In which I purchase a true work of art.
My friend from South Africa
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been living in my current house for nearly thirty-four years, but it’s true. The anniversary will be November first. As I suspect is true of any home, it’s been a work in progress the whole time. Houses are just like that. A kitchen remodel, a fireplace rebuild, several outdoor and indoor coats of paint, two (or is it three?) water heater replacements, a re-roofing, all the usual stuff. And of course every house needs an unresolvable issue, in my case a corner of my front yard that called out for, well, I didn’t know what. A couple of years ago I finally got around to adding some new, drought resistant plants. Drought resistant, yes, but DROUGHT resistant, well, they’re marginal at best.
But man does not live by home remodeling alone. No, I’ve taken numerous ventures out of the house to see the wonders of northern California, one of which comes annually about a mile and a half from my unfinished residence. Yes, one Sunday every September a twenty-six block stretch of Solano Avenue, roughly half in Berkeley and half in Albany, is closed to traffic and the mega-block party known as the Solano Stroll takes place.
I remember my first Stroll was in 1982. It was more fun than I’d had in ages. I’d simply never seen anything like it. Booths run by all manner of folks, from social / political workers to food vendors to merchants selling artworks, to a wide variety of musicians, martial artists and other performers, all competing for the attention of we Strollers.
In those early days of the Stroll (it was first held in 1974) most of the stores were open, trying to make the best impression they could on locals and out-of-towners alike. In more recent years, many of the restaurants, retailers and other businesses have preferred to close that day, even those normally open on Sunday. They’ve found the crowds are often looking for restrooms more than merchandise! Still, the festive atmosphere is unmistakable.
At its peak, the Solano Stroll was reportedly drawing crowds in excess of a quarter million people. I saw that figure in the San Francisco Chronicle one year, I think in the late ‘80’s the day after I’d felt utterly immobilized trying to make the two-mile walk up and down the Avenue. As it turned out, that was to be the last year the Stroll would be advertised outside the immediate area. It had simply become too much of a good thing.
Through the years I found myself going or not going, depending on my mood and / or presence in the Bay Area. I find that if I go more than once every two or three years it becomes less “special.” Of course there was the year, I think it was 2009, when I was in a band that played the Stroll. I was disappointed that our leader didn’t seem to take it as seriously as he might have, not calling for any extra rehearsals or perhaps getting a better sound system.
Why disappointed? The event is great exposure. There was a local band that had been playing in obscurity for several years, The Back Pages. I’d heard them before and just loved them, but people just didn’t know about them. Then they played the Solano Stroll. Their next performance was SRO with people standing outside just to listen. They’ve been working steadily ever since.
I didn’t go to the Stroll last year. I think I was out of town, but this year I’d decided to attend. Although my current band, Void Where Prohibited, had applied to play there and had been turned down, our drummer, Peter Herbert, also plays in the Albany Big Band. A “Big Band” generally refers to a group with trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, trombones etc. in addition to drums, bass, piano and perhaps even a singer. Think Glenn Miller, Count Basie and the like.
I had played guitar that morning for my church, so I missed Peter’s first set, but would easily make the second. Through divine intervention (perhaps because I’d been to church?) I found a parking spot less than two blocks away and had an easy walk to Solano Avenue. Although earlier long-range forecasts had called for a chance of showers, non-threatening clouds were all that materialized that day. It was a bit humid, but overall it was a good day for the Stroll. Coming directly from church, I didn’t have a hat to cover my balding head, so the clouds were actually welcome.
When I got to Solano, I found the crowd was big enough to be a reminder of how popular the event is, but not so big as to be uncomfortable. I immediately saw a young woman in a booth singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” to a pre-recorded background. I always loved that song, and she was simply outstanding, but I felt that she should have dressed up for her performance. Then I realized that it wasn’t her booth at all. It was a karaoke booth and she was just a passer-by! The 2015 Stroll was off to a great start!
Walking eastward, I heard a familiar sound. Because the demand to play the Solano Stroll is so high, the organizers prefer not to have the same bands play too often, no matter how popular they may be. But after a three-year absence, there were The Back Pages, playing their ‘60’s, ‘70’s rock and roll as always, and, as always, drawing a large crowd. I stayed through the end of the set before moving on, knowing I’d be back for more. Solano Stroll performers are on for an hour, and then they’re off for an hour before returning.
I walked up the Avenue looking for Peter and the Albany Big Band, which, after a short delay, I found without too much difficulty. Their music was pretty much what I had anticipated, though with more vocals in the mix than I would have guessed from Peter’s description. Good fun! Peter didn’t have any solos, but he played well and supported an overall strong performance by the band.
Oh yes, the “short delay.” On the way from the Back Pages to the Albany Band, something caught my eye. It was a booth featuring artwork from South Africa. A quick glance at one of the pieces had me convinced that my quest on behalf of the corner of my yard was over. About three feet tall, it was a piece of granite carved by an artist from Zimbabwe (Zachariah Njobo) into a face and hand, titled “High Five.” It was to be an impulse purchase thirty-four years in the making. An artifact of one of my favorite Solano Strolls, High Five now stands it the once vacant corner of my front yard.
Perhaps the predicted El Niño will revive the surrounding plants. If not, I’ll perhaps replant with a drip system as was originally recommended. No, my house isn’t done yet, but at least one corner has a good start!