It is truly right and just to go full Huell Howser on Cotati and its bigger sibling Rohnert Park, my own gateway to Sonomaphilia in 1976.
Visiting from L.A., I was taken around the place by an old girlfriend who was about to go to Sonoma State University. Out of the dust-dry south, I was dazzled by the leafiniess, the fractaled branches of the oaks, the river (“Where’s the concrete?”) and the then-free winetastings.
At night, she took me to the New Albion brewery in Penngrove. Though it burned down years ago, the sign, a sacred relic of this very early California brewpub, hangs in a place of honor behind the bar at the Russian River Brewery. Since my idea of what a brewery looked like was Busch Gardens, it was astonishing to see beer could be made in a space lacking five-story steel yeast tanks and monorails.
We met interesting locals, such as a female shade-tree mechanic who operated on the old girlfriend’s Volvo from inside a dugout that she used in lieu of a gas station’s pit. We watched SNL in the Belushi age, in a late-night cafe on the Old Redwood Highway. My love for the area continued long after the girl in question kicked me to the curb, having correctly realized that the curb is the proper place for moist, spaniel-eyed young schmucks.
While now Cotati and Rohnert Park are more or less one big amoeba, in the old days, there was a bit of rivalry between the funky college village and rapidly built housing tract that filled up Waldo Rohnert’s farm. “Robot Park,” the counterculturites called it.
Cut to 1990, a red-letter year for Cotati, the first year of the Cotati Accordion Fest. I’ve been to about 20 of them, fueling up on Lagunitas in the lawn chair, hauling up Little Red, the 12-bass Communist East German-made Bandmaster I got from Sears in 1988. As long as I can, I’ll be joining the “Lady of Spain” ring underneath a wheeling flock of confused-looking wedding doves.
The minor-key waltzes on stage complement the slight melancholy of the event; the buckets of bubble-gum-scented amaryllises scattered around are a sign of time passing. They’re called “pink naked ladies,” but could just as easily be called “farewell to summer,” since the school sessions start up the day after the accordions are silenced.
Scott Goree and Linda Conner of the Cotati Accordion Fest are busy with this coming summer’s ruckus, searching for more agony-box virtuosos from around the world. Goree says he has a large library of potential guests, augmented by YouTube, club dates he checks out and recommendations from previous guests.
This August’s fest has its theme and its poster ready: Honoring Our First Responders. The caption: “We honor the First Responders past, present and future. The future part is the most important, since we’re not out of the woods yet . . .”
Such is life in this valley, first plagued by fire and then by water.
The day may come when you’ll have to explain a “Use an Accordion—Go to Jail” bumper sticker to a kid. Accordions have lost the stigma they once had. Last year, a young crowd mobbed the second stage at the Cotati fest for the Travelling Spectacular caravan.
But not everyone in Cotati is crazy about the crowds and the amplified wheezing. “Some people love us, some people hate us,” Goree says. “The merchants complain that the people who come in don’t patronize their businesses, and that their regular customers can’t come in because of the traffic.”
Both Goree and Conner are proud of the fact that the fest has, over its history, donated $500,000 to local nonprofits. They’re the largest yearly donors to the Education Foundation. They’re the sole supporters of the music program at Thomas Page Academy, annual donors to the Boy Scouts Troop 4 camping trip, a major supporter of the outdoor programs at Penngrove Elementary—and the fest gave enough money to the Penngrove-Rohnert Park Co-op for them to acquire a playground on the premises. “It’s been a windfall for the community, and it’s really put Cotati on the map.” Goree says.
Even in galaxies far away, they’ve heard of Cotati. Avengers: Infinity War had Gamora ogling the unconscious Thor’s muscles and likening their strength to Cotati fibers. This is no reference to the weavers at Cotati’s Fiber Circle Studio, but rather to the technology of that super-intelligent race of trees, the Cotati of the Kree homeworld. They were introduced into The Avengers comics by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema, in 1975.
“Mike” from Santa Rosa’s Batcave comic shop got me in touch with Jon Athens, a long-time local comics fan, who explained how that happened: “Back in 1972, we actually had a comic con in Cotati, the Cotati Con. That was back before almost anyone did comic cons. It was at the Inn of the Beginning” (the saloon is now known as Spancky’s and in its day hosted Janis Joplin, Etta James, the Jefferson Airplane . . . ). “Two of our biggest guests were Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner. Steve was a cool guy. He liked the area so much that he honored it.”
It’s my virgin visit to the Graton Resort and Casino. I’d waited for the traffic to die down since it opened; six years seems to have done the trick—a little, since there were careening psychos in oversized trucks on the Congressman Don Clausen overcrossing. How many times driving by had I promised myself that act of rebellion: to run off, drive up, and make some real money for a change? And
now at last . . .
Out past the Reading Cinema, the center looms. A large structure the size of a convention center at the end of an expressway, patrolled by restless security guards. At the gate, a line of somber, perhaps cleaned-out elders are ready for the busses back to San Francisco or San Jose.
At noon, the action is mostly with the slots; dogged players are sometimes rewarded with an electronic tintinnabulation that simulated a jackpot. Strange licensing abounds, including Lord of the Rings. I never thought of conflating Middle Earth and Las Vegas, but Arwen and Aragorn pose on his-and-hers slots. Señor Tapatia, the sombrero-wearing Gomez Addams–lookalike on the hot sauce bottle, is the theme of another one-armed bandit.
Wait! There’s a Diamonds Are Forever slot machine with Sean Connery looking aged but formidable. For sure, a portent of good luck.
I’d seen that cheesy movie on opening day and three times after that, in the dashed hopes that it would become better on a new viewing. Sadly, the Bond machine is out of order, as the technicians work on it, as are the Thunderball and Casino Royale slots, the latter with a large screen montage of Daniel Craig thumping a bunch of deserving henches. I find something with Chinese dragons spinning around it, evaporate $15, and head off to the car like a Hemingway hero, vanquished yet defeated.
I do my gambling at thrift shops, anyway. One breaches the door, electrified: this will be the day that I find something that will change my life, an original Miro some chump got rid of because it wigged him out. And the St. Vincent de Paul on Redwood Highway is a four-out-of-five-star thrift shop. Everything 40 percent off for seniors and students on Wednesdays. Used books are less expensive than toilet paper these days, but they had a lot of Australiana as well as a CD soundtrack for Trainspotting for 25 cents. Such a deal.
I get out of the car to recheck the loot in my trunk, and lock myself out. Thanks Yarbrough Towing, and the ebullient guy they send to use a couple of klaxon horn-like air pumps and a slim jim to pry the door open and rescue me from my stupidity.
Lunch in Cotati means the Washoe House. It’s officially in Petaluma, which is nonsense. The historic two-story inn is one or two miles north of Railroad Avenue, and Railroad Avenue is the gateway to Cotati. The vicinity doesn’t look like Chickentown at all—it’s out among the Holsteins. And would a bar in Petaluma be able to orate about itself? Hardly.
Inside, the Washoe House menu is a first person prose-poem history of the hotel, reminiscing about the cowboys and the fancy women whose feet trod the very boards where your Crocs rest today.
U.S. Grant once came and spoke from the balcony of this weathered inn that served as slaughterhouse, Post Office and hostelry. The poor bastard was stationed five months in the freezing fog at Fort Humboldt—it’s amazing he ever came back to Northern California.
Like the Graton Resort and the St. Vincent’s, I’d passed the Washoe House forever on drives, and always wanted to go in. No disappointment. Dawdled a little over a horseradish-laden Bloody Mary and a reuben (they had marble rye, yet). A good crowd of 1pm sippers, and a well-picked musical program of sobbing vocalists and steel guitars. Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo” gave way to Jerry Jeff Walker singing about Mr. Bojangles and his sad dead dog.
A ceiling tinted an autumn-leaf color—from decades of nicotine—features thousands of thumbtacked dollar bills, scribbled with black-markered messages, hanging like bats. Clearly throwing away money had been the order of the day. Always a compulsive graffiti reader, I saw the back of a vandalized $1 bill “stONEr”—God, I wish I’d thought of that in high school. And on a squandered fiver “This Is for White Bird.”
The cryptic messages, the old photos of couples giving each other a squeeze, the handcuffs and boxing gloves over the beer taps—all signs meant to be read by some passerby, to reassure them of some form of permanence in this part of the world, flotsam to cling to in the flood of time.