Praying for Parking

Now that it’s late September, I drive to work in the pitch blackness of the pre-dawn morning. Soon, I’ll be driving home in the dark as well.

I’ve developed a routine. On the way home, it’s all about staying awake, particularly if I have been at work ten or eleven hours. That means only one thing: It’s karaoke time. I plug in my phone, blast my tunes and sing as loud as I can. Okay, I’m stretching the truth a bit here. I don’t believe that anyone in his or her right mind would characterize the caterwauling emanating from my mouth as singing. Is it possible to scream a song? Even a country song? I think it’s time for me to get into heavy metal in my old age.

My morning commute, however, is quite different. For one thing, I need to pray for a parking space. Dear Lord, lead me not into Natomas.

I work in Sacramento’s Twin Towers, where there is exactly one handicapped parking space for four thousand employees, never mind visitors. When I first obtained my blue handicapped parking permit years ago, I never imagined that I would have such a difficult time making use of it.

The surefire way of snagging my parking space is to arrive at work by 5:30 a.m. As sensible a solution as this may be, the problem is that I am a lazy ass who prefers to sleep an extra hour. Arriving at work at 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. is a dicey proposition indeed. It’s a big game of chicken. Sometimes my parking space will still be available. (Thank you, Lord!) More likely than not, however, I will round the corner from Q Street onto Eighth, only to find a giant SUV sitting in the handicapped spot, jeering at me. The early bird does indeed get this particular worm.

So what now? I’ve often wished there were valet parking at work. Instead, most employees who don’t use the bus or light rail end up paying hefty monthly fees to park in a garage or lot and then have the pleasure of walking blocks to work in the heat, the wind and the rain. If you can’t make that walk, you’re pretty much out of luck.

I knew I had to come up with a strategy, replete with alternatives. They are as follows:

1. Pray. Thank God for his many blessings and ask for one more, that I arrive at the handicapped space five minutes before someone else tries to slide into it.

2. Hope that one of the metered parking spaces that line the block across the street is available. With my handicapped permit, I can park there all day without the need to run out every hour to feed quarters into the meter. All I have to do is wait for traffic to clear, then roll my lunch bag across Eighth and grab a pole (or the hood of another car) to haul myself up onto the opposite sidewalk.

3. If both of the above fail, park behind the handicapped spot in a “loading zone only” space and wait. Keep an eye out for someone dashing across the street (or up the street from the gym) in preparation for pulling out of a metered space across the street. This requires patience and more than a little luck. Like a cat, I may need to stalk my prey for an hour or more. My official start time at work is 8:00, so I generally have enough leeway to pull this off. However, all I have to do is lose focus for a moment, and another car will come careening around the corner, turn signal on to let the world know that, by golly, he is claiming the about-to-be vacated space for himself. Also, it happens from time to time that a 60 or even 90 minute wait will not yield a vacancy across the street. That real estate between the little white lines is valuable.

4. Stay parked in the “loading zone only” space that I’ve staked out and pray that Parking Enforcement doesn’t come around before 9:00, at which time the space becomes legal. Run out of work before 4 pm, when the space turns into a pumpkin again.

5. Go to Natomas, the nuclear option. This involves driving 20 minutes to the northern suburbs of Sacramento, leaving the car in a supermarket or department store parking lot, and getting on the Uber app to call for a car to take me back downtown. I get to pay for this privilege again when I leave work in the evening. So far, I have managed to avoid the Natomas option but, prayers notwithstanding, it seems just a matter of time.

6. Call into work and go home. Now you’re talkin’.

Advertisements

Runaway

Mono Lake, eastern Sierras. Taken from U.S. 395, north of Lee Vining CA.

I have tried to run away, only to learn that there is no escape. It took some life experience to learn that you will always be outrun by whatever is chasing you, even if the pursuer is none other than your own shadow. (See Proverbs 28:1). It’s true that you can’t run away from yourself.

In my lifetime, I have thrice made the run from sea to shining sea. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family, and I sometimes wonder where I’d be today without their help.

First time: I was living paycheck to paycheck and, had I not suddenly decamped from Connecticut to the Bay Area, would have eventually run out of money, if not from an automotive crisis, then certainly when my employer closed up shop. That is, unless the abusive relationship I was in killed me first.

Second time: It’s true what they say about not being able to go home again. My eight months in California were disastrous, leaving me to choose between moving in with my parents or homelessness. I saw running away as a viable third option, but high-tailing it back to New England got me nowhere fast. I couldn’t land a stable job in Hartford, went broke and moved in with family in Boston. My first day there, my car disappeared from in front of the laundromat where I was washing clothes. Turned out the cops hauled it away because I couldn’t afford to update my registration and insurance. Back to California I go.

Third time: I was fortunate to have parents who took me in, as I had run out of emotional capital with everyone else. I figured it was better than homelessness. After four and a half months of emotional misery, much of it brought on by myself, a stroke of good fortune led me to a stable paycheck that was just enough to secure a rented apartment six months later.

Twenty years have gone by since then. I have visited the east coast twice without incident. While the sight of New England continues to engender incipient longings, I have come to the understanding that California is my home, now and forever. I was one of those hardheaded dumbells who had to learn the hard way that running away gets you nowhere.

That isn’t to minimize the setbacks that I have experienced here in the Golden State. It took me decades to learn the life lesson that resolve, perseverance, and plain old staying the course can get you far.

Come October, I’ll probably still gawk at the online photos of the amazing Crayola leaf show, coming to you live from Vermont and New Hampshire.

And then I’ll log off, step out into the California sunshine, and laugh.

A Business Travel Primer

I travel around California a great deal for my job and, along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about staying in hotels. I offer them up here for your edification and entertainment.

1. If you’ve seen one chain motel, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t expect too much of a discount hotel room. It’s a place to lay your head and take a shower. Period.

2. If you get an upgrade to, say, a Hilton, Westin or Marriott, be prepared to pay $20 to $30 (or more) for the privilege of parking your rental car. Um, yes, that’s for one night! If you don’t like it, Motel 6 is thataway.

3. Just because you’re driving a rental car doesn’t excuse you from knowing the license plate number and writing it on the registration form. Yeah, I’m talking to you! Instead of being a lazy butt, walk back out to the parking lot and write down your license plate number. What’s that you say? You can’t be bothered? If you write “black Honda” on the registration form and leave it at that, be prepared to be woken up out of a deep sleep at 2:30 in the morning by your ringing bedside phone, the desk clerk informing you that someone with a black Honda left his or her lights on. That’s right, there are six guests registered as driving black Hondas (no plate number listed), so the desk clerk had to wake up all of them! Now pull on some pants, slip on your shoes and head for the elevator and out to the parking lot to see if you’re today’s grand prize winner. Oh, it’s pouring down rain? Bonus!

4. Parallel parking skills are helpful. No, I’m not talking about the hotel parking lot. For returning the luggage cart! Don’t be the genius who leaves that huge thing in the middle of the lobby for someone who’s not paying attention to trip over.

5. When it comes to breakfast options, learn to translate hotel-speak into English. Complimentary means breakfast is included in the price of the room, so you don’t have to mess with your laughable so-called expense account and end up paying for half the meal out of your own pocket. Breakfast buffet is the gold standard, as in there is likely to be at least one offering that is actually edible. Continental breakfast does not mean chocolate brioche and croque monsieur. It means you’re welcome to a stale donut to go with that stale coffee. Light breakfast means run the other way screaming (unless you’d like a rotten banana with your dry cereal). Grab ‘n Go means keep walking straight past the front desk, out the door and drive to Starbucks. Unless you’re six years old or like surprises, that is. Okay, don’t listen to me. When you open the bag on your break, enjoy an apple that is past its prime, a mini honey-oat bar and a bottle of water. Happy?

6. Whenever possible, snag a room with a mini-fridge and a microwave. Then you can make a stop at the local supermarket and eat what you actually enjoy. (See above.)

7. “Restaurant on premises” means you get the privilege of paying for your own breakfast. If you happen to be in San Francisco or Los Angeles, breakfast can easily run you $30 plus tip. If you’re stuck in LA for a week, well, you do the math.

8. Just because the on-premises restaurant is advertised as opening at 7 am does not necessarily mean that they will actually be prepared to serve you food at that hour. If you have an early meeting, make other arrangements.

9. If you’re not sure if you should eat it, don’t. Just don’t. It doesn’t matter that you’ve already paid for it or that the cost is included. If it smells a little off, looks weird or tastes funny, throw it in the trash. Get something else, or go hungry if you’re in a rush. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when you feel an urgent rumble in your bowels just when you’re hitting your stride on the PowerPoint about half an hour into your presentation. ‘Nuff said.

10. If you conscientiously attempt to save your employer money by staying in the cheapest motel available, be prepared to be richly rewarded by water stains on the ceiling, blood stains on the sheets, broken crack vials in the parking lot, and all-night cussin’ and carryin’ on by the 40-in-a-paper-bag crowd just outside your door. Throw in the occasional cockroach for good measure.

11. Some hotels have nothing but liquid soap available in the shower and at the sink. If you prefer bar soap, have your own supply ready as backup.

12. When staying at a hotel with interior corridors, know the location of the stairs and the emergency exits. I know, no one bothers with that stuff just for a night or two. Do this long enough, however, and you’ll wish you had paid attention when you get to experience a deafening fire alarm go off in the middle of the night. Just sayin’.

13. Regardless of your beliefs regarding immigration and/or speaking English, learn at least a few basic phrases in Spanish. Otherwise, do not complain when you are urgently in need of toilet paper and are unable to communicate this to the woman who cleans the rooms.

14. Generously tip the bell hop and the valet. It won’t kill you to leave a couple of bucks for the chambermaid either. Remember, these folks support their families by doing physically demanding work and being ill-treated by guests for their trouble. Oh, and good karma is priceless.

15. Be polite, like your mama taught you. Say “please” and “thank you” to the hotel staff, even if you’re having a bad day. Smile and say “good morning” or “good evening,” even if you don’t feel like it. Hotel employees are not robots and they are not your slaves to be abused at will. They’re not asking you to be their best friend; just treat them like human beings. Kind of like how you would like to be treated, you know?

The Commuter Life: Bernie (No, Not That One)

As a native New Yorker, even after 25 years as a California resident, I remain fairly ignorant of the ins and outs of state politics here in earthquake land. With so much at stake, however, perhaps it is time for me to learn. After all, I work just four blocks from the capitol rotunda, where It all goes down. There is no longer any excuse for me to bury my head in the sand.

Back in my college days in New York, I vaguely recall hearing about popular singer Linda Ronstadt being the girlfriend of a young California governor named Jerry Brown. Then I heard that a former California governor and star of Hollywood kitsch movies was running for president. By the time my feet hit the Golden State, I felt we were lost for good when the administration of Gov. Gray-Out Davis gave way to the Terminator. Then Jerry returned to the governor’s mansion. Everything old is new again. Now we have a new governor, still a Democrat but not a fiscal conservative like his predecessor, whom my mother wryly refers to as “gruesome Newsom.”

Maintenance and improvement of infrastructure has become rather a big deal in California, a point that may not always resonate locally, but one that rises to the fore if you commute a long distance to work every day, as I do. The politics involved in widening roads, repairing potholes and making lane merges less dangerous is brought to mind by the somewhat odd practice of naming sections of highway and even particular interchanges after civic leaders of yesteryear.

For example, after years of availing myself of the short hop on Highway 4 (Crosstown Arterial) between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 in Stockton, I finally had to research who exactly is the guy behind the “Ort J. Lofthus Freeway” sign. Apparently, he was instrumental not only in getting that road constructed, but also in building the last piece of I-5 (also in Stockton) that completed that interstate between the Mexican border south of San Diego and the Canadian border crossing in Blaine, Washington. Also, he was the manager of a local radio station. An interesting bit of California history.

Now that I commute back and forth to Sacramento, curiosity got the better of me in regard to my daily drive past a sign on Highway 99 announcing the Bernie Richter Memorial Freeway. As my aunt taught me when I was ten years old, “memorial” is a polite way of saying “he’s dead, you know.” I soon learned that the same is true of the practice of preceding someone’s name with the modifier “late.” (I remember being disappointed, thinking that “late” should mean what it says, that the person is never on time. Then again, I was a big fan of Ramona Quimby, who believed that “attacked” should mean to stick tacks in someone. And I guess, in a way, it kind of does.)

A quick search online informed me that Bernie Richter was a high school teacher in Chico who was later elected to the state Assembly, where he was a staunch opponent of affirmative action. I read that the conservative Republican was known for his impassioned speeches, was seen by some as a racist and caused plenty of legislative controversy.

It seems that Bernie Richter could be considered the ideological opposite of the other Bernie, the independent from Vermont whose bid for the presidency I support.

Still, while flying down the pavement at 70 miles an hour early in the morning, it’s good for a commuter to know something about those whom our state government has chosen to so prominently honor.

The Commuter Life: Suddenly, it Dawned on Me

Gooooood morning, Sacramento! What time is it? Oh five hundred. What does the O stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early!

No matter how you cut it, 3:30 am comes early.

That’s the latest that I need to haul myself out of bed if I’m driving into the city for another day at the job. It gives me about 90 minutes to get ready and still make it out the door by 5 am. Any later and the likelihood of availability of the one and only handicapped parking space that allows all-day parking and is close to my office rapidly approaches zero, like the curvilinear graphs I remember from calculus class.

Looking on the bright side, I get to witness God’s handiwork every morning, as the sky is brushed with purple, pink and gold. It’s an inspiring start to my day.

My morning commute destination: My parking space, when I can snag it. At least it’s under a leafy tree, shading my car all day from the 100 degree plus afternoon temperatures that we’ve been experiencing lately.

I try to balance my need to awaken in the pre-dawn hours with my desire to spend time with my wife in the evenings. Eight hours of sleep would require me to be in bed by 7:30 pm, which (let’s face it) is not terribly conducive to a reasonably normal family life. My bedtime was later than that when I was eight years old.

An approach I have been taking involves splitting the difference by taking a nap as soon as I walk in the door and then getting up later to have dinner and family time. On one level this works well, as I am invariably exhausted when I get home. But the experts warn that splitting up sleep time like this deprives the brain of its vital REM cycles and the body of opportunities to replace its supply of melatonin. I tend to compensate by engaging in marathon sleep sessions on the weekends. On Friday evenings, I want to say “Don’t wake me up til Monday morning.”

I am extremely grateful to my wife, who drives me in to work and returns to pick me up twice a week. I look forward to those days, as I get to sleep until 5 am and then nap in the passenger seat during the commute. But it means that my wife must make two round-trips, leaving a severe dent in her schedule. And it costs us twice as much at the gas pump.

No one said living in the exurbs was going to be easy.

On average, my morning commute takes about 40 minutes and my return in the evening about ten minutes longer. My previous concern was that my evening commute time would double due to the need to take surface streets out of Sacramento to avoid the harrowing experience of entering the freeway at the metering lights downtown. True, at times the two-lane merge can be nerve-wracking, but I find that I am starting to get used to it. It seems to be just a matter of signaling, making eye contact, and then muscling your way into the flow of traffic as if it’s your God-given right. There may be some so-and-so who’s determined not to let you in, but you can’t let it faze you. The attitude has to be “here I come, so get out of the way. Oh, you’d prefer to rear-end or sideswipe me and raise your insurance rates? Make my day, pilgrim.”

No, the problem is not the loonies with whom you have to share the road. As has famously been said, “we have found the enemy, and the enemy is us.” My chief adversary out on the road is myself alone.

This is not to say that I won’t end up in a wreck eventually. If I do the commuting dance long enough, the odds are simply not in my favor (particularly in light of my already dented, scratched and crunched driving record). More than likely, however, the day of infamy will arrive when I fall asleep while tooling down Highway 99 at 70 miles per hour.

I’ve tried just about everything to stay awake on the drive home. I keep the windows open, blast the music, sing, slap my face. I drink coffee in the afternoon and sip a Pepsi on the road. Sooner or later, however, I catch myself nodding off. It’s been a long day and the road is monotonous. More than once already I’ve reached my exit with little memory of how I got there. I guess my horse knows the way home.

All I can do at this point is count the years remaining until retirement and hope that, in the meantime, I’m not awakened by an exploding air bag to the face.

And with that I shall say good night. 3:30 am comes early.

The Commuter Life: Ready, Set, Go!

Tessie, my sister’s new toy, er, commuter car.

My sister recently texted me a photo of her newest acquisition, a shiny black Tesla. “This is Tessie. Pretty no?” she asked by way of introduction. “She’s sitting in the garage sipping electricity.”

The thing costs almost as much as I earn in an entire year. But then again, the garage in which Tessie imbibes electrons is part of my sister’s million dollar plus home on a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. Tessie is now her commuter car.

Someone needs to tell Sis that she is doing things backwards. Thousands of Bay Area employees cannot afford to live there and endure hellish daily commutes from the exurbs just to keep their jobs. Sis, who has always been a bit of a firebrand, has decided to buck the trend. While she has been unable to escape the fate of the supercommuter who spends hours behind the wheel, she at least gets to do it in reverse, and on a nontraditional work schedule, to boot. She commutes from her fancy home in the East Bay against traffic to two jobs in the Central Valley. She mitigates the distance by working both weekend days and by staying over with my parents two nights per week.

I feel sorry for my parents.

Mom and Dad are well in their eighties, but that doesn’t stop Sis from upending their routine on a weekly basis. My sister leaves her junk all over the place at my parents’ house, then disappears for a week. If my parents try to clean up, when Sis returns she throws a fit about not being able to find anything. Oh, and she brings my parents food and expects them to cook it for her.

Granted, I would not enjoy living the type of commuter lifestyle that my sister has fallen into. And so, the vagaries of fate being such as they are, the commuter lifestyle went out and found me instead. It’s about to bite me on the nose.

At the improbable age of 60, my wife and I have just purchased our first home. On the salary of a public servant, we cannot begin to afford the hyperinflated prices of houses near my workplace in Sacramento. We ended up buying a newly-constructed home in a bland subdivision in an exurb requiring a commute that nearly rivals my sister’s.

I’ll have a better idea of how this odyssey will play out when I embark on this new challenge next week. What I do know at this point is that I must leave our new home no later than 5 a.m. for the 45-minute drive downtown if I am to be assured of a parking space. Coming home, however, will be far worse. The outbound commuter traffic on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush is reminiscent of the parking lot known as the Long Island Expressway. Not that I would even attempt it. I panic at the very thought of merging into freeway traffic from the downtown streets at rush hour. I am not prepared to take my life in my hands. So I figured out an alternate route through surface streets that is likely to take me at least an hour and a half. I know, I should count my blessings when thousands sit in their cars for four to six hours each day. It’s just that it will take me some time to get used to the commuter life.

My chief concerns are the cost of filling up my gas tank every day ($4/gallon out here), the fact that my already aging vehicle will surely give up the ghost on Highway 99 one fine morning, and that I already struggle to fight off sleep on a relatively short 30-minute commute. My plan is to pull into a fast food parking lot about halfway home and take a nap in my car before hitting the freeway. This, of course, will extend my commute to encompass even more of my day.

I am fortunate that my very generous wife has agreed to drive me in and home two days per week. On those days, I can put my seat back and saw logs while in transport. As for the other three days, I’ve made contingency plans for those inevitable times when there are simply no parking spaces to be found anywhere near my place of employment. I will simply drive another half hour to a suburban shopping center and will wait there for Uber to pick me up and transport me downtown. After work, I’ll have to pay for another Uber to take me back to my car. On the bright side, my drive home will be shorter on such days.

All in all, I anticipate that the commuter life will turn out to be an expensive time suck that I’ll never really get used to. And then there’s the whole fossil fuels/carbon footprint/destruction of the planet thing. Perhaps it’s time to follow my sister’s lead and buy a Tesla. Not that I can begin to afford one now that, in my old age, I have finally become a real adult with mortgage payments.

Clearly, there is only one solution to the problem of getting back and forth to work. Beam me up, Scotty!

Sanctuary

I’ve been reading lately that President Trump has been considering transporting Central American immigrants from our southern border to so-called sanctuary cities and dropping them off there.  “They should be very happy,” Trump allegedly said, referring to those of us who believe that we should welcome those who seek refuge in our country.

Here in California, we appear to be at ground zero for this proposal.  Not only do we have plenty of asylum-seekers showing up at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, but former Governor Jerry Brown declared California to be a “sanctuary state.”  Furthermore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, my own home in Sacramento County, and ten other counties have declared themselves to be sanctuaries.  I am quite pleased with this.

My understanding of a sanctuary state, county or city is one that refuses to summarily turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds for deportation.  This humane treatment of immigrants who are already here is vastly different than opening the door to those who have not yet entered the United States.  I believe that our president is an intelligent man who understands the difference between the two, yet chooses to pretend otherwise for the purpose of creating maximum drama while seeking to emphasize his prejudice toward Latin American immigration.

Still, I say bring it on, Mr. President.

Those who belittle the fact that we care about our fellow man say that sanctuary cities should not expect any assistance from the federal government as we help our newest neighbors to establish a new life in our communities.  Fine.  All we ask is that you grant asylum to our brethren from the south so that they can lawfully obtain employment in the United States.  We’ll take it from there.

Some have suggested that our fellow Californians Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom should take in several immigrants to their gated mansions.  Ignoring the implicit sarcasm in such remarks, I actually think it’s a fine idea.  Let our leaders lead by example.  But if our elected officials choose to pass up this opportunity to show their mettle, no worries.  The rest of us will step up and set the example for them.

It’s no secret that we have plenty of jobs in California that are going unfilled.  It is difficult not to notice the “help wanted” signs in nearly every retail establishment.  There are so many physically taxing jobs, dirty jobs, low-paid jobs that American citizens don’t want to do.  Those who have walked more than a thousand miles to reach our borders, those who have spent their life savings to be transported here, those who have risked their health and their lives to make it to the United States, these are the immigrants seeking entry whose valiant efforts should be rewarded by a welcome with open arms and an opportunity to fill our vacancies and to become productive, tax-paying Americans.  As for those immigrants who become unable to work due to age or disability, we have state income maintenance benefits available to provide them with the basics of shelter and food.

Turning away those born elsewhere who are desperate to join us is un-American. How can our president say “turn around, America is full?”  We are not full!  To many throughout the world, the Statue of Liberty is a welcoming symbol of the United States.  The famous Emma Lazarus poem at its base says it all:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

So once again I say, bring it on, Mr. President.  You claim to be a Christian, so surely you can understand our welcoming position.  You know, that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself?

The Easter and Passover season has arrived, reminding us that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land, relying on the kindness and humanity of others.  Remember, faith without works is dead.  This is our chance to step up and show what we’re made of.  So let us swing open wide the doors of our churches, our synagogues, and our homes.

We’ve got you covered, Mr. President.  And you can count on us to do you proud.