In the summer of 1967, just after my engagement, I got a job at The Plaza Lanes on White Road near our house, with fibs I was eighteen and had quit school.
The pay, better than baby-sitting or picking fruit, was augmented with tips shared by the waitresses. After three months, at the start of my senior year, I confessed I was still in school and quit. The manager was pleased with my work but upset I’d lied to get the job. I apologized with the excuse I was desperate for the money. The three hundred dollars I’d saved working I used to buy a neighbor's two-door, 1956 Desoto, hardtop. Having a car assuaged my guilt.
The Desoto, a tank with tail fins, rumbled when driven with a faulty muffler. Inside, it had big front and rear bench seats, power window controls, a push-button automatic transmission and a miracle radio bar which shifted to the next station when tapped. It was an expired status symbol, like Dad’s Buicks. The driver's door was jammed shut and required a passenger door entry and exit, reflected in the purchase price.
The Desoto gave me freedom, like its namesake, to explore new worlds. Turning the corner from home, no one knew where I was, where I was going, or where I’d been when I returned. I loved my new independence.
The Desoto also ran family trips. I drove Mom to the grocery store but stayed in the car and listened to the radio to avoid food stamp stigma and to her work where I parked at her hotel and walked the couple blocks to school. In addition, I did school event runs for brothers.
A brother got his driver’s license on turning 16 in the Desoto with me the instructor. Its push button automatic shift meant he didn’t learn to drive manual shift. He bought a '52 Chevy with automatic shift as a consequence. Shifting gears in my fiancé’ car provided me smug superiority over his driving ability.
Dad made us both 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 disrepair. Neither of us bothered with car insurance.
With the Desoto, I blossomed into school popularity but retained only one close friend, Julie. Only she knew about Vixen and Squirt. In high school, she had blossomed into the beautiful category. Boys chased her. She was attracted to the "bad boy" type, those with fast cars and lost her virginity in the back seat with one. I was stimulated by her escapades and quizzed her about sex details. Her veer to the wild side, however, skewed her life's universe to an unhappy ending.
While the Desoto provided freedom, my fiancé took control of the rest of my life. His directives were, finish high school, plan the wedding, work weekends, save money, avoid other boys and be with him. Simple enough, I garnered one concession due to my high school status, “girls' night out” on Fridays with me the car driver.
In exchange, they invited me to their slumber parties and taught me beauty makeup nuances. I learned how to look older, hide blemishes, make my eyes appear more oval, paint my nails, style my hair and dress provocatively, my first attempts of looking pretty to be noticed. I loved red lipstick and nail polish.
Due to school cosmetic limitations, we painted our fingernails on 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 to the limit imposed by the nuns and higher after school. Shoes concealed our polished toenails from the nuns.
Neither Mom nor my fiancé were in favor of my driving on "girls' night 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, styled our hair, dressed risqué and then I drove them to a drive-in, usually the El Rancho. Sometimes a girl hid in the trunk to avoid paying but mostly to get away with it. The movie presentation was unimportant.
At the drive-in, they flirted 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.
Afterward, we cruised downtown San Jose, American Graffiti style, up First and down Second Streets.
The rendezvous spot was Mel's Drive-In for their close encounter flirting.
Boxed in among the parked cars at the drive-in, we ordered cokes. The carhop mounted her tray on the passenger side window as I kept my window up to keep boys at bay. Sipping cokes, we listened to music, made crude jokes about boys considered losers and the girls flirted with the cool ones until forced to leave for lack of additional purchase.
The girls gave phony names and phone numbers to those not desired and real ones to those sought. If they were asked why my window was up, they explained I was stuck up and an old, engaged woman.
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, that suggested mirth.
I pushed the window button and rolled it down. His droll voice, jovial when introducing himself, informed me his name was Gary, a twenty-year-old, San Jose State University sophomore. His1965 burgundy colored Pontiac GTO was parked nearby.
Bantering, I learned he graduated from Los Gatos High School, a school in a town of rich hill 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 for lack of purchases, 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 letters of only three words, AXminster, CHerry, and CYpress. The first number after the word was limited to the number six for Axminister, two or eight for Cherry and the four 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, 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 about 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 and proclaimed, he’d broke the bank at Alviso’s Vahl's. For a month thereafter, we ate well. Gary wanted me to walk with him on Alviso's train track to see salt ponds, a weird request, something I’d 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.
Everyone had heard of Alviso, had a vague notion of where it was, but few had ever been there, including me. 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 agricultural until the 1930's, pink stucco and red tile roof buildings of Agnew, a vast mental hospital complex. It was a place in the country where California locked up the mentally insane, like in the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Agnew was another place everyone heard about but avoided. I was more familiar with it than most. When I was young our family temporally occupied a rural farmhouse near it. Occasionally at night we heard howling emitted from the campus, as if a simian was proclaiming their territory.
Relieved to be past Agnew, the two-lane country road continued past smelly dairies, pear orchards, a city dump, the start of wetlands and finally to the hump of Highway 237. Highway 237 was elevated to prevent its flooding. It blocked my view of Alviso. As the 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 buildings with growing apprehension. At Taylor Street, I turned left and went a block 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 expectation. It was an island of respectability among the surrounding decay with its fresh exterior paint and a neon sign on the second floor proclaiming Vahl's. I thought.
Dad comes here to seek his El Dorado but like those of yore doesn’t find it.
Gary’s car was parked in front. I drove past and parked in a secluded corner of the rear parking lot. Dad usually stayed home on 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 driver’s door was jammed, scooted over and exited the other side. I came in my school uniform, unprepared for hiking but had brought a nylon windbreaker and wore sneakers.
The building’s entrance opened to a cocktail lounge that included a bar, a little stage, and piano. Stacked before the mirror behind the bar were green, blue and pink glasses. The dining area was accessed via a leather-clad door with window porthole.
When we passed through it, we entered a dining room with sturdy wood tables, covered by red and white checkered tablecloths. It suggested Italian fare. All was neat, clean but of 1950’s-time warp decor. 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. At my request, she seated us in an inconspicuous rear booth.
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 fiancé-guilt percolated up.
Cioppino, it’s what I ate at Alioto’s after my fiancé’s first kiss.
My high school uniform stated my age was eighteen or less. She asked if we wanted a bottle of wine with our meal then looked askance at our coke requests. It was obvious things were different in Alviso.
As we 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 coming. Leaving the restroom, I sauntered out and observed a small staircase to the second floor near the foyer. I casually dawdled over to it as if disinterested.
With an ear cocked up, I heard male voices above. Emboldened, I took a couple of steps up. There was a wispy layer of ceiling smoke and the distinctive sound of cards shuffling, mingled with laughter. Obviously, the second floor was for card gambling.
Dad goes up and down these stairs. He shuffles and plays cards, tells jokes. On the card table, he’s got his Lucky Strike cigarette pack to his left and the ashtray to the right with his dragon lighter in his pocket like always.
I didn’t go up.
Back at our table, Gary finished eating was wondering about my absence. I didn’t sit down, simply said it was time to see his salt ponds. He rose, took our tab to the front cashier, and paid in cash; the only payment permitted as declared by the large sign on an old fashion, heavy, brass cash register. I asked the grandmotherly matron, as she rang up our fare, if they only sang Italian songs. She smiled 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 a hallucination 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 see salt ponds. I’d seen what I came for.
Instead, he acted as a tour guide, explained the rail line embankment on the other side of El Dorado Street was elevated, like Highway 237, due to periodic flooding and it led to the salt ponds. We clambered atop and looked down to the Guadalupe River Slough behind it. The slough rose and sank with the tide. 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.
Gary resumed his guide role and walked between the iron rails atop the graveled embankment that led to the salt ponds. The rails were supported by large black wooden timbers embedded in the gravel and gave off an odor of creosote. They were set apart to un-match any gait we tried. We stumbled from timber to gravel to timber as we varied our steps as best, we could.
He narrated an Alviso history lesson during our jumbled stride, how it once was a San Francisco Bay bawdy, boomtown 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 near the end of San Jose's sewage line. It’s topographical subsidence and 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 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.
Did Dad once work there, sleep and eat rice in the dormitory?
Two blocks north of Val's was a weathered 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. 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 another sensation of connection.
Are Vahl's, the shuttered cannery, Elizabeth Street and Laine's parts of Dad's mysterious past? Is this street name the source for my name?
As we left Laine's, we entered a surreal world. From the railroad's secure high rock embankment, we viewed the cordgrass and pickleweed estuaries, the sterile gray colored salt ponds, the dry, dusty gray dredged levees which formed them and beyond the open Bay. Waterfowl were 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 catwalks 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 near where I was born and to the left the Lockheed Missile 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 the levees to create evaporation ponds by dredging. Salt water from the Bay was shuttled from pond to pond as the salinity increased with evaporation until the water turned pink. In the end, evaporation created a pond surface crusted with salt that was scraped and piled into a silver-white crystal mountain. In the far eastern distance, Gary pointed out the salt mountain.
Eventually, we reached the rail line’s humble Drawbridge, built when boats connected San Jose with the Bay via Coyote River. Gary explained it wasn’t actually a drawbridge but one that swung open to let boats pass. It was obviously long unused. I wondered when and what was the last boat it swung open for. Surrounding it was a ghost town on stilts.
“Elizabeth, this once was a town, a bawdy one, populated by oyster pirates, gamblers, and a famous San Francisco Chinese madam know as Ah Toy, also known as China Mary. She was beautiful, tall, and had bound feet. She was famous, had many children but ended up selling clams here at Drawbridge when almost a hundred years old.”
Ah Toy, obviously a play on words for her profession. Is Dad somehow connected to her, a lost child, tall and beautiful?
Again, I felt an odd sense of connection.
Drawbridge was the end of Gary’s history trek. We paused against the old bridge railing above the slough to take in the open expanse view. It had desolate beauty of its own.
"What’d you think?"
"It's 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 this place, 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 see it. You see it and you're beautiful too."
Beautiful, my fiancé never says that.
"You're making me smile. You compare me to salt ponds, say I'm beautiful? A strange compliment. 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 vast and open, yet mysterious, like this."
Silent, I let his attempted 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 rail’s 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 well ahead, set a fast pace and then waited against the wooden wall of Laine's for me to catch up. We had met no one. It was evening's dusk. He looked at his watch as I finally caught up.
"It's coming, soon."
" Lean against the wall next to me. I hurried here so we wouldn't miss it. Listen! "
Standing on the tracks, I moved out of the wind next to him and leaned too against the old wooden wall of Laine's and faced the rail line. Soon, I heard it. A long, slow, freight train turned a bend and approached. The engineer, seeing us, gave a recognition horn blare as the big diesel engines reached Laine’s.
Leaning against the wall, the embankment's rails 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 complaints.
The vibrations, sounds and movements echoed against the wall, a wall encasing histories past. Our bodies absorbed the trembling, noise, and echoes. When 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, said nothing while I raced through emotions of experiencing the vibrations of the passing train, its 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.
I opened the car passenger door and scooted to the driver's side. He followed. We sat silent a moment, him close 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 kissed my exposed breasts back and forth as I slid down, my head below the steering wheel, he above. His nimble fingers reached under my skirt, pulled down my panty and caressed my vulva.
Stroking my magic button, my pelvis arched up to his caresses. His tongue darted in my mouth, out to my ear, back and forth. 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 nirvana and mental oblivion.
His embrace suddenly released me. He sat up, loosened his pants, and exposed his erect penis. Freed from under the steering wheel, I sat up and stared at it stunned. He fumbled in his scrunched pants pocket and took out a condom.
He wants to take me while my fiancé tarries!
My clothes in disarray, Vixen panting yes, suddenly facing the muzzle of his throbbing erection. I turned aside to the window and whimpered, not knowing what to do.
Tears streamed down my cheeks.
Once the sobs subsided, I turned and mumbled.
"Wow. When's the wedding?"
"June, June 15th. Everything’s ready."
"That's only two months away!"
"I shouldn't be here. I should’ve 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 saying I was old enough to seduce, but not marry. He leaned closer to kiss again, his penis still at attention, ready if I was or not. I pulled back to the shuttered door, pressed my head against its window. Physical and emotion passion ebbed; rational thought crept back. My voice returned.
"I'm a virgin. I gave my phone number because of your smile but then wished I hadn't. When you called, I only agreed to come because you mentioned Alviso. My Dad gambles at Vahl'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 Vahl's. You can have anything you want to eat."
"No, no you don't understand. It’s not food, I'm starved for beauty. Seeing the beauty, you showed, knowing what I miss, that’s what I’m starved for. It 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 the 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 out of the parking lot and drove back to Tropicana Village. As I dove, I thought of 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 music!
My drab 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 Chinese 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.
I’m just a poor girl in a gritty world. It's not the earth I’ll inherit, it's the dirt.
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 askance, 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 fiancé 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 by 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 have a commitment until then. I still want to see you."
That was it, not the answer sought but an honest one.
"I’ll always remember our hike on the tracks, 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 not listening to his pleas to see me again.
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 leave my gritty world of dirt and find life's beauty with my fiancé. Gary honored my no contact request, removing his temptation. I still think of him and wonder about life's possible alternate universes, entered into by a simple choice or chance but of unknown consequence.
I have no regrets of his missed alternate fate or the different universe I'd have entered if I'd seen him again. I'll stick with my universe, the one I've lived and experienced. In it, I’ve found the beauty yearned for when I drove the Desoto home that night by choices and chances which came thereafter. It’s the universe I’ve inhabited with my husband, the man I embraced that night.
Author Notes: Young poor girl faces life choice about commitments in historic 1968 Santa Clara County setting.