In San Jose’s Northside Neighborhood, I traveled from Italy to Cambodia via Mexico, Vietnam and the Caribbean, all without leaving 13th Street.
The stretch of road between Backesto Park and 101, exquisite in its timeworn charm, exudes more local pride and character than anything currently getting built downtown. There is no shiny glass, no cocktail hipsters and no real estate reporters anywhere.
While gallivanting down the gorgeously imperfect sidewalk, I thought of a few lines from Virgil’s Eclogue IV: “Muses of Sicily, let me sing a little more grandly / Orchards and lowly tamarisks don’t please everyone / if I sing of the woodlands, let the woods be worthy of a Consul.”
In those lines, Virgil referred to more rural settings, but at least one Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, later vamped on the tamarisks as metaphors for the ignored, the mundane and the commonplace.
The shops, restaurants and auto repair joints along this stretch of 13th, even the abandoned ones, are like those tamarisks. Not everyone will appreciate the humble way in which they bloom and persist. In a prior screed, I used the phrase, “beautifully incongruous hodgepodge,” because that’s exactly what this street is.
It is here one finds enduring legends like Chiaramonte’s Market, where the aromas of Italian sausage and homemade Marinara sauce fill the place, even before the cooking is finished. Rollo’s Doughnuts, another timeless wonder, sits right across the street. There is no such thing as 13th Street without those two places.
Farther down, past Back A Yard, a Caribbean joint, one finds a handful of Mexican places—Lorena’s, Checo’s, El Mazatleco and Mariscos Costa Alegre. These are not Michelin-starred restaurants serving Chateaubriand with Bearnaise sauce. The faded exteriors might scare upmarket folks, but deep within the worn walls of each establishment, a humble beauty awaits.
Now, admittedly, some of the intersections along 13th might not be too safe, depending on how the stars align. The corner at Mission, for example, can get dicey.
How dicey?—I hear you ask. Well, it depends on your standards. No one from Saratoga will come sauntering this way with a parasol and a poodle. That stray shirtless tweaker gyrating down the middle of the street probably won’t hit it off with Blaine from Willow Glen.
But these are exceptions. In most cases, at least in the daytime, one can navigate the sidewalk and poke around the wondrous hodgepodge to which I earlier alluded. You’ll see a tattoo shop, a Mexican bakery, Vietnamese auto repair businesses, a muffler joint and a decades-old machine shop. You’ll find an empty hardware store with a crumbling house and an RV occupying the yard. You’ll discover every possible way in which a laundromat can be jammed into the built environment. And then, right smack in the middle of all this, you’ll see a random house with six cars in the side driveway or a seafood wholesaler taking up half the block.
No matter which direction you wander, light residential mixes with light industrial, which might then give way to a Vietnamese hair salon connected to a smog check facility. Each building is completely different. The whole street is a true joy to explore, although you may have to step over a few pieces of smashed furniture, because there always seems to be a futon frame that someone dumped on the sidewalk days earlier, but no one bothered to remove.
If you lurk long enough, you’ll find places called Paul’s Auto Body, Ben’s Auto Body and Mikee’s Auto Repair. I don’t know Paul, Ben or Mikee, but I like them already.
Even better, the places that may or may not even be open anymore will spark the intrigue of any creative person. Maria’s Night Club. Tony’s Pool Hall. I can go on and on. The wanderlust reigns free on 13th Street.
Finally, right across from Chez Sovan, thousands have driven by the bright green boxlike building with the sign, NUTRICION ESENCIAL. Who’s actually been inside? Directly across the street, the newly incarnated Casa Royal Inn features a Buddha statue in front. Again, the incongruity of everything borders on the sublime.
Like Virgil’s tamarisks, these are humble entities exuding a commonplace beauty. I’ll keep coming back.