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Photograph by Eric "ug" Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Collecting San Jose

By Eric "ug" Carlson

"The unsunn'd heaps of miser's treasure."
John Milton

MOVING TO SUNNYVALE in 1986, from the great state of Mississippi, I was unaware that San Jose was in the vicinity. Oddly, I had failed to refer to a map of the region, and was unsettled that a large city should be hulking about. My first San Jose experience was dinner at Original Joe's, where a tuxedoed waiter sneered at me for asking for a doggie bag. I was deeply offended at the time, not realizing the honorific. The irony went right over my head. Since that night, I have been back to Joe's many times--a San Jose landmark. And I have spent years exploring San Jose's forlorn, tumbleweed-strewn avenues, mucking about in the odd corners for treasure or lurid adventure.

I found some. From Leonard McKay, a photograph of the baroque gingerbread City Hall that stood in Plaza Park from 1887 to 1958. Also from Leonard: a framed photograph of the 53rd annual outing of the South Bay Yacht Club in Alviso (1949)--very collectible--and a slew of tattered postcards depicting the San Jose Light Tower (it blew down in 1915, but a replica exists in Kelly Park Historical Mausoleum); the Alum Rock Meteor (sold to a mining man who went broke when the meteor turned out to lacking in value and turned out to be not a meteor); the Rose Garden and all manner of San Jose edifices and cheesy motels. From a Willow Glen collector of Steinbeck, I acquired a copy of the 1901 Souvenir of the Carnival of Roses that includes photos of then-President McKinley parading the streets of San Jose before speaking in fashionable, and un-bummed, St. James Park. Four months after this speech, he was assassinated in Buffalo, N.Y.

Other San Jose remembrances fill a filing cabinet and several boxes. One treasure stands out--my precious--an actual menu from the Pronto Pup Creamery and Coffee Shop in Willow Glen (technically part of San Jose) from the 1950s. This was a gift from Elizabeth, who is a woman who moves like a shadow and does great work. Her trailer-trash magazine, ClubHouse, and an earlier effort, Santa Clara Valley Lifestyles, featured superb writing and photographs. Her magazines had fewer ads for Rolex watches than San Jose Magazine, but the stories were more interesting.

The Pronto Pup menu arrived with a curse: I have been hounded by collectors of San Jose memorabilia. A bitter middle-aged man from Willow Glen has actual remnants of the San Jose Light Tower buried in his backyard--a fully operational carbon arc lamp and the diffusing shield--and has offered to trade them for the menu. But the menu has a 'holt of me, and I won't part with it, especially knowing that the Willow Glen man turned to the dark side in 1967, after a redheaded lingerie model featured at "luncheon shows" in the Futurama Lanes bowling alley broke his heart. He took to playing pool and collecting manuscripts of American authors. It's the same old story, best described by poet Robert Service: "That someone had stolen the woman you loved / that her love was a devil's lie / That your guts were gone, and the best for you / was to crawl away and die."

The Pronto Pup menu is a time capsule, revealing the value of Willow Glen diner fare circa 1957. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich for .40. Or go whole hog and order No. 6--the Lumber Jack Breakfast: Stack of hot cakes, side of ham, two eggs, toast, hash brown potatoes, jelly, orange juice and coffee--for the princely sum of $1.40 (most expensive item on the menu). Fountain specials included Banana Splits for .60, freezes for .35 and ice cream for .25. You want coffee? Ten cents. One thin dime. One-tenth of a dollar. Pie a la mode? Thirty-five cents. The Pronto Pup diner was a haven for Willow Glen High School students and post-movie strollers.

Final Note: True collectors are serious as lead. I know a collector of swords, armor and guns who told me he would rather die than lose his inventory. He has put too much love and money into the collection. A Samurai collector.

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From the January 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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