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[whitespace] Guy and Horse Statue
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Ridiculous to the Sublime

By Eric A. Carlson

"Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing ...

--Jack London, 'The Call of the Wild'

WITHIN THE BLUE CONFINES of Sara's Kitchen, over a watery and sullen plate of Eggs Benedict, Mr. L and I mapped out a course through the dark bowels of Santa Clara. Treasures there be: buried bandits and governors, barefoot Carmelite nuns, a bona fida Benny Bufano rocket ship statue, a yard decorated with discarded railway equipment, and more.

Walking through the older neighborhoods, I marveled at the logistical disdain employed in planting bungalows next to Victorians next to Craftsmen next to 1960s cookie-cutters. And lawns exhibiting personalities of all stripe: classic pink flamingo lawns, a yard crowned with a painted bathtub (yellow) and ceramic chickens, another consisting entirely of lavender--no grass, English garden motifs, yards of cactus and cacti. This quaint jumble style is only surpassed in Alviso and the unincorporated area of Burbank--in decidedly rawer form.

Mr. L and I arrived at the combination Carmelite Monastery-Bond Ranch, a sanctuary of arbors, olive groves, pristine garden shrines and a world-class terra-cotta chapel. A careful observer might be rewarded with a glimpse of one of the cloistered discalced (barefoot) Carmelite nuns. I observed a cheater wearing sandals, but surmised she had special dispensation on account of her age. The Monastery, consecrated in 1917, is situated on the old Bond Ranch (1895-1906). Here, Jack London visited Marshall Bond, stole his dog and used the locale to open the first chapter of his novel The Call of the Wild--good old Buck.

Crossing El Camino, I could just make out the tippy-top of the Benny Bufano rocket statue, thrusting above the treetops beyond the Civic Center. Heart pounding, I crashed through the underbrush and made my way to the front of the colossus. What had appeared to be an otherworldly ICBM, apparently designed to frighten away nonterrestrials, is actually a 60-foot-tall stainless steel statue titled Universal Child. Ceramic round-eyed children are glued to the bottom portion, representing "all the world's children." A larger, extra-wide-eyed child is glued close to the top--probably the leader. And it occurred to me that this might indeed be the ultimate weapon: hyperactive, howling children hurled at those foolish enough to challenge our way of life. Aside from a De Kooning (Standing Figure) stinking up the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University this is the most ludicrous public statue to see light of day in California--and possibly anywhere.

The following week, I returned to the Benny Bufano rocket to take its photograph. On a whim, I crossed the street to the Triton Museum of Art, plopped a couple of bucks into the "donations" Plexiglas box and started looking around. Mark Robinson, the Sunday docent, deserves more money. Mark gave me an impassioned tour of the current exhibit--a photographic tour of Vietnam by Jim Gensheimer, titled Pain and Grace. After looking at one photograph, I was hooked. It was spectacular--in subject matter, composition, color, you name it. In short: beautiful. Next photo, same thing. The walls were filled with beautiful photographs--with stories embedded like gold nuggets. The exhibit runs through February 20, but you can always buy the book in the gift shop--I did. These are transcendent photographs. Jim was gracious enough to hook up with me so I could take his picture by the fine Morgan horse in front of the Triton. As a photographer, he knew to have patience and let me snap away like a madman.

There is wonder and weirdness in Santa Clara. More expeditions will be necessary to root out the "volcano priest"--Father Hubbard, the Lick Mansion, the Berryessa adobe--oldest house in Santa Clara, the Harris-Lass house museum, a mosque, the insane asylum converted into a computer company, as well as a thorough cataloging of lawn ornamentation.

Final Note--my top Gensheimer photo picks: Elder at Wedding Party, War Remnants Museum, Soda Vendor, Bar Girl at Vascos, Koi Pond, Tet Flower Vendor.

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From the February 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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