Opportunity is knocking again

The 31-year search for missing – and presumed dead – labor leader Jimmy Hoffa recently provided some unexpected side benefits for a tiny Michigan town.

According to a New York Times report, the FBI’s latest effort to unearth Hoffa in the community of Milford, Mich., has not only made the small town less boring, but it also has spawned a cottage industry in souvenirs and funky foodstuffs.

When federal agents, acting on a tip from a prison inmate in Kentucky, began digging at Hidden Dreams Farm outside Milford, townsfolk began cashing in on the excitement with everything from commemorative cupcakes to T-shirts.

The Jimmy Hoffa cupcake – who woulda thought it?

All good things must come to an end, though, and when the FBI failed to locate Hoffa’s body, daily life in Milford was destined to return to humdrum normality.And that’s when opportunity once again came knocking for Vacaville.

Think about it – if Jimmy Hoffa isn’t buried in Milford, he’s gotta be buried someplace else.

Why not Vacaville?

Let’s be realistic, amigos, if we don’t turn up the excitement around Vacaville soon, ennui will sweep over the town like a gray wave of yesterday’s mushroom gravy. You can only counter abject community boredom with jalapeno pepper-eating contests for so long.

Then everybody falls asleep.

We need to take a lesson from Milford. Now that the FBI has again given up the search for Jimmy Hoffa, we need to embrace the mysterious labor icon and invite investigators to search for his body in Vacaville.

Hey, if the FBI acts on random tips from convicts in Kentucky, they certainly ought to listen to a thoughtful, well-spoken Vacaville prison inmate. How hard can it be to find a fun-loving felon at CMF or California State Prison, Solano, who’ll loudly speculate on the possibility of Jimmy Hoffa being buried in Vacaville – possibly beneath the site of the old Wooz amusement park or under the CreekWalk?

And once the FBI shows up with shovels and backhoes, Vacaville can take full advantage of its newfound notoriety.

Jimmy Hoffa cupcakes and T-shirts will be only the beginning. If Vacaville really gets behind this random exhumation, we can make a permanent impact that will stretch far beyond the day that the FBI packs up and leaves.

In addition to “Jimmy Hoffa Days” (with, perhaps, a Little Miss and Mister Jimmy Contest), Vacaville’s business community could be radically transformed. We could be home to the Take Ya For a Ride Limousine Service, An Omelette You Can’t Refuse Restaurant and the Sleep with the Fishes Pool Service.

If we play this right, it’s going to be a win-win situation for everybody (except, perhaps, Mr. Hoffa…). All we’ll have to do is occasionally move a little dirt and keep relatively straight faces for the tourists.

And, just to be on the safe side, let’s keep this to ourselves – eat this column after you read it. We don’t want to be giving Fairfield or Dixon any bright ideas…

Originally published June 11, 2006

New homes for rubber rodents

Oh, ye of little faith…

Three months ago when I proposed humanely winnowing down The Reporter’s newsroom herd of leftover rubber rats from past Halloweens, several of my cynical colleagues – and not a few members of the public – opined that my efforts to find adoptive homes for our decorative rodents would be in vain.

“Dude, nobody’s going to want to take home an ol’ beat up rubber rat that some sportswriter’s spilled cheap bourbon on,” declared one decidedly skeptical newsroom denizen. “Face it, we’re stuck with ’em.”

Admittedly, many of our older rubber rodents – gathered during seasonal Halloween rat consumer-testing forays – were clearly the worse for wear. Some were downright, er, ratty…

And at least two of the hardy Halloween icons had been batted about the newsroom with rackets during an impromptu game of ratminton several years ago.

(No, this sport never caught on at the Olympics. A pity…)

rubber_rat

Considering the amount of joy even the most ragged rubber rat can bring into an otherwise dull and lifeless household, though, I decided to press forward in my effort to share the beady-eyed, pointy-tailed surplus with our readers.

I was not disappointed. The sometimes quirky but lovable community of Vacaville came through again and the rubber rats that were overrunning our newsroom in mid-October are now down to a manageable number.

Thanks to several big-hearted Vacans – and one entire kindergarten class – no fewer than nine of our resident rats have new homes and we have room to walk around without stepping on one of the pesky critters which, unlike real, live rats, do not get out of the way when you’re rushing out to cover a drive-by shooting or pick up a pizza.

Among the adoptive Vacans who answered the call were Harry Coburn, Kathy Domenech and Katelin Whipple.

Perhaps the most notable rubber rat adoption, however, was made by Linda Patrick’s kindergarten class at Sierra Vista School.

Shortly after our adoption notice was published, the class wrote to us requesting a classroom rat:

“We are kindergarten kids.

We cannot have live critters.

We want to adopt a rat.

We will love him

And not get the jitters.”

The kindergartners eventually adopted one of our larger, “museum quality” rats and promptly renamed him “Sponge Bob Ratso” because of two strikingly yellow front teeth that reminded them of one of their favorite cartoon characters.

Mrs. Patrick’s 20-member class also presented the newsroom with its own “Sponge Bob Ratso” coloring book featuring a series of striking rodent portraits suitable for, er, inclusion in a rubber rat coloring book…

Gratifying? You bet! After all, how many other daily newspapers in the United States can boast of receiving their very own celebrity rubber rodent coloring book?

Eat your heart out, Los Angeles Times…

Originally published January 25, 2015

Welcome to the city of medieval clowns

It would appear that Vacaville is finally getting serious about creating an attractive gateway to the biggest little city in northwestern Solano County.

City planners have been working feverishly on a City Gateway Design Master Plan to make Vacaville a little more memorable to those who find themselves wandering down the community’s quaint highways and byways looking for adventure and aesthetic stuff they can’t find in West Sacramento.

Let’s face it, a tumbleweed-infested Nut Tree and road signs leading to a state prison are hardly the things of which lifelong memories are made – unless, of course, you’re on your way to temporary housing in the aforementioned state prison.

No, if Vacaville’s going to attract visitors and make lasting memories, it’s going to have to top places like nearby Fairfield, which has a way cool brewery; and Davis, which has been pulling in the freeway crowd with a series of signs featuring multicolored fluorescent frogs as big as German shepherds touting the community’s enviable assets.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, we’ve got big frogs here, too. We coulda had frogs. This is one righteous rip-off. Why does Davis get to have all the psychedelic frogs?”

Don’t fret. Fairfield may have gotten the brewskis and Davis cornered the amphibians on LSD, but Vacaville still has plenty of unique assets we can use to dramatize our gateways and attract wide-eyed visitors to the home of Fiesta Days and gravity-challenged motorists.

Vacaville’s ongoing public art program could point the way to maximizing the memorability of the community’s gateway. The city, for example, has a striking sculpture of a welcoming jester beckoning patrons into the Performing Arts Theatre.

Why not utilize this goofy but lovable icon of community culture to let visitors know that they’ve finally arrived at the fabled gates of Vacaville?

All the city would need to do is copy about 50 of them in faux bronze (i.e.: plastic) and then place them along strategic portions of Interstates 80 and 505 on the outskirts of town.

Put a few jesters in the center divider oleanders, station one at each freeway offramp and perhaps have a jester of two balanced upon the city’s soaring overpasses. They’ll be a sight that motorists won’t soon forget and which will undoubtedly draw squeals of childish delight from awestruck youngsters.

“Ooooh, look Dad! It’s Vacaville, the City of Medieval Clowns! Let’s stop!”

It won’t be long before Vacaville City Council members begin donning authentic jesters’ garb for their Tuesday night meetings and the Police Department incorporates a jovial jester into its uniform patches and patrol car insignias.

(Hey, if the cops in Salem, Mass., can sport broomstick-riding witches on their uniforms, I guess our cops can have grinning jesters on theirs. Besides, jesters are, like, so much cooler than witches…)

And if we expand our public art gateway project to include the occasional life-sized statue of Sammy Steelhead, the community’s beloved baseball icon, we’re sure to pull in the tourist dollars faster than the Casa de Fruta.

Originally published August 11, 2002

 

Sounds like a win-win situation to me, amigos …

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

I admit it – I’ve been known, on occasion, to poke rude fun at my Vacaville neighbors. When it comes to rolling their cars with alarming regularity, consuming large quantities of alcohol or vehemently protesting such community menaces as apartment dwellers or house cats, it’s hard to beat your average Vacan.

We’ve got our very own style – what some snooty outsiders might describe as goofiness chic.

Once a year, though, I’ve had an opportunity to see the real spirit of the community and it shines like the North Star on a chill December night.

Every winter for the past 12 years the newspaper has sent me and a grumbling photographer to find local homeowners’ best and brightest Christmas decorations for an annual feature story in the newspaper’s Billboard section.

This might sound like great fun but the process is usually more like an exercise in basic winter survival.

No matter how much planning we put into the project, it usually rains – hard. Torrential downpours have plagued us nine out of the 12 years we’ve done the story. Of our three rainless sorties, one was blanketed in thick, blinding fog. Another night hit us with winds that were gusting to 40 mph and blowing Christmas decorations past us faster than we could photograph them.

Have you ever seen whitecaps on Alamo Drive? We have…

But it was also during these cold, windy and decidedly damp assignments that we found out just how warmly hospitable Vacaville residents can be.

It’s important to note that we don’t usually have an opportunity to call ahead and make appointments with likely homeowners. We drive around in the rain and, when we observe a festively lit home shining through the December gloom, we pull over and ring the doorbell. We frequently arrive about the time the family is sitting down to dinner after a long workday.

Residents look out into the fog and rain and see a big, soggy stranger standing on their doorstep and another guy lurking in the shadows.

Yet no matter how bad the weather, no matter how disreputable we may look, the people we encounter invariably invite us in out of the rain, inquire about our sanity and try to help us dry off.

They’ve graciously allowed us to track mud and leaves across pristine white carpeting, brought out towels to dry our heads, offered us everything from tea to bourbon and seated us before their fireplaces while introducing us to their children, grandchildren, dogs, cats, favorite Christmas ornaments and, in one case, a frisky pet rat.

They’ve spoken with simple eloquence about old friends, Christmas past and the only correct way to make Irish coffee (heavy on the Irish, light on the coffee).

One family wouldn’t let us leave until they’d packed up two dozen piping hot lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) for us to take along on our travels. We feasted for the rest of that long, cold night and warmly recalled their largess for years afterward.

Yes, I may sometimes comment on local follies and foibles, but I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t also point out that Vacaville residents are among the most generous and hospitable souls you’re ever likely to encounter anywhere.

Originally published December 23, 2001

We coulda been contenders…

Every time I think the Solano County Board of Supervisors has finally stepped out of the primordial ooze of the Suisun Marsh and somehow managed to slog into the 21st century, they stagger back into a collective lethargy and turn a win-win situation into flat beer.

Take last month for example. Supervisors rolled out of their hammocks at the old county dormitory bright and early one morning, trotted over to the county courthouse and decided that it was time for S’lano County to have a public relations officer to, er, relate to the public. They needed an answer man, a hard-charging character who knew the score and wouldn’t pull punches about one of the most misunderstood counties on the West Coast.

They needed a guy – or gal – who could effortlessly pronounce “Suisun” and “Budweiser.”

But then they got all fuzzy-headed and decided to table the idea until at least June when they’d be able to review their 2002 budget.

Yeah, that’s taking the bull by the horns…

This quaint, rural beer-brewing county has been crying for a good public relations manager for decades, but the county’s droopy-eyed leaders have repeatedly failed to grasp the importance of putting S’lano (pronounced “S’lah-nah”) County in the spotlight.

C’mon – wake up and smell the slough. The time has come to let the rest of California know that we’re here and we’re more than a rest stop on the way to Red Bluff.

One need only listen to Bay Area broadcast outlets to realize just how poorly this county is understood by the rest of the region. Traffic reporters frequently confuse the city of Dixon with far away Dixon Landing. If something of interest occurs in Vacaville, you can bet at least one San Francisco radio or TV ace will identify the location as Victorville.

As for Vacaville itself, it’s not really perceived as being within Solano County. Outsiders see it as an entity unto itself that lives on only in fond memories – you know, the place where the Nut Tree used to be. The place Charlie Manson used to live. The place where the Wooz was…

Vallejo, on the other hand, is that hard-to-find community kind of north of Richmond where they used to have submarines and dolphins. Nobody really knows why…

One good public relations officer could have turned all that around. People would know that Solano County isn’t spelled “S-o-n-o-m-a.” They’d marvel at our sugar beet production, line up to visit the Nut Tree Airport manager’s high tech command post and buy Budweiser ball caps from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fairfield.

With a little discretionary cash, the county’s public relations office could manufacture and distribute tasteful “S’lano County – Loud & Proud!” lapel pins, publish county movie maps revealing where such Hollywood hits as “Howard the Duck” and “Witchboard” were filmed and generally show visitors where to have a good time without wrecking their cars.

Alas, we could have been contenders. We could have been bigger and brighter than Modoc County. We could have had much, much more – but somebody fell asleep.

Don’t let it happen again. When June rolls around, remind the S’lano County Board of Supervisors that we needed a public relations office yesterday. Call, write or bang a couple of garbage can lids together until they get the message. You’ll be glad you did…

Originally published April 8, 2001

 

It’s big, it’s here and it’s Canadian

Somewhere between Muskogee and Mississauga, in that gray area between Merle Haggard and Sid Vicious, a bold new musical style has erupted with its heart in Toronto and its soul in Vacaville.

The music’s called cowpunk, the motto is “May the Twang be with you!” and the musicians are Toronto’s pretty-well-known-in-the-neighborhood Yeehaa Cowboys.

This is not your father’s punk band, amigos.

Performing together since 1996, the four-member band (five, if you count the vampire), has just released its first CD, “Cowpunk Baby, Cowpunk!” on Canada’s Rumenal Records label.

And while the music comes from the Great Frozen North, the cowpunk sound owes much of its distinctive flavor to Vacaville, although nobody seems to know exactly why.

According to Yeehaa Cowboys’ guitarist-songwriter Cowboy X, the band is based loosely on a feature film script about the band which is central to the storyline and “the town of Vacaville itself is revered by all Cowboys’ fans and is featured in the film script.”

(You’re following all this, right?)

Fact and fiction get kind of intertwined here, but Vacaville apparently became part of the cowpunk mythos when one of the group’s vocalists (either in the script or in reality or, possibly, both) disappeared during a bizarre fishing expedition and was last seen in Vacaville with somebody known as Satan Elvis.

In recognition of the community’s contribution to the furtherance of cowpunk karma, the Yeehaa Cowboy’s debut CD contains the soon-to-be-a-monster-hit tune “Vacaville.”

It’s a hard-driving song of love, and cows, and Vacaville, and cows and love, with plenty of Twang:

“Just look at the cows down in Vacaville, everybody’s asleep but I’m goin’ still …

Can’t get you alone though it breaks my heart, Everybody’s a fool And I just play my part …

Every kiss that you throw gives me such a thrill, Just look at the cows down in Vacaville …”

The concept of Twang, as evinced in “Vacaville,” is at the very core of the cowpunk sound.

According to Cowboy X, “The Twang is a cosmic, supernatural force, fighting against evil, inspiring great music and making people dance. The Twang transformed the Yeehaa Cowboys from wayward slackers into warriors of light and punk rock cowboys.”

I should point out that “Vacaville” is just part of a 13-cut album that features such classic cowpunk melodies as “Madame Planet’s Dark Evil Ode” and “The Ballad of the Country Music Pharaoh” as well as “Oh There’s A Fish A Fish A Fish Dead in My Heart.”

The latter tune is a kind of cowpunk polka-beat tale of unrequited love with lyrics like:

“Oh there’s a fish a fish a fish dead in my heart, and it smells like a dead rotting fish …”

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Uh-oh, that boy’s been drinkin’ again. Someone call the sheriff.”

Sorry. The Yeehaa Cowboys are much more than a Bushmills-induced hallucination. Cowpunk is real. It’s here (and there) and it’s now.

And if you don’t believe me, try checking out the Web site at http://www.mp3.com/yeehaacowboys.

May the Twang be with you …

Originally published October 22, 2000

Remember to put the pasta in your chocolate milk

Although the newspaper stripped me of my food editor status and took away my ceremonial wooden spoon several years ago, I’ve continued to walk point for gallant gourmands everywhere.

This is still the column to come to if you’re not a sissy and you’re looking for recipes you won’t find anywhere else. I’m sure you all remember Funky Suisun Saturday Morning and the Damned Car Won’t Start Pasta or, perhaps, the exotic allure of Sweet and Sour Bagel Dogs.

Yes, there are a lot of strange things out there and some of them can be safely eaten most of the time – providing you know the phases of the moon and are familiar with the metric system.

Last week, however, even I had to stop and take a deep breath when a colleague approached me with a slender volume of unique recipes that would challenge even the most adventurous of Solano County’s gourmet chefs.

Not only were the recipes daringly different, they were written by, er, 4-year-olds …

Welcome to Vacaville’s Presbyterian Enrichment Preschool Culinary Academy where the only rule is joyous innovation combined with ingredients that are alternately smashed, dropped, flipped and dumped.

The following recipes were part of a closely guarded Mother’s Day package created at the preschool for pint-sized chefs, but I managed to smuggle a few out for your delectation.

Remember, creativity counts and cooking times may vary – a lot …

Jesse’s Mac and Cheese

First we get the cheese and dump it in the pot. Put cheese in it. Then we cook it on the oven for 28 hours. Then we start eating it. Put something different on my plate.

Robert’s Pizza

You buy it from the store and you cook it like 10 hours I think. When the timer rings it’s done. Then you eat it.

Tate’s Chocolate Milk

Pour chocolate milk in a bowl. Put the pasta in the bowl. And then break the strawberries and put them in the bowl. We stir it up and eat it with chop sticks.

Christina’s Eggs and Bacon

Put the fire on and put the stove on. Then we put the bacon on and cook for 10 hours. Put four eggs in a pan and scramble them with salt and pepper. Put the sausage on the stove and let it cook 5 hours. That’s it and you eat them.

Katherine’s Cookies

You put brown in a bowl and water and mix it up. You put it with milk. Put eggs in, too. With apples. Bake in oven for 1 minute. And then you eat them.

Katie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

Smash dough on the table, cook it in the oven for seven minutes. It’s done when the oven beeps. Than I take it out. Eat it.

Joseph’s Pancakes

You use a pan. First you stir it. Cook it on the thing. You burn pancakes. You flip it over one time. Then when they’re done it’s breakfast time. You let them cool off. Then you can eat them. You wipe the butter off with your fork. You cut them with a knife and a fork. You eat it. We have syrup on our plate.

Bon appetit!

Originally published May 28, 2000