.Contemplating Time

Gary Singh takes a nostalgic walk through Mountain View

Last week, Mountain View provided yet another alchemical fusion of Silicon Valley’s past, present and future.

On my way to the Cinequest VIP lounge at the shiny new ShowPlace ICON Theatre, I felt obligated to raise the ghosts of dive bars, pizza joints and record stores. I could not refrain from merging the spatial landscape with the temporal landscape.

Since Mountain View is still a perfect example of old valley suburbia clashing with upmarket smatterings of tech-worker housing villages, I began my stroll at the corner of Escuela and Latham. This crumbling little strip mall once housed the original location of Tony & Alba’s Pizza. 

In the late ‘80s, when I barely held down a job at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Tony & Alba’s briefly supplied pizza for the concession stands. It was a true local partnership that unfortunately didn’t last long because a nationwide corporate conglomerate eventually took over the food service contract and ended up selling much worse pizza. Everyone was pissed off. It was an abomination. 

I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, perhaps because it was the first time I ever witnessed a bland sterile corporation trying to crush a mom ‘n’ pop business, thus forever shaping my world view. Tony & Alba’s, of course, went on to become a legendary Italian restaurant that still exists today at Stevens Creek and Winchester, close to where Record Factory was 30 years ago.

In Mountain View, the strip mall at Latham and Escuela is in worse condition now than it ever was back then. A subsequent ramble down Latham toward San Antonio Shopping Center only became more cinematic: vacant lots, weeds, discarded mattresses, a place called Jennifer Taqueria and a graffiti-stained CLOTHING AND SHOES donation box that looked like a truck backed into it. 

For one mile of Latham, all I saw were apartment complexes leftover from decades earlier. The old ones were interesting to look at. The new ones not so much. And then, of course, a Hare Krishna temple jammed right smack in the middle of it all. The whole street, Latham between Escuela and the Walmart, is a textbook throwback to what Mountain View looked like 40 years ago. No one except me would possibly walk the whole thing, so if you’re inclined, maybe drive it one day. If you have time to waste. 

I had not been to the Walmart parking lot in 20 years. My previous visit only happened because I wrote a piece for Metro’s old “Biter” column. A group of pranksters planned to arrive en masse and push empty shopping carts through the Walmart until they got kicked out. I was there, and so was the organizer, but no one else showed up. So that was the story. 

As I continued, the decades rolled in reverse, and then forward again. The memories of everything within a mile radius began to spiral back to the forefront. Transplanted tech bros refuse to understand these things.

For example, back the other direction, just past Rengstorff, the legendary dive bar Ron’s Farmhouse was long gone, but the building remained. In my Shoreline days, several of us drank underage in that bar. Ron’s Farmhouse was the Antonio’s Nut House of Mountain View. Or maybe Antonio’s was the Ron’s Farmhouse of Palo Alto.

Even though Cinequest was still my final destination, where the shiny new ShowPlace ICON Theatre helps anchor a soulless fabricated Santana Row-ish neighborhood for tech-industry folks, I could not resist a diversion across San Antonio to gawk at the empty building were Tower Records used to be. That Tower was one of the most successful in the entire country.

In fact, this entire stretch of El Camino is yet another piece of road where one can see what’s left of the old gritty valley, as it refuses to completely go away. On the Los Altos side, people seem more inclined to save interesting buildings. Not Mountain View. 

In the end, the ShowPlace ICON Theatre was worth a visit, just to go upstairs and look down through the window at the abandoned Milk Pail Market across the street. It was pure bliss to see an indie film festival taking over such a theater. At least for this year, Cinequest is now done. Long live Cinequest!

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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Tower Records? What about Hal’s Music. And, for that matter, the entire San Antonio Shopping center, prior to its current iteration, was a good go-to place: the outside walkways and places to sit, ample landscaping, Co-op, Hal’s, Menu Tree, the fitness supply place, Sears, Norney’s, Radio Shack, Milk Pail. High marks for 15-minute city infrastructure we’re now saying we want (back?).

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  2. Well said! I love how you frame the new within the old and provide a sense of history where most would just see ticky-tacky. Most of my growing-up and first-job locations were bulldozed to make way for the Walmart and apartments. I should go visit the remaining ghosts before they are paved by the future.

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