Interviewsand Articles

 

Treasures From The Archives: Bob’s Think Tank

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2007


 

 

For eight years I lived in the island community of Alameda across the bay from San Francisco, a place long-time residents sometimes referred to, not always in the spirit of civic pride, as "the isle of style." It’s true that Alameda lagged behind several other Bay Area communities in terms of cultural polish, but it had its own special charm along with several obscure, though remarkable, treasures. During those years I discovered some of these hidden wonders, one of which was Bob’s Think Tank. Most Alamedans never learned of the Think Tank’s existence, as it was effectively camouflaged as a corner newsstand. 

Some years before I’d become a resident of the island, Bob told me, there’d been an attempt to have the newsstand removed from its home on the corner of Park Boulevard and Santa Clara in the heart of Alameda’s "East End" business district—the better end of the island’s bipolar commercial topography. The "West End," which also was home to the Naval Air Base, the major feature on the island for several decades, long ago had taken on the character that so often accompanies major military installations. The west end of town was the site of the community’s tattoo and massage parlours, but to be fair, liquor stores and bars seemed to be evenly distributed across the entire island, serving the alcoholic needs of all of Alameda’s residents.

In any case, in the wake of improvements to the island in the form of extensive landfills to the west, making room for developments like the Southland Mall and several new condominium complexes, many forward-looking residents viewed the newsstand as an eyesore. Certainly, compared to the aggressive architectural presence of a Mervyn’s and other big-box retailers, the newsstand was an easy target. As civic architecture it was, let’s say, "dimensionally challenged." Someone referred to the newsstand as a "wretched coop." Perhaps the best that could be said of the little wooden structure was that its only tune was one of nostalgia, a tune, nevertheless, that some liked hearing.

As always, there were advocates on both sides of the controversy. For a time, Bob told me, the battle raged, with fervent letters appearing in the pages of the Times-Star and the Alameda Journal. One correspondent held that the newsstand was one of the finer cultural artifacts on the island—a gibe, I’m sure. In any case, by the time I began buying my morning paper at Bob’s newsstand, the controversy was over.

I’d missed the whole thing, but certainly, I would have advocated its preservation. In my years of living in Alameda, my morning visit to the newsstand, along with a shower and a fresh cup of coffee, was one of the small pleasures that helped frame the day ahead in a positive light. Finished were the curses aimed at metal boxes that, fed two quarters, stayed shut. Here was the old-fashioned pleasure of personal contact, and often I’d find myself lingering, paper in hand, chatting with  Bob for fifteen or twenty minutes.   

Several years have passed since then and I no longer recall the exact moment I learned about the other enterprise taking place at Bob’s newsstand. Who could have guessed that these cramped premises also housed a Think Tank?

The revelation came about as we were discussing the Big Bang one morning. I don’t remember how the subject had come up. It’s unlikely that I’d been bold enough to share my Secret Alameda review of Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time with Bob. The author’s aim "to know the mind of God" struck me as overly ambitious. Then the idea that the entire universe, in those early moments, was so small it could have fit into a refrigerator’s butter dish—what kind of sense did that make? How much of an advance was that over the view that the world rested on the back of a turtle? Perhaps some new twist on the subject had appeared in the Chronicle that morning. No matter my reservations, right away I noted the sudden uptick in Bob’s metabolism at mention of the subject. A hidden cosmologist? I wondered with some surprise.

"Let me explain it to you," Bob said. (I've included the diagram he drew for me as we talked.) To be honest, Bob’s explanation didn’t entirely clear the matter up. My uncertainty must have been apparent. Perhaps that’s why Bob handed over his drawing. I could keep it, he told me. Afterwards I would be able to study it; it might serve as a visual aid for grasping exactly how it all worked. —rw

 

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.

 

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