.Holon of San Carlos

A small part of the bigger whole

On a dark stormy night, I came to understand the tiny block of San Carlos Street between Tenth and Eleventh as a holon, something simultaneously whole in of itself, yet also part of a larger networked whole.

This was not a new concept. In Arthur Koestler’s book, The Ghost in the Machine, the author used the term when describing biological organisms, but holons have also been applied to urban spaces, social structures or neighborhoods. As an SJSU student back in the 90s, I first encountered the writings of the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who at the time articulated a “philosophy of symbiosis,” a non-dualistic approach to the part and the whole, in which he wrote that Tokyo was a holon of 300 cities. 

Even then, I understood this block of San Carlos in the same context. To this day it remains a rocking microcosm of commerce, a goldmine, a theater of humanity in and of itself, yet still part of the larger downtown experience. 

Last week, as the storm moved overhead, I sauntered up and down the block, not even intending to conjure up memories from 30 years earlier, but the history became inseparable from the journey of the current moment. During my college decade, I can’t tell you how many times a roommate and I sat there and split a 12-pack while doing our laundry at 11th and San Carlos. Generations of SJSU students, long before me and long after me, have likewise frequented that glorious establishment.

Also back in the 1990s, an old traveler from India, a professional yogi, teacher and spiritualist of some crazed sort briefly owned the laundromat and sold all sorts of esoteric books out of the place. He even opened a small coffee shop just inside the door. This was about 1994. At the time, there was no third wave of coffee, or whatever it’s called, and yet this guy was serving all sorts of bizarre international blends. Nobody else was doing anything of the sort in downtown San Jose. He was far ahead of his time. He came from the future, beyond time or space. I often wonder what happened to that guy.

At this time, even bands were playing in that laundromat. There was also a rave or two, with full audio and video, highlighting a scene that predictably didn’t last very long. In those days, as soon as anything vibrant finally happened, the city put a stop to it immediately, of course.

But even earlier, decades earlier, circa 1969 or 1970, Skip Spence of Moby Grape lived in the dumpy off-white complex on the same side of the street as the laundromat. Skip had been the first drummer of Jefferson Airplane and also the one who introduced the Doobie Brothers to each other. Tom Johnston of the Doobies has told stories ever since about the times he stepped off the porch of their 12th Street house and then segued down San Carlos over to Skip’s flat.

In fact, anyone who ever lived in a house or a car immediately east of SJSU knows that laundromat. It only took a few moments for people of multiple generations to chime in on social media once I put the word out that I was back on that block. 

One friend said he loved this area of campus in 1972, that it was our Telegraph Ave back then. The laundromat has outlasted everything, he said, including bookstores, art supply places and the first Togo’s on William. Others remembered the laundromat because it was dog-friendly. I had no idea people carried so many memories about one damn laundromat. 

That wasn’t all. Two other friends fondly recalled Café Mimosa on the south side of the block, a pleasantly dubious and outre Vietnamese coffee and sandwich place 40 years ago. Others mentioned the amazing Back A Yard Caribbean Grill currently on that strip, but even more mentioned the plethora of restaurants that previously occupied that same building.

As the storm continued overhead, the laundromat building looked cinematic. Past, present and future merged into the current moment. Clearly the laundromat remained an epicenter of activity, a retail anchor, a light in the darkness, a holon, a goldmine. I felt nothing but gratitude.

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.


  1. Hey Gary: I’ve Ben In San Jose Since 1975, When I Came Here To Go To SJSU. I Remember It As A Combo Wash And Dry In The Late 70’s And Early 80’s . You Could Go In And Do Your Laundry And Watch A Big Screen TV And Buy Munchies, And Even After Laundry, You Still Wanted To Stay Because Of The Cool Crowed That Frequented The Place. Nice Hangout For The Alternative Kids From SJSU.

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