I didn’t realize that traveling on Christmas day would be such a novelty, but it was in the Wonderbread world of Boulder. Being Jewish, I long ago learned that travel was optimal on Christian holidays. While the silent majority practiced their rituals, I was able to travel in peace. The flight attendants feel sorry for you and feed you champagne, which you can enjoy with plenty of elbow room.
In Boulder, though, the news that I would be traveling on Christmas was inevitably met with great remonstrations of pity.
“It’s OK, I’m Jewish,” I would try to explain.
“Oh, but still,” they would sigh.
Boulder is a cowboy version of California. It sports an uneasy mix of starry-eyed new-agers and redneck wannabees, with an odd combination of the intensely mellow and the highly Midwestern. This is the kind of place where, when you tell a joke, people thank you for sharing it with them. It’s the kind of place where everybody eats organic sprouted bran breads, but they go to mini-malls to get it. Its the kind of place that thinks it’s the center of the world, but in reality is simply too close to Kansas and not nearly far enough away from Marin County.
You know you’ve come from an island when Berkeley seems real and down-to-earth. I picked up my car from the airport and drove up the Bay, past the hole where the Embarcadero Freeway had been torn down, and over the Bay Bridge to Berkeley.
Thursday morning, with a day to kill, I walked down to Telegraph Avenue. Although increasingly littered with junkies and winos, the street still has some charm left from its heyday in the 60s.
First stop was the Café Mediterraneum, a cavernous coffee shop where you can sit for hours nursing a café latte and watching the passing parade of residents sporting “proud to be weird” buttons and teenagers dressed like Hippies. On the wall of the Café Med is a “no soliciting or dealing” sign. It was on the second-floor terrace of this café that I wrote two of my books, typing every day until my café latte and laptop batteries ran out.
The only problem with typing in Bay Area cafés is the questions you must periodically field. At the Café Med, every day that I typed I would receive several inquiries about the feasibility of calculating astrology charts on my device.
The astrologically-inclined would-be cyberpunks were an interesting diversion from trying to decipher vendor manuals. Some of the queries were even more basic, such as the one I received while working on another book in the Café Picarro, located in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district. I was busily typing away, trying to wax poetic on master-slave replication when I realized that somebody had been standing staring at me for a good ten minutes. I looked up and saw one of the local bums, a benign psychotic who wrote random ravings on a piece of paper, xeroxed a dozen copies, and sold them as a newsletter to buy a U.S. $1 bottle of wine. Feeling that we had something in common, I always tried to be nice to him.
He had a very puzzled look on his face, staring at my notebook computer. Seeing me look up, he seized his chance.
“Uh, excuse me, but, like, how do you print on this thing?”
“You don’t,” I replied in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, and went back to typing.
He stood there for another ten minutes watching me and scratching his head, trying to figure out what the point was to this write-only memory device.
I wasn’t sitting in the Café Med, however, to answer any existential questions. I had been gone from the Bay Area for several months and I was stoking up on caffeine to get myself ready for a tour of the bookstores.
My standard tour has three stops and takes all day. It starts with Cody’s in Berkeley, one of the best general purpose bookstores in the country and one of the places bombed for selling Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
After stocking up on obscure travel literature (and making sure my own books were in stock), I headed out of the Berkeley sun, over the Bay Bridge, and into the mist of San Francisco. The city hadn’t yet fully recovered from the earthquake yet and instead of being dumped in the middle of North Beach, I took a round-about route through the warehouses and the financial district.
In previous years, I had taken this route every day, but on a scooter instead of in a car. Then, I had blasted through traffic, doing the messenger slalom across the lanes. This time, I had a rental car and had to resist the temptation to treat the gas pedal as a digital device.
Finally, I found myself on Columbus avenue and darted into a parking space across from the City Lights bookstore. On the top floor is the publishing house that, in 1953, became become famous for being the only house willing to publish beat authors like Jack Kerouac. The first floor and the basement are stuffed with a wonderful collection of literature, communist propaganda, and the like.
After spending my allowance, I walked up into North Beach. First stop was Molinari’s deli. In a few weeks, I would be in Bangkok visiting the restaurant critic of The Bangkok Post and it was unthinkable to arrive without an appropriate sausage. I debated the merits of diverse salamis with the clerks, purchased a few of the better specimens, popped a few prosciutto-and-mozzarella stuffed peppers into my mouth, then headed back to the car for the trip to the South Bay. On the way, though, I received a shock. The Condor, San Francisco’s first topless bar and a sleaze magnet for the entire state, had become the Condor Bistro, a fern-and-cappucino establishment.
On the way to the South Bay, I made a diversion to the Mission for lunch. La Tacqueria Menudo is named after their specialty, tripe tacos. No tripe tacos for me, though. I prefer lengua, beef tongue.
La Menudo is no ersatz chimichanga joint. Tacos are the real thing here, served on soft tortillas with lots of salsa and cilantro, washed down with a can of Tecate beer. Rubbermaid containers on the tables hold fresh radishes, pickled hot peppers, and more salsas. Mexican MTV booms out over the speakers, unless a soccer match is on.
Suitably refurbished, I took the I-280 freeway down to the South Bay to Computer Literacy, the largest and definitely the best computer bookstore in the world. With 20,000 different titles, this store is a mecca for the computer literate. For the first two years I wrote, I calculated that I spent as much money buying books here as I earned from writing them.
With a new collection of reading matter, I continued playing the digital tourist and headed up to Fry’s. Fry’s is to Silicon Valley what the Louvre is to Paris. This is a supermarket for hackers.
The doors to this store are labeled Enter and Escape. Over 20 full-duplex aisles, each 100 feet long, are stacked with every conceivable piece of software, peripheral, chip, and cable. People wield shopping carts up and down the aisles and then report to 35 checkout stands that can easily process several thousand people per day. On your way out with your new peripherals, you can pick up Twinkies and Jolt to fuel the creative process.
After picking up a new fax modem, I headed next door to browse in the Weird Stuff Warehouse, a store that specializes in used and surplus equipment. This is the kind of place where you can pick up a VAX 11/750 for $50 or a Symbolics 3600 for $125, always useful if you are remodeling your recreation room and want to put in a bar.
After a stop in Los Altos Hills for the best wine I’ve ever tasted, courtesy of Dan Lynch of Interop, I headed back to the hotel to sort out my modems, books, and salamis.