The summer of 1967, just after my engagement, I got a job at The Tropicana Gardens Bowl, with fibs I was already eighteen and had quit school.
The pay was much better than baby-sitting, picking strawberries, cutting cots or worst, picking beans. In September, at the start of my senior year, my lie on hiring exposed, with my summer’s ill begotten 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. Its old muffler rumbled when driven about. Inside it had big front and rear bench seats, power window controls, a dash mounted push button automatic transmission and a miracle radio bar which shifted to the next clear station when tapped. 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.
The Desoto gave me freedom. Like its name sake I explored new worlds in it. Turning the corner from home no one knew where I was, where I was going, or where I had been when I returned. I loved my new independence.
Engaged to a man and having a driver’s license while status symbols paled before the big one, “wheels”. It meant I was somebody, one who could provide transportation to other girls.
With the Desoto, I blossomed into school popularity and expanded my circle of friends beyond the close one. The others were “acquaintance friends”, not ones you told secrets to. Only my close friend knew what transpired between my fiancé and knew all about “Squirt”. Unlike me she blossomed into the beautiful category and boys chased after her. She was attracted to the “bad boy” type, those with fast cars and lost her virginity in the back seat of one. After that she became a fast girl. I quizzed her about details to prepare for my wedding night and was stimulated by her escapades. Her veer to the wild side skewed her life’s universe to a tragic death years later.
I was also pressed into family errands. I drove Mom shopping but stayed in the car and listened to the radio if she went to the grocery to avoid food stamp stigma. Mom and I drove to work, parked the Desoto at her hotel and I walked to school. She or I waited for each other to drive home together. No longer did we wait for a bus or endure its frequent stops. My one-year younger brother got his driver’s license in it with me as instructor. Its automatic shift meant he didn’t learn to drive manual shift and I retained a smug driver’s ability over him.
Dad made us park on the street so he could park in the garage. Thereafter the front of our house was cluttered with our cars, typically with my brother’s in some state of repair. Neither of us bothered to have car insurance.
As I was "promised" I missed high school boy dates which at a girl's Catholic high school isn’t much to miss. With, our engagement, my fiancée took control of not just my love life but all of it. His directives were finish high school, plan the wedding, work weekends, save money, avoid boys and be with him. It was simple enough. I agreed with one concession, Friday “girl’s nights out”. The 1956 Desoto meant I was the driver for the girls.
My new high school “friends” in exchange invited me to their slumber parties and taught me about makeup. I learned how to look older, hide minor blemishes, make my eyes more oval, paint my nails and style my hair. It was my first experience of looking pretty to be noticed. I loved red lipstick and nail polish.
We tested how much makeup we could get away with at school until forced to go to the lavatory and wash it off.
Shoes concealed our polished toe nails from the nuns. We painted our finger nails Fridays after school then smudged them clean Monday mornings. I applied lipstick before the rear-view mirror as soon as entering the Desoto after school in Mom’s hotel parking space. The hems of my skirts were raised up to the limit imposed by the nuns and higher after school.
Neither Mom nor my fiancée were in favor of my driving on "girl’s nights out", attending slumber parties or the makeup sessions but I loved them. They were my weekly allotted highlight. Fridays at a girl’s house, we put on makeup, dressed risqué and then I drove them to the drive-in, usually the El Rancho. Sometimes a girl hid in the trunk to avoid paying. The movie presentation was unimportant.
At the drive-in, my girlfriends flirted with boys as they walked to and from the concession stand among the forest of mounted speakers and herd of cars. If a car was spotted with fogged windows or even better, rocking, they rapped on a window for laughs.
Afterwards we cruised downtown San Jose, American Graffiti style, up First and down Second Streets while they flirted with the windows down.
The rendezvous spots were Mel's or Spivey's Drive-Ins for follow ups and close encounter flirting unless they snared suckers to buy pizza.
Parked at a Drive-in, they 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 naïve, 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.
Boxed in among the parked cars at the drive-in, we ordered cokes. The car hop mounted her tray on the passenger side window as I kept my window up to keep boys at bay. Sipping cokes, we sat for an hour or so until forced to leave for lack of additional purchase. Until told to leave we listened to radio music, made crude jokes about boys considered losers and the girls flirted with the cool ones who they enticed to stroll to the open passenger side and rear windows.
The girls gave phony names and phone numbers to losers and real ones to winners. If asked why my window was up they explained I was stuck up and an old engaged woman.
Parked at Mel’s Drive –In, two months before my graduation and scheduled wedding, my rolled-up window was tapped. He was tall with shoulder length, dark brown hair. He had a mustache, pale blue eyes and wore a multicolored shirt with big lapels, a wide belt and bell bottom pants, a hippy, not my type. He also 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 twenty-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, a school in an upscale town of rich people. His only job was attending 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 parked cars he tagged along next to my window. Turning the steering wheel to squeeze by another car, I blurted “Cypress 8-2021”, my real number.
Back then phone numbers were simple to remember. There was no need for an area code and prefix words made the first two digits the letters of, AXminster, CHerry or CYpress. The first number after the word was limited to 6 for Axminister, either 2 or 8 for Cherry and the 4 even numbers for Cypress. With the prefix word and its associated number, you only had to remember the last four digits. The word and first digit also revealed a phone’s general location. CYpress 8 meant East San Jose, and me a poor girl.
The next day he called. Summoned to the phone by Mom, I rued having given my number when I heard his voice. His 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.
After chit chat to know a little more of each other he asked a strange question.
"You ever go to Alviso?"
I knew Dad gambled there at a place called Vahl's because once he came home proclaiming he broke the bank at Alviso’s Vahl'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 Vahl’s?”
“Sure, everyone knows Vahl’s. It’s an Italian restaurant, an Alviso landmark. Supposed to have good food but I’ve never ate there.”
"Take me there Monday after school and I'll see your salt ponds."
"Deal! How about four 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."
“Good, I’ll see you then.”
As I set the phone back in the receiver I told myself.
It’s not a date. I just want to see where Dad gambles.
I told no one I was going.
While everyone had heard of Alviso, had a vague notion of where it was, few had ever been there, including me, born not too far from it. Its reputation put it on the, best if skipped list. After class Monday, following his directions, with a map and my lucky rabbit foot for backups, I drove to Santa Clara, then 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. Agnew was a place the State of California put the "nuts" like in the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Its mature palm tree entrance and oak tree landscape gave it a proper spooky impression of, “Enter at your own risk”. It was for the kooks.
Agnew was another place everyone heard about but avoided. I was more familiar with it than most. When young our family temporally occupied a rural farm house nearby. Occasionally one heard howling emitted at night from the campus, as if simians were proclaiming their territory.
The stupid joke of a driver losing lug nuts while fixing a flat tire in front of the hospital was better known than the facility, the joke being a “nut” ambles over and tells him to take a lug nut off the other 3 tires and says,
“I’m nuts but not stupid.”
Once heard, it becomes a memory tidbit stuck in a brain crevasse you can’t rid of.
Relieved to be past Agnew, the road continued past smelly dairies, pear orchards, a city dump, the start of wet lands and finally to the 2-lane hump of Highway 237. Highway 237 was elevated to prevent its flooding and blocked my view of Alviso. As my Desoto crested the highway to the stop sign atop, 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, 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 Vahl's. Like Gary said you couldn't miss it. Vahl's appeared much nicer than my apprehension expectation. It was an island of clean, respectability among the surrounding decay. It had fresh exterior paint and a neon sign on the second floor proclaiming Vahl's.
Dad comes here to seek his El Dorado but like those of yore never finds it.
I saw Gary parked in front in his GTO. Instead I parked the rear parking lot in a secluded corner. Dad usually stayed home Mondays after a weekend of carousing but I didn't want to take a chance. Gary re-parked next to me and came to open my car door. He was dressed for hiking, no longer a hippy.
At the window, I explained the door was jammed, scooted over and exited the other side. Unlike him, I came in my school uniform, unprepared for hiking but had brought a nylon wind breaker.
Entering the restaurant, we passed a large cocktail piano lounge of green, blue and pink lighted glasses to arrive at a formal dining area.
There, sturdy wood tables, covered by red and white checkered tablecloths suggested Italian fare. All was neat, clean and of 1950’s-time warp decor. As we stood, an elderly, short, stocky woman with blazon red dyed hair hustled out of the kitchen to greet us. As the sole diners before the dinner time rush she fussed over us like a grandmother. When I asked if seating was available on the second floor she smiled, winked and said she lived above the restaurant. At my request she seated us is an inconspicuous far back booth.
With us seated, she scurried off and returned with large, leather bound menus. I scanned mine, saw Cioppino and ordered it. Gary seconded me. A twinge of fiancée’ guilt flickered up.
Cioppino’s what I ate at Alioto’s after my first kiss.
My high school uniform suggested an age under eighteen. She asked if we wanted a bottle of wine with our orders then looked askance at our coke requests. It was obvious things were different in Alviso.
As we dipped bread in our bowls and ate, the crowd began to show. Soon the lounge filled and a small group gathered around the piano. They took turns singing Italian and old Sinatra songs. Finished with my Cioppino, I excused myself to the restroom to case the place, the purpose of my being there. After washing up and re-applying lipstick, I sauntered out. I observed a small staircase to the second floor near the foyer and dawdled over to it. With an ear cocked up, I heard male voices above. Emboldened I took a couple steps, looked up and observed a wispy layer of ceiling smoke. I heard the distinctive sound of cards shuffling mingled with laughter. Obviously the second floor included a card room.
Dad goes up and down these stairs. He tells jokes while he shuffles and plays cards up there. His Lucky Strike smoke floats above too. A pack of his cigarettes sit on the table, the ones he often sends me to the store with a note to purchase.
I didn’t go up.
Back at our table I told Gary it was time to see his salt ponds. He arose, took our tab to the front cashier and paid in cash, the only payment permitted by the large sign on a large old fashion cash register. I asked the grandmother matron, as she rang up our fare, if they only sang Italian and Sinatra songs. She smiled knowingly and told me one gentleman on occasion played the piano and sang in Chinese. Gary left an impressive five-dollar tip.
Outside, it was a late, warm and sunny afternoon. A salt tinged breeze from the Bay tussled my hair. It. pushed aside the odors of tidal mud, distant dump and sewage treatment plant I worried Gary was going to trip out on marijuana or another drug like LSD sweeping America as part of the hippy culture.
My fiancé and I avoided drugs. We expected rich hippies to self-destruct and make 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 or drop acid I wasn’t going to the salt ponds. I’d seen what I came for.
Instead he acted as tour guide, explained the rail line on the other side of El Dorado Street was elevated, like Highway 237, due to periodic flooding and it led to the salt ponds. Climbing atop the rail line, we looked down to the Guadalupe River Slough. He explained 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. We walked between the iron rails atop the graveled embankment, the rails supported by large black wooden timbers embedded in the gravel. They gave off a strong odor of creosote and were set apart to un-match any gait we tried. We varied our steps as best we could as we stumbled from timber to gravel to timber.
Gary narrated an Alviso history lesson between our jumbled stride, how it once was a San Francisco Bay bawdy, boom town of shipping, bars, sardine canneries, oyster beds, market duck hunting 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 and at the end of San Jose's sewage line. It’s topographical subsidence and subsequent periodic flooding was the result of the Valley’s aquifer being tapped for agriculture.
He was enjoying himself. It was obvious he was enamored with Alviso, liked to reminisce about its colorful past and explain its unique desolate beauty as we trekked between the rails toward the salt ponds. Suddenly he stopped and pointed.
"Elizabeth, look over there. That's the old Bay Side sardine cannery, once the largest cannery in California until the sardines disappeared. A Chinese guy owned it. Next to it was a worker's dormitory, gone now. The workers slept in bunks and lived on rice.”
I looked up from the timbers I was attempting to pace with to avoid tripping and saw an old abandoned brick and stucco building. The Bay Side name was still visible. Looking down to pace the rail line timbers again as we trekked I wondered if Dad had worked, slept and eaten rice there too.
Two blocks north of Val's was a weather Alviso street sign printed in old style black on white porcelain proclaiming, Elizabeth Street. It was chipped and 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. He told me a lot of Alviso history.
Before it was a store it was a saloon and before that a Chinese gambling den. That’s why it was originally built. Let's keep going, I want you to see a ghost town among the salt ponds, called Drawbridge."
As we crossed Elizabeth Street and passed Laine's I experienced an sensation of connection. I wondered if Val's, the shuttered cannery, the Elizabeth Street name 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. Waterfowl clustered in sloughs.
On the right, following the rail line, were high wire electric 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 were dim lines of civilization, the General Motors plant in Fremont where the rail line seemed to go, 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. The spring green hills of the Diablo Range rose above the horizon in front of us, clearly visible unlike from the much closer view at home viewed through smog's haze.
Gary explained it was a world created by Leslie Salt Company who built levees to create evaporation ponds by dredging. Salty Bay water was shuttled from pond to pond as the salinity increased with evaporation until the water turned pink red. At the end, a pond surface was crusted in salt and they scraped it up and piled up to make a silver-white crystal mountain before packaging. In the far eastern distance Gary pointed out the salt mountain created by pond water shuffling.
Eventually we reached Coyote slough and its humble Drawbridge, built when boats connected San Jose with the Bay, obviously long unused. I wondered when and what was the last boat it opened for. Surrounding it was a ghost town of abandoned buildings on stilts. Gary related how in its heyday oyster pirates, market duck hunters, gamblers, a famous Chinese madam and other misfits populated it. Again, I felt an odd sense of connection.
Drawbridge was the end of our trek. We paused against its railing above the slough to take in the open expanse, a desolate beauty of its own.
"What’d 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 like the salt ponds? A strange compliment, no? I love this place but how am I beautiful like it?"
"What I’m 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 explanation become part of the strange connection felt. After a moment in the wind, now brisk and 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 to buffeting, as we stumbled between the rails wooden timbers and gravel. My hair swirled by the wind, flayed against my face as I stared down to avoid tripping. The smell of creosote hastened my step.
He walked ahead, set a fast pace and waited against the wood wall of Laine's for me to catch up., well ahead of me. We had met no one. It was evening’s dusk. He looked at his watch as I finally arrived.
"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. I moved next to him out of the wind and leaned against the old wood wall of Laine's. A long, slow freight train soon turned a bend and approached. The engineer seeing us gave a recognition horn greeting as the big diesel engines reached Laine’s.
Leaning against the wall, the embankment's rails just before us groaned under the train's weight. The wood timbers we recently stumbled on thumped up and down in their gravel beds as each rail car wheel passed over. The train cars steel wheels click clacked to the rail joints. Those needing grease screeched steel complaint.
The sounds and movements 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, walked quickly in the early evening to my car behind Vahl's, tears in my eyes. He followed, saying nothing while I raced through emotions. 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 hurried to my car behind the now crowded restaurant. Vahl's was aglow in neon lights. Its emitted muffled Italian singing added to my confusion.
When I opened the car door and scooted to the driver's side, he followed. We sat silent a moment, him next to me. With ardor, he leaned over and kissed me and kissed me again. I couldn’t stop nor say no. As we embraced, his deft hand unbuttoned my blouse, slipped behind and unhooked my bra. He lifted it 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.
Stroking my magic button, my pelvis arched up to his caresses, his tongue darting in and out of my mouth then to an ear and back. My head under the steering wheel, body pinioned on the bench seat, partially undressed I yearned for his kisses and nimble caresses. I drifted into physical and emotional oblivion.
Wet with his stroking and kisses, his embrace suddenly released me. He rose, sat up, loosened his pants and exposed his erect member. I sat up, freed from under the steering wheel, stunned. He fumbled in his scrunched pants pocket and took out a condom. He was going to take me while my fiancé tarried! My clothes in disarray, Vixen panting yes, facing the muzzle of his throbbing penis, my mind in disbelief, I turned aside to the window and whimpered, not knowing what to do.
Tears streamed down my cheeks.
I turned to face him and mumbled once the sobs subsided.
"Wow. When's the wedding?"
"June, June 15th. Everything’s 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, He was thinking I was old enough to seduce if not marry. He leaned closer to kiss again, his member still at attention, ready if I was or not. I pulled back, head against my car window. Emotion ebbed, rational thinking crept back, my voice returned.
"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 come 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."
With the word starving, I returned 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, 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. I’m crying for myself. I need to think. I'm confused. I need to go home."
Pulling his pants back up over his now deflated member 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 its jammed door, I noted the condom was re-pocketed.
"I want to see you again. You're beautiful.'
"It won't work. I'm taken, 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."
I started the car, rumbled the Desoto tank out of the parking lot and drove back to Tropicana Village. As I dove I thought 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, so apt.
My only beauty is radio and church music!
My gritty life churned in my mind until parked in front of my house.
I straightened my rumpled blouse. My eyes were red in the mirror, my lipstick smudged. I opened my purse, used its hanky to wipe my lips, dapped my eyes and went inside holding the purse to hide a lipstick smear on the blouse. In the living room, behind the little entry, Dad snored on his recliner, 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 asked why I was late but not answering I went to the sanctuary of my bedroom, to think. On the bed, I stared at the ceiling, clutched my rabbit foot talisman and thought about my life’s fate. The phone rang. Called by Mom, I came out, picked up the phone on its little table and heard Gary's voice. I carried the phone with its long extension cord to the safety of my room and closed the door. 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. It was. 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.
When I brought the phone back out to its little hall table, my fiancé was standing in the living room. Mom obviously had summoned him from next door. 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 of a missed alternate fate if I’d seen Gary again. Our fate is determined by random choices and chances. I’ve experienced the beauty yearned for when I drove the Desoto that night by the choices and chances which came thereafter.
Author Notes: Young poor girl faces life choice about commitments in historic 1968 Santa Clara County setting.