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’.

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!

Commuters Singing Badly

I like to sing.  A lot.  I’m also terrible at it.  Apparently, I’m in good company, which explains the plethora of awful karaoke out there.

I’ve cultivated my love of singing since childhood, where I had ample opportunity in my Orthodox Jewish yeshiva to learn a variety of niggunim, the traditional Hebrew melodies.  Later, I sang in the chorus in public school for six years or so, and then for one year in college before I finally gave it up to focus on other things (writing, mostly).

It’s wonderful that, at least back then, the schools allowed budding warblers to pretend that they might one day end up the next Billy Joel or Madonna (my New York bias is showing here).  These days, many school districts lack funding for anything but the bare basics and have had to cut music programs left and right.  Also, I don’t know what the equivalent of the general chorus or the concert choir would be in the age of rap.  (Do high school music teachers dare to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the 21st century?)

I think singing appeals to me so much because it is an act of sheer joy.  Warbling is visceral, inherited from the birds, enhanced with human language and stylized with poetry.  It is hard-wired into our genes.

One thing that’s great about singing in church or synagogue is that no one cares how good or bad you are.  It doesn’t matter if you harmonize perfectly, can barely hold on to the melody or sing completely out of tune.  It’s all about participation and community and you get an A for effort.

My singing voice has a catch in it that can be particularly grating to the ear when I start out by accurately hitting a note and then, inexplicably, screechingly launch off a tangent into the stratosphere.  It’s almost as if, even though I’m an old guy now, my voice is still changing like a twelve year old’s.

You can understand why I enjoy singing in relatively private spaces, where I can laugh at myself and not raise any eyebrows.  Outside of religious services, I am reluctant to sing in public for fear of being judged.  “He thinks he’s so good, but he’s terrible!”  I can read the amused or disgusted expressions on faces when my voice cracks, as it always does at some point.

So I start out every day by singing in the shower, while I’m getting dressed for work and in the car tooling down the freeway.  And if I’ve unwittingly allowed a note or two to escape when I have my headphones on at work and I’m really into the music, please don’t tell me about it.  I don’t want to know.

I have certain favorite tunes that I can never sing often enough, many of them Hebrew melodies from the days of my youth (such as “Oseh Shalom,” familiar stalwart of the Friday night synagogue service).  But if my iTunes library is pouring forth from my car speakers, there’s no telling what I might tackle, from Katy Perry to Toby Keith to John Lennon to Taylor Swift.  With my windows rolled up and either the heat or the AC on, depending on the season, I get to have my own private karaoke session, no mike required, all the way down Interstate 5 to downtown Sacramento.  James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” has nothing on me.

This works great most of the time, and it starts my workday on a cheerful note.  But, like any routine that you don’t pay too much attention to, it’s easy to make a mistake and fail to notice until it’s too late.  This happened on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago.

One recent evening, the weather was perfect.  Sunny and 75, just like in the Joe Nichols song.  I had my music on and the window down, as I enjoyed the warm breeze.  What I forgot, however, was that I was bound to have an audience.  Stopped at a traffic light next to a pickup truck, the passenger said “Not bad!,” nodded his head and gave me a thumbs up.  Busted!  Oh God, this was embarrassing.  It would have been bad enough if I had been singing George Strait or The Bee Gees or even Michael Jackson.  But no, he had to catch me while I was belting out an impassioned plea for love along with Linda Davis.  (It’s an oldie, so you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of her.)

This was a long light, so the man decided to strike up a conversation with me.  He told me his name and asked me mine.  He told me that he does tattoos (not a surprise, as every visible inch of his skin was covered in ink) and asked if I knew anyone who wanted one.  “No, sorry,” I sheepishly responded.  “I just got one,” I lied, feeling stupid and trying to sound legit.  I didn’t bother to mention that the Jewish faith doesn’t approve of tattoos, or that asking an old guy in a corporate white shirt and tie who just got caught singing Linda Davis whether he knows anyone who wants a tattoo is probably barking up the wrong tree.

And from now on, I’ll make sure to keep the windows up while I’m driving.

 

36 Miles

sunrise

Sunrise on the way to work (before the time change)

For seven years, I lived within walking distance of my place of employment.  When we moved to Fresno, and again when I was hired to work out in the middle of the desert, we rented the closest house or apartment to my job that we could find at a reasonable price.  Although I didn’t walk to work due to health problems, the duration of my morning drive was typically two to three minutes door to door.  I now realize just how spoiled I was!

It would be an understatement to say that becoming a commuter has constituted a bit of a change.  Instead of living around the corner from work, I now spend a significant portion of my waking hours on the 70, the 99 and the 5.  (If you’re not from California, you may find it strange that we place the word “the” before our road names.  And don’t call them “route numbers.”  Those are freeways, pardner.)

On weekdays, my alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 3:45 a.m.  To ensure arrival at work prior to my scheduled starting time of 8:00, I have to be out the door no later than 6:45.  This gives me three hours to get ready.  Now, that may seem crazy to you, but I am not what you would, by any stretch of the imagination, consider normal (at least not in the morning).  I am so sluggish in the morning that it takes me forever to get going.  I am by nature a night person.  I enjoy going to bed at about the time the sun rises.  Mornings are just not my thing.  After nearly a year of unemployment, however, flexibility has become the name of the game.  I am more than willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary to bring home a paycheck and keep the bills current.

Typically, the drive into downtown Sacramento takes 40 to 45 minutes during the morning rush.  It’s only a matter of 36 miles.  When the traffic gets gnarly, however, all bets are off.  The trip can take an hour and a half.  You simply have to leave early because you never know what nightmare you may encounter en route.  A few weeks ago, for example, there was the Monday morning when a driver decided it might be a good idea to make an illegal U-turn through the median strip while traffic whizzed by at 70 miles per hour.  The poor man paid for that error in judgment with his life.  Between the emergency response vehicles, the wreckers hauling away mangled vehicles and the looky-loos, traffic came to a dead stop.  By chance, we happened to leave early that day and I managed to (barely) make it to work on time.

I say “we” because I am extraordinarily blessed to have my wife drive me to work every day.  There is simply no parking to be had in downtown Sacramento unless you pay the monthly fee to leave your car in a garage or lot.  Many employees take the bus or the light rail to work, and the nearest stop is only a few blocks away.  When walking is a challenge bordering on impossibility, however, you’re pretty much out of luck (unless you arrive at 5 a.m. to grab a space on the street where you can use your handicapped parking permit).  So my wife drives me to work in the morning, drives home and then makes the same round trip all over again in the afternoon.  That’s 144 miles that we put on our car every day, Monday through Friday.  At this rate, we are going to kill our high mileage vehicle in short order.

So far, we have had to replace the front brakes, replace two of the belts, have the tires realigned and change the oil twice.  That’s in less than two month’s time.

And that’s not to mention the wear and tear on my wife.  Her devotion is just one of the hundreds of reasons that she is so precious to me.  I thank her regularly and profusely, but there are some gifts for which even hundreds of sincere expressions of thanks are inadequate.

Come pay day, of course, both of us are thankful.

NoCal road warriors, over and out.

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo

NaNoPoblano

Employed!

It happened about a week ago.

While I was concentrating intently on something else entirely, I suddenly thought I felt a tickle in my pocket.  Sure enough, my trusty iPhone was vibrating.  I wasn’t expecting a call from anyone and I didn’t recognize the number on the screen.

As it turned out, it was an employer to which I had applied sometime in the past few months.  They would like to invite me to travel hundreds of miles to their out-of-state location on Friday to sit for testing.

Hmm, I know how this song goes.  The angst-ridden lyrics include a mention of “I’ve been down this road a time or two,” perhaps as a rhyme for “and this is not the job for you.”  Let’s see:  First, you spend hundreds of dollars in gas, restaurant and hotel money to sit in a training room with 20 or 30 other wannabes in various stages of unemployment discomfort.  I went through this twice down in Orange County this past spring.  Either you type insipid essays in Microsoft Word or you bubble in your multiple guess answers with a Number 2 pencil.  Then you go home and a couple of months later you receive a congratulatory email along with notification that you have now been added to the list of candidates for any management position for which the organization should happen to open recruitment within the next year.  About a month after that, you receive another email inviting you for an interview.  You make more hotel reservations, take gas money out of savings, drive hundreds of miles again to get dressed up, shake hands and tell a lot of stories about your management style and a time when you disagreed with your employer’s decision and how you implemented it effectively among your subordinates anyway.  After that, who knows?  You might receive a call inviting you back to a second interview (now that you’ve already blown through $1,500 in travel expenses) or you might receive a form letter informing you that a better qualified candidate was selected and better luck next time.

All of this flashed through my mind in the ten seconds I had to respond to the employer on the phone.  My answer tasted delicious on my tongue.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I burbled in my most sympathetic voice, “but I’ve already accepted another position.”

You read that right, folks.  After nearly a year of unemployment, Uncle Guacamole is once again gainfully employed in a full-time job.

It gave me great pleasure to be able to turn down this offer to spend a lot of money on nothing.  This pleasure was enhanced immeasurably by uttering it from my own cubicle at my new job on a very quiet floor of an office building from which several dozen of my nearby coworkers could hear my heartfelt rejection.

About six months ago, one of my readers asked that I be sure to inform her when I finally find a job by uttering “Hooray!” and “Yeehaw!” in this space.

Hooray!  Yeehaw!

Never say that I’m not a man of my word.

I have now been on the job for one week and, I’ve got to tell you folks, I am loving it.  I was a supervisor for years until I made my way up to manager.  This job is neither of those and thus represents a significant demotion.  Also I had to take a big salary cut from my last position.  But then again, it’s a big raise from the zero dollars and zero cents I was earning as an unemployed person.  And I will unequivocally assert that it is a heck of a lot better than standing in line for three hours waiting for a food handout.

I am also now a commuter.  My job (ooh, it sounds so lovely to say my job) is in downtown Sacramento, which is 36 miles away, nearly an hour’s drive in rush hour traffic.  Also, there is no parking to be had without paying a monthly fee to a garage and then hiking from there to the office tower in which I work.  Thus, my wonderful wife drives me to work each morning, then returns at 5 p.m. to pick me up.  At two round-trips daily, that’s about 144 miles, which works out to well over $150 in gas.  And we will certainly have to purchase another vehicle sooner rather than later.  Our old trusty isn’t going to last long at this rate.

It is truly a blessing from God that my wife is willing to do all the driving.  The rush hour traffic as one approaches downtown on Interstate 5 reminds this New York boy of his romps of yesteryear on the Long Island Expressway.  It is enough to fray the nerves of one stronger than I.  My wife, however, has it down to a science.  She has memorized every lane change from Arco Arena to Q Street and manages to execute this automotive dance with balletic aplomb.  I’ll say it again:  God has been very good to me.

As if that weren’t enough, I have a boss who is an answer to prayer.  His kindness and patience humbles me.  And if, someday, I make it back into management, I want to be like him.