Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Phone Home

In the pages of a decades-old phone book is a family history discovered
MOVE OVER: Before the Seventh Street garage in downtown San Jose, there were homes, each with tenants and histories that are preserved through old documents and memories. Photo by Gary Singh

For me, the corner of Seventh and San Salvador streets is not just an intersection; it is a transcendental crossroads where the physical landscape merges with the temporal landscape. This time, the ghosts were personal.

The famed literary traveler and novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote that one doesn't need a sixth sense to pick up on the "landscape values" of a place. You just travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, tune in without reverence, and don't obsess about gathering facts. Turn the attention inward and you will extract the essence of a place once you know how.

I lived on Seventh Street near San Salvador during my SJSU days in the mid-'90s. But I recently discovered that my dad also lived near this intersection from 1959-1961, right as he was meeting my mom. I just had to make a sojourn back to this fabled crossroads.

To make a long story short, my dad left India when he was a teenager and came to California. After spending time in the Sacramento area, he arrived at San Jose State in the late '50s. Both he and my mom were students. He passed away when I was a teenager, so I never got to learn much about his background.

It sounds strange, but in all the years of writing columns that required me to look up old street addresses or locations of former buildings, it never even occurred to me to track down where my dad lived. When I found out, the results felt mythological.

The 1959 and 1960 phone books list my dad at 277 East San Salvador St., an address that doesn't exist anymore, since it's right where the Seventh Street parking garage now sits. The garage opened a few years later, in 1962. In the 1961 phone book, my dad is listed at 280 East San Salvador St., which is also gone, although it would have been right across the street, somewhere around the urine-soaked fence now separating the 7-11 from the Ph.D. Apartments.

I can't say for sure, but it's safe to assume the 277 address was torn down as the parking garage emerged, so he simply scored a cheap place across the street. My mom remembers this second place, but not the first place.

During the '90s, I attended SJSU and lived nearby on Seventh Street, while shuffling down San Salvador every other night to rock shows in the SoFA district. During those days, I never fathomed that my dad had lived and partied right there on San Salvador decades earlier. At the time, I never planned on staying in San Jose, so I didn't think about these things.

I harbor no weirdness over this. It's more about channeling the muses of synchronicity to transform everyday life into a work of art, just like Durrell or his old friend Henry Miller would have done. If I can't travel the world, well, at least I can revisit a local neighborhood where my dad used to live.

When I showed up last week and stood at Sixth and San Salvador streets, across from the parking garage, it didn't seem like anything had improved since I lived nearby in the '90s. Fumes of urine rose from the sidewalk. Crumbling apartment buildings seemed to decay out loud in the morning sun. Two downtrodden guys with beanies and masks struggled to load a queen-sized mattress onto a tiny cart they were towing with a bicycle.

Yet this didn't feel like my normal goofy process of finding beauty in the mundane. Something dramatically deeper was going on here. Have all these columns over the years been just a process of me trying to find my long-lost father? There's a parallel from Homer's Odyssey buried in here somewhere, although I'm not sure exactly what.

Durrell, who was born in Jalandhar, India, the same city as my dad, said the spirit of a place is easy to grasp: "It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you—are you watching yourself in me?'"

I guess I'll continue watching.