Driving into the third millennium

January 10, 2001

So, here we are a little more than a week into the new year and finding ourselves huddling in a cold and dimly lit house out of fear that if we touch our thermostat or the light switches then the giant hand of PG&E will swoop down and smite us with a confiscatory electric bill. Just a little post-holiday season treat for us Golden Staters who still can't understand what anyone saw in deregulation of California's power industry.

While energy concerns have been dominating the public agenda, the issue at the top of our household agenda of late has been transportation, or specifically the lack thereof. Our months-long search for a new car to replace Glenn's ailing Toyota Tercel took an unexpected and unwelcome turn in late December when Roni's car suffered catastrophic engine failure on the freeway, suddenly rendering us a one-car family. The prognosis for the patient's recovery appeared bleak.

We always knew that life with only one car would be tough, but try it when that one car is 13 years old with 175,000 miles, severe oil leaks, shaky transmission, failing valves and worn-out brakes. For months it had been enough to get Glenn to and from work as a no-frills, light-duty commuter car, but when suddenly called upon for additional short trips to school, the grocery store, business appointments and the like, its various shortcomings became painfully obvious. We had done our best to delay a car purchase while researching the market and saving up for a downpayment, but it had become clear that the day of decision had arrived.

On Dec. 28, armed with a calculator and our best poker faces, we nursed Glenn's Tercel to Concord Toyota where we had looked a month earlier and found the selection to our liking. We'd had our eyes on a Toyota Corolla LE, but lowered our sights a bit in light of Roni's car woes. We picked out the slightly cheaper Corolla S instead and asked to take it for a test drive. Somehow in the 10 minutes it took us to cruise around the block, our 19-year-old salesman Anthony managed to convince us that he could put us into an LE for "cheaper" than the S. Now, anyone who knows anything about car salesmen knows that Anthony was full of you-know-what. But we were game (and eager to drive home with a new car) so we played along. Glenn proved he could be a shrewd negotiator, and for more than two hours we went back and forth with the sales manager. Finally we reached an impasse, separated from a deal by $150 with neither side willing to negotiate further. So we parted company and coaxed the old car back home, frustrated that our search would have to continue.

Only after an evening of exhaustive reflection did we realize that we had hardballed ourselves out of what could have been a very good deal on a new car had we simply recognized where the bottom line was. We decided that the next morning we would complete the deal, but none of us was too certain the Tercel would be able to make it back to Concord with the three of us in the car. So we came up with another strategy: Take the bottom-line number hammered out in Concord to our nearest Toyota dealer in Antioch, pick out an identical car and see if they would match the price. We threw out our offer, the salesman talked us up $94, and a couple of hours later we were driving home in our new "silver stream" colored 2001 Toyota Corolla LE, purchased at roughly $300 under invoice. With such amenities as power windows and locks, an outdoor temperature gauge, comfortable seats and high beams that Glenn swears light up all of Kirker Pass on his drive home from work, we were on Cloud 9.

But our euphoria over our new purchase was short-lived as it became clear our frequent visits to car lots and conversations with sales types were not over. After several days of soul searching, bean counting, listening to various mechanics and weighing our options, we gave up hope of repairing Roni's Ô88 Corolla and began our quest for a second replacement vehicle. For nearly two weeks we combed through newspaper ads, and visited nearly a dozen dealerships from Antioch to Dublin, which if you don't know the area is roughly a 35-mile radius. We looked at both used and new cars, and even ran some numbers on a couple of potential candidates. Poor Benji was a real trooper, even though he justifiably grew weary of being dragged from lot to lot. Thank heaven for Gameboys!

Then, on the morning of Jan. 9, we cruised on in to Toyota of Tracy to investigate their selection of 2001 Corolla CEs and four hours later drove out with a blue 1998 Corolla LE. (And now a handy car buying axiom: You don't purchase a car from a dealer; you take home a car the dealer sells you.) It looks like this longtime Toyota family will continue to be one for at least a few more years to come.

With car concerns hanging over us, the last thing on our minds has been home improvements. In fact, not since the great garden wall project ended last June have we done anything to our yard, happy that this particular area of our homestead had been relatively trouble free for much of the year. Unfortunately, our next door neighbor had other plans. She had approached us several times over the years about rebuilding the fence that divides our two properties, claiming that it was in poor repair and did not provide adequate protection for her two dogs. Having propped up other fences in our yard, we knew what bad fences looked like and this one certainly did not meet that definition. So when she came to us in December and made her case again, we politely explained our car situation and said there was no way we could afford a new fence on top of that and Christmas. We asked her to bring us a quote on the job and figured she'd get back to us.

So it was with some chagrin that we arrived home from a family outing the weekend before Christmas to discover our trusty old fence had vanished and a new one had been hastily erected in its place. The contractor, it seemed, could not be troubled with removing the original posts and simply sawed them off above their concrete stumps. Where the new fence boards did not fit comfortably around the old stumps, the workers simply cut the boards to fit over them, framing their efforts with firring strips. The top rails, constructed from only the cheapest pressure-treated wood they could find, sag noticeably from panel to panel, and the redwood boards that make up the fence planks are clearly of inferior stock. No one seemed concerned about the fact that they had trampled Roni's asparagus patch, or tunneled near our sprinkler line and Glenn's gopher fence.

While we were still scooping up our bottom jaws from the floor and contemplating how we might respond to this unexpected turn of events, we soon got our first taste of how effective the new fence would be at keeping our neighbor's pets safely confined. That was the morning of Jan. 1 when Glenn and Benji ventured out into our back yard and discovered the dogs had tunneled under the new fence into our yard and escaped to the outside world via a hole in our back fence. One of the dogs returned on its own while the other one was picked up by a good samaritan a couple of blocks away playing chicken with traffic on Main Street. We tied the pooch up to our ornamental plum tree in the front yard until his owner retrieved him several hours later. Apparently the lesson was not learned as the dogs soon tunneled their way to freedom again, cavorting for several minutes through our yard until Roni was able to chase them back home. Did we mention yet that our neighbor wants us to pay $700+ for this feat of feeble engineering? Stay tuned.

Christmas and New Year's were simple affairs this year. We were fortunate to have Glenn home from work on the 24th, 25th, 31st and 1st, so it almost felt like a real holiday for a change. Roni was happy to receive a new cell phone, Benji made out like a bandit and scored the Pokémon Silver Gameboy game he'd been asking for, and Glenn got a video capture card for the computer that he hopes will work once the defective one is exchanged.

Benji is currently in the midst of a five-week break from school. He wrapped up his recent session of first grade with an awards assembly at which he was honored for his math skills. The vacation has given him ample time to enjoy his Christmas presents and learn how to play the Pokémon trading card game he received as a gift. This week he and Dad signed up for a Monday night Pokémon league at Toys R Us so that Benji can get points toward his goal of being a Pokémon trainer. He is already talking about getting better cards so he can assemble a more formidable deck when he returns to the league next week.

Well, it's time for us to go break in our new cars, so that's it for this month's missive. May all your winter travels be safe and trouble-free.

Glenn, Roni and Benji

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