Dead Houses

Walking home from work, I take a different route down Emerson Street and pass a curious house with nonsense written on it. Wacky Californians, I think. Posting poetry on their houses.

'Box of Rain' and something of Wolves...sorry, that's a terrible photo. My phone sucks a little.

‘Box of Rain’ and something of Wolves…sorry, that’s a terrible photo. My phone sucks a little.

While I’m snapping a photo, a woman stops and smiles.

“Trying to find all the Dead Houses?”

“Sorry?” I look at the house. It doesn’t look deceased. A little love worn, maybe…

“They’re named after Grateful Dead albums,” she explains. “You know, ‘Box of Rain,’ ‘China Cat’…”

I nod slowly, but I don’t understand. I never took to the Grateful Dead.

“This guy bought up all these houses and fills them up with students and they split the costs. They’re like communal living houses. He thought it would be cool to give students a cheap place to live. And I guess he’s a big Grateful Dead fan.”

She points out a few more down the street. I thank her and snap more photos.

'Uncle John's Band' complete with an urban veg garden in the front yard.

‘Uncle John’s Band’ complete with an urban veg garden in the front yard.

According to a recent article in The Stanford Daily online,  there are nine of these Dead communes in Palo Alto and a few in San Francisco. The juxtaposition intrigues me. Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, down a stretch of street lined with millions and millions of dollars of real estate, a bunch of Stanford kids are growing organic tomatoes and sharing household chores. I wonder if, in the wee hours of the night, they strum a guitar and sing the Grateful Dead song for which their tiny paradise is named.

I reckon there’s still some of that hippy love left in Palo Alto. Some dude out there is keeping it real. That’s good to know.

'Touch of Grey'

‘Touch of Grey’



Self reflection

Yesterday I had one of those rare moments of self-awareness, when you can see yourself as others see you, and it makes you laugh. Or cry. Whatever.

A little backstory:

While we look for an affordable apartment in Silicon Valley, my husband and I are staying at my mother’s house in Palo Alto. Apartment searching has been tougher than I thought, but we are resilient and stubborn people.

One night, after a couple drinks at our favorite pub (the Rose and Crown), my husband pulls into the driveway and returns with a surprise – a kick scooter!

“I found it for 7 bucks at the thrift store!”

I laugh with delight and ride it around the quiet suburban street, at 10:00 at night. Despite the couple glasses of wine, I do a fair job of keeping it upright. It sits against the garage for several days, until I am running late for a writers’ meeting, and my husband has the car. I decide to give it a go.

It’s hard work, scooter-ing! It’s exercise, actually. Entering the Stanford Mall, I pass shoppers filtering in and out of restaurants, including a child and his father.

“Daddy, look at her! She’s riding a scooter!”

“Yes, son, it’s like yours.”

“But mine is cooler.”

“Ha ha, yes. Yours is cooler.”

I start to feel a bit self-conscious passing Neiman Marcus, when yet another child comments on the scooter. Instead of bringing it into the cafe, I prop the scooter discreetly against the door.

After the meeting, I am whizzing past Palo Alto High School and it hits me: this isn’t London, where you see trendy, green professionals zipping along the Thames path and popping out of the tubes on their scooters.

This is Palo Alto, California, and I’m wearing a backpack, riding a scooter back to my mother’s house.  In my thirties. What must these people think of me? Google professionals, no doubt, passing me by in their Prii and Teslas.

In the near-darkness, at 5’2″, I reckon I’m short enough to pass for a high schooler.

I take small comfort in this.

Don't listen to them, Rocinante. You are my noble steed. Together, we shall slay the windmills of preconceptions of appropriate adult commuting methods!

I call her Rocinante.



On how Silicon Valley can be intimidating to mere mortals

Several months into this West Coast adventure, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe Silicon Valleyites in their natural habitat. Through East Coast eyes they appear casual and openly friendly. Loose cotton clothes, jeans, sandals and flip flops. Chatty but not like, small talk chatty.

My first week in Palo Alto, I was in a thrift store and had a 20-minute life-affirming, deep conversation with a lady in her 70s. I felt we should have hugged or something at the end, but we didn’t. Sal and I had a 20-minute conversation with the owner of a framing company over how technology has ruined dinner party conversations. Afterwards I felt like we should meet up for coffee, but we didn’t. It just seems to be their way, to philosophize and move on.

It ain’t all laid-back intellectual banter, though. Humming just below the surface of Silicon Valley everyday life is a 2 million watt current of tekkie energy. It’s everywhere. It’s not uncommon to overhear conversations about developing apps or software start-up woes in the line at Trader Joe’s. iPads are so everywhere, I thought one came with a California drivers license. (They don’t, sadly.)

As a haunter of coffee shops, I observe the tekkies and wonder about them. Take this guy for instance: jeans ripped clear to the knee, cheeky Calvin and Hobbes knock off tee shirt. Wicked hair – long and curly on one the left side, cropped short on the right. He leans forward, keying in something incredible into his Macbook Air, then leans back and taps amazing things into his iPhone.

What strange digital thoughts buzz through this coffee shop, every second, every day? What wild technotronic dreams rise up from the coffee grounds? Knowing that the surfer-looking dude next to you on the couch could be, right this instant, inventing the new holograph phone, is straight up intimidating.

I have got to get an iPad, just to get some baseline respect.

It beckons.

It beckons.



Where the hackers roam

To wander the streets of Palo Alto is to walk in the footprints of techies of legend.  On our morning walk one day, we pass Steve Jobs’ house.  It’s a lovely home but so understated compared to the man’s legacy.  What did I expect?  I don’t know, a mansion, perhaps.  An altar of microchips in the shape of an apple in the front yard.

Along the main streets of downtown every other shop, it seems, is a start-up hovel.  I know this because of the ergonomic chairs and white boards.  I peer inside, wondering what magic is being conjured there, what wonders those white boards hold.

Dropping in Philz Coffee on Forest Avenue, I’ve never seen so many MacBooks outside an Apple store.  They’re like an invasive species.  Black screens blip with code.  The room is buzzing with strange conversations.  I’m sitting next to a couple of Stanford girls discussing some computing language in earnest.  I sip my “Ether” coffee (aptly named) and prop my netbook PC on my lap, a bit self-consciously.  Will they notice it’s already two years old?

I sign up for a writer’s group on, and slip into Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View for my first meeting.  There are at least three other meetups going on.  One sign reads “Android Developers Casual Meetup”.  There are about a dozen at the table, mixed in age, gender, race, etc.  There’s no use trying to pin the hacker down to a type of person.  They’re everywhere, could be anybody.

As the day slips into evening, I drop into The Rose and Crown for a pint.  British-style with an authentic pub vibe – I can tell this is going to be my favorite spot.  Down the bar from me is a man in his 50s or so, wild, wiry hair, nerdcore glasses.  Having a rousing debate with the bartender over engineering or code or something.  I look down at the menu.  Curry chips and veggie burger and shepherd’s pie.

I’m so confused.

California dreaming

For the moment, we’re living in Palo Alto, which is part of the San Francisco Bay Area and right in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Mornings are my favorite bit.  Fog sometimes blows in from the bay and settles in for spell.  The sun glows through, casting a patch of gold through the lavender tinted grey cloud.  Coffee and fog go together, like the click of laptop keys and wee hours of the morning.  When I’m ambitious enough to go outside with my coffee, the air feels like the  sea, and I feel like I’m in California.

California is growing on me, but not quickly.  It’s not the head-over-heels love of London, instant and scarring.  It’s a seeping in sort of thing, and I’m not entirely sure it will turn out to be love.  But to be fair, instead of embarking on an overseas adventure, I’m job searching and all that malarkey.  That’s not California’s fault.  Under other circumstances, we might feel very different about each other.

The Last 800 Miles

From Flagstaff, Arizona we make a slight detour north to see “the strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada.

strip1I hope this stuff looks less goofy all lit up at night.


I couldn't resist!

I couldn’t resist!


The journey from Vegas to Reno is…eerie.  We pass miles of land littered with U.S. Government restricted access signs in varying degrees of unfriendliness.  Just as the sun starts to set, a heavy, solemn cloud starts smothering the mountains, diffusing light in patches.


Sm_SAM_4055The ethereal show adds to the Mystery of Nevada.

It’s getting quite late, and we’re dog tired.  Looking for a hotel is hard work – we stop in a tiny town and all of the motels are booked.  There’s a big job or something nearby, and seasonal workers have swarmed in.

Then, suddenly, we’re in Death Valley!

I'll bet there are some great stories in that bar.

I’ll bet there are some great stories in that bar.

The next day, a freak snowstorm makes the passage to Reno precarious, but lovely.

8am, snow on the desert road to Reno...there's a haiku in there somewhere

8am, snow on the desert road to Reno…there’s a haiku in there somewhere

We drop in on my cousins in Reno, who kindly show us the big city lights. Just a few hours later the next day, we are pulling into Palo Alto, California – our destination.

Horatio sighs as Sal switches off the ignition.  It’s time for a rest, for all three of us road warriors.