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High Class Joints

The Flea Market Meets the Fairmont

By Eric Carlson

This week Metro introduces a column by Eric Carlson that looks at the underside of our great valley. --Editor

"They have the best food there [the Pulga]."--Graciela

PULGA IS SPANISH FOR FLEA, and for many Mexicans the word equates to Flea Market. Less is more. Henceforth, pulga will be used in place of San Jose Flea Market.

As I strolled between the Tents of Amazing Crap, beer in hand and nibbling on a Churro, it struck me that the psychosexual imagery and ersatz art found at the pulga were more authentic and pleasing to the eye than the ersatz art decorating The Fairmont Hotel. Certainly less ostentatious.

Graciela maintains that two kinds of people frequent the pulga: (1) Mexicans who just got out of church--still dressed up fancy and (2) odd people and old hippies looking for rusty tools, black-market Disney movies, or incense (25 sticks for a dollar).

Not included in this definition? Don't worry. I wasn't either. Graciela also claims that all Mexicans put chile powder and lemon on their fruit, except perhaps New Mexico Mexicans ... who can be highfalutin' (they cook enchiladas stacked like pancakes--the lazy way, and wear Bolo ties the wrong way, with the top shirt button unbuttoned).

Despite many "No Dogs" signs, Chihuahuas are ubiquitous, hand-held or sometimes worn like a scarf. No other dogs are accorded this exemption. And, you can buy a dog at the pulga--in case you forget your own.

Bang for the buck? Although the San Jose Pulga charges five smackers just to park your car, that's chump change compared to what a glass of orange juice would cost you at the Fairmont Hotel. And there is no parking in downtown San Jose. Forget about it. Advantage: pulga.

Aesthetics? No contest. The pulga glimmers with velvet paintings of Jesus, Betty Boop and Elvis. Not to mention bobbing-head stuffed dogs, big-eyed clown paintings and plastic statues of Tweety Bird. A treasure trove--and a stark contrast to the lifeless "interior decorator" look of the Fairmont, stuffed as it is with icy Asian bronzes, tall vases laden with feather flowers, and shiny faux-marble columns. El yucko. Advantage: pulga.

Ambience? At the pulga you can munch corn on the cob as you shop. And though the aisles are a bit congested, the claustrophobia does not approach that of the Fountain Restaurant--Lilliputian tables invading each other's personal space. No tipping is required at the pulga; however, bartering skills come in quite handy. "How many for one dollar?" "One." "OK, how many for five dollars?" "Five." Some vendors are not open to negotiation. You won't fare any better negotiating a price reduction for eggs Benedict at the Fairmont Hotel.

Customer service? A mixed bag. Not long ago, I sauntered into the Fairmont to photograph a bottle of Korbel Champagne ... with a label design by Frank Sinatra. The bottle was on display in homage to the great man. As I snapped the photo, I heard an assistant manager smirk to his staff, "It's turning into Disneyland around here."

You wish, I thought to myself. With the exception of a bellhop who gave me the stink-eye, everyone was quite personable. My server, Karen, didn't even flinch when I asked for permission to photograph a plate of pancakes.

Pulga service? Well, there are a lot of vendors at the pulga--bound to be some variation. The folks I talked to were polite, but I didn't talk to any grumpy-looking people because I was feeling a bit under the weather, and wanted to avoid confrontation.

Final tally, reflecting Intrinsic Value and Contribution to the Soul of San Jose:

San Jose Pulga: 88 percent
Fairmont Hotel: 61 percent

Results are final.

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From the September 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.