Alameda a nice step back in time

03/17/2013 12:00 AM

03/17/2013 8:59 PM

ALAMEDA – People migrate here the first Sunday of each month, tote bags and shopping carts in tow, reveling in a nostalgia for times they are too young to have experienced in the first place.

Ah, halcyon days: yours for a price; haggling encouraged.

A 1950s metal Standard Oil sign, blue and red and pockmarked with rust, sits in the cart of a 40-year-old man. The arm of a 1915 mahogany Victrola "talking machine" touches down on a peppy fox-trot record as a man in a "Vietnam Veteran" cap nods to the rhythm. A tattooed teen vamps in a midnight-blue Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat, then discards it in favor of a white-felt flapper cloche.

Alameda seems the perfect locale for dealing in antiquities – and not just because the decommissioned naval air station affords vast swaths of paved land on which thousands can forage at the monthly Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire.

No, this whole island, a short bridge or tunnel ride from the urban harshness of Oakland, is something of a throwback to earlier, simpler times. It's as if the place were preserved in amber and put on display, perhaps proof of William Faulkner's dicta that "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

You see it in the paper hats the short-order cooks wear at Ole's Waffle Shop, which features decor virtually unchanged since 1927. You see it in residential architecture lining the boulevards; in the pitch-dark-at-high-noon dive bars with names such as the Hobnob and Lost Weekend Lounge lining the shopping districts on Park and Webster streets; in the antiques and vintage clothing stores that dot the island.

And, yes, it lives on in the stark visage of the USS Hornet and other gray ladies anchored off the coast, reminders that the good ol' days were far from idyllic.

Island life certainly carries its charms, especially in a greater Bay Area milieu that favors the trendy over the traditional. Little wonder, then, why longtime residents never leave and weekend refugees indulge fantasies about escaping to this oasis.

"Alameda is a funny little town," said Diane Coler-Dark, a volunteer at the local history museum. "People really love it. I mean, really. When they have visiting relatives or friends, they have a certain pride in the town and bring them all over to show them the history. Most of the time, if you go to a suburb or even a bigger city, there's not much history. You feel it (in Alameda) just driving down the street."

True, most residential streets were not built with the automobile – at least, the modern, hulking SUV – in mind. Islanders abide, gladly pulling over to let one another pass safely, as they head to houses built with eccentric vertical angles.

Homes feel squeezed together in this finite community, but it connotes coziness more than claustrophobia. A Victorian rubs shingles with an Edwardian, which spoons with miniaturized cottages Coler-Dark calls "storybook" houses.

"It's almost like, if you knock on their doors, you expect Snow White to answer," she said.

It's no fantasyland, though, said Dennis Stone, whose family has run Stone's Cyclery since 1943. More people are flocking to Alameda and its infill housing projects, and on sunny afternoons day-trippers create the very gridlock they sought to escape.

And yet

"Even though we sometimes get cabin fever," Stone said, "I couldn't think of a better place to be."

Order up, Sweetie

Late morning, and showing no letup, Ole's Waffle Shop on Park Street teems with conversation and clinking cutlery. Bustling waitresses in frilly fringed black aprons stand with a hip thrust out, pen poised over pad, cooing, "What can I get you, Sweetie?"

Well, how about an experience of a true diner, straight out of Edward Hopper's imagination, save for the depressive undertones?

How about a side order of low-tech workmanship, as waitresses with name tags reading "Dolores" and "Maribel" tote up your bill from memory, only checking with a laminated tax sheet over the soda machine, right next to the row of customers' baby pictures? How about some endearing informality among customers who stop at each other's orange-vinyl booths or sidle up to the counter to do some chops-busting?

And how about hot, not haute, cuisine, the kind your grandmother said sticks to your ribs, the kind that conjures a time before saturated fat got a bad name?

Ole's, founded in 1927 by Swedish immigrant Ole Swanson to serve Alameda Naval Air Station servicemen, changed hands several times in the 1960s after Ole's death, but has been in the same family for nearly 50 years. And, by extension, the customer base has become an extended family.

When Oakland residents Scott and Koy Rodrigues brought their toddler daughter, Sarah, in for some (what else?) waffles one recent morning, a waitress greeted Scott by name and laid three laminated menus on the counter, where the Rodrigueses usually sit. Scott didn't have to order; they knew his "usual" is eggs, over easy, with ham.

"I've been coming here since I was a kid," said Rodrigues, who is in his 40s. "My grandma brought me here. It was one of the places we'd go to every weekend when my dad was off work and we'd take my grandma out. Other than the inside being remodeled at least once, everything's exactly the same."

There's a comfort in sameness and in, well, comfort food.

Ole's is the type of place where a simple request to pass the ketchup can lead to a neighborly chat. Native Alamedan Randall Richardson, 70, treats Ole's with the informality of his kitchen, drowning his cheese omelette in ketchup and adding a whipped ball of butter to his already-dripping hash browns.

"I've been coming here since 1963," he said. "The people are friendly. The waitresses are great. The food? I'm just gonna say "

And then he lifted his left open hand and gave the wavering back-and-forth gesture signifying "so-so."

"But I don't come here, always, for the food," he added.

Coney Island of the mind

Thermometer pushing 70, and with nary a breeze to ruffle one's shirt sleeves, it was a perfect afternoon to cut out of work early and head to the beach.

Yet the sandy shoreline of Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach was nearly deserted. Cyclists and runners traversed the paved bike path slightly inland, but ripples lapped against the shore all by their lonesome.

Up ahead, though, beyond the main entrance, two figures dug their toes in the sand, deep in conversation. Rusty Beres, a San Francisco resident, had brought his mom, Reagan, visiting from San Antonio, Texas, to the beach to just escape the madhouse of "the city."

"When I first moved out here, I lived in East Oakland, so this was the nicest escape you could get," Rusty Beres said. "It's not far from places, and you can totally forget you're in the city, forget all the sirens."

Beres is far from the first to discover the charms of Alameda's small shoreline. Once, it was called Neptune Beach, dubbed "Coney Island of the West." It featured an amusement park, bathhouses and bandstands, competitions such as greased-pole climbing, canoe tipping, beauty pageants and tug-o-war.

Johnny Weissmuller swam there; fighters Jack Johnson and Jim Corbett boxed there.

The place was all the rage in the 1920s. A combination of the Great Depression, construction of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the growing popularity of car travel sent Neptune Beach into bankruptcy by 1939.

But the beach itself still draws families from the East Bay and inland climes, not wanting to travel farther to Half Moon Bay or Pacifica for ocean beaches.

Deb Hill, a New Zealander in Berkeley for a conference, found a free afternoon, saw on a map that there was an island just beyond Oakland and made the trip.

"I actually had no idea what Alameda was, or what it was named," she said. "But it sounded better than Lake Merritt. And I get here and discover a very nice beach and a lot of history. It's lovely."

Chasing and bargains

Fog had lifted, and the San Francisco skyline loomed across the bay. To the right, massive cargo ships were docked at the port of Oakland. To the left, rows of empty naval hangars, some with smashed-in windows like missing teeth, looked bereft.

No one paid the scene much mind.

Thousands had come this Sunday to what is widely believed to be Northern California's largest flea market, the Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire.

Jayne Hammond and Mary Nahas, two women from inland Lafayette, like the town of Alameda well enough. It's cute and all that. But they came for the hypertrophic antique spectacle.

"The quality of the stuff here is just amazing," Hammond said. "I've been coming for I don't know how long, at least 10 years. I think every antiques dealer in the Bay Area is here, either buying or selling. We built a house in Tahoe and completely furnished it with items we got here, everything from the deer antlers to old-time furniture and decor. So much of the real shabby chic stuff that's really popular is gone by midmorning."

The ladies had yet to buy anything on this day. They still were getting their bearings amid the 800 vendors selling everything from furniture to artwork to clothing and household goods. Organizers insist, however, that all merchandise be at least 20 years old.

"The key is to wear something that's easily recognizable," said Nahas, doffing her bright-red baseball cap. "You can get lost from people you're with."

Others were well into dropping some heavy coin. Ken Wieda, from the inland East Bay enclave of Alamo, had already filled two grocery carts with items ranging from an old catcher's mitt to an electric guitar to a Telegraph Avenue street sign.

"I paid 15 bucks for the Telegraph sign," Wieda said. "I'll probably get $50 for it on eBay."

For some, antiquing is more than sport; it's a livelihood. A man named John, who declined to give his last name, said "between my unemployment (checks) and selling this stuff on eBay, I make more than I did in my biotech job."

Indeed, Orinda resident Chris Pritchard was giving daughter Lanie a lesson on capitalism. They were the ones with the old Standard Oil sign in their cart. They paid $300 for it, and Chris said "I think I can get $600 to $800 online."

Lanie seemed to have already caught on. At last month's faire, she bought a 1950s Harley Davidson sign for $25 and sold it for $250.

No, the past is never dead; it just gets resurrected on eBay.


Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 west to Interstate 880. Take exit 39B toward 23rd Avenue. Continue straight, merging onto Kennedy Street. Veer right at the fork and go over the Park Street Bridge. That leads to the Park Street shopping area on the east side of the island.

To the Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire: After crossing the Park Street Bridge, turn right on Lincoln and travel two miles until it ends at the formal Naval Air Station. Continue through the station, following signs to Alameda Point.

Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire: 2900 Navy Way, Alameda. www. First Sunday of each month. 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Cost: 6-7 a.m. $15; 7:30-9 a.m. $10; 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.,$5; 2-3 p.m., free. Children 15 and under free.

Ole's Waffle Shop: 507 Park St., Alameda. 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (open later on Friday and Saturday) (510) 522-8108.

Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach: Eighth Street and Otis Drive, Alameda.

Alameda Museum: 2324 Alameda Ave., Alameda. Hours: Wednesday-Friday: 1:30-4 p.m.; Saturday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun: 1:30-4 p.m.. Cost: Free.

Hangar One Vodka/ St. George Spirits Tours: 2601 Monarch St., Alameda. Tours: Wednesday-Saturday: Noon-7 p.m.; Sunday: noon- 5 p.m.

Wilmot's Books: 478 Central Ave., Alameda. Specializes in good-quality used books. Open daily. (510) 865-1443; Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


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