Palo Alto Odyssey: a serialized novel

Pigpen McKernan gravestone in Alta Mesa Memorial Park

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.

Episode 72 (12-01-15)

Christi is not sure which man is the father of her child….

Episode 71 (11-30-15)

A father decides to bill his teenage son $30,000 a year for the cost of raising him in Palo Alto…..

Episode 70 (11-28-15)

“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.”

Episode 69 (11-27-15)

“I didn’t take my mother with me because she had drunk a fifth of vodka the night before, and was passed out on the living room sofa when I left early in the morning for my San Francisco meeting.”

Episode 68 (11-25-15)

“It runs in our family,” said Miranda. “Both of my parents—your grandmother and grandfather—were alcoholics. And my brother Tom—your father—was a drug addict. It’s our family tradition.”

Episode 67 (11-24-15)

Miranda reflected on times as a teenager when she’d leave her summer job at the bank and go over to East Palo Alto with her paycheck to buy cocaine for all her friends.

Episode 66 (11-23-15)

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.

Episode 65 (11-21-15)

In the morning, while Christi was brushing her teeth, she noticed a tiny wrinkle between her brows. She freaked out.

“OMG,” she exclaimed, “I’m not even 25 years old, and it is time for Botox.”

She called Skin Spirit and made a same-day appointment with therapist Melanie.

Episode 64 (11-20-15)

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.

Episode 63 (11-19-15)

Subconsciously Miranda had known it was safe to fall in love with a gay man—that she would never be asked to be fully present in an intimate relationship.

Episode 62 (11-18-15)

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.

Episode 61 (11-17-15)

At that point Christi leapt up from the lunch table and took a swing at Taylor. Taylor screamed. The maitre d’ from the hummus shop separated them, and threw them out on to the street.

Episode 60 (11-16-15)

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.

Episode 59 (11-14-15)

Christi decided to have an affair.

She thought about it carefully, and selected as her appropriate candidate the buff contractor who was remodeling three houses that she and JJ had purchased in Old Palo Alto.

Episode 58 (11-13-15)

Newlywed Christi was opposed to having children. “I’d be bored as a soccer mom,” she told her friend Tina.

“That’s hard to believe,” Tina replied. “I’d love to be a soccer mom. I can’t think of anything better.”

Episode 57 (11-12-15)

There was a difficulty, JJ well knew, of many creators of start-ups; and the ultimate demise of many small tech companies–even ones that had workable ideas.

To wit, company founders were often creative people, but they didn’t have the best skills for jumping their original great idea up to the next level.

Episode 56 (11-11-15)

“Everyone wants their kids to have high test scores,” said Miranda, “So they can get into Stanford, or wherever.”

“Nowadays,” replied Valerie, “All standardized testing results are ‘zip code dependent.’ That means that if your kid’s zip code is 94306, her test scores will be fine.”

Episode 55 (11-10-15)

“When did our lives get so overtaken by sarcasm?” asked Valerie.

“About 30 years ago,” said Miranda. “It’s the current social disease. People are afraid.”

Episode 54 (11-09-15)

Eddie went on a rant about how he could feed himself for a week off of game-day tailgate scavenging on the Stanford campus.

Episode 53 (11-07-15)

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.”

Episode 52 (11-06-15)

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%.

Episode 51 (11-05-15)

A few months after their marriage at Stanford Memorial Church, Christi and JJ navigated into the waters of marital discord. On the horizon was a conflict over whether or not to have children.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Christi said. “I do not want to have children.”

“Why not?” asked JJ, disappointed.

“I just don’t want to spend my life picking up after other people,” Christi said. Having grown up in an alcoholic home, Christi felt she already had raised children—that is, her two alcoholic parents.

Episode 50 (11-04-15)

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.

Episode 49 (11-03-15)

At 26 years of age, Jeremy was still living with his mother in Palo Alto.

“Jeremy,” she said to him one morning over bran flakes, “I want you to get a job.”

“I have a job,” said Jeremy. “I work at the Aquarius Theater. That means I have a job in ‘The Industry.’ Do you know how hard it is to get a job in The Industry when you live in Palo Alto?”

“Jeremy,” said his mother, “You sell popcorn. That’s not a career.”

Episode 48 (11-02-15)

Did Miranda have enough money to retire, or not?

She’d read recently of a 91-year old woman who was still working. Miranda knew that the happiest people were those who loved their work and who kept working.

When people retired, she had observed, they often declined rapidly–mentally, physically and emotionally. Like her father, who fell into an alcoholic depression.

Episode 47 (10-31-15)

[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.

Episode 46 (10-30-15)

As Miranda walked down Emerson Street towards Whole Foods (or as Jeremy liked to call it, “Whole Paycheck”), she saw a woman sitting in a car holding an ice balloon to her face.

“She must have been at Skin Spirit,” thought Miranda. “I could use some Botox myself. Or maybe just some perlane for my lips.”

Episode 45 (10-29-15)

Christi was in tears over her Stanford Church wedding plans. She and her fiancé JJ had just had their first fight.

The fight was over whether she, as the principal wedding organizer, would permit her fiancé to have 14 groomsmen.

Episode 44 (10-28-15)

When Christi and JJ finally made the decision to have their wedding at Stanford Church, Christi went into wedding planning overdrive and seemed to love it.

At her suggestion, the two decided to have their reception at Stanford’s Faculty Club, since it was next door to Kingscote Gardens, a campus residence where JJ had lived as a Stanford student.

Episode 43 (10-27-15)

With the approach of Christi and JJ’s wedding, Miranda began to reflect on the fact that she’d never gotten married.

Miranda had been part of the first wave of widespread American feminism that came out of the sixties. She was smart; she liked to work; and she liked to be independent.

She had never thought of herself as someone who would not get married; and not have children; rather she thought of herself as someone who would do those things.

But her life did not unfold that way. The man she fell in love with, Guy, and lived with for five years; told her one night that he was gay, and that their relationship had to change.

Episode 42 (10-26-15)

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.”

Episode 41 (10-24-15)

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.

So he retired early and drank himself to death.

Episode 40 (10-23-15)

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.

Episode 39 (10-22-15)

Miranda steered off University Avenue onto a side street, walking slowly past what looked like a temporary shop front, rented out ad hoc between major tenants, which sold yoga gear.

To her astonishment, inside were five Buddhist monks bending over a table.

Episode 38 (10-21-15)

“How does somebody become gay?” Jeremy asked?

Jeremy and Miranda sat at Café Venetia, her new favorite coffee shop on University Avenue, having a latte.

Jeremy was on his way up to the Aquarius, where he worked as a ticket guy, refreshment guy, and general factotum.

Episode 37 (10-20-15)

Miranda walked around Palo Alto, to visit places old and new.

She was impressed with the newly constructed Mitchell Park Library. It had cool areas for kids, including a kids’ reading room, and a kids’ meeting room.

There were computers, and places for adults to read, study and work.

Episode 36 (10-19-15)

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.”

Episode 35 (10-17-15)

Miranda sipped her morning latte at Café Venetia on University Avenue.

Eddie the street person came strolling by. He was about to explain how Palo Alto was like strawberries. Miranda offered to buy Eddie a coffee.

“No thanks,” he said. “Not today. Today is a street planter day.” And Eddie sat down on the street planter a few feet away.

Sometimes Eddie made a lot of sense to Miranda, and sometimes he didn’t.

Episode 34 (10-16-15)

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.

Episode 33 (10-15-15)

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.”

Episode 32 (10-14-15)

Miranda tried to make some sense of her financial situation, to see if she could retire.

After spending a few weeks in Palo Alto, where she’d grown up, she was astonished by all the changes; but also fascinated by the town’s new personality and vitality, intertwined with the old.

She wanted to live in Palo Alto. At least for a year or two, while she figured out the next chapter of her life. But could she do it?

Episode 31 (10-13-15)

Carol and Harold made the decision to buy a house in Southgate.

They were a young couple in their early thirties, with a small daughter, and another on the way.

They made the decision for the Palo Alto public school system. Palo Alto had high taxes; but the citizenry, historically, had believed in schools and libraries and supported such institutions.

Episode 30 (10-12-15)

Miranda and Eddie were sitting at Café Venetia on University Avenue, sipping their lattes, when the earthquake struck.

“That’s a mild one,” said Eddie. “Probably not too much damage. We’re close to the epicenter.”

Some of the people on the street seemed not to have noticed the shake.

Episode 29 (10-10-15)

Miranda bought a coffee for Eddie at Café Venetia on University Avenue.

He was the old friend of her brother’s, whom she’d grown up with, and who had turned into a street person in Palo Alto.

“Fifty hits of acid,” was the story her brother had told her many years ago, “All at once.”

Episode 28 (10-09-15)

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.

Episode 27 (10-08-15)

Failed start-up maven Carl worked feverishly on developing his new start-up idea of a robot nanny.

He was sure this invention would be his key to fame and fortune; and his escape from the drudgery of being a mere worker.

Episode 26 (10-07-15)

Miranda felt that she owed some kind of amends to Taylor for pre-judging the girl as an idiot.

She had first encountered Taylor as a waitress at Coupa when the girl said “Perfect” to every customer’s request.

Episode 25 (10-06-15)

“Seriously,” said Jeremy, it’s hard being a slacker in Palo Alto these days.
“There is all this pressure to work. To get a good job.”

He continued, “To sit in front of a screen at a picnic table everyday with a bunch of coder drones, or whatever they are doing these days.”

Episode 24 (10-05-15)

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.

Episode 23 (10-03-15)

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.

Episode 22 (10-02-15)

Carl had a brainstorm.

It came to him while he was out walking the Dish, in the Stanford hills, looking at the other parents hiking on their own, or in pairs, on a Thursday afternoon, without their kids.

Episode 21 (10-01-15)

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.

Episode 20 (9-30-15)

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.

Episode 19 (9-29-15)

Carl was a Palo Alto start-up entrepreneur who had not quite made the cut.

During his career, he had created three businesses, and gotten a little funding for two of them, but none had taken off.

Episode 18 (9-28-15)

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.

Episode 17 (9-26-15)

Miranda thought about Toby, a teenage boy in Palo Alto she knew who had been arguing with his parents about whether he should continue to take his “smart drugs” or not.

According to her friend Valerie, the boy’s grandmother, the family argument had gotten heated.

Episode 16 (9-25-15)

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.

Episode 15 (9-24-15)

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.

Episode 14 (9-23-15)

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.

Episode 13 (9-22-15)

Miranda sat on the sunny Ramona Street coffee shop patio, and listened to her niece Christi justify marrying an autistic tech start-up billionaire whom she did not love.

“You baby boomers were spoiled,” said Christie. “It’s not going to be like that for me when I retire. The social security will be gone. The healthcare will be gone.”

Episode 12 (9-21-15)

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?”

Episode 11 (9-19-15)

Miranda was trying to warn her niece Christi not to marry the wealthy fiancé she didn’t love, even if he was a billionaire, but Christi would have none of it.

Episode 10 (9-18-15)

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.

Episode 9 (9-17-15)

Miranda was concerned about her niece, who was about to marry a man she didn’t love–a man who was enormously wealthy.

The two were sitting in downtown Palo Alto, at Coupa Cafe, having coffee.
It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

Episode 8 (9-16-15)

“We’re entering an age of autism,” said Miranda. “Look at all these people sitting around the coffee shop hypnotized by their phones.”

Miranda was sitting on the patio of Coupa Cafe with her niece Christi, trying to persuade Christi not to marry a young autistic tech billionaire whom she did not love.

Episode 7 (9-15-15)

Miranda and her niece Christi sat on the patio of Coupa Cafe on Ramona Street in Palo Alto, discussing whether Christi should marry a somewhat autistic tech billionaire, even if she didn’t love him.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, aunt Miranda,” Christi argued. “I can’t let it pass.” She wanted her aunt’s support for her upcoming marriage.

Episode 6 (9-14-15)

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.

Episode 5 (9-12-15)

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.”

Episode 4 (9-11-15)

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.

Episode 3 (9-10-15)

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.

Episode 2 (9-9-15)

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.

Episode 1 (9-8-15)

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.

Introduction (9-8-15)

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.”

Stay in touch!

Tom Ammon and Stewart Lyle in “A Package for Max” at the Pear Avenue Theater in Mountain View

Leighanna Edwards and Nadine Chiarito in John Angell Grant’s play “Recess” at the Labor Day Theatre Festival in Belmont, CA

Jan Zvaifler and T. Mikel in John Angell Grant’s “Breakfast” at the Bare Stage in Berkeley

Rhonda Joy Taylor and Dorothea Standish in John Angell Grant’s play “Skunk” at Onstage Theater, Martinez, CA.