5 May 2018 – Cinco de Mayo
7:11 a.m.: I photograph the Death card with my iPhone, my card of the day. For nearly seven months, at the urging of a beloved femme friend, I have drawn one card each morning, as near to sunrise as I can muster. Tarot, I inquire while shuffling, what does the day have in store for me? What energy does the day have in store for me? I speak the words aloud in singsong in my empty apartment on the card table my parents brought me back from a garage sale. Its legs, like mine, are collapsable.
When I told my Catholic parents about my burgeoning tarot practice, the conversation turned cautionary. They spoke of the 1970s, the San Jose humans they knew who joined cults. I asked my dad to retell the familiar maudlin tale of a coworker’s daughter who cult leaders once brainwashed. They told her they had her dead baby’s heart in a box: still beating. The dead baby’s heart has spellbound me for ages: a symbol of what’s yearning in the world.
(A newborn’s heart, I’ve researched, is roughly the size of a walnut.)
I imagine a cult leader’s palms cradling the soft organ—delicate as a hatchling—and rolling it ever so gingerly off surgical gloves and into the box’s cool interior. The box in my mind is as darkened as a chest cavity. I don’t recall where Dad was working at the time: the cannery, the gas station, the vending machine repair job at the place he calls The Funny Machine Company. Maybe it was later in his suit-and-tie days.
The subtext of the cult conversation is this: from my parent’s vantage, non-Catholic mysticism is a portal to a sickening mind.
Is astrology a mortal sin or a venial sin, a friend texted their partner two weeks ago.
Mortal, their partner responded.
~7:40 a.m.: Waiting for my soy milk cortado in a bourgie strip mall coffee shop, I google the Death card, also known as the most feared and misunderstood card of the deck. It is a card about transformation. I note how in adulthood I am surrounded by posh people.
What card do you suppose I’ll pull on the day that I die? I have asked the aforementioned femme friend.
Maybe the Wheel of Fortune, she told me. Or maybe The World.
VOW 1: I will embrace the transformative energy of the Death card.
VOW 2: I will allow myself to see (and follow!) the signs I perceive in the world.
7:55 a.m.: Walking into Sprouts Farmer’s Market to buy groceries, I hear the song It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over. I misidentify the tune as a Motown oldie from decades before I was born. Turns out I was 9 when it aired. For reasons I can’t yet articulate, I perceive that the song is a sign. It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over is Lenny Kravitz’s most successful song to date, I read on Wikipedia, peaking at #2 behind Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do (I Do It For You).
VOW 3: The only song I will listen to deliberately today is It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.
8:00 a.m.: Returning to my car with my wares, I pause to document a mammoth photo collage beneath the store’s beige and brown stucco facade. The stucco reminds me of the bland cookie-cutter track housing that shot up throughout the region in my childhood days, when It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over was first a hit. The photos depict real old-timey scenes of pale-skinned humans in the long-gone local orchards. Two women in floor-length skirts mingle under tree boughs, one of them gripping ripe produce. I struggle to identify the large fruit she’s fisting in greyscale. Apricots dry out on palettes in the sun. Stern-faced men sit on wood crates in rows, as if posed for a middle school photograph. They wear straw hats, string-ties, and worn work pants.
Does any good come of romanticizing this era? I type, posting a photo on my Instagram story. I am referring to the implicit racism of the photo montage: the swath of washed-out dead men in the frame. I, myself, am guilty of romanticizing it. I fantasize about getting a tattoo of the box-cutter-like knives my parents and Portuguese grandparents used to slice ‘cots in the orchards. The knife would be fringed in blossom garlands.
In front of the mammoth photo collage: a display of honeydew melons, a close relative of my deceased grandfather’s favorite, the casaba melon. Born in 1907, my Mexican grandfather lived in a two room shack as a child when he worked in the orchards. The photo montage is bereft of faces like his. And yet he too toiled here. Today you can visit a replica of the shacks at History Park, an indoor/outdoor museum modeled after San Jose in the early 1900s. In a photo that lives on my smartphone, my father peers through the replica’s uncurtained windows: imagining inhabitants in a building that never housed any.
8:50 a.m.: Driving through Santa Clara, having downloaded It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over to blast on my stereo, I pause to document a sign in a picture window above a manicured lawn. PSYCHIC READING it says with a telephone number.
To the left of the digits: a fan of black and red playing cards.
To the right: a raised palm coursing with lifelines.
All good things are seated at the right hand of The Father, I think, following a crow with my eyes.
What is it like to be an out-and-proud psychic in the suburbs?
What is it like to be a solitary crow?
9:00 a.m.: I return home, prepare a smoothie, and document my morning so far. I’m committed to following my whims, I text a friend who inquires what I’m up to.
10:45 a.m.: I stop at 881 S 1st Street, where according to census records, my grandfather lived with his mother and 9 of his siblings as a boy in 1920. Today it is an unmarked brick storefront, painted buttery yellow, with pale pink and blue quinceañera dresses in the window display. I am drawn to a headless pint-size mannequin in a handmade christening gown, studded with delicate seed pearls. Unseen dressmaker’s hands have pinned a bonnet to the skirt’s hem.
En route to the unmarked brick storefront, while listening to It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over on an endless loop, I tell myself I must enter my grandfather’s past dwelling and purchase a trinket for prosperity. But the OPEN sign is unlit when I arrive. A note in the window penned in Sharpie reads: Dear UPS—Please leave packages next door with BOOST MOBILE. On either side of the shuttered dwelling, shopkeepers broom their walkways. A woman pauses from her rhythmic sweeping to pour bleach water from a sandwich-sized Tupperware container. She douses the hooves of a huge plaster horse: whitening it’s unmoving fetlocks.
11:21 a.m.: Every time Lenny’s song ends, I wonder what the next song will be. How long before my brain absorbs that the loop will not cease? I am parked in front of MEDEX, the drug store I snuck off to as a tween after middle school to buy Funyuns. MEDEX is a detour en route to the site of my own christening, which today is a razed concrete slab where St. Patrick’s Church once stood. I learn on the interwebs that MEDEX and I have the same birth year. For a day in 1981, we each achieved peak states of newness.
Roaming the aisles at MEDEX in search of an ATM machine, I’m comforted by its eerie unchanged state. Knock-off Trapper Keepers still grace the shelves. I try on daisy-patterned bucket hats, and marvel at the dust on shampoo bottles.
When a Muzak version of the theme from Gone With The Wind erupts over the loudspeakers, my mood shifts.
Nostalgia can be a curse.
And yet, “progress” is also a curse.
Don’t come here unless you like dirty expired products, a Yelper writes. Once you buy a product you can’t return it … unlike Walmart where you are allowed to return used products …
11:40 p.m. – I cross the street to my middle school’s campus, peering in through the cyclone fencing at the lot where our church used to be. The site of my christening. It is a beautiful thing to watch a sin-free creature get purer, I once wrote in an unpublished manuscript that lives in a cloud. A disheveled man with his belongings stacked up a shopping cart passes me on the sidewalk, followed by a techie with circusy facial hair. A foul smell arrests me and I spot an entire unopened package of deli ham beside a softening pile of human excrement on the sidewalk. The deli ham sweats pink in clear plastic. Inside the cyclone fencing, there’s a jumbo bag of crushed cat food: 9 LIVES. I think of how St. Patrick’s Church has lived 9 lives. In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, the original parish burned down in a fire. In a photograph I find in an internet archive, rubble makes a sky-high hillock beside an ivy-covered tower. At least 100 firefighters battled to put out the blaze. It has since been rebuilt at least twice. In red paint on the canvas-covered fencing, a tagger has sprayed the phrase #1 LOSER.
When workers next resurrect the resilient parish it will have a new name: Our Lady of La Vang.
In Vietnam in 1798, the emperor issued an anti-Catholic edict and thousands of Catholics became martyrs. To escape persecution, Catholics sought refuge in the rainforest, where they suffered from illness, hunger, and exposure to harsh elements. Each night, they gathered at a banyan tree’s base to mouth the rosary. In the tree’s branches a woman appeared, wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing and flanked by two angels. She held the Christ-child in her arms. She urged the Catholics to boil leaves from the trees as a cure for their ailments. Legend states the term La Vang derives from a Vietnamese word that means crying out. I read online how, according to one devotee in 2013, the statue at her shrine weeps hot human tears.
11:55 a.m. – I zigzag across the patio to the spot where my friends once congregated during recess. The tree we then huddled around with our Handi-Snacks has been massacred: hacked to a dry round stump. I try to recall what phrases our small thumbnails once etched in its soft sapling bark. I remember a rounded W-shape we called “Larry’s butt.”
I am steps away from the enclosed blacktop where I played at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989—my eighth birthday—when the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake startled the region.
6 MAY 2018
7:31 a.m. – Having drawn my card of the day (2 of Pentacles) and downed an identical smoothie, I set out driving east. I take surface streets, coursing down our city’s main drag towards Alum Rock. The Alameda yields to Santa Clara Street and Santa Clara Street yields to Alum Rock Avenue. Over a stretch of ten miles, the vibe goes from bourgeois to ramshackle to bourgeois again.
7:55 a.m. – On Santa Clara Street, the main drag’s downtown stretch, I pull over to photograph Hank Coca’s Furniture, a soon-to-be-shuttered business that cropped up in 1957. It sits on the ground floor of the three-story Italianate Oddfellows Building that workers built in 1883. Hank Coca’s has been there—with its ornate window displays of gaudy canopied bedroom sets and glossy life-size panther figurines—my whole lifetime. Hand-painted letters in the window read FINAL DAYS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.
What do you suppose they’ll put where Hank Coca’s used to be? I text to a friend.
A double-decker Chipotle and a Soul Cycle, he texts back.
Lenny croons on repeat from the stereo:
so many tears I’ve cried / so much pain inside / but honey it ain’t over ‘til it’s over
8:25 a.m. – I make a stop at Capital Square Mall and am sad to find new businesses where the old ones once stood. Pretty and Plump is a Five Guys. Montgomery Ward’s is a Target. Pierra Imports—where teen me bought scrunchies and lip gloss—is now a gutted storefront. I pause to photograph my ghostly reflection in the shop’s window. I think of my favorite new insult, which I recently heard applied to the disaster that is “Man Jose’s” online dating scene: It’s haunted!
On the dust-covered window, a stranger has traced the following lines in Spanish with their fingertip:
a una noche llena de estrella / a night full of stars
fumando mota / smoking weed
tratando de olvidar / trying to forget
Swarms of seagulls circle above the Hometown Buffet, the air reeking of pancakes and piled strips of bacon. I recollect how my parents and their friends would show up to Hometown Buffet at lunchtime with a gaggle of children and a deck of playing cards. We’d crowd at our booth until well after dinner time, knocking back tumblers of soda, while the smallest kids conspired under the tabletop.
I’ll admit that as a teenager I began to see my family’s rituals as trashy, a word I am not proud to use. But in adulthood I have a reverence for the foods we then stomached: beanie weenies, Jell-O salad, TV dinners, dry Tang sampled straight from the canister, watered down Kool-Aid, fish sticks with yellow mustard, cold tortillas slathered in margarine, halved canned pears with a dollop of mayo in the cavity, a slice of sandwich bread at every meal. To this day, my ultimate depression supper is boxed mac n cheese, eaten straight from the saucepan with a serving spoon.
For my father’s generation, despair at San Jose’s transformation is all about strip malls erasing lush orchards. For mine, it’s about beloved family-owned strip mall businesses being erased by pointless Chipotles.
2:00 p.m. – My friend Amy and I return to Alum Rock to attend an open house on my childhood avenue. The 3 bedroom 1 bath house clocks in at 1,087 square feet, roughly half the size of tennis court, or the dimensions of the typical residential intersection. The realtor, a Latino man about 15 years our senior, intercepts us at the door with a basket of disposable shoe covers. If you wouldn’t mind, he greets us, these floors are newly refinished. It’s real wood too: just like the original floors when the home was built in the early 1950s. We accept his offerings, slipping the elastic-rimmed booties over our sneakers before meandering through the dwelling.
So, he continues, how close are you to being able to make an offer?
I’d say we’re a few months out, Amy improvises, flashing me a faux-adoring look. I wonder what the realtor is thinking as he sizes us up. Are we monogamous life partners? Funky platonic friends who share finances? Sisters with different Dads? Amy, who is married in real life, sports a simple silver band. My own hand is bare as a newborn’s.
And what’s the price range you’re looking at?
Between 6 and 8, she says coolly, and I realize she’s implying we’re wealthier than we’d ever be if truly partnered.
I see, the realtor responds. Well, this house is priced at $750,000, but it’s bound to go for between 8 and 9. Like Amy, he is speaking in hundreds of thousands. And what would you say your number one criteria would be in house hunting?
LOCATION, Amy emphasizes.
And where do you live now?
We live in an apartment near the Rose Garden, I respond, referencing my own overpriced hovel. I leave out that, despite the affluent neighborhood, I have recently uncovered a cockroach problem. My carpet is stained like a crime scene. In fact, the property is literally a crime scene. A few years before I moved in, 2 drug-related murders occurred in my apartment complex some scant months apart. This is not to say that the building is dingy by any stretch. In the years since I’ve lived there, the landlords have flipped many units, replacing the soiled wall-to-wall carpets with laminate.
Wow, says the realtor, now that’s a nice area! And are you familiar with THIS neighborhood? I sense skepticism in the realtor’s voice, and I imagine it stems from our optics. Amy, with her blond hair and slight southern accent, wears loose yellow linen slacks. Her earrings dangle geometric eyeballs. I wear baby bangs and a threadbare ringer tee.
Actually, I respond, I grew up on this street, on the other side of Lucian Avenue, right near McKee.
So you know then that the main thing to recommend it is the price point, he ventures, chuckling. As the shock registers on my face, he covers up. Oh, I was born and raised in this neighborhood too. About a mile away on Golf Drive. It doesn’t escape my notice that Golf Drive residents attend Piedmont Hills High School whereas Ridge Vista Avenue residents go to James Lick. James Lick High School has a GreatSchools Rating of 5, whereas Piedmont Hills has a GreatSchools Rating of 10, the highest possible score.
At James Lick, 76% of students graduate within 4 years, and 37% of graduates are considered college ready.
At Piedmont Hills, 95% of students graduate within 4 years, and 61% of graduates are considered college ready.
I wish I had told him I was from Vermont and went to boarding school, says Amy as we slip into the tool shed in the side yard. In real life she’s from Arkansas and rural Mississippi.
My dad had a shed kind of like this, I tell her, only ours was rusty aluminum. I used to make out with girls and smoke weed in it.