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Behind the Badge Sacramento Street has come a long way over the years

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Lt. Chris Piombo

Posted: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 12:00 am

Talk a walk down Sacramento Street in Downtown Lodi today, and you'll notice things like the new World of Wonders Science Museum, the modern parking garage and the bustling transportation hub. The Lodi Stadium 12 theater is within view. The golden sidewalks nearby are filled with people enjoying events from bike races and wine strolls to the farmer's market and light parade. It's quite tranquil.

But it wasn't so long ago when Sacramento Street was a seedy, violent part of town, a far cry from what you see out there today. Think "Tombstone" meets "L.A. Confidential."

I'd only been with the department for a few weeks when my training officer, Mark Clary, and I were sent to a big brawl on Sacramento Street near the Guadalajara Cafe. We pulled up and saw groups of people punching each other in the middle of the road. Shoes, half-full (or half-empty, depending on your outlook in life) cans of Budweiser, white cowboy hats, car parts, decorative city bricks and anything else someone could pry or steal was flying through the air.

I took out my baton because I was guessing that's what a cop is supposed to do in those types of situations. We plowed into the battle and, when one big guy refused to quit punching another street fighter, Mark picked him up by the lapels. He held him up in the air with his feet dangling like a baby waiting to be changed, then sat him on the hood of our patrol car. Bam!

I stood there, awed by Mark's feat of strength. I thought they only did that stuff in cartoons. The melee quieted down quickly when six or seven police cars from neighboring police agencies came skidding up to the scene.

The Guadalajara was only one of the Sacramento Street drinking establishments officers visited frequently, hopefully while on duty. They had rustic names like the Three Aces, Lodi Sports Club, El Tropical, Roy's and the Rex. The buildings are still there, but the bars are long gone. A corn field grows where the Guadalajara used to be.

Sacramento Street took up a lot of patrol time on the weekends. The bars were standing room only, and the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalks. That caused problems.

One night, Officer Harry Webb was talking to someone in the group when a guy walked out of nearby bar and fired a shot at a person standing near Harry.

Officer Robin Burcell, noted author, was working undercover on Sacramento Street when a guy mistook her for an easy robbery victim. Like the old saying goes, never bring a knife to a robbery where your victim is an undercover police officer who has a gun pointed at your skull.

We would often do bar checks on those busy weekends. As a new officer, I thought it was cool. We'd push our way through throngs of sweaty people and walk into the bar. The atmosphere inside swallowed you up like the Kraken at the end of "Pirates of the Caribbean II." It was hot and humid and it smelled like beer, cigarette smoke and very, very cheap perfume, the kind you buy at a Highway 99 gas station along with some Pringles and Chiclets. The smell stayed in your eyebrows for a week.

There were sloppy drunks leaning on women with garish red lipstick. The bands in the bars were really loud and really bad. I guess the only legal requirement to call yourself a band on Sacramento Street back then was one guy played the trumpet, one fella played an accordion and one dude banged away on the drums.

Officers would walk in on cocaine deals in the bathrooms. The narcotics officers made dozens of arrests on Sacramento Street during those years simply by walking through the bars.

As 2 a.m. neared, you would see black-and-white police cars begin to circle the area like tiny orca whales, the unfriendly ones. The smarter Sacramento Street patrons would let their new girlfriends with red lipstick drive them home. The not-so-smart ones woke up in the drunk tank six hours later.

There was "29 Palms," a couple of sickly trees in a vacant lot that were eventually replaced by the transit hub clock tower. The parking garage now stands at North S.P., a lot once filled with shopping carts. Ladies with names like Claudia, Susie and Annie plied their trade nearby. A burned out old funeral home became the parking lot for the theater. "Biosphere II," an elaborate 4-foot-tall "house" built out of plastic bags, cardboard and sticks on the gravel along the railroad tracks, disappeared along with its residents eons ago.

We dealt with some of the Downtown personalities so much we identified them over the radio by their first name. Dispatch would send us to a call like, "Ronnie is causing a disturbance in front of Payless Liquors again." We'd find them leaning at a 45 degree angle like one of those statues in front of Cold Stone. Or passed out under a car. Thunderbird wine has that sort of effect on people.

There's so much history on Sacramento Street, we should consider giving headsets to people for self-guided tours, sort of like Sutter's Fort or Alcatraz. Might generate a few bucks and everyone knows we can use the money. Nice.

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