At least in the crowds I infiltrate, 2016 was considered a miserable year. I don’t mean politics. I mean in terms of death and destruction. We lost too many heroes—Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen, just to name but a few, and lesser-known heroes seemingly expiring every other day throughout the year.
All in all, it makes me realize how lucky I am to still be writing this column, which has now reached approximately 613 installments in a row.
Over the past year, yet another zonked bouillabaisse of material spilled into this space. If you’re new to this racket, “alleys” refers to anything off the beaten path, creatively, geographically or psychically. More often than not, all three tend to overlap. This is the eastern half of me talking, of course, but in my view, San Jose, as a city, is off the beaten path in every possible respect. It almost feels like a gigantic secret place, since all the interesting stuff goes completely unnoticed—even to those who live here. And I’m not the only one saying this. As a result, it often takes a childlike, Zen perspective to find beauty in the ugliness and vice-versa, which is how artists intrinsically operate anyway. So at the end of every year, the columnist reflects back over his fave installments from the last 12 months, each one of which microcosmically reflects the past, present and future back toward each other, depending on how the columnist’s brain is shaping up that particular week. Get it? Of course you do.
For example, 2016 began with the anti-man-about-town tromping through the wretched, sun-cracked asphalt parking lot at El Camino and Lawrence Expressway, on his way to the promised land of Bharat Bazar. The decades-old Indian grocery store was getting slaughtered in favor of the condo-pocalypse, a common occurrence in these parts. It felt almost Biblical, if not mythological, traipsing that rugged landscape to finally arrive at the exotic oasis of cardamom, ghee, moong dal and fenugreek seeds for one last time before the place imploded for good and the marauding real estate warlords wiped out the entire parcel. What a way to begin the year.
Influence from the underbelly of the Indian subcontinent did not stop there, thankfully. William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns inspired more than one column, with ghosts from past businesses, buildings and even entire neighborhoods resurfacing in-between the cracks to share their stories. In another case, members of the 1947 Partition Archive threw a few events to raise awareness about the Partition of India and its long-lasting effects on the entire world. In still another scenario, veteran New York Times journalist Somini Sengupta came to town hawking her new book, The End of Karma, in which she documented India’s current youth generations and how they’re about to make an impact on the world. And in perhaps one of the most successful columns I ever wrote, at least based on the sheer number of people who told me they laughed out loud, the secret thrash metal past of Castro Street in Mountain View exploded back to the forefront of my consciousness when dining at an Indian buffet. Kerry King and Gary Holt of Slayer would be proud.
Continuing on the clash of past and present, mystic vibrations from San Jose’s connection to Irish revolutionary history, the city’s ties to professional soccer disasters of the ’70s, and even my old music professors—dead and alive—found their way onto this page. Sometime I just wish I could just write something one-layered and linear, but my brain doesn’t work that way.
That said, since San Jose boasts a rich tapestry of ethnic identities, each one cross-stitched into the others while still retaining its uniqueness, many of those identities emerged in this column. U.S. Poet Laureate and San Jose legend Juan Felipe Herrera came back to town. The J-Town Film Festival once again offered a smattering of experiences, as did Hakone Gardens. On the Vietnamese front, the Ao Dai Festival once again ignited spectrums of color.