Don’t you love the Bay Area? It’s the greatest megalopolis on earth, featuring the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay and wooded hills surrounding blue water and boats and ominous Alcatraz and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge, and there are all the major league sports and concerts and countless museums and parks and universities and tech firms and creative energy that even from afar, a hundred miles southeast on I-5 in the hideous Central Valley, must have disoriented me as I glanced at the Highway 152 sign, gateway to my South Bay destination at Stanford University, and blithely ignored it, heading north about twenty miles before realizing – I missed the damn exit I’ve taken a hundred times. I confessed the error to my wife, a good-natured sort who didn’t upbraid me, and declared, “No way we’re heading back. Hand me that map…” Okay, we’ll just take 580 west toward San Francisco but stop well short of Oakland and go south on 680 and then west on 137 right over by old Moffett Field and our motel in Mountain View just a few miles from the farm of Leland Stanford.
My dreaminess had cost us a half hour and precluded unpacking but, thankfully, didn’t prompt me to forgo a quick layer of sunscreen, which would be more essential than I’d reckoned. If I’d had more foresight, I would’ve also taken tranquilizers. I was already a bit nervous and ambivalent. After decades of unabashed enthusiasm for the traditionally talented Trojans of USC, I had in recent years, as Stanford began to establish gridiron excellence under Jim Harbaugh and then became a perennial power guided by David Shaw, started liking the Cardinal almost as much as the men of Troy. And when an undermanned and unprepared USC team was disemboweled by top-ranked Alabama, fifty-two to seven, in the opener this season, I admitted that I might be changing allegiance. Christian McCaffrey, a short, fast, and elusive halfback is simply too exciting to root against. Not that I’m a frontrunner. I still resent the stout Thunder Chickens defense and quarterbacking prowess of Jim Plunkett and the late Don Bunce who guided the upstart Indians, as they were then called, to consecutive Rose Bowl wins in 1970 and 1971. The Trojans rebuilt – they almost always rapidly reloaded the talent chambers – and fielded some of the finest teams in college history under John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll, born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, who led USC the first decade this century.
That is history. This Saturday Stanford was ranked seventh, and their increasingly confident fans, and thousands of vehicles, packed hundreds of yards of informal dirt parking lots surrounded by bushy trees. As the cognoscenti dined and drank in their forest, I drove around and learned I had to be a VIP or season ticket holder to park here and there and elsewhere nearby, so kept heading north on El Camino Real and finally, far from Stanford Stadium, pulled into a dusty clearing where they had a single space left for the righteous price of forty bucks. I dared not complain about such a pittance in a community where buyers pay the median price of two and a half million dollars – fourteen hundred per square foot – for nondescript suburban homes.
“Okay,” I told my wife, “I’m writing this down: Palm and Arboretum, northeast corner. Without that information, we’ll never find the car. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said. She understands directions as well as I speak her native Tagalog.
We set off on a long and dusty trail, battered by sun less intense than in Bakersfield but still pretty damn hot, and in about ten minutes sweat oozed down my temples. Some of the discomfort must have resulted from inexperience: I hadn’t attended a game here since 1968, when scintillating (and still pure) O.J. Simpson carried the ball forty-seven times and USC edged Stanford which also thrilled as Jim Plunkett fired strikes to premier target Gene Washington, and I yearned to get back inside a stadium now modernized and reduced in size. We prayed our seats would be on the west side and relegate the sun to our backs. To find out, we’d have to wait. At the entrance, the ticket taker passed us on but a Praetorian Guard said to my wife, “Your purse is too big. Are you parked close?”
“We’re about a mile away,” I said.
“Okay,” he pointed, “you can go to the track stadium for bag check.”
“They’ve already scanned our tickets.”
“Here, I’ll un-scan them.”
I wondered if we’d miss the five-fifteen kickoff. Arriving at the track, we presented the offending purse, and its cache of fresh fruit, and a teenage attendant said, “Your notebook’s too big.”
“No way,” I countered, opening it. “This is just to take notes. Besides, it’s already been okayed at the gate.”
And back at the gate, I presented my ticket and walked in until the man said, “She needs a ticket, too.”
“Where is it?” I ask.
“In my purse at the track stadium,” she said.
“No problem.” I take three computer-printed sets of tickets to every major event, and still had two. We were in, and I told her, “No more football in person, only basketball.” The preceding December we’d seen the Cardinal host Texas and Sacramento State in Maples Pavilion, and there’d been no long marches or parched skin.
In our sheltered west-side seats, opposite fans staring into sun, we soon stood for kickoff, and with four-eighteen left in the first quarter Christian McCaffrey caught a pass moving toward the left sideline, turned on the genetic jets – his maternal grandfather won 1960 Olympic silver in the hundred, his father caught passes in the NFL – and sped to a fifty-six-yard touchdown. USC kicked a field goal later in the quarter to trail seven-three, but Stanford had established itself as the more physical team. The Trojans used to steamroll opponents with a bevy of future first round picks and other imminent pros but charismatic Pete Carroll is now in charge of the Seattle Seahawks, and his three “permanent” replacements – Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and, now, Clay Helton – have demonstrated neither the star power nor stability necessary to recruit as many blue chip recruits as elite opponents.
The Cardinal’s big offensive line continued to pound smaller Trojans up front, McCaffrey tunneling inside and darting outside, and late in the first half he broke through the line, high-stepped in open field, faked defenders, and charged thirty-three yards deep into USC territory. He then ran once, twice, and on the third attempt leaped toward the end zone but was hit in the air and stopped a foot short. Stanford, leading ten-three, decided to test itself, as well as the Trojan defense, and McCaffrey again leaped over the line, this time landing in the arms of a defender in the end zone. The second half had the same character as the first – McCaffrey eventually rushed thirty-one times for a hundred seventy-two yards – and Stanford won twenty-seven to ten, less impressive than Alabama’s punishment of USC but more encouraging, certainly, than the Crimson Tide’s surrender of forty-three points to Mississippi earlier this day. Be assured. Coach David Shaw and Christian McCaffrey and everyone else associated with Stanford football believe the team is a national title contender. That’s an astonishing goal for a school whose academic requirements annually force it to ignore many superb preps.
After letting the exiting hordes thin a little, we headed back to the track stadium to retrieve the purse and began a dark journey, aided by electric lights in the forest, toward my car. We walked and wondered where we were and continued walking until my wife began saying, “I think the car’s over there.”
I retrieved my note from that afternoon and said, “Look, Palm and Arboretum, northeast corner. First, we’ve got to reach Palm.”
As endless cars crawled out of the campus, we began to ask fans, “Can you tell me where Palm Street is?”
Most couldn’t. Two navigators pointed north and said, “That way.”
Okay, there’s Palm. Now where’s Arboretum? I began seeking people in uniforms. Fine, here’s the corner, and there’s the northeast quadrant. We started heading down dim, dusty roads. The lots were well enough lit we saw my car wasn’t in this one or that one or in any other lot we could find. Where’s my damn car? I worried someone had stolen it and feared we’d soon be in total darkness. Hailing a policeman, I asked, “You aren’t going to turn off the lights out here, are you?”
“Oh no,” he promised.
But what if they did turn off the lights?
“I know the car’s over there,” she said, pointing to the southwest quadrant.
“It can’t be.”
“Where is it then?”
I huffed and took her hand and pulled her across the busy street where the car couldn’t be, unless I don’t know north in a place close to north-south marker El Camino Real. “Sir, excuse me,” I said to a young student. “We can’t find our car.”
“There aren’t any lots over this way,” he said.
“I told you,” I said to my wife, and angrily turned to step on grass that wasn’t grass but vines that snared my foot and tackled me, my face landing several inches short of a concrete curb.
After thanking the heavens for not crushing my skull, I marched to the northeast corner of Palm and Arboretum and was heartened a few other people wandered around in search of their rides. Either by cool thinking or reflexive luck I walked past the last lit parking area I could locate, and found a place where the lights had gone out and through dimness saw my lonely car. In silence we rode back to the motel.
By Sunday morning feelings were soothed and a treadmill walk in the motel gym motivated me to fantasize about local housing and address the lady who oversaw the continental breakfast room, “Excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me how much a two bedroom apartment is around here?”
She doesn’t speak English. Está bien. My Spanish is pretty good, and I translated the question.
“I pay two thousand four hundred a month for two bedrooms,” she said.
“How many people live there?”
“Three. We work all month just to pay for the apartment.”
I tipped her three dollars and resolved to head over to Los Altos Hills. I used to date a nanny who lived in a maid’s quarters there. On the way I saw an open house in the poor folks area, the flatlands of Los Altos, and pulled over and my wife stepped to the for sale sign and retrieved a flyer from the plastic holder. But it wasn’t a flyer; it was a four-page glossy brochure with a dozen color photos and twenty bullets of features: four bedrooms, a guest cottage, tile flooring, hardwood flooring, a huge open kitchen, an oversized garage with storage room, about two thousand six hundred square feet on a large lot, and a bargain at a tad under three million. That’s about eleven hundred a square foot. Crunch the numbers on your residence to compare.
I drove up into the hills where big houses reign and remembered a turn-of-century conversation I had with the supervisor building a home for the nanny’s employers, who were renting an adjacent, four-bedroom teardown on top of a great hill.
“How many square feet are they going to have?”
“Seven thousand,” said the long-haired young man, who looked like a rock singer. “Not too little and not too big.”
“What’s the minimum in this neighborhood?”
“About five million.” (It’s a lot more now.)
“And what’s the maximum?”
“There is no maximum.”
Today, I didn’t need to verify prices. I enjoyed mansions to the west and expanses of trees rolling east down toward the bay. I’ll move into this haven when I have fifteen or twenty million in the bank.
* * *
The free Cantor Art Museum at Stanford offered a more attainable option. But to my chagrin, the museum had taken down, temporarily one is sure, some of its gems by Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, Diego Rivera, and others, but the Rodin sculptures still stood and, in a sense, pointed to an exhibition entitled Art of Water. After examining the paintings and photos, and an unrelated installation, I wrote: “From second-floor gallery hall at Stanford I walk outside to examine granite rocks piled in circle and security says can’t reenter until restack another place four feet away I refuse and dive from roof into soft blue butter on Sacramento River and hide underwater until resurfacing to jump in paper pool light dark blue and wonderfully depressive until guards pull me out and drop in fresh concrete water channeled through desert one side green other dry I dash into crops shouting I’m alive.”
The United States women’s gymnastics team, featuring quadruple gold medalist Simone Biles, wouldn’t start its exhibition at the SAP Arena until six p.m., and we drove south to the nearby San Jose Museum of Art and almost departed when the ticket seller said, “Some galleries are closed so I’ll give you a receipt for free entry next time you come.”
We’re here, I thought. Let’s see what they have. They won’t ever have to let me in free, for they offered a wonderful exhibition about political and environmental disaster called Indestructible Wonder, which prompted me to write:
palms and bend
into arches roped
to palms as yet
* * *
Gymnastics festivities would actually begin with a four-thirty p.m. discussion moderated by Nastia Liukin, the 2008 all-round champion. After cruising some streets bordered by immaculate Victorian homes near the arena, we parked and hiked around front and turned left to walk past a long line of some three thousand fans, eighty percent of them girls and young women. Merciful planners had placed the line to the east of the arena, sparing us the four o’clock sun. Inside, we were directed to a section that overflowed into two others, nearly filling them, and Liukin talked to four gymnastics, two each from the men’s and women’s teams. Gabby Douglas, insulted by heathens hiding on social media during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, prompted oohs and whistles for her stylish, well-coiffed appearance as she entered today. Despite winning the all-around gold in 2012, Douglas didn’t earn any individual medals in 2016 and was surpassed not only by supreme Simone Biles, winner of four gold medals, but Aly Weisman, Laura Hernandez, and Madison Kocian, dropping her in effect from best in the world to fifth best on the team. Liukin asked some canned questions and received others by Twitter from the audience. Someone wanted to know if Douglas, now age twenty, plans to compete in a third Olympic competition, in 2020. She noted that her hero, Dominique Dawes, competed in three Olympics, but Douglas declined to commit and said she’d later consider her opportunities. She likely understands she’s in elegant decline and her best options are promoting gymnastics and marketing products, endeavors which made Douglas wealthy after her victory in London.
Kellogg started selling cereal more than a century ago, began sponsoring auto racing in the 1990s, and in 2012 financed the first Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions. The kings of Corn Flakes made a shrewd investment confirmed in the concourse by enormous lines not in front of food vendors but before walls of souvenirs that include red, white and blue women’s gymnastics uniforms for seventy-five dollars, jackets emblazoned with the five Olympic rings for eighty-five bucks, green or blue sweats shirts for sixty-five, T-shirts for fifteen, notebooks for ten, and plenty more. The athletes and their choreographers are working hard. In two months, from September fifteenth to November thirteenth, they will perform thirty-eight shows in thirty-six cities. In the earlier discussion, a gymnast lamented the twelve-hour bus ride from Seattle, where they played Friday night, and the upcoming ten-hour haul that will take them from San Jose to Glendale, Arizona. Why would such penny-pinching exist in premium sports? Sure, truck the equipment, but fly the stars. This tour should attract about a half millions fans, at a hundred dollars or more per ticket, and therefore gross about fifty million dollars at the box office and almost as much from souvenir sales. Kellogg evidently wants to save money for the athletes as well as corporate directors, who, I wager, don’t ride buses from event to event.
My wife and I sat in the fifth row from the floor and, through unexplained near-darkness, squinted at the gymnastic apparatuses at our end: two high bars, rings, two parallel bars, men’s equipment, in other words. The only female fixtures were two balance beams. This show is propelled by the women’s gymnastics team, so I envied folks at the other end nearest the uneven bars and two balance beams. The mat for floor exercise, a Biles bonanza, lay in middle of the arena.
Everyone soon learned why Nastia Liukin had in the preview spoken about the secrecy of the show: the lights weren’t coming on, and gymnasts would be spotlighted as they simultaneously performed at both ends. As several score red-shirted junior athletes kneeled in honorary positions on the floor, we watched often-unnamed men and women whirl on the high bar and back flip on the balance beam. The Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team and the trampoline squad joined the show as loud psychedelic rap music videos bombarded everyone in semi-darkness amid crisscrossing spotlights, and eight men danced around two parallel bars, and two men sometimes used the parallel bars at once, and men stood on their hands in rings elevated to ostentatious and quite dangerous heights from which they chapped their inverted feet, and women worked the uneven bars and balance beams, all of this creating a chamber of disorientation. I’d expected a dignified exhibition of gymnastic greatness. In my notebook I wrote “gimmicky” and “a circus” and “more falls than usual…Darkness a factor.”
At last the iconic women’s gymnastics team was featured, not marching into the arena but being lowered by the five interwoven Olympic rings, from far too high, perhaps twenty feet, onto the center of the mat where four young ladies performed while Queen Biles stayed in her golden circle. Even Kellogg choreographers couldn’t continue this forever. Biles had to perform, and almost perfectly she spun and backflipped during a slightly-abbreviated balance beam routine that would’ve won the gold medal in Rio where she’d settled for a wobble-induced bronze.
Somewhere in this an intermission arrived so gymnasts could relax while fans scurried to buy more souvenirs. The respite helped me adjust to what I belatedly realized was a Broadway extravaganza. One couldn’t complain when glamorous blonde Nastia Liukin danced and performed toned-down gymnastic moves or, in her legendary floor exercise, Simone Biles soared into the heavenly Biles double backflip and half twist to land facing the opposite direction, and Aly Weisman and Laura Hernandez offered Olympian feats, and the ensemble flowed and flipped and twisted and shook and clapped and rocked and rolled, energizing the fans who, after the show, rushed into more long lines in front of souvenir walls.
* * *
In the morning we drove to Santa Cruz, a cool beach town I somehow had never adequately checked out despite having lived many years in Sacramento, less than three hours away. I resolved to learn fast and drove around and we then walked through a pleasant downtown featuring shops and galleries and places to snack or dine. Then, after asking for directions – I’m still a primitive who lacks GPS – cruised north of town in hilly suburbs leading to a redwood forest that hosts UC Santa Cruz. Amid this shady enclave, middle-aged parents were delivering freshman sons and daughters to their new academic citadel, which the folks likely viewed as safe and conducive to learning.
That night, as carefully planned – I always look for independent movie theaters – we would be watching a film at the Nickelodeon. Meanwhile, we dined in a Chinese restaurant not far from our motel near Highway 1, and talked to the lady from Indonesia who’s owned the place almost twenty years.
“How much are apartments in Santa Cruz?” I asked.
“It depends on the area,” she said, “about eighteen hundred to two thousand.”
“What about condos around a thousand square feet?”
“For an older one, about four hundred thousand, five hundred thousand for new.”
“How much per square foot for houses?”
“It also depends on the neighborhood, but I’d say around six hundred a square foot. It’s more expensive here than in the Central Valley. In two thousand six, my husband was working in Oakdale, between Modesto and Tracy, and we bought a house for four hundred thousand.”
“That’s when the market was at its peak. And this was a nice house. We sold it about three years ago and lost a hundred thousand. At least we kept our small home here and expanded it.”
After dinner we went to the shiny Nickelodeon, white and refurbished by its new owner, the Lankmark independent theater chain headquartered in the Bay Area. Like the Laemmle company in Southern California, Landmark is a treasure for those who in comfort want to enjoy thoughtful, character-driven films both foreign and domestic. Tonight we watched Rachel Weisz in Complete Unknown about a mysterious woman who often disappears and lies to explain complexities past and present. I recommend both Rachel and this flic.
Tuesday morning I arose early and energetically, put on my gym gear, and walked fast into the surrounding middle class neighborhood. The air was cool and fresh and a cloud cover hid the sun that even early can scorch palefaces in arid regions like Bakersfield, my home in the Central Valley. A few others were out for exercise. Two people escorted their dogs, each prompting me to cross the street. Most memorably, I saw a man dig both hands into a trash can, and after I circumnavigated a nearby park and returned, he was examining new cans and placing items in his full shopping cart. Further up the street, on the side opposite me, I heard the groans of a woman and turned to briefly watch as she writhed under newspapers and blankets on the sidewalk. I didn’t have any money in my gym shorts or would’ve helped a little.
Instead, I hustled back to the motel and got ready to drive down Highway 1 to Monterey where we didn’t dally, driving through downtown and straight to the 17 Mile Drive. At the entrance booth I paid ten dollars for all day, and we entered a world of extravagant beauty: cypress trees embracing the breeze, the Pacific caressing rocks and shore, lush golf courses manicured to perfection, and homes from an elegant dream. Wait. There’s one for sale. I stopped and backed up, pulling into the driveway. There was a gate. Should I ring? Frankly, I didn’t consider doing so since the for-sale sign said one needs an appointment to see this place. My wife hopped out and grabbed a two-sided color announcement on thick paper. This “Enchanting Pebble Beach English Manor…sculpted at the hands of 122 craftsmen over 2 ½ years” can be yours for fifteen-point-nine million. They might come down a hundred grand or two but don’t expect much of a discount. The manor, near scenic and once-racially-exclusive Cypress Point Club, offers more than ten thousand square feet, a theater, a wine cellar, a game room, and guest house on about two-point-seven acres.
Frankly, I’d rather live near Pebble Beach, still the scene of my most lavish vacation. As a kid just out of junior high in July 1966, my family stayed at the Del Monte Lodge and played Pebble Beach four times in five days, paying the quaint price of twenty bucks each for all-day access. My stepbrother and I logged thirty-six holes a day, usually shooting about a hundred twenty, and one day struggled through the even more difficult, and then quite new, Spyglass Hill, hacking golf balls into and out of the ice plant, sand dunes, and forests. Spyglass’s greens were so steep and slick I couldn’t prevent softly-touched downhill putts from rolling twenty feet past the holes. At least I had a lot of less-treacherous uphill comeback putts during my hundred-thirty-stroke rounds. The eight rounds at Pebble Beach, a half century later, still elicit emotional memories of nature coalescing with golf history. And that I say as one who’s infrequently golfed as an adult.
In the high-ceiling, glass-walled dining room overlooking the eighteenth hole, a long par five that doglegs left along the Pacific and forms golf’s most famous passage, I think not merely of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and all the other legends of golf, I recall Bing Crosby and Dean Martin and Clint Eastwood and a legion of stars who strode these links during the Crosby Pro-Am that has had another name since crooning Crosby died in 1977. I didn’t bemoan my finances this day since I had no desire to play. Now it costs five hundred bucks to tee it up at Pebble, and those who have the means seldom hesitate to pay for a transcendent experience.
While examining the lunch menus I whispered be careful to my wife. The entrees were almost as steep as the greens fees. We spent about fifty dollars, not including tip, on two salads, and after walking around downtown Carmel and visiting several exclusive, though a bit commercial, art galleries, and taking the 17 Mile Drive again, I was quite hungry and foolishly entered a movie theater in my weakened state. It’s mystifying that theaters never serve good food and remain committed to sugar, salt, and fat. Despite usually trying to maintain a low-fat diet, I ordered a cheese pizza, and commended myself for forgoing the pepperoni. That satiated me about five minutes until I ordered two two-scoop containers of ice cream and quickly downed mine and half my wife’s. Thankfully, Sully, a movie produced and directed by local citizen Clint Eastwood, was ready to begin. Before Tom Hanks could land his dying airliner on the Hudson River, I hustled to the counter and bought some peanut M&M’s, and returned to watch another example of why no one in film history has, as a star and director, produced as much great and good work as Eastwood, the fitness devotee who’s still shrewd and energetic at age eighty-six. He’s doubtless soothed by the natural wonders that surround him and that my wife and I enjoyed during our third cruise on the 17 Mile Drive and a walk on the Carmel beach during misty sundown.
Sources: At the Cantor Art Museum – Gregory Kondos, Sacramento River, David Hockney, Paper Pool, and Edward Burtynsky, Row-Irrigation, Imperial Valley from Art of Water exhibition, and Richard Long, Georgia Granite Circle, at the Cantor Art Museum.
At the San Jose Museum of Art – Chester Arnold, Entropic Landscape, Nathan Redwood, Fixed Palm, and Sandow Birk, Inferno from the Indestructible Wonder exhibition.