Field Trip!

I’ve never read an urban fantasy set in Vallejo, California, so I’m trying to write one. To me, if you’re going to write urban fantasy the urban center you choose must be vividly depicted, so I had to get to know Vallejo. I had my writer friend David Corbett guide me around and show me some kinds of places I needed, and since then I’ve gone back twice. The second time was yesterday.

The Shipyard's seal and badge.

The Shipyard’s seal and badge.

I can almost never get to Vallejo without stopping at Mare Island, and this trip was no different. Since Mare Island figures in the book, it’s a guilt-free stop. This time, instead of staying in the waterfront, Naval Shipyard area, I drove up to the Touro University and the golf club. That gave me a different perspective.

I went through the museum too, though, which I hadn’t done before. The museum is open most days, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, and all weekends. When I pulled into the parking lot and parked, a group of young women, one with a stroller, one with a baby carrier, had gathered at the back of an SUV. They looked like a walking group. I made an assumption that their babies and toddlers were too little for it to be a school trip, and I never did see them in the museum. I do know that they stared at me, unsmiling, as I locked my car and walked past, and didn’t respond when I said good morning. Perhaps I was too old to be on their island? I was obviously some kind of “outsider?” It’s a mystery. However, I think these fit, unsmiling moms may find themselves in the book.

Exhibit about the Mare Island Hospital

Exhibit about the Mare Island Hospital

The museum docent, who was older than me, had no trouble smiling, asking me how my day was going, taking my $5 (plus I threw in a donation) handing me a brochure, and giving me the quick overview of the large space. She didn’t dog my steps, but twice when I stopped and looked around because I had a question, she materialized almost immediately. It could have been scary if it hadn’t been so helpful.

A few facts about the shipyard:

    • During WWII, over 9,000 women worked there. Many were seamstresses who made flags, sewed sails and repaired gas masks. Many were ship fitters, mechanics and welders. Some were nurses at the hospital.
    • The flag that made it up Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima was sewn on Mare Island.
    • The “Port Chicago Mutiny” actually took place at Mare Island. Although the explosion that killed 320 men (202 of them African American) took place at Port Chicago, on Mare Island the sailors charged with loading the munitions refused to continue until safety precautions were created. While 50 men were court-martialed and found guilty, the general strike led to a general integration of all ratings at Mare Island in 1946, two years before Truman officially integrated the armed services.
    • Mare Island designed and built the first guided missile submarine, the Grayback.
    • During WWII there was a shop in the shipyard that roasted coffee beans 24/7, because we will not let our brave men and women go into battle under-caffeinated!
Sign warning workers to wear their safety googles.

They really wanted you to wear your safety goggles.

After I walked through the cavernous building that holds the displays and a PT “swift boat” from the Viet Nam era, I drove out Walnut to Flagship Street and followed it down and around to Club Drive. If you stay straight on Club Drive you roll into the parking lot of Touro University. This used to be the base hospital, which was renowned for its orthopedic work. They also did psychiatric evaluations here. Now it’s a school specializing in osteopathy. Veer right, up the hill, and you’ll pass a US Forest Service office and come to the nine-hole golf course at the top of the gentle hill. There is a club with a restaurant (and, from the sound of things, a bar) up there.


Golf Green and view of the estuary.

Golf Green and view of the estuary.

Then I headed back to Walnut and followed it to the Mare Island Causeway road, over the bridge, where the road mysteriously becomes G Street. I turned right on Mare Island Way, passing the yacht harbor and club and the ferry terminal. I parked on Georgia Avenue, which is where much of my story takes place, across the street from the city hall, where I had an unobstructed view of this large sculpture provided by the Flying Lotus Girls. At night, a woman walking informed me, it is lit up and “it looks cool.”

Large sculpture outside Vallejo City Hall

It looks a little like barbed wire, or a thistle plant. to me.

Mural, corner of Santa Clara Blvd and Georgia St.

Mural, corner of Santa Clara Blvd and Georgia St.

A new mural is going up on this corner, Santa Clara and Georgia. This road was blocked off for repaving the last time I was here. It’s repaved now, and it’s good! Plus, nice mural.

Java Jax, an old gas station remodeled as a coffee shop.

Java Jax, an old gas station remodeled as a coffee shop.

I stopped at Java Jax and had a cappuccino, since Java Jax will be featured as a location. Then I walked up a block… Okay, well, I stopped at the Tortilliera Pinto and bought a pound of tortillas (about 30) for $2.50. The owner broke my heart by announcing that the next day they would be selling fresh tamales. (And I wouldn’t be there.)

Black and white tile, red vinyl pedestal booths at Java Jax

Fifties Malt-shop decor.

















I walked up to Virginia Street. (State-named streets run east-west, and county-named streets run north-south, and like every system, every so often there’s an outlier or an exception.) I walked past the Empress movie palace and the Masonic Temple Arts building. The ground floor is devoted to studios, and I think they rent lofts out on the other floors.

Empress Movie Palace

Empress Movie Palace


Masonic Temple Building, now art studios and lofts.

Masonic Temple Building, now art studios and lofts.








Detail from front door of old Masonic Temple Building.













By then I was practically back to my car. I got back onto Highway 37 via the causeway, which means I skipped I-80 and the bridge – not that I mind the bridge. It was a beautiful day, and the Napa River was a shimmering blue, but it’s a bad idea to take pictures when you’re driving.

After much mulling, turning over in my mind, cogitating and dithering over where my main character will propose a secret meeting, I have finally decided that it will have to take place on Main Street in Benicia. It’s only logical.

Porte Cochere and Ticket Booth of Empress Movie Palace.

The ticket booth of the Empress




Now I know where my main character goes for coffee, and where her ex-boyfriend’s art studio used to be. I know about antique shops with snarky names. I know how close the yacht harbor is from the art collective where my main character hangs out, and this is important because someone is going to try to abduct her from there and bring her to the yacht harbor. It’s coming together.

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