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Postcards From America

The Sheen of San Jose

by LINH DINH

As every story is a meandering road, each road is also a story, or, more accurately, an infinity of stories. An abandoned trail that leads from nowhere to nowhere, with no wayfarers, only a rare roadrunner, snake or javelina, would still be an endless source of human-interest tales, or, more likely, tails. Haven’t you heard of the ancient saying, “Even the fool is wise after the Interstate,” especially if he drives off its exits often? Though a stuttering man of few sentences, terrible eyesight and beer fizzled memory, I have managed to drag back a sackful of observations from my snooping around San Jose’s Story Road.

Each of my visit to San Jose is a kind of homecoming, for my father, brother and, uh, absolutely composed, considerate and non-screaming stepmother are still here, and have lived here for decades. Though I have no sentimental attachment to this place, I also don’t hate it. Personal crap can be tedious, and I’m not trying to bore you, only clarifying that I have my own rather lengthy Story Road in San Jose.

When I arrived in San Jose in 1978, it wasn’t yet the much-lauded Silicon Valley, but simply a dozing, loudly snoring place, with orange groves even, a kind of Gilroy but with the ten-story Hotel De Anza. I watched minor league baseball, inspected faux Egyptian artifacts. There were even less art and culture in San Jose back then, as if that’s possible. On television, a somber message, “The San Jose Art Museum. Ignore it and it will go away.” Down in Monterey, they claim John Steinbeck, and up in Oakland, there’s a huge upscale-dining complex named after Jack London, but San Jose has no native writers to mummify, trot out or turn into a piñata for tourists to whack at. That’s because no writer has ever lived in San Jose, and no notable artist either. (Yes, Mark Tansey spent some time here, but that’s about it, and that’s super lame for a major American city.) Now, I’m not saying that as soon as a bona fide wordsmith steps foot in San Jose, all the air will rush from his body, and all the blood too, but the Bay’s crotch has been creatively impotent.

By 2007, the computer industry has transformed San Jose into the wealthiest metropolis in the entire country, and with all this cash came a sheen of sophistication. Not only didn’t the San Jose Art Museum slink away, it now regularly features pretty hip shows, as with its current exhibits of Eric Fishl and contemporary Chinese photography. Downtown, the charmingly seedy dives have been replaced by bistros, gastro pubs and martini lounges, and in the beautifully designed and manicured Santana Row, sexy people come out to browse Guccis, Ferragamos and Teslas. Cushioned armchairs and couches are placed outside, under shady trees. Roses, tulips and daisies bloom. Here, even a toilet scrubber is decently attired, though there’s nothing you can do about the lowlife tourists who infiltrate to ogle and buy nothing, save perhaps a cup of joe from Peet’s. Draped in markdown merchandises from Ross, the “Dress for Less” store, they annoyingly blight this gorgeous tableaux. There ought to be a law, people, a dress code to shoo away these corny riffraff, though the snapshots they post on Flickr do provide free advertising. It’s not worth it.

Suddenly I remember that I was supposed to give you a quickie tour of Story Road, so let’s go there, right now, and begin with the charmingly named Chot Nho Café, which in Vietnamese means the “Suddenly Remember Café.” No city outside Vietnam has as many Vietnamese as San Jose, where they make up 10.4% of the population. Like the Indian-run convenience store, Vietnamese nail salons have become a national institution, familiar to Americans from Anchorage to Key West, but the Vietnamese nudie coffee houses are, so far, limited to California. A what coffee house? Well, let’s go in and find out.

It is just before noon, and the place is packed. Five nearly naked women, four Vietnamese and one white, are walking around serving hot and iced coffees, at $5 a glass, and free hot and iced tea, frequently refilled. Eighty five percent of the clientele are Vietnamese men, with most over 40-years-old, including a handful of white haired elders. At a central table, a Hispanic and a black guy are playing cards, and along one wall, there is a dozen video poker machines. What really overwhelm the senses are the loud hip hop and the 20 TV screens around the walls, showing sports nonstop, with one reserved for CNN. As if this isn’t enough, you can also order a plate of rice or noodles. So sit back and enjoy Premiere League and Seria A soccer, endless ESPN analysis of anything that was tossed, thrown or bounced last night, Anderson Cooper looking so earnest, Lil’ Wayne hollering, “I don’t use rubbers, and I don’t plan no kids, girl,” an iced coffee with way too much ice, and shadowy flesh fluttering by. Don’t stare too hard, now. Presently, one of the women is dancing on the brightly lit counter and flashing her touching assets. In the Silicon Valley, she’s showing off her silicone peaks.

With its emphasis on staring, and not touching, talking or any other kind of interaction, not even eye contact, and with its insane bombardment of the senses, what’s happening in this café is essentially an American phenomenon, in spite of its Vietnamese cosmetic touches. In a Saigon sex café or karaoke bar, a male client would talk, grope and sing along with his hostess, they would have to deal with each other as individuals, no matter how phony or bizarre their interactions, but here, this physical and psychic intercourse is relieved from both partners. Here, we dread the face to face contact, for the face, any face, is too intense for us. We flee each other’s faces by hiding our faces in FaceBook. Oh please, don’t make me look at your face again, for it is simply too sexy, beautiful, sad and grotesque, and please, don’t look at my eyes, nose, mouth and forehead with your mercy or judgment. Look at my photos, and I’ll look at yours, OK?

Across the street from Chot Nho Café are two spiffy shopping centers, Grand Century and Vietnam Town. They are owned by the same man, Tang Lap. Let’s quickly examine the ups and downs of this developer’s resume, for they reflect larger economic trends. Grand Century opened in 2001 and quickly became the center of Vietnamese commercial and social life in San Jose. Pumped by its success, Tang and other Vietnamese-American investors then bought a struggling mall, Vallco Fashion Park, for $80 million in 2005. Vallco only had a 24% occupancy rate, but Tang clearly thought he could revive it. He was wrong. The economic crash that began in late 2007 only made matters much worse. Original investors bailed out, others dove in, and by 2009, Tang and his crew were desperately trying to dump their disaster on any sucker. With no fools nearby, Tang was forced to cast his nest wide, and who did he snare but a food processing magnate in distant Ho Chi Minh City, one Tram Be. Be paid Tang $64 million cash. His nose still bleeding, Be can now boast to his boozing buddies that he owns an American shopping mall, one with Macy’s, Sears, JCPenney, a 16-screen AMC theater and a “glow in the dark” bowling alley. His mall has the “making of an international lifestyle center,” he can slur, quoting his own brochure, before he’s cut off by a wiseass, “Hey, Be, on my recent trip to San Jose, I stopped by your mall to admire it, but I saw almost no one in there. I thought I had walked in on a bomb drill or something, for all I could see was a few security guys. The food court was empty, the stores were empty, so what’s up with that, Be?”

Swallowing the recovery jive dished up daily by the US mainstream media, Be probably still thinks he will get the last laugh, for when the US economy is back on its feet again, his dismal mall will be filled with frolicking consumers shoving and stepping on each other to buy anything and everything. His merchants won’t be months-late on their rents, and the food court will be overflowing with jiggly folks washing down mounds of fried stuffs with rivers of fizzy corn syrup.

Tang knows better. Though he was lucky to salvage a hubcap or two from his Vallco wreck, he was still stuck with Vietnam Town, his most ambitious project ever. This huge mall of 185 units was supposed to be finished in 2007, yet stands mostly empty even now. The bank that funded it went bankrupt itself, and the new bank that took over the debt started to foreclose on Tang, which forced him to declare bankruptcy. Prospective merchants who had forked over huge deposits couldn’t cover their balances, for banks’ lending standards had stiffened, and housing prices had plummeted, making less available as collaterals. What a mess is right, though driving by on Story Road, you might think that’s all is well, that here is a salient example of the Vietnamese-American success story.

Vietnam Town is adjacent to Grand Century, so it was obviously conceived by Tang to be an extension of his older mall, but why would you want to concentrate so many Vietnamese businesses in one place? If you line up, say, five pho joints in a row, the competition among them will drive prices down, hurting their bottom lines, then knock out the weakest, but what’s terrible for business is often great for consumers. Cutthroat competition also forces innovations, and since we’re already in Vietnam Town, let’s step inside Pho 90 Degree to sample some unusual dishes such as oxtail pho, pho with Kobe beef or pho with smoked veal. Yum, yum, yum. I know that’s a lot of food, but don’t worry, it’s my treat.

On the back wall of Pho 90 Degree is a large mural of Florence, with its unmistakable Brunelleschi dome and Palazzo Vecchio. You might think that this is some leftover from a pizza joint, but no, it was commissioned by the current Vietnamese owner. Though this is as ridiculous as seeing a painted panorama of Hanoi in an Italian restaurant, none of the Vietnamese diners find it odd. Vietnamese have a penchant and high tolerance for the culturally incongruent. In most Vietnamese-American homes, you’ll find videos of a Vietnamese variety show called “Paris by Night,” which is usually filmed in Las Vegas. In a Hanoi home, I saw a large portrait of Napoleon on a horse, though the owner, a well-known journalist and poet, no less, cared nothing about the Corsican. Nguyen Huy Thiep has a fictional 19th century Frenchman observe that Vietnam has been raped by Chinese civilization, but it’s also true that it has been raped by several other civilizations as well, including French and American, and here I should clarify that one needs not invade or occupy a country to rape or impose one’s sweating and huffing heft on it. Forced to repeatedly absolve the foreign on a massive scale, Vietnamese have adapted by eagerly adopting the alien, if only very superficially. I mean, most, if not all, of these diners don’t know or care that this is Florence or even anywhere in Italy, and on a Paris by Night video, you might find Vietnamese dressed up as Mexicans and pretending to play mariachi.

Now we continue down Story Road, and it’s odd to be walking, I agree, for no one walks in San Jose except the homeless. We’ve seen a few homeless people already, panhandling on median strips near Grand Century, but now we come upon tents lurking in the woods around Coyote Creek. Driving by, you might fleetingly glimpse a tent or two, but you must get out of your car and risk walking into the bushes to realize how large this encampment is, how damning this evidence of our economic, political and social collapse. Entire families live here, many with children. Look at that crib lying in the shade. Intending to stay a while, if not permanently, people have erected barriers and fences for privacy and protect their few belongings. They use ice chests to keep food cold, cook with propane stoves. Thanks to San Jose’s mild climate, no one risks freezing to death, but as in all tent cities, of which there are now hundreds, if not thousands, across this great, indispensible nation, sanitation is a huge problem. When not shooed away by a security guard, some of these homeless bathe at the fire hydrant at Story and Roberts, and the woods provide a breezy or sun-splashed bathroom. You can let everything hang out as you bequeath to this earth a portion of yourself, a kind of down payment towards death. If you decide not to go green, however, there are the nearby shopping malls. Sometimes these homeless even stray into Chot Nho Café to survey, if only too briefly, even more atavistic baring and bearings, before they’re finally booted out.

San Jose is tolerating the Story Road tent city, for now, but in March, its police tore down a more conspicuous encampment near the airport. It’s all about appearance, of course, for you can’t have out-of-town visitors see destitution or squalor as their first impression of San Jose. Before the last Super Bowl, New Orleans also cleared out a large homeless community living by its train and bus station. As a nation, we also have no plans to fix our economic problems, only cosmetic touches to disguise them, such as the fixed unemployment and inflation rates, and constant media assurance that the recovery is on course, or even accelerating. Meanwhile, costly wars continue, as well as job outsourcing, dressed up as “free trade” agreements.

Between the splendor of Santana Row and the wretchedness of these tent cities, there is the ordinary San Jose of tacky strip malls and mostly pleasant looking houses, and in these, life is still going on as usual, no? Look again. Take Jay, who lives in this 400K house with his wife, Tracy. Born in 1970 in New Hampshire, Jay earned an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon, then served nine years in the Navy, where he rose to become a commander of a nuclear submarine, based in Philadelphia. Discharged, Jay moved to San Jose in 2002, where he worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and, finally, AQT, from 2007 until now. (For reasons that will be obvious, I’ve disguised Jay’s current employer.) Though a small company, AQT was raking in the bucks, and up until four years ago, had 25 well-paid employees. Jay was making $120,000 a year. With revenues down, the firing started, however, and now AQT is reduced to five workers, with their salaries slashed. Jay is only making $60,000 a year, not much in expensive San Jose, with its $4 gas and sky-high real estate, yet his boss, whom Jay sneeringly calls Ho Chi Kevin, sees this as a huge favor, for Jay’s being paid for doing next to nothing. (Neither man is Vietnamese, by the way, but balding white guys, just in case you’re wondering about the Ho reference.) To keep Jay occupied, Ho Chi Kevin often sends him out on stupid errands, “The other day, he had me buy some apples for him, but when I brought them back, he said they weren’t the right kind of apples!” Looked at me bug-eyed, Jay shook his head several times, “So I said, ‘Well, what kind of fuckin’ apples do you want?!’ Actually, I didn’t say fuckin’, I just said, ‘Well, what kind of apples do you want then?!” And guess what, he couldn’t even tell me! He just sent me out to get a different kind of apples, and I had to try several times before I got it right. Did I get an engineering degree for this? I used to run a nuclear submarine! Do you need an engineering degree to buy freakin’ apples?!”

To be misused or unused has become our common lot. In nearly every field, corporate, military, civic, media, entertainment and academic, talent and integrity are wasted, if not punished, as ruthless crooks, groveling connivers and grinning morons rise to the top. Jay and I were sitting at an outdoors table outside AQT. It was working hours, but Jay was clearly not missed, for there was next to nothing for him to do inside. Hey, for 60 grand a year, most people wouldn’t mind running back and forth to the supermarket for Fuji, Cortland, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Blue Crappy, Pacific Rose, Gala, Ginger Rose, Monsanto Mutant or 666 Snake-Endorsed Special, whatever, boss, I’ll get it for you! The ax can slam on Jay’s neck at any moment, however, so he doesn’t know if today will be his last at AQT. For four years now, Jay’s been frantically trying to find another job, entry level, whatever, but nothing has come through. “So what’s plan B?” I asked.

“I don’t have a plan B, but plan C is to move to Taiwan to teach English.” Jay’s wife was born in Taipei. “I really don’t want to do that. I am an American. I want to live in my own country.”

Ho Chi Kevin is hanging onto his skeletal crew because he believes a recovery is just around the corner. Be, too, is waiting for a recovery, as are his tenants in their empty stores. In downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza, the homeless also wait, but for what, they’re not quite sure. Even as job applications are sent into the void, mortgage payments ignored, bankruptcies filed and tents spread in shadow or sun, San Jose still gleams from afar, or as you speed by in your car.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.