The Notebook

Notebook

My wife and I visited my parents shortly before Thanksgiving.  “I don’t want to make you sad,” was how my mother opened a conversation at breakfast one morning.  I knew what was coming.

My father just turned 85 and my mother will be doing likewise about three months from now.  Dad is nonchalant about getting older; his philosophy has always been that “it’s better than the alternative.”  My mother, on the other hand, seems a bit obsessed about her funeral arrangements.

Mom has a notebook detailing her last wishes, and on this occasion, she wished to inform me that she has updated it.  And also that she’s made a second copy in case something happens to the first.  It’s starting to feel a little creepy.

Now, I know that many will find my mother’s initiative admirable.  I would tend to agree if her instructions had something to do with, say, disposition of her assets (she says she doesn’t have a will) or even what type of casket to use or what music to play at her funeral.

No such luck.

My mother doesn’t care about any of that stuff.  She says that no one but immediate family would attend her funeral anyway, so there’s no sense in spending money for a lot of worthless nonsense.

Mom’s funeral notebooks are primarily devoted to the minutia of how to have her body transported from California to her family burial plot in New York City.  I’m talking about which airline to use, which funeral home to call on this end, which funeral home to call in New York, how to contact the cemetery to have them open a gravesite.

Sigh.

When I try to make sense of this, I remind myself that there is plenty of precedent going back millennia.  After all, the Children of Israel honored Joseph’s wishes to bring his bones up from Egypt to be buried in the Promised Land.  And that involved forty years of wandering in the desert, not making a reservation with United.  But still.  Is this really necessary, parents of mine?  Yes, I know, Mom, you want to be buried next to your mother.  I get it.  Um, I think.  Uh, why exactly do you insist on staying in California if you wish to spend eternity in New York?

I’m glad that my parents no longer have to deal with the winter weather that they so dislike, but really, why would an octogenarian elect to reside nearly 3,000 miles away from his or her final resting place of choice?  To me, it’s simple.  I have resided in California for nearly a quarter of a century, and here I will be buried.  If California is good enough for me to live in, it’s certainly a good enough location for my headstone.  I doubt that I will ever move anywhere else, but if I do, then just bury my carcass there in the local cemetery, please.  Don’t even think of transporting my decomposing corpse on a final plane ride to a location thousands of miles away.  That’s both insane and insulting.

As for my parents, they made New York their home for the first sixty years of their lives.  In my opinion, if they want to spend eternity there, then they had no business moving to California.  I think my uncle got it right.  He lived down the street from us in New York, and at the age of 92, he’s still there.

What’s even crazier is that Mom has mentioned more than once that, were she terminally ill, she would attempt to travel to New York City so that she could breathe her last in close proximity to the cemetery.

There just isn’t a lot I can say when Mom starts in with this kind of talk and her notebooks.  Yes, I assure her, I’ll honor your final wishes.  Yes, I know it’s paid for.  Yes, I’m glad that you have informed my sisters (since they will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting anyway).

Arguably, my father goes to the opposite extreme.  When Dad is asked about his final wishes, he often says something about stuffing his body into a sack and throwing it in the river.

Maybe he’s on to something.

 

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When Wildfire Comes to Town

And still the Camp Fire burns in Butte County, California. Four days after walls of flame that seemed to appear out of nowhere roared through the community of Paradise, destroying homes, melting cars and even burning residents alive, the fire remains only 25% contained.

I live near Sacramento, 90 miles south of the inferno, a safe distance from the scenes of tragedy, but close enough to be reminded just by stepping outside. The persistent smoke that has blanketed the area has made the air dangerous to breathe. The local fire department has begun distributing face masks free of charge.

Smoke blankets the area on Saturday. Photo taken on Interstate 80 heading west into Sacramento County.

The sun glowed an eerie iridescent orange as the sky became covered by smoke on Saturday in Placer County, east of Sacramento.

 

Some of the evacuation shelters are now full. Many taking refuge there are elderly, disabled or both. Free food and clothes are being distributed in the Wal-Mart parking lot in nearby Chico, while houses of worship, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and generous volunteers all assist in providing for the immediate needs of the displaced. Everyone is doing his or her part.

It is so encouraging to see a community come together in a time of crisis. And yet I wonder about who will see to the long-term needs of those wandering about like dazed zombies, having narrowly escaped the conflagration with only a car or a pet, or in some cases, with only the clothes on their backs. What of the victims six months down the road? Think about it. Who can afford to buy a new trailer? Who happens to have a down payment on a new home just hanging around waiting to be spent? What happens to the victims when the spinning news cycle moves on and everyone forgets?

And what of the homeless in our area who were lucky enough to be outside the fire zone, who were not burnt out but who have resorted to living on the streets for years as a result of a variety of other unfortunate circumstances? Where is the community outpouring of support for these people?

Homelessness is an equal opportunity scourge and we need to take a no-fault approach just the same as we do with auto liability insurance. The love that I see expressed in so many ways toward the victims of the Camp Fire warms my heart. Now we need to extend it to all those in need. Not just at Christmas and when wildfire comes to town.

The Rules

I graduated from college nearly forty years ago.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that, late last month, I began a Saturday morning Spanish course at Sacramento City College.

Honestly, I thought it would be over before it began.  Even one four-credit course is costly, once you consider tuition, books, parking permit, supplies, and gasoline at $3.16 per gallon.  My hope was that perhaps my employer would pay for it.  Keep in mind that I work for the state government, where red tape is the name of the game.  I was surprised and grateful when I was able to obtain the proper signatures and the paperwork went through.  If I get through successfully, I plan to make the expense well worth the taxpayers’ while.  I hope that this will be the start of an adventure in the Spanish language that leads to certification, enabling me to assist with Spanish interpretation and translation whenever needed.  And I look forward to never again being flummoxed when I answer the phone at my desk and the voice at the other end begins to plaintively ask me for help en español.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  For starters, I knew I’d be bidding adíos to lazy Saturday mornings sleeping late.  (Or “sleeping in,” as most people say in California.  I hate that phrase.  Is sleeping in an alternative to sleeping out, as in camping in the backyard?  Even after all these years in California, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase “sleeping in” is always “sleeping in what?”  My PJs?  My skivvies? Hmmm.)

More than hauling myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. after a week of early rising for work, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what college is like in the new millennium.  I fully expected to see my fellow students arrive in class with their mini-laptops.  That doesn’t faze me.  While I am far removed from the Twitter and Snapchat generation, and lack the depth of tech savvy of my younger peers, I feel confident enough to hold my own in a Spanish class with my old school looseleaf notebook and hard copy textbook.  I planned to study, study, study to pull off that coveted A and make my employer proud.

Surely class participation, tests and homework couldn’t be that different than it was in the 1970s, right?  Pay attention in class, copy down what the professor writes on the board, memorize all the stuff you need to know for the tests — surely the rules haven’t changed that much even since my elementary school days.

Let’s just say that I was in for a bit of a surprise.

First, there was the syllabus presented by the professor on the first day of class.  It was 30 pages long.

One of the pages of the syllabus informs students that a loss of class participation points will result from any of the following in-class responses to questions from the professor:

  • I don’t have the textbook
  • I did not get that far.
  • I did not do that one.
  • Can I do a different one?
  • I did not understand the assignment.
  • The library did not have an available textbook copy.
  • Incoherent/unrelated/random answer.
  • Answers in English/failure to use Spanish.
  • “I don’t know.”
  • I am trying to connect to the eBook.

The last time I recall trying any of these was in sixth grade.  Why is the professor doing this?  Surely no one who has made it to college would stoop to such depths?  This professor must just be trying to show that she’s strict, I decided.  There are always some teachers who like to lay down the law on the first day, right?  Surely such grade school style micromanagement is unnecessary at this stage of education.

During the second class session, I was sadly disappointed.  Nearly every one of the excuses listed in the syllabus was uttered by someone in the class.  With twenty years of teaching experience, clearly this professor knew exactly what she was facing.

What really surprised me, however, was the list of rules I found posted on the wall when I sat down at a study carrel during the class break:

PANTHER PRIDE

Keep your voices down.

Do not sit on the tables.

No sharing chairs!  Only one person per chair.

Offensive language and bullying is unacceptable.

I was shocked that the college has to call out potty mouths and, um, bullies?  Like on an elementary school playground?  So, like, should I expect a fellow student to shake me down for my lunch money or kick me in the balls?  Whoops, I don’t think you can say “balls.”  Sounds like offensive language to me.  And, um, sharing chairs?  I don’t even want to know!

My junior high school was known as the Panthers, and the similarities are not lost on me.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, fate conspired to play “Can you top this?” during Saturday’s class.  It was rather warm in the building, and the professor had kept the door propped open to allow air to circulate.  About halfway through class, a skinny young man strolled into the classroom and sat down two desks away from me.  He was wearing no shoes and no shirt.  Kenny Chesney notwithstanding, all of us immediately knew that there was indeed a problem.

“You’re not in this class,” the professor said calmly.  That’s when I noticed that the young man was holding his T-shirt.  It looked filthy.  His body began jerking and shaking as he struggled to put on the shirt.  “Yeah, I am,” he responded.  “I’m late.”

It was fairly obvious that this kid was tweaking.  When he finally got the shirt on, he jumped up out of his seat and ran out of the room.  The professor had to stop the class to call campus security.  I suppose we were all lucky that he didn’t have a weapon.

Welcome to college in 2018.

 

 

Pit Toilet

ON THE SEAT OF A PIT TOILET AT A TINY REST AREA OFF U.S. 395 IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

My wife was driving. We were on the way home from yet another work-related trip to a remote corner of California.

“Ha-ha, laughs and giggles,” I told my wife.  “This is funny but I really, really need to stop and use the rest room as soon as we see one. Funny, I know, because there’s no place to stop.”

We were in the middle of nowhere, amidst hayfields on both sides of Highway 395, 65 miles south of Alturas CA, 116 miles north of Reno NV.  Luckily for me, a sign appeared on the horizon, “Rest Area 1 Mile.”

Sure enough, we came upon said rest area and I toddled off to the side of the building marked “Men’s.”  Happily, no one was occupying the premises.

To my chagrin, as I bolted the latch, I found myself in the dark.  I felt around for a light switch and found none.  By the bit of sunlight coming in through three small grates, I stared deep into the filthy bowels of what I vaguely recognized as a pit toilet.  Perhaps it was the lack of a flush handle that gave it away.  Or perhaps it was a flashback to a camping trip with my family when I was eleven years old.  Six of us crowded into a tent, and my father would wake up to ferry us to the latrine in the middle of the night by flashlight.  The venue was a campground near the tiny town of Gilboa in upstate New York.  I had no idea that the place was named after the location of a Biblical battle, but I did develop an impressive case of butt rash.

I hope I avoid that ignominous fate in my current situation.  In my urgency, however, I was left with no choice but to grit my teeth and sit down.  I count my blessings, for there is not one, but three rolls of toilet paper at my disposal here.

I brought some trash from the car to dispose, but no trash basket is in evidence.  Worse, however, is the fact that there is no sink.  So, after squatting over this putrefying hole, I won’t even be able to wash my hands.

Oh, gee. Some poor soul is rattling the door handle, desperate to get in.  I hear a slight moan, and then what can only be described as a retch.  Listening to the wretch retch, I can only feel sorry for this poor person.  “Look,” I privately reason with him, “you can puke your guts out on the lawn of this rest area, making a horrible mess in the process, and everyone will take pity on you.  I, on the other hand, do not have the option to drop trou, grunt loudly, and violently defecate in the sunshine without being promptly arrested for indecent exposure and summarily hauled off to jail in the CHP paddy wagon.  And what would I tell my boss when I call out from work tomorrow?  You, my friend, can call in sick.  I, on the other hand, will have some splainin’ to do.”

Back at the car, my wife gripes about finding a similarly disgusting situation in the women’s room.   “Do we have any hand wipes?” She asks.  “Ah, we have one left.  There should at least be a place where you can wash your hands!”

We share the single remaining pre-moistened towelette as we fly down the road.  We need to find someplace to stop for lunch.

But first, we need to wash our hands.  With lots of hot water and soap.

Ick.

 

2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 2

BURBANK

On a neighboring board today, I noticed that a competitor had played the word COQUIS. I had never seen the word, but he said that the coqui is a type of frog. Of course, I had to look it up. Indeed, the amphibian is native to Puerto Rico. I always find it interesting when I learn new words at a Scrabble tournament.

The severe heat in Los Angeles is relatively unusual; temperatures of 110F and above are much more common at home up north in Sacramento. It’s as if we came down here and brought the heat with us.

When we got back in our car after going out to lunch on Friday, we were surprised to see the digital thermometer on the dashboard read 122F. It sure felt like it though. Just walking from the rear parking lot around to the front of the restaurant felt like an oven or furnace. The worst part is that the relatively mild temperatures here mean that not everyone has air conditioning in their homes. This can be deadly for the elderly or disabled. The hotel desk clerk handed out bottles of water and urged us to drink aplenty. He didn’t have to ask us twice.

The demand for electricity is enormous when it’s this hot, and the strain on the power grid may result in blackouts. While we have not lost power here, we did lose A/C for a couple of hours today. My wife was glad that we brought along her big fan.

In the playing room at the Marriott Convention Center next door, the air conditioning continued unabated as we played the day’s games in the coolness.

Today, I did worse than yesterday, losing to a series of lower rated players and winning just three games. I dropped down further to eighth place.

Game 1: My opponent drew the Z, but I had the J, Q and X. Unfortunately, the blanks stayed away from me. My opponent played a single bingo (WESTERNS for 72 points) while I had none. Each of us had a 50+ point non-bingo, mine courtesy of tripling the J in both directions. I struggled throughout the game and was lucky to lose by just 18 points. Loss: 360-388.

Game 2: I went second and started out by bingoing with ARANEID for 63 pt. My opponent bingoed right back with the phony MENTORER, which I challenged off. He never did get a bingo down on the board all game. I later had a second bingo with TANSIES, also for 63 points. I was surprised when my opponent called “hold,” as this is a basic list word, TISANE + S. Ultimately, he did not challenge, although he did unsuccessfully challenge my play of ESPY (on the triple, hooking the S to U-less Q word TRANQ) right at the end of the game. My favorite play of the game was BARONY for 33 points. I had never played the word before and was surprised to find it in my rack. It’s nice when things go your way. Win: 410-299.

Game 3: My opponent drew the bag and wiped the floor with me while I contended with a steady diet of vowels. She played just one bingo, HELPING for 85 points, courtesy of a blank. My best word of the game scored just 28 points. Sometimes you just spin your wheels and pray that the game will be over soon. Loss: 245-386.

I followed the same lunchtime pattern as yesterday, napping for 90 minutes and bringing a slapped-together sandwich back to the playing room.

Game 4: I should have lost this game, winning on a fluke. Both my opponent and I had our problems, with each of us exchanging tiles twice. She had one bingo (a great vowel dump, ENTITIES, for 68 points) to my two (PARTING for 71 pt and TENDERS for 67 pt). I drew the Q, held it for several turns with nowhere on the board to play it off, and finally threw it back in the bag to avoid further jeopardizing my bingo opportunities. Toward the end, I inadvertently played a phony (ZATI for 33 points), which is acceptable in the Collins dictionary that my online tourney group uses. My opponent was later quite upset with herself for failing to challenge the play. (Could that be why she stormed off without squaring the tiles at the end of the game?). Still, we were just three points apart after turn 16. Then a funny thing happened. Remember the Q that I had exchanged earlier? It’s baaaack! Only this time, a triple letter square was open and I held a blank, allowing me to play QI while tripling the Q in both directions for 61 points. Win: 402-342.

Game 5: Next, I had to play the division’s top seed, so I felt that a loss was inevitable. Also, I have played this gentleman before at Berkeley, and know what it’s like for him to drag me through the mud. I guess I should be grateful that I lost by only 39 points. Still, I would have liked to have done better, considering that I drew both blanks. They enabled me to bingo with ENTRUST for 70 pt and NOTARIES for 64 pt. My opponent was unable to bingo at all, which did not stop him from winning (the guy is really good). Undeterred, he played XI with the X tripled in both directions for 50 points. He pulled ahead of me about halfway through the game and I was unable to come back. At the end, in desperation, I laid down the only play I could find that would use the open triple. Unfortunately, VOIP is good only in the other dictionary. I was not as lucky as I had been in the previous game, my opponent swiftly challenging it off the board. Loss: 373-412.

Game 6: Against a much lower rated player, I bingoed early with TANNERS for 70 points, then immediately drew the X and was able to lay down AXITE on the triple word score for 60 points. I just had everything this game, and my poor opponent hardly stood a chance. After dumping a couple of Is with RADII, I drew both blanks and used them to bingo with FAILURE for 60 points. Then I promptly drew the Z and used it for ZAIRE (48 pt). I felt badly for my opponent, such a nice lady from the local Los Angeles area. Win: 414-251.

Game 7: After that big win, I had to be brought down a notch, a task accomplished with aplomb by my last opponent of the day. Like many other opponents I’ve faced, she managed to pull it off without a single bingo. I bingoed early with BRAISED for 76 points, the only rack-clearing play I had all game. My only other decent play of the game scored 39 points, while my opponent came up with plays scoring 51, 33, 33 and 35 points. It may also have helped that she drew the J, X, Q, Z and both blanks. Nevertheless, she played well and deserved the win. Loss: 314-390.

This left me at four losses and three wins for the day, bringing me to 8-6 for the tournament so far. My playing leaves a lot to be desired, and I anticipate being pulled still farther down in the standings tomorrow. I could make a lot of excuses, but I think it comes down to insufficient word study and making a lot of poor decisions over the board. I definitely need to do better at balancing my rack between vowels and consonants as well as not waiting so long to exchange racks full of junk. Will I ever learn?

Stinkbusters

Ghostbusters

In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars).  In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets).  These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels.  For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder.  Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.”  The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California.  The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop.  Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time.  I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time.  And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.

As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there.  Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at  The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now).  I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes.  I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre.  (Let’s be honest:  When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy).  She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space.  Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.

As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February.  We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor.  For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.

Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof.  That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me.  But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream.  I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to?  I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen.  It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.

The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”  As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home.  It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora.  The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants.  And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car.  My mother and father were horrified.  But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me.  It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.

These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for.  Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares.  One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street.  Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate.  You can do everything right and still end up with nothing.  The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed.  “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends.  We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.

I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there).  She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag.  Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12.  In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.

A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput.  This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day.  This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters.  We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family.  Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy.  Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency.  We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this.  Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.

The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible.  After that:  Ice, ice, baby.  Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club.  Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.

By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat.  By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend.  Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up.  Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation.  After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost.  I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!).  Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say.  I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.

My wife texted me at work.  Want to go to a hotel and shower?  Yes! Oh, yes, please.  As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid.  Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower.  Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit.  When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled.  I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything.  “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.

49er

Well, now even I could smell myself.  This was getting bad.  My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore.  I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative.  We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12.  But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers.  That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town.  Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time.  As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list.  And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels.  The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?

We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available.  By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care.  I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner.  It happened to be Ghostbusters.  Goodness, have we gone retro or what?  That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).

Wow, what a blast from the past.  I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire.  I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa.  She did, and I never heard from her again.

At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine.  Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie.  I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie.  “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

Shower2

Then a shower became available.  My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys.  One key, just $12.  Good news.  We could each take a shower, one after the other.

The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench.  Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other.  The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating.  I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on.  But, by gosh, I felt clean!  And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.

Shower1

Two days later:  Still no hot water at home.  I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again.  Back to the truck stop we went.  Another twelve dollars and another shower for two.  I waved to the pinball machine on the way out.  A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.

Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay.  If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.

Who ya gonna call?

 

For further reading:

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).

Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).

Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’:  On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).

Jessica Bruder’s website:  https://www.jessicabruder.com/

Bob Wells’ blog:  http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/

 

Things I’ll Miss, Things I Won’t

My wife and I live in a tiny house.  Not as small as some of those tree house/doll house thingies you see on TV, but very small nonetheless.  There is a bathroom just inside the front door, and there’s a decent-sized bedroom.  Between the front door and the bedroom is a small space that serves as kitchen, living room and office.  When I step inside the front door, it’s 18 steps to our bed at the farthest end of our humble abode.

We have enough room for a table and the falling-apart love seat that came with the place.  The love seat is my wife’s office (she works from home and spends about ten hours a day there) and where she eats her meals; she rests her laptop on a folding tray table.  The table is my office (where I do my writing, that is) and where I eat my meals.  The TV is wedged kitty corner on top of a bookcase and next to our printer.

Workspace

My office workspace/kitchen table

My wife enjoys working remotely, and I can see the appeal (even though my own attempt in that vein was less than a positive experience).  She can work any hour of the day or night (even in her PJs, if she so desires), as long as she gets everything done.  It definitely saves money on gas.  Also, we can travel at will, wherever there is a wifi connection.

As for me, I’m glad that I work downtown rather than being stuck in our little space all day.  Yes, even with the price of gas.  Even though I have to get up at 4:30 in the morning in order to snag my handicapped parking space.  Even though more than once I’ve nearly met my maker while merging onto the freeway in the predawn darkness.  Even though it takes me 45 minutes to drive the 12 miles home in rush hour traffic.

We have now lived here in our cozy mouse hole for 2½ years.  I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be here.

The best thing about our little place is that the monthly cost is far less than the inflated rents charged for the privilege of being wedged like sardines in a can known as a Sacramento apartment.  And we enjoy the luxury of having everything included — electricity, heat and A/C, water, trash collection, cable.  We experience extraordinarily hot summers in this part of California, and it certainly is a relief to be able to blast the A/C without worrying about a $500 electric bill (what we had to pay in June, July and August when we lived out in the Mojave Desert).  This time of year, however, it gets cold.  One wall of our place is attached to the owner’s garage/workshop, and I don’t think there’s much in the way of insulation.  This situation is further aggravated by the wonky thermostat that we can’t get off the “temporary” setting, hence converting the air temperature from toasty to freezing several times daily.

This place was originally built as a mother-in-law suite, out in back of the main house where our landlord lived with his wife and four kids until recently.  When the landlord’s in-laws decided not to live here, he began renting it out.

My wife likes the place because we’re behind a big iron gate that opens and closes electronically (so far, I’ve only hit it once while attempting to back out of the driveway).  She says the gate makes her feel safe.  Well, there’s a lot of crime in this area (can you tell me of an area where there isn’t?).

Recently, our landlord sold his painting and cabinet installation business.  He had quite a few employees, and he was exhausted after years of supervising them here at his workshop and at installation sites.  His kids were growing up fast and he felt that he didn’t spend nearly enough time with them.  He is relishing in the opportunity to start afresh in Arizona, where the kids’ grandparents are close at hand.  I hear he’s looking for some other type of business to run.  How exciting to start a new life!

Thankfully, our landlord is not selling his house, at least not for now.  He will be renting it to two women whom I believe are distantly related to him.  This means that we get to keep our itty bitty love nest.  We’ll stay here as long as we can, but our guess is that it won’t be too long before he sells the entire place.

Having one’s landlord reside just a few yards away comes with its pluses and minuses.  In some respects, we’re rather sad to see the family go.  But honestly, some things I will miss and other things I won’t.

What I’ll miss:  Having the landlord just a stone’s throw away when the toilet starts leaking, we get attacked by ants, the dishwasher or microwave go wonky, or one of the recessed lights burns out (replacement of a bulb requiring the climbing of a ladder).

What I won’t miss:  The used car lot vibe.  Some days I’ll come home and find two enormous work vans, two of my landlord’s personal vehicles, and my wife’s little beep-beep of a Ford all wedged into the driveway.  Some days we have to park on the street until a vehicle or two can be moved.

What I’ll miss:  Having the kids around.  They’re still a bit shy around me, but they absolutely adore my wife.  And they get excited when my five year old grandniece comes to visit.

What I won’t miss:  The piles of toys, bikes, tricycles and four-wheelers seemingly strewn everywhere.  We’ve learned to dodge the daily detritus of a flock of kids, although we periodically end up stepping on something (an action figure, a toy truck, a grape) or running over something with a tire.

Bikes

The bike pile

What I’ll miss:  The little things.  Showing the landlord’s wife (who home schools the kids) a shortcut for teaching the multiplication facts, receiving a surprise gift of strawberries, handing out ice pops to the kids in the summer, listening to Jonah excitedly telling me a story in incomprehensible baby talk.

What I won’t miss:  Being unable to do laundry for three days in a row because the washer and dryer in the garage are blocked by a work crew busy with a big painting project.  Contending with sickening paint fumes for days on end when cabinetry for multiple accounts is being painted at the same time, just on the other side of our wall.  Stepping around and over cords and generators used to run the electric equipment used in the landlord’s business.

Painting

One of the landlord’s recent painting projects in the garage just on the other side of our bedroom wall.

What I’ll miss:  The animals.  Zoe, the German shepherd.  Tiger, the striped kitty.  And the flock of chickens.  My heart was warmed when, at first, we were told that the family was taking all their animals with them to Arizona.  Gradually, however, I discovered the truth.  Zoe was given away to a nephew.  (Hopefully she’ll be able to run around and get more personal attention in her new home than she does here, locked up in her pen all day.)  The chickens and their coop were given to the neighbor lady.  And, so far, I hear that they’re still planning on taking the cat with them.  I sure hope so.  My wife, who doesn’t even like cats, feeds Tiger all the time, and he follows us around every time he sees us.  Wherever you end up, Tiger, I hope the rest of your nine lives are purrrfectly content.

Zoe

Poor Zoe! 

Hayden and Tiger

 My grandniece with Tiger

Chickens

The hen flock, just outside our front door.

What I won’t miss:  The animals.  Zoe is a really good dog who ended up with a bum rap incarcerated in doggy jail most days.  We routinely bring her our leftovers from restaurants.  My wife makes her chicken broth ice pops when it’s 110 degrees outside (and goodness knows how much hotter in that thick German shepherd coat).  Zoe, I won’t miss hearing your signature first bark, followed by a whine when you’re shocked by that electric collar.  Cruelty!  I won’t miss seeing you throwing yourself at the aluminum fencing, begging for a little attention from someone.  Tiger, I won’t miss trying to figure out where you’re hiding so that I don’t accidentally run over you with my car on the way out to work.  And as much as I’m charmed by the clucking and pecking of the hen flock, I won’t miss the steady parade of chicken poop left on our porch.  Watch where you step!

Good luck in Phoenix, guys.  May blessings be upon you.