Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Empty Lot Wish List

It’s been brought to my attention that I could have been a little more sensitive in my posting about the vacant lot on 14th Street and what might go there. The poster is right, of course. No one who lives, as I do, in an apartment with safety bars over the windows has a right to be snarky about someone else’s neighborhood.

And the thing is, I didn’t mean to be. I’m really enjoying my exploring Oakland project. I think I did get a little freaked out after a couple of days walking around Lowell Playground watching too many drive-by transactions. But that was a short-lived slump. I’m back on the horse, enjoying and appreciating the many good things West Oakland has to offer.

And no, I don’t really wish a big-box store on the place. Here are a few better ideas. They aren’t any better thought out than my Target idea—just better generally.

  1. Affordable housing. (Note to developers: "From the low 500's!" is not affordable.)
  2. Community garden.
  3. Library--this is an enormous lot. It would be like having a Powells Books where the merchandise is free.
  4. Farmer’s market.
  5. Zoo west.
  6. Another park designed by the same people who designed Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
  7. Mother of all swimming pools.
  8. Minigolf. Or bowling. You can’t do either within the city of Oakland right now.
  9. Farmer Joe’s—with this much room, parking wars and shopping-cart collisions should be a thing of the past.
  10. 100,000 square-foot Fenton’s. Oakland may not exactly be crying out for this much ice cream—but the world is.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Germany 2011

It was announced today that the next Women’s World Cup soccer tournament will be in Germany, in 2011. It surprises me a little that FIFA would give the German team the home-field advantage—they’ve won two World Cups in a row and don’t seem to need any favors right now. But it will be great to have the tournament in yet another country with a strong women’s soccer program.

So far that’s been the case with all five previous tournaments, held in China, Norway, and the United States. (Some countries hosted more than once.) Germany also has an excellent men’s team—they’re number five in the world right now. Germany is just an all-around soccer powerhouse and I’m sure the stands will be full.

I’m not sure if I’ll be in them, too, but I’m hoping.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

One More West Oakland Photo

Here’s another interesting thing I found in the same neighborhood. It’s a memorial to the people (62 in all) who died in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It’s on the Mandela Parkway, which, as I understand it, takes the place of an elevated freeway that once existed here but collapsed that day.

Amazingly, that earthquake really did only last 15 seconds, as the wall behind the statue says.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Where’s the Coffee and Bacon Factory?

Right across the street from the cereal factory is another mysterious building. It was mostly demolished, and covered in graffiti. Still visible were a lot of piping and some enormous metal tanks. My new neighborhood friend was able to clear up this mystery, as well. He says the building used to be a Carnation factory. That’s right; across the street from the cereal factory was where for many years Oakland’s milk came from.

The thing that surprised me the most about the site was the sheer size of the vacant lot left behind. Even in Oakland, a vacant lot covering more than a square block is an unusual sight. I suppose it won’t remain vacant for long, though. I am curious to see what ends up being built there. Condos would be my guess, although you could probably put a Target or a Wal-Mart there. That might not be the worst thing in the world. Honestly, in that area, the only mom-and-pop operations are check-cashing places and the kind of liquor stores where they ask you if you’d like your booze “for here or to go?” If ever there were an urban neighborhood where you could put a big-box store without anyone losing a job, this would be it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sweet-Smelling Mystery Solved

I had never thought of West Oakland as a nice-smelling place until recently. My main experience with the neighborhood until now was driving past the sewage treatment plant next to highway 580 on my way home from San Francisco. You can imagine what that smells like.

In the past few weeks, though, I’ve been discovering some pockets of the neighborhood that smell great. There are a couple of bakeries near the Emeryville border that constantly smell like cake, greatly improving a blighted and even hostile part of town. (Somebody threw something at my car as I was driving home from my borderlands walk. I think it was just a crumpled-up drink cup, but still, it’s the least welcome I’ve felt yet.)

Around 14th Street and Market Street, the air also smells nice. It’s not quite as sweet as the cake neighborhood; it smells more like baking bread, and I’ve never known why.

A few weeks ago, when I stopped to take a picture of this building, a man struck up a conversation with me that cleared up a lot. He told me that this forbidding edifice is a breakfast cereal factory. They make supermarket-brand versions of several different kinds of cereals. I eat Albertson’s shredded wheat knock-off all the time. I really like it, and I’d probably eat it even if it came from Libya, but it’s nice to know I’m buying locally. And contributing to neighborhood improvement at the same time.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood

Lately I’ve been walking west Oakland, which is not a good neighborhood. It does have some nice houses, a few new condo developments, and a few prominent businesses, like Esther’s Orbit room and The Crucible metal workshop.

But much of it is bland at best, blighted at worst. In the northern area, near the Emeryville border, you see a lot of derelict men pushing shopping carts and drinking out of paper bags. Closer to the West Oakland BART station, you get strips of public housing, and run-down little houses with chain-link fences around their yards.

To summarize: It’s not a great place, and last week, I managed to make it worse.

I was walking around listening to music and wearing a t-shirt that in retrospect I wish I’d left in the drawer. I bought it at the Hooters restaurant in Hangzhou, China where Pipi and I went to watch a soccer game on TV. (Honest.) At the time it struck me as ironic and fun. It has Chinese characters on it, so it seemed like it had more cultural value than it really does.

So I was walking around West Oakland wearing this hip, edgy, ironic shirt that’s going to wow all my friends at the next party when I found myself walking past a school—a junior high school, I think. It was recess time, and several girls were sitting by the fence braiding each other’s hair. I could see that one of them had stopped braiding and was saying something excitedly to me. I took off my earphones and asked her to repeat it. “I like your shirt!” she beamed.

This was exactly what I had been afraid she’d said. I certainly hadn’t meant to bring the word of Hooters to the youth of our nation. That was dumb. From now on, it’s plain white Ts, women’s sports jerseys, or shirts I’ve gotten from charity events, I promise.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Monterey Photos

They’re up—you can click here to see photos of my whirlwind trip to Monterey.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mad Dash to Monterey

I just got back and am madly trying to finish the Monterey article. I took lots of photos, many of which were experimental, but some of which came out better than I expected. I’ll have them up as soon as I can. Probably not today, though!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Philippine Airlines also wants me to write an article about Monterey and Carmel Valley, so I’ll be making a lightning trip down there this week, probably tomorrow. I have been there before, but I want to refresh my memory and take some photos. Philippine Airlines is a rare magazine that will accept photos and writing from the same person. Most magazines don’t have an actual rule against this; they just don’t believe one person can do a good job with both at the same time. It is a little difficult to concentrate on two things, but I’m looking forward to the challenge--and also looking forward to trying out my new camera, a Canon 8MP that I got to replace the one that went for a swim in China.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Shanghai Now and Zen

Good news from Philippine Airlines: They want me to do a short article on Shanghai, to be published in the December issue of their in-flight magazine. I think it’s going to appear alongside an article on Beijing by my friend John. They want something on the transformation of Shanghai from its romantic 1930s incarnation to modern Shanghai 2.0. That evolution is one of the things I find fascinating about Shanghai, so this is right up my alley.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thanks, Readers!

I finally took the step of installing a counter on my blog. To my surprise, I’ve logged 508 visitors in the past month. That’s about 500 more visitors than I expected. Clearly my family can’t account for all of this. I don’t get that many junk postings, so I don’t think it’s spam crawlers, either. I don’t know who you all are, but thanks for stopping by!

Loyal readers will be relieved to know that as happy as I am with the total, it’s not nearly enough to start justifying advertising. So this content continues to come to you harassment-free.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Top-Five Worst Songs of the 1980s

True, by Spandau Ballet
Over-emoted, over-produced, and just plain overwrought, this slick piece of pop also features one of the yuckiest videos of the 1980s. I don’t know why over-gelled hair, a business suit, and lipstick look so good on Annie Lenox and so creepy on this band. They just do.

The Greatest Love of All, by Whitney Houston
Really? The greatest? How come it didn’t inspire a better song?

Endless Love, by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
My father used to call this “Mindless Love,” and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do), By Christopher Cross
Any song that romanticizes New York City in the 1980s is automatically suspect. Play this alongside literally any cut from Lou Reed’s “New York,” and it’s obvious that someone is not being emotionally honest.

Hello, by Lionel Richie
(It’s fair to conclude I’m not a Lionel Richie fan.) I think Split Enz said it best: “I don’t want to say I love you/That would give away too much.” (Message to My Girl.) All the above 80s ballads, but especially this last one, could have used a lesson in subtlety from our oddly-dressed down-under friends.

I mention this because I heard all of these songs (well, not the Spit Enz one) in Hangzhou. The Chinese definitely like their light, treacly vocal music, but there is no escaping it here. Light pop is not just for elevators anymore. It’s also in train stations, in taxicabs, in restaurants, and coming out of every car and shop window in the city. It would seem that on top of all its other claims to fame, Hangzhou is also the city where the 80s came to die.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Moller Mansion Mystery

From our 9th floor hotel window, Pipi and I could look right into the grounds of a building that our guidebook told us was called the Moller Mansion. It is not exactly a beautiful building, but it is impressive. (A lot of Shanghai architecture is like that.)

The book said the building had been constructed by a Swedish man in the colonial days, and that it had later been a communist youth league headquarters. After that, it became a hotel.

The book implied that it’s still a hotel, but if it is, it’s got the worst doormen in the world. I crossed the street to peek in the lobby one afternoon, and was chased away by a woman who kept repeating, “Closed, closed” in English. When I asked her in Mandarin what time I should come back, she ignored me with an intensity that only a Chinese security guard can muster.

The mansion’s web site says it’s accepting reservations for December. But it didn’t look like anyone was staying there during our time across the street. Almost all the lights were off at night, and I only rarely saw anyone on the grounds. It didn’t seem to be undergoing renovations, either. So the Moller Mansion’s purpose is a mystery for now.

One other mystery: Who does their landscaping? This monster topiary disturbs me a little bit.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Lost in Translation

Part of the reason the cab driver had such a hard time finding a large, neon-lit restaurant is that we couldn’t remember the Chinese name for the place.

“Hooters” doesn’t transliterate phonetically in any easy way to Mandarin, so marketers gave the place an entirely new name. Sidestepping double-entendre issues, they concentrated on the less troublesome kind of hooter. So in China, the restaurant is known as “The American Owl Restaurant.”

Friday, October 05, 2007

Putting My College Education to Good Use

Speaking a foreign language is difficult under the best of circumstances. I’d like to think it’s especially difficult in Chinese, a language where changing the inflection a tiny bit—raising your voice at the end of a sentence to indicate a question, for example?—can make a thought unintelligible. And speaking on the phone is harder still, because you don’t have body language or facial expressions to help you.

I say all this in an attempt to convey the level of motivation it took to track down the Hooters in Hangzhou.

During our time in Hangzhou, Pipi and really wanted to see a quarterfinal game being played in another city. In Shanghai, we’d seen a few televised games on ESPN in our hotel room. But our hotel in Hangzhou didn’t get ESPN. The television set had a poor picture anyway. We needed a sports bar.

Hangzhou is a city with an estimated expatriate population of about 6,000, but only 1,000 of those are from North America or Europe, which suggests that it’s not the best place to find a bar with burgers and big-screen TVs. We were going to have to do some sleuthing.

I first called the Shangri-La Hotel, the nicest joint in town. It had two things going for it: We’d been there, and had noticed that it definitely catered to Western travelers. More importantly, we realized it was also the place the U.S. soccer team was staying. (And I promise you, we only went there once to stalk them.)

But there was no luck there. Hard as it was to believe, they said they weren’t planning on showing the game in any public areas.

So Pipi hit the Internet, but had trouble finding listings for sports bars in Hangzhou. The only thing that kept coming up was a blurb for Hooters, which improbably has one of its three Chinese branches in Hangzhou.

I had never realized that Hooters thought of itself as a sports bar, having never been to one. (Pipi remembers that we once almost went to one in Memphis, because it was one of only two restaurants near our hotel, but oddly enough we ended up getting bad Chinese food instead.)

So I called the Hangzhou Hooters, and using the full extent of my three years of college Mandarin, was able to determine that they would, in fact, be showing the game. I got the address, too, and found it was well across town. I forgot to ask the cross street, though, which made the cab ride interesting.

The street that Hooters Hangzhou is located on is long, and the numbers seem to be particularly poorly marked. Our driver stopped once to ask another driver if he knew what block we were on, and twice pulled the taxi over, with the engine still running, and sprinted up and down the sidewalk looking for street numbers. Pipi asked me to remind her what that word was that the Shanghai doorman had used to describe us when we came home soaked from the Nigeria game. She thought this guy was pretty lihai, too.

Finally, we found it. It looked like I imagine an American Hooters looks, with pool tables, several bars, and lots of tacky signs on the wall. The waitresses looked surprisingly like I imagine American Hooters waitresses look like. Ours was named Kiki, which I know because she wrote it on a napkin for us. In my memory of it, she dotted the “i”s with a heart, but this can’t really be true. (I am sure, though that she did write, “thank you” on the bill accompanied by a smiley face inside a daisy.)

Hardly anyone was there, so we got a lot of attention from Kiki as well as the manager, who must not have drawn actual work duty that evening. I thought they might pull up chairs and eat with us until a gong sounded the signal that it was the time at Hooters when they dance. All the waitresses jumped up on one of the bars and began lip-synching to “YMCA,” complete with the ritual arm waving. It was weird. Not as weird as fish falling out of the sky, but almost as unexpected. Hangzhou had delivered us a surreal experience after all.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Everybody Gets a Job

We knew the boy was trouble the moment we entered the breakfast room. Our hotel had a breakfast buffet. The apparently teen-aged boy who worked there was either the son of the hotel owner, or at his first day of work ever. Maybe both.

He led us to our table and asked if we wanted coffee. I said I did, and Pipi said—in Chinese—that she didn’t. He looked at us blankly. Finally he poured me a cup—and then turned Pipi’s cup over to fill it. She repeated that she didn’t want any. Blank stare. Then he made a move to start pouring. Pipi turned her cup upside down. He froze, then walked away, shaking his head at those wacky Americans who can’t agree on anything.

During breakfast, I realized that the boy’s primary duty was not even seating people. It seemed to be to walk around with a tray of sterno containers for the buffet trays. His job description probably read: 1) Look pretty in uniform. 2) Try not to break anything.

Towards the end of breakfast, after passing through the room several times but not doing anything with the burners, he managed to drop the whole tray, spilling the gelatinous fuel all over the carpet. The boy disappeared immediately, leaving the woman he worked with to clean up the toxic mess. Just as she was finishing up, he reappeared with a new tray of sterno, which he promptly perched on the very edge of a table. This finally elicited a scolding from the woman, which he didn’t seem to notice.

The next day I went to breakfast myself—Pipi said the chicken feet, kimchee, and other unorthodox breakfast items make her loose her appetite.

As I was helping myself to the food—I love a buffet, no matter what’s served—a swathe of bunting that had been attached with Velcro to the front of the 20-foot long table suddenly detached itself and fell at my feet. I looked around for a possible cause and discovered our hapless boy standing a few feet to my right, with one end of the cloth in his hands and that same blank look on his face.

I shrugged, assuming that everyone would know it was the waiter’s fault, not mine. But just then, a little Australian boy, about four years old, shrieked, “Mum, the lady broke it!” (Mum looked pained, like she was hoping fervently I wasn’t an English-speaker. I don’t blame the kid, though; he probably thought he was going to take the blame.)

It reminded me of something that was sort of a mantra in my China backpacking days: Whenever we’d see four people on the scene of a one-man task, we’d say, “Well, I guess everyone gets a job.” It was never clear how the division of labor was worked out—who decided which one had to work and which ones got to sit around observing? But somehow every job site had its own arrangement, and 15 years later, even though I’m not sure full employment is a promise the Chinese government makes anymore, the Everyone Gets a Job policy still seems to be in practice at the Mason Hotel.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where in the World is the Cup?

Speaking of the next world cup, it’s not yet clear where that will be held. There are four countries in the running, and a vote will be held in November to determine which one gets the tournament. The candidates are Peru, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

Peru would be an interesting choice because its team did not even qualify for the 2007 tournament. Canada might also find itself in the troubling position of being a host country that doesn’t make it out of the first round. Germany almost has the opposite problem—its women’s team won in 2003 and 2007, and the men hosted the 2006 men’s world cup. Enough already!

I’m personally pulling for Australia, a country I’ve never visited but have wanted to go to since the first time I heard the song “Land Down Under.” Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Losing Hope, Gaining Perspective

You’re probably wondering what Pipi and I were doing in a place that we don’t seem to like very much. We asked ourselves the very same thing in Hangzhou, a city that thwarted our every attempt to find anything charming about it.

Hangzhou had one last disappointment in store for us. And no, I don't mean the hostile Buddha above. He doesn't mean it; he's just sporting a Sanskrit character that predates the Third Reich by centuries.

I'm talking about the United States’ defeat in the game they played there. It was an unpleasant match, played in stifling heat, with a hostile crowd that really had it in for the United States. The opponent was Brazil, and we got to know the Chinese word for that country, Ba-Shi, very well because the crowd chanted it non-stop. They cheered when Brazil got the ball, exploded when they scored, and roared with approval when the Brazilian players literally danced circles around the Americans with needlessly ostentatious and taunting footwork. I’m not sure where this antipathy comes from. My guess is that it stems from the 1999 World Cup, which came down to a final game between China and the United States. It was tied 0-0 through overtime, and was settled with a shoot-out, which the United States won by one shot. The goalie in that game was Brianna Scurry, the same goalie who played in this Brazil-U.S. game, and I think the Chinese fans were happy to see her shellacked.

So the game wasn’t that much fun to watch, but it did at least remind us of why we’d come to China in the first place, and to Hangzhou in particular. And we had a giddy moment at a lunch buffet at the fanciest hotel in town when former U.S. star Julie Foudy walked right past our table. (We were too shy to say anything, but we did revel in our proximity to soccer greatness.)

The next day we took the train back to Hangzhou, and things improved immediately. We both really like Shanghai, and instantly felt like we were on vacation again. The soccer became more interesting as well, with a dishy controversy erupting over comments made by the starting U.S. goalkeeper. Hope Solo, who had been the starter for about two years, was suddenly benched by the coach right before the Brazil game. When the U.S. lost that game, Hope responded with a juvenile tirade mocking the coach’s moves and implying that the keeper who did play is past her prime.

The team responded by basically saying they couldn’t be her friend anymore. She was banished from the team to the point where she not only wasn’t allowed to sit on the team bench for the next game, she apparently wasn’t allowed to eat with them or even go to the stadium to watch the match. I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to sign her yearbook, either. Newspaper reports said she still would probably fly home with the team but I don’t think she did and I actually would know because THEENTIRETEAMWASONMYFLIGHTHOME.

Sorry, being starstruck has made me lapse into capitals again. What I meant was, the entire U.S. women’s soccer team, except for Hope Solo, was on the same flight that Pipi and I took home.

After spotting players all over Eastern China, and the Shanghai airport, I finally decided to overcome my shyness. The team boarded before us and were scattered all over the coach cabin as Pipi and I got on the plane. When I found myself momentarily stalled in the aisle next to the row where Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly were sitting, I made my move. I leaned over and told them I’d really enjoyed watching them play. Abby Wambach thanked me very sincerely for coming all that way to watch. She also apologized for not bringing home the trophy, which kind of flustered me. I stammered that they’d done well, the line started moving again, and the awkward moment was over.

What I wish I had said of course, is that there was no need to apologize; that we were disappointed after the Brazil game, but that the consolation match against Norway was so good that it redeemed all the drama that came before. So Abby, if you’re reading this (it’s okay; we all Google ourselves sometimes), please don’t feel like the team’s performance was anything to be sorry about. We loved watching the matches and were honored to be in the team’s company flying home. And I’m sorry about talking in run-on capital letters when we met. It’s a problem I promise to work on before the next world cup.