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Cheap Thrills: The revolving Ford Fairlane at Great Mall in Milpitas is just one of the simple joys of living in Silicon Valley that doesn't cost a thing.

Funny Money

Some of the best things in life--in The Valley--are still free

By Eric A. Carlson

Last Year in Scotland I purchased a can of Grant's Haggis which was prominently labeled "30% Extra Free--286g for the price of 220g." Sixty-six grams of free haggis. Truly, an amazing value.

Are there free pleasures in the Bay Area worth 66 grams of haggis? You bet. The Valley of Heart's Delight brims with pleasures free for the taking. Many worth more haggis than you can shake a stick at.

Some may argue that we live in an area of diminishing returns--quality-of-life-wise. The traffic can get you down. And if you are a renter you might as well hang it up ... unless you work for a high-paying Borg company on a techno plantation. And at what point did restaurants start charging $9 for a glass of wine? (I can buy two or three bottles for $9.) The price of gasoline is artificially inflated--just for us. Add it all up and you may be reduced to reading free local weekly newspapers to get your kicks--you could do worse, brother. Despite these unhappy by-products of "success," there is still a heart and soul to San Jose and environs. And you will most likely experience it by doing something that does not involve the exchange of money. Just don't count on valet parking.

The Revolving Ford Fairlane at the Great Mall in Milpitas

One rarely has the opportunity to admire, up close, a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible (fully retractable), particularly one revolving at a shopping mall in Milpitas. Pale-green and white is a sight to behold, a triumph of engineering, and a vehicle of rare beauty. You can even touch it. For free. (Stop at Mil's for breakfast as a way of easing into Milpitas--not free, but tasty.)

Alum Rock Park

Confession: it costs two bucks to get into this San Jose city park. I lied (or as a San Jose politician might say, "I misrepresented the facts pertaining to the cost.") Fact is, I feel sorry for this park. Nobody has ever heard of it. It is not promoted by the city because of a series of mystifying abductions that took place there decades ago. Local legend has it that packs of albinos, living in the upper regions of the park, swooped down in the moonlight to whisk away children ... who had tarried too long in the gloaming. Times have changed. Alum Rock Park, now safe for the whole family, is a haven for hikers and bikers. Odd remnants of mineral springs provide for an eerie environment.

Pac Bell Park in "The City"

"The City" isn't really part of "The Valley," but since San Jose's local daily newspaper is counting it as such, why not here? A walkway between China Basin and the outfield wall at Pac Bell Park allows pedestrians to press their noses up to a fence ... to watch the Gigantes play baseball. Space is limited--first come, first served--but it's free. This is the only free thing in San Francisco.

Streak the San Jose Fairmont Hotel Lobby

I would encourage everyone to try this at least once. Enter the lobby from First Street, and then run naked through the lobby screaming at the top of your lungs. Avoid being tackled by a bellhop before exiting out the main lobby entrance onto Market Street. Immediately seek refuge in one of the Susan Hammer legacy JCDecaux pay-toilets. You will be safe for about 20 minutes.

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

There are scant few acres of wetlands left around San Francisco Bay. This is a place you can actually walk out into the stuff--and it is quite fantastic. The visitor's center borders the extraordinary and peculiar town of Alviso. Paths lead out from the building into the wetlands. Be prepared for marbled godwits, yellow-rumped warblers, red-necked grebes, sharp-shinned hawks, and rufous-crowned sparrows. An amazing sanctuary--visited by very few. And oh so free.


Virtually everything in Alviso is a simple pleasure. The town is on the southernmost tip of San Francisco Bay, and is technically part of San Jose --the result of an unfriendly takeover in 1968. Alviso has been so desolate, and so removed from the shenanigans going on around it, that it has somehow retained its 19th-century character. At least in the old historical section. Go there quickly, as it is being assimilated by the evil Cisco. Observe and muse at the Ghost Marina, and the boat launch of much mud, and the Alviso Slough (inhabited by two hermits), and timeless Vahl's restaurant--give it four stars. An added bonus is the Cargill Salt evaporation ponds (once pristine wetlands). You can walk out into the bay--a nine-mile loop. No charge.

Black Pearl at Bay 101

Every Friday night in the Dolphin Cafe at Bay 101, Black Pearl plays swing, samba, tango, waltz, country, and other. Liz Lake and Howard Frederick are a quintessential lounge act, with vocals and instrumentation that are simply spectacular. Parking at Bay 101 is free, there is no cover charge, and no one will bug you to buy a drink.

Grocery Cart Counting in the Guadalupe River

Start from the hobo encampment adjacent to the Children's Discovery Museum (look for Tony Ridder's bronzed sneakers) and start counting grocery carts protruding from the dank waters of the Guadalupe River. Work your way downriver until you reach Alviso. In addition to being fun and free, this is a practical and challenging way to learn San Jose geography.

Tapestry in Talent Fair

The name of this annual September San Jose event is confusing, in that it has nothing to do with tapestries. It is more like a Flea Market for brand-new, New Age art, jewelry, handcrafts and other pleasant gee-gaws. The food is decidedly not free, but there is no charge for people-watching or collecting flyers from the many booths espousing their particular cause, issue, religion or whatever. This year's fair included a group of Australians who brought their own inflatable buildings. One was in the approximate shape of the Sydney Opera House and housed a small theater where a free 8-minute movie about Australia was shown. Fair dinkum, mate.

Bark in the Park™ Dog Festival

This free July event is not to be missed--by owner or dog. It takes place at serene William Street Park, next to the rambunctious Coyote Creek, and features many drooling dogs, dog demonstrations, and booths hawking all manner of dog-related paraphernalia. Including dog furniture. And free music by The Mike Sloan Big Band.

Climb to the Summit of the Quetzalcoatl Statue

The Quetzalcoatl Statue, beloved by all San Joseans, soars majestically into the San Jose skyline, dwarfing all structures beneath it. After arriving at the summit, it would be appropriate to sacrifice a virgin or two.

Locate the Thomas Fallon Statue

This statue depicts a former mayor of San Jose who single-handedly fought off 10,000 Mexican desperadoes in the 1846 war with Mexico, before going home to beat his wife and get drunk in St. James Park. Locating the statue will be troublesome, as it is in Oakland. In a warehouse. And probably in a crate marked "Politically Incorrect--Avert Eyes." The statue is secreted to avoid offending those who paid for it. It is my understanding that the San Francisco Mercury News is offering a $10 million reward to the stalwart soul who uncovers it.

A multitude of free simple pleasures exists in The Valley, most of them worth much more than 66 grams of haggis. One should not forget the access to ocean, bay, valley and mountain. It may be a pain in the ass to live here at times, but it sure beats living in Kansas or San Francisco. Viva the Valley.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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