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 them, one of which was Bob’s Think Tank. Most Alamedans never learned of its existence, as it was effectively camouflaged as a corner newsstand.
Under the guise of "civic improvement" there’d been an effort to raze the newsstand at the corner of Park Boulevard and Santa Clara in Alameda’s east end business district—the better end of the island’s bipolar commercial topography. The west end - home to the Naval Air Base, the island's defining feature for several decades - had taken on the character typical of major military installations. This was where you could find the community’s tattoo and massage parlours. But to be fair, liquor stores and bars seemed evenly distributed across the entire island, serving the alcoholic needs of all the island's residents.
In any case, in the wake of improvements to the island - huge landfills to the west with developments like the Southland Mall and new condominium complexes - many forward-looking residents viewed the newsstand as an eyesore. Certainly it paled in comparison with Mervyn’s and other big-box retailers at the new mall. For those who favored its destruction, it was "a wretched coop."
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, a morning visit to the newsstand along a getting fresh cup of coffee helped frame the day ahead in a positive light. Finished were the curses aimed at metal boxes that, fed quarters, refused to open. Instead one could enjoy the old-fashioned pleasure of personal contact. Often I’d find myself lingering, paper in hand, chatting with Bob.
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 as we were discussing the Big Bang one morning. I don’t recall how the subject had come up. It’s unlikely that I’d have shared my Secret Alameda
review of Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time
with Bob. I mean, what kind of universe could fit inside the butter compartment of any modern refrigerator, even at its very beginning? I suppose the subject came up thanks to an article in the Chronicle that morning. But once the topic was broached, I noted a sudden uptick in Bob’s metabolism. Was he a hidden cosmologist? I wondered with some surprise.
Bob was animated: "Let me explain it to you," he said. My uncertainty as I listened must have been apparent. Perhaps that’s why Bob handed mr his explanatory diagram. I could keep it, he said. Afterwards I would be able to study it and it might serve as a visual aid for grasping exactly how it all worked. —rw