Monday, May 28, 2012

Heading West

So now we really are "heading west." That's the sun rising over Oklahoma in the mirror of my rental truck. I was not singing "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" as I snapped it.

Yesterday I drove 600 flat, mostly featureless miles across prairie nicely greened up from spring showers but otherwise not much to look at. I slept last night in nondescript and probably misnamed Liberal, Kansas, and by the time the sun arrived I had been back in the truck and driving at least an hour or so, with 400 more miles to go today.

It isn't the right truck, as things have turned out.

There isn't any place in the cab for a child's car seat, so Pam and little E had to fly separately, but family isn't the only thing that had to be thrown overboard.

The rule of thumb I picked up from the online moving websites is that you need 150 cubic feet of van space for each roomful of stuff you're moving. Our little apartment was one large room divided into living and sleeping areas, plus a big terrace patio. Call it four rooms to be safe, which is 600 cubic feet. So I picked a truck with 800 cubic feet, which the rental company said was designed to move three to four rooms.

Seemed reasonable, but the professional packers who loaded us up ran out of space before we got to the terrace things, which consist of a very nice table and chairs, some side tables, a big umbrella and a collection of very large planters. We're attached to all of it, and although the ship-or-replace economics are a close call, we're having it shipped.

I've had a lot of time to think about why the truck math didn't work the way the U-Move gurus said it would. I decided we probably aren't a typical up-and-coming family moving out of a small apartment. Our place was crammed with the residue of nearly 40 acquisitive years, condensed after two downsizings from much larger homes. When we started packing, the closets busted out like clown cars.

Come to think of it, I may not be the right driver either.

There was a mid-trip stop in Des Moines, where I met Pam and Elizabeth at the home of old friends with a child graduating from high school. When I took off yesterday morning, I left behind E's stroller and my bathing suit. This morning as I aimed my iPhone at the reflected sunrise, my gas cap was sitting on the ground next to the pump about 25 miles behind me. Senior moments are becoming senior hours, days, months.

But things could be worse. On the lumpy two-lane highway from Vaughn NM to Carrizozo, I saw the driver of a tractor trailer apparently fall asleep ahead of me and veer onto the slope toward a culvert. He broke several laws of physics getting his yawing rig back on the road, and I spent the next mile or two swallowing my digestive organs back into place.

Tonight I am in Ruidoso, exhausted but smelling the pine trees and trying to remember to feel lucky.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Forgetting History

We were in Central Park as usual and happened to come up on the park's vintage carousel just a few minutes before it opened for business. We never pass up easy opportunities to delight our toddler, so we bought tickets and went aboard, the first customers of the day.

Elizabeth looked doubtful as we went in. Her doubt turned to alarm when she got a closer look at the garish decor. Alarm became fear when we tried to sit her on one of the fierce looking horses, recently repainted in extra vivid color. And fear grew to desperate terror when they cranked up the calliope music, a sound you only hear nowadays in the nightmare sequences of horror movies.

Here she is, begging to get off the merry-go-round, but by this time we were under way and just had to comfort her as best we could until the ride was over.

What was I thinking? I was a toddler once myself and remembered too late exactly how she felt. The years fell away and I was three years old again, clinging to my mother's hand on a sidewalk in downtown Monterrey, California, as a large, ungainly figure approached us.

"Oh, David, look," Mom said. "It's Mr. Peanut."

I was a big fan of Planters and quite familiar 
with their distinguished spokespeanut with his jaunty monocle and top hat. But he was a tiny little guy on the peanut can. The creature now looming over me was nearly seven feet tall.

I retreated behind my mother's skirt, hid my face and ignored her as she urged me to introduce myself to Mr. Peanut and shake his hand. Mr. Peanut evidently had mascot training that didn't allow him to say anything, which somehow made him seem even more frightening. They both finally gave up on me and we all went on about our business.

But that night I reflected on the incident in my bed as I was trying to go to sleep. I had come face to face with the actual Mr. Peanut. I could have shaken his hand and told him how much I liked his product. Maybe I could have learned interesting behind-the-scenes stuff about being a walking peanut. He might have even given me some free nuts. I realized with chagrin that I had let fear deprive me of an important opportunity.

The memory made me braver as I got older. Maybe Elizabeth will have a similar outcome. After shaking off her heebie-jeebies, she almost let us take her on for another ride. But then she shook her head, so we went on to the playground instead.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Home Is Where the Sofa Is

Manhattan is lousy with real estate offices, and all of them put photo collections like the one above in their display windows so people can see what's for sale. There's hundreds more every week on websites and glossy magazine pages.

Every time I see them I shake my head, because of course the photos don't show what's for sale at all. They're just pictures of other people's furniture. If you took away the stylish sofas, chairs and grand pianos and all the expensive rugs and artwork, most of these rooms would look pretty much the same in their closeups, which is to say not very good.

Your average New York apartment across all but the highest price ranges is plaster walls, wood floors, factory-made window frames, and small, merely serviceable kitchens and bathrooms. Until you trick them out with your own stuff, they're just white space, dwelling dummies.

Real estate is always said to be about "location, location and location." But in other places the location is a lot more likely to have some intrinsic character to it, some essence that makes up part of the core of the value you imagine you're acquiring when you take ownership.

Not here. The value you acquire when you buy in Manhattan is nearly all extrinsic to the property itself, starting with the fact that it happens to be in Manhattan and going on with its distance from work, transit, shopping, schools, night life or whatever else you think is cool.

Those are key considerations when you buy a home anywhere of course. But whereas elsewhere they're likely to be ancillary, here they're the whole ball game. The apartment is not where you live. It's only a staging area for your actual life which is conducted in other places.

So it's curious that New Yorkers obsess over real estate more than anybody else I know. Wherever you go, you can overhear people complaining about their condos and co-ops and talking about their searches for different space.

I suppose what happens is that people keep buying more furniture, so they eventually need more room to keep it in. This would also explain why brokers sell apartments with photos that do nothing but demonstrate their usefulness as storage facilities for personal property.