Even though 2020 was one of the worst years on record, the Alley denizen did not give up. He celebrated local heroes, hit a personal milestone, mourned the dead, hit a few unexpected home runs and found gratitude.
As the pandemic settled in, local folks did the best they could to soldier through it all. In fact, I used that phrase a few times. Scott’s Seafood, Tony & Alba’s, Academic Coffee, Streetlight Records, New Ballet San Jose and the public library all showed up in this space. In the latter case, library employees 3D-printed masks for front-line workers. No one knew how long shelter-in-place would last.
When it did last, the Alleys came alive in this space again, as always. The Blight Junkie hit the pavement of Berryessa, Race Street, the Lawrence Caltrain Station and Umbarger Road, while also taking time to research the literary history of John Steinbeck IV, Jack Kerouac, Dwight Goddard and their connections to San Jose.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I arrived at the 15th anniversary of this column, which meant an anthology finally needed to see the light. It happened in November, with an extended exclusive reflection in the pages in Metro. It’s not a book designed for front-to-back consumption. Instead, it’s like a Ramones Greatest Hits boxed set: There’s a million songs, each one is three minutes long and you jump in however you want.
As if that wasn’t enough, even though I never planned on becoming an obituary scribe, when peoples’ numbers came up, I felt inclined to spread the word about the local legacies they left.
Dr. Jerry Hiura, for example, inspired many people in his life as a philanthropist, a supporter of the arts, a Japantown dentist and a pioneer of Asian theater. The beat-era poet Michael McClure, who helped christen Metro’s old headquarters at 550 South First, left an even larger legacy. Then there was Eddie Gale, San Jose’s Ambassador of Jazz, a trumpeter who spent the last 50 years playing music for world peace, most recently operating from his little place near SJSU. Just a few weeks ago, Narinder Singh Kapany, the father of fiber optics, passed away at the age of 94.
Each one of these guys was an inspiration, but only one of those four, Dr. Jerry, made it into the 400-page anthology of columns I published six weeks ago, because the cut-off date was last April.
Over the course of the book’s releaseactually over the course of the last 15 yearsmany readers, and even those who don’t read, have repeatedly asked which column is my favorite. All writers respond to that question the same way: it’s like asking which one of your kids is your favorite.
Nevertheless, I will say this: a Sept. 16, 2020 column about Cambrian Park Plaza, titled, “This Old Haunt,” felt like the best one ever, for several reasons.
It felt like the grand ghostly apex of everything I’ve ever tried to do in this column, creatively speaking. Cambrian Park was a dreary, backwater in which to grow up, virtually indistinguishable from 1,000 other California suburbs, from Sylmar to San Leandro. After decades of watching every giddy neighborhood booster argue about what should be done with the old folksy plaza, I transformed my darkest emotions into raw creativity, laughing out loud as I wrote it and rewrote it, again and again.
While putting that one together, I felt like a slugger stepping up to the plate, calling out the home run in advance, pointing at the pitcher with his bat and saying, “I don’t care what you throw at me, I’m going to knock this one the hell outta here.” Apparently the column went deep for many people because it was forwarded all over social media, every which direction, near and far, way more than anything I’d written in recent memory.
But this is not about home run stats; it’s about a firm belief of mine that absurd comic relief really does serve a purpose, especially in these trying times. So I have nothing but gratitude. Here’s to an even more creative 2021. From the Alleys to you all: Happy New Year!