.A Vagabond Voyage Begins on Santana Row’s Left Bank

Silicon Alleys columnist Gary Singh’s mind wanders from San Jose to Paris

Only in San Jose would olives at Left Bank in Santana Row trigger a meditative experience.

There are many ways to meditate. In most cases the goal is not to calm your mind, but to watch your mind. Thoughts come and go, just like wild animals running through the forest. They arrive and they depart. Eventually the meditator becomes better equipped to refrain from acting on the thoughts when they arise. As one watches his mind, all dualities and borders begin to dissolve, especially those that separate highbrow from lowbrow, east from west, past from present, or seriousness from camp.

That said, Left Bank is a French Restaurant, so as I mindfully consumed a $7 happy-hour plate of warm marinated picholine olives with pickled garlic, Marcona almonds, orange, Espelette peppers and baguette slices, I sat in silence and watched my mind.

And where did my mind wander? Well, France, of course. In particular, a few influential Paris books returned to my thoughts, not travel books, but masterpieces of the gritty underbelly, books that helped validate the way I’ve written columns for years now. As a matter of fact, I had already copied down a few favorite passages from these books.

Jean-Paul Clebert’s Paris Vagabond arrived in my life much later than you’d expect—just a few years ago—but it remains a WWII-era classic of intrepid gonzo diary-style reportage from the slums, gutters and soup kitchens throughout the ruined underside of the City of Light. Hookers, hobos, washed-up crooks, eccentrics and other sordid denizens all come to glorious life in Clebert’s anarchic prose.

“So much hokum, so much filler,” wrote Clebert, of the surface-level Paris. Instead, he claimed his particular version of the city was reserved for initiates, meaning, “for a very few poets and very many vagabonds.” According to Clebert, to master such an inexhaustible city, “one must indeed be either a vagabond poet or a poet vagabond.”

That last phrase stuck with me, big time. San Jose feels the same. Over the years, I’ve known several locals that would definitely qualify as “vagabond poets” or “poet vagabonds,” all of whom knew more about San Jose than anyone in City Hall.

“Just as you leave a country, a region, or a town for a change of scenery, to see fresh things, breathe different air, look at new faces and feel far removed from your usual routine, I change neighborhoods within Paris, moving from one to the next, having exhausted the first and anticipating the second,” Clebert wrote.

Again. I felt validated after reading those words. This is how literature of the underbelly functions. It makes one realize he is no longer alone. If you keep reading, you will eventually find your tribe, even if the tribe was 70 years ago.

Better still, I could not meditate anywhere in Santana Row without the spirits of Town and Country Village, its predecessor, making their presence known. The very first Chuck E Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre and Meyberg’s Delicatessen were part of my childhood, which sent my wandering mind directly to another avant-garde masterpiece, The Other Paris by Lucy Sante, in particular the chapter titled “Ghosts.”

Sante wrote about the “occult forces of the city”—always at work, resentful of urban planners and operating with glacial slowness the way stalagmites grow in caves over vastly long passages of time, but so incrementally powerful they could never be eliminated by real estate developers or the tech industry. To Sante, these forces over the course of time “have worn grooves like fingerprints in the fabric of the city, so that ghostly impressions can remain even of streets and corners and culs-de-sac obliterated by bureaucrats, and they have created zones of affinity that are independent of administrative divisions and cannot always be explained by ordinary means.”

Same in San Jose, I thought, while slowly wiping out the olives.

Your meditation practice will be different, of course, but in my case, the resulting experience fused the opposites of highbrow and lowbrow. Picholine olives were not incompatible with the slums of Paris. Ghosts of the Animatronic band at the first ever Chuck E Cheese will continue to haunt Santana Row. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Present moment, beautiful moment.”

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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