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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Bagful of San Jose

By Eric A. Carlson

"The temper of chums, the love of your wife, and a new piano's tune. Which of the three will you trust at the end of an Indian June."
Rudyard Kipling

ON DANGEROUS Mines Road, just south of Livermore, my front tire kicked awkwardly out of a groove and directed my Honda 919--and my soft fleshy body--into a rocky embankment. Cost of a new Honda 919: $7,000. Belly-flopping into a mountain at 40 mph: priceless. After several weeks of reflection, I picked up 919 No. 2 and took if for a maiden spin down Monterey Highway, with stopovers at various scenic and significant junctures.

First Street and Monterey Road to the south of the Highway 280 overpass is "extra-authentic" San Jose, and I love every minute of it. Especially Burger Bar, which currently sells five burgers for $3.99. "Buy 'em by the bagful," suggests the sign. I ordered five tacos and a Diet Pepsi and sat down at one of the round, cemented-in-place picnic tables to enjoy the pigeons and the pulse of traffic on First and Goodyear/Keyes streets.

Paul Berger, the owner, was on site, and we had a chat about the neighborhood and business in troubled times. As it turns out, Burger Bar celebrated its 50th birthday on March 13, 2003, and Paul is planning a celebration with reduced prices on everything. "We can't go back to prices 50 years ago, or else we'll go broke," he told me. But prices will be reduced. Paul is holding off on the gala event until the war in Iraq is over. I asked him about his business, and he told me that all goes well--overall: "It's just too bad we don't get the night life we used to, but that's the neighborhood." At night, the neighborhood is rife with gang activity, prostitutes on the prowl and leisured indigents. Citizens tend to remain at home in the hours of darkness.

Sweet Mexican music spills from cars, and foot traffic bravely crosses the intersection. The ocean of life sings loud and strong here. Throw out a morsel to a pigeon, and one is surrounded by grateful birds crowding in closer and closer until one is staring the buggers in the face. (Look out for a humongous white one as he is big enough to kill a cat.) Verily, if one has not eaten at Burger Bar, one will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Next stop, Oak Hill Cemetery, a few miles south. I chugged the Honda in respectful and subdued low-speed third gear and motored up the hill to the handsome mausoleum. Winds in my helmet soughed and moaned like ghosts. In this journey, perspective is garnished, as is a respect for life and lives lost. It is quiet. I stopped at the mausoleum and looked down at the still skyline of San Jose--an extra-authentic San Jose panorama. The smell of incense arose from an Asian ceremony on the green hillside below. Close by is the marker of Tim Brauch, a champion skateboarder who died too young. On his marker are remembrances from family and friends, including, on this particular visit, a magnificent picture of Bettie Page. His friends remain true, as these loving tidbits attest. A sticker close to Bettie Page reads, "Never forget Tim Brauch."

I rode on, down Monterey Road, past motley motels from the 1960s, past surly and ominous Coyote Inn in Coyote, into Morgan Hill and then Gilroy. The journey is an extravaganza of faded glory of the old King's Highway. San Jose might consider selling tickets just for the privilege of driving this sacred tract.

Final Note: Kudos to Joel Parker who won a first place in the Agave category at the Cactus & Succulent Society of San Jose with a leopoldii he is very proud of. It was entered in the less-than-8-inch-pot category of agaves but swept the whole damn category in a stunning turn of events. Joel picked up 16 ribbons, including a third in an event in which his plant was the only one entered. Joel explained, "The judges can award whatever level they want, even when there's no competition." Joel is quickly establishing a name in San Jose horticultural circles.

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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