Archive for the ‘Menlo Park’ Category

Around the Bay in a Day

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010


Last November I took a bus ride up El Camino Real from San Jose to San Francisco and blogged my impressions and observations. To avoid giving myself whiplash, that day I only looked out the right side of the bus at the eastern side of the street and doggedly ignored the left side so the job was only half done. Last Friday, September 3, 2010, I completed the task, taking the reverse bus trip from San Francisco down to San Jose, observing the west side. Back in November I scribbled all my notes on the bus by hand in a notebook and ended up taking four months to type them all up. It’s not that I’m a slow typist, it’s just that the scope of the project was much larger than I anticipated. For the second trip I found a more efficient way: I live-tweeted my journey.

If you’re unfamiliar with tweeting, it means I used my cell phone on the road to type and send text messages to the Twitter service. Twitter messages, or “tweets,” are limited to 140 characters each so it enforces brevity. A great advantage is that every message was timestamped and geocoded by GPS so I have a complete record of what I saw, when I saw it, and where I was. I tried to live in the moment and just write what was on my mind which means whatever happened to catch my eye out the bus window. I know it’s a pretty pedestrian read (irony intended) but I hope I conveyed a sense of El Camino’s diverse profile.

Follow allcamino on Twitter

Below are my 167 tweets from that day from my brand new @allcamino twitter account. It took some effort to extract them all from Twitter’s web site. There are web apps that do this but they didn’t work for me because they rely on Twitter’s search engine which failed me, returning only six tweets (?!). I wrote a Perl script to convert their HTML to the format I wanted for the blog. To improve the readability I put each time stamp and location stamp against the right margin above each tweet. You can click the location links to open a Google map. My live-tweeting strategy worked great. Last year it took me four months to finish the writeup. Here I’ve done it in less than four days.

I cleaned the text up, fixing obvious two-left-thumb typos and grammar issues, but the content is largely raw and uncut. I’ve put a few editor notes in [square] brackets and added hyperlinks for your reference. I’ve written broader post-trip comments in between tweets in italics. You’ll see a bunch of the photos I took, many from the windows of the buses. Please excuse their quality. (more…)

Menlo Mondays

Sunday, September 5th, 2010


Last month I hung out in Menlo Park at lunchtime three Mondays in a row. Despite my best intentions I tend to spend most of my El Camino Real time in my home county of Santa Clara. I don’t get up to San Mateo County often enough so I put forth deliberate effort to remedy that. I didn’t mean to make a series of it but once I realized what a cool title “Menlo Mondays” is, I had to go with it.

What started it all was the Music@Menlo festival and their free lunchtime events. Monday, August 2 I had the  urge to go catch a mini-concert but didn’t get an early enough start. I made the decision to go to Menlo Park anyway and just experience the town. It’s not that I never go there, but I figured this time I’d open my eyes a little wider and try to discover something new.

I drove up via US 101 and took the Willow Road exit, reflecting on how devilishly obscure it is to get to downtown from the freeway. None of the major roads go straight through to El Camino Real; they all dead-end at Middlefield. Sure enough, like a self-fulfilling prophecy I goofed and made a wrong turn into SRI International‘s parking lot. D’oh!

I extricated myself and took Ravenswood Ave toward downtown. I parked near the Caltrain station and walked up to El Camino. It was deep into lunchtime and I was hungry so I started walking south on the west side of the street, looking for a place to eat. There are many great eateries in the vicinity of El Camino and Santa Cruz Avenue so I followed my nose. I passed Lisa’s Tea Treasures (so that’s where it is!), Crêpes Cafe, Phil’s Treasure Pot, Sultana, Stacks, Mextogo, Trellis, Su Hong, Oak City Bar & Grill, Cafe Borrone, Applewood Gourmet Pizza, Cook’s Seafood, and the heart-tugging vacancy where Chili’s used to be. I scanned menus as I went but nothing was speaking to me. Then I saw it: Jeffrey’s Hamburgers. When I took my bus ride up El Camino in November, 2009 I had made a note of it and resolved to give it a try. This was the time!

CIMG1295I had walked quite a ways so I was now starving. Jeffrey’s has a sleek retro diner look on the outside which is matched by a classic 50’s car theme on the inside complete with a slice of a car hanging on the wall. I ordered a pineapple teriyaki burger and took a seat at the bar, eavesdropping on the conversations around me while oldies played over the sound system.  My burger came and it was tasty, but honestly it’s difficult to judge it fairly because it was dominated by sauce, just like I wanted. I’ll have to go back and try a plainer burger to see how it compares to those at my longtime local favorites Kirk’s, Clarke’s, and Kal’s. (Alliteration is good for the digestion, don’t ya know.) Jeffrey’s was good and I’d go back but I’m not in love with the diner decor. All the chromeCIMG1296 and stark white formica come off a little cold and clinical; it’s like eating in a morgue. Plus the employees don’t really commit to the theme. The other burger joints I mentioned are all funky and dingy but they are unpretentious and have warmth. This preference might be my subconscious working through the trauma of all the McDonald’s meals I ate as a kid.

While I was eating I noticed something unusual, a sign across the street that said Lydian Academy. It didn’t look like a school; it was a small commercial space above a Jenny Craig Weight Loss center. I Googled it and discovered it’s a boutique high school, fully accredited but very small, offering personalized instruction tailored to each student’s needs.

CIMG1304After lunch I ambled back up El Camino, admiring sights along the way like the Ravenswood Triangle Redwood Grove with its unique yoke-mounted El Camino bell. I had to cross a few streets and noticed something: the traffic lights in this part of Menlo Park are really really long. These intersections are quite busy so I guess the timings are optimized for maximum car movement. It’s a good thing it’s a pleasant stretch of road or else there would be a plague of peeved pedestrians. (Alliteration helps pass the time while you’re waiting for a walk signal, don’t ya know.)

CIMG1308I paused at the Trees for Menlo marker in front of Cafe Borrone and realized how prevalent the oak tree motif is in the city. It’s the city logo and is on all the street signs. Oak City Bar & Grill named themselves after it. Indeed I strolled up and down El Camino that day between Oak Grove Avenue and Live Oak Avenue. I guess unfortunately for Menlo Park the name “Oakland” was already taken when they incorporated.

I walked up to a used bookstore I had never been to, Feldman’s Books. I was on a mission to look for the Signposts books by recently-deceased Patricia Loomis and actually found one on the well-stocked California history shelves. I bought two more El Camino-related books. The first was Stanford: from the Foothills to the Bay by Peter C. Allen. Bonus—it’s signed by my old Stanford president Don Kennedy. The other book was Telling the Santa Clara Story: Sesquicentennial Voices, edited by Russell K. Skowronek. It’s a history of Santa Clara covering the mission, city, and university. I was wavering on whether to buy it but when I thumbed through it I found it ends with an essay by Paul Locatelli, S.J., the former chancellor and president of SCU who just passed away in July. It was a sign. I didn’t mean for my first visit to Feldman’s to be so morbid but really that’s the power of used book stores. In their dusty corners the whispered voices of the past are given new life when they change hands and find new eyes.

That was the end of my first Menlo Monday. I knew I’d be back soon for some music. Stay tuned.

Anna, Bella

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Anna Eshoo

The Hill magazine has named Congresswoman Anna Eshoo one of the 50 most beautiful people on Capitol Hill for 2010. The California Democrat and Atherton resident represents the 14th Congressional District on the Peninsula which covers a stretch of El Camino Real from Sunnyvale to Belmont, mysteriously omitting San Carlos (District 12). District maps…go figure. At 67 she is the oldest hottie on the list. She beat out her fellow Bay Area El Camino representatives Jerry McNerney (D-CA11), Michael Honda (D-CA15), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA16), and Jackie Speier (D-CA12).


The magazine write-up notes her “Sophia Loren-esque” look and how she enjoys soul-restoring walks along the Pacific Coast. She’d better enjoy it; she represents the entire coastline between (not including) Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz! I’m a little disappointed she didn’t mention the romantic car washes or Nachos Bellgrande to be had along El Camino, but I assume it’s because she wants to keep them our little secret, California’s last unspoiled wonder.

Click here to see the entire slide show at



Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The Music@Menlo chamber music festival is going on now. It started on Friday, July 23 and concludes Saturday, August 14. The schedule is packed with daily concerts, open rehearsals, workshops, and discussions. The theme this year is “Maps and Legends” and the works performed will describe a musical landscape spanning time and space. They will include pieces by Vivaldi, Brahms, Dvořák, and others.

The performances take place in various venues in and around Menlo Park, including Stent Family Hall and Martin Family Hall at Menlo School in Atherton, just off El Camino Real. Some concerts charge admission and several events are free. The festival began in 2003 but I’ve never checked it out before. I’m going to try to  catch one of the free lunchtime programs. I shouldn’t get lost on my way to the theater; I’ll have musical Maps and Legends to guide me.


Chamber Music Festival and Institute
Now through August 14, 2010
Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Heidi Durrow is coming to the Bay Area this week to read from her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and sign copies of the book. She’ll be at the Stanford University Bookstore on Wednesday, April 7, and at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on Thursday, April 8. Full details are below. You’ll note that both Stanford and Kepler’s are on El Camino Real. Meet-the-author events are always enlightening and a great way to show support for independent booksellers, but these particular readings are quite special to me. You see, I’m privileged to know Heidi.

Heidi and I were Stanford undergrads together, both class of 1991. Freshman year we lived in the same dorm complex, Stern Hall. We didn’t really know each other in college, but we were aware of each other. I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing that she worked in Food Service at the dorm and her job was to swipe the residents’ meal cards through the cafeteria card reader. She was the gatekeeper of the goulash. (My roommate and lifelong brother-from-another-mother Shu Nung Lee also worked in Food Service, but he wasn’t cute enough for that kind of front-of-house duty.) So I saw her just about every day and remember her well, the pretty, petite, light-skinned girl with the startling blue eyes and fuzzy-curly hair. We never spoke beyond the perfunctory exchange of redundant thank-yous.

Recently, when prompted by me, she said she thought she kinda sorta remembered me singing a cappella with the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. Perhaps she was just being polite or it might have been an induced memory, but at the risk of sounding immodest I was a bit of a campus celebrity in those days, known for my blues-inflected rendition of everybody’s favorite “Schoolhouse Rock” ditty, “I’m Just a Bill.” See, my name is Bill. That made it funny.

heidi_headshotWe graduated in parallel in 1991. Fast-forward to 2006, the year of our fifteen-year reunion homecoming celebration. For every homecoming class, the Alumni Association compiles a Reunion Book to which every graduate can contribute a yearbook-like page summarizing what they’ve been up to since college. When I received my copy of the Reunion Book, I enjoyed flipping through it cover-to-cover, reading its many diverse stories. Most pages are jam-packed with photos and text because as it turns out it’s difficult to cram fifteen years of life onto a single letter-sized spread. But Heidi’s page made me pause; it stood out because it was nearly blank, little more than a Tweet. It contained a single Hollywood-style head shot, an intriguing one-line professional summary—journalism, law, fiction writing, consultant to the NBA & NFL  (!)—and a URL: That was it. She sounded like a real-life Dee Dee Thorne.

I totally remembered her and wanted to know more so I went to her web site and got the rest of the story. The site has since been redesigned but even back then it was professional and engaging. I learned she was now a writer and impressively had completed her first novel manuscript, titled Light-skinned-ed Girl. (The title is a term she heard a lot growing up, an African American Vernacular English phonological construction. I learned those words in a Black English Linguistics course and I think Heidi may have been in that class too.) I learned she was working very hard in the face of constant rejection to get this manuscript published. I deduced that the site itself was a deliberate marketing vehicle to promote her work. It worked on me; I got sucked in by the nearly-blank Reunion Book page trick! I learned she was smart, determined, and talented.

I learned something else. I learned she’s biracial: her father was black and her mother is white. She’s also bi-cultural: her father was an Air Force sergeant from Texas, her mother a librarian from Denmark. Having lived in the Bay Area most of my life I’ve known many biracial and multiracial people, people in mixed marriages and relationships, and families built up from cross-racial adoptions. I never gave their stories much thought though; I took them for granted. I was certainly aware that mixed relationships were often fraught with palpable difficulty from both sides during the racially-charged sixties, and that cross-racial adoptions require special sensitivity and cultural effort. But I never stopped to think about what it means to be mixed. Heidi had, a lot, and she wrote about it, a lot, with eloquent honesty. On her web site she had a link to her blog, also called Light-skinned-ed Girl. She didn’t have all the answers because no one possibly could, but she fearlessly asked aloud the questions she lived every day.

I stayed up very late that night reading everything on her site. I read a short excerpt from her manuscript, and longed to read more. I read every posting on her blog and every comment from the community that was starting to build around her. I was hooked and inspired. Race and identity make up a large part of her writing, but the larger story which emerges is about the joys and challenges of living a creative life. Her novel is the heroine of that story and comes to a happy ending. On May 31, 2008 Heidi exuberantly announced that her manuscript had won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change, a prize which includes recognition, cash, and most splendidly publication. Her book, renamed The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was published by Algonquin Books in February, 2010. But I got it in January. How?

Rewind back to 2006. (Get used to nonlinear narrative; it’s an important literary device in her book.) I live in the Bay Area so I never miss my Stanford Reunions and the fifteenth was no exception. I was hoping Heidi would be there so I could make her acquaintance but she wasn’t. After it was over I slipped out of my comfort zone and emailed her out of the blue to let her know how much I enjoyed her manuscript excerpt and her blog. I was reading her blog regularly and in fact hers was the first blog I ever followed and the first to show me how the technology worked and what it was capable of. That same year I first had the idea to create I had various big plans for it but thanks to Light-skinned-ed Girl I came to understand that a blog would be the heart of it.

Fanshen and HeidiIn 2007 Heidi and her longtime sister-from-a-different-mister Fanshen Cox created Mixed Chicks Chat, an award-winning weekly live call-in podcast dedicated to telling the truths of the mixed experience. Fanshen, an amazing actress, filmmaker, educator, and friend, is also mixed. Of course I listened to their podcast religiously (again the first I ever followed) and participated in the off-air chat room, calling in when I could, and before long found myself thoroughly involved in the wonderful burgeoning Mixed Chicks community, which is bizarre because I am neither mixed nor a chick but somehow it makes sense. Drop by some time; I’ll introduce you around. In 2008 these two amazing women with the help of a tireless cast of volunteers produced the first Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, an annual event at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles celebrating Loving Day with films, readings, workshops, and family activities focusing on the untold stories of being mixed. I flew down to L.A. for the inaugural festival to help out and meet them both in person after months of amiable but purely online interaction. I tell you all this (a) to plug the Mixed Chicks, and (b) to paint a picture of my high regard and ongoing involvement with Heidi and Fanshen.

Stunned by my good fortune, and so happy for you! Can I crow ... on TwitpicHeidi’s publisher announced the book would come out in February, 2010, Black History Month of Barack Obama’s second year in office. Perfect. In January the advance copies were circulating, getting rave reviews, and the publisher was pushing it hard to booksellers. Awesome. Not content with their considerable efforts however, I went to the Stanford Bookstore on January 16 (I was in the area) and asked their information desk if they were going to carry it. The employee wasn’t sure so I got the contact info for their buyer. Cool. I was about to head home, when I succumbed to a slightly crazy urge to go a little further north to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. I asked their information guy the same question, were they planning to carry The Girl Who Fell from the Sky when it came out the following month. He typed a search into his computer then replied, “We have it in stock. It’s on this new releases table right here.” Sure enough, there it was, nearly a month ahead of the release date. I was flabbergasted. Incredulous. Elated. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, having the honor of being among the first on the planet to buy the book. It was Cosmic perfection that this happened on El Camino. I bought three copies (I gave two away to family), DMed Heidi on Twitter, raced home, and finally, three and a half years after I first read the teaser from the manuscript, read the full novel, finishing it in three days.

Heidi DurrowThis post is quite long so I won’t talk too much about the novel itself. It has been covered at length in national press including the New York TimesWashington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. TV is next; Oprah, we’re comin’ for ya. It’s lighting up the blogosphere and vlogosphere, and it’s climbing the sales charts. This is a fun time. I will say this: I loved the book. It’s beautifully written, it tells an important, heartbreaking story, and I’m incredibly proud of Heidi. There were passages, including the climax, where time seemed to stop as I was reading because I was so consumed by the prose. This is high praise for art in any form. The most valuable gift to me is that because I’ve been getting to know Heidi these past few years, hearing her voice and her stories, I was able to inhabit the book in a way I’ve never experienced before. I knew what she was talking about. Go get it and read it; it’s widely available online and at your favorite independent and chain bookstores. Join our online community. If you can, go to her readings this week or check her book tour schedule for one near you. Seeing her eyes, hearing her voice, and getting her autograph will enhance your enjoyment of the book.

Kepler’s won the day but ever since I read those pre-published manuscript pages in 2006, I’ve visualized Heidi reading and signing her books at the Stanford Bookstore. The bookstore cuts an elegant symbol, the busy crossroads at the heart of the campus where we intersected only incidentally  twenty years ago but left just enough of an impression to build a friendship on years later. Now that the vision is coming true, it brings full-circle the arcs of our two stories, but not to closure. This Ferris Wheel ride isn’t done turning.

Book Readings & Signings

Heidi Durrow, author
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Stanford Bookstore

White Plaza, Stanford University
Wednesday, April 7, 2010 5:30 pm

Kepler’s Books

1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Thursday, April 8, 2010 7:30 pm
Dessert served compliments of Anna’s Cookies of San Francisco

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…?

Julia Child’s Birthday Celebration

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Tonight only Kepler’s Books, El Camino’s treasured independent bookstore, is holding an open house and cook book sale to celebrate famed TV chef Julia Child’s birthday (she was actually born on August 15). There will be raffle prizes, champagne, and cake. I don’t know about you, but I have really really high expectations for that cake.

The biggest dilemma is afterward do you go watch Julie & Julia, or do you head over to Marché or Left Bank for a little French cuisine? Sacré bleu!

(She’s only 97.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009 Tonight!
6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Kepler’s Books
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025
(650) 324-4321

Open House & Cook Book Sale
to Celebrate Julia Child’s Birthday!

Thursday, August 20, 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.

We’ll serve champagne and cake while you and your friends peruse our wonderful cookbooks!
20% Off All Cookbook Titles from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. (while supplies last)

There will be fabulous raffle prizes, including:

  • Two tickets to Draeger’s popular Cooking School classes
  • A red pate terrine donated by Le Creuset
  • Julie & Julia aprons, book bags, posters, and booklights
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking blank journals
  • Cookbooks
  • Discounts on local dining, including Oak City Grill and Trellis restaurants
  • and more…