Category Archives: In Person

The Test Drive

I stood there on the edge of the dealership lot, on the sidewalk, but just barely.  My eye had been caught by a 1969 Buick Skylark convertible.  It was the GS 400 trim level and was white with red interior.  It sat there and beckoned me as I walked by and I was drawn to it.  It looked something like this:

A Skylark Convertible

A Skylark Convertible

However, that picture doesn’t really capture the moment as it was back then.  It was a bright, sunny and warm California day, the car was fully detailed and every surface gleamed.  We were in that dead period for US made convertibles, so this car, with a powerful motor and an open top on a perfect day for such things, was an object of desire.  I wanted it.

As I sat there, likely drooling on the body work as I ran my hand lightly over the synthetic leather-ish seat material, a salesman wandered over and began to engage me in conversation.  He must have been good because I didn’t run away immediately or make the sign of the cross and shout, “Just looking! Back! Back! I am JUST LOOKING!” as I tend to in such situations.

As I recall, he was quite willing to talk about the object of my desire for a little while, and so we went for a bit.  It was a weekday afternoon, so things were slow I imagine.  I certainly do not recall anybody else on the lot clamoring for his attention.

Eventually we started talking about other cars and he said he had another one that he wanted me to see.  I had nothing else to do, so I followed him, wondering what other treasures the lot might hold.

However, he wasn’t really interested in looking at cool cars and shooting the breeze.  He wanted to sell me a car and, having sized me up from our conversation, brought me over to the used end of the lot where he showed me a 1976 Plymouth Arrow GS.

In this very shade, though not this shiny

In this very shade, though not this shiny

This was, I must admit, a lot closer to my potential price range.  It was a popular car for a bit, being heavily advertised with the Me and My Arrow track from the Harry Nilsson’s album The Point! back in the day.   The salesman was quite keen to show demonstrate the vehicle to me, insisting that we go for a test drive.  Being somewhat shy, I let him lead on and got in the passenger seat.  He started it up and drove off the lot and up the street a ways, then pulled over, undid his seat belt, and said we should switch seats.

Slowly I got out of the car and walked around to the driver’s side, slid in, adjusted the seat a bit, and buckled up.  The salesman was busy telling me how he had to drive the car off the lot for “insurance reasons” but I could take it from here.

This is the point in the story where I need to stop and tell you I was 13 years old at the time.  It was the summer between 7th and 8th grade and I was standing in front of the Century Chrysler Plymouth dealership there on Stevens Creek Blvd. because that is where the old 23/24 line bus stop was located.

But rather than getting on the bus and heading to… I don’t recall… probably to the San Antonio Hobby Show up in Mountain View… where ever I was going, I was now sitting in the driver’s seat of an automobile on Kiely Blvd. with the engine running and an adult in the seat next to me waiting for me to put it in gear.

What the hell! Let’s go!

Actually, the whole scenario wasn’t all that bad.  If I put my daughter in the same situation today, as she is the same age I was back then, she would be lost enough for it to be obvious she shouldn’t be driving.

But I had spent many a summer on my grandfather’s farm out in the central valley of California.  I had been driving farm equipment of one type or another since I was six.  The thing about being tall when you are a kid, and I was tall as a kid, is that adults frequently… and mistakenly… estimate age, maturity, ability, and general assumed knowledge of the world based solely on your height.

In hindsight, my grandfather, who didn’t stand all that much taller than me by the time I was 13, just had me do things that he estimated were appropriate for my height as much as anything.  I was the first grandchild, so everything to do with me was pretty much experimental anyway.  Boundaries that corralled my cousins later on had not yet be drawn.  Plus, when you’re out on the farm and you have to drive out to help repair a piece of broken equipment or top up the tank of a pickup that ran out gas, and there is just the two of you, both of you have to drive back.  Practicality dictates.

So, technically, I could drive.  I had certainly driven vehicles more complicated than this Plymouth.  It was even automatic transmission, so why not?

I don’t recall if I put my signal on or looked over my shoulder before I pulled out onto the road, but I got there.  As we reached Saratoga Avenue the salesman told me to turn right.  I went through the channelized right and onto Saratoga where he again indicated I should take a right, only this next right was the on ramp to Interstate 280.  I was a little rough making that corner, not having bothered to slow down, causing the salesman to grab the overhead handle.  There was no real danger, I just hadn’t gauged the corner quite right.

We went down the on ramp and onto the freeway and I brought the car up to and then past the speed limit, the engine roaring to the extent that the little four cylinder could.  He then indicated I should take the next off ramp, which would put us along Lawrence Expressway and then to turn back towards the dealership up Stevens Creek Blvd. again.

I took the corner onto Stevens Creek a bit too fast, but otherwise kept it between the lines and managed to pull up into the dealership lot and park the car with some degree of accuracy.  I am sure the salesman had seen worse.  The route was something like this, with the X marking where I took over driving and the red pin where the dealership lay.  Oak Tree Mazda is right next door and only on the map because I used it as the start point and then made the route go via Interstate 280.

Map copyright Google Maps and all that

Map copyright Google Maps and all that

Google puts the whole route at just shy of three miles.  Great fun and likely the highlight of my summer on reflection.  I have actually driven that same test drive route on several occasions when shopping for a car on that stretch of Stevens Creek, and I think about this day every single time.

So there we stood, the salesman and I, his hand on the hood of the car.  We were now into what I recall as the difficult bit.

As you might have guessed, he wasn’t just taking people out for joy rides for the fun of it.  He wanted me to buy the car.  He was just three years early on that front.  When I was 16 and had spent two summers working at the family business to save up money and had a fast food job during the school year to keep an automobile in tires, gasoline, and repair… and actually had a driver’s license… this would have been a very good car for me.

I even thought about this very car when it came time to buy one of my own.  Unsurprisingly, it was long gone from the dealer’s lot by then.  Trust me, I checked.  The optimism of youth.

But at that point in time, with no job, a weekly allowance of $2, and lacking any official state sanction to operate a motor vehicle on the public roads, the whole idea… no matter how much I might have wanted the car… was pretty much off the table.

But how to communicate that?

I was already keenly aware of the unlawfulness of what I had just done.  I was not about to blurt out my actual age and lack of a driver’s license.  I figured that trouble lay that direction and could see them calling my parents at a minimum and maybe the police if they were well and truly enraged.

But I couldn’t just up and run away, though the temptation struck me.  While I lacked any sort of polished manners, not an uncommon situation for 13 year old boys, I had a sense of what being completely rude was, and turning on my heel and walking off after being offered a drive seemed to fall into that territory.

So I adopted an attitude of non-committal interest in all the salesman had to say.  Yes, the car seemed to be a good deal, if not explicitly for me.  I appreciated that he had some room to work with on the price if I was a serious buyer.  I acknowledged that the detailing they offered to do on the vehicle and the extended warranty were generous as far as it goes.  I just never said, “I ain’t buying the car” and I never hit a point where I felt I could exit the scene gracefully.

This went on for a while as the salesman pointed out that I clearly liked the vehicle, that the price was one of great reasonableness for a car of such value and efficiency, and offering to sweeten the deal in this way or that as time dragged on.

As an adult I have never been able to hold this much sway over a car salesman as I did as a scared and embarrassed 13 year old boy.  I could have set my price, had I been in the market and all those other details.

Eventually he decided that he needed help to pull me over the threshold and get me to buy the car.  I was clearly interested, as I was still standing there on the lot with him next to the car.

So he went to get his manager.

In hindsight the couple of minutes I was standing there alone next to the car was my opportunity to escape.  I could have bolted around the back of the lot and come up around behind the Meridian Quad to hide in the Time Zone arcade where I would later see Space Invaders for the first time.  I would have been free.

Instead I waited, not wanting to be rude.  And so I was standing there as the sales manager came out.

He was a salesman of the old school.  He was loud and brash and literally used the phrase, “What do I have to do to get you to drive off the lot in this car today?”

He wasn’t going to put up with my non-committal nonsense.  He wanted an answer… the right answer… and he wanted it now.  And when I kept veering away from the direction he wanted to go, he got angry… or decided that playing angry was the right move.

That was actually a liberating moment.

I have much more trouble saying no to people who are being reasonable than people who are not.  And somebody who starts yelling at me… well my Catalan heritage has a tendency to surge to the forefront and I will go from very inoffensive and deferential to yelling back twice as loud in a flash.  It can be very much a light switch mood change.

I didn’t quite go there, but my temper flashed and it gave me the courage to storm out of there like I was offended and wasn’t going to take that shit from anyone.  And so I was free.  To this day I hope that the salesman felt that his manager came out and screwed up his sale.

I don’t recall what I did for the rest of the afternoon.  I am pretty sure I didn’t go back to the bus stop around front.

I was also unsure who I could tell about this.  Who could I trust to not tell, because I still feared that some trouble might follow, and more importantly, who would even believe me.  So I kept it to myself for quite a while, but every once in a while I drag out this anecdote when sitting around swapping tales of misspent youth.

Meanwhile, time has moved forward, as it tends to do.

Century Chrysler Plymouth on the corner of Stevens Creek and Kiely has long since folded up shop.  The location is now the home of Stevens Creek Toyota.  The VTA 23/24 bus line has since been re-routed .  When it came time for me to buy a car three years later, I did end up with a Plymouth.  However it was a 1974 Plymouth Duster, with the 225 Slant Six motor and a three speed shifter on the floor, a ride probably better suited the abuses a young driver can inflict on a car.  It came into contact with a number of large objects over the years I drove it… a tree, some garbage cans, a mountain, the side of a house, a concrete bridge abutment, Barbara Avenue, and two considerably less solid Japanese cars… though one of the latter hit me first.  It was also the vehicle I used back when we played U-Boat, a topic I wrote about previously.

Some of the U-Boat crew in 1982

The Duster, second from the left, me sprawled on the hood

And in late 1986, when the old Duster finally stopped running and could not be revived… it literally quit on me as I drove and the mechanic could not get the motor running again… I bought my first new car, a 1987 model year Mazda 626 Coupe, the last year for that generation, and a great car that I might still be driving today if some guy in a Honda Civic hadn’t plowed into it as it sat at a red light.  A tale for another time.  I purchased it from Oak Tree Mazda, which is right next door to where the events of this story began.  I even went on the same route when I test drove the 626, though the salesman at Oak Tree Mazda wanted to see my driver’s license first.

Probably a wise plan, all things considered.

Trixie Taken From Us

Feline Aortic Thromboembolism.

That was is what took our cat Trixie from us today.  It is a genetic condition in cats that can lead to sudden death or, in the case of Trixie, a clot coming loose that blocks that blocks the flow of blood to the hindquarters.

My wife and daughter came home around lunch today to find Trixie on her side on the floor, meowing in distress, and unable to move her hind legs.  They brought her to the emergency vet near our house while I headed over from the office.  And while the vet took her immediately, she had been in her paralyzed state for a while.  Her paws and hindquarters were cold to the touch, she was in a lot of pain, and the doctor said there was little hope for anything but a very temporary recovery due to the state of her heart.  We had to put her down.

She was just a wee thing when her and her brother Fred came to live with us less than six years ago.

Trixie and Fred in smaller, happier times

Trixie and Fred in smaller, happier times

Today we had to say good-bye, just a year and a month after her brother Fred passed on.  The vet thought it likely that Fred’s sudden death was from the same genetic disposition.

Trixie in my arms at the vet

Trixie in my arms at the vet

In a house of tall people and big cats, she was a wee little thing, just 8 lbs, with a squeaking, high pitched meow, who would go every place at a trot or a run, and who had to scale every piece of furniture in the house.

Trixie atop the fridge

Trixie atop the fridge

In the kitty order of things she was “my cat,” though she was happy to be with everybody in the family.  But when she was young, when I got home she would meow at me and jump up on the kitchen table, putting her front paws on the back of a chair to get her just a bit higher, where she would wait until I came over to pick her up.  She would then wriggle out of my arms and get up on my shoulders so that she could ride around up there… at least until I got close to something taller, at which point she would jump for that.

She also slept on the bed with us every night, either on my wife’s hip or cuddled up with our 15 year old cat Oscar.  She wasn’t much of a lap cat and didn’t like to be held, but she would come over to me at night some times and dig for my hands until I would pet her.  Then, in a display of kitty OCD, she would first lick and then lightly nibble the tip of each finger on that hand.  After that she would run off.

At the vet we all held her one last time.  She was on pain meds and a bit confused, but purring and happy to see us.  True to form, she tried to wriggle out of my arms for a bit, no doubt aiming to get on my shoulders once more.

Trixie cozy on the bed

Trixie cozy on the bed

And now it is all tears at our house today.  We miss her and her little meows and the sound of her skittering around the house.  So many pets over the years, but saying good-bye never gets any easier.

A gallery of Trixie pictures after the cut.

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Remembering Fred

Fred.  A big fuzzy friend who would head butt us with such vigor to show his affection for us.  He would bring us a toy to throw for him and fetch it back so we could throw it again.  He would open the medicine cabinet and steal a single Q-tipp, running down the hallway with it dangling from his mouth like a cigarette, and eat the cotton off the tips.  Every night he would follow the same routine, first sitting on my nightstand to attack my hand as I attempted to turn out the light, then running off down the hallway to curl up with my daughter for a bit, before finally retiring to his bucket on the cat tree where he would sleep away the night.

He and his sister came home with us a little over four and a half years ago.  He was just a little thing.

Fred and his new favorite toy

Fred comes to stay

But he grew up to be a big cat, weighing in at 15 pounds and long enough that he was able put his front paws up on the bathroom counter to see what was up there while his hind paws were still planted on the floor.  He was so full of life and interested in everything and everyone.

Fur at rest

Full of coziness as well

And then I found him on the floor in our room, on his side, completely still, having choked on something.  He was gone.  We miss him so much.

Fred in the Lights

Fred in the Lights

The holiday spirit has left us.  We feel sad and empty today.

The Random Game

My daughter and I have a game we play.

I sort of pulled it out of the blue one day while we were sitting at the kitchen table and introduced it to her without telling her what I was doing.  I looked at her and said a word aloud and then sat there obviously waiting for a reply.  She would say something and I would reply, “Bzzt.  No.  Wrong.  You lose.”  Occasionally I would just say another word, and get another reply from her.

There wasn’t any real pattern at first.  It was yet another random act of dad-ness.

But then I had to start coming up with some rules in my head, just to make sure it wasn’t totally random.  It was initially just saying something and trying to get her to say something unrelated to what I just said.  Then it became nouns.  And then it was nouns, but they could not be related to what I said or her previous answer.  Oh, and you could not repeat any words previously used.

She started to figure out the game and we ended up talking about the rules, or at least where the boundaries might be.  There are few hard and fast rules.  For example, to “lose” the other person has to call you out on repeats or declare that your last response was too much like the previous two and why.  But if you can explain your way out of the challenge, then the person calling you out loses.

It isn’t a game you can effectively play in a hyper-competitive mind set.  Arguments would be constant if you did. For me it is just more fun to see if I can follow the thought process… both mine and hers… and then how the mind falls into patterns.  Over time it becomes difficult to NOT say something related to the last two things that were said.  And I totally lose track of what was already said and whether it was in the current match or a previous match.

As one of my parental experiments, it was a success.

Or, it was certainly a bigger success then when I got it into my head to simulate what having a sibling was like by following my daughter around the house and repeating everything she said in a high pitched whiny voice.  That made her (and my wife) angry and cranky, which I would count as a huge success at achieving the desired simulation, but which did nothing to improve my stature in the household.  I think even the cats shunned me for the rest of the evening.

I was kind of done with the game after a couple of tries, when the rules were finally discovered and mostly agreed upon.  But my daughter still likes to play.  We rarely ever say, “Let’s play the random game.”  It just starts with one of us saying a word.  Ad she likes to do this in front of other people, so that we appear to be just saying totally random words, often with accompanying nods of the head as though a clever move was just made.  That adds a whole new dynamic to things, and we try for really odd words.

Mostly we play it in the car together when it is just the two of us. Though the last couple of times we did this, it became quite obvious that we were both drawing our next word from things that were going by on the side of the road.  We’re random, but “dry cleaner” rarely comes up in our conversations just by chance.

I am thinking of introducing a new rule where you lose if the other person immediately spots the source of your word.  And so the game evolves and goes on.

Sixty Signatures and the Title Company Staff

We recently finished refinancing our home again.  It is part of the homeowner’s tradition in the US.

The dance is a little different these days.  Back in 2006 when we bought the house, the loan company was happy enough to let me finance it 100% before we had even sold the old place.  For a month or so I was in debt in the seven figure range.  Do I get an achievement for that?

Since the boom, interest rates have come down.  The last time we refinanced, the rate was low enough that we told the finance guy we work with that he would probably would only ever hear from us again via a yearly Christmas card.

And then rates went down even further, so that we could shave off more than a full percentage point from our rate, which in turn would peel a decent chunk of money off of our monthly payment.  Some of that comes from resetting the 30 year clock and the fact that we have paid off a chunk of principle as well, but the low rate helps too.

Getting documentation together took more effort this time around, all the more so because I had been self-employed for the last couple of years.  I had to document where all the money came from since 2010.  The years of really easy money are over.  It is back to the way it was in 2000 or so, and then some.  But we managed it.

The whole refinancing effort culminates in the signing “ceremony” at the title company.  You go sit in a conference room with your loan guy and a title company representative and sign all the documents the loan company wants you to sign.  The title company verifies this, tells the loan company you have jumped through all of their hoops, gets the money, pays off your old loan, and gives you whatever is left over.  That is pretty much how escrow works.

We had our daughter in tow this time around, and while I had the iPad handy for her to play with, she wanted to sit and watch what we were doing.  So I asked her to count how many times I had to sign my name during the process.

The answer: More than 60 times.

That number includes pages I just had to initial.  For every multi-page document, I had to initial each page and then sign the final page.

But given my scrawl of a signature, writing out my initials takes about as much effort as signing something.

Some of it was the usual stuff.  The multi-page document with all of the loan details.  The special document with the interest rate, which includes an explanation of how interest rates work, for people who missed it in the previous document.  The line in the notary ledger.  The detailed list of where all the money was going.

Some of it though was kind of silly.  I had to sign no fewer than three documents that basically said that the house being financed was my primary residence.  There were a few cases of signing documents that seemed to have the same purpose as some other document. And at one point I had to sign a photocopy of a signed document I had submitted on a previous occasion in order to verify that I had indeed signed it.

My wife had to sign and initial nearly as many documents.  There were a few just for me, but she was still over the 50 mark.

This is what happens when you make people accountable for their practices.  They make you sign a bunch of forms to “prove” that they have done everything required by law, whether or not you know the law or the relevance of any given document.  I recall back when a federal regulation came out saying that doctors could not share you medical history without your express written consent.  At my next visit to the doctor, I had to sign a form authorizing the doctor to share my medical history with whomever he damn well pleased or they would simply refuse to treat me.

That is how it always plays out.

Anyway, during a lull in the signing, I asked the woman from the title company if I could ask her a stupid question.

She laughed and asked me if I wanted to know why I had to sign so many documents.

I said no, my question was much sillier.  Besides which, I have worked at big companies, I know about papering over processes with documents and signatures to CYA.

What I wanted to know was why title companies seemed to be staffed entirely by women.

This was my sixth or seventh time to the title office for signing papers in my lifetime, and I could not recall there ever being a man working in any of them.

At this point our loan guy said he hadn’t actually noticed that in all his years of hanging out at title companies, but that in hindsight I seemed to be right.

The woman from the title company told us that, basically, the job involves getting yelled at a lot.  Pompous real estate agents, shady loan officers, cranky buyers, they all seem to target the title company staff when things aren’t going right or closing fast enough or what not.  She said that they do get men in the office from time to time, but that they do not have the temperament for that sort of thing, so do not last very long.

At least that was her theory.  And it certainly has some merit.

Based on what she said, I suspect that pay enters into it as well.

In financial organizations, the people who actually do the customer facing work tend to be paid poorly.  Go ask a bank teller how much they make.  This, along with the fact that she said that the sales end of the business (where commissions come into play) and management over a certain level (where the pay is good) were heavily staffed with men makes me think that, among the things she and her colleagues have to put up with, mediocre compensation might very well be on the list.

But I did not say the part about pay aloud.  That is just my theory.

And my sample set is just title offices in Silicon Valley, so it could be a regional thing.

Anybody out there with title company insight that can confirm or deny my theory?

United 737-900ER in 1950s Continental Airlines Livery

This picture taken at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on July 1, while we were returning from our vacation.  Our plane was the 737 behind it, a couple of gates further down the concourse.

(Signs you’re in Texas: They have a Fox News store in the airport.)

Out on the tarmac

I took this picture for a long time employee of Continental Airlines, which recently finished its merger with United Airlines.  The combined company kept the United name but the Continental colors and logo.

This airplane (N75436 – Google that to find more pictures) was painted in the livery to celebrate Continental Airlines’ 75th in 2009.

I will have to stow away the Continental logo items I have with some Pan Am stuff I have in a drawer.  They might be worth something some day.