Upon Hitting Age 36

Realizations upon hitting age 36:

  • Any email message which states “this is not spam” invariably is.
  • Most people will never realize that the same logic which states “Windows is the most popular operating system, therefore it’s the best” would also suggest that McDonald’s is the most fabulous restaurant in the world.
  • I will probably never do anything which will get me in the history books and I’m probably glad.
  • I will probably never have a live-in boyfriend and I’m definitely glad.
  • There are approximately five other people on the planet who share my fascination with old supermarkets and I’ve probably spoken with at least four of them already.
  • San Francisco will never again seem as exciting to me as it did in 1992 or even 1996.
  • Los Angeles is not really such a bad place.
  • Neither is Richmond, Virginia.
  • I still like Chicago and Detroit better.
  • There will always be yuppies, no matter what the currently fashionable term. They will always be annoying. And they will always be an easy target.
  • I will probably not wake up this morning to find a 21-inch monitor has mysteriously appeared on my doorstep and just as mysteriously has managed not to be stolen.
  • I do not get tired of The Simpsons no matter how many times I’ve seen each and every episode. And I’ve seen them all very many times.
  • I cannot say the same thing about “Third Rock from the Sun”.
  • I will always feel just a little insecure and just a tad melancholy right around my birthday.
  • Not to mention just a touch self-indulgent.

Birthday bash tonight at Tad’s Steaks on Powell Street. We get in the $8.59 steak line at 8PM.

Hamburger Square

The last seedy hotel in Hamburger Square closed this week.

Hamburger Square was the closest thing to a skid row that Greensboro, North Carolina ever had. It got its name from two cheap diners, Jim’s Lunch and the California Sandwich Shop, which faced off on opposite sides of Elm and McGee for decades. This was the part of town where the few local drifters and winos lived. Until I was about 25, it was the only place in Greensboro I’d ever been panhandled.

I was always sort of drawn to the area, even as a kid. I liked the buildings and the seediness and the newsstand (with adult bookstore in the back) where I bought comic books and my dad bought the Washington Post. I liked the scary-looking people on the sidewalks and the railroad tracks and the old A&P. We lived in the suburbs, but I always begged to come along for rides downtown. I always wanted to eat in one of those divey old diners too. I never got the chance. This may be a good thing.

My great grandfather (who died about 20 years before I was born) had operated one of the hotels in the 1930s. It was pretty much a brothel, as its residents were largely prostitutes. I imagine my rather austere great grandmother was not amused at the thought of living there, but that’s how things were back then

My mom lived there for a few years as a little girl too. She used to be just a little embarrassed by it, but I think it now gives her just a little pride. We managed to get inside once when I was about 16 (with permission) and I took some great pictures.

My great grandfather’s old hotel is now a restaurant. The other buildings in Hamburger Square are being renovated one by one as expensive apartments, retail spaces, and restaurants. In Greensboro, a city which has bulldozed a disturbing amount of its past, this is probably a good thing, if only because it saves some great buildings.

But I sure do miss what Hamburger Square used to be. And I still find myself looking for it in just about every city I visit.

Poor Athertonians

My heart really goes out to the poor bluebloods in Atherton whose garden parties have been disturbed by construction noise. It must be very distressing to them, and a real comfort to know that their economic clout can put and end to construction on weekends and holidays.

I understand their pain, because my neighborhood faces construction noise every day, and now we’re going to start hearing it every night too, since CalTrans has scheduled freeway retrofit work outside my window from 4-10 AT NIGHT for the next two months or so. I hate to think of the effect this will have on MY garden parties.

Of course, I didn’t pay five or ten million bucks for my house, so my predicament is naturally less important than the one faced by Atherton’s residents. My only consolation is that the yuppie idiots in the shoddily-constructed live/work loft across the street probably will hear (and feel) even more of the pile drivers than I will.

Speaking of idiots, check out David K’s intersting take on these idiots. Yes, I was quoted. Yes, I would have been amused even if I hadn’t been quoted. May be your only chance to read a Carl Jung citation on a smut site.

While you’re looking around, you might also check out this great page on the TenderNob, from a pretty darned good all-around site.

I’m now waiting for the UPS guy to show up. I hate UPS. As a company, they elevate incompetence and bad customer service to epic proportions. But that’s another rant…

San Francisco Sanity Breaks

Had dinner at a place called The Dead Fish in Crockett Friday night with Dan and Jamie. It was a good place, but not the dive that the name and building suggested. We were all suckered in. Thinking it had been there for ages, we asked the waitress when the place opened. “November 23,” she replied.

Oh well. They had great scallops anyway.

Afterwards we drove through downtown Crockett and Port Costa. Great un-yuppified river towns, both of them. Not a Starbuck’s nor a smoothie shop in sight. Only a half hour out of San Francisco and you can completely forget you’re in the Bay Area. Which is often a very good thing.

I have a few friends here who are proud to say they never leave San Francisco except maybe on vacation. I don’t understand. Getting out of the city occasionally is almost essential for maintaining sanity. And I say this as someone who doesn’t much care for the country.

I leave San Francisco at least once (and usually two or three times) every weekend, to enjoy things like pizza in Hayward, thrift store runs in Redwood City, bookstores in Santa Rosa, doughnuts in Union City, and the sheer magic of driving through just about any part of Oakland. Half the fun of living in the Bay Area is that there is so very much intersting stuff surrounding it.

A car helps, but it’s not essential. Take BART to Berkeley. Grab a CalTrain to Gilroy or a ferry to Vallejo. There’s a whole interesting world out there despite our snobbish dismissals of “the ‘burbs”. It might do many San Franciscans a world of good to realize this fact and experience the rest of the planet (or at least the rest of the Bay Area) once in a while.

Parking Crisis

Interesting feature in yesterday’s SF Weekly. Its suggestion, more or less, is that the best solution to San Francisco’s “parking crisis” is to do absolutely nothing about it.

I couldn’t agree more.

The last thing San Francisco needs is more parking. The very idea of making the city more comfortable for cars is ludicrous. San Francisco is an amazing, pedestrian-scaled place for one reason: the fact that it’s damned near impossible to drive or park in most of the city. This is what sets us apart from LA, Sacramento, or San Jose; San Francisco is a dense, urban area which more closely resemebles New York or Boston than other places in California.

And I say this as someone who lives in the city and owns a car. Early on, I realized that, in San Francisco, my car has two main purposes: to get me to the supermarket and to get me out of the city on a moment’s notice. I haven’t used it for commuting in years, and there are very few places I drive within the city anymore. Rather than bitching about the parking in, say, Chinatown or the Financial District, I make the bold step of NOT TRYING TO DRIVE THERE.

It’s amazing how simple this is. Strangely enough, most of the areas with the worst traffic problems also happen to be some of the best-served by transit.

Frankly, I think that anyone who voluntarily drives to a job in downtown San Francisco during rush hour is a flaming idiot who deserves whatever inconvenience he or she has to face in the process. And guess what? Building even more parking spaces (which will encourage even more cars) will make it even worse.

It’s amazing how quickly the “parking crisis” diappears when you finally realize that you can avoid it simply by, well, avoiding it…

Off to Fresno

Took a road trip this weekend and didn’t even take the camera. It was kind of nice for a change, although taking the camera wasn’t really an option anyway, since I haven’t gotten it fixed yet.

I just love Fresno, and I’ve yet to find anyone who really agrees with me on this one. It’s such a strange place, physically and psychologically.

I’ll restate the basics first: Fresno is (I believe) the largest American city not served by an Interstate or US highway. There are no VHF television stations there. Test marketing and surveys are often done here because Fresno is apparently one of the most typically American cities to be found.

Which is surprising to me, simply because I find Fresno so very odd. While progress has moved northward, the southern and middle sections of the city has remained virtually unchanged physically (although the demographics have changed considerably). Fresno is like a lab, possibly the best place around to study the history of urban development since the 1950s.

Downtown Fresno was deserted by traditional business decades ago, but Fulton Street bustles with local, largely Latino-owned shops and restaurants. Old department stores have been transformed into bazaars selling electronics and counterfeit Nikes. The former Safeway on Ventura Street looks exactly as it did in 1965 (avocado, orange, and purple interior intact), the only changes being a new sign out front and a large map of Mexico above the meat department.

Old shopping centers from the 1950s flank the wide boulevards, set at approximately one-mile intervals. These centers often house some of the same stores they did on opening day. The clientele has changed, but the stores opted to adapt rather than to flee.

The economic malaise which has gripped Fresno and much of the Central Valley over the past few decades has allowed much of the inner city to look just the way I remember cities looking when I was a kid. Malls and “big box” stores are not in evidence (although they do exist in the northern part of town). The Baskin-Robbins in the dying Manchester Center still has simulated wood paneling. There are still local supermarket chains and drug stores.

Sadly, I must admit, too many of the Denny’s have been converted into the terrifically annoying faux 1950s “Denny’s Diner” concept, which looks like some sort of “laverne and Shirley”-inspired nightmare. We are not amused.

Maybe it’s just comforting in a strange way. More tomorrow, including queer bars, strange radio stations, and the drive-in I finally managed to eat at over five trips and six years…

Historic (P)reservation

Historic preservation. Just what does it mean? To far too many “historic preservationists”, it means creating a Disneyland version of someone’s idea of what a given street (or city) looked like during one specific week in 1895, without any attention to the fact that a place changes over time, sometimes for the better.

Case in point: Old Salem in Winston Salem NC. This is essentially the remnants of an old Southern town dating from the 1700s. A fairly large city grew around it. Fortunately, a lot of the old village survived and was eventually made into a park. Problem is, new buildings had also been constructed over time. A few years back, there was a debate about one of these “new” buildings, a huge landmark house from the mid-1800s. It was determined that this very significant building was of the wrong vintage and had to be removed so as not to clash with all the tri-cornered hats. This is what I define as an absolute bastardization of “historic preservation”.

Ever seen pictures of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, before it was Disney-fied? When people were actually still using the buildings and it was still a living place? I think I liked it better before they made it cute.

The last few years of my grandmother’s life were made miserable by a “historic district commission” which told her what color she could paint her house, where air conditioners could be located, and more. In recent years, these “presevationists” have given her old middle class nighborhood an aesthetic makover and appearance it never had in the actual past. Too often, “preservation” essentially means “gentrification”.

But now, on to San Francisco, where the current controversy is over a 1960s-era sign at the former Doggie Diner on Sloat Boulevard. Think what you like about the property rights of the owner, etc. I’m not even getting into that here becuse I have mixed feelings myself. What bothers me is the tone of the debate over the sign. Over and over, people who should know better say this pop culture icon (featured in Zippy the Pinhead and elsewhere) is “not at all significant” and that recognizing it would “have trivialized the whole concept of declaring a landmark”.

Bullshit. A unique artifact like the Doggie Diner sign is at least as worthy of attention as one of thousands of look-alike Victorians in the Haight or the Western Addition. Why must historic preservation be limited to the long past and to grand “public” structures most people have never entered? Why are the commercial icons which shaped our daily lives (supermarkets, diners, giant advertising signs, etc.) not worth saving as well? Ultimately, these are the places people remember and discuss and miss.

Why would preserving the Doggie Diner (or the Camera Obscura, or the grand arched 1960s Safeway stores, or even Tad’s Steaks) be a “mockery”. Because they were commercial establishments? Because they were lowbrow popular places? Because they’re not “old enough”?

Or is it just because they’re not cute enough and don’t inspire memories of gas lit streets and hanson cabs? God knows, San Francisco has plenty of “cute”. Most “historic preservationists” seem not so much interested in history as they are obsessed with creating movie sets depicting some wet dream of a past which never really existed.

It’s the every day things which matter, not just the massive ones. It’s the unique things which people remember, and not just century-old ones. And it’s a fact that history, like it or not, did not end in 1895.

Related Note:

For good examples of groups which “get it” and realize that history didn’t end fifty years ago, visit:

Randomly Thursday

Tuesday’s urgent plea about ATM Deluxe produced not one, but two replies from Planet SOMA readers at Adobe. Oh, the power of the Internet. Now, if I could just develop a fan base among people who work at RAM factories…

I like Verdana today. Maybe you could tell by its proliferation on the front page. I think I’ll be changing all those “arial,helvetica,geneva” tags to “verdana, arial,geneva” soon. I also started liking today’s journal entry on the evils of historic preservation so much that I made it into its own page.

And now I have nothing much else to say. Actually, I have plenty to say. I’m just too damned tired to say any of it. Seems I’m tired a lot lately. Probably because I’m working a lot and (more recently) because I’m infatuated with the new computer. The complete lack of exercise might play a part as well.

Damn. There’s the garbage men. Back in a second.

OK. Trash dutifully discarded.

Strange. I’ve been living in the same apartment and sleeping in the same bedroom since 1992 and I just now noticed that my bedroom window is about an inch out of plumb from top to bottom. It’s not a problem (nor a big surprise given a wood frame building in earthquake country). It’s just odd that I never noticed before.

Twenty-two minutes ’til the Simpsons. I’m out of creative ideas. I’m tired. But I keep typing. Most likely, this is because I just hate it when the left column is significantly longer than the right one. I’m very anal about balance. My mom says it’s because she passed her Libra blood on to me. I don’t buy it, though.

Anyway, link du jour should fill out the page:


The Ghost Mall

In 1976, Carolina Circle Mall opened in the northeast corner of Greensboro, North Carolina. At over 750,000 square feet, it qualified as a regional mall, with three major anchors — Belk, Montgomery Ward, and Ivey’s (now Dillard’s) — as well as theaters and an ice skating rink. It was designed to create a real estate boom in the northeast corner of the city.

Twenty-three years later, Belk is gone. Dillard’s is gone. The theaters are closed. Montgomery Ward has the same lime green and burnt orange carpet it had in 1976, which seem to give it a remarkable staying power. Most stores are vacant; many of them were never occupied at any time in the past two decades. The county is seriously considering converting the mall into offices and a community college campus.

This is the definition of a ghost mall. Maybe this is why I’m so fascinated with ghost malls. I grew up going to Carolina Circle Mall pretty regularly. And during my early 20’s, I spent a year working in this mall.


Some would say Carolina Circle was doomed from the start. Its design was so outlandishly “70s modern” that the whole place looked out of date within two years of its construction. The neighborhood was not great and got worse over time; Greensboro’s wealth and population have always clustered to the west. On top of that, the site was plagued by an intense stench for its first few years due to a nearby waste treatment plant.

When I worked in the mall in 1985, rumors of its demise were already at hand. Over a third of the space was vacant even then and the remaining stores were vacating at an alarming pace. No one was updating; most chain stores were museum pieces already. The store I managed made its retreat shortly after I left in early 1986.


It was already very troubled. The few customers who braved the mall were redneck mall rats who came mainly to play pinball and buy drugs, and project kids who hung out by the skating rink. Unlike the malls of today which are designed to discourage teenagers, Carolina Circle was designed to attract them. Maybe this was one of the biggest mistakes its developers made.


A complete internal renovation late in the 1980s slowed the pace, and some chain stores actually came back…briefly. Ward’s attempted to mask their screaming orange exterior tiles, but didn’t bother to replace some of the original 1970s lime green shag carpet inside. In keeping with the fashion of the time, the interior of the mall was very blue, and (once again) looked rather dated only a year or two later.

After a few years, the renovated mall was even more like a ghost town than before. There was just no one there and no stores for them to go to. It was just plain creepy…

Chronology of Carolina Circle Mall:

Greensboro News & Record
Sunday, July 28, 1996

1958: Developer Joe Koury starts talking about building a shopping center in southwest Greensboro. He expands his plans several times during the 1960s but doesn’t start the project. While he waits, other developers make plans of their own.

1972: Alpert Investment Corp. of Atlanta proposes building a mall off U.S. 29 in northeast Greensboro. Then, in October, Koury’s Imperial Corp. breaks ground on Four Seasons Mall.

April 1974: Alpert breaks ground on the Carolina Circle Mall in the city’s northeastern outskirts. The owners figure the location will attract shoppers from Reidsville,Eden, Burlington and even southern Virginia. The site is difficult to reach by car, but Mayor Jim Melvin and other city leaders push successfully for public money for street improvements.

February 1975: Koury’s Four Seasons Mall opens off High Point Road. The two-level mall features about 95 stores and 900,000 square feet of retail space. It’s the city’s first enclosed mall.

February 5, 1976: Belk opens at Carolina Circle. It’s the mall’s first store.

June 1976: The mall’s ice skating ring opens.

July 30, 1976: The mall sponsors a gala ball benefiting the Carolina Theatre. More than 1,200 people dance to Glenn Miller and other Big Band music. There’s talk of making the ball an annual event.

Aug. 4, 1976: The mall holds its grand opening. Mall manager Ray Brantley says the special features like the ice rink will appeal to children much as Ronald McDonald and McDonald’s playgrounds help sell hamburgers. “The housewife spends most of the disposable income in the family,” he says. “And who controls the housewife? The kids. It’s true. We want this to be a pleasant place for kids to be.” Twenty-two stores opened, with another 50 to follow within a few months. Visitors also notice the smell of the city’s nearby sewage treatment plant. Equipment is later added to the plant to reduce the smell.

November 1976: Piccadilly’s cafeteria and the mall’s six-screen cinema open.

December 4, 1977: At 10:30 on a Sunday morning, three deer,apparently startled by cleaning equipment churning through the mall parking lot, panic and run through two plate glass windows. The deer then fall 18 feet to the mall floor, near the ice rink. One doe breaks its neck and dies. The other two are captured and released. Deer are a common site near the mall, which is still on the outskirts of town at this time.

August 1986: An Australian firm buys Carolina Circle through its U.S. subsidiary, Sunshine Properties Inc. of Dallas. The new owner promises to renovate the mall to keep up with Four Seasons. At the time, Carolina Circle’s vacancy rate is 10 percent, compared to 1 percent at Four Seasons. Shopper traffic is sagging.

April 9, 1987: Four Seasons opens its new third floor after 18 months of construction. That brings the mall’s repertoire to 200 stores.

June 1988: A $6 million renovation project is completed and Strouse Greenberg unveils the new Carolina Circle Mall.Changes include a new logo, brighter lighting, and a $250,000 custom-built carousel. The owners eliminate the mall’s most distinctive feature: the ice rink. Merchants and skaters are incensed. It was the only ice rink in Greensboro.

Jan. 15, 1991: Robbers shoot and wound a 54-year-old man while he walks out of the mall’s Montgomery Ward store with his two daughters. The incident fuels a perception that the mall is dangerous.

Sept. 11, 1992: Greensboro police open a satellite station at the mall. The city pays $1 a year for the space. City leaders say they hope the station will make shoppers feel more secure. Some Carolina Circle merchants complain that having a police station is a bad thing because it gives visitors the impression that the mall needs a police station.

Sept. 30, 1993: George D. Zamias Developer, buys the mall for $16 million in cash and agrees to take over the $21.17 million mortgage. Company president George D. Zamias promises to market the mall aggressively.

February 1994: The U.S. Postal Service signs a 10-year lease to put a mail facility in the first floor of the Carolina Circle Belk’s department store. Belk keeps the top floor open as a store.

July 1996: Some of the mall’s bread-and-butter stores -Camelot records and Waldenbooks, for instance – already are gone as Piccadilly Cafeteria says it will close its doors at the end of the month. A few days later Radio Shack says it, too, will move soon. Remaining merchants worry about how they’ll survive.


1998: Belk and Dillard’s finally close their stores, leaving Montgomery Ward as the sole anchor.

Fall 1999: Guilford County has tentative plans to purchase the mall and convert in to offices and a community college campus.

January 2002: Carolina Circle Mall is now pretty much completely deserted. All the retailers have moved out, and the plan is that the center will eventually be converted into a new sports and retailing facility. I have my doubts…


July 2003: There is a sports center, of sorts. Several parking lots are now tennis courts and soccer field. Many of the surrouding banks and other buildings have been converted to storefront churches. The mall building is in a rather sad state of decay.

July 2004: Carolina Circle Mall is to be demolished and replaced with an entirely new retail development anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Fall 2006: All traces of the mall, except for one or two outbuildings, are gone. A new Wal-Mart Supercenter occupies the space, and other stores are under construction.

My Old Store:

“Texas Jeans” was the name given to mall locations of the “Cheap Joe’s Jean and T-shirt Stores” chain. Malls preferred not have stores with “cheap” in their names at this time. I think there were a total of five Texas Jeans stores (Greensboro, High Point, Columbia SC, and two others) among the fifty or so Cheap Joe’s units. Cheap Joes was a fairly well-known NC chain, selling cheap “youth” clothing, knock-off T-shirts, and its own brand of jeans (Texas Jeans) modelled after Levi’s.

In 1986, the Texas Jeans stores were remodeled and rebranded as “The Exchange” to associate them with the “Surfers Exchange” surf and skate shops the chain had opened in Myrtle Beach and Charlotte.

The Carolina Circle branch was on the lower level next to Hardees and across from the food court and skating rink. The space had formerly been a resturant of some sort, and had a really large back room in what had apparently been the former restaurant’s kitchen. This extra space was used as storage for fixtures and other items for the whole chain.

I’m not sure when this branch opened. It was probably the early 1980s. It closed about 1987 or 1988. The whole company was gone by 1990. I was assistant manager here in 1985, and managed the store for several months in 1986 before moving to Myrtle Beach and then managing the Charlotte Surfer’s Exchange store from 1986 to 1989.

Photos are from 1985-1986:

080185 100185-06 100185-07
100185-08 100185-09 030186-1


Carolina Circle mall City: A tribute to the late mall.

East to West

Sunburned again. And it seemed so damned overcast when I started. I went on another one of those urban mega-hikes on Monday afternoon. This time, I accomplished something I’d never done before: I crossed the entire width of the city, from the bay to the ocean, on foot.

I didn’t really plan it this way. I just started walking. And I kept walking and walking. Past Union Square and the Civic Center and onward through the Western Addition projects. I crossed Divisadero, where the honey-baked ham store sits across the street from the Jewish mortuary. I wandered past the old Sears store at Geary and Masonic and into the Richmond District.

By the time I hit Green Apple Books at 6th and Clement, I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I hit the Pacific. And I didn’t. I finally came to rest atop a hill amidst the ruins of Adolph Sutro’s mansion overlooking the sea.

Then I got on a bus and came home. I’ve spent the rest of the evening recovering.

Why do I do this? Mainly, because I can. Having a walkable city is one of the biggest benefits associated with living in San Francisco, even for a diehard road tripper like myself. Long-distance walks allow you to see things you don’t notice from a car or a bus. Seemingly dull areas develop unexpected nuances and textures.

I recommend it, even though eight miles may be a bit much. Maybe it was jut frustration from not getting laid this weekend…