El Cerrito

El Cerrito…I just looked this up…means little hill, which proves absolutely nothing except that place names are instantly obsolete. No one there is thinking about hills, including me. I was thinking about what it is to be 73 and riding public transit to get to lunch. Is it worth it, of course…one consideration. And what sort of world does an old man experience? The more useful perspective is in my case absolutely existential. I might have missed all this, injured as I was early and near fatally. And here I am. What’s to complain? Or more exactly, what’s to fear?

The latter is more with me these days. My mobility is now so totally dependent on the functioning of one wheelchair, that this pervades my constant experience. So, okay, one moment I am bouncing down a familiar San Francisco hill, then descending toward the subway, then on it. And the next, I am off it, wandering in search of a chain restaurant called Macaroni. Which just happens to be closest to an old friend who is a physicist retired, a world expert in solar power, who I am today introducing to another friend, working in the solar industry. The latter needs a new job. Or his job needs a new company. Whatever, it’s lunch, the three of us, and I am on my way.

And what a way it is. Getting off of the Bay Area Rapid Transit train, I descend to the street, elevator doors opening on a sea of cars. El Cerrito Plaza station has abundant parking. As does the shopping center, the Plaza. What it doesn’t have is any clear, let alone welcoming, path for the non-driver to get from station to commerce. Everyone drives here, that is the foundational idea. And amazingly I have lived long enough to see this idea fade. Lots of people now, younger and younger professional people, for example, avoid cars. But there’s no avoiding car-based 1980’s urban design. I gingerly make my way through the parked cars, wary that one will back into me…and out the other side.

The other side of what? There are no clear sides to this plaza. There is no plaza, in fact. There is a string of retail shops in one direction, AT&T’s retail presence looking particularly bright, shiny and sinister. Then a sprawling supermarket, a vast and empty drugstore, the ever welcome Trader Joe’s, and then suburban things as we know them. I have the feeling that the tan brick box slightly downhill is the restaurant. There’s no sign welcoming anyone from the parking lot, let alone the BART station. Not that I need to be warmly coddled by Messrs. Macaroni, just an arrow with a name would do. Or maybe the word door. Anyway, there is nothing. So I tool down a hill, hang a right into San Pablo Ave., then hang another into the driveway with a large sign proclaiming, you guessed it, Macaroni.

Lunch is survivable. I have a salad. What I really have, of course, is the pleasant company of two very dedicated, principled and idealistic physicists. I love hearing what’s happening in what some in the press still refer to as alternative energy. Or wise people simply call energy. Of which, one of the two solar friends casually mentions, there is so much that the US of A could run the entire nation on the sunlight falling in a 10 mi.² patch of Nevada desert.

I mostly let them talk. Really, this is a time to listen. And learn. It is endlessly promising, not to mention fascinating, what creative human minds can do. One friend, for example, is fascinated with prospects for storing solar energy. There are many. Some harness the most advanced of the day’s battery technologies. Some go well beyond. And there is the possibility of moving this energy around so much more efficiently.

But behind it all is the sad story of human beings and their politics and their stupidity, both of which these guys have seen far too much of. I’m amazed that they, or anyone, have the fortitude to put up with all this. Mine is waning, I can see. Besides, I have a long trip home.

Which begins with a trip to CVS, devoid of people and blazing with fluorescence, over an empty retail acre or so. There are only a couple of people buying anything. One of the staff offers to help, and I gratefully accept. Be the old guy, I say. I get various cold remedies and hustle outside.

To Trader Joe’s, more or less next door. Same thing here. A staffer offers to help. And off we go, up one aisle and down the other. I am glad to be shopping for Jane. Some horrible virus has been on a search-and-destroy sortie down her throat, and she has sought both medication and nurture. I am bringing both.

Meaning that I wend my way through the parking lot, get back to the station and on a train. I’m glad to be on a train. When I get off I will be in a neighborhood. With only one small parking lot. Shops on the street. Houses on the hill. And me who grows old and shall wear his trousers rolled.

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