John Angell Grant’s serialized novel “Palo Alto Odyssey” is about the diverse and often complex lives of people living in present-day Palo Alto.
“Editor and Publisher” magazine wrote a piece this month about “Palo Alto Odyssey” here.
Seventy-two episodes of “Palo Alto Odyssey” ran daily for three months in the the Palo Alto Daily Post newspaper. Sign up here to read episodes as they are posted online.
The story focuses on Miranda Jones, a woman who grew up in Palo Alto, attending local public schools, and later Stanford as an undergraduate. After obtaining her law degree in New York, Miranda stayed in New York for a law career.
Now she is returning to Palo Alto, perhaps to retire there, perhaps sell her parents bungalow home in the Southgate part of town. She is not sure.
Miranda is surprised at the changes she finds in Palo Alto from her childhood. It is no longer the sleepy university town she grew up in. Millionaire 20-somethings inhabit the cafes, creating new startups, as other wannabe entrepreneurs watch with envy. Housing prices have skyrocketed. New residents in the town, with more money, push out the earlier population. Families struggle. Miranda’s old friend from high school is now a schizophrenic panhandler on University Avenue. Parents and teachers worry about the pressure on children, and Palo Alto’s teen suicide epidemic. Women and men, both, struggle with conflicts between career and marriage.
Episodes began appearing daily in the Palo Alto Daily Post, starting on September 8, 2015.
Sign up here to read episodes as they are posted online.
“Sometimes mom and dad would stand in the front yard of our Southgate house and yell at each other about who was drunker,” said Miranda. “’You’re drunker than I am!’ she would shout. ‘No, you’re drunker than I am,’ he would shout back.”
Miranda remembered Whiskey Gulch well—the seedy Tenderloin strip just across the East Palo Alto border, where her father got drunk many times. Even in those days Whiskey Gulch was the relic of an older time, when Stanford enforced rigorous blue lawS, and very little alcohol was served in Palo Alto proper.
Jeremy drove onto the highway. With his feet off the pedals, the car sped up or slowed down on its own, depending on how close the vehicle in front was; and what he had set his speed limit for.
“Take your hands off the wheel,” said Christi. Jeremy took his hands off the wheel. As the highway curved to the left, the car curved to the left. As the highway curved to the right, the car curved to the right.
But the most eccentric of them all was Miranda’s paternal grandfather–the only one of her four grandparents born in the United States. A traveling photographer with half a dozen wives and families scattered over the western United States, he had done time in prison for polygamy, after one of those angry spouses ran him to ground.
The first internet date Miranda went on was with was a retired airline executive. They had dinner at Il Fornaio, in downtown Palo Alto.
The exec said, “Then I did this, and then I did that. And then I did this, and then I did that.” Or that’s what it sounded like to Miranda. He offered her a free vacation to the Caribbean, but the implied trade-off made her uncomfortable. So that turned out to be Dating Strike One.
Miranda was fascinated by the story of the Chinese-born woman, now living in Palo Alto, who was working as her foot reflexologist.
“I was a medical doctor in China,” her new friend Daisy explained. “But here I am a foot reflexologist.”
“My father was a professor of chemistry at the university,” Daisy continued. “During the Cultural Revolution, he was put in prison, and I was sent to a collective farm, when I was 13 years old.”
“Because I had some education,” she continued, “They made me the public address announcer for the farm. So I spoke on the loudspeakers that all the workers would hear during the day and night, giving them instructions.”
Miranda visited daily to get her Chinese reflexology treatments. Daisy put Miranda on a strict vegan diet; and told her to avoid any foods with industrial chemicals. Within a month Miranda lost 20 pounds, and the numbness in her feet diminished by 50%.
With the shortage of housing in Palo Alto, and the high cost of hotel rooms, Miranda’s friend Peach told her she could get a $1,000 a day for her place, as an Air Bnb, renting it out to families who came to town for graduation ceremonies at Stanford, or weddings, or other events.
Peach had turned her own Palo Alto family home into four small AirBnb units, and was now grossing more than $10,000 a month.
[Jeremy’s movie] was shot in black and white. And much of it was set in various homeless encampments around Palo Alto. There was an encampment in the hills, and another along San Francisquito Creek.
The film’s characters were a rough group of survivors. Old school homeless, like Eddie, were joined by younger characters who were former employees of Silicon Valley’s big tech companies, and other startups; who had been thrown out on their ears when they reached age forty; and found themselves living in a futuristic economy with no support system.
Miranda winced when she heard that neighbors had formed a vigilante committee to monitor the drug dealing activity of a teen age boy five houses down the street from the Southgate home in which she had grown up.
One neighbor went to the drug-dealing teen’s mother and asked what they should do. The mother freaked out. She was a single mom, an attorney at one of the big Palo Alto law firms, and she did not want her son in the “system.”
For the past 20 years, living and working in New York, Miranda had attended meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics. That experience had made life different for her and much better.
Both Miranda’s parents were alcoholics. Her father had been the senior officer in a Palo Alto bank, who drank too much and became resentful at hitting the ceiling of a career in which he thought he deserved so much more.
More and more, Miranda thought she might invite Guy to come and live with her. He was her ex-boyfriend. They had co-habited in New York for five years; until he told her he was gay; and to be true to himself said he had to leave and pursue that part of his life.
The next day Miranda and Eddie sat outside Café Venetia on University Avenue, drinking a late morning latte, and picking up on their discussion of the merits and drawbacks of genetically engineered strawberries.
Jeremy the aspiring slacker filmmaker came ambling up the street on his way to work at the Aquarius.
“I just realized,” said Miranda to her two men friends, “That both of you live with your mothers.”
Miranda and Eddie walked through the Stanford campus, so Miranda could visit the landmarks her childhood and undergrad years, some now changed, some the same.
They looped around old Lake Lagunita, which was now dry, no longer a lake.
They both remembered this as a wet lake from when they were kids. Miranda and Eddie and her brother Tom, now two decades dead from a drug overdose, used to come here and skate flat rocks; and sometimes at night jump in and swim, which was against regulations.
Miranda was trying to figure out if she could quit her New York lawyering job and retire to Palo Alto.
One financial planner said, “Sure, easy, I can get you 7% to 8% percent on your money. You’ll have no problem living on that. I’ll take 1.5% from your gross assets each year as my cut, to make this work for you.”
Her friend Valerie told Miranda, “Anyone says they can get you more than 3% a year is a liar.”
As Carl worked feverishly on his start-up prospectus for building and marketing a robot nanny for children, he dreamed that this, finally, after all these years of struggling, was his road to fame and fortune.
He thought about all the people who had told him he would never be able to do it. Co-workers who said that he was just not a cutting-edge guy.
Miranda sat outside the gelato shop on Hamilton Street, eating her four-dollar ice cream. Prices certainly had risen in Palo Alto, since her youth. She could remember nickel popsicles from her early childhood.
Looking around the gelato shop at the hyperactive tech workers taking afternoon breaks, Miranda wondered if there were any slackers left in Palo Alto. When she had grown up here a few decades earlier, there were plenty of slackers in town.
Carl sat under a tree along the Dish Trail in the Stanford Hills, furiously typing on his phone.
He’d just been struck with a brilliant money-making start-up idea: a robot nanny that could take care of a child in Palo Alto, and teach him or her Mandarin and sports; thus freeing the parent to have a 24/7 work life, unconfined by the needs of parenting.
After his third start-up failed, Carl worried that he could no longer afford to live in Palo Alto, the town where he grew up.
As a teenager, Carl had burgled a few houses, the nice ones that his rich friends lived in. With a teenage partner, he’d stolen televisions, VCRs, computers and jewelry. But the two boys had stopped after a few escapades, because Palo Alto was a small town, and they feared getting caught.
Carl laughed at the idea of pursuing a career burglarizing houses in Palo Alto. Now that his third start-up had failed, he was thrashing around for a job.
As a teenager, growing up on the Peninsula, Carl had done some burglaries, and found, as a kid, it wasn’t a bad way to make money–providing you didn’t get caught. With a 13-year-old friend, he had stolen televisions, VCRs, radios, and some jewelry; and fenced them at pawnshops in San Francisco and Oakland.
Toby was an unmotivated boy. At least that’s what his father liked to tell him.
“You’ll never get into an Ivy League school at this rate,” was one of the dad’s recurring refrains. “And then what will happen to you?”
Toby’s father Carl had been the CEO of a start-up. He had graduated from Harvard and come to Silicon Valley to make his fortune, but things hadn’t worked out the way he planned. Carl had not made his fortune, and in fact had recently been fired by the venture capitalists funding his start-up.
Miranda continued her walk down University Avenue, trying to take in all the changes that had occurred in Palo Alto since she had grown up there in the 1950s and 1960s.
She was back to investigate selling the California bungalow in Southgate that her parents had bought in 1958 for $28,000; and which the realtor was now telling her she could sell for nearly three million.
Miranda was back in Palo Alto for the first time in 15 years. She was here to sell her parents’ house, the one she had grown up in during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
As she walked down University Avenue, she reflected on her conversation with her niece Christi. Very concerned about money and survival, Christi had decided to marry a rich, slightly autistic tech start-up maven whom she did not love.
Miranda was sitting with her niece Christi at a coffee shop on Palo Alto’s Ramona Street, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
Miranda had grown up in Palo Alto, decades earlier, when it was a sleepy little university town. She had gone to Stanford as an undergrad, then NYU law school, and spent most of her adult life in New York working as an attorney.
Christi, a recent Stanford grad and lifelong Palo Alto resident, shared her fear of being poor. She sat with her aunt Miranda on the patio of a coffeehouse on Ramona Street.
“Consider all the poor people who work at menial service jobs in Palo Alto,” said Christi. “I don’t want to become one of them. Like that girl over there at the cash register who keeps saying ‘Perfect’ to everyone who orders. How does she get by? Or the people who do our housekeeping and gardening; or wait on us at tables in the coffee shops and restaurants; or do the janitorial services?”
Christi had met her fiancé at the Rosewood Hotel bar in Menlo Park, a posh resort in the hills. The place was famous as a hangout where nerdy tech guys with limited social skills went to try and meet women who were looking for wealthy husbands.
Miranda was sitting on the sunny patio of a Ramona Street coffee shop, talking with her niece Christi about Christi’s upcoming marriage to a young tech billionaire, whom Christi admitted she did not love.
Marriage would be a big change for Christi, who had an undergrad degree from Stanford, and also an MBA.
Miranda ordered her skinny green tea latte in the trendy coffee shop on Ramona Street. She was there meeting with her niece Christi, who was planning to marry a 20-something start-up tech billionaire, whom she didn’t love, feeling that she could not pass up the opportunity for great wealth.
As Miranda placed her tea order, the young cashier said, “Perfect.”
Miranda continued her walk downtown. She was meeting her niece Christi at Coupa Cafe coffee shop on Ramona Street.
Christi was her deceased brother’s daughter. She had just turned 25. She was five years old when her father, Miranda’s brother, had died from a life of drug and alcohol use. At the time, Miranda had stepped in and served as a surrogate parent of sorts.
Miranda sat on her University Avenue bench and looked at the disheveled street person in front of her.
It was her brother’s old friend Eddie, who had once been a vibrant Stanford student, a lively storyteller, an accomplished blue grass musician; and one of her brother’s best friends since they met in second grade at Addison School.
Miranda was sitting on a bench on University Avenue, reading the local newspaper, catching up on how things had changed in Palo Alto since she was a girl growing up in this small, quiet university town.
A homeless guy suddenly materialized in front of her. “Hi Miranda,” he said.
Miranda was back in Palo Alto for the first time in years. It was the town she had grown up in, and it had changed considerably.
As she walked down University Avenue, Miranda remembered an episode from The Twilight Zone, in which a man commuted home routinely from work one afternoon, only to find his small residential town had gone through a time warp and changed. There were houses where there had been empty lots; some shops he knew well had vanished, replaced by unfamiliar buildings.
From Palo Alto Daily Post editor Dave Price: “We’re trying something different in the Post starting today. Something that newspapers haven’t done in decades. We’re presenting a serialized novel about our town, Palo Alto.”