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Photograph by Eric A. Carlson

Neon Ripped My Flesh

By Eric A. Carlson

"You aren't hungry, but you're starving."
--Old Jingleballicks (John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday)

ONCE UPON A TIME, the Coyote "Stage Stop" Inn neon sign (102 Monterey Road) was topped with a howling green coyote. Or was it red? The coyote blew down in a storm a few years back, leaving only neon letters. Even without a coyote, it may well be the best damn neon sign in San Jose.

Then again, an argument could be made for the Western Motel sign at 2250 El Camino Real being tops. In 1948, the Western Motel opened with 15 units. In 1959, the sign arose--yellow and pink letters on a dark-blue cactus. The sign is a poignant reminder that 1959 was the high-water mark of Western Civilization--at least concerning art and style--and that all change is for the worse. The current owner, Abe Totah, is maintaining sign and motel admirably.

In downtown San Jose, the De Anza and St. Claire hotels are blessed with exquisite and subtle neon. These are stylish joints with worthy restaurants and bars on the lobby level. The Fairmont Hotel is swank, and has swank eateries as well, but deigns not to adorn itself in neon. Big mistake. A larger-than-life neon diving dame would look ethereal glittering on the facade and would give the disenfranchised folks across the street, nesting in the Plaza de Cesar E. Chavez, something to muse upon.

Speaking of bums, San Francisco was recently occupied with shooing the homeless from the vicinity of PacBell Park--to cleanse the environs before out-of-towners arrived for the World Series. One can only imagine the cleansing that will take place prior to the Olympic Games if San Francisco gets the nod. Fire hoses will be washing down "The City" for months. I suspect the bums will be rounded up and placed in temporary detention camps in the desert or in Alviso, until the coast is clear. (As if God-fearing Americans don't already know that The City is The Pits.)

Alviso has one hell of a neon sign at Vahl's Restaurant. (Alviso is within the San Jose city limits; it was subsumed in a rigged election in 1968.) Vahl's Restaurant has been operating since 1942 and is graced with a distinctive scarlet neon sign spelling out the name. Bartender extraordinaire Paul and his oh-so-much-older brother Frank--also a bartender extraordinaire--have informed me that Amelia Vahl, the 90-some-year-old owner, immediately replaces lights when they blink out and otherwise makes repairs without any delay whatsoever. Vahl's is a tight ship and always has been. The neon sign alone is worth a visit, and the food is ambrosial. The Alviso Slough gurgles next door.

Mention must be made of the Stephen's Meat Products neon sign (105 S. Montgomery St., San Jose) with dancing yellow pig. (Perhaps the pig is not anticipating being slaughtered?) This sign won Metro's Best Neon Sign competition in 1998. "Pure Pork Sausage" in glowing pink light and the frisson of a dancing pig. Sheer beauty aligned with whimsy.

The Westside Billiards-Coffee Shop-Snooker sign at 1050 W. San Carlos St., San Jose, sports a multicolored star and a black (what else) eight-ball. San Carlos is a street teaming with neon and faded beauty. And, of course, Monterey Road is a gold mine of deliquescing historical neon--mostly relating to motels. Riding down that avenue last weekend, on a Honda 919, I was overtaken by a group of brilliantly colored motorcycles ridden by young men performing the most amazing stand-up wheelies and stoppies. Some might call that hooliganism, but it was beautiful and hypnotic as well. Watching them zoom past in blurs of color was dreamlike and mystifying. And a stoppie is an amazing thing to witness, like watching the Indian rope trick, I would imagine. Defying gravity. Not to mention defying common sense.

In Sunnyvale, Murphy Avenue has fine examples of neon. Perhaps none finer than the Paul & Harvey sign with neon green martini glass, white swizzle stick and olive. A neon martini glass projects a warm and fuzzy feeling, like neons of women swimming in bathtubs of champagne. Very Vegas, very seedy, but very elegant.

Final Note: Neon is best observed at dusk or dawn on the way to somewhere where music is playing.

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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