Archive for the ‘memories’ Category

Lost in Los Altos

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Do you know what’s embarrassing? Getting lost on El Camino Real. I don’t mean “lost” in the poetic sense, as in getting so enraptured by the sights and wonders that I lose all sense of time. I mean “lost” as in not having a perfectly clear notion of either where I am, where my destination is, or the precise relationship between the two. “How could you possibly get lost on El Camino?” you protest. “It’s a street, a one-dimensional line!” This is true, but after 200 years the road has developed a few idiosyncrasies which can snare the unwitting traveler. One of them is the city of Los Altos.

Border Road

The first tricky thing about Los Altos is something that residents know but it took me a while to figure out: Los Altos does not cross El Camino Real. The city flows down from the hills but in its northernmost section it abuts El Camino. That means if you’re driving down El Camino, Los Altos exists only on one side of the street. El Camino borders Los Altos for about a mile and a half.

This is unusual. As far as I can determine, there’s only one other city in the Bay Area that touches but does not cross El Camino: Hillsborough, and that’s only for about two blocks.

Tri-City Area

CIMG0382Los Altos doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For that mile and a half stretch of El Camino, the other side of the street is either Palo Alto or Mountain View. There is a spot on El Camino between Del Medio and Los Altos avenues where Los Altos, Palo Alto, and Mountain View all meet in a single point. No wonder it’s easy to lose track of where you are! The border between Mountain View and Palo Alto is marked only by the fence, bush, and break in the low wall in this photograph. Really they are the property line between the Country Inn Motel (Palo Alto) and The Hotel Aria (Mountain View), which used to be a Holiday Inn. Cryptically there is a signpost right here pointing to Los Altos (Avenue, that is) which takes on new significance.

Numbers Game

Granted, maybe it doesn’t really matter to you what city you’re in unless you’re challenging the jurisdiction of the speeding ticket you just received from the other city’s Police Department. What really matters is the street address right? Well that’s where things get really crazy. Take a trip with me.

Say you’re on El Camino in Palo Alto, heading south. As you cross Arastradero Road you’re on the 4200 block of El Camino with even addresses on your right and odd addresses on your left. The addresses increase as you go. As we all know, one of the cornerstones of modern civilization is that even and odd addresses are on opposite sides of the street, and that street addresses are ordered monotonically. You pass the Crowne Plaza Cabaña Hotel at 4290 ECR which is the last Palo Alto address on that side. You cross Adobe Creek and your side of the street is now Los Altos, though the other side of El Camino is still Palo Alto. Still with me? Fear not because the addresses still make sense. Both sides are now the 4300 block; the Motel 6 Palo Alto on your left is 4301 and the Courtyard Los Altos on your right is 4320. (There are a lot of hotels here.) You roll on and cross Los Altos Avenue. You’re still in Los Altos on your side but as we said, soon the other side turns into Mountain View. Your side is the 4400 block but the other side, the Mountain View side, is suddenly 2700! What?! That’s right, the addresses take a quantum leap on that Palo Alto/Mountain View side of the street.

Remember that the border between Palo Alto and Mountain View lies between the Country Inn Motel and The Hotel Aria. They are neighbors, but here are their addresses:
CIMG0381 CIMG0379

4345 El Camino in Palo Alto, 2700 El Camino in Mountain View, literally next door to each other. Not only  do the numbers jump, but the Palo Alto addresses are odd and the Mountain View addresses are now even. The Los Altos addresses on your side are also even. This is madness! But wait, there’s more. As you keep driving, your Los Altos addresses continue to increase, but your Mountain View addresses get smaller! They run in opposite directions. You get to the end of Los Altos and cross over into all-Mountain View a little past Rengstorff Ave. On your side the last Los Altos address is 5150 El Camino Real and their neighbor in Mountain View is 2065. Even addresses become odd. The 5100s become 2000s. Enough said.

CIMG0389 CIMG0385

This address nonsense used to trip me up from time to time. Back in the old days before online maps and GPS units, I would look up a business in the phone book (remember those?). Maybe I was going to El Torito at 4470 El Camino Real, Los Altos. (Don’t bother looking for it now; it’s gone.) If I made the mistake of approaching through Mountain View, the addresses around me would be no help at all—somewhere in the 2000s when I’m looking for 4470, and odd when I’m looking for even. This confusion is part of the reason I started I felt a need to understand these addresses and help my fellow sufferers. Don’t even get me started on West El Camino, East El Camino, South El Camino, and North El Camino.

Reading Signs

It’s not all bad. Even without wireless navigation technology there are plenty of hints to keep you oriented. There are well-placed “city limits” signs, and the light posts have handy civic banners hanging from them. Los Altos Patch Editor L.A. Chung pointed out a useful trick. Los Altos city street signs are brown and Mountain View signs are blue. I figured out on my own that Palo Alto signs are white, but the Palo Alto trash cans are blue.
CIMG0386 CIMG0398 CIMG0377 CIMG0374  CIMG0375 CIMG0378 CIMG0349

I still get lost on El Camino every now and then which is especially humiliating since I have this blog and all. Technology helps but I can’t always rely on it, so I’m learning that a little knowledge and good ol’ powers of observation go a long way. And if those fail me there’s always the last option of a desperate man: stopping to ask for directions.

One (Shopping) Day at a Time

Friday, November 26th, 2010


The Thanksgiving holiday weekend always fills me with some anxiety and dread. It’s not Thanksgiving that bothers me; I love Thanksgiving Day and the time spent with family and turkey and friends and pie and strangers and stuffing. It’s the incessant pressure to shop ’til I drop immediately after that stresses me out. I don’t begrudge our intrepid retailers the opportunity to sell me a good or service. I only resent the insistence that it happen right now.

A lot of it is my own inferiority complex. I’m a chronic procrastinator. (I intended to write this post last week.) I have been known to gleefully and frantically do the bulk of my holiday gift shopping  on Christmas Eve. So when I start seeing the ominous Black Friday notices in early November, it makes me feel bad that Halloween came and went and I didn’t even start making my lists and benchmarking pre-discount prices. Black Friday to me is all about preparation, and the day after Thanksgiving I am never prepared.

If Black Friday shopping is your thing, get out there and get your grind on. The universe of shops on El Camino Real is waiting for you. My father-in-law Harold often visits us from New Jersey for Thanksgiving and for many years he and my wife Paulette had a Black Friday tradition of heading out to Learning Express on El Camino in Sunnyvale to take care of the high-priority kids’ gifts. Sadly that store has closed and those same kids now have grown more interested in Game Stop and American Eagle.

Retail on El Camino is anchored by its regional malls. Great Mall in Milpitas opened at midnight Friday morning, luring shoppers with discounts up to 60% and a scratch-and-win gift card lottery. Stanford Shopping Center opened at 8:00AM and gave goodie bags of holiday loot to the first 250 shoppers to join their email list. The Shops at Tanforan in San Bruno opened at 6:00AM. They also have goodie bags—one lucky one of which is worth $500—and you’ll get a $15 gift card if you spend $150. Oddly Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo shows remarkable restraint. They don’t tweet, they don’t Facebook, and there’s precious little mention of Black Friday at all on their website. That’s just their style I guess.

There’s a whole lot of shopping to be done in the spaces between the malls. Every national chain store on El Camino, big box and otherwise, is vying for your business. There are too many to name. My email inbox is bursting with offers. Just swing a dead cat and you’ll save some money. Dead cats are 50% off at Necro-pet-a-porium today only, by the way, if you mention this ad.

Black Friday belongs to those who make the most noise and Cyber Monday is a clever recent nod to online shopping, but this year there’s a new named day on the fiscal calendar: Small Business Saturday. Pithy it ain’t, but its aims are noble: to call your attention to your local small businesses which depend on your patronage even more than the national chains. It’s a two-way benefit because small businesses are very efficient at re-investing money directly back into your local economy. They are a critical part of our economic recovery. November 27, 2010 is the first Small Business Saturday. It’s sponsored by American Express and if you register your Amex card at, they’ll rebate you the first $25 you spend at eligible small businesses on Saturday. I don’t have a comprehensive list of participating shops on El Camino but two I know about for sure are:

Enjoy your shopping season, and may your discounts be deep. Just save some good merchandise for me. I’ll be out looking for it on my own Red Friday…December 24, 2010.

Jimmy Carter Visit

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter is coming to Kepler’s Books on El Camino Real in Menlo Park on October 26 to sign copies of his new book, White House Diary. He will not give a formal presentation; it will be a meet-and-greet event. You can purchase a ticket ahead of time which includes a copy of the book and a spot in the signing line. President Carter kept a daily journal during his four-year term in office and this edited, annotated diary is being made public for the first time. The release date is September 20, 2010.

The 1976 presidential campaign between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford is the first one I remember. I was six. At recess we held spirited political discussions in the schoolyard along the lines of, “Carter is a farter!” “Ford is a football!” Really. It’s funny, the things that stick in your memory. At least we had the whole rhyming and alliteration thing going, which is impressive for first graders. In any event, isn’t it refreshing that the level of discourse is so much more sophisticated today?

2008 AVP Crocs Slam McDonalds Chicago Open presented by Nautica / Misty May-TreanorKepler’s always has a stellar lineup of author appearances. President Carter headlines this fall but other notables include beach volleyball superstar Misty May-Treanor and “America’s Funniest Hostess,” Amy Sedaris. Check out Kepler’s complete list of upcoming events.

Jimmy Carter

Tuesday, October 26, 7:00 p.m.
Book Signing Only – Line forms at 6:00 p.m.
White House Diary
Purchase Tickets
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025

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…)

Worst. Post. Ever.

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010


I hate clip shows. I avoid year-end “best of” lists. I was never even a fan of the remix CDs that were all the rage a few years ago; they’re so derivative. Nevertheless here I am faced with my own conundrum. As much as I dislike it, I have no choice but to look back and try to recap the past, to summarize and punctuate the last twelve months. You see, today is the one year anniversary of my blog.

One year ago today I logged into my 1&1 account and created a blog at where only a placeholder had been for years. I didn’t write my first post then. Instead I celebrated with lunch at Tee Nee Thai which became the subject of my first post one week later. After lunch I took a long walk down and up The Alameda from Naglee to Stockton, tweeting with pun fully intended that I was finally “on the road.”

From there it’s been a journey, if you’ll pardon the cliché. I rarely had a shortage of things to write about. I wrote about familiar places like Stanford and The Alameda. I wrote about news events I pulled off of Yahoo! News Alerts or the San Jose Mercury News. I wrote about my own process of discovery: books I’ve read and maps I’ve found. I’ve taken hundreds of photos with my SLR and trusty camera phone and enjoyed sharing them. Some of these things were planned from the beginning; others simply evolved organically.

The centerpiece so far has been my four-part writeup of my day-long bus trip up El Camino Real from San Jose to San Francisco. It was so epic, it nearly killed the blog as I refused to post anything at all until the entire thing was done. It took me two months to start it and two more months to finish it; I didn’t write anything the entire month of February! I finally got it done and I’m proud of the end result, but I’ve learned to be more careful about the scope of things moving forward. I still owe you the reverse trip down El Camino.

My favorite post is El Camino de San Jose because it brings together so many elements of my El Camino experience. I talk about the startling coincidences I’ve encountered which make me laugh out loud and tell me that there’s something beyond myself developing here. I talk about the magical discovery that I actually live on El Camino Real, suggesting I’ve been drawn to this road for longer than I was even aware. I talk about my new found enthusiasm for maps and local history. AllCamino is more than a journey now; it’s a quest.

So what’s ahead? For sure, more of the same, feeling out the ways the world connects to El Camino and writing about them once or twice a week. I need to make a greater effort to bust out of the San Jose and Stanford grooves I find myself in; There’s a whole lotta road out there to cover! I have some behind-the-scenes projects to attend to, like taking control of the underlying WordPress installation and customizing it. A have a goal to people-ize my experiences more. I’m making an attempt to get to know the good folks of El Camino a little better and tap into and contribute to the community which exists here. I really appreciate comments on the posts, and would love to see more chatter. What do you think? (Was that too obvious?)

So today begins year two. By the numbers I have 57 posts and 12 comments. Let’s see if we can triple that next year. I know the next twelve months will have more El Camino Real news, events, restaurants, retail, and transportation. The rest will be history.

Loma Prieta, Nature’s Camino

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Twenty years ago I was an undergrad at Stanford University. I sang baritone in a 16-man a cappella group, the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. We used to have full-group rehearsals twice a week, and an additional weekly rehearsal for each section. The “bari” sectional was Tuesday evenings before dinner. I never liked that abbreviation, “bari.” It always made me think of Barry Gibb and Barry Manilow—two superstars in their own right, but just not my thing, ya dig? For a while I lobbied to call ourselves the ‘tones but it never caught on. Too bad, it sounds so much cooler.

So we four baris—John Sullivan, Jason Windawi, Gray Norton, and myself—gathered on Tuesday, October 17, 1989 in the Arroyo dorm lounge in Wilbur Hall to work on our parts for the week. [Thanks, Gray, for filling in the details I forgot!] I don’t remember if we started at 4:30PM or 5:00PM but I do remember that at 5:04PM the whole building shook like it had been hit by a truck. Then it kept on shaking. It was an earthquake. John and Jason were not from California so I think that may have been the first quake they ever felt. They were nervous but excited and enjoying the thrill ride with newbie “so this is an earthquake!” innocence. However Gray’s a native Californian and I’ve been here since I was five so we were old veterans with some perspective and I’ll always remember he and I looking at each other, eyes big as saucers, when we realized after a few seconds that this was very very serious. Scientists may quibble but for us at that moment, in that place, it was The Big One.

We stayed calm and all our elementary school drilling came back to us. We dove under the nearest piece of furniture, a ping-pong table, dragging John and Jason with us. I realized right away that it was a terrible choice. It looked solid enough while we were standing up but from underneath it was pretty much a folding chair with a net. Not sturdy at all. Then I looked around and realized that the table was right next to a lovely floor-to-ceiling picture window. A wall of glass—exactly where you don’t want to be in an earthquake. Well, we were the baris and we were tight so I barked a few orders and each of us grabbed a table leg, lifted, and in perfect unison we scooted that table away from the window from underneath, keeping it over our heads the whole time like a Spartan phalanx shielded from Persian arrows. By then the shaking had stopped…I think. I still felt some shaking but I think it was my legs. The window didn’t shatter, the ping-pong table held, the building stood fast (Wilbur Hall is pretty much a concrete bunker), and we were all unharmed.

Bay BridgeOver the next few hours and days news came in of the magnitude of the quake’s devastation throughout the region. The horror of the Cypress structure collapse in Oakland. The shocking visual of the ruptured Bay Bridge. The tragedies and fires in San Francisco’s Marina District. The destruction of downtown Santa Cruz. We named it for its little-known epicenter, the Loma Prieta Earthquake. We tallied its statistics: 6.9 on the Richter scale, 63 dead, 3,757 injured, 11,000 homes destroyed, 7 billion dollars in damage.

It was a grim day and the losses were staggering, but given the large population and the wide area affected, I’m grateful it wasn’t worse. Emergency responders and hospitals were well-prepared and heroically effective. Not all but most of our critical infrastructure—freeways, bridges, tunnels, utilities—withstood the quake and continued to serve after brief interruptions. All the A’s and Giants fans at the historic and ironic Bay Bridge World Series got home safely if slowly from Candlestick Park. At Stanford there was significant structure and property damage but no injuries that I’m aware of. With the power out for a while and classes canceled for a few days we huddled and bonded with dorm-mates early in the school year.

In retrospect thankfully the El Camino Real corridor along the Peninsula was relatively unscathed. The Mercury News recently published a chart listing the number of housing units destroyed or significantly damaged in the quake. The most were in San Francisco county: 24,800. The fewest were in Santa Clara county: 1,000. (Ironically Loma Prieta the mountain is actually in Santa Clara county.) San Mateo county isn’t even listed; I take it there were too few to bother counting.

Part of it may be that we had learned our lessons by then, many the hard way. The missionaries who forged El Camino along the mission trail 200 years ago often remarked about the frequent earthquakes but didn’t heed the warnings. Earthquakes damaged or destroyed many early missions. In particular a series of earthquakes around Santa Barbara on December 21, 1812 destroyed or severely damaged seven missions, some of which had to be abandoned and rebuilt elsewhere. There were tragic death tolls. At San Juan Capistrano the two boys ringing the bells for Mass were killed when the tower collapsed.

Still the Spaniards pressed northward, building stronger and stronger structures as they went. I like to think that the pueblos and towns and cities that sprung up along the route inherited the aesthetics of resilience and were built to last. There were mishaps—the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake exceeded their ability to prepare—but 1989 showed that El Camino has gotten a lot of things right.

It’s interesting to compare El Camino Real with the San Andreas fault, that famous feature responsible for so many historic quakes including 1812, 1906, and 1989. El Camino isn’t literally on top of the fault, though interestingly they do cross near Mission San Juan Bautista. Their similarity is more symbolic. They parallel each other, running south-to-north from roughly the Mexican border to approximately Sonoma county. (The fault at that point slides into the Pacific ocean.) To me they both represent forces of movement and change in the state. The San Andreas fault is the tectonic junction between the Pacific plate and the North American plate. The Pacific plate moves south and the North American plate moves north at a plodding 4-6 centimeters per year. As it rumbles along it shapes the state, pushing up mountains and sealing up valleys and bodies of water. Every so often the plates slip and we feel the temblor. El Camino moves us also, but at a slightly quicker pace. It also moves us forward through time. It’s the juncture of nature and invention. It’s where people plant roots and build things, but never lose the wandering spirit that brought them there. So they constantly rebuild and reinvent, and every now and then deliver a jolt that shakes the world.

It’s perhaps inevitable that El Camino shadows the San Andreas. For the past 25 million years the fault has been defining and reinforcing the orientation of the land. Humans just followed the geological path that was laid before them. Earthquakes will happen and the road will shake but that fateful October evening twenty years ago today, El Camino Real was the natural place to be.