March 29, 2015: The unemployment rate in the Bay Area is at the lowest it has been since back in the heady days of the 2000 dot-com boom, but statistics don't matter when you're the one without a job, and for months that has been the place where Ben has found himself — wanting for work but having little success in finding any. It was driving all of us bonkers, and there have been many discussions about what could be done or should be done to help Ben land that all-important first job. But if it is true that a rising tide eventually raises all vessels, it was only a matter of time in this surging economy before Ben's ship finally came in.
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The opportunity he had been waiting for was almost the one that passed him by.
A couple of years ago, Oakley lost one of its oldest grocery stores when the old Centromart closed to make way for redevelopment. There had been talk of turning the abandoned building into a library, but those plans never materialized, and eventually the property was sold to a developer with the expectation that it would become a Dollar General discount store. Then the developer decided to tear down the old Centromart building and rebuild, so Dollar General decided not to locate there after all. The demolition took place in September and work began instead on a new Grocery Outlet store. Work on the building has been progressing, and in February the store put out an announcement that it was recruiting a full crew of employees.
Except that we almost missed the announcement. Roni only happened to hear about it from one of the City Council members the day before the interviews were to take place in Brentwood. Why they held them there when the store is in Oakley was a curiosity to us, but that is where they were, and if Ben wanted a chance at snagging one of the 30 positions then he would have to show up early to make sure he was near the front of the line; they only planned to interview so many candidates.
Roni took Ben to get his hair cut and made sure he had some decent clothes to wear for the interview the following morning. The next day, Ben and his friend Aaron both went to Brentwood to find out about the positions that were available. There were literally hundreds of people at the job fair and the process of filling out the application and interviewing was handled much like processing new recruits at the Army depot. Ben was there for more than four hours. Although he said he thought things went well, it seemed unlikely that he might win one of the few positions available, especially given his lack of experience and no plans for college. But we all crossed our fingers, and we were all excited when Ben got called back a couple of days later to participate in a group interview.
Ben has applied for several jobs, and only a couple of applications had resulted in a second interview. This group thing was uncharted territory. But the recruiters put him at ease when they told everyone at the second interview that the reason they got a call back was because the hiring team had seen something in them that they liked. Still, there were 60 finalists and only 30 positions. Again, Ben thought things went well. He was told he would hear by the start of the following week if he’d made the cut.
It was the afternoon of Feb. 26 when Glenn and Roni were talking in the living room and Ben came wandering in. Roni looked at him and said he was behaving strangely. “You look happy about something,” she said. “I am happy,” he replied with a dramatic pause. “I got hired!” There were hugs all around. It was as though a weight had been lifted from everyone’s shoulders. All he had to do was complete a drug screening test and go for an orientation day on March 4 and he would officially be a Grocery Outlet employee.
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EN'S GETTING THE Grocery Outlet job has prompted several changes in all of our routines. For starters, Ben initially found himself cast in the role of morning stock clerk, and his schedule brought him in at 6 a.m. for eight hours, three days a week. Because this is a brand new store, literally everything has to be set up from scratch, and so it was for the first few days that Ben had to unpack boxes and stock shelves. He started slinging around strange new terms, such as “hard casing” and “short stacks.” There were hours spent breaking down boxes, taking inventory, and moving around merchandise in his not-so-favorite area: pasta.
Ben was excited to be working so close to home because his commute is just over a mile in each direction. He looked forward to being able to walk the distance, which is a good thing given that he is still without his driver’s license. He and Glenn made a trial walk to the store one Saturday morning while the construction crews were still working on its stone façade, just to see how long the walk would take. It was roughly 25 minutes each way. Ben hopes the walk will get him some exercise.
Roni was excited about the thought of Ben working close enough that he could walk there by himself, but so far she has been taking the morning walks with him, and on several occasions has driven him to or from work as a matter of convenience. She’s still Mom, and she wants our boy to succeed. She has gone the extra mile to make sure he has good lunches and clean clothes and gets his day started early enough to get to work on time, although he has been doing a pretty decent job himself of staying on track. If we can believe the things he’s telling us about his bosses, they seem impressed with his efforts and appreciate his integrity. They undoubtedly appreciate his flexible schedule, as he has recently was scheduled to work a 6-day week with just Saturday off as the store’s soft opening date approached.
But not everything about starting this job has been easy for Ben. Just days into it, he came down with a vicious chest cold that apparently others have been dealing with this month. Not wanting to call in sick and “disappoint” his bosses, he put aside his comfort and trooped in to work to do the job he’d been tasked to do. He said he felt terrible by the end of the day, but his effort to be there didn’t go unnoticed. (We hope in a good way!)
Once the initial effects of the cold wore off, ironically things got worse. Ben developed a persistent cough that took more out of him than the stuffy nose had, and unfortunately it prevented him from being able to work. He was sent home for the day twice as a result. We got him a doctor appointment on a Sunday and Glenn took him to Kaiser in Antioch for a chest x-ray, meds and a doctor’s note to excuse him from work for a couple of days. The medicine in some ways seemed worse than the ailment it was treating, and Ben’s cough actually got worse after he started taking it. But fortunately he began to turn the corner in time for the store’s “soft opening” day March 26. Ben has been made a courtesy clerk whose job it will be to help customers with their bags and other dealing-with-the-public type tasks. He needs to be well. We’re all crossing our fingers.
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YOU KNOW YOU live in a small town when the opening of a discount grocery store is a big thing. March 26, a Thursday, was our 27th wedding anniversary, so we celebrated by driving Ben to work at 10 a.m. and then heading over to Black Bear Diner for breakfast. We were eager to go inside the new Grocery Outlet and see in person the things Ben had been working on the past month, but we thought it would be better to go once Ben had already clocked in and been on the job for a couple of hours. It’s not like taking your kid to his first day of elementary school and holding his hand as he meets the teacher. Likewise, you don’t take pictures of them outside the office when they’re on the job, so we just watched as he scampered from the car and disappeared inside the brand new store along with dozens of shoppers who had all heard about the opening through friends and social media. It was going to be a busy first day.
We headed home after breakfast, opting to return to the store around 2:30 in the afternoon, close to when Ben’s shift ended at 3. When we got there he was working on retrieving carts from the parking lot and helping customers carry out their bags. It made us both proud to see him bagging groceries at the first checkstand. Meanwhile we grabbed cart No. 19 (yes, all the shopping carts are numbered) and navigated the crowded aisles comparing products and prices. Grocery Outlet does have some good prices compared to Raley’s and Lucky, but the selection is a bit more limited. Still we were able to find all the staple items we’d likely need and picked up some things for lunch and dinner.
Grocery Outlet has this routine for when a customer saves at least $50 on their grocery bill, the clerk rings a bell and announces the savings and all the employees yell “woo-hoo!” Our total purchase was just over $50 and the savings amounted to just $27.51, so no one cheered for us, but we didn’t mind. Ben was still in his work outfit even though he was done for the day, and he wanted to load our groceries for us when we got to the car. We told him thanks, but we’d rather have the help unloading them and putting them away at home!
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AMONG THE MANY Among the many hats Roni wears is that of newspaper correspondent, so recently when her editor asked if she would be interested in covering the spring opening of the Hazel-Atlas Mine tours at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, she thought it sounded like great fun. After all, it’s not every day we get to explore the historic sand mine that is just a few miles from our home, and we hadn’t been inside the mine in years. Actually, Glenn hadn’t been inside it since Ben was in the second grade; Roni had never been to see it.
The East Bay Regional Park District, wanting to bolster the lackluster attendance it was used to seeing for its mine tours, this year decided to advertise the March 1 opening weekend event by posting fliers at coffee shops around the region. Apparently they were on to something, because when we arrived at the park that afternoon for the tour, the line of cars waiting to get inside was backed up halfway to Antioch. There were so many cars that the park didn’t have enough spaces in its lot near the mine trail to put everyone, so a lot of folks — us included — had to use the overflow parking lot near the main entrance. It was a minor inconvenience, we were told, as there was a short trail you could walk that would take you to the other parking lot near the mine. It was only a mile.
Roni wasn’t so sure she liked the idea of the mile-long trail. Wouldn’t it be better to wait for the courtesy shuttle that was making occasional runs between the two lots? she wondered aloud. Glenn finally convinced her that by the time the shuttle arrived they could have walked nearly the full distance. Besides, there were lots of other people walking the trail and the wildflowers were pretty enough to warrant a closer peek. So we embarked on what was supposed to be an easy jaunt along the well-trodden path.
But the day was warm, and the trail turned out to be the bed of a former railroad line that was both unpaved and hilly. It wasn’t long after we began to dodge the rutted, uneven spots and started slogging up an incline that Roni began to regret letting Glenn convince her to go hiking. We took frequent breaks, not to admire the flowers, but to catch our breath as younger, more nimble hikers passed us by without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile, we were doing a reenactment of the Bataan Death March, and it was none too soon for Roni that we at last reached the picnic grounds of the main parking area. Still, we needed to walk another half mile to the Greathouse Visitor Center, where all the activities were taking place. Or so we thought.
It turned out that the visitor center was not the mine at all, but just a few exhibits and a gift shop to give folks a taste of what being in the mine is like. It was the place where Glenn and Ben had gone years before, and ever since then Glenn had carried the false notion that he had taken the mine tour. For the real deal we needed to hike uphill some more to the entrance to the Hazel-Atlas Mine, and although Roni dreaded the idea of any more hiking, she summoned her second wind, determined to see the thing we’d come for.
Fortunately the main mine was not too far from the visitor center. When we reached it there was a line of folks waiting to go inside, so we joined them. Once at the front of the queue we were handed flashlights and instructed to put on a hard hat — all the better to protect us should a tunnel collapse and several million tons of sandstone land on our heads. It was too bad that Ben hadn’t come with us, because he would have loved going into the tunnels to view the artifacts that looked like something out of Minecraft. The old tracks and rail cars once used to haul sand from the mine are still in place. You can follow the line back for several hundred yards, passing beneath carved out rocks bearing the fossilized remnants of shrimp and other sea creatures that lived millions of years ago. All along the way there are wood chutes and stairways leading to other parts of the mine, most off limits to the public, but a few open for further exploration.
Glenn attached the GoPro camera to his helmet while Roni took notes and talked with park volunteers to help her story. The tunnels were crowded because so many people had come to see the park, and we wondered what it would be like to wander through the dimly lit corridors by ourselves, or at least in a smaller group. There were few opportunities to take good photos, even if the lighting had been better. Still, it was fascinating to see the remnants of a once lucrative mining operation carved out of the Mount Diablo foothills more than a century ago.
At the end of the long passageway there is a large cavern where several of the mine shafts meet, slicing through the mountain at roughly 45 degree angles to the trail and then continuing deeper to the mine’s lower levels. You can’t go down there normally, even though there is a staircase that leads back to the Greathouse Visitor Center. It was enough just to stand at the top of the stairs and peer down the hole, keeping in mind the tons of dynamite that went into carving out that network of tunnels.
We completed the tour just in time; the park was preparing to close and it was time to find our way back to the car. But no way did Roni want to make the slow slog on foot again. This time she got no argument from Glenn when she flagged down a park van so the two of us could ride down the hill in style.
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MARCH HAS ALWAYS been an important month in our family because not only do we celebrate our wedding anniversary, but we also look forward to spring and Roni’s birthday. Unfortunately she celebrated her 53rd year with a cold she probably inherited from Ben, but that didn’t stop us from going out to dinner at Mimi’s Café in Antioch or carving out slices of her ice cream cake purchased from Cold Stone Creamery.
Glenn and Ben took advantage of their trip to Kaiser on March 22 to get some birthday shopping done afterward, and because Ben had just cashed his first work paycheck a couple days earlier, he looked forward to spending his money on a real gift for Mom. They checked out Target and then Cost Plus, where Ben picked out a lovely glass lantern along with a candle to go in it. He said that it felt good to finally have money to afford getting things for people, because for months he had been forced to accept the charity of friends when it came to eating out or going to entertainment venues.
For his part, Glenn needed a couple of trips to figure out what he wanted to get Roni for her gifts. She hadn’t compiled much of a list, and with no big item she was seeking it came down to Glenn having to get creative. Fortunately we both love stuff for the backyard, so a trip to Hobby Lobby and Home Depot did nicely for most of the present picking. Glenn got her several bird sculptures, a package of Café Du Monde beignet mix, a garden flag, and an 18-inch planter in the shape of the bust of Michelangelo’s David. What Roni will do with all these things remains to be seen, but hopefully we’ll be better prepared when we celebrate her 54th birthday next year.
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WE'VE STARTED THE annual spring chore of cleaning the backyard, which means pulling weeds and raking the leaves we should have raked up in December. March is usually one of the best months of the year for our garden, but the ongoing drought has taken its toll on our yard, and some of the damage may be permanent. The most significant casualty may be our evergreen ash tree, which should have leafed out in February and appears to have fizzled out instead. There are buds at the branch tips, but they shriveled before leafing out. We have been desperately trying to water and fertilize the tree in hopes that it can still be saved. It would be a huge loss for the yard if it can’t.
Our crepe myrtle, on the other hand, is looking better than it ever has. We’re not quite sure why, because it has received as little water as the other trees. The leaves are full and green now, so perhaps we’ll get blossoms by May this year. Our orange tree produced a great crop over the winter and was full of fragrant blossoms up until this weekend, now suddenly it too is struggling. Give us a plant to kill and we’ll find a way. Our water bill for all of 2014 came to just $223, largely because we didn’t use the sprinklers at all during the summer months. Our drought-conscious governor loves us, but our yard is suffering. We need some rain.
The railroad expansion project that has been taking place behind our house in one form or another since 2009 finally wrapped up this month as BNSF Railway opened up its second mainline to traffic. That has put freight trains roaring past our back fence at 70 mph. You may say that we’ve had that for the past 24 years we’ve lived here, but this new track is a few feet closer to us than the original one, so we can see the tops of the locomotives and cars with ease. It’s a bit louder and kind of unnerving; we wonder what those cars are carrying that we were unable to see and fret about before. While we have more trains, we are glad the construction crews that have been a daily presence are wrapping up work and moving on.
Well, that’s about it for now. Time to get this newsletter wrapped up and moving on to the website so we can focus on tax season. April’s shaping up to be a busy month. We’ll see you again then.