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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Great Maw

By Eric A. Carlson

"Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as just finding the gold."

--Robert Service

A VISIT TO THE Blue Max in Sunnyvale for a glass of Yuletide cheer (beer), and a shopping spree at The Great Mall in Milpitas is de rigueur for anyone truly serious about Christmas tradition in San Jose and environs. Add to that the Christmas in the Park celebration in the Plaza de Cesar E. Chavez, and attending The Nutcracker with a child, and your cup runneth over.

Upon my ordering of a Budweiser at the Blue Max, Lloyd at the end of the bar murmured, "glass of sudsy water." I expect he is right; I only ordered a "Bud" to establish myself as a down-to-earth sort of fellow--proper etiquette in a classy dive bar. But "dive" protocol isn't necessary at the Blue Max. The Max is a refuge from all that.

I sat next to 82-year-old Robert Cox--a dapper and well-spoken man who moiled for 40 years as a photographer at Sunset magazine--from 1951 to 1991. Robert's photos were featured on many a cover. On one happy occasion, he was tasked with capturing the image of Audrey Hepburn at Ricky's in Palo Alto. This shoot occurred shortly after Audrey had performed in the stage version of Gigi (Leslie Caron was Gigi in the movie version). Robert also photographed Charles A. Lindbergh, and has been around long enough to remember developing photographs on glass plates. Dive bars are a golden source of local lore--especially in the afternoons before young whippersnappers arrive to hoot and holler. And I would add that Gigi, Leslie and Audrey have nothing over Tanya, the elegant and friendly Blue Max mixologist, who tends bar like Mozart played piano.

When I mentioned to my roommate that I was driving to The Great Mall in Milpitas, her response was, "Eric, don't do it. You don't know what you're getting into." This from a woman who shops at Wal-Mart without blinking an eye. Damn the torpedoes; I got in my car and drove to Milpitas. The Great Mall experience is on a grand scale, not unlike scaling Mt. McKinley or figuring out how to run Microsoft Windows. Some steeling of the spirit is in order.

Milpitas means "Little Cornfields"--a word derived from Aztec, Spanish or Ohlone, depending on what source one buys into. The crown jewel of Milpitas, with the possible exception of Mil's Diner or the Elmwood Correctional Complex, is The Great Mall, built upon the hulking superstructure of the Ford Milpitas Assembly Plant. The Ford plant opened in 1955, and churned out spotless, perfectly functioning Fords until 1983--77 units per hour at peak production. Not to mention honest labor for 6,000 souls.

The Great Mall is a mammoth bower of stores surrounded by a sea of cars--many of them Fords. Entrance portals are provided unique names to help shoppers navigate between the hive of shops and their cars. I entered at the Great Eats portal--and froze in my tracks. On display behind glass, and clearly not revolving, was the once revolving Ford Fairlane 500 of the Great Mall. I walked a quarter-mile to where it should have been gyring, and saw in its place an old Milpitas Fire Department truck. Nice, but no substitute for the lime-green & white Fairlane 500 with continental kit.

There are more than 200 stores and restaurants at the Great Mall in Milpitas. While the grub is not on a level with that dished up at L'Escargot Montorgueil at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it is fast and grubby-friendly. Incidentally, Mme. Jeanne recently gave me a souvenir card from L'Escargot Montorgueil--a restaurant offering "specialties" that include snails and frog legs (Cuisses de Grenouilles). Don't try that at home folks.

I shall never forget a magic day in Milpitas at a transmission shop just off Main Street. The proprietor had scattered old broken transmissions around his dirt parking lot as ornamentation--High Art every bit as esoteric as that found on the walls of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Final Note: In the glass display with the Fairlane 500 are small homages to the Ford plant and to Milpitas. An old Milpitas city limit sign indicates a population of 834, and another depicts a two-headed calf born in 1963 at a nearby ranch.

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From the January 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2002 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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