The Milias Hotel

March 5th, 2007 § Comments off

Joan Didion, in Where I Was From:

There used to be on the main street through Gilroy, a farm town in Santa Clara County that billed itself as “The Garlic Capital of the World,” a two- or three-story hotel, the Milias, where the dining room off the lobby had a black-and-white tiled floor and fans and potted palm trees and, in the opinion of my father, short ribs so succulent that they were worth a stop on any drive between Sacramento and the Monterey Peninsula. I remember sitting with him in the comparative cool of the Milias dining room (any claim of “cool” was at that time comparative, air conditioning not yet having taken widespread hold in Santa Clara County), eating short ribs and the cherries from his old-fashioned bourbon cocktail, the singular musky smell of garlic being grown and picked and processed permeating even the heavy linen napkins.

I am unsure at what point the Milias Hotel vanished (probably about the time Santa Clara County started being called Silicon Valley), but it did, and the “farm town” vanished too, Gilroy having reinvented itself as a sprawl of commuter subdivisions for San Jose and the tech industry. In the summer of 2001, a local resident named Michael Bonfante opened a ninety-million-dollar theme park in Gilroy, “Bonfante Gardens,” the attractions of which were designed to suggest the agricultural: stage shows with singing tomatoes, rides offering the possibility of being spun in a giant garlic bulb or swung from a thirty-nine-foot high mushroom. The intention behind Bonfante Gardens, according to its creator, was “to show how the county was in the 1950s and 1960s.” The owner of a neighboring property was interviewed by The New York Times on the subject of Bonfante Gardens. “If it gets to be Disneyland, I am going to hate it,” she said. “Right now it is pretty and beautiful. But who knows? Someone who has been here as long as I have has mixed feelings.”

This interviewee, according to the Times, had been a resident of Gilroy, in other words “been here,” for fifteen years. If fifteen years seems somewhat short of the long-time settlement suggested by “someone who has been here as long as I have,” consider this: when my brother and I applied to change the zoning from agricultural to residential on a ranch we owned east of Sacramento, one of the most active opponents to the change, a man who spoke passionately to the folly of so altering the nature of the area, had moved to California only six months before, which suggested that he was living on a street that existed only because somebody else had developed a ranch. Discussion of how California has “changed,” then, tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive though it.

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