In 1969, on my 17th birthday my boyfriend took me to the classic California Theater on First Street in San Jose, California to see the movie Camelot. He splurged and parked in an attended parking lot rather than driving blocks looking for a space.
The theater was sinking into disrepair back then, the days of ushers with narrow cone flash lights guiding patrons to their seats a distant memory. Despite its faded glory it still made a movie special like Camelot. Was there a message in the movie which he selected? It was about love but also betrayal. I loved the movie but any Camelot I lived would be a Cinderella story.
After the show we strolled hand in hand among the First Street throng the couple blocks to Original Joe's, still a popular Italian restaurant landmark. Down the street a WWII era searchlight scanned the sky in front of a War Surplus store, the humming from its diesel generator faintly audible. Its light beam pierced the night sky in a rotating pattern, seeking not enemy bombers but shopping moths.
Was its beam an omen tonight crossed my mind? Like Dad, I was superstitious, always on the outlook for hidden meanings.
He had a reservation at Original Joe's and we were led from the entry crowd to a red leather upholstered booth.
There we smiled at one another over their classic ravioli as the waiters with their arm draped white towels rushed to and fro serving the crowd.
Next door was the Sainte Claire Hotel where Mom worked.
I thought how hard she worked and her guest escapade stories while eating. While silent, musing about her and her maid tales he asked for my thoughts. I told him it was hard to believe I was 17 and going to be a senior at school.
From leaving home, during the movie and in the restaurant he acted as if something was up. It was. He kept staring at me across the table as if trying to say something. At last I asked if he wanted a picture which returned his attention to the pasta on his plate.
After diner, parked in front of my house, he kissed me then kissed me again for reassurance. He pulled away, looked at me oddly, reached over to the glove box, took out a small jewelry box and handed it to me. Opening it I saw a ring.
Without taking it out I turned and asked,
"You want to go steady?"
"No, I want you to marry me."
Closing the box, I looked down in confusion, a tear in my eye, saying nothing.
"Are you saying no?"
A few months earlier I'd never been kissed and now was facing a marriage proposal. I sat silent and then replied,
"You want to marry a skinny, just 17, Asian, still in high school?"
My question was actually to myself,
"Me, poor, high school girl, just turned 17, Asian, marry a white man 5 years older a college graduate?"
"When I first saw you I wanted you. We won't marry until you graduate. I'll have a good job then. Just nod yes."
I wouldn't graduate for a year, a forever time to me then. Confused and seeking a diversion I replied,
"You need my parent's permission."
I gave back the ring.
"I'll ask them in the morning,"
He kissed me passionately for the first time as my breasts pushed up against him which he interpreted as consent to marriage. Breaking free I ran in the house. On my bed I tossed in confusion, still a girl, life changing too fast but wanting out of my house and then realized it didn't matter. My parents would say no.
The next morning, Saturday, he came. I stayed by the stove looking down, absentmindedly cooking breakfast, pretending not to know the purpose of his visit.
He knew enough to ask Dad first and motioned him to the backyard as the house was too small for a private conversation. Dad, glad for an excuse to smoke, got his cigarettes and followed with his cup of tea.
I assumed Dad would say I was too young, still in school and he was not letting his daughter marry a white devil. Instead after Dad's cigarette and tea they returned with Dad nodding to me and smiling, his blessing. Next he took Mom. It took longer and she returned crying but also nodding acquiescence.
He told them we wouldn't marry until after I graduated, he had a good job and he would "honor and protect" me until married. I suspected Dad's smiling was due to one less in the house and the potential of a son-in-law to borrow from and Mom's tears of my not going to college or being a nun were offset by my marring someone responsible, unlike Dad.
My brothers were excited at the potential of having their own bedrooms. No one asked if I agreed as they congratulated me while I served breakfast, stunned at the sudden change of my status.
So it was, the Saturday morning, two days after my 17th birthday, June 10, 1967 my fate was decided. I was engaged, a girl already taken, who in a year would leave home and school to become a man's wife, a man in truth hardly known; it was as simple as that.
Suddenly home and school, my focal points, no longer mattered. They were only temporary lapses until marriage and having kids. I was "promised to another" and expected to be an adult but was still a girl.
With our engagement, my fiancé took control of my life. I was to finish school, plan the wedding and be with him. I negotiated one concession, Friday girl's night out with my high school friends.
While poor and from a dysfunctional family like me, he had a future with college graduation. I wanted security from the monthly rent is due crisis and out of my crowded house, not the best reasons for marriage but for me, good enough. Love, I didn't think of romantic love? Despite being poor I loved suddenly having a secure economic future.
He took me to the senior ball with a dress I made but we were out of place, his being 5 years older and we the only mixed race couple except for a Mexican girl with a white boyfriend.
While not uncommon then for a girl to marry just out of high school it was uncommon for a 17 year old in high school to be engaged to someone 5 years older of a different race. Mom became pleased with our engagement as she knew him better due to his "honoring and protecting me" but lectured more about not getting pregnant. Like the nuns she didn't talk specifics, just don't, inferring I was to remain a virgin.
During the summer before my senior year I got a job at The Tropicana Gardens Bowl, a bowling alley with the fib I was quitting school to work full time. With my summer earnings I bought a neighbor's two door 1956 Desoto hard top for $300.
The Desoto was a tank with lots of lights and tail fins. Inside it had big front and rear bench seats, power window controls, a dash mounted push button automatic transmission and a miracle bar radio which shifted to the next clear station when pushed. It was an expired status symbol. The driver's door was jammed shut requiring a passenger door entry and exit, reflected in the purchase price.
With the Desoto I blossomed into popularity at school and drove for my new friends on my allowed “girls night out”. They in exchange, invited me to girl parties at their homes where I learned how to use makeup to look older, hide minor blemishes, make my eyes appear more oval, paint my nails and style my hair.
Neither the school nor my fiancée were in favor of my driving my new friends around or the makeup sessions but I enjoyed both. My allotted Friday “girl’s night out” became the weekly highlight as we dressed up and I drove them about with the girls seeking boys.
I drove them, sans school uniforms typically to a drive-in movie, usually the El Rancho. Afterwards we cruised downtown San Jose as in "American Graffiti", driving up First and down Second Streets while they flirted.
The rendezvous spots were Mel's or Spivey's Drive-Ins for further inquiry unless suckers were found to buy us pizza.
Parked at drive-ins, teenagers exchanged banter, names, phone numbers and made dates. Girls from Notre Dame were reputed to be "easy". I don't know if true but it had its share of pregnancy dropouts. The girls may have been more aggressive with no chance to meet boys at school, maybe they were more naive going to an all-girls high school; I suspect, however, a car full of girls simply attracted boys. Cruising or parked they swarmed the old Desoto.
Parked we ordered cokes. The car hop mounted her tray on the passenger window as I kept my window up to keep boys at bay. Sipping cokes we sat for an hour or so listening to radio music, made crude jokes about boys considered losers and the girls flirted with the cool ones until I was forced to leave by the car hop for lack of purchases.
The girls gave phony names and phone numbers except to winners. If asked why my window was up they explained I was stuck up and an old engaged woman. Two months before graduation at Mel’s Drive –In my rolled up window was tapped.
He was tall with shoulder length, dark brown hair,had crystal blue eyes, a mustache and wore a multicolored shirt with big lapels and bell bottoms pants. He had a cute smile with a narrow gap in the center of his upper teeth suggesting mirth.
I pushed the window button and rolled it down. His voice was jovial when introducing himself. His name was Gary, a 20 year old San Jose State University sophomore. His1965 burgundy colored Pontiac GTO was parked two rows away.
Bantering I learned he graduated from Los Gatos High School, an upscale city of Santa Clara County. His only job was going to school which I envied. The other girls tried to get his attention but he stayed by my window. When he asked about me I told petty lies but gave him my name. When the car hop told me to leave he asked,
"What's your phone number?"
As I maneuvered out of the packed cars he tagged alone next to my window. Turning the steering wheel to miss another car I blurted “Cypress 8-2021”, my real number.
Back then phone numbers were simple. There was no area code. The first two digits were letters of one of three words, AXminster, CHerry or CYpress. The first number was limited to 6 for AXminister, either 2 or 8 for CHerry and the four even numbers for CYpress. You really only had to memorize the last four digits. The first three digits also revealed a phones general location. CYpress 8 indicated east San Jose, suggesting poor girl.
When he phoned the next day I rued given him my number when Mom called me to the phone. His pleasant voice and clever words, however, kept me on the line even though I had to keep my end of the conversation low and ambiguous with family present.
He asked a strange question.
"You ever go to Alviso?"
I knew Dad gambled there at a place called Val's because a couple times he had come home proclaiming he broke the bank at Val's and for a while we ate well. Gary wanted me to walk with him on Alviso's train track to see salt ponds, a weird request, something never heard of.
Instead of answering I turned away from Mom and whispered.
“Do you know of a place in Alviso called Val’s?”
“Sure, everyone knows Val’s. It’s a restaurant, an Alviso landmark. Supposed to be good but I never ate there.”
"Take me there Monday after school and I'll see your salt ponds"
"Deal! How about 4 o'clock?"
"How do I get there?"
"Take The Alameda to Santa Clara, turn right on Lafayette Street, drive all the way to Alviso and turn left on Taylor Street, You can't miss it."
After class Monday, following his directions with a map for backup, I drove to Santa Clara and headed north on Lafayette Street. Leaving Santa Clara the scenery shifted from small industrial to spotty agricultural, to the small village of Agnew on the left and the 1930's pink stucco and red tile roof buildings of its vast state mental hospital complex on the right.
From Agnew the road continued past smelly dairies, pear orchards, a city dump, the start of wet lands and finally to the elevated hump of Highway 237. Highway 237 was elevated to prevent its being flooded. Its elevation blocked the view of Alviso. As my Desoto crested the highway to the stop sign above, Alviso revealed itself, poor, rundown and unprotected from flooding.
Lafayette Street in a twist of irony turns into Gold Street entering Alviso. I passed ramshackle and abandoned low lying buildings and drove to Taylor Street with growing apprehension then went one block left to another misnomer, El Dorado Street.
Fronting it on the left corner was Val's. Like he said you couldn't miss it. I thought of Dad's coming here in search of his El Dorado. Gary sat in his GTO parked in front. Instead I parked in a secluded rear corner. Dad usually stayed home Monday after a weekend of carousing but I didn't want to take a chance. Gary re-parked next to me.
He came to my door dressed for hiking to let me out but I explained it was jammed and exited the other side. I still wore my school uniform skirt, blouse and tennis shoes but had put on lipstick and brought a nylon wind breaker.
Val's was much nicer than my apprehension expected. It was an island of clean respectability among the surrounding decay. It had fresh exterior paint, neon lights, and served Italian food in a formal dining area and drinks in a separate piano lounge on the main floor, all of 1950's vintage. There was a partial second story illegal gambling den with interior stairs off the entry foyer.
I learned later there was also a small brothel in back but at first didn't think Dad was a patron based on his charm in attracting women. Older now, I don't know. Men often have unexpected secret sexual puppet shadows.
Entering the front foyer and passing the lounge we were greeted by the owner, an elderly stocky Italian woman. As the sole diners at this time she fussed over us like a grandmother. I requested a booth in the far back in the unlikely event Dad entered. When we ordered Cioppino she asked if we wanted a bottle of wine even though neither of us was 21 and I wore my high school uniform. She looked askance with our coke requests. It was obvious things were different in Alviso.
As we ate the crowd began to show and soon a small group gathered around the lounge piano singing in Italian. I went to the restroom, reapplied lipstick, cased the place, noticed the stairs off the foyer to the gambling floor and heard male voices above. There was a wispy layer of smoke in the upper room ceiling from cigarettes and cigars. I thought of Dad going up and down the stairs and playing cards while smoking his Lucky Strike cigarettes. I didn’t go up.
Outside when we exited it was a late, warm and sunny afternoon with a salt tinged breeze which overcame the odors of bay tidal mud, distant dump and sewage treatment plant. I worried Gary was going to trip out on marijuana or another drug sweeping America as part of the hippy culture.
I and my fiancé avoided drugs. We expected rich hippies to self-destruct, making it easier for us to get ahead. I hated smoke too and had nagged Dad into smoking outside the house. If Gary was going to light a joint I wasn’t going to the salt ponds. I’d seen what I came for.
Instead he acted as tour guide explaining the rail line on the other side of El Dorado Street was elevated like Highway 237due to periodic flooding and it led to the salt ponds. Climbing atop, we looked down to the Guadalupe River Slough behind. The Slough rose and sank with the tide and the tide was out. Its banks were decorated with hulks of decrepit boats stuck in mud plus a few stilt pole boat houses where boats were built on the cheap.
He led forward to the salt ponds walking between the iron rails atop the elevated graveled embankment. The rails were supported by large black wooden timbers embedded in the gravel. They gave off the strong odor of creosote preservative and were set apart at a distance unmatched to any gait. They required our watched steps to vary from timber to gravel no matter how we paced.
As we walked, Gary narrated an Alviso history lesson, how it once was a San Francisco Bay bawdy boom town of shipping, bars, sardine canneries, oyster beds, duck hunting clubs and a getaway for less than respectable behavior. He explained it became a rundown semi-ghost town due to being the low spot of Santa Clara Valley. It was at the end of San Jose's sewage line and experienced periodic flooding caused by the Valley subsiding as its aquifer was tapped for agriculture.
He enjoyed reminiscing about its colorful past and explained Alviso had its own form of desolate beauty. Before reaching the salt ponds we traversed Alviso. From atop the rail line he stopped and pointed.
"Elizabeth, look over there. That's the old Bay Side sardine cannery. It was once the largest cannery in California until the sardines disappeared. A Chinese guy owned it, his name, Chew. Next to it was a worker's dormitory. The workers worked long hour canning, slept in bunks and ate there like servants. The dormitory’s gone now."
I looked up from the timbers on the rail line I was observing to avoid tripping and saw an old abandoned brick and stucco building with the Bay Side name still visible, the dormitory long gone. Scanning the rail line timbers again as I walked I wondered if Dad as a youth worked and slept there.
Two blocks north of Val's was a street sign printed in old style porcelain black on white proclaiming Elizabeth Street. It was chipped and a little rusty from age to match its woebegone surroundings. At Elizabeth Street Gary pointed to the decrepit Laine's grocery store and the adjoining Victorian mansion, which could serve as the stage set for the movie "Psycho".
"See the old building across the street? That's Laine's Grocery Store. Beyond it are the salt ponds. The mansion next door is where the owner used to live. Laine's has been closed for years but I met him when I was young. I used to stop here, drink a coke and talk to him after duck hunting.
Before it was a store it was a saloon and before that a Chinese gambling den. Let's keep going, I want you to see a ghost town. It's called Drawbridge."
As we crossed Elizabeth Street and passed Laine's, trekking toward the salt ponds I experienced an odd sensation of connection. I wondered if Val's, the shuttered cannery, Elizabeth Street and Laine's were all parts of Dad's mysterious past, including my name.
As we left Laine’s we entered a surreal world. From the rail road’s secure high rock embankment we viewed the cord grass and pickle weed estuaries, the sterile gray colored salt ponds, the dry dusty gray dredged levees which formed them and beyond the open Bay and the waterfowl clustered in sloughs.
Gary explained it was a world created by Leslie Salt Company who built levees to create evaporation ponds by dredging. It then shuttled Bay water from pond to pond as the salinity increased until the water turned pink red. At the end they piled up the salt into a silver crystal mountain before packaging.
On the right, following the rail line, were high wire transmission towers with concrete feet anchored in tidal muck. They once were connected by wood elevated cat walks now bleached grey and often rotten or missing a plank. In the distance was the dim line of civilization including the General Motors plant in Fremont in front, the blimp hanger of Moffett Field in Mountain View to the left and next to it the vast complex of Lockheed Missal and Aircraft Company where my fiancé worked. A brisk Bay breeze tossed my hair. The spring green hills of the Diablo Range rose above the horizon in front of us as we trod east, clearly visible unlike from the much closer view at home viewed through smog's haze.
Eventually we reached Coyote slough and its humble Drawbridge. It was built when boats connected San Jose with the Bay but was obviously long unused. I wondered when and what was the last boat it opened for. Surrounding it was a ghost town built on stilts which in its heyday was populated by oyster pirates, market duck hunters, gamblers, a famous Chinese madam and other misfits according to Gary.
Again I felt an odd sense of connection. Drawbridge was the end of our trek and we paused to enjoy the windy beautiful expanse. In the far eastern distance he pointed out the salt mountain, the end result of pond water shuffling. He asked,
"What do you think?"
"It's a beautiful, a hidden but open world. I'm happy I came. I'm having a strange mystical experience."
"I knew you'd like it because you, like me, are different."
"How am I different?"
"You're like here, mysterious, different but beautiful. It's a compliment. I'm not saying it right. What I am saying is like me you see the beauty, most don't and you're beautiful too."
"You're making me smile, comparing me to Alviso, saying I'm beautiful, a strange compliment. It's beautiful, I love this place but how am I beautiful like it?"
"What I am trying to say is you're beautiful, not pretty, beautiful, not that you look like this but your beauty is mysterious like this."
Silent, I let his attempted beautiful compliment become part of the strange connection felt. After a moment in the wind, now chilling he said,
"It's time to go back; the best is still to come. Follow me and keep up."
We trekked back, the wind from the bay now up, stumbling between the rails wooden timbers and gravel. He walked ahead setting a fast pace and at Laine's waited for me to catch up. We had met no one. It was evening’s dusk. He looked at his watch,
"It's coming, soon."
"Listen, lean against the wall next to me. I hurried here so we wouldn't miss it."
Standing on the tracks I soon heard it, moved next to him out of the wind and leaned against the old wood wall of Laine's as a long slow freight train approached. The engineer seeing us gave a recognition horn blare greeting as it approached. Resting against the wall, the embankment's rails close in front of us, groaned under the train's weight. The wood timbers thumped up and down in their gravel beds as each rail car wheel passed over. The steel wheels slowly click clacked with those needing grease screeching complaint.
The sounds and movements were echoed against the wall, a wall encasing histories past. Our bodies absorbed the vibrations, noise and echoes. By the time the caboose passed and silence returned we were holding hands. As it rumbled away he leaned over and kissed me.
I broke free and walked in the early evening to my car behind Val's, tears in my eyes. He followed saying nothing while I raced through emotions. Val's was aglow in neon lights. I was still experiencing the vibrations of the passing train, the echoed sounds, our holding hands, his kiss and the strange connection to Alviso's past as I walked to my secluded car behind the now crowded restaurant, emitting muffled Italian singing.
When I opened the car door and scooted to the driver's side he followed. We sat silent a moment with him next to me and then he leaned over and kissed me again. I couldn’t stop nor say no. As we embraced his deft hand unbuttoned my blouse, slipped behind and unlocked the bra's hooks. He lifted the bra up kissed my breasts back and forth as I fell behind the steering wheel. His nimble fingers reached under my skirt pulled my panty down and caressed my vulva.
Stroking my magic button I was wet, my pelvis arching up to his caresses, his tongue darting in and out of my mouth then to an ear and back, my head entrapped behind the steering wheel, pressed down with his kissing and nimble caresses.
Wet with his stroking, his embrace released me. He rose, sat up, loosened his pants and pulled out his penis, fumbled in his scrunched pants pocket and took out a condom. I sat up, freed from under the steering wheel, stunned. He was going to take me while my fiancé tarried. My clothes in disarray, Vixen panting yes, facing his throbbing penis, my mind in disbelief, I whimpered not knowing what to do.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. I turned away and stared at the fogged windshield. He asked.
I mumbled once the sobs subsided,
"Wow. When's the wedding?"
"June, June 15th. Everything’s almost ready."
"That's only two months away!"
"I shouldn't be here. I should have told you. I can't. I'm sorry. "
"Maybe you're not ready. You're still in high school."
His voice was calm, persuasive, rational, hopeful, still thinking I was old enough to seduce if not marry. He leaned closer to kiss again, his penis still erect. I pulled back.
"I'm a virgin. I gave my phone number because of your smile but then wished I hadn't. Then you called. I only agreed to meet you because you mentioned Alviso. My Dad gambles at Val's. I wanted to see it. That's why I agreed to come. Now I realize I'm starving."
I was back to sniffling.
"I'll take you back to Val's. Any place you want to eat."
"No, no you don't understand. Not food, I'm starved for beauty. Seeing the beauty you showed me, knowing what I miss, overwhelms me. Then the train, your kiss, I'm sorry. I don't know what I want. I'm scared, lonely and crying for myself. I need to think. I'm confused. I need to go home."
Pulling his pants back up over his now deflated penis he moved to the door, opened it still clutching the unopened condom and got out, confused too. He walked to the driver's window while I pulled my panty back up, re-hooked the bra and fastened blouse buttons. He waited patiently until I finished and opened the window. With the window down, safe behind the jammed door, I noticed the condom was re-pocketed.
"I want to see you again. You're beautiful.'
"It won't work. I'm taken, I’m promised to another. I'm not free to give myself."
"Even if engaged I want to talk to you. We can just be friends. We can see many beautiful things together. Let me follow you to make sure you get home safely."
"No, no, I'm okay. Please, just let me go. I need to think about my life."
Starting the car I rumbled my Desoto tank out of the driveway and drove back to Tropicana Village thinking how he had unexpectedly filled my gritty world with beauty. Feeling oppressed and sorry for myself while listening to radio music the beautiful musical "Love Is Blue" came on.
My only beauty is radio and church music, churned in my mind as I drove. In front of the house I straightened my rumpled blouse. My eyes were red in the mirror and the lipstick smudged. I opened my purse, used its hanky to wipe my lips and went inside holding the purse to hide a smear on the blouse.
In the living room, behind the little entry, Dad snored on his recliner with an empty bottle of plum wine on the floor. My siblings were splayed about on floor and sofa watching Gilligan's Island on TV. Mom was ironing in the small dining area.
She wanted to know why I was late but not answering I went to the sanctuary of my bedroom to think and change. Lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, the phone soon rang. Called by Mom I came out, picked up the phone and heard Gary's voice. I carried the phone with its long extension cord from its little hall table to the safety of my room and closed the door while mom looked at me with questions on her face.
Late from school, arriving in disarray, a male stranger calling, and now taking the phone to my room, something was up. She was by now a staunch fiancée defender.
In the safety of the bedroom I was pleased he called. Answering my hello he asked,
"Yeah, I just need to sort things out."
"I'm glad you walked the tracks with me."
"I'm glad you took me but now I'm confused about a lot of things."
"Well life's confusing isn't it? Don't worry about it. Can I see you again?'
"I don't know if it is a good idea. I'm committed to someone. Have you ever been committed to someone?"
"I just go day to day but I want to see you again."
"Can you make a commitment if I see you again?"
"I'm only a sophomore in college and want to go to law school so I guess I do have a commitment until then."
That was it, not the answer I sought but an honest one.
"I will always remember our hike on the tracks and the train as it passed while we held hands. I cherish your kiss. You have your commitment, I mine. Please don't call again. Let me be."
I set the phone slowly and reluctantly in its cradle.
Bringing the phone back out to its little hall table my fiancé was waiting in the living room. Mom obviously had summoned him. He looked at me uncertainly. Setting the phone down I went and embraced him to the relief of both he and Mom.
I vowed to find my own life's beauty. Gary honored my no contact request removing his temptation. I still think of him now and then and wonder about life's possible alternate universes declined by simple choice or chance.
I have no regrets with my fated world chosen. I’ve found my own beauty.
Author Notes: Young poor girl faces life choice about commitments in historic 1968 Santa Clara County setting.