I had no idea that part of me had come from this place, a California boardwalk town in the northern Sierras. I’d grown up in Massachusetts. Save for one trip to California when I was 10, I knew California as a distant, colorful place that gift packages materialized from, sent by my West Coast aunts and grandmothers, boxes full of kites and kimonos, Chinese hats and puzzle tricks, gongs and horns and incense, all from San Francisco’s Chinatown.
I knew that my father had been born in Butte, Montana and lived through his teens in San Diego where, he insisted, there was nothing to do but chase desert jackrabbits through the cactus.
At 18, my father left San Diego. He sailed the ocean seas during the Great Depression and met my mother at a communist party gathering in New York. I grew up in New England, attended school there, and can still sling a wicked pissah South Boston accent. I was no Californian.
I suppose I could have known about my wild western heritage but my father seemed eager to keep a distance between himself and his childhood past. Nevertheless, forbidden California beckoned to me like the gold rush. I headed west after college and landed in San Francisco.
California felt strange but familiar. Still, I knew nothing of this old time family connection. I was full of radical theater, collective living, identifying more closely with Italian commedia actors and jazz musicians than anything requiring muddy boots, a crumpled hat, and the company of galoots. Then, this photo arrived in a manila envelope from my aunt Laura, the family archivist.
The gentlemen pictured — note, not a woman in sight — have lined up in front of my great grandfather’s boot shop in Placerville, California. John Degelman, the boot maker, stands behind the men, sunken eyes glaring out over a mustache. If you look closely, you can see he’s wearing a rakish bowler hat and a white collarless shirt, linking him to the scattered merchants in watch chains, uptown hats, and good boots who gathered for the photo op.
Perhaps this squadron of gents served as my great grandfather’s local catalog. I imagine a scenario where John Degelman paid the boy in the bowler — third from the right, hands on belt buckle — to recruit satisfied customers to pose in front of his fancy new shop.
First come the bearded fellows on the left, hands in pockets, sporting the gallant-yet-practical caballero-style riding boot. To the right of the caballeros, the young dandy with the white cravat proudly displays the shine on a Degelman boot, style name unknown.
If you skip over the galoots in the mud boots — the boy probably dragged them out of the livery stable — you come to a prosperous-looking duo, trimmed out a bit sharper than the rest, thrusting their Degelman boots forward, striking a tandem best-foot-forward pose.
To the far right, the barflies arrive. I’m guessing great-grandfather Degelman handed the urchin a pocket full of nickels and told him to round up the denizens from the saloon on the south side of Main Street, where nobody had anything better to do anyhow.
The man at the end? With the pipe and the organ grinder hat? I leave his identity for you to imagine. I’m speculating he traded with the indigenous locals. Perhaps the rough-and-tumble residents of Placerville portrayed in this photo displayed a modicum of civility toward the Maidu and Miwok who had come before. One can only hope.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.