As I write this in the early morning on Christmas Eve, a heavy layer of frost is steaming off the garage roof below a crisp blue winter sky. Jennifer’s succulents look content in the cool and mostly dry air and the pair of hummingbirds (Mr. and Mrs. Hummingbird) that frequent our back yard are nowhere to be seen – they may have a timeshare in Hawaii. The lemon tree is sporting a small crop of fruit, ready for Nubbie’s house specialty Meyer Lemon Margaritas, which you will be served when you visit. The sun arcing low over the Southern horizon warms things up only a bit. I’ve been in the garage prepping sourdough to bake later today and will give extra loaves to neighbors for their Christmas meal.
Lexie surprised us showing up unexpectedly from British Columbia two days ago, where she is starting her third season at the heli skiing lodge. It is our first family Christmas together for four years and it is a nice treat. She and Nubbie went to the Nutcracker last night at the Opera house in the City where friendly urbanity of San Francisco was on full display: couples decked out in tuxedos, women in ball gowns, folks in jeans, gaggles of excited little girls with their dads swirling about the foyer, beautifully decorated trees with twinkly lights, drinks pre ordered at the bar for intermission.
We visited Lexie at the lodge this summer, where she was managing a heli hiking program. It is set in an absolutely stunning area, with views of the Bugaboo Spires, granite peaks climbed by folks since very early last century. We got a helicopter ride to a glacier and toured with a knowledgeable guide who spends winters in Antarctica, and visited with the larger than life, loud, friendly, generous (Mostly American) guests.
Liam is up from Santa Cruz (about 1.5 hours South of here on the coast) in his snappy new Toyota Tacoma truck, whose brand has a loyal following. He took us for a spin and Nubbie marveled at its immaculate interiors. She and Liam are peas in a pod when it comes to having things orderly, clean and buttoned up; sadly our serial collection of used vehicles has not measured up to their standards. He and I meet for dinner in the South Bay every few weeks (He drives over the mountains from Santa Cruz and I sit out traffic working at a Starbucks in Sunnyvale or Santa Clara until our dinner meeting.) Liam, Lexie and Nubbie share podcasts and discuss them via group texts.
I’ve been helping a Nigerian entrepreneur purchase a software services company in Austin Texas, to give the software development school he runs in Lagos a source of work for its graduates. I met Chika through a program I volunteer with at the business school at Stanford, which is focused on helping businesses in Africa scale.
Discussing potential partnerships with folks and telling them that the investors in this deal are Nigerians almost always raises eyebrows, especially when I begin my pitch with something like: “My partner’s great uncle was a senior Nigerian military figure and died suddenly, leaving him $100 MM in a bank account in Lagos. If you can forward me the $50,000 processing fee, we will share the inheritance with you 50 / 50.”
I am studying French, mostly by reading books I have already read in English on a Kindle and watching some fine shows in French with French subtitles. It is amazing how much easier learning a language with these tools today than it was when watching filmstrips about Monsieur Thibaut 50 years ago. And interesting to see how a writer’s “voice” comes through a translation and how, while understanding a passage as a whole, understanding the mechanics of a specific sentence – I was never big on grammar – can be a challenge.
A number of years ago in the small commercial strip that starts a block from our house, there was a bar called Suzy Q’s, run by an older Asian lady with permed hair, polyester pants and patterned cardigan sweaters. Her demeanor was about as welcoming as a border protection agent rounding up migrants in Texas. The bar had two beers on tap – Budweiser and Miller Light (Macrobrews?) – and the bar itself had the ambiance of an urgent care waiting room, with bright fluorescent lighting, stained carpets, melamine topped tables and uncomfortable chairs. There were no regulars – one of the necessary ingredients of a solid dive bar – but the sparse selection of beer and Suzy’s unwelcoming frown sealed its attraction for me.
Suzy’s was my favorite dive bar here in the Island City when we moved here 20 years ago and I felt that it was my civic duty to patronize the place. Then the joint shut down unceremoniously: a few years later we found out that Suzy had been busted for running a gambling racket and a prostitution ring, apparently trying to do her bit for the local economy and provide some color to the neighborhood.
I got thinking about Suzy’s when I walked by its former location the other day. It was my first dive bar in Alameda and, even though the City has changed some in time we’ve lived here, with the inevitable wave of gentrification that seems to wash over semi urban locations these days, the town still boasts some fine, absolutely classless, taste-free watering holes. Really less of a wave and more like a slowly rising tide percolating up through the soil, shifting foundations, changing the shape of the town. Slow, unseen, purposeful.
Dive bars have a fine lineage and are a key part of American urban culture. All have a peculiar smell – slightly sweet, hints of beer, stale cigarette smoke, sweat and undertones of fried snacks – are open all the time, have a set of regulars who are rooted, maybe even glued, to their bar stools, jukeboxes with questionable selections of music and a defined set of games (billiards, foosball, maybe table shuffleboard. Never darts). In rapidly gentrifying Cities like San Francisco and Oakland dive bars are beacons of stability and comfort: “The city may be changing, but our watery beer and fatty snacks are not.” These are sad places and their sadness is communal. I am not a drinker and do not go to bars often, but Alameda has such a fine collection of dive spots that they are not to be missed.
I like to sit at the bar at Wally’s Corner (A few blocks West of us on Lincoln at Webster) and watch sports that are accessible only on cable or satellite TV. I am only an occasional spectator but when something big comes along – e.g. the Women’s World Cup soccer this past summer – I’ll park myself at the bar, order a soda water and keep an eye on the screen. I was there at Wally’s on a hot Sunday afternoon this past summer watching America play while two regulars carried on a long conversation with a bartender who looks like she has seen her share of trouble and hard times.
Wally’s has windows and the daylight is not kind to the interior, nor being viewed with a sober eye. Detritus of last night’s buffet, the cracked and stained linoleum floor and a pool table that has seen better days, the liquor display looking dusty and forlorn. Older guys with tattoos, tank tops, baseball caps forearms that suggested they’d done their share of physical labor. Their conversation rambled in stilted way that signified both community and solitude. A dive bar does this very thing – provide a fragile nucleus of conversation formed around a drink at a bar, providing talk that is neither threatening nor substantive. Anonymous intimacy.
Wally’s seems to be open all the time, never completely empty and, other than a new coat of paint on the outside and the offer of free wifi (The clientele don’t seem like heavy Internet users), not changed or upgraded in all the years we’ve lived here.
The Lost Weekend Lounge’s name, off Park Street downtown, pretty much sums up the feel of the place, a windowless, neon lit bar whose interior hasn’t been upgraded in 50 years and whose tomb-like lack of daylight makes time passed at its bar absolutely disconnected from the surrounding world. The regulars looked like they have lost far more than a weekend drinking there. Faces lit in spectral fashion by neon from beer signs and backlit of rows of cheap flavored vodkas, each bottle glowing like a votive candle. A flickering old tube television, a row of lava lamps, last year’s Christmas lights still up and switched on regardless of the season. An unused pool table, whose bright blue felt vibrates in sharp table focused lighting, The ubiquitous flat screen TVs with endless sports spooling through. Liam took Jennifer and I for a drink there a while ago and her gin and tonic was served in a disposable plastic cup. This seemed fitting.
Suzy Q’s spot is now occupied by a copy shop that looks to be running very large printing jobs manually through small copiers and a place with stacks of fabric and clothes towering around clusters of sewing machines manned by middle aged Asian ladies floodlit from above. A genuine sweatshop; not exactly gentrification.
Iain and Doris visited before Christmas and it was really nice to spend time with them between their trips to the coast (Iain likes fish and surf cast when he has the opportunity.). Doris got us tuned up on the various versions of the Virgin Mary (There are a number) – they were here for the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe (One of our favorite Virgin incarnations). They went to mass for the feast at a church in Half Moon Bay packed to the rafters with Hispanic farm workers from the surrounding area.
The VoG was spotted by a Mexican peasant Juan Diego and his vision was acknowledged by the church only after Juan was rebuffed several times. She is considered an essential link to early Mexican Christians and a crossover from their earlier Aztec and Mayan beliefs. You see her image everywhere in Mexico – I bought a case of VoG votive candles from Walmart.com where they are always in stock. She is a fitting anchor to this Christmas season for those of us living in the Latin American part of America.
From a prayer to the VoG by Pope John Paul II:
Teacher of hidden and silent sacrifice,
to you, who come to meet us sinners,
we dedicate on this day all our being and all our love.
We also dedicate to you our life, our work,
our joys, our infirmities and our sorrows.
Grant peace, justice, and prosperity to our people;
for we entrust to your care
all that we have and all that we are
Our prayers go with you, your family and friends this Christmas.