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Photograph by E. Carlson

Ode to Alviso

Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Cisco

By Eric "ug" Carlson

YEARS AGO, in stumpy San Jose, unruly children were kept in line by suggesting to them the possibility of being "driven to Alviso" if they didn't shape up. There, presumably, they would be dropped off at the garbage dump, or perhaps into the Guadalupe Slough. My friend Nooner informed me that in his family, when a youngster was being weaned from the bottle, Mom would respond to any whining with the following admonishment: "Your bottle is in Alviso."

Garbage dumps and sewage problems (San Jose's sewage, Alviso's problem) attached a stigma to Alviso that has lasted to this day. Take poor G., who revealed to me that she was raised in Alviso, and made me take a blood oath that I would keep my mouth shut about it. For decades, San Jose dumped raw sewage into the sloughs and wetlands surrounding Alviso--much to the detriment and annoyance of mollusk, shrimp and fish who were trying to live there.

Nowadays, sewage is treated and most of the dumps covered with topsoil. Which leaves the coast clear for marauders. Ciscovites have been spotted as far inland as Vahl's, babbling in heathen computerese, waving their credit cards in vain and complaining about the absence of draft beer. There goes the neighborhood.

Sitting on a Naugahyde stool at the bar in Vahl's (décor unchanged since 1950, thank you very much), I spoke with R., who suggested that much of Alviso's stuck-in-time charm and eccentricity are a result of the town being below sea level. Which it is ... about 15 feet. Whatever the spell is, Vahl's has buckets of it. One becomes a believer when the Ace train whistles by on the El Dorado Street levee ... about 20 yards from your barstool. The bar shakes and light ricochets around the room like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind--a result of train cars blocking off the late afternoon sun at 80 miles an hour. Darker magic swirls in the Slough, but first brace yourself with a whisky served up by Frank or Paul, the only bartenders working at Vahl's, by official decree, and practitioners of legerdemain and magic. They can tell you where the bear shits in the woods in Alviso. Just don't be too friendly too fast. This ain't Disneyland.

The levee behind Vahl's keeps the Alviso Slough from sloshing into Alviso proper. Alviso Slough is the tail end of the mighty Guadalupe River, also known as The River of Homeless Souls, meandering into the bay between and betwixt remnants of wetlands. Most of the wetlands have been replaced by salt evaporation ponds--not a good trade unless you work for Cargil Salt. Prominent on the levee stands The Blue Lady, the clubhouse of the South Bay Yacht Club. Jack London sailed up to this point from time to time on his sailing vessel, the Snark, for whisky and laughs. Within spitting distance, a curl of blue smoke wafts from the impossibly small shack of Cry Bob--one of two hermits living in the Alviso Slough. Further down, an abandoned white boat is home for Philipino Phil. Phil has a nasty habit of throwing rocks at passing boats. The police are called, order restored. But how do you talk sense to a man living in an abandoned boat on a slough in Alviso?

Who knows? Perhaps Phil has more sense than the weary Ace train commuters, who wanly stare from the train as they head inland to godforsaken suburbs in Tracy, Manteca and Stockton. If they lived in Alviso they would be home already--beer in hand, listening to crickets, quacking with the ducks.

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From the October 26-November 1, 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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