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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Sublime to Ridiculous

By Eric A. Carlson

"Limen: The threshold of a physiological or psychological response."
--American Heritage Dictionary

ROTTING NEXT to the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Alviso at 996 Elizabeth St., the Laine's Groceries building is almost impossibly picturesque. Not in a fashionable or pretty way, like a paint-by-numbers Thomas Kinkade cookie-cutter canvas, but rather like a 140-year-old building decaying in grand style next to a swamp (New Chicago Marsh) on one of the most peculiar streets in peculiar Alviso.

From 1865 until 1912, the building housed the Tilden General Store--the family business of Susan Ortley Tilden and her daughter Minerva. From 1912 until 1939, the structure provided for various concerns: a saloon, a dance hall and a secret Chinese lottery, according to local legend. In 1940, Willis Laine Sr. and his family opened Laine's Groceries in the building. A keen eye can still discern the outline of the family name on the faded storefront. Willis provided groceries to Alvisoans until 1961, when the onslaught of large grocery chains forced him out of business. It became an antique store for a couple of years before finally shuttering up for good.

Willis later opened Laine's Baits (1968), behind the family Italianate mansion, which is next door to Laine's Groceries. Willis passed away on Jan. 3, 2000, four days before his 89th birthday, and his son Tom took over the bait business (Laine's Bait Shop, 408.262.0349). The Laine's Baits sign posted on a fence next to the Laine Victorian mansion is as sublime as it gets. I called Tom, and he said he has no plans regarding the Laine's Groceries structure. "If it falls, it falls," he told me.

The building is a designated "historic structure," and Tom is restrained from tearing it down. Restoring it would be economically unfeasible. "The floor has sunk, and the roof is coming down; it's a joke," he said. I don't believe Tom finds the building as sublime as the tourists who wander by to ooh and ah and snap pictures as the Ace train roars by. To steal a line from the movie Local Hero, "You can't eat scenery."

Across the street from the old market stands the Marina Seafood Grotto, very blue and very funky, with grottos carved out of the walls in the dining room. The Marina Seafood Grotto was originally J.J. Pipe's Alviso Hotel (circa 1905). Once upon a long lost time, there were six hotels in Alviso, a time when steamboats chugged up to piers that no longer exist and hunters shot tens of thousands of ducks out of the sky, sometimes with chain-loaded cannons. The Grotto is the last remnant of these hotels. It has been rumored that "extracurricular entertainment" took place in the upper rooms. Of course, that is said about many an old building. A fine neighborhood bar operates on the ground floor. The bar is filled with hard-core Alvisoans and occasional strays such as myself.

Alviso is sublime. Ridiculous is found closer to downtown San Jose and involves the recent odd behavior of Santa Clara County supervisors. The supes voted for an additional (12th) county holiday to honor Cesar Chavez, which will cost taxpayers an additional $650,000 to provide for holiday work pay. Supervisor Pete McHugh added that the added cost would be countered by increased employee productivity, due to the boost in morale as a result of the extra holiday. So, that $650K won't even be missed you say. What, me worry?

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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