Saturday, August 22, 2009

San José Palimpsest

Entry for 10 August 2009:

After the wedding, Diane’s sister Nancy hung around for a few days in Pleasanton before flying back to New Jersey. On Monday, Diane, her mom Gladys and sister Nancy, along with Kenneth and I, decided to check out San José, starting with Mission San José, which is a bit north, in Fremont.

The route between Lodi, the small San Joaquin Valley town I grew up in, and Santa Cruz, on the north side of the Monterey Bay, where I went to university, used to go through the little village of Mission San José, but I’d never been to the mission itself. In the early 18th century, Spanish missionaries, with the support of the military, set up a series of 21 missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco, each about a day’s journey (20 miles) apart. Like the monasteries and abbeys of Scotland and the rest of the UK, later political changes led to these structures being abandoned and falling into ruin, often cannibalized for later buildings in the area.

Over the years, I’ve been to various of the California Missions: Carmel, San Juan Batista, Dolores (San Francisco), Santa Cruz, San Miguel, but never San José, even though it’s only about 15 miles from Pleasanton. It was blazing hot, 95+ degrees, and the streets of the Mission San José district were largely empty. In addition to restoring the church, part of the hacienda that once contained living quarters of the mission has also been restored and turned into a museum, which was pleasantly cool as we entered.

The museum documents the mission’s history, going back to the Ohlone people who inhabited this part of California, and whose numbers have been drastically reduced by disease and deprivation. California’s image is that of a Place of the New, but like Scotland, it too is a palimpsest of peoples: Ohlone, Spanish/Mexican, American gold-rush prospectors/settlers, Chinese, and later waves of immigrants, including my great-grandparents (from Irish and German stocks respectively). These people’s names are written in the placenames: Ohlone College, Alisal (the native American village,“place of cottonwood trees”, that was latter renamed after General Pleasanton), San José (Saint Joseph), and so on.

The mission church has been lovingly restored in California Baroque style as it would have been around 1800, the rough adobe walls painted over and decorated in a tromp l’oeil of greek columns and coloured drapery. We studied the altar and two shrines along the sides; Glaldys, Diane’s mom, found them overly ornate, but I was comparing this to ornate baroque churches I’d seen in Slovakia, or even St. Andrews-in-the-Square in Glasgow, with its gilt cherubs floating on clouds on the ceiling. Compared to these, this church is pleasantly simple, even Spartan. I love these old California Mission churches, with their mixture of primitive and a bit of the garish, their thick walls keeping them cool in the summer heat. I find them unpretentious, sincere, quiet, peaceful.

Afterwards, we continued south, following the Sat-Nav to the heart of the oldest part of San José. We ate a snack at Peggy Sue's, a 1950’s diner-type restaurant, and began to wander, coming upon a series of markers of points of historical interest, memory markers pointing to the past events, such as the opening of the Electric Light Tower, built in 1881 to light up all of downtown San José. We passed the Catholic cathedral and the art museum, both closed because it was after 5pm on a Monday, and came to the city square, where families were playing in the fountain. I remembered previous visits to San José, on my way between Santa Cruz or Carmel Valley (where my grandparents lived) and Lodi, waiting around the old Greyhound Bus Station, which we spied a block or two over. More than once a drunk tried to detain me there, the naïve young psychology major with the look of someone who might just listen to the story of their life, their losses and scars.

And I remembered: The summer of 1971 that I spent living on 10th Street, a mile away from where we were now, while I did fieldwork at a local community mental health centre, my first taste of psychological practice on the front line, when I first experienced what I had set my sights on: the world of psychological helping. It was an intense experience, that summer between my junior and senior years at university, the same point that Kenneth is at this moment in his life, beginning to discover what the future would hold.

One day, toward the end of that summer, as I was walking to the bus stop, I had an experience that I made into a short poem:

Tenth Street, San Jose

I have wished to live for millions of years;

yet tonight the young woman

who smiled at me as I crossed the street

made me happy.

-August 1971

So a simple Monday Adventure to San José, modeled after our Saturday Adventures in Scotland, turned into a rich palimpsest of layered history and personal memory, revealing surprising levels of meaning underneath the surface of our daily lives.

No comments: