Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Walk on the North Side

Mass. Morning Prayer. Office.

I live in San Jose, California, in a neighborhood called Northside. It has its own yahoo group, consisting of yuppies and mumpies who bought some of the interesting older Victorian and Craftsmen style homes here and want to improve the area. The people who live here are mostly Americano, maybe second generation Hispanics. Then there are Pilipinos, some Vietnamese and Hmoung, old Italians (in their 70s and 80s from when the neighborhood was mostly Italian) and some Eastern European mutt newcomers like myself. I grew up in working class neighborhoods, my house in Minneapolis was in a similar kind of place. So I like it here. Subdivisions and apartment complexes seem like lonely, disconnected lifeless places to me.

I used to want to live somewhere groovy, such as returning to San Francisco where I lived for three and a half years during the 60s, but I can't afford the rents, the trouble, the risks.

Postal service is BAD around here. The nearest mail box I know about is four miles away. Today I took the long walk to the mail box.

I walked to the mail box because I had been trying unsuccessfully to send a postcard to my daughter by leaving it clipped to the mailbox for two days, but the mailman didn't pick it up. It is a sketch I did in Maine at hole in the wall Marcy's restaurant, which I stuck to a postcard backing. I like the sketch. It shows the specials written on the whiteboard over the grill, and the odd things hanging on the wall, the clock with a fork and spoon shaped hands, and the tatoo the size of a dinner plate on the back of the waitress, who displayed the tatoo effectively by wearing a tank top. I did the part about creating the postcard for Sunshine over a month ago, but lost track of it. When I found it again, it took me another two weeks to write something on it and address it. And now another week it took to get it in the mail. I didn't have to walk to the mail box, but I took it as a chance to get some exercise and have a little adventure.

Between my house and Holy Cross Church, the neighborhood is pleasant and residential. It has corner stores, and the block-square Baquesto Park. Holy Cross is on the corner of 13th Street and Taylor.

13th is a busy corridor, not as nice as the rest of the neighborhood. When you travel north from Taylor, 13th becomes old Oakland Road, a major truck corridor on the edge of the city. The corner of the next block up from the Church has some Victorian office buildings. A graphic design and sign firm, two liquor stores, and a Head Shop (!). Further along are tire stores, a carros donados (donated cars) lot, cabarets. Maria's cabaret (Live Music) is particularly striking because a wooden statue of (presumably) Maria stands on top of the rectangular concrete building. She has black hair in a top knot and a red sheath dress and holds the sign "Maria's" above her head. Guys with cowboy hats and cowboy boots hang out in the parking lot at night, probably ducking out of the bar for a breath of fresh air.

Two or so blocks north of Holy Cross, I saw the pleasant middle-aged black man who panhandles on the median strip of the road near the entrance to 101 and waved at him just before he turned into a Vietnamese restaurant on the other side of the street. When I would be waiting to turn onto the freeway in my Passat on the way to work, I would give him two dollars. That started because the young Mexican priest (who studied in Rome and speaks good Italian) told me to give two dolars to beggars as a penance. (Previously, I used to give only one dollar.)

I'm sure the panhandler didn't recognize me outside of my car. When I drive my old VW van, he doesn't recognize me.

The Gecko Grill, a sort of upscale taqueria, doesn't serve breakfast, in spite of what the desk clerk at the new Comfort Inn on the corner of Hedding told me when I asked where he sends his customers for breakfast. That reminds me of what Richard Henry Dana reported as the most common phrase he heard when he asked any of the California Indians anything in 1835: Quien sabe? Who knows? Nowadays, the answer you often get is something completely made up. People don't like to admit they don't know something.

I broke my fast at the taqueira in the Mexican market the other side of Hedding from the Comfort Inn. Burrito con lengua (with tongue). Yummy.

Since the market is near a freeway exit, truckers regularly stop there to grab a bite to eat. Two men (who also happened to be black) were trying to order a burrito like you can get in Taco Bell or one of the similar chains. "I want ground beef," one man said. "We have beef, " said the waitress. Because she speaks more Spanish than English, I thought she was going to serve him a burrito with some non-ground beef, so I decided to try to help, since tengo un poquito de Espanol (I speak a little Spanish). I said, "He wants hamburgesa." Jesus, the grill chef at Sun's Newark cafeteria had taught me to order a hamburger as "hamburgesa."

When the customer received his order, he said, "No, I don't want that." The waitress had given him a hamburger sandwich. "I don't want bread." In a mildly reproachful tone, the waitress told me that hamburgesa includes pan. My mistake. "No," I said, "He wants it on a tortilla." She didn't look like she understood, but a few minutes later I saw that she had put the contents of the sandwich on a big flour tortilla, broken up the hamburger patty into chunks, folded up the tortilla, and the customer was satisfied. I was embarassed about my contribution to the mixup.

I bought a pound of molita de rey (which I now think is the Spanish for hamburger) from the butcher's counter before I left the market, put the plastic bag into the pouch on my sweatshirt, along with my Liturgy of the Hours and Magnificat magazine and my credit card, and then went on my way. Now at least I understand another nuance about the difference between English is and Spanish. In English, hamburger can mean the meat and the sandwich. In Spanish, hamburgesa apparently only means the sandwich.

I passed the White Way Motel and tried to guess who stays there. I never see anyone coming in or out of there, or of the Oh La Lodge a few miles farther up Oakland Road.

Another odd eating place along the way I passed, is the Garden City barbeque at the Garden City trailer park. Two black men were (what else?) manning a big black barbeque outside, and the smoke drifted up and north from where they were standing. One of them was vehemently and repeatedly declaring that some woman should go get a f***ing makeover. A coworker brought a group of us to this one-of-a-kind restaurant for lunch from work one day a few years ago, when I was working over on North 1st Street in Sun SJC01 building.

Garden City is a place where you go with a big appetite for large servings of barbecued ribs, chicken, or sausage. Side dishes include corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese and potatoe salad. They sell little homemade sweet potatoe pies and bread pudding with whipped cream on top for desert. The staff is from a Church and the restaurant is a fund-raiser. The customers range from residents of the trailer park behind them to engineers like the one in our group who was willing to drive miles out of his way to eat there.

Further along my way to the mail box, I passed another two black men carrying boxes to a bus stop. It looked like they had just come out of the self-storage place across the road. I glanced at the top of one of the open boxes to see what might be in it. A change of expession, maybe just heightened alertness, passed over the face of one of the men, who then looked down at me and said pleasantly but insistently, "How you doing?" I said, "Fine." The other man took out one of the blue and red boxes that I had glimpsed inside the bigger box he had been carrying. "See, it's a nail kit that you might be able to use." He opened the smaller box, removed the kit, and spread the kit out for me to look at. "Oh I couldn't use anything like that." He said, "Have a nice day." Obviously they had noticed me looking, and decided to let me know that they knew I had been putting my nose into their business.

I spent a few minutes talking with a white woman called Dolly at her hot dog stand. She seems to be the single San Jose manifestation of a commonplace practice in Florida, where women sell hot dogs on the the corner. In Florida, from what I've heard, the hot-dog-selling women wear string bikinis. Dolly is a lot more circumspect. Her outfit consists of short skirts with high heeled shoes, and her hairdo is big, teased, dyed blonde. (Today I noticed a long blond wig hanging from the side of her cart.)

Dolly's spot is on a sidewalk across the street from the self-storage building near some light industrial buildings and trailer parks. She's losing her clientele to layoffs from the businesses that used to rent the light industrial buildings.

When I've stopped to buy a hot dog from her when I still had a job and was driving to work after working at home in the morning, Dolly would assemble the hot dog all by hand to my preference. She'd ask me, "You want dijon instead of that regular mustard? Want one of these French rolls?" The hot dog seems to taste better from her giving it personal attention.

Dolly told me she can't change locations to try to find a busier spot. "I've been here 25 years. Where would I go?"

A few blocks before I got to the mail box, I explored a path under an underpass that leads down to Coyote Creek. Got a strong sense there that I was in a dangerous environment. Homeless campers under the overpass have littered the path and the space under the bridge. I started worrying what might happen if I surprised someone still sleeping down there.

On the other side of the overpass I passed the San Jose Golf Course, behind a chain link fence. A sign advertises its restaurant, and I just remembered that Liberty took me there for a disappointing Mother's Day brunch about six years ago.

On the way home, back over the bridge over Coyote Creek. I decided to leave the noisy road with the trucks and construction work, and took a gravel road that followed the curve of the creek behind a set of industrial buildings. With my back turned to the street, I could see a vista of green, and notice the sky with its few clouds, and felt a drop in tension with the view. The greenness called to me. My tension shot right up again when I noticed a poor man on a bicycle with a very large garbage bag apparently full of cans and bottles he was picking out of dumpsters near the loading docks.

The gravel road continued parallel to Oakland Road with wild grasses and shrubs on the land sloping down to the creek on my left and the trailer parks and other businesses to my right, and the feeling of being unsafe came back strongly on me. I kept thinking how vulnerable I was and about the woman who was jogging in Contra Costa county during her lunch break and got killed. I prayed most of the rest of the way, examining the fences to my right for a gate that I could take to leave the road without turning back. At one point I saw on my left what looked like a permanent homeless structure roofed by the biggest canvas tarpaulin I've ever seen. A sound like somebody clanking pots and pans around came out from under the tarp.

Thought I, "Stupid 50ish writer woman leaves the safety of her home to place herself in danger at the edges of the city. Body found near Coyote Creek. News at nine." And then I prayed some more. Finally I came to a gate, but it was across the road, and it was looked. After failing an attempt to squeeze around it on the right between some rails and an adjacent fence, I found I was able to crawl sideways through the horizontal metal rails. Within a few hundred feet, I was at a set of railroad tracks. I can't quite express my relief when after following the tracks for another seemingly interminable length of time I glimpsed the busy Oakland Road again.

I stopped at the Burger King at the freeway entrance for a Coke and a glass of water. The Indian owner had selected an odd assortment of wall hanging. A print of a Dali-esque painting had two semi-transparent girls in a living room where the ocean poured in through a doorway, and a fire crawled from the fireplace towards where one of the girls was reading on the rug. This was next to a bar sign like you'd see in someone's recreation room in the 50s, next to an insipid nature painting. Rope lights serving as Christmas decorations outlined the wall hangings.

It was a relief to cross Hedding back into the neighborhood, and 10 long blocks later I was home. I'd left the house at 7:15, and it was 1:10 when I came into my warm kitchen
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