I'm sitting on a balcony in Oakland, watching the sun rise over the Oakland Hills. Five palm trees mark the spot where the sun rises this time of year, pompom remnants of the "Borax" Smith estate, Arbor Villa. This city, like most, has layers: it's hard to visualize the elegant estates that became my lively neighborhood. Smith's estate is gone, except for a few buildings, but I still use 20-Mule-Team Borax in my laundry, and sometimes I think about the palm trees when I shake it into the washer.
This state is connected by all sorts of odd threads: Borax is one of them. Smith was an early mover and shaker in Oakland, but he made his fortune in the Mojave Desert. He left marks all over the state, from a city park in Oakland (see the Arbor Villa link above) to the borax mines down south, to a worked-out sulphur mine that was still eating the asphalt of Redwood Road in the Oakland hills in 1997. Some credit him with the development of Oakland into a real city, instead of a suburb of San Francisco.
I'm fascinated by ol' Francis Marion Smith, and not only because I like using borax in my laundry. I am fiercely fond of Oakland -- have been since the August day in 1986 when I got lost on the 580 freeway, and got off at the Grand Avenue exit to get my bearings. It was love at first sight, despite the sketchy reputation of Oakland pretty much anywhere outside Oakland, at the time. Apparently "Borax" felt that way, too: he was a one-man civic development engine with a passion for this city.
The sun's up now, and I'd better get to work.