lot of competition, there is a lot of work to compete for—and a lot of venues to compete in.

The Sacramentans who thrive in New York are those who are willing to try new things and take their opportunities where they see them.

New York City offers unexpected, surprising career breaks. Few know this better than former Sacramentan Early Times, who made his name in Sacramento as a blues musician but came to New York in 1998 to try his hand at gigging with singer E.C. Scott. Fifteen years later, he’s a currency trader on Wall Street.

Now, he is known as Earl Times, at least at work. “The only time I’m not known as ’Early’ is when I put on a tie,” he says. He also raises his 3-year-old daughter in an apartment he and his wife own in Queens.

In between, Times’ career path took him from working in a record store near his then-home on the Upper East Side, where his customers included Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, to a gig as the first blues deejay on then-new Sirius Satellite Radio. While working in radio, he put himself through Hunter College.

Along the way, he also played with Wynton Marsalis.

“I like that when you come here, if you have this particular kind of personality that New York attracts and you want to go against the best in your field, there’s a good chance that those people are going to be here,” he says.

When Times was laid off by Sirius after it merged with another satellite-radio giant, he talked his way into a position with the largest currency-trading hedge fund in the world.

Times’ old buddy Laura Ingle also got some unexpected N.Y. opportunities. She is known by many Sacramentans from her days as a radio deejay at KRXQ 93 Rock, especially for her Local Licks radio show, which highlighted the work of Sacramento-area acts, including Times. And she, too, took a circuitous route—via Los Angeles, Dallas and a seat-of-the-pants assignment to cover Hurricane Katrina in 2005—to New York and her current position as a national correspondent for Fox News.

“I love the nonstop energy, the grit, the people,” she enthuses. “It feels like we’re all on this island together. It feels like we’re all in the same camp. It’s so big in terms of population, but when you look at it, it’s not as big as you imagine. …

“You stand on a street corner, and you hear all these bits of conversation, and you don’t get that in your car in California.”

But Ingle, who describes herself as “big on tradition,” is more adamant about missing Sacramento than most, right down to quintessential California features: the palm tree and the shopping mall.

She has gone to great lengths to keep a promise she made to friends and family when she left: not to be a stranger. She says she does everything she can to get back to Sac four times a year, and will do that even after she and her husband, Kenny Kramme, a drummer she met in New York six years ago, have their first baby sometime this month.

“My friends in Sacramento are still my best friends,” she says, noting that a group of them recently threw her a baby shower via Skype, since she was unable to fly during her pregnancy.

She also misses Jimboy’s Tacos, rafting on the river (which she still does on her birthday each July), branding cattle at her cousin’s ranch and Sacramento’s music scene, which she covered for 10 years at 93 Rock. She especially misses Go National, Attica and Magnolia Thunderfinger.

But she knows they’re gone, too.

Ingle came to New York for her career—but is staying for her career, her husband and to raise their new baby. Having a baby will complicate things, as it does anywhere. But New York can be a great place to raise a child, as former Sacramentan Jelena Suman-Jarosz is finding.

Suman-Jarosz, a native of Croatia, moved to Sacramento in 1999 to go to Sacramento State University. She got her degree in interior design and worked on several popular Sacramento eateries and bars: Centro Cocina Mexicana, Blue Cue, Bistro 33 Midtown and the redo of the Cosmopolitan Cafe at K and 10th streets, now a Cafe Bernardo.

But her move to New York a year ago had a lot to do with family: to reunite her 6-year-old son, Marko, with his father, a painter in Williamsburg, and to be closer to her family in Europe. She says she has been “shocked” at how kid-friendly the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn is.

“It was a little intimidating, it’s a much bigger city,” she says. “But there are lots of kids and parents, everything is within a few blocks—the library, the subway, the park—and we go to [Manhattan] to go to Central Park and the museums. There are a lot of free events for kids; there’s a lot more available to kids and parents in New York than there was in Sacramento.”

Suman-Jarosz and I meet in a bar in Williamsburg for a drink before we go to the Music Hall of Williamsburg to catch a mutual acquaintance, former Sacramento musician Chelsea Wolfe, who is here on tour. Seeing Wolfe perform before a packed, rapt, dead-quiet audience of Williamsburg’s hippest goths is a revelation. The singer has matured markedly and established a unique sound that is being warmly welcomed by Williamsburg. Where she might be playing to a sparse crowd at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar, or perhaps be one of several locals playing at Naked Lounge Downtown in Alkali Flat, here, Wolfe is honored as a unique performer and headlines a popular concert hall.

Williamsburg has been good to a number of Sacramento musicians. New York’s hotbed of new music talent is home to three members of Sacramento dance-punk band Chk Chk Chk (a.k.a. !!!), who grew its international profile by moving from Sacramento to Brooklyn a couple years ago. But the members still maintain strong ties with the River City: While three members live in Williamsburg, others live in Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; and, yes, Sacramento.

Says singer Nic Offer, one of the three who lives in Williamsburg: “We did it just [’cause] it was N.Y., the birthplace of so much of our favorite music. We thought it would affect us creatively in a good way, and I think it definitely did.”

Offer, communicating via email, since he’s traveling around West Africa on a months-long quest for musical inspiration in the form of Afropop, is writing from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Of Williamsburg, Offer says the music scene is similar to Sacramento. “It’s really just the same bunch of people you see around at parties. But it’s different in that there’s a lot more people, thus a lot more parties, so maybe a lot of people you don’t meet. There’s a lot of Brooklyn bands I never knew till I met them backstage at some festival in France or something.”

Offer also finds himself in Sacramento regularly. A key bandmate, guitarist Mario Andreoni, still lives there. And it is, after all, home.

“[Andreoni] still lives there, and we’ve got a space there, so it’s just a good base,” he says. “With everyone spread out all over, we practice anywhere we can. We literally practiced in five different countries last year. The difference is, we just don’t get to meet up with our friends after practice.”

Hanging out with friends is something that takes more work in New York. It can take as long to get to a friend in another part of town as it takes to get from Sacramento to San Francisco. Plans must be made. Unless you are in an enclave like Williamsburg, the odds of randomly running into a friend are small. Those serendipities are something I miss about Sacramento’s central city.

That said, I had a week last fall when I ran into not one, not two, but three different friends visiting from Sacramento, completely randomly.

Even Sacramentans who have had clear career trajectories and have seemingly risen to the top of their field still find new challenges in New York.

Gary Pruitt, who for more than 20 years led Sacramento-based The McClatchy Company through turbulent times to its current position as the No. 3 newspaper company in the country, found New York’s lure of new opportunities irresistible. He moved here last summer to take over the reins of the Associated Press, which he calls “a great job opportunity.”

Pruitt says that AP’s appeal was simple and obvious: “It’s international, it’s nonprofit and it’s closer to the news, more of a pure news company.”

But being in New York was part of the draw as well.

“I’ve been here many times, so I knew I’d enjoy living in New York,” he says. “I travel a lot, but I love living in an apartment in TriBeCa. I’ve sold my car, I love taking the subway and walking everywhere.”

Pruitt also cites something that many people who might find New York dauntingly huge seem to miss: The remarkable ease of living here.

“I find it very convenient,” he says. “So many restaurants deliver food, the dry cleaners deliver, things are easy to get to … there’s a Whole Foods [Market] in my building! And living in TriBeCa, I’m very close to the Hudson River bike trail. I have my bike, and when I’m in town, I like to ride over there.”

However, he notes, “It’s nice by New York standards, but it doesn’t compare to the American River Bike Trail and all that offers. That’s what I miss the most about Sacramento, the natural aspects of that trail.”

“New York offers a great deal,” he adds, but “while it offers a lot of human nature, it doesn’t offer much in the way of outdoors nature. And I need to get out and hike, though I haven’t done that around here. I want to go to the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks, but I don’t have a lot of time.”

Pruitt notes that his wife, Abby, who like himself is from Florida, enjoys New York. But “she isn’t crazy about the weather,” Pruitt says. “She prefers Northern California. But since I’m gone so much … [sometimes] she just goes out there and lives in our house in Sacramento, which we kept.”

A lot of New Yorkers fantasize about the bicoastal lifestyle, having time every year to escape the pressures of the city, and Dale Maharidge has that completely nailed: In contrast to his faculty apartment in Harlem, he owns 34 acres on California’s north coast, completely off the grid, with his nearest neighbors “a rifle shot away, as they would put it,” he says with a laugh. He spends most summers there.

Turns out, there’s a lot to miss about Sacramento. Like Pruitt, C.K. Swett misses the American River Bike Trail. He’s an avid swimmer and runner, and while there are options for him in Williamsburg, including swimming at McCarren Park in the summer and the Metropolitan Recreation Center pool in the winter, it’s not the same as Sacramento’s access to the great outdoors.

Emily Best misses another significant aspect of Sacramento’s outdoor-oriented lifestyle: fresh food. “There isn’t food of Sacramento’s caliber, in that quantity at that price, in New York,” she says. “It’s crazy expensive here, and in terms of the ingredients, they are much better in Sacramento, and they don’t fuss with them as much. Dollar for dollar, Sacramento kills it.”

Best is close to the food scene: Her boyfriend, Steven Linares, used to be a chef at The Waterboy in Midtown Sacramento. He is now head chef at Fort Defiance, a cafe/bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

When Hurricane Sandy flooded low-lying Red Hook, Fort Defiance was swamped. But the Sacramento connections that Best and Linares so assiduously maintain—like so many Sacramentans in this group—paid off in a big way last fall: When word of the damage to Linares’ new restaurant got back to the City of Trees, his former comrades de cuisine at Waterboy held a fundraiser and, ultimately, sent the restaurant $7,000.

It was a reminder, says Best, of the power of maintaining one’s roots.

Sactown’s bike-friendliness is also catching on in New York. Here, bikes have traditionally been only stripped-to-the-frame remnants one sees chained to parking signs around town. The massive bike locks one sees around bikers’ necks, which look like they double the weight of the bike, bespeak a danger of bike ownership that is discouraging. And then, there’s the riding in New York, which looks potentially suicidal.

But under Mayor Bloomberg, bike lanes have proliferated. Just this morning, as I completed this story, the local National Public Radio affiliate noted that a new bike lane will be constructed from 110th Street to 59th Street via Eighth Avenue. That’s the entire West Side.

And, no matter how much people love New York, most feel the need to balance the intensity of the city with time away. Several Sacramentans I spoke with go to great lengths to do just this: to return to Sacramento or to Northern California.

Although Maharidge grew up in Cleveland, he considers Sacramento his hometown, and his sister still lives there, even though both of his parents have passed. He says that he could see himself living in Sacramento again.

“I will always be bicoastal, I need both New York and California,” he says. “But if I didn’t have my place up north, I could easily be in Sacramento four or five months out of the year and be perfectly happy.”

I maintain my connections as well. My family is all gone, but I have a lifetime of friendships and professional relations that I am loathe to give up. My vintage RV is parked at a friend’s place in Midtown, ready for me whenever I come back, and I plan to maintain some sort of footprint in the town that I have called home for more than 50 years.

This story is just a part of that. Those of us who have left Sactown are quite clear on what Sacramento has that New York City does not: Home. Family. The outdoors. A relaxed lifestyle. Professional roots.

And I know that Sacramentans’ fascination with New York will not wane. I have already played host to a handful of friends, from people I hardly know to good friends like Sacramento painter Micah Crandall-Bear and Cake bassist Gabe Nelson and his wife, Peggy Lanza, who spent a Sunday enjoying the Upper West Side with me a few weeks ago.

With all the social media available to us, with cheap plane tickets and lessons to be learned on—and from—both sides of the continent, there is no telling where the cross-pollination of Sacramento and New York City can lead.

Here’s to being part of figuring it out.