Archive for March, 2010

Loaves and Fishes

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Andy's Pet Shop, Plate 2

You win some and you lose some. A couple of businesses in San Jose, neighbors on The Alameda, have found themselves on opposite sides of Fortune’s wheel. Greenlee’s Bakery happily is on the ascent, whereas Andy’s Pet Shop has sadly sunk beneath the horizon, never to shine on The Alameda again.

Technically it’s not Greenlee’s Bakery per se which is enjoying good fortune, but rather its flagship product, Greenlee’s Best Cinnamon Bread. Its popularity has increased tenfold in recent years and continues to grow and with good reason: it’s fantastic.

Christmas Eve, 2009, I was driving around town looking for gifts for family. Don’t judge; that’s how I roll. I was headed to a bookstore to pick up some goodies when I pulled up behind a Greenlee’s delivery truck at a red light. It was as if the heavens opened up and The Voice proclaimed, “Get thee to Whole Foods.” So I gat, and I got loaves of cinnamon bread for everybody, and they loved it. The first thing you notice when you pick it up is how heavy it is. The next thing is the amazing aroma. My car smelled like an enchanted gingerbread house by the time I got home with a half-dozen loaves in the back. Open up the bag, peel off a marbled-spice slice, pop it in the toaster to caramelize the gooey glaze, slather it with something sinful, and the result is pure joy.

Whole Foods Market is in fact how the bread is taking off. After catering just to locals who kept the secret well, Greenlee’s a few years ago widened their reach a smidge by branching out to farmers’ markets around the Bay Area. A Whole Foods buyer discovered the bread in Redwood City and now loaves are sold in Whole Foods stores up and down the West Coast. They’re not done; the Southwest and Midwest are next, and they’re talking about going national by the end of the year. Every loaf is still baked right at Greenlee’s Bakery at 1081 The Alameda alongside an assortment of event cakes, cookies, and muffins, though I imagine they’d have to add capacity to keep up with national demand.

In stark contrast, at the end of the block Andy’s Pet Shop has sadly vacated the premises after sixty years at that location. The iconic neon sign out front has been a landmark for decades. The building used to be a California Highway Patrol office, but after Andy Camilleri and his wife Geraldine took over it became well-known for its selection of unique and exotic animals and birds. After the Camilleris died the business changed hands a few times and is now owned by Lissa Shoun and Eric Bong who changed it over completely to a rescued pet adoption center supported by pet food and supply sales. It was the noblest of endeavors but sadly business dropped off so they had to move out. The animals were placed in temporary foster homes, the inventory was put in storage, and the neon sign is coming down. The owners are hoping to find an affordable location so they can open again. Their web site has a link where you can donate via PayPal to help defray the expenses of moving and preparing a new location.

The Alameda won’t be the same without Andy’s snails and puppy dog tails, but at least we can console ourselves with sugar and spice from Greenlee’s. Did I mention you can order it online?

Greenlee's Cinnamon Bread

A Pilgrim’s Odyssey, or There and Back Again, Part 4

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

At the Daly City BART station I wandered around looking  for the Muni Route 14 stop. I looked. And looked. And looked. Then I remembered…the 14 doesn’t go to the BART station, it starts at the top-of-the-hill. Curses! I had known this from my planning the night before, but I got caught up in the romance of the trip and missed my stop. I had a good laugh at my own absent-mindedness and made the half-mile steep hike up John Daly Boulevard from the BART station back to Mission Street. Honestly though it was good to stretch my legs and get a little fresh air and exertion after four hours of sitting on buses.

The Muni route description said the 14 starts at the intersection of Mission Street and San Jose Avenue, but of course when I got there I still couldn’t find the bus stop. I walked a couple blocks down San Jose Avenue. Still no stop, but suddenly I saw a 14 bus coming up San Jose towards me. I didn’t know where to catch it, but I didn’t panic. I watched it get into the turn lane to make the sharp left turn onto Mission and I realized the stop was on Mission. The bus was stopped at a long red light so I actually had time to cross the street before the bus turned. Even better, that stop was a timepoint so the driver took a break; I had plenty of time. My little bus hunt was fortuitous because it caused me to spend a few minutes on San Jose Avenue. I learned later that San Jose Avenue is the real continuation of El Camino Real to San Francisco, not Mission Street. San Jose Avenue follows the original Anza trail that became the link between Mission San Francisco and the San Jose Pueblo, and any modern map will confirm that San Jose Avenue is the more direct route to the mission via Dolores Street. Mission Street on the other hand as I understand it originally ran from the mission to the Yerba Buena pueblo on the waterfront to the north, and only after the Gold Rush extended down the county to merge with San Jose Avenue. So my misguided stroll up San Jose Avenue was in fact an unintentional acknowledgment of its rightful place in geographical history. Sadly Muni doesn’t run a bus up San Jose Avenue from Daly City to the mission, so my transit route up Mission Street was a concession to necessity.

Time: 4:45 PM
Place: Daly City
Route: Muni 14 Inbound
Fare: $2.00
Total: $8.00

At 4:45PM the bus driver went back on duty and I boarded along with a nice little crowd that had developed in the meantime. I paid $2 and got a transfer for the return trip. This was another articulated bus but battle-scarred and road-weary, not at all like the cushy SamTrans coach. [This just in: it has come to my attention that route 14 is actually an electric trolley, a little detail I either missed completely or simply forgot. Hey, it was a long day.] I took a window seat on the passenger side according to plan, however this time my seat faced backwards. This inbound route is a popular one so the bus filled up quickly and was soon standing-room only.

As I noted earlier Daly City looks a lot like San Francisco so I had no idea where we crossed the city and county line. The city web site says the boundary is Guttenberg Street but Google Maps thinks it’s Acton Street. If Daly City and San Francisco ever go to war they can settle the issue. The ride was crowded, rocky, and increasingly getting dark so I didn’t take many notes. A cool mural near Concord Street and the old-timey Billiard Palacade did catch my attention.

I didn’t see any bells on Mission Street and truthfully they would have looked out of place. There is nothing on El Camino Real proper in Northern California that is quite like the Excelsior and Mission Districts in San Francisco.  Buildings are close-set and multi-story. Many appear to be mixed-use with businesses on the ground floor and residences above. Most of those businesses are mom-and-pop shops and eateries, and even the national chains look like they used to be something else. Each building is unique, representing a vibrant stylistic hodgepodge from diverse eras. The sidewalks are narrow and bustling with pedestrians of every persuasion. Bells would get swallowed up in this larger-than-life streetscape. San Francisco truly deserves its nickname in the Bay Area: “The City.”

At 5:15 PM the bus arrived at 16th Street and I hopped off, took a moment to collect myself, and started walking west towards the Mission. On the way I considered how the rest of my day was going to go. The original plan was to leave the house early and arrive here around lunchtime, giving me time turn around and do it all again in reverse. However I got such a late start that it was now early evening and getting dark. What’s worse was I was supposed to cook dinner that evening; that clearly wasn’t going to happen. So I took out my phone and made a very difficult call to my wife, asking her to cook dinner instead. She playfully protested but after I talked her through the process of roasting the pork loin I had already purchased, she agreed. Then I made like a Palm Pre commercial and used my smartphone’s browser to look up the exact recipe from my favorite epicurean web site and email her the link, all from a San Francisco street corner. She ignored my recipe (she broiled the meat instead of roasting it) and it came out great; she was very proud of it and has since added the dish to her repertoire. These things happen for a reason.

CIMG0277It was four-tenths of a mile down 16th Street from Mission Street to the mission at Dolores Street. I arrived there around 5:45 PM. Everything was closed for the day, dark and deserted. First I marveled at the beautifully ornate “modern” (erected in 1918) Mission Dolores Basilica. I climbed the stairs and simply touched the door to mark the end of my journey. After drinking the heady draft of the moment, I moved next door to the “Old Mission,” Misíon San Francisco de Asís. It’s the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco, miraculously surviving the 1906 earthquake and fire. It’s the sixth mission in the chain, founded by Father Palóu in June of 1776, five days prior to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 2,500 miles away. For decades it and the nearby presidio represented the northern reach of the Spanish Empire in Alta California, the tip of El Camino Real. (The two more northern missions at San Rafael and Sonoma came much later, just as Mexico was asserting its own independence from Spain.) There’s a historic El Camino Real bell in the grassy median in front of the mission, the only bell I saw in San Francisco. Its label is gone and it’s badly rusting but like the mission, the city, and the state, it endures.

I spent some minutes looking around and snapping pictures of the many historical plaques and markers adorning this special place. Finally the time arrived to turn back. I weighed my options as I walked back to Mission Street. It was now too dark for effective sight-seeing so it didn’t make sense to take the slow bus ride back down El Camino. There is a BART station at 16th and Mission, which opened up some possibilities. I considered taking BART to Millbrae then transferring to Caltrain for the trip to San Jose, but with a little help from my smartphone I decided on a different route. I would take BART across the Bay and down to Fremont, catch the VTA 180 Express Bus to Milpitas, then transfer to the VTA 66 for the last leg home. Apart from being reasonably efficient, it had the added appeal of completing a big clockwise loop which is more satisfying than simply retracing my steps. Plus the East Bay part of this trip would have some special El Camino Real significance which I’ll explain in a later post; consider yourself teased. Here’s a hint: the VTA 180 goes down Mission Boulevard in Fremont.

Back on 16th Street, I arrived at the BART station plaza at Mission which was sticky with inner-city character. Music blared from a boom box while dozens of people stood or sat alone or in twos or threes, living a corner life. A sincere man with a pushcart was hawking free uncooked Thanksgiving turkeys, possibly overstock from a local charity kitchen. It’s a different world from where I come from. There is a coin-op public toilet there but it was out-of-order. I was oddly relieved (pun intended) to be spared any potential unpleasantness inside, but it did mean I was in for a long evening.

Time: 5:54 PM
Place: San Francisco
Route: BART Fremont Line
Fare: $5.65
Total: $19.30 w/scam

I took the stairs down to the underground station and fed money into the machine to buy my ticket to Fremont. I plucked the stored-value card from the machine but when I inserted the ticket into the fare gate, it was rejected. I gave it to the station attendant who told me it had no money on it. What?! Then she told me its last value had been used up at the Oakland Coliseum station. WHAT?!?! My mind was reeling with incomprehension. I just bought this ticket seconds ago; what happened to it? These days I rarely take BART but there was a period long ago I took it every day so I was hardly a newbie. I had never heard of anything like this. My theory is either the ticket machine had somebody’s old worthless ticket loaded inside it which means I won the loser lottery by “purchasing” it, or somehow I was the victim of a bold scam. Maybe someone shoved the bad ticket in the machine’s dispensing chute for an unsuspecting dupe (me) to pick up, then they came behind me and took my good card when I wasn’t looking. Perhaps it was just user error. I’ll never know. It was bizarre. I lost $5.65 and a significant chunk of my good mood. I had to go back to the machine and purchase a whole new ticket.

Time: 6:56 PM
Place: Fremont
Route: VTA 180 South
Fare: $2.00 w/day pass
Total: $22.30 w/SNAFU

Fortunately the wait for the train and the ride to Fremont were uneventful. At the Fremont station I easily found the stop for the 180 but it showed up quite late which irked me, further chipping away at my disposition. The 180 is an Express bus which means I could use my VTA day pass but I had to pay a $2 upgrade fare. I had plenty of time to confirm this by reading and rereading the fine print on the back of my day pass while waiting for this late bus to arrive. I boarded, flashed my pass, and dropped my last two dollar coins into the fare box. As I was turning to take a seat the driver called me back and said I had only dropped one dollar in the box. “No, I put in two dollars.” He insisted the machine had only registered one. What…the…fill-in-the-blank. I think I dropped the coins in pinched together instead of one at a time, and the machine counted them as one. This stupid machine has one flipping thing to do, count money, and it screwed it up. Fine. I pulled out my wallet and slipped a dollar bill in the machine. The driver showed me how the machine now registered $1 on its digital display, I guess trying to demonstrate its infallible accuracy. Yeah, whatever. Kiss my aggravated backside.

Time: 7:30 PM
Place: Milpitas
Route: VTA 66 South
Fare: $0.00 w/day pass
Total: $22.30

I took a seat huffily and wondered what I had done to anger the transit gods on my return trip so. The bus rolled through Fremont onto I-680 South and before long we reached the Great Mall in Milpitas. After a short wait I boarded once again the VTA 66 and rode it to the exact stop where I started my day. A two block walk back, and I was home around 7:50 PM. Eight hours on the All Camino.

So what was the point? It meant a variety of things at different levels. For the purpose of this blog it was an invaluable accumulation of experience. I’ve now been on every inch of El Camino between San Jose and Daly City, except for one block in front of the South San Francisco BART station which remains a hole in my mind. I have photos, notes, and memories. I visited some cities in San Mateo County for essentially the first time, and can now put faces to the names when I write about them. I discovered new places that piqued my interest and make me want to go back. What’s most important is that I was there attentively, not thinking about driving or schedule or destination, but focused on seeing what was there. Not just living in the moment, I was living in my location, in my inertial frame.

An All-Encompassing Paradox:
•North El Camino Real
•East El Camino Real
•South El Camino Real
•West El Camino Real

There were some intellectual accomplishments. I confirmed the paradox that this one special road contains the four cardinal directions (see sidebar). I have statistics for one side of the road, counting 25 historic El Camino Real bell markers in a single day. I tallied fast food and select other businesses; there are companies that pay for this kind of data!

El Camino (East Side) by the Numbers, in Order of Appearance


  • Historic El Camino Real Bells — 25
  • Gas Stations — 24
  • Jacks in the Box — 7
  • KFCs — 5
  • Burger Kings — 5
  • Lucky Grocery Stores — 4
  • Blockbuster Videos (some closing) — 7
  • Carls Jr. — 2
  • Kragen Auto Parts — 5
  • Safeway Grocery Stores — 5
  • Subway Restaurants — 5
  • Togo’s Restaurants — 2
  • Taco Bells — 7
  • McDonalds — 1
  • The Offramp Bicycle Shops — 2
  • All Bicycle Shops — 5

I don’t claim these numbers are accurate as I probably missed  businesses, but some interesting trends do emerge. El Camino is a car-serving zone with plenty of gas stations (24), auto parts shops (5), and fast food drive-ins. Among the fast food spots McDonalds is surprisingly underrepresented (1) and the leader is Taco Bell (7). Nothing could be more fitting since Taco Bell’s logo and architecture are a commercial parody of the missions. Cars rule the road, but there are a number of bicycle shops (5) that remind us that along with the BART stations, CalTrain depots, and VTA, SamTrans, and Muni bus stops too numerous to count, real transportation alternatives do exist.

This is unfinished business. I only told half of the story, the eastern half. I missed great universities, historic movie theaters, thriving shopping centers, and who knows what else. I do plan to do this same trip in reverse to observe the western half, moving counter-clockwise around the Bay. Memorial Day weekend will be the perfect time since it will have been six months from the first trip, closing the loop with elegant symmetry. I’ll admit I did get overwhelmed by this project as it took me over four months to finally get it written up. For next time I have ideas to streamline the process by writing as I go. I expect Twitter will be involved.

For now, I can say: El Camino Real. Been there. Done that. Blogged all about it.

A Pilgrim’s Odyssey, or There and Back Again, Part 3

Saturday, March 27th, 2010


The Palo Alto Caltrain station was the county-nental divide for my transit trip up El Camino Real. It’s where I left the VTA system which serves Santa Clara County, and boarded the SamTrans Route 390 bus which serves San Mateo County. I had a few minutes to wait so I spent them studying the posted maps and schedules. That’s when I spotted a notice that was as welcome as it was unexpected: select VTA and SamTrans routes accept each others’ day passes in Palo Alto. I could use my VTA pass to board the SamTrans 390! For free! Sweet!

Time : 1:50 PM
Place: Palo Alto Caltrain Station
Route: SamTrans 390 to Daly City BART
Fare: $0.00 w/VTA day pass!
Total: $6.00

The 390 arrived after a few short minutes. It was an impressive articulated coach. I boarded and flashed my VTA pass with just a hint of nervousness that it would be rejected, but my papers were indeed in order so I had no problem at all. The train station is the startpoint for this route so the bus was empty. I had my choice of seats and selected one on the right side as I planned, stowed my backpack at my feet, and settled in for the long ride up the Peninsula.

I’ve lived in Santa Clara county for a while now and I like to think I brim with civic pride, but I have to say honestly that the SamTrans 390 was nice. Really nice. Frankly it blew the VTA 522 off the road, which pains me to admit. The windows were clear (no wrap!), the seats were comfy, and the air conditioning was luxurious. Best of all its general pace was much more leisurely. As we pulled out of the station past the historical marker at MacArthur Park and turned onto El Camino, I could literally feel myself relax as I sat back and prepared to enjoy the ride.

I hate to bag on VTA but I’ve always been ambivalent towards it. There was a period when I took it every day to work and regularly took it to special events downtown. It’s an adequate system, but I wish I could say it’s great. The fact is it’s troubled with low ridership, high fares, and increasingly infrequent schedules. Part of the problem is that the county, especially San Jose, is so gosh-darned spread out with relatively little population concentration that it’s tough to service it efficiently. Plus in our history we’ve been blessed with some boom times, most recently around the high tech industry, that resulted in a solid suburban middle class and drove the adoption of a car culture. So our buses are not world-class. I do have hope for the future of VTA given new high-density development around transit hubs and the plans I’ve seen for dedicated-lane Bus Rapid Transit, but we’re not there yet.

Back to SamTrans, I noted with approval the aptly named El Camino Park as we drove by, then tried and failed to spot El Palo Alto the landmark tree as we crossed San Francisquito Creek; I think it’s just not visible from El Camino. And then just that quickly we left Palo Alto, left Santa Clara County, crossed into San Mateo County, entering Menlo Park.

The Tesla Motors dealership is a hopeful spark in contrast to the three or four closed car dealerships just up the street. There are still plenty of gas stations though, additional reminders of El Camino’s car-serving nature. Jeffrey’s Hamburgers stands out as an eye-catching diner; I’ll have to check it out soon but it will be competing with some of my favorite burger joints past and present on El Camino. At Ravenswood I saw the first historical bell of the county and it was a standout because it’s the first I’ve seen that isn’t hanging from a trademark shepherd’s crook guidepost. Rather it’s hanging on a yoke which I presume is how they were mounted in the actual missions.


I took pictures of this bell, and these were pretty much the only photos I managed to take out the bus windows all day. The only reason I got these is that I lucked out and the bus was stopped at a lengthy red light. I had planned to take many more, but I was overwhelmed simply trying to look vigilantly out the windows without missing anything. It was hard enough just taking notes; photos were beyond me.

The light finally turned green and I was treated to the ultra-hip Menlo Center and the sublime Kepler’s Books. I noted a historical marker at Triangle Redwood Grove, and that Gaylord Indian Restaurant had closed. Gaylord at the Stanford Shopping Center used to be a favorite with my family and my college roommate. I still miss it.

Soon the businesses went away and El Camino became all trees, fences, walls, and the backsides of really expensive homes. Welcome to Atherton. Many of these houses back right up to El Camino, but I presume none of them has an El Camino address. When the neighborhoods cleared and we got to the business district it felt very close with two-story buildings butting directly against the sidewalk, like a tall narrow corridor. There’s a distinct village feel, but severe and a little creepy, like the kind of place you read about in pulpy horror stories. Pleasantville by day but at night, no one will hear your screams…

Atherton is wide but short so before I knew it we rolled into Redwood City. I jotted something about “SF Water Dept.” but have no idea what that was a reference to. I may have become distracted because around this time the air conditioning on the bus shut off and the heat snapped on, throwing me for a loop. We passed the Target at Charter Street then the SR 84 junction, our first highway crossing in quite a while. Harry’s Hofbrau made me nostalgic with its old-timey decor. There’s an El Camino bell posted nearby at Chestnut Street, welcoming you to town. Franklin Street Apartments provide some residential density convenient to the shops and transit at bustling Sequoia Station, but Maguire Correctional Facility looms soberly behind it. A quick look down Broadway reveals a classic and historic downtown (“Climate Best by Government Test”). The Ben Frank’s hot dog stand is as iconic and appetizing as ever, but it overlooks the too-close at-grade Caltrain crossing which was the scene of a shocking tragedy last year. I chuckled at the odd alternating type sizes on an “EL CAMINO REAL” street sign, then noted with satisfaction that the Caltrain tracks are at a higher, safer grade by the time it crosses over Howard Ave. This stretch has some big culverts which are cool to look at. Somewhere along the line I noticed a couple free newspaper boxes for the Daily Post and Daily News.

As we cruised into San Carlos I stuck dogmatically to my strategy of only observing the right side of the street. That’s when I discovered that in San Carlos, there is no right side of the street, just gravel lots and train tracks. The Caltrain tracks are so close to the road there’s no room for proper businesses so most of it is left open. The businesses that should be there seem to be on the other side of the tracks, on Old County Road. The San Carlos Caltrain depot at San Carlos Avenue however is an eye-catching exception, and is graced with a bell. Things open up shortly and there’s a posted notice for proposed development north of the station, which is a recurrent theme. San Carlos Plaza, a shopping center, leaves no doubt that the right side of El Camino is indeed open for business. Trivia break: this paragraph contains the name “San Carlos” seven times. San Carlos.

Belmont is frankly more of the same. There’s a bell near Harbor Blvd. and another at the Belmont Caltrain station at Ralston Ave. By then the right side narrows to a gravel lot again. Then something surprising happens: El Camino must gain a little elevation because the sight lines clear and you gain an expansive view of the San Mateo Bridge and the East Bay hills. Google Street View tells me this occurs around Marine View Street and Mountain View Avenue. Someone was paying attention when they named those streets.

Now entering San Mateo, the county namesake. I had assumed it is the largest and most populous city in the county, but sadly it is neither. However we started to hit the first heavy traffic of the day around SR 92 so clearly it’s big and populous enough. The first thing I wrote down is there are no sidewalks at 42nd Avenue. Yumi Yogurt was a happy sight at 38th Avenue but it has no sidewalk either. I noted Hillsdale Shopping Center even though it’s on the other side of the street; an unforgivable mental lapse. However I was back on track with Ana Furniture which stands on the correct side of the street, across from the mall. Peninsula Station is a mixed-use development appealingly sandwiched between El Camino and Caltrain. This section has a kind of retro downtown feel with small sidewalks culminating with the highrise Tower Plaza building. There was a line out the door at Heidi’s Pies, people no doubt picking up orders for Turkey Day desserts. There was no rush though because Heidi’s never closes. Ever. Bridge Point Academy was the first school I had seen in a while, and The Beading Frenzy wins for the best business name of the day. My wife and my mom have both been into beading; the imagery in the name describes the ensuing mania perfectly. Scenic Central Park is bounded by 5th Avenue—a sly homage to Manhattan geography—and is the gateway to downtown San Mateo. There’s a multi-level parking garage at 2nd Street which is great since downtown is so strollable.

One notices that there are a lot of churches on El Camino in northern San Mateo. The Church of St. Matthew and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School occupy beautiful grounds near St. Matthews Avenue. Notably up to this point in San Mateo the street signs say “S El Camino Real” but here they switch to “N El Camino Real.” Indeed the address of the church is One South El Camino Real and this is where the numbered cross streets begin, starting with 1st Avenue and continuing into the forties as you proceed south. San Francisco and Santa Clara of course were Spanish Catholic missions that became cities and counties. San Mateo separates them but there was never a mission here, rather a satellite Franciscan outpost where San Mateo Creek—whence the region got its name—crossed the Royal Road. It’s notable then that here at the equator of the city, where north becomes south, on the El Camino virtual meridian there is no Catholic chapel but rather an Episcopal church. The Episcopal “big-C” Church as an institution was founded during the American Revolution to replace the Church of England in the newly independent nation. So in a sense the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew, built in 1865 on the site of the abandoned mission outpost, represents the region’s Americanness, a Yankee stake in the Ohlone-then-Spanish-then-Mexican ground, the footprint where Mateo got kicked out and Matthew was shoed in. Fittingly here at the crux of San Mateo’s history and culture is placed an El Camino bell marking the spot where a mission might have been.

My parents live in San Mateo, a short stroll from El Camino. As it turned out, it took nearly three hours to get to their house from mine by bus, an amusing family factoid. I’m tempted to laugh at how impractical this mode of transportation seems, but in fact there was a passenger who got on the 522 with me in San Jose, transferred to the 390, and got off in San Mateo. People do it. As I was pondering this we entered Burlingame and were reminded by a familiar historical marker that Juan Bautista de Anza had been there 230 years prior. A public parking lot at Burlingame Avenue is convenient for shoppers and diners. Near Floribunda Avenue I spied a bell and not much further the wonderful onion domes of the Church of All Russian Saints. Russians have a long history in California, but that’s a topic for another time. Crossing Broadway downtown gave me a sense of déjà vu, having crossed Broadway in Redwood City already. There seems to be nothing but churches and apartments here, and I was struck how there were no pedestrians. After the businesses and apartment buildings faded we entered another zone of backside fences shielding single-family dwellings, similar to Atherton. The difference here though is the corps of venerable landmark eucalyptus trees. A bell at Rosedale and Peninsula Medical Center at Trousdale were my final Burlingame observations.

In my life I’ve been to San Mateo too many times to count and to Burlingame maybe a dozen or two, but north of there San Mateo County is the wild unknown to me. Some of those cities I’ve been to a handful of times and others not at all to speak of, particularly not their El Camino profiles. It was actually kind of wonderful finally to experience these cities which are household names but which I had only visited in Google Maps excursions. Let me tell you, when you start a blog about a street, you wind up spending a lot of time in Google Maps. A lot. This in a nutshell is why I undertook this trip. There’s no substitute for being there.

At Millbrae Avenue this bus turned off of El Camino for the first time to stop at the spectacular intermodal bus-BART-Caltrain Millbrae station. That’s when I realized how close El Camino is to US 101 here, probably the closest I came all day. By now it was after 3:15PM so school kids started boarding the bus, happy and chatty, ready for their long holiday weekend. Their presence brought a lively if slightly rowdy change of atmosphere. Back on El Camino, on the 1000 block there’s a bell. A little further a tree in front of the Mission revival Best Western El Rancho bears some kind of historical marker, but I don’t know what it signifies.

San BrunoSan Bruno gets a standing ovation: their street signs sport their city seal which contains not one but two bells. Bravo! Now that’s some El Camino pride. In reality much of El Camino here is a commercial hodgepodge. It is happily broken up at “The Avenue” A.K.A. San Mateo Avenue, San Bruno’s deliberately-branded downtown shopping district. There is an actual bell here, presumably the model for the seal. I wonder though how those traditional downtown storefronts fare in the shadow of The Shops at Tanforan and San Bruno Towne Center. Malls kill commercial strips; that’s the perennial challenge for city planners. So is traffic, which again got heavy as we approached I-380. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Tanforan, and I was until now unaware that there’s a Hooters there, right on El Camino. Look for more in a future post. I will of course be looking for signs of improved morale and career advancement opportunities after their CEO’s epiphany on “Undercover Boss.” Plus I want to see the barstool trick.

This is where I became aware of San Bruno Mountain rising before us. Ironically it is actually in South San Francisco, “The Industrial City.” The mountain really anchors and defines South City. There’s something else in South San Francisco: the headquarters of See’s Candies. I love candy and I love chocolate; I wonder if they give tours? After a while I noticed the road starting to ascend, and sure enough by the time we got to W. Orange Avenue we had gained a bit of altitude as we started to cross the northern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I saw some big honking crows here. Kaiser Permanente Hospital looms large and Park Station condos and Archstone Apartments cozy up to the South San Francisco BART station, which again we had to turn off of El Camino to get to. The bus passed a Costco I had actually stumbled upon once years ago while looking for gas, and nearby there’s a bell. Treasure Island RV Park has a playful name. Here’s something to ponder. San Francisco and South San Francisco are in different counties, as are Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Fascinating.

Something else that’s fascinating is the city of Colma, “City of Souls.” To make a long story short, in 1900 it became illegal to be dead in San Francisco so Colma grew as a city of cemetaries to hold the San Francisco deceased.  As you roll through Colma it’s literally cemetary after cemetary after cemetary. King of them all, at least from a bus on El Camino, is Cypress Lawn. Holy Sepulchre, Batman, is it ever gorgeous with manicured lawns, serene landscaping, and elegant structures. A nice place to visit. People do actually live in Colma, as evidenced by their landmark police station, and it has a homey village feel. Colma does have a bell, right in front of Eternal Home. Bill Graham is buried there. Here though there are graves just feet away from El Camino which was somehow a bit shocking, but a frank reminder that not every final resting place is a country club. I made a note of pedestrians at the walkway to D street; it could be they were the first people I saw in town. Sidebar: the Colma Historical Association claims that “Colma” is an Ohlone word meaning “many springs” but I don’t buy it. I’m convinced it’s an acronym for “City Of” something, but I don’t know what yet. “Lawn-Mowed Acres”? “Little Motion Anywhere”? “Last Mortal Address”? What do you think?

I noticed the street signs changed to some cool-looking blue ones with a bird logo and indeed the street name itself changed to Mission Street which means we were finally in Daly City. Mission Plaza at Citrus Avenue is a large retail center and there’s a bell in front. The War Memorial Community Center and John Daly Library complex are newly remodeled civic jewels and Landmark Plaza are condos in progress. My main impression was how similar Daly City is to San Francisco, dense and hilly. A spectacular view of Sutro Tower, not to mention some distinctly urban traffic, underscored this notion. Then at long last we reached the storied top-of-the-hill in Daly City, which I was very satisfied to see has a bell planted firmly at its peak in a place of honor. I’ll go out on a limb and claim without substantiation that this is the highest-altitude and westernmost bell in the Bay Area.

The bus turned off Mission onto Hillside to head down to the Daly City BART station, the end of the line. It was about 4:00 PM. I gathered my things, disembarked, and prepared to board Muni for the final push into San Francisco.

Next installment…Do You Know the Way to…?

A Pilgrim’s Odyssey, or There and Back Again, Part 2

Saturday, March 13th, 2010


Whereas the 66 was a calm low-key ride, the 522 was a grittier urban experience. It was nearly full so I was lucky to find a seat near the back like I wanted, but it was on the driver’s side. I had wanted to sit on the passenger side so I could observe the east side of El Camino as we traveled north. I was going to be hard-core about this, ignoring everything on the left (west) side of the street, only looking at the right (east) side. I would catch the west side on the return trip. Great plan, right? For it to work I needed to be on the right side of the bus so I resolved to bide my time and switch seats as soon as one became available. Fortunately the view out the passenger-side windows was not too bad from across the aisle.

If you’ve ever seen the 522 bus you know how distinctive it is with the snazzy bright blue and red wrap covering the entire exterior, including the windows. Let me say that again…including the windows. It looks cool from the outside but from the inside looking out the view is horribly obscured by zillions of halftone screen dots. The world outside is low resolution, making it hard to see details and read street signs—a poor choice for sightseeing. It was bad enough from the driver side but once I got my coveted window seat it was even worse because the dots were right in my face. I thought about opening a window but I didn’t want the chill and I suspect my fellow passengers wouldn’t have been too happy about it either. So I squinted and craned and made the best of it but it was far from ideal.


There was another problem with the 522: speed. A few seconds after I boarded the driver took off, literally leaving behind an old lady who was shuffling up the street, flagging him down. Passengers shouted for the driver to wait but he shouted back that he was late and that there were many 522s behind him. He’s right; the 522 runs every 15 minutes so I’m sure the little old lady was fine. But that was the start of a ride that can best be described as breakneck. The 522 hauls you-know-what up El Camino, pedal-to-the-metal from stop to stop. I have since learned that they even have sensors which cause traffic signals to change, like for emergency vehicles. All this efficiency is awesome for commuters but for a sightseer like me, not so much. I’m glad to have experienced it, but honestly the pixelated view of El Camino whizzing by the 522 at top speed wasn’t what I wanted. In retrospect I should have taken the VTA 22: same route, but a more relaxed schedule and clear windows. Next time.

Time : 12:40 PM
Place: Downtown San Jose
Route: VTA 522 Westbound
Fare: $0.00 w/day pass
Total: $6.00

I had my notebook out to write down things of interest. There was no way to capture everything on El Camino so I only jotted when something struck me. You would think a big old bus would be a pretty smooth ride but it turns out there’s a lot of motion which makes it difficult to write, so I tried my best. (My handwriting is not the most legible, even under ideal conditions.) I definitely wanted to be sure to record all the Historic El Camino Real bells I passed along the way. The first one was downtown San Jose near where Santa Clara Street crosses over the Guadalupe River. A little further up near HP Pavilion I could see the tents and tables in preparation for the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot the following day. The road was going to be closed on Thanksgiving Day so it’s lucky I didn’t get caught up in that. (Years ago I was not so lucky. I set out on a similar excursion to drive State Route 84 from end-to-end, Livermore to the Pacific Ocean, but after 70 miles in San Gregorio the road was closed so I never made it. D’oh!)

The bus continued onto The Alameda. I made a note of Downtown College Preparatory, the first high school we passed. Somehow I missed recording the El Camino bell there, but I did note the one a mere two blocks away at Singletary. These two bells are oddly close together.

Near the Santa Clara city limit I saw a gas station and decided to count all the gas stations we passed. There’s another bell near Santa Clara University‘s Loyola Hall. That’s where we left The Alameda and where El Camino Real in name begins. I made a note of the Roxio building because as a well-known CD and DVD burning software company they stand out as one of the few household-name high tech companies conspicuous on El Camino. This road is the backbone of Silicon Valley but for some reason the tech companies have shunned it. I saw a sign for Alviso St. which was puzzling until later I checked some maps that show that Alviso St., The Alameda, and El Camino Real all confusingly combine at Mission Santa Clara and shoot out Lafayette St. which in the 1800s was the main road from the mission to the all-important port city of Alviso.

As we passed under De La Cruz Avenue El Camino took on the commercial strip character that defines so much of its length through Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties: strip malls, parking lots, driveways, and low-slung cookie-cutter architecture. I decided to start tallying fast food chain stores, notching a Jack in the Box, KFC, and a Burger King before we got to the El Camino bell at the Santa Clara Civic Center. At Bowers we crossed over some water which I learned is Saratoga Creek. At some point we passed into Sunnyvale.

I say “at some point” because it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to tell where one city ends and the next begins. Sometimes there are posted signs but they are easy to miss through pixelated bus windows. I tried to keep track of city boundaries in my notes but mostly they were just guesstimates. I wrote down that the Lucky grocery store and a Blockbuster Video just past Lawrence Expressway were in Sunnyvale (deciding to count those as well as fast food joints and gas stations), but they’re actually in Santa Clara. Who knew?

Speaking of Blockbuster, that one was closing, and it was the second closing store I had seen so far. They were hard to miss as they each had a person standing outside waving bright “Store Closing” signs and the stores carried similar banners. This was the scoop of the day as I hadn’t realized this was happening. I thought maybe the whole company had gone out of business but it wasn’t quite that bad; still it was a major reduction. This shook me as we’ve recently had not one but two neighborhood Hollywood Video stores close on us. Evidently Blockbuster is faring no better in the face of withering entertainment competition from Netflix, digital television, and the internet. I paused to reflect how I had watched the videotape and DVD rental business grow from its earliest humble beginnings to being the go-to weekend entertainment option to being on life support in a couple short decades. We’re witnessing the end of an era.

On into Sunnyvale I tallied a Carl’s Jr., a Kragen auto parts store, Safeway, Subway, Togo’s, and my first of many Taco Bells. I smiled as I recalled many good times at Golfland. I noticed that at some point the name of the road had changed to “E. El Camino Real” which reminded me of a paradox I had noticed about El Camino years ago: that somehow a single monotonic contiguous road has North, South, East, and West variants. I resolved to confirm this conundrum, and confirm it I did.

It’s been years since I’ve been to Rooster T. Feathers comedy club but what always struck me was the long list of rules and regulations they have telling you what you can and can not do. My friend Dan told me an amazing story that it used to be called Andy Capps and is where Nolan Bushnell of Atari installed the first PONG coin-operated video game prototype, and hence could be considered the birthplace of the commercial video game industry.

I noted the newly opened Sunnyvale Art Gallery and made a plan to visit soon. (I have. More later.) It was coincidental to pass the elegant Grand Hotel because I had just recently watched for the first time the famous 1932 film of the same name featuring Greta “I Vant to Be Alone” Garbo and a star-studded cast. As we were nearing the end of Sunnyvale I realized I hadn’t spotted any bells yet in the city. Just then, we passed one at Mary. I observed a closed car dealership near Bernardo and my first McDonalds, then we were in Mountain View.

My first note was the Hotel Avante, followed shortly by the El Camino bell at State Route 85. We crossed over Stevens Creek and the Stevens Creek trail then passed Hotel Zico. There’s a tourism ad for Mountain View somewhere in there: “Need a place to stay? We have Hotels from Avante to Zico.” I spied a historical marker in front of BMW of Mountain View commemorating the “Site of Old Mountain View.” Nearby was a De Anza Trail marker at State Route 237. I imagine this crossroads was historically very significant since the road to Alviso and Milpitas was a crucial link to rest of the Bay Area before the railroads and bridges were built.

More Mountain View highlights include Amber Café, Indian Bits ‘n’ Bites and El Camino bells at Castro and at Rengstorff. By the way in these parts the road is called “W. El Camino Real.”At the San Antonio Transit Center I spotted my second The Offramp bicycle shop and the extensive Avalon Towers apartment complex. It’s always heartening to see high density housing near transit hubs and El Camino has its share. I noticed a pole-top wi-fi antenna, courtesy of Google, and a couple 24 Hour Fitnesses (48 Hour Fitness?) oddly co-located at the San Antonio Shopping Center. So long, Mountain View; hello Palo Alto.

Palo Alto Bowl made me wistful since it’s about to close after 55 years, to be replaced by a mixed-use hotel and townhouse complex. A little further up at Charleston there’s a brand new single-family housing development, Redwood Gate. I bagged a bell at Page Mill, nodded to the eminently strollable California Street, and wondered about the Ananda Church of Self-Realization at Stanford Avenue. Hits came hot-n-heavy: Palo Alto High School, a bell at Embarcadero, the now-booming Town & Country Village, and Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Shortly we turned off of El Camino into the Palo Alto Caltrain station, end of the line for the 522. It was 1:40 PM, exactly one hour after I boarded. We piled off the bus and I looked for my next connection.

Next installment…The Undiscovered County.