Monday, April 28, 2008

A Paean to P.A.

Keith Raffel here.

Sunday morning, weather in the 70’s, sky cerulean, breeze whispering, #4 and I took a bike ride around my Palo Alto neighborhood.

Then Sunday afternoon I headed to the synagogue for our annual meeting. A wood and glass homage to the tents of the ancient Israelites, the sanctuary sits on a knoll in rolling hills. When I was a boy, it was in the boonies, completely isolated and one of the few Jewish institutions in the area. Now an interstate highway is nearby, high tech buildings crouch across the street. And Jewish life in Silicon Valley is flourishing with the establishment of a Jewish day school and high school, a new Jewish Community Center going up, and a Stanford Jewish studies department that’s one of the tops in the world. I don't want to give the impression that Palo Alto is turning into a ghetto (in the original meaning) though. In my neighborhood, first generation immigrants from China, France, India, and Israel are all buying houses and making Palo Alto one of the most ethnically diverse places around.

From the synagogue, I went to pick up my dad for a quick bite at Peninsula Creamery downtown. My parents picked up and moved here from Skokie, Illinois over fifty years ago. I wonder how different my life would be if they had not. I love living in my hometown, just eight houses away from my parents' place. #1 graduated from Palo Alto High, just as I did. She wanted to get out of here bad, just as I did, and is now attending college on the East Coast, just as I did. #2 is at Paly High now and, thanks to her, I have discovered I remember very little sophomore chemistry.

Then after dropping off Dad, I headed over to Stanford to listen to one of the giants of Hebrew literature, A.B. Yehoshua, being interviewed over at Stanford. I found a seat with some literary-minded friends and listened to her tease out insights camouflaged by the speaker’s heavy accent. Yehoshua answered the question of who the biggest intellectual influence on him was by naming David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Can you imagine anyone naming an American president as an intellectual inspiration? Yehoshua said that when B-G went to England he always stopped at Blackwell’s in Oxford (my favorite bookstore in the world). An intellectual in Yehoshua’s definition is not a professor who’s an expert in one subject. (That engendered some appreciative chuckles from the university audience.) It’s someone who transcends disciplines, who integrates thoughts across subject areas. Another insight of Yehoshua’s I appreciated: Jewish history over the past 2000 years has been primarily a story of crossing borders. Zionism, he said, is a big change in that it is about living within borders.

I so enjoy going to hear other authors speak. Stanford, Kepler’s, and M is for Mystery attract visiting writers like bears to honey. Despite what people say (see here for example), you can be a writer without living in Brooklyn. And the Bay Area has its share of authors including those of the crime fiction persuasion I bump into here and there like Cara Black, Cornelia Read, Lora Roberts, Mark Coggins, and so many more.

Downtown Palo Alto boasts the Stanford Theatre, probably the best repertory movie house in the country thanks to the generosity of David Packard. They recently finished three months of Hitchcock which included a double bill of Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief, possibly the best double feature of all time. They’re running a Bette Davis retrospective now. The siren’s song of the Stanford Theatre is so alluring that my Massachusetts friends Bill and Susan keep talking about getting a place to winter here.

What else about Palo Alto? Oh, yeah. It is the center of world technology, the capital of Silicon Valley. What movie-making is to Hollywood, entrepreneurship is to Palo Alto. A creature of my environment, even I, a history major, started a software company here and sold it. Google headquarters is three miles away from my house and Facebook’s is one. There’s enough greed, money, and ambition around here to provide background for a library of crime fiction and yet, for reasons I don’t fathom, that vein has scarcely been mined by crime writers. And when I get an entrepreneurial itch, there are plenty of kindred spirits who are willing to join in and start a company in the same way Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney found friends to help them put on a play in the barn.

I’m heading to the Giants game this evening with my friend since fourth grade Loren. He and I used to take the bus to Candlestick when we were in high school.

Cue up the Boss here singing My Hometown:
I'm thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around
This is your hometown.


Mark Combes said...

As a kid, I never lived in a town for more than three consecutive years. That gypsy life has taught me things - and not all good. I yearned for the stability of living in town all my life. Knowing everyone. Never being an outsider. But as the great New Zealand brothers sing, "You Take the Weather With You" so everywhere I go, I see my hometown. But from a slightly melancholy perspective.

G.M. Malliet said...

Great post, Keith.

I love Blackwell's. I miss Blackwell's! Their first-edition section is amazing. When I think of what I could have bought there years ago, like a first-edition Dickens, it seemed "too extravagant." Now with the dollar worth about 2 cents against the pound sterling, it's all even more out of reach.

Nina Wright said...

Three cheers for hometown memories!

Thanks, Keith, for reminding us that it's cool to be nostalgic and very cool to love the places that are part of us.


Keith Raffel said...

Yes, I feel lucky to live in my hometown. Someday I'll write about the downsides. People remember the stupid things you did when a teenager. Housing prices are up over 40x. BTW, listen to the YouTube clip. It's terrific.

Mark Combes said...

I have a real good friend that was born and raised in Jersey. He tells me that there were 100 bands like the E-Street band in New Jersey, but Springsteen's was the best. And I tell him, yeah, Springsteen's was the best....