Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Car Facts

We shared a car for a year and a half, also known as eighteen long months. More accurately, the last six months were long. It wasn’t to make a statement, although it did. It wasn’t to go green, although we did. It wasn’t to make me end up feeling as though I had less freedom than the average American teenager, although it did. It was that it took that long to get over the trauma of the bug.

The “new” Beetle could not have been classified as a lemon. It was much more evil and insidious. The car was demented, haunted. We ended up really hating it. When we saw people driving their cute, little Beetles around with the adorable daisies on the dashboard, we hated them. Our Beetle was broken.

There was always a problem with the electrical system. When Allie plugged in her iPod it winked out yet again. The window opening mechanism broke five times. The sunroof, which was installed aftermarket, leaked. No one would work on it. Finally, we found matching, black duct tape to seal the leak. The lock on the trunk broke so it could not be opened. The latch on the glove box broke which caused the door to pop open, which caused the battery to be drained by the light. We tried to use the duct tape to keep it closed. Even the duct tape didn’t hold. Finally, Eric got his drill and screwed the damn thing shut. The interior smelled like mildew and dog and dirty feet. It smelled like mildew because the sunroof leaked. It smelled like dog because of the dog. I don’t know why it smelled like dirty feet. Perhaps because of the tennis bag.

Unfortunately, and I happen to know from personal experience, Beetles, like Audis, are very close to the ground. When I took the Beetle to look at property Eric warned me about steep driveways. Oops. I guess that one was a little too steep. I called him at work to tell him that I’d crunched the front of the car - the grille was cracked and one fog light was dangling. He was very nice about it which I appreciated.

We limped along with the Beetle until it refused to hold a charge. It wasn’t solved by replacing the battery. It was some sort of electrical issue, of course. We bought a battery trickle feed machine and kept the car in the driveway plugged into the machine until we needed to go somewhere. Talk about shanty Irish. The trickle feed came in handy later when our driveway became the orphanage for the city dwelling twenty somethings, whose exotic vacations lasted so long their batteries inevitably died. After a while we stopped using the Beetle and didn’t want to invest anymore time, money or effort into it. One day I suggested selling the bug and Eric readily agreed.

I used the same philosophy in the Craig’s list ad that I learned in real estate. Disclose everything. A long time ago another agent told me that if you point out how bad a property is, people will want it. If you tell them it’s falling down and made of egg cartons they will buy it assuming it’s properly priced. If you try to make a house seem better than it is, buyers will pick it apart mercilessly. They may purchase it, but then feel a little disgruntled down the road. Read: lawsuit.
I started my ad out by saying: “Broken Beetle For Sale”. I finished by saying only mechanics need apply. A mechanic bought it so he could fix it up for his wife. The poor woman. He paid less than $2,000 dollars. He was happy - not as happy as we were to get rid of it, but I felt a little bad for the wife.

Fast forward to the day last spring when we decided it was time to purchase another vehicle. What to buy? We got intrigued by Mini Coopers. So cute. The first one we looked at was a red chili pepper. It drove great and was clean as can be but there was something fishy with the ownership. There was no registration sticker and vague mentions of the lien holder. Never mind. A month or two later we looked at another Mini. This baby was bad news. The suspension was clapped - the whole car rattled. Oddly enough, it didn’t have a license plate. The supposed owner mumbled some story about how it had never been mailed by the dealer. Next.

I could feel an impulse buy mounting. The one-car situation was making me crazy and by this time Allie was home for the summer needing transportation to work. We cobbled together an arrangement with Lana so we had four people in two different domiciles sharing two cars, all with different schedules. Talk about coordination. The pressure was on. I like Lana’s little Honda a lot so I went to the Honda dealer and, against Eric’s advice, bought the first car I saw. It was a l990 Prelude with over a hundred thousand miles. When I went back with Lana to pick it up they thought I was buying the car for her. I explained that she had a brand new Honda she’d bought there with Cash for Clunkers a while back. This car was our second car. The guys at the dealership didn’t really get it. Who could blame them?

Excited to have new wheels, I grabbed Allie and we hit the road for a test drive. When we got to the wine country, which is about an hour away, I turned off the engine. Allie pointed out that the car smelled like the old Jeep did when it was burning oil. The interior smelled like cigarette smoke. I knew I’d made a huge mistake. What a piece of crap. Somewhere, in the flurry of all the papers I’d signed, I remembered something about a two day return policy that I’d purchased on the Prelude. I called the dealer and told him I was having seconds thoughts. I suggested he hold my check. Disgruntled about losing a sale, he tried to argue with me. I told him I’d get back to him. The next day Lucy came over and we went for a spin. There was a strange sound. She begged me to take it back. Just as we passed a gorgeous Honda with a “For Sale” sign, my phone rang. It was the salesman from the dealership. He got a little testy about whether I was planning to return the Prelude. The answer was yes. I had just seen my new car.

I’d had buyer’s remorse with the Lexus, but Eric wouldn’t let me back out of that deal. It’s an excellent vehicle despite the fact that I don’t really like driving it. We’ve heard the Lexus described as being as exciting as sitting in a tub of library paste reading a Jane Austen novel. It’s an old lady/old man car. We bought it from the heirs of an old woman who had died. It was a great deal and practically new, but I still think it smells like Depends when you use the seat cooler.

Thank God, returning the Prelude was simple. Because I had called so soon and they hadn’t processed my check, the finance guy was nice enough to waive the $500 restocking fee. Buying the Civic was not so simple. We met the “owner” on Saturday morning of July 4th weekend. I recognized him from the community. His kids played sports on the same teams as mine. He owns a thriving company. We took the car for a little drive and decided it was exactly what I wanted. Very high end model, practically new, with all the bells and whistles like leather and GPS. During the negotiations the “owner” explained that it was actually his son’s car and his son was living in New York City.

We went back and forth a bit on price. The guy was arrogant as hell. He kept telling me how things would be done - where and when to meet. I agreed and he left town without calling me to change the arrangements. Really irritated, I called him and we rescheduled for Tuesday morning after the holiday weekend. I’d spent only fifteen minutes looking at the car, but ten phone calls making arrangements to get it. Tuesday morning arrived and surprise, surprise, Mr. Wonderful was running late. And guess what? He couldn’t find the title. Of course he couldn’t. Why should he be any different from the other two people trying to sell cars they didn’t really own? What is with these people? I can’t imagine trying to sell a car that doesn’t belong to me.

After a bit of due diligence on the DMV website, the “owner” was convinced he had all the paperwork he needed to complete the transaction. I met him at the bank with the cashier’s check. He turned over the paperwork and a single key to the car. Great. One key - just like my last two cars. He told me he would look around at home and get it to me. Happy to be away from him, I went to get in my new car. It was delivered dirty with a fair amount of dog hair. Annoyed, I went straight to the car wash.

Buyer’s remorse bubbled up but I smacked it down. The car was fine. All I had to do was go register it. It only took three hours and cost me eighteen hundred dollars, including $l8.00 to replace the lost title. After I forked over the money, they told me the “owner” hadn’t signed a mandatory form and the process was incomplete. By this time I was getting really cranky. I’d missed my lunch and my recently broken toe was throbbing. I called my favorite man in the world and told him we needed to talk. I may have been a bit grumpy about the dirty car and the fact that I’d failed to notice when we were negotiating price that the year’s registration was only days from expiring. I told him I wanted to be reimbursed for the $l8.00. His exact words were, “I’m not going to argue over eighteen dollars, but I don’t know that I’m going to pay you.”

The signed forms came back to me a few days later. No check for eighteen bucks. What a jerk. I calmed down about it until I heard a strange sound which turned out to be the rear brakes needing to be replaced. I also needed four new tires. I don’t mind spending the $750 bucks on tires and brakes. I’ve got a good car. I do mind the eighteen dollars.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Macy's Bill

It’s been thirty years since I first opened a charge account at Macy’s. I remember taking Lucy to the store (now closed) on Fourth Street in San Rafael. She’d graduated from diapers and we went to pick out some “big girl pants”. Over the years I’ve bought furniture, accessaries, cosmetics, Christmas and birthday gifts as well as lots of clothing. Apparently, Macy’s doesn’t value our relationship the way I think they should.

Due to recent travels I got a little behind on the bills, one of which was my Macy’s account. It was due on September 6th. The balance was $l08.03 and the minimum payment due was $5.00. Despite the fact that the 6th was Labor Day, a holiday, I started to get harassing calls about my bill from a company in Mason, Ohio on Thursday, the 9th. The first call came in at 8:34 a.m. on Thursday, September 9th. I spoke to them and apologized for being late and said I’d send the full payment due immediately, which I did.

Evidently, that wasn’t quite good enough. There were five calls from the same number
(5l3-754-984l) on Friday, the l0th, none of which I answered. They called at 8:36 and ll:22 a.m. There were also calls at l2:39, 3:45 and 6:30 p.m. On Saturday we came home from being gone overnight and there were twelve missed calls, five of which were from Mason, Ohio. When the phone rang again at 4:02 p.m. Eric answered. He ended up in a protracted discussion with the representative associated with Macy’s and explained that the harassing phone calls must stop. He reiterated that I had made a payment. The woman explained that SHE hadn’t called before so she didn’t know I’d made a payment and, by the way, what was the amount of the payment? Finally, Eric couldn’t deal with her persistence and hung up. At 6:43 p.m. they called again.

Ariana Huffington is right. America IS now a third world country. The economy has gotten so bad that it makes financial sense for a company like Macy’s to hire a collection agency to go after customers with a vengeance. Even customers, like us, who are two days late with a five dollar payment. Even cutomers, like us, who both have credit scores in the 700's. Even at the risk of alienating good, longtime customers. Ironically, I still owe them another two hundred dollars after that last payment. While on vacation we went to the largest store in the world - the Macy’s on 34th Street in Manhattan and bought a bracelet for me as a souvenir of our trip. It’s gonna take a miracle on 34th Street to keep me as a customer.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


We recently took a small nibble, a nosh, you might say, from the Big Apple. It was my first trip back in four or five years and Eric hadn’t been there for decades. I’ve been telling him how much New York City has changed for the better. Every hour we spent there proved it. The weather could not have been more perfect for us. Summer swelter had been followed by heavy rains for several days. We got late summer in all it’s glory - blue sky, puffy, white clouds and visibility for miles.

The Manhattan of my childhood was filthy and pretty scary. We sometimes stayed in the city with an aunt and I remember the window sills being covered with soot. Our feet got black from walking around. The streets felt dangerous. Stories of muggings abounded. The mode was survival. New York today is clean and can be immensely livable. People are polite and helpful to strangers. Over the years I’ve been impressed by how considerate Manhattanites, especially the men, have been when I traveled with young children. People would go out of their way to hold doors and help me with the stroller. We never had to stand on the subway.

My friend, Sally, once commented that folks on the West coast are friendly, but not polite. The opposite seems to be true for those who live on the East coast. Over the years I’ve found this to be the case. A Californian will think nothing of telling a stranger something exceedingly personal - perhaps about their cleanse or high colonic. That same person will also let a door slam in your face. Eric and I took a subway along Central Park because I wanted to rent a rowboat on the lake. By mistake, we took the express rather than the local. We had planned to get off at 72nd street, but all of a sudden we were flying by 96th. A woman on the train overheard our discussion and explained exactly how to get off at l25th and go back down to the park. Another woman, an older lady, repeated the directions and followed us until we went down the correct stairwell. She probably didn’t want us to get lost in Harlem, but it was very sweet regardless.

Such a contrast with a recent experience in San Francisco. I went in to have lunch but didn’t have enough quarters for the parking meter. Each quarter covers just about the time it takes to insert the quarter into the meter. I looked around for somewhere to get change. There was a Pack ‘N Ship with about twelve customers in line. I asked if anyone had change for a dollar. Without exception, each person in line said no without checking. No eye contact. Nobody was willing to help me out by exchanging one dollar for four quarters. Disgusted, I was back on the street asking a passerby. He wanted to know why I wanted the change. Why should he care? When I said I needed it for the meter he gave it to me. If you happen to see my car in San Francisco, and it seems to be riding a little low, it’s because it’s filled with quarters.

Transportation in New York is very easy. You walk for hundreds of blocks. When you develop shin splints and your feet feel like they’re going to fall off, hop on a subway. If you’re going a short distance, hail a cab. When Lucy was about to start kindergarten we were visiting New York. My friend, Cathi, took her shopping for some school clothes. At some point Cathi flagged a passing cab. It was like magic. The child was ruined. For the longest time, no matter where we were, when she didn’t feel like walking anymore, Lucy suggested we get a cab. We could be hiking in the woods and she thought we should get a taxi when she was tired.

There is always so much action on the streets and so many types. New Yorkers are famously blase and it takes a lot for them to stop and look at something. At one point we saw news crews, helicopters and emergency vehicles on 5th Avenue, by the Empire State Building. Crowds gathered, trying to figure out what was happening, everyone looking up. Sadly, we found out later that the seventeen year old daughter of the Thai ambassador had fallen out a window to her death.

People watching in New York City is the best. We hadn’t been on the street for more than ten minutes when we passed a French restaurant. The proprietor was out front greeting some friends with big hugs. Eric stepped right up and the owner gave him a bear hug. Eric so bonded with the man he thought we should eat dinner there, but I wouldn’t have it. Tourists taking horse and carriage rides through the park, VIP’s going in and out of limos, locals walking home from work, visitors speaking foreign languages - you’ve got it all.

New York is so much fun, but it ain’t cheap. It costs to breathe. Waiters are so smooth at up charging you don’t even realize when you’ve ordered a six dollar water. I loved our hotel and it was fairly reasonable, but I had to laugh at the bottled water on the bedside table with the price tag. You drink it, you bought it. You can get a classic martini at the oyster bar at the Plaza for nineteen bucks. It will kick your butt, and for that price, it should. Having cocktails in hotel bars follows the same tenets as real estate. It’s all about the location. You are not just buying a martini (or a house). You’re paying for an experience.

On the way home on the plane I reflected on the differences in experience between San Francisco and New York. My best theory is that the large cities in California are full of residents who came from somewhere else. They are the cream who floated to the top. Maybe people feel better than those who stayed. We ate lunch at the diner in the small town where I used to live and I’m pretty sure those people didn’t rise to the top. It was a little like a scene from “Deliverance”. However, when all the big frogs from the small towns get together, there’s a lot of croaking. These thoughts were rattling around in my head when, in a repeat of my migration of the seventies, we had a stopover in Los Angeles.

The only place to eat in the Virgin America wing at LAX is Burger King. I’ve never had the “pleasure” of eating at Burger King. In the future I will choose starvation. Hoping the lumps in our stomachs would settle, we went to the passenger cattle car. I mean holding area. While Eric went off to stretch his legs I was accosted by a rude, foul-mouthed woman who claimed I was sitting in her seat. The only discernible evidence of her presence was an empty coffee cup and a plastic package of headphones. Nasty woman asked, with a sneer, that I move the tennis bag since I’ve taken her seat. No problem. I moved the bag. I asked her to please move over one seat so I could sit with my husband. She meanly suggested that I move so she could sit in “her” seat. I made a comment about her rudeness and she told me I should go f**k myself. I grabbed our stuff and left.

After hearing of the interchange, Eric went to talk to her. It didn’t go any better with him. By the time their conversation was over she told him to go have his wife expletive his expletive. I don’t even want to know what he said back to her. We slunk away, realizing she had us beat. Crazy and maybe dangerous, we were no match for her sub-human style of communication. After ten days of nothing but courteous encounters with strangers in four different states, including New Jersey, this was an eye opener. It’s not like there was a scarcity of seats in the waiting area. What gives? Is this what we’re learning from classless television shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewives”? Los Angeles? San Francisco? I’ll take my chances in Harlem.