The landing

Last night Ryan and I walked to San Pedro Market, where we saw a live jazz band playing under the canopy of trees strung with little white lights. We wandered through the stalls selling baklava and pizza, juice, coffee and beer, walking between hipster couples with large earrings and young families pushing strollers and thirtysomething executives with Bluetooths. There was an ancient cactus towering overhead, its blossoms hanging over an old plaque that declared this the city’s first central plaza. This, I thought, must be San Jose. I live here now.

What does that mean, to live in San Jose? So far it means skirting St. James Park and biking down Fourth Street to San Jose State. It means biking the Guadalupe Parkway under the airplanes, circling the Shark Tank and eating jambalaya on the Fourth of July at the Poor House Bistro. It means coming home from class, taping our windows and doors, and painting our place our own colors. It means walking through Japantown searching for fireworks, stopping at Smile Market first because we like its name, second because the man behind the counter has the most brilliant silver hair, third because they sell packs of pens for one dollar each.

I don’t really know how to navigate this city yet, or where, exactly, to place myself in it. For three years this was the place I drove to on weekends, arrived late and tired so I could lay down on the couch with Ryan and shake my week out of me, weeks of writing and grading and stressing and family and running, forever running.

Now I can feel San Jose seeping into my bones. It’s an energy I can’t quite define. It isn’t the hipster irony of San Francisco, nor is it the down-to-earth quiet of Davis, the hot splendor of Málaga or that unreal magic of Southern California. It is a place of wrought iron, of clanging trains and tall, metallic buildings that catch the light just so, a place that speaks Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, English - and likely much more.

I still remember my first day in each new place: that foggiest of September days when my parents dropped me off at the Anacapa dorm along the Santa Barbara coastline, that bright cold morning I descended the bus in Granada, where a huddle of Spanish “mothers” waited, their hair in curlers, the trees around the square barren and thin as toothpicks; that dazzling October day I drove up the steep hill in Bernal Heights that would be my home those three daydream years, when adulthood felt like a trick I was learning to stick, that first day back in my hometown, shuffling back into my parents’ kitchen, trying so hard not to feel 15 again. The common denominator is always the way these first days are framed, before the terrain is mine, before the topography real, before the smells familiar, before all my favorite spots surface -- this new place, or rather my place in it, is unclaimed. It is both terrifying and freeing - this knowledge that here is an identity I can walk into with open arms.

The difference this time is that I’m not alone. This time my favorite person is sitting in the room opposite, and he knows how to caulk baseboards and grill steak and he’s ready with a glass of juice when I’m low. This time I (we) are spending so much energy building this place from the ground up that by the time night falls there’s nothing appealing about going out, unless it is to Trader Joe’s for more carrots and apples, or to stroll the streets of Japantown looking for wizard houses. (I believe that all buildings with turrets house wizards.)

This time I want to stick the landing.

End of an Era: the Cardinal Lounge

The funny thing was that she'd never heard of catnip! How outrageous!

This is in honor of the Cardinal Coffee Shop & Lounge in San Jose, a 24-hour diner decorated in red vinyl that has been serving coffee, pancakes, shakes and bloody marys for many years. I went for the first time on Valentine's Day 2009, when my (now) boyfriend insisted that this family-friendly diner, all lit up in neon, was the single best place to be. He pointed out the bullet hole in one of the taller windows, a blemish in the otherwise well-groomed parlor. We later returned with friends on my birthday, and one of them explained that the secret to his academic success was their all-night coffee service.

At the entrance to the restaurant are the statues of two black leopards, their paws meeting mid-air. It oozes of Reagan-era cheese in a way that makes the watercolors of waitresses look historic. I stopped before a big painting today, one of a smiling waitress with a platter on one hand, her nametag reading "Lucy."

"I wonder who that is," I said.

"Oh, it's nobody," a waitress laughed. "Although they say she looks like the owner."

This story takes a sad turn, however: the Cardinal Lounge is closing this month. Ryan and I were on the road when a friend back home gave him the news, and I'll never forget his reaction. We might have been watching a World Cup game, or perhaps planning our next destination, when out of nowhere he lowered the cell phone from his ear and said slowly, "They're closing the Cardinal Lounge."

A seminal moment, I'm sure. Allegedly the owners are hosting an auction next week. I won't be around but I half expect a crowd of twentysomething skateboarders to show up and bid on all those vinyl barstools or the cardinal mugs. I didn't grow up with this place, and thus don't have quite as visceral a reaction, but we all have places that represent as much of ourselves and our adolescence that I understand as well as any. You can't help feeling that once the place is gone, so then is a part of you.