“I wish I could have one drink, just one,” Ryan the bartender said as he rushed from one end of the bar at the River City Saloon to the other.
The saloon is heart of Old Sacramento, which feels like the Old West town in an amusement park. Before going in, we’d wandered the neighborhood a bit, and we saw a statue dedicated the Pony Express, with great self restraint we forwent donuts from a little bakery where you could watch the donuts swim the stream of grease, and we watched salsa dancing in the street, hosted by a local radio station.
We walked down the wooden sidewalk, noting the Hot Dog Palace was closed -- along with its promise of $1.99 hot dogs and ice cream. We read plaques with interesting factoids, such as the elevation of the buildings and streets ten feet higher from what they were a century and a half ago when they’d had to deal with flood waters.
Outside the saloon is one of those benches with a plaster Old West figure, always ready to pose with tourists for photos. There is a similar figure sitting at the bar inside and a standing figure that looks rather like Doc Holliday. Also right inside the door of the saloon is a chandelier constructed of Jack Daniels bottles. There is gaudy red flocked wallpaper and decorative tiles on the ceiling. There were also pool tables and video games. The TVs were playing music videos from the eighties and nineties, including Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” featuring George Wendt (NORM!), Macaulay Culkin, and Tess Harper -- along with lions, African tribesmen, babies, Cossacks, cowboys and Indians.
The saloon was hopping; we later learned the bar gets many patrons from the “Underground Sacramento” tours, which finishes up at River City Saloon, and members of the tours receive coupons for drinks at the saloon. Ryan the bartender was rushing back and forth taking care of people saying, “I’ve got to hand it to me.” He did get help for a little while from another employee who dropped in to say “Hello,” and was corralled into helping. “It’s nice working in a family type atmosphere,” Ryan said. “Where people are willing to help each other.”
He had been expecting help from another employee that, according to his memory of the schedule, was supposed to come in at 8:00 pm, but hadn’t shown. “Maybe it was 9 o’clock,” he said. Nine o’clock is also the time when children are no longer welcome at River City; they are throughout the day when they can enjoy sarsaparillas locally brewed for the saloon. They sounded so good, we ordered sarsaparillas for ourselves instead of adult beverages, even though we’d arrived too late in the day for $ .25 glasses.
Eventually things calmed enough that we could ask bartender Ryan our two questions:
“Do you want just one thing or a lot of things?” he asked. We assured him any answer was fine.
“The vibe of the place comes from the atmosphere and the staff. And really, the staff makes the atmosphere. If people get along, that’s our peers. If people are getting along and having a good time, nine times out of ten the drinks taste better.”
“Whether you go or not, what do you think makes for a good church?”
“I was raised Mormon. In a good church they would use their money for charity and the community rather than for glorious buildings. I want my mother to see that I said that.”