I’ve Seen Better Nights Than This One

4th of July is the one time of year that I miss Sacramento.

Sacramento doesn’t get much respect — and for good reason: it’s a poster child for all that’s wrong with unlimited growth. It’s become a mass of surburban sprawl, the little boxes full of ticky tacky that all look just the same.

But on the 4th of July I’m reminded of all that was good about Sacramento, at least in the Curtis Park area of Sacramento where I lived from 1976 to 1984.

Our neighborhood was full of young families, almost all with kids my age. As kids, we felt like we owned the whole block. We knew every square of sidewalk. We knew where fallen bits of tree bark made for a bumpy ride on our roller skates. We knew that the third house from the corner had the smoothest driveway — the best surface for our skates and Big Wheels.

I knew my friend’s backyards as well as my own. Deena’s backyard was wild and in my memory, it looks like a jungle. A swimming pool took up almost all of Matt’s backyard. Amy and I tried to dig our own swimming pool in her backyard, behind the playhouse. We lined our bath-tub sized hole with garbage bags, but it still didn’t hold water.

On the 4th of July, it felt like the whole neighborhood was outside, adults and kids alike enjoying those warm Sacramento nights and watching the colorful little explosions in the street.

At the time, fireworks were sold in grocery store parking lots. Ground flowers turned colors and spun across the pavement in a blur. We plugged our ears in anticipation of the screaming Piccolo Petes. My favorite was the pagoda. It looked flat initially, but once lit, it expanded into the familiar house-shape and blew a small fountain of fire out the top. I saved one once, months after 4th of July. I thought it was beautiful, even though the cheap (likely lead-ridden) paper was singed at the edges.

Eventually, the families started to move out of Curtis Park and my family joined the exodus. We moved to the foothills, where to my dismay, there were no sidewalks on our block and the streets were so gravelly that my teeth chattered when I roller skated.

We tried to recreate our Sacramento 4th of July in our new home. We bought ground flowers but they didn’t as move smoothly on the gravel as they did on pavement. One hit a piece of the gravel and launched into the air, landing in a shed on our new one-acre property. My dad ran to put it out before the building caught fire.

We adapted to the 4th of July traditions in the foothills — the local parade, the fireworks display at the fairgrounds — but I was getting older and it didn’t feel the same.

In San Francisco, the fog rolls in most years on the 4th of July. Tonight, although we can hear the popping sounds of the City’s fireworks, all we can see from our deck is pastel-colored clouds and I can’t help but wonder what sort of memories San Francisco kids will have of this day.

There are certain neighborhoods in San Francisco, though, that still put on their own fireworks show in the street, the kind I remember from my childhood. While I’m sure it’s illegal, I can’t help but smile when I hear the shriek of a Piccolo Pete.

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2 Responses to “I’ve Seen Better Nights Than This One”

  1. sarah Says:

    I think this is my favorite piece of your writing so far. I can picture sacramento in a whole different light.
    I’ll bet china town rocked the fireworks last night – if i were you that’s where i would’ve been!

  2. Johhny C. Lately Says:

    Nice.

    As a child of that same gravel road, sidewalk-less community (approximately…) I can affirm similarly wonderful 4th of July memories like those you hold from Sacramento. Somehow everything since then pales in comparison to lying in the cool grass at the fairgrounds with my family, staring straight up, seemingly daring the fiery embers to fall on us as they exploded in the sky overhead.

    Maybe the reason we can still ooh and ahh every year at, for most purposes, the same kind of show, is the nostalgia it evokes – the shriek of the piccolo pete, as you said – when we were kids and first marveled at the spectacle.

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