They say never forget your roots. So this week I’m here to tell you about it, before all the roots go gray.
In the original years of this page, the columnist spent a larger proportion of his nights in various watering holes of the downtown landscape, back when everything was much cheaper—drinks and rent, especially—and also when a larger demographic of bohemian street intellectuals still frequented the local establishments, before they were all gentrified out of the neighborhood.
Early in 2007, a photo surfaced on MySpace (remember that?), in which a denizen of the downtown punk rock world was reading my column at the bar. Either she or someone else took the photo, capturing a gorgeous slice of downtown San Jose folklore. Unfortunately, she passed away a few months later, but this compositional gutter-collage masterpiece has never stopped circulating and re-appearing in social media memories.
The photo is from the back patio at Mission Ale House, a fact I only know because someone else remembered the ashtray. The Silicon Alleys column sitting there on the bar, titled, “The Heather Takeover,” got all sorts of people in all sorts of trouble. I’ll leave it there. It’s in the book, as the saying goes.
In those days, the dive bar punk-n-metal crowd regularly rotated between Cinebar, Caravan, Blank Club and Johnny V’s—the last heroic vestiges of the old SoFA District rock scene in the ’90s—but the same people would occasionally surface at Mission Ale, outside, in the daytime, before the chest-beating jocks showed up at nighttime. One could smoke outside, you see.
Mission Ale, of course, had previously been a dump called Dot’s Bar & Grill, and before even my time it was called the Interlude, perhaps for decades. At Mission Ale, I still miss the killer tri-tip sandwiches every Thursday at lunch, back when a formidable sandwich was only $7.99.
This photo should not only be archived at History San Jose, but also the Library of Congress, the Louvre, the United Nations and the Uffizi in Florence. It captures a demographic of downtown San Jose that, while not even very long ago, is already gone for the most part. Only the Caravan remains, making it the last downtown dive the commercial real estate industry hasn’t willfully destroyed yet. Knock on wood, as they say.
But there’s more. For a time when many recollections are quite hazy, perhaps my fondest memory is filing that Heathers column from the Fairmont lobby lounge over a few cups of their organic green tea on a Friday morning, which is where I often wrote the final draft of my columns in those days. It was a great place to work—not very packed, somewhat secluded, and it made me feel like a foreign correspondent, you know, filing the story from the hotel. I was living completely in my own head and it was so much fun.
Plus, I was traveling a lot in those days and I knew the Fairmont product line, so when the security goons tried to stop me from using the bathroom, I’d point to my laptop sitting over there in the lounge area and then pull out my Fairmont President’s Club card just to prove I wasn’t a homeless person. It seemed to shut them up.
The point here is that stories matter. They can serve a healing purpose.
In a pathologically attention-starved city forever desperate for name recognition, a place that relentlessly erases its own history, guts its own body, tearing out its insides, eradicating everyone’s sense of place, demolishing historic buildings, or moving them down the street just so millionaires can smash everything all over again 30 years later, there is no “mother narrative” to this city. There is no “long body” as the ancients would say. So it can be a healing process to simply tell stories, you know? Stories connect us to the longer body of history. That’s the whole idea.
As I sit here in the Signia by Hilton lobby lounge to write the final draft of this column, I can say that’s why we’re still here, those few of us, the merry band of newspapermen who continue to do what we do.