Thursday, August 18, 2016

Chapter 5 - No Growth, Shut the Door Behind You

No growth, shut the door – our visit to Mendocino County.

Our next stop on our retirement search was to the opposite coast.  We had seen some information in one of our retirement guide books indicating that Mendocino County was a good place for retirees, with decent home prices.  The information was wrong, but we had to find that out for ourselves.

We decided to try three locations in Mendocino County.  The first was a town called Ukiah, the county seat, but still a pretty small town.  All of Mendocino County, a very large area, contains fewer than 100,000 people.  About 10% or 15% of them live in or near Ukiah.  It was a mill town and an agricultural and manufacturing town. Most of that is gone.  There are vineyards in the valley (Russian River) and some other agriculture survives, and still some mill work but not much. 

Ukiah



Jody had contacted (through Zillow) a realtor in Ukiah.  He called back almost immediately.  His name is Clint Hanks, no relation to Tom, but is really nice, really honest, and very knowledgeable about the area.  He volunteered to show us around, and set us up on an automatic distribution about homes in areas we  might be interested in that were somewhere close to what we were looking for (as if we knew).   

We flew to Sacramento on a Tuesday, on a completely full Boeing 737, and picked up a very warm rental car and headed north on I-5. It intersects California 20, which heads over towards Ukiah.  The ride was pretty interesting, but got difficult as we reached Clear Lake, a huge natural fresh water lake surrounded by lots of vacation type places.  Slow going there. Our hotel in Ukiah was a dump. What can I say, we are seniors and look for bargains.  Our first night we ate at a local restaurant that was a few steps from the hotel.  The steps were warm – Ukiah can get really hot.

The next day (a Wednesday) we were meeting Clint mid-morning, but spent some time driving around the west side of town looking at some of the places he was going to take us to.  We did not attempt to go in, just looked around to get our bearings.  We’re used to seeing newer houses – our neighborhood in Richardson was built in the late 70’s or early 80’s, and most of the communities we’ve looked at have been new construction.  When Clint picked us up, we learned why that isn’t what we would see in Ukiah, or in all of Mendocino County.

The problem is that people who live there would prefer that everything remain more or less the way it is.  Growth is not welcome.  An example would be Lake Mendocino.  This lake was built, by the Army Corps of Engineers, in the 50’s, as a flood control project, and the Army offered the whole thing to Mendocino County for $.01.  They declined, saying they had no plans for any growth that would require that much water.  The lake water rights were purchased by Sonoma County, and Sonoma uses that water to this day.  This no-growth philosophy means that when you look at homes in Mendocino County, you will be looking at a lot of old homes, some of them built before indoor plumbing. more than a hundred years ago  The layouts are all over the place – we saw one home where the master bedroom and bath were in a finished attic, and all the rooms on the ground floor were beautiful but tiny, and the garage had long since been converted to living space.  We saw lots of gun safes, lots of propane tanks, and lots of homes that were on septic systems.  We even saw a couple of homes in Ukiah that did not have air conditioning.

On our first day with Clint, we saw ten houses in Ukiah.  There were a couple that we could have considered.  Prices are insane.  Clint says the first hundred thousand of the price of any house in California is for the weather.  Well, Ukiah is hot.  Not as hot as where we live now (Dallas-Ft Worth) but close.   (By the way, Clint’s phone rings with the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.  He said it was totally appropriate for real estate.)  Most of the homes we saw were on the west side of town, and many of them were homes built for mill workers 60 or 70 years ago, or more.  Most were well maintained and had been expanded, but each was very particular and had its own history. Some of them were in need of TLC.  All were expensive - north of $450,000.

The next day we left our dump of a motel and drove up to Willitts, another mill town without a mill any more, stopping for a cup of coffee on the way. Willitts has a population of only 4,000 or so, down from 6,000 a few years ago.  No jobs.  The drive from Willitts over to our second destination, the coastal town of Fort Bragg, was only thirty miles or so but took us ninety minutes. The road is very, very winding, with a lot of climbs and descents, and huge trees blotting out the sun.  California has 37 million people, but I would guess five trees for every person.  The drive was difficult and exhausting. I guess the locals get used to it.  Clint said it is easier after dark, because the light is consistent and you aren’t dealing with bright sun and near-dark shade every other second.  Makes sense.

When we finally got out of the woods, we headed north along California highway 1.  Fort Bragg is not exactly scenic. It has a quaint downtown, but a lot of chain motels and fast food places.  We were much too early to check in to our next hotel, but we at least made sure to find it, and then, totally by accident, stumbled on the most interesting park in the town. It is officially part of MacKerricher State Park but it is called Glass Beach.  The ‘glass’ is resulting from the old practice of using the ocean as a city dump.  Old bottles and such are worn down by the sea into interesting pieces.  They no longer dump their trash in the sea.  There is a nice walk along the shore, and the day we were there the wind was howling and it was cold, but clear.  We had fabulous views of the Pacific waves crashing on the rocks, and we had no idea that we would not see much of the sun again, at least along the coast. Fog is prominent on the coast in the summer, and this was our day of no fog – we could see the fog bank, but it remained a couple of miles offshore.  We took lots of photos, and found a place to eat lunch in the downtown area.  We found our hotel and it was a lot nicer than our Ukiah hotel, but we had an amusing little hiccup. The room was kind of stuffy, so I tried to put on the air conditioning, and when I did I got heat.  The room had no air conditioning, but it had windows that open, and the outside temperature rarely reached 60. 

Glass Beach Park


Later, we took a ride up the coast to a winery and bought a couple of bottles.  Pacific Star Winery is worth a visit.

The next day Clint came over to show us around.  He also works in Fort Bragg.  We saw ten more houses, with even greater variety in the age and quality.  There are a couple of subdivisions with more recent construction, and we saw some houses in there.  Prices are really high.  Clint noted that Fort Bragg was a soft market and we probably could get some of these houses to come down significantly.  Apparently, back in the Sixties, a lot of Summer of Love flower children moved up the coast from San Francisco looking for cheap places to live, and a lot of them settled in Fort Bragg.  Now as they age, they need to be closer to medical care. Fort Bragg has a small hospital, but for anything significant you have to go to Santa Rosa, and for serious emergency situations they fly you by helicopter to San Francisco.  There’s only three routes out of there going south.  One is the winding road through the forest over to Willits, and then down US 101.  Another is down the coast past Mendocino and across on CA 128 (winding and narrow) to US 101.  The third is down CA 1 all the way, which would take upwards of six hours.  If you want to travel somewhere international, you might try Sacramento and connect in DFW or LAX, or you might drive to San Francisco.  But you might need a hotel near the airport the night before you leave, or the night you come back, or both.

Downtown Fort Bragg
We are only a few years behind the Summer of Love people who are abandoning Fort Bragg because they are feeling too old, and we love international travel, and have an international airport half an hour (depending on traffic) from our current home.  Coastal Mendocino was not looking so good. Mind you, the real estate agent showing us around is the one telling the truth about the area.  When we were through with the ten houses in Fort Bragg, we gave Clint a gift of one of the bottles of wine we bought at Pacific Star.  He was terrific.

The next day we headed to our third destination, the town of Mendocino.  This was really a mistake. There isn’t much there at all.  What we should have done is to plan our trip with Santa Rosa as the third destination, not Mendocino.  There was really no point in our going to Mendocino, but we enjoyed it anyway. It is a quaint, picturesque, touristy town, with lots of great food and interesting shops.  I don’t know if anyone really lives there, and the official population is around 700.  We looked at a few properties that we identified on Zillow as being close to what we wanted, but they all turned out to be three stories.

Mendocino garden

Mendocino headlands park


Our next stop was Sacramento, just to be close to the airport and not to have to drive 200 miles of switchback roads with a deadline.  We elected to drive down to Santa Rosa for a drive-by, since some of our friends have talked about it a lot. We encountered seriously bad traffic problems at several points along the way.  We located one or two properties, but really didn’t know what we were looking for or at so it was a waste.  We split a really good flatbread pizza at BJ’s Brewery. The drive to Sacramento was a miserable experience, heavy traffic and several crash stop near misses. We were so sick of driving, we ate at the hotel.  It was awful but we didn’t care.

Our trip home was on another totally full Boeing 737.  The flight was delayed on account of weather in Dallas, causing the inbound aircraft to be late.  Rain in Dallas in August is unusual, but it’s better than 107, which was the temperature one of the days we missed by being in Mendocino County. We got home after the evening rush hour was over, so it all worked out.


So, the bottom line is that we did not find our retirement place in Mendocino County, but it sure was fun visiting someplace cold in the middle of August.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

It's not the heat, it's the humidity (and the heat)

Chapter 4 of our search for a retirement location.

We had been slacking off in our search for a retirement location.  Two weeks in France in May, followed by about a three week recovery period, featuring a really miserable cold and cough for me that Jody caught and devolved into pneumonia for her, slowed us down.  In July, we got going again.

The theory is to visit a potential retirement location at a bad time, weatherwise, to see if we can handle the worst it can offer.  When we went to Port Townsend in January, it was dark, cold, and damp.  No snow, no heavy rain, but just unpleasant.  When we left, we had a hundred mile drive to the Seattle/Tacoma airport, and it was just awful, right on the edge of being undrivable, raining so hard.  So we were discouraged from pursuing that option.

This trip was inspired by one of my cousins living in the Fort Myers area and another thinking about moving nearby, to Cape Coral.  Rather than focusing on only one area, we tried to explore a place on the Atlantic coast, a place on the Gulf side, and given the very cheap air fares into Orlando, a place in the middle.  The first place we decided to check out was Port St. Lucie, on the Atlantic coast, where the New York Mets have spring training.  I'm sure the local bail bondsmen welcome the Mets every year (thinking back to Doc Gooden and Darrell Strawberry).  This town is north of the really expensive places, but seemed to offer a certain amount of charm.  We contacted a developer (Kolter) who has a new community being built on the west side of town, called Verano.  They offered a stay-and-play package, where we could stay three days and two nights in the community to get a feel for what it would be like.  But we were flying into Orlando, which is a bit of a hike to Port St Lucie, and we decided to schedule our two nights to begin the second night after we got there, or we would essentially be wasting the first night.

Our trip got off to a good and bad start.  The good part was running into our dear friend Anne at the Admiral’s Club at DFW (there are four of them so we beat the odds).  Anne has been our French teacher for a long time, although we are not currently enrolled in class.  She was on her way to California for the weekend.  So we had a chance to catch up.  But then we were a little pressed for time to get to our gate. I was proceeding through the crowds making pretty good time, and looked back over my shoulder to see if Jody was keeping up, which she always does.  But she wasn’t in sight.  I looked around, and she was slowly catching up.  There had been a problem with her Rick Steves rolling bag, something caught in the wheel.  She got that straightened out and promptly fell behind again, complaining that the bag wasn’t rolling right.  One of the wheels was coming apart.  I handed her the handle on my bag, and asked her to roll it, while I carried hers.  We’ve had those bags for a long time, but mine has endured far more abuse than hers, since I’ve made a lot of business trips with it.  But hers failed first. It wasn't rolling worth a damn. (After a while the debris from the 'tire' fell off and the bag rolls okay, at least for now.)

Our flight was uneventful. We had reserved a car, but had some difficulty figuring out where to go to get it. Every airport is different.  At Orlando, the rental cars are in a multi-level garage across the street from the terminal. Hertz has a person standing out in front of their counter to intercept people like us, who have #1 Club Gold (like O.J.?) and don’t have to check in, but don’t know where to go.  So we got directions, headed outside over to the garage and then it hit us.  Florida is really, really hot.  We worked up a sweat in no time. It was breathtakingly hot.

I had asked for a Corolla but got a Jeep Compass.  I guess you would call this a small SUV.  It had Texas plates.  A sign? 

Our drive to Port St Lucie went okay.  Florida has a lot of long, straight roads, and is really flat.  You would think someone from Texas wouldn’t notice, but we have much more in the way of changes in elevation in our part of Texas than Florida does.  We used Jody’s iPhone for navigation, having previously captured in Contacts the addresses we needed.  Siri took us over to I-95 and then down to Port St Lucie.  We found our hotel without too much trouble.  It was a beautiful Hilton Garden Inn, with everything shiny and new. Our room was comfortable.  We ate dinner in Chili’s, probably taking the easy way out instead of trying to find something local.

The next morning we left the Hilton to go to the first of the communities we were going to investigate. With Jody’s roller bag being disabled, I took both our bags out to the car, but as soon as I stepped outside, I was blind.  The humidity was so bad that my sunglasses, cooled from the air conditioning in the hotel, fogged up immediately and completely. I’d not seen anything like it. A bright, sunny, hot and humid day awaited us.

The Kolter PGA Verano development was our next stop. We got past the gate guard, but the office was not open yet, so we drove around the development checking things out. We noticed a couple of things right away.  One was that everything was very uniform – the yards were immaculately maintained and the grass was all one color.  Trees and shrubs were harmonious.  The other was that we saw some new construction, and they use cinderblocks or concrete blocks for building, not wood with brick veneer as we are used to in North Texas.  I guess it makes sense.  If you are encountering hurricane-force winds, you need a hurricane-resistant house.  Verano has an association with the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) and is the only development having it.  This development is not age-restricted, but it sure seemed like it was mostly for retired people.

We got the information on the home where we would be staying, and the salesman came out and introduced himself. His name was Lee, and he was Australian.  Lee basically gave us an overview of the development, and let us walk around through the model park. They have models set up in order of cost, from lowest to highest, and you help yourself.  Since we were so early, we were the first ones there, and had the place to ourselves.

The models were very impressive.  We have a fairly large house for only two people, and downsizing is a goal. Some of the houses seemed to fit our goal, but the layouts were sometimes problematic. I do not like having kitchen, dining, and living rooms all together, for example.  Two, yes, three, no.  Most were that way.  Jody is looking for a big new kitchen and a pantry, and wants to have a tub in the master bath, or at the very least, a tub somewhere.  Those are not universal.

Lee caught up with us to answer questions. One interesting thing is that in Verano all the houses have what he called ‘impact’ windows.  This is not a term we knew.  An impact window is strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds without requiring shutters to be put up.  We also learned that the uniformity and excellence of the yard maintenance was because the homeowners don’t do the maintenance – a landscaping company does it for the whole development.  There’s a monthly charge (more than $400) which includes yard maintenance, security, internet and cable television.

We liked Verano, but there were two problems. One was it was hot as hell there, although the air conditioning in the borrowed home worked flawlessly.  Even first thing in the morning, it was too hot to go out.  The second was that there was nobody there.  We went into the clubhouse to see what was there, and two or three people were at the pool. We went into the exercise room, and there were two bored physical trainers helping each other work out.  I said, can I ask a question:  Where is everybody?  The answer is that many of the people in the community leave for the hot months and go back wherever they came from. Some have a place at Verano as a second home, and some live there but leave in the summer.  One of the advantages of Verano is that it is set up as ‘lock and leave’. If you go out of town, someone does your yard and unless you leave food to rot the house will be the same when you get back.  We even saw collection points at various places in Florida for people who are leaving for the summer to drop off food items for donations to the needy. 

Two major pluses for Verano:  1) a very nice supermarket was right outside the entrance, and 2) one exit on I-95 brought you to West St Lucie, a booming area with lots of restaurants and shopping, not all of it national chains.

Two major negatives for Verano: 1) it was deserted. 2) no on-site restaurant, not even in the golf course.

While in the Port St Lucie area, we ventured over to the ocean one morning.  There are barrier islands off the coast, and entry is only at a causeway at each end of the island in St Lucie county. We went to the beach, but no one was in the water.  A few people were fishing. Generally it was deserted, probably because it was so hot.  There is a long, lonely road down the island, and as you get to the southern tip it is more built up.  Lots of high rise buildings, with all the windows covered by hurricane shutters.  I guess they aren’t planning on returning until fall.  One disappointment was that the island contained a huge nuclear power plant.  Hmmm, nuclear power plant, only two narrow bridges to get you out.  Maybe not the best plan.

We chose a couple of floor plans out of the seven or eight they have at Verano that we thought might work for us, and went back the next day to check them out.  Then we got Lee to take us to some empty houses that were available with those floor plans.  We got the idea, but the extreme heat and the absence of any people worked against Verano.  Our house backed up to a golf course, but we never saw any golfers.  All the homes backed up either to water, golf, or nature preserve, so there would never be a neighbor behind you. 

While we were there I touched base with my cousin Mary, who lives in Fort Myers.  We had a terrible phone connection but the house had wi-fi, so I called her back with Face Time.  I later learned that the phone connection problem was my phone itself, not AT&T.  Face Time is fantastic. Mary sent a message later about a place called Pelican Preserve, another development near where she lives, which she thought we might like.

We left Verano fairly early the next day, and started across the peninsula in the direction of Fort Myers.  The drive across Florida was interesting.  Some areas were covered by a canopy of trees over the highway, making it cooler but hard to see. Other places we saw farmland, grazing, citrus, etc.  Lots and lots of trailer parks.  When we got past Lake Okeechobee, never having seen it, we lost the cellular signal, and Siri lost her mind.  We had to pull over and study the Hertz map for a while to determine which way to go. While we sat there, a sheriff sat in his car watching us, a couple in a car with Texas plates, obviously not supposed to be there, obviously up to something.  He followed us for a while. I was particularly careful to signal every turn and not to speed, thinking of Burt Reynolds in "The Longest Yard".  Welcome to Florida! Eventually the sheriff turned off.

When we got to Fort Myers, we just happened to drive right past one of the developments we wanted to check out, a place called Verandah, also by the Kolter company.  We grabbed a quick bite at a Taco Bell, and went back to Verandah.

Verandah was a lot more attractive than Verano.  At Verano, the homes were all built with a faux-Italian design, with Mediterranean tile roofs, and the interiors had faux-Italian styling.  Verandah was more traditional, and each house had, guess what, a veranda on the front.  The floor plans were not all  the same as Verano, although they were definitely cousins, and they had more of the smaller floor plans available.  We currently have a four bedroom house with three bathrooms, for two people.  Smaller would probably be good.  This development had golf available (not mandatory) and lots of winding, treed roads and walkways, a rarity in this part of the country.  Florida has long, straight roads, but Verandah was not like that.  We viewed the models and went back and looked a second time at our favorites.

Verandah had the same ‘lock-and-leave’ setup as Verano. It had the same high ceilings and hurricane-resistant windows. 

The problem with Verandah is where it is. One one side is undeveloped land or agricultural land, and on the other side it seemed mostly industrial, and beyond that was a poor neighborhood.  So the question becomes, where do you go shopping?  Our salesman didn’t know.  Male sales people aren’t interested in that.  And it seemed like Fort Myers was even hotter than Port St Lucie. 

We planned to visit two developments the next day, one being the Pelican Preserve mentioned by my cousin, and the other the Del Webb Tidewater development.  We were getting up early and Pelican opened earliest, so we went there first.  It was off a beautiful, relatively empty, multi-lane divided highway.  We filled out the forms and a nice lady named Pat showed us around.  We really liked this place.  There were lots of people staying there over the summer, although some did not. The common areas were busy. They had a couple of on-site restaurants.  It just felt like it would be a nice place to live.

The homes we looked at were intelligently laid out and landscaped.  Every home seemed to have a screened in lanai in the back.  They did not have impact resistant windows as a standard but it was available as an add-on.  The way all of these developments work is to present a floor plan for X dollars.  There is a lot premium, which may be quite a bit, or could even be zero.  Then you work on what you want in the house, and upgrades are available on everything.  It seemed that a typical house with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a den would go for, say $325,000.  With lot premium and upgrades, nicer granite in the kitchen, nicer faucets, bigger stovetop, it sneaks up to $400,000 pretty quickly.  Then there is a monthly charge for yard maintenance, and possibly a community development fee for road maintenance and the like, which can sneak on up there as well.

After checking out Pelican, we decided to forego Tidewater.  It seemed to have similar floor plans to what we saw in the Sun City Texas development, also Del Webb, except everything was $100,000 more expensive, and any attempt I made to contact them to make an appointment was unsuccessful.  I guess things are good at Del Webb.  So we decided to drive over to the Gulf, and see what we could see.  We made it as far as Sanibel Island, and the fun part is going over the causeway to get there.  It is quite spectacular. (It's also $6.)  Sanibel is low-keyed, with smaller houses and resorts, and it is virtually impossible to get even a glimpse of the water anywhere without paying an hourly parking fee.  I imagine Sanibel is crazy during high season, but it was not crowded at all on a cloudy afternoon in July.  We did get over to the lighthouse to snap a few photos, and got a few more on one of the islands used by the highway to get back to the mainland.  Later we stopped by Mary’s house and visited briefly.  It looks like they just moved in and haven’t unpacked yet.

The next day we left Fort Myers for our next destination, a small town north of Orlando called Mount Dora.  A ‘mount’ in Florida?  Every person we met was proud to tell us that Mount Dora was 180 feet above sea level.  By way of comparison, our house in Richardson is 600 feet above sea level. The drive up there was long and mostly boring, except for where the construction crews had reduced I-75 down to one lane.  When you get further north in Florida, the topography is a little more interesting, the roads have bends in them, and there are some changes in elevation.  It was a bit shocking.

We found the office for Pringle builders (everyone has to have a name, what can I say) but my contact was out sick. The guy who filled in for her was kind of frazzled.  He put together a packet for us and led us over to the Lakes of Mount Dora development.  But it is different. They had no models, only the guest house where we were staying. The guest house was a home they had sold and leased back for use for prospective buyers. They build everything custom, off a base floor plan to be sure, but the house where we were had been expanded considerably off the floor plan to make some of the rooms larger.  We liked our house, although the furnishings were not comfortable, the cable TV didn’t work and the icemaker wasn’t making ice.  But they had a huge bucket full of snacks, including, you guessed it, some Pringles.

Our host (named Jim, he called me Jimmy once but I didn’t kill him) said that if we were interested in any of the floor plans, he would try to get us into a house to look at it.  I assume he meant an occupied house where they had agreement from the owner, who was probably away for the summer, to have a look.  We picked out a couple of floor plans and agreed to meet with him back at our guest house at 10 the next day.

We were then taken to dinner by a couple living in the community, actually about 6 houses away.  For some reason, they chose to go to a chain restaurant (Olive Garden) instead of one of the many very interesting restaurants in the town of Mount Dora, which we found out about the next day.  But they clearly love Mount Dora and love living in the Lakes development.  They had moved from the south side of Chicago.  Their house had extensive customization - a six burner gas stovetop, very high ceilings, expanded rooms of every kind.  It was really nice but way more than what we would need.  After dinner, we sat outside on their screened in lanai, which included a pool, and the temperature was comfortable for the first time for us in Florida.  Of course, there had been a pretty good thunderstorm right before we went to dinner, which cooled things off.

It seemed to us that the Lakes of Mount Dora lacked the critical mass we were looking for in a community.  It was nearly deserted, and did not have the club space and activity space that other developments had.  It seemed that the location was in fact a touch cooler and less humid than Port Saint Lucie or Fort Myers, and the topography was a lot more interesting.  The other attraction is that Orlando is not too far away.  Their literature said 40 minutes but our experience was more like 60.

We expected to meet up with Jim the next morning, but he called and said Ann (our supposed contact) was still sick and he was tied up with a client. He rescheduled for 1 PM.

We took the opportunity to drive into Mount Dora to explore the town.  It is a walkable town, but it would have been a lot more walkable in a different season.  We wandered down to the lake, and saw a rare lighthouse on fresh water.  Lots of signs about snakes and alligators.  We walked back into town, thoroughly soaked in sweat.  A coffee shop was open that featured cold drinks and cupcakes.  It was exactly what we needed, especially the air conditioning.  We did not walk that far but in the humidity it was pretty tough. A chocolate mousse cupcake ruined lunch as well as anything could.

We went back to the house to wait for Jim, but 1 PM came and went. We called, and they said he was still busy.  I said we would wait until 3, and after that forget about it, and he didn’t show, so we didn’t get to see much of the Lakes of Mount Dora except from the outside.  If they don't want to do business with me, I don't want to do business with them. 

The next morning we drove to Orlando, found the airport, and found the incredible ripoff gas station that we found the last time we were in Orlando, 1998 or so.  I needed only a few gallons so I paid for it.  On our trip home, we were upgraded to first class, but did not get to sit together.  Still, first class on a Boeing 757 is better than coach, and we appreciated it.


So our Florida adventure concluded with no decisions being made, but it seemed that if we moved to Florida we would probably want to go somewhere else during the summer.  We could do that here just as well.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Shared ride services

Over the weekend, we were in New York for my 50th anniversary high school graduation reunion. My aunt graciously offered us a place to stay, and we then had to decide how we would travel between her house in Flushing, Queens, and the reunion events, which were in Manhattan. The house is not near a subway. Our options were to get to the Long Island Railroad somehow and then take the subway from Penn Station, or take a taxi, or take one of the shared ride services. We had never done that before, except in, of all places, Croatia, but in New York everything has its own set of challenges.
I downloaded the iPhone apps for Uber and Lyft. They work similarly. You provide your credit card information to the app, which verifies everything. Then you provide your departure location and your destination. You have to allow the app to be able to use Location Services while active. When you do that, even before you request a vehicle, you will see how long it will take for the car to come, and you can get a forecast of the cost, which is in a range of dollars, between 40 and 60 for our first trip. You can see all the little cars crawling around on the map on your screen. To go to the reunion cocktail party for my class, at a place called India House, nothing to do with Indian food but with old India traders, we chose Uber.

The car was driven by Ahmed, and was a Camry. We left my aunt’s house at 4:49 PM, having requested the car about five minutes earlier. We arrived at India House at 5:29 PM, a distance of 16 miles through miserable Friday night rush hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway (LIE) and the horrendous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). He took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, which has no toll, and dropped us right at the door. Ahmed is from Pakistan, speaks excellent English, and has lived in the US for one year. He lives pretty close to my aunt, staying with his uncle in Bayside. Nice guy, and a cautious, careful driver. The fare was $44.50, and I gave him $5 cash. I think you can tip through Uber but wondered how much he would get. Uber sends you an email summarizing the trip, actually quite detailed, which is where I got these statistics.

After the reunion party, which was a huge success, we summoned another Uber car. This time it was a Lincoln Town Car, driven by Syed. The car appeared almost immediately, but he didn’t stop in front of India House but parked up the street and called me. I said ‘we are here’ and waved at him. Uber cars have a little lighted symbol to aid in identification. He pulled right up. Syed was an extremely aggressive driver. He was also from Pakistan, but I could not understand his response when I asked how long he has been in the US. He needed a little help with navigation getting to my aunt’s house. Traffic on Friday night on the BQE and LIE was miserable. I was glad I wasn’t driving, especially after three or four Coronas (no Shiner Bock in New York), and I was also glad to be sitting in the back seat with my wife and not able to see much out the front window. He was really aggressive. We left India House at 9:03 PM and arrived at my aunt’s house at 9:39 PM. The fare was $42.60, and I gave him $5 as well. The distance was reported as 15.73 miles, probably because he knew his way around lower Manhattan a little better than Ahmed did.

The next day we went to the reunion itself at the school, located at 30 West 16th Street, which is between Fifth and Sixth avenues. I decided to try Lyft after reading an article in the New York Times about how the drivers preferred it over Uber. When you sign up for Lyft, they give you a credit for five free rides, which actually means up to $10 off for each of your first five rides. Our car this time was another Camry, and the driver was Mathieu. He got to my aunt’s house six or seven minutes after we requested pickup. Mathieu was a careful driver, perhaps a little too careful, because he would hang out in the left lane and drive the speed limit, and cars flew by on the right. He is from Haiti. When I learned where he was from, I started speaking to him in French. He just smiled widely and enjoyed it, but like every other French speaker in the world seems to do, he corrected me when I made a mistake, which was often. Mathieu picked us up at 2:56 PM and we arrived at Xavier High School at 3:32 PM. The distance was 13.61 miles. The fare was $45.02, including the Queens Midtown Tunnel toll, but the $10 credit reduced our cost to $35.02. I gave Mathieu $5 and he smiled widely and thanked us for speaking French. The LIE was not too bad on Saturday afternoon, although traffic like that in Dallas would have brought out the road rage for sure.

For our return we also chose Lyft. The estimated time was one minute, but the car got there before we even got to the sidewalk, and I saw the little light on the windshield and waved at him. Our driver was Tayeb and the car was some kind of a Lexus. Tayeb is from Bangladesh, and has been here four or five years. He has a business exporting construction equipment and, I presume, drives on the side. Traffic on Saturday night was unbelievably bad, and there was an accident on the LIE which brought it to a standstill, but Tayeb figured a way around it. He was a good driver, not too cautious and not too aggressive. He picked us up at 9:07 PM and we got to my aunt’s house at 9:53 PM. He did not need any help finding the house. The fare was $49.16, including the toll, but the credit brought it down to $39.16. 

My impression of both shared ride services was very favorable. I would definitely use them again, especially in New York. The cars were clean, late model, well maintained, and the drivers were good, and interesting to talk to. The hardest part is identifying your car, if you are in a crowded location with a lot of vehicles. Had we rented a car, the cost would have been $250 or so, and we would have had to pay a significant amount for parking, and I would have been drinking water instead of Coronas. So it all worked out for the best.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Driving through the war zone

Looking for a Retirement Place – Episode 3

We had been thinking about scouting out another place while our French class was on hiatus for a couple of weeks.  The thought was to drive to a town called Nacogdoches, Texas, a couple of hours away, which was listed in our 100 Best Places book, and check it out. But the days we thought about doing that were affected by some of the rotten weather we have been having this spring. I would rather not have grapefruit sized hail hit my car out in the middle of East Texas and then have to figure out what to do next.  So the window of opportunity closed.

There are ads in the paper all the time for a place called Robson Ranch, located near Denton, Texas.  Denton is (or was) an hour or so away from here, to the north and west. Robson Ranch is another one of these age-restricted places where there are lots of activities to keep the residents busy.  The company has only one community in Texas, but has half a dozen more in Arizona, so we thought we could learn something that might be applicable to both places.  I contacted the company on-line and got a call back from some guy in Arizona.  He set up an appointment for us to have a day visit to the place in Denton.  They can do up to three days at a time, where you pay something for the privilege, but that is more for people from out of town.

So on a Friday in April, we drove to Robson Ranch.  The ranch is close to I-35W.  I-35 is split between Dallas and Fort Worth, so there is an I-35E and an I-35W.  It does not indicate direction but relative location. It also helps to confuse newcomers beyond belief – imagine it’s your first time in a city and there’s a sign that says I-35E North.  Where the hell does it go?  I-35 is the NAFTA highway, and it was built way too small to handle the volume it has now. So the I-35E part, the part that goes through Dallas, is being widened.  The result is that the driving conditions between the Bush Turnpike, where we got on I-35E, and Denton, where we looped over to I-35W, are slightly worse than in Kabul, Afghanistan, and maybe a little bit better than Aleppo, Syria.  I’m just glad it wasn’t raining.

We arrived at Robson Ranch and went to the sales center.  A very tall man came out and introduced himself as Tall Bill.  He is 6’9”. I said I was short Jim, and introduced even shorter Jody.  We chatted for a while in his office, and he explained some things we didn’t know.  Unlike Sun City, the age restriction for Robson is 40 years rather than 55.  This means about a third of the residents are still working, and the place is livelier than a typical retirement community where people are sitting around waiting to die. The minimum age for a son or daughter living there is nineteen.  Bill took us through four models, of different sizes.  The construction quality is excellent, much better than our current house. They have very good energy efficiency, high ceilings, vinyl clad double pane windows, mostly three car garages, although some are set up for a golf cart instead of a car. The place looks well thought out – 36 different options are available for the various models.

Some of the models were quite a bit smaller than our current house, but the layouts are so well designed you don’t notice.  Even the larger ones have a bar-style eating area in the kitchen and a dining room. 

The community has all manner of activities, an indoor heated pool, a very nice outdoor pool, a golf course, softball field, community garden, lots of clubs for various interests. 

BUT – it’s in Texas, where 100 degrees in July and August will take it out of you.  And I wonder about whether being a little more north and a little higher elevation will cause more of the s word.

They gave us a coupon for a free lunch for two, which we used at the golf course clubhouse. The regular restaurant is being renovated.  The golf course restaurant had a pretty limited menu but what we had was good.  The golf course itself looked pretty wide open, but I think the main hazard is back yards.

After lunch, a bit leg-weary, we went through the models we hadn't seen, and reviewed the ones we had, and ranked the ones we liked best.  Later, after we got home, we looked at the prices.  These homes are not cheap - as Bill said, it's all top of the line.

Driving home we took a different, longer, but less interesting route. More like pre-war Baghdad.


I think I like Robson Ranch better than Sun City Texas.  But we will look some more.

As an aside - Tall Bill drives a Smart Car.  Can you believe it?  I know the Smart has more leg room than most, since it has no back.  Also, he worked for a time in Japan, and a colleague of his was 7' tall. He said they stopped traffic, and caused a couple of wrecks.  If you ever go to Robson Ranch in Denton, ask for Tall Bill.  Everyone knows him.