An October 2000 trip
to San Jose by Cheryl Morgan
Quote: I'm back in California again, staying with my good friend Kevin Standlee. I spend a lot of time in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there is far too much here to cover in one journal. However, you will get to see the area from the point of view of someone who is almost a resident rather than just a tourist.
It is the season of ghouls and ghosts, and America goes crazy on Halloween. But our biggest horror story is house hunting. Visiting here is great, but actually living here is pretty tough unless you have a good salary.
For those of you who have been following this as it grew, it is done now. I promise that in future I won't post journals until they are finished.
Restaurant | "Paradise Persian Restaurant"
In what appeared to be a concession to American dining habits the main courses came complete with a second starter of either salad or soup. The soup was Osh Reshteh, a vegetable broth containing noodles and lentils and strongly flavoured with mint.
For the main course we decided to try the section of the menu marked 'traditional Persian cuisine.' I had Fesenjon, which is chicken marinaded in a sauce made from pomegranates and walnuts. The sauce was so dark that when it first arrived we mistook the meat for beef, but there was no disguising the sweet taste that the pomegranates gave to the dish. I felt that the sauce might have gone better with duck, but it was very tasty, and certainly unusual.
Kevin had Ghormeh Sabzi, a dish of beef marinaded in various spices and severed with what appeared to be spinach. Being a confirmed meat and carbohydrate man, Kevin left much of the trappings, but again the meat was tender and flavourful.
Both main courses came with ample servings of long grained Basmati rice. We also ordered some Aushak, transparent parcels filled with leek and spring onion and topped with a yogurt, meat and mint sauce. Kevin wasn't impressed, but I found the dish delicious and scarfed down most of it.
As we were planning to play pool after dinner, I steered clear of the tempting sounding Australian Shiraz on the wine list and we both ordered the Shabat soft drinks. We opted for the mint rather than the sour cherry, and although you might have thought we would be minted-out by now we found it really refreshing. Coca Cola should look into this stuff. It is great.
For dessert we were fairly boring and ordered Baklava (a sweet pastry) and Persian tea. Once again the food was very tasty, but of course Baklava is pretty commonplace these days. We have eaten at an Afghan restaurant before that served something called Elephant Ears - large wafers of deep-fried pastry dusted in sugar and cardamom - that was absolutely delicious and a better bet to look out for in this type of cuisine.
The restaurant is tastefully decorated with the inevitable Persian rugs and paintings of traditional Persian life. Service was prompt and friendly, and the prices very reasonable. I would not rate it as top class food, but it was very edible and certainly something different. For directions see CitySearch.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 29, 2000
Afghan & Persian Cuisine Paradise Restaurant
1350 Grant Road
San Jose, California 94040
650 968 5949
Restaurant | "Armadillo Willy's"
Armadillo Willy's works hard on the theme. The décor is wood and corrugated iron, the tablecloths plain checks. On the walls is an array of 1950s metal advertising signs. There are useful notices as well, explaining things like how to be a Texan and how to make a barbecue pit out of an old oil drum and some pieces of a dead Chevy. The good news is that readers are encouraged to clean out the oil drum first. Whatever else they might do with oil, Texans apparently do not eat it. The muzak too was carefully themed, so we tucked into our meal to the mellow Southern Rock sound of the Charlie Daniels Band explaining to us once more how The South's Gonna Do It Again.
Meat. Meat, meat and more meat, and lots of it. Well what did you expect? We dined amply on hot links, best brisket and, of course, baby back ribs. Ribs are the ultimate carnivore food. There's no way you can eat them with a knife and fork; you just have to gnaw. Each dish came complete with a serving of beans and a cornbread muffin. Oh, and some funny salad stuff which of course we ignored. (Beans don't count as a vegetable; they are not green.)
A strange thing occurred to me while eating my meal. When you go into a restaurant claiming to serve traditional British food you can be pretty certain that it will all be badly cooked. (I'm British, I'm allowed to say that.) But if you go into a restaurant that claims to serve traditional American food the meat will be wonderful. It is just everything else that is badly cooked. That seems to be true in most places I have eaten. It is however unfair to Armadillo Willy's because their cornbread is excellent. The fries were not bad either. Add some delicious meat and some spicy sauce and you end up well stuffed, if not exactly overwhelmed with culinary excellence. No wonder so many Americans are overweight.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 15, 2000
Armadillo Willy's BBQ: Restaurants
161 E El Camino Real
San Jose, California 94087
Spirit is a specialist retailer. The company sells Halloween merchandise; just about nothing but Halloween merchandise. Consequently there is no point in their being open for most of the year. The stores begin rising from the graves towards the end of summer. They open wide their dark cloaks to their victims customers through the autumn, and by winter they are once more lost beneath the cold earth.
As a commercial venture, Spirit probably takes quite a bit of organising. The shops are by no means small, and there are many of them, so they need to find large numbers of unused retail spaces that can be rented for a relatively short period of time. Our nearest store is at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds in San José, an area that is used to being used on a temporary basis. There is therefore a good chance that Spirit will be there year after year. Other stores, however, just appear one year where a convenient location can be found, and may never use that site again. Truly, this is a shopping venture in keeping with the spirit of the season.
The majority of the merchandise at Spirit relates to dressing up, although there are ample supplies of rubber rats and spiders for the use of children who like to make sure that their trick-or-treat victims get a good fright. There are costumes for all ages and most tastes. Halloween in America is an excuse for dressing up, and is not necessarily limited to the supernatural theme. To take the San José store's collection as an example, I can just about make a case for Batman as a Halloween character, but quite what Sailor Moon and French maids have to do with the holiday is another matter. Still, Halloween is an excuse for letting your hair (or your wig) down, and I gather that it is a big favourite with transvestites.
My favourite part of the shop is the area dealing with wigs and make-up. I was seriously tempted by the wig that glowed green under black light, and there was a fabulous selection of face paints in a range of glitter and metallic shades. It looked an awful lot of fun. Indeed, I found myself wondering why people would only use this sort of stuff at Halloween. But then maybe I'm weird.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 30, 2000
Spirit Halloween Superstores
Throughout San Jose
San Jose, California
There are several Fry's Electronics stores around the Bay Area, each one of them decorated with a specific theme. Our local branch in San José has a Mayan theme and looks very splendid. Sadly customers are expressly forbidden from taking photographs inside the store. Goodness only knows why, because some good photos would probably attract a lot more visitors, but I guess Frys' corporate lawyers have got to earn a crust somehow.
Fry's stores are huge, really huge. The largest store is over 180,000 square feet. There are plenty of shopping malls in Britain that would fit inside a typical Fry's. Consequently, of course, there is stuff, loads and loads of it. There are computers, printers, hardware accessories, software, 'how to' books, and of course those staples of nerdish life, Jolt Cola, coffee and huge bags of potato crisps (that's chips to you American readers). There are doubtless things to do with computers that you cannot get at Fry's, but I don't have the time to find out what they are.
Having said that, Fry's is probably not the cheapest place to buy computer stuff. And while the staff doubtless do their best, they cannot hope to be well versed in the intricacies of everything that the company sells. Fry's is a store for people who know what they want, don't want to have to wait for it to be delivered, and don't want to hunt around for a shop that has it. If that description fits you, go shop; otherwise just go take a look because you won't see many shops like these.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on October 30, 2000
550 E. Brokaw Road
San Jose, California 95112
Attraction | "The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum"
In any case, the Rosicrucians appear to have found the USA a more congenial home than Europe and in 1927 they moved their world headquarters to San José. The Order now owns a substantial amount of land in the city and has erected some unusual buildings. One of these houses a museum devoted to ancient Egypt and is open to the public.
Having lived and worked in London for many years and consequently been able to spend a lot of time in the British Museum, I had to work very hard not to find the museum disappointing. Ancient artefacts are hard to come by, and not having had the benefit of a mighty empire to assist in plundering material from around the globe, the Rosicrucians are at something of a disadvantage here. Having said that, they have tried hard. There is some good stuff there, including a particularly impressive mummy of a baboon. They have also included reproductions of a number of impressive pieces of sculpture.
In any case, the value of a museum should be judged, not on the rarity of its collection, but on how well it educates its visitors. I must admit that I had been a little worried that the Rosicrucians might take a mystical rather than a scientific interpretation of Egyptian life. However, if they did so it was low-key and subtle. The museum comes across as scholarly and informative, not as the work of New Age cranks. A museum brochure proudly notes that over 40,000 children a year participate in their educational programme.
To sum up, if you really want to see ancient artefacts, go to London (or perhaps Berlin which has a good reputation but I haven't had the pleasure of visiting). On the other hand, if you are in the Bay Area and want to see something completely different that has nothing to do with computers, the Rosicrucian Museum would make a good break. If nothing else you can wander round their grounds and look at their beautiful buildings.
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium
1660 Park Avenue
San Jose, California 95191
Attraction | "California Billiards Club"
Pool halls, of course, have a pretty bad reputation. You expect to find them full of rough guys and sly hustlers, all consuming vast quantities of cigarettes, beer and whiskey. But here in Silicon Valley pool is fast becoming a recreational pastime of choice for high school and college students, and for tired programmers looking for somewhere to wind down after a long day in front of a computer. Our local haunt, the California Billiards Club, is clean, safe and thoroughly civilized. And of course with it being in California, smoking is banned. The Club does serve beer, but it also does some excellent bar food.
The most important thing about any pool hall is the equipment. If you find a pool table in a pub, all too often the cues are warped, the baize ripped and one or more of the balls is missing. A professional club, however, has to provide good equipment, and we were delighted when Billiards Digest rated our local venue as the seventh best pool hall in the country in 1998.
Another thing I really like about the venue is that it has two genuine, full size snooker tables. I really love snooker as a game, but right now neither of us is good enough to play it. Which of course means that we need to keep practicing.
For various reasons we hadn't actually played for several months prior to this visit, and consequently we were both pretty rusty. For the record, I won, 5 frames to 1, which I put down to many hours spent watching Ronnie O'Sullivan play snooker and marveling at how anyone can be so good.
Details of the Club's prices, other facilities and special events can be found on their web site.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 29, 2000
California Billiard Club
881 East El Camino Real
San Jose, California 94040
Attraction | "The Winchester Mystery House"
Mrs. Winchester was understandably distressed and, as one did in those days, she consulted a spiritualist. Much to her horror, she was told that the spirit world was full of the ghosts of people (and doubtless buffalo) killed by her husband's rifles. They were very angry with her, and things were going to get bad. Her only chance, the spiritualist said, was to build a house, and keep building it. For if the house was never finished, no ghost could settle into it, and she could never be haunted.
And so we have a warren-like structure in suburban San José that makes a fortune from those who believe in ghosts. There are many features in the house supposedly designed to confuse (or possibly trap) unwary spirits: doors that are very small or lead nowhere; long, winding staircases with very shallow risers; windows that look into other parts of the house; pillars installed upside down and the number 13 found everywhere.
The Mystery House is especially busy at Halloween. They do special tours in the middle of the night in which bold ghost hunters get to wander the spooky hallways in the dark, armed only with a special Mystery House flashlight (which you get to keep afterwards). As for the dead, the place is so popular that this year Elvis is haunting there. I have a photo of his ghostly white limo to prove it.
That, of course, is the commercial front, and very successful it is too. The reality is rather different. The description of the house is correct, but most of the anomalies can be put down to the continual building and to much less bizarre aspects of Mrs. W.'s life. The shallow stairs were a result of severe arthritis that prevented her from raising her feet very far. Everything was built small because she was only 4' 10" and designed the house around herself. She was a very distrusting person and used internal windows to keep an eye on her staff.
What is more, if you take the "Behind the Scenes" tour you discover that Mrs. W. was actually very smart. The house is full of the latest (for Victorian times) technological marvels. It has gas lighting in every room, it recycles rainwater in case of drought, and it was one of the first buildings in the area to be earthquake-proofed.
For more information about the Mystery House, see the rather longer review of it in my magazine, Emerald City. There is also a review of Tim Powers's excellent book, Earthquake Weather, which uses the Mystery House and various other spooky Bay Area buildings for settings.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 15, 2000
Winchester Mystery House
525 South Winchester Blvd.
San Jose, California 95128
Fortunately there is always plenty to do here. San Francisco is, after all, a major tourist destination. But I have done The City many times and besides, there are things going on out in the suburbs. America goes crazy at Halloween, and much of the entertainment is free because everyone is out having fun.
My biggest horror story, however, is not about ghouls and ghosts, but about house hunting. My friend Kevin, with whom I stay with when I am in California, needed to find a new apartment. It meant we got to drive around a lot, and we discovered just how expensive it is to live in the midst of the world's most booming economy.
But they are all geeks in pointy ears, right? Aw, c'mon, can the stereotypes, folks. I mean, OK, if they live in Silicon Valley they are geeks by definition anyway. Almost everyone I know here works in computers in some way or another. But Spock ears? You are several fashionable TV series behind. And believe it or not, some of us actually read books.
As it happens, the closest meeting to Halloween (BASFA meets every Monday) featured a guest appearance by Australian author, Stephen Dedman. Stephen had been on a signing and convention tour of the USA and made a point of stopping off in the Bay Area on the way home because his latest novel, Foreign Bodies, is set in San Francisco. Books were sold, autographs signed, pictures taken, and Stephen delighted us with readings from some of his work. We reciprocated in our usual manner by being very silly. In particular members excellent in demonstrating this command of the fine art of punning. The fact that such activities are taxed at BASFA does not seem to dissuade them, and it does wonders for the club coffers.
It is true, of course, that a science fiction club is somewhat of an acquired taste. But, should you happen to have an interested in things futuristic and fantastical, you will not find a more welcoming bunch than BASFA anywhere in the world. Meetings take place in a pizza parlor, so as well as delightful conversation you also get typical American food (reasonable quality stodge in vast quantities). Directions and meeting times are on the web site. And if you are planning to come along, email me first. I might be there, and can certainly make sure that you are well looked after.
But surely that cannot be true of Silicon Valley? This is the abode of the young, rich and famous. It is bathed in perpetual California sunshine. It is home to aging hippies, outrageous gays, laid-back surfer dudes and techno-billionaires. Wouldn't it be great to live there? Well sure, if you can afford it.
The trouble with Heaven is the price of real estate. "Sorry", says St. Peter, picking you out a nice new harp, "not enough room for a cloud for everyone these days. I'm afraid you have to share. I knew all that work that we had the monks do about cramming angels onto pinheads would come in useful one day."
Pretty much the same is true of Silicon Valley. A two-bedroom apartment will sell for $300,000 dollars. And if you cannot afford to buy, renting is a nightmare. Kevin had to find a new home recently, and this is how the process goes. Hardly anyone advertises in newspapers, because newspapers charge the landlord. In a seller's market, they all go to agencies who charge the buyer. To get a list of vacancies for the month costs $100. Oh, and $30 extra for a credit check. No, they won't accept one done elsewhere, pay up please.
You get a new list by email each day, but about half of the properties on it have been let already, or were incorrectly entered into the database. Some, however, will be promising. You go to see them, and find that a dozen other people are viewing at the same time. If you want to apply to rent the property, that will be $20 please. It doesn't take a financial genius to realize that landlords have very little incentive to actually let anywhere. The process itself is enough.
Eventually we did find somewhere. Kevin is sharing a house with three other guys, all of whom have good jobs in the software industry. It will be a bit cramped, but you have to take what you can afford.
That, dear reader, is what happens to a place when everyone in the world wants to live there. It is why those programmers get paid such ridiculous salaries. Yes it is beautiful, but if you haven't got the income, just go there to visit. After all, if you lived in paradise, where would you go for holidays?
First it became All Hallows Eve, a night on which good Christian souls huddled indoors, fearful of the demons and witches that traveled abroad. Then it became Halloween, an excuse for warm, spicy drinks and some strange games with apples but not a lot of excitement because everyone in Britain was waiting eagerly for Bonfire Night a mere five days away.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the Americans saw no particular reason to celebrate failed attempts to blow up the British Parliament, and they began to take Halloween to their hearts. This may come as a surprise to people back in Europe, but their old Celtic festival is the second biggest money-spinner in the American calendar, second only to Christmas.
Traditionally America's Halloween has been a festival for kids. It was a chance to dress up, make a spooky pumpkin lantern, decorate the house and get lots of candy bars by playing trick or treat. It was a very homely event (quite unlike the re-imported British version of trick or treat that seems to involve gangs of young thugs demanding money with menaces and who spray-paint your house if you don't pay up).
The apple pie version of American Halloween still exists. These days responsible parents escort their beautifully disguised little terrors around the streets because, well, you never know. This year some joker in Oakland stuffed some candy bars full of marijuana. It is a sad old world. But over the years kids who have enjoyed Halloween have grown up, and they have refused to give up their holiday.
These days Halloween is a holiday for grown ups too. It is a holiday on which everyone gets to dress up in silly costumes and do mad things that they would never do at any other time of the year. San Francisco, of course, takes this to extremes, with wild parties involving much leather, body piercing, gender bending and all of the other things that The City is famous for. Elsewhere things are a little more restrained, but it is still the one night of the year on which Californians of all ages, beliefs and political creeds (except the Fundamentalist Christians who still celebrate All Hallows Eve and spend the day frantically exorcising their neighbors) can let their hair down.
The strange thing is that this is remarkably reminiscent of the old British midwinter celebrations presided over by the Lord of Misrule. It is a time when social conventions and strictures are abandoned. Which just goes to show that religious festivals are there for a purpose. If they don't exist, someone will invent them.
San Jose, CA