Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
— Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby, “The End of the Innocence”
My home town of Benicia, California is that small town for me, and always will be. There is no other place I’ve lived that has this town’s combination of interesting and varied history, but also fond and familiar memories.
One thing I love doing in older cities in the United States is walking the streets in historic districts and trying to imagine what life was like there when the buildings were new. It does not always result in pleasant reflections. As I walked the narrow streets and graceful, humid squares of Savannah, Georgia three years ago, I could not escape the sense that its streets clanked with the chains of ghostly slaves, and it seemed as if ancient, unspeakable cruelty still bled from the brick buildings with every rain, washing into its quaintly cobbled gutters.
Sometimes, when I walk through Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, I mentally erase the tacky trinket shops and hot dog stands that have made it more a tourist curiosity than an actual, working enterprise, and take an imaginary trip back in time to when the wharf was far less civilized, yet in many ways more honorable — a place where a fleet of vessels piloted by rough fishermen debarked on foggy mornings and braved heaving seas to get their catch, returning to feed a hungry, grateful city.
Benicia has always been a great place to search out those spots that hint at a colorful history — and I’m not just referring to the Old State Capitol building or the Fisher-Hanlon House. (Both are worth a visit, by the way, if you ever visit.) I’m speaking of the subtler pleasures to be found by doing something I call “alley walking.”
The old commercial and residential core of Benicia was laid out by the Army in the mid-nineteenth century, and so the streets were named in a utilitarian fashion - the east-west streets are just the letters of the alphabet, and the north-south streets are numbers, beginning with First Street (the main street and commercial heart of the town). Benicia was built with alleys parallel to most of the “letter” streets, and since alleys by nature are more hidden and utilitarian than the streets proper, these places have often escaped the relentless beautification — the so-called improvements — that have blurred the evidence of history elsewhere in town. In them are subtle signs of the days before the automobile became dominant — leaning carriage houses, a hitching post and other accoutrements of our more courtly and pastoral past. (Not all of it was courtly, of course — In Benicia's hell-for-leather 19th century era, it used to be said that "respectable" ladies did not venture below H Street downtown, lest they be mistaken for ladies with less "respectable" occupations which involved working evenings. There are traces of the old brothels in that part of town, if you know what to look for.)
My time in the Army was the only extended time when I was beyond easy reach of my home town, and after my own family, I missed my town more than anything. While away, there were certain memories that would ease the ache.
One favorite memory was of a time about six years after my family moved from Richmond to Benicia. I was walking in town one evening in late winter. I used to walk all over town during the evenings a couple years after I graduated from high school, as a sort of meditation, a way of sorting out my thoughts and finding some balance as I decided what my next move in life would be.
I was about a mile from home when the sky opened up, and it began raining in great, gushing torrents, and as I happened to be nearby, I ducked into the parish church my family attended, St. Dominic’s. This was back when Benicia was a lot smaller and folks didn’t lock their doors. The church was never locked.
It was about 8 o’clock, and the sun had set. Coming from the tempest outside, the quiet of the empty church was quite a contrast. It was erected sometime in the late 19th century, and like most old Catholic churches it was built of solid masonry and huge timbers. The walls are probably 2 feet thick, and I remember how it was rich with odors — old wood, candle wax, incense, chrism oil, maybe a waft of perfume or cologne from a Sunday parishioner. The church was empty, and very quiet, the silence broken only by an occasional creak from the rafters as a gust spent itself against the building, and by the soft patter of rain on the windows high above. I thought, too, that I could hear the soft swelling of the old wooden pews as they gathered moisture from the air, breathing like the bronchi in a great pair of lungs.
There were no lights on, but candles at the shrines along the sides of the nave painted the interior a warm and sacred gold. A statue of Mary at the front of the church seemed to look with kindness at the pews that every Sunday were filled with sinners, the kind of people who had murdered her Son, the Son Who was ever ready to forgive and eager to teach how to love with real, selfless, sacrificial love — love so overflowing it would make Him die for the sake of His murderers.
I sat in the pew, awed, and let the serenity of the place fill me. There was peace and holy silence and ancient love. Later, during my time away, I went back to that church many times in my memory. I still do.