.Corner Culture

Omelet and hash browns with a side of ’60s and ’70s history

Only in San Jose would a vegetarian omelet and hash browns trigger stories of Paul Kantner and Sonny Madrid.

When I hear indigenous tribal elders say things like, “nothing is dead,” “everybody is alive” or “stories remain forever,” I take them seriously, so a journey to the mythical crossroads of 10th and William last week provided everything a countercultural historian could ask for. 

The janky old building on the southwest corner looks decrepit from the outside, but inside the Corner Café & Diner, a fantastic SJSU hangout, I snagged a corner table and all went well. Stories, myths, legends and history all emerged as I soaked my omelet in Tapatio Sauce. I was alone at opening time, which made the ghosts even more unavoidable. 

These days, various other indie businesses occupy the rest of the street level. Like many crumbling buildings around here, there’s a hair salon, a smoke shop and a cell phone place. To get upstairs, one passes through a cheap curtain and then ascends a staircase off 10th Street, where one then finds an insurance business, another beauty shop and a few other tenants.

It was upstairs in this building that Sonny Madrid ran the operations of Lowrider Magazine exactly 40 years ago. Depending on which source one consults, the address was 505 S. 10th or 444 E. William, both of which lead to eerie staircases that nowadays evoke atmospherics straight from a noir crime novel. 

Sonny Madrid and Lowrider Magazine shaped San Jose history in ways that cannot be overemphasized. Others before me have articulated the story in wonderous detail, so I won’t even attempt to add any more. 

Of course, the modern-day intersection of 10th and William is not a postcard picture. Upon my arrival, graffiti, empty bottles, motor oil stains, paraphernalia and other sordid detritus highlighted the scene. A gyrating tweaker with tattoos scribbled on his face and sweatpants five sizes too big was screaming at everyone else on the sidewalk while the Vietnamese lady from the hair salon came out and threatened to call the cops. And late at night, dealers, pimps and hookers slither up and down this block, not even trying to hide their activity.

Yet despite the apocalyptic vibes outside, the Corner Café & Diner is fantastic. The place is clean and so is the food. I became inspired even more, because the rocking history of this block goes back even further than Sonny Madrid. 

In the mid-’60s, before I was even born, this stretch of road included the Shelter Coffee House at 438 E. William, where a thriving local folk music scene unfolded, including guitar lessons, open jams and much more. The adjacent address, 436 E. William, was Spartan Music, a record shop and variety store. 

It was in this scene that Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen played acoustic gigs before they helped start the Jefferson Airplane, the hippie era’s defining band. The Airplane was a San Francisco band by any possible definition, but Kantner and Kaukonen were regulars in San Jose coffee houses during their college days at Santa Clara University in the early ’60s. Old flyers from the Shelter mention both of them, although Jorma went by Jerry in those days. 

As I devoured the omelet, the legends would not stop haunting me. I had to continue. 

Kitty corner across the street in the mid-’90s was “the free book place” as we called it. What’s now the back corner of the Super Taqueria parking lot used to be two blue-gray Victorian houses fronting William Street. Between the two houses, you’d enter an alcove to see shelves of books where a handwritten sign instructed you to grab whatever you wanted and slip spare change through the mail slot of the house on the right. An old Walt Whitman-looking character lived there, surrounded by piles of books. When Super Taq expanded its parking lot, the houses were relocated. I always wondered what happened to that dude.

To me, every story remains alive at 10th and William. Nothing is truly dead. This is exactly what came to me, sitting there at a corner table, inside the Corner Café & Diner, plowing through a late breakfast. The tribal elders were right.

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