Saturday #10: Back To The Future

NOTE: I don’t normally blog about mundane Fridays but in this case the stark difference between what I saw on Friday and Saturday might justify a double entry. I hope you agree. And I hope you have a few minutes, too. It’s a long one.
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“Sorry, nothing left.”

“Nope, we’ve been fully booked for a month.”

“Sorry, the Burners just don’t want to leave. We’re full.”

Those were among the responses I got last Wednesday when I tried to book a hostel for this past Friday. Numerous on-line booking sites indicated “sold out” or “0 beds available” and after phoning a half dozen hostels from the payphone at the back of the Pinecrest Diner, I was running out of options. I decided to rent a car, get out of town for a night, and knock two more items off my bucket list.

So early Friday morning I picked up a mid-size rental that I had reserved from Enterprise. The car turned out to be a brand new 2015 Acura. And by “brand new” I mean 21 miles on the odometer.

After a pleasant 50-minute drive southbound on the 280 I came to the city of Cupertino. It wasn’t too hard to find 1 Infinite Loop, otherwise known as Apple HQ to you non-fanboys. Security around the campus was said to be very tight in advance of Tuesday’s iPhone 6 launch but I had no problem finding a space to park and was free to stroll the grounds for 30 minutes before I noticed the Company Store. It’s really just a very big Apple Store with an extra section devoted to Apple swag but since it’s the only thing open to the public, I just had to drop in.

I contemplated buying a plain black t-shirt with discreet 24pt. Helvetica lettering across the chest that said, “It’s our smallest and most lightweight t-shirt yet.” I watched one hipster dad stocking up on baby onesies emblazoned with the words, “User guide not included.” I think I showed great restraint in leaving an Apple store empty handed. There’s a first for everything, I guess.

After another 30-minute drive I came to the city of Fremont. I was hoping to find the Tesla factory but since I didn’t have the address in my phone and I no longer have cell service, I pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot and pulled up Google Maps using Ronnie’s free wi-fi.

According to Google, the Tesla factory was very close. I had to smile when I looked up from my phone to see this:

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It was a bit late to hit the Tesla store so I decided to check into a nearby Holiday Inn Express and take it easy for the night. As a grungy backpacker, I don’t get invited to many high-class joints, so a free drink and appetizers at the Manager’s Cocktail Reception sounded pretty good.

The check-in process was anything but smooth. They don’t get many customers who cannot provide a phone number and the front desk clerk couldn’t get a ‘override’ until her manager came back from a break. After I was checked in, Becky pointed to the door at the end of the lobby and said that I was welcome to join the Manager’s Cocktail Reception from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. Becky was the first person other than a drag queen that I recall pronouncing “cocktail” as if it was two words. I wondered if she was on to me.

I showered and shaved and made it down to the reception at 7:00 o’clock on the button. I was the only person there at 7:00 o’clock. Apparently these receptions are very exclusive affairs.

I checked the time on my phone at 8:00 and 8:15. I still had free reign on the box of California Chablis and a chafing dish piled high with cocktail wieners in BBQ sauce.

A member of the housekeeping staff popped her head in the door at 8:30 and asked if I had seen Maria-Estrella. I had not, I replied. She closed the door and left me alone with the wine and weenies.

Around 8:45 there was mild commotion in the hall and after a hushed debate as to whether this was indeed the reception, in walked Harry and Hilda Gervais.

Harry and Hilda had been driving from Garden Grove to Sacramento for the Sunday morning christening of their first Great Grandchild. Their trip was cut short when the rad on their 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais began to overheat. I remember seeing the car in the lot – not because it was in beautiful shape for a ‘91, which it was, but because it was hissing like a riled up Cobra.

“Bobby and Caroline don’t think Harry should be driving, you know,” said Hilda. Their grandson, Bobby Jr. would pick them up in the morning and they had arranged to have the car towed to a local garage.

“They don’t make ’em like they used to,” sighed Harry. I didn’t have the heart to say, “They don’t make ’em like they did in 1991 either.”

I wouldn’t say that Harry and Hilda were cheap, but they knew where to find dozens of 2-for-1 dinner specials, seniors golf days, and of course Manager’s Cocktail Receptions. And with the clock ticking toward the 9:00 p.m. cutoff, the Gervais switched into high gear. The last dried out weenie was scraped off the bottom of the BBQ-sauce encrusted pan around 9:15, just as Joan Tisdale joined our happy little group. Unfortunately Joan didn’t get to sample the weenies.

Joan was a LA-based accountant who was in town to perform a week-end inventory and audit at a local injection molding company that was being sold.

“It’s top secret. I can’t discuss it,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Damn,” I said to myself, I was so looking forward to a spending a Friday night discussing forensic audits of injection molding companies.

I was under the duvet by 10:00 and sound asleep before the ABC Joan Rivers Tribute hit the first commercial break. A week earlier I had been in a crowd of at least 10,000, dancing to house music while a dozen or more pyromaniacs shot 30’ flames directly over my head until the sun came up at 6:30 a.m. That’s admittedly a tough act to follow – and Fremont wasn’t up to the job.

The good part about being in bed at 10:00 was that I was up bright and early on Saturday morning. In the lobby I found a 6’ folding table laid out with a large urn of coffee, a nice selection hot and cold cereals (actually just Rice Krispies), four bananas, three muffins, teabags, and an empty chafing dish. I suspect I know what would have been in the chafing dish had Harry and I not attended the Friday night reception.

After breakfast I made my way over to the Tesla factory. I’ve been reading everything available about the electric car maker for a few years now and I have probably seen every video that has been shot within the factory. I think I know the place pretty well so I wasn’t totally heartbroken when I failed to wrangle a factory tour. Only buyers taking delivery of their new cars are allowed into the plant and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t talk one of the dozen or so buyers into signing me in as a guest.

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The ultra-modern factory was previously an old-style auto assembly plant until GM flamed out in the recession of 2008. GM badly needed cash and Tesla needed a factory. They struck a deal for $45 million. Tesla clearly got the 411-acre property and massive plant for pennies on the dollar.

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I’ve seen the ‘before and after’ photos. You could eat off the floors today but in the GM / NUMMI era this was dark, noisy, steamy warren of giant clanking machinery. It was about as depressing a work environment as you could imagine. Nowadays there are employees – hundreds of them – but most of the work is performed by thousands of robots. It’s said to be the most high-tech auto assembly plant in the world.

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While driving the brand new Acura back to San Francisco, I began to think about the pace of change the world is experiencing in general and in Silicon Valley in particular. Just think – Cisco, Oracle, Intel, Yahoo, Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Google and dozens of other familiar companies are located within this one little old valley. These weren’t names that many people would have known just 20 years ago and now tens of millions of people use their products and services every single day.

And if you believe Tesla’s CEO, the brilliant Elon Musk, his company will make an even bigger impact on the world in the coming decade. Musk often says that within 20 years he hopes “to make the internal combustion engine obsolete.”

Many call him an idealistic dreamer. Some call him a whack-job. Personally, I’m betting on rather than against a guy whose list of startups includes Blastar (code for a video game which he developed and sold for $500 at the age of 12), Zip2 (sold for $307 million), PayPal (sold to eBay for $1.5 billion), SpaceX (the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station), and Solar City (now America’s #1 residential solar installer).

You may have heard of Musk’s proposal for a $6 billion ‘Hyperloop’ that would whisk commuters between San Francisco and LA in around 30 minutes. Musk envisions passengers relaxing inside a train that would be sucked through a giant vacuum tube.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Hyperloop as I got on the 880 and headed north to San Francisco – in stop and go traffic. Will a solar powered Hyperloop someday relieve this congestion and the smog it produces? It does seem far-fetched, but then Musk often mentions that humankind evolved over millions of years but it was only in the last 100 years that we’ve taken to the air and 45 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.

Like I said, the pace of change is astounding and one gets the sense that much of that change is being driven from within a few miles of where I am writing today.

And today I am writing from the Green Tortoise Hostel in the North Beach area of San Francisco. “Change” is not a word you hear often around the Green Tortoise. As the name implies, everything moves pretty slowly at this funky old backpacker’s hostel. The place looks much like it did when it was opened as a hotel and ballroom shortly after the great earthquake of 1906. And while it may have changed a tiny bit between 1906 and 1974 when it was converted to a backpacker’s hostel, it’s hasn’t changed very much in the last 40 years.

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I checked into the GT on Saturday afternoon and soon met dorm-mates Tobias (Germany), Carlos (Venezuela) and Maurice (Austria). Within an hour a group was rounded up and we headed out for a few beers. We didn’t have to go far as The Naked Lunch was next door and The Saloon was right around the corner.

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I thought it was ironic that of the three guys seated at the bar – two Americans and myself – I was arguably the least Canadian.

The first to introduce himself was Jake, a 30-year-old who has lived in the Bay Area his entire life. He has played hockey since the age of four and still plays every Tuesday in a men’s rec league. He has been to all but three NHL arenas, five Frozen Four tournaments, two Winter Classics, the Vancouver Olympics, and the 2009 NHL Draft at the Bell Centre in Montreal. That’s pretty ‘Canuck’ if you ask me.

Mike sat at the bar to my left. He was in his mid 30s. As a student at Boston College about 15 years ago, he played with a number of guys who went on to the NHL. He still keeps in touch with them. He could name every team in the Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior League, and Ontario Hockey League and he rattled off the names of coaches and junior players as if they were brothers. There wasn’t an NHL’er that he couldn’t match with a team and position. Get him a Canadian passport, I thought.

Before we knew it the bartender was giving last call and the band was playing “I Left My Liver in San Francisco.” For some unexplained reason the bar had to close at midnight. I suspect it was a temporary condition placed on their liquor license. But it didn’t really matter – it was time to hit the sidewalk anyway. Well, not literally, but you know what I mean.

On the way back to the GT I noticed a sign for Sam’s Burgers. I instantly knew that it was my kind of place. I love diners and dives and Sam’s appeared to be a bit of each. And like the Green Tortoise, it was definitely stuck in a time warp.

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How could a restaurant have a sign that grungy and still be packed at midnight if it didn’t serve decent food? At least that’s what I asked myself as I joined the line. Like everyone else in line, I ordered a double cheeseburger, fries and a beer when Sam barked, “What for you?”

I have to admit that I’ve had bigger, thicker and more exotic burgers. You don’t get much more than the basics as Sam’s. There’s no truffle oil and no fried quail’s eggs at Sam’s. No bourbon-laced BBQ sauce or goat cheese, either. Surprisingly, you can add fresh avocado for $1.25. I couldn’t muster the courage to see what Sam would say if I ordered avocado so I did without.

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I was wiping the last of the mustard off my cheek when I noticed the t-shirt hanging on the wall over the cash register. No less a gourmand than Anthony Bourdain had dropped into Sam’s a while back and he pronounced Sam’s double burger with cheese to be “top three in the world.” Sam has been milking those five little words ever since.

Bourdain may or may not have been wearing beer goggles when he visited Sam’s. I certainly was. I’ll agree that Sam’s burger was pretty good but “top three in the world” is a bit of a stretch. I just wouldn’t tell Sam that.

But Harry Gervais? Now there’s a man who would appreciate the charm of an old school burger joint like Sam’s.

“We don’t do email,” he told me as he wrote his phone number on the back of a cocktail napkin at the Holiday Inn Express.

I’ll call him in the morning.
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