Camping Out in Oakland

Room mating is popular in California where stories of staggering rent amaze newcomers and natives alike. This issue is second after the "Where are you from?" topic that many of the transplants discuss when comparing notes. Nobody dares to ask the obvious, "Why did you move to California?" This is a given, a no-brainer. If you had to ask "why" someone moved here you had no business being here yourself. People move here to place them self among the top of the heap- to see what life is like in the cool center of the universe. Reading about California is one thing, going there is an adventure that must be experienced.

When moving from California the process reverses. I relocating to Iowa temporarily and the question "Why did you move from California to Iowa?" came up so many times it became an embarrassment, a point of contention for me so I laughingly concocted the answer: "Because Nebraska was full" which hopefully provoked a smile after the eyes rolled around in their sockets indicating the brain just recognized a joke about the Midwest had just gone off. The people here are perfect examples of Americans. They're warm and intelligent, humorous at times, and like Americans everywhere they're rugged individuals; it's the terrain I have a problem with. There's no ocean which makes me claustrophobic, just land and sky in all directions at all times. The Nor'easters of the East and the Pineapple Express of the West are meaningless to life in Hiawatha or along the banks of the Mississippi. This is the land of the dreaded tornado where pigs really do fly.

What are amusing about Midwesterners are their hip-shot benign jokes aimed at neighboring states, all in fun of course. It's a classic case of "the pot calling the kettle black." Wisconsin makes fun of Nebraska, Iowa pokes fun at Kansas and Minnesota gets a hoot out of Illinois while the antics of Indiana are noticed in Ohio. It's a virtual beehive of inactivity. I'm glad the Colts are going to the Super Bowl- this has to be heating things up out there and generating the good `ole team spirit and making for good talk.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or "UP" as it's called, is without a doubt a national treasure in terms of nature and beauty yet consistently finds itself at the butt end of jokes. But believe me, if you were kidnapped and had your blindfold removed and found yourself in the Midwest you'd be hard pressed to figure out which state you where actually in. There just isn't much difference; borders come, borders go but not a whole lot happens until you hit some mountains. There's plenty of real estate between New York and San Francisco and there's no question of the rustic beauty that resides here. Some of our most dynamic sympathy cards feature stunning scenes from the Midwest.

But corn is corn, cattle are cattle, it gets dark every night and either it rains or snows but rest assured the summers are hot and the winters are long. They're long, cold, dark and snowy but they have things under control, don't worry.

When living in Philly, a friend from Minneapolis visited as an Alberta Clipper dumped a foot of snow on the city. Philadelphia was a mess. The Midwest sees much more snow than Philly but has this dilemma solved. My friend from the Midwest asked why the plow trucks just keep pushing the snow around rather than loading it in dump trucks and taking it out to the country. It clicked. This was a novel idea and this thought had never occurred to Philadelphians. Do they really do this in some places? I guess this would have given us one less reason to complain which is the natural born right of any red-blooded Philadelphian that knows Levice's Hot Dogs from Bookbinders Seafood.

I'm sure Wisconsin and Michigan share a great laugh when they see how a half inch of snow can paralyze and bring a mega-metropolis like Atlanta to its knees in less time than it takes to build a decent snowman. I conducted a private poll and discovered the Midwest, on average, sees the coldest temperatures of the lower 48 and even passes much of Maine when you're talking about ice cold and sub-zero temperatures.

Second coldest, after the Midwest, Maine enjoys its fair share of mystery and forestry and what these wonders harbor. Maine has a unique geography that features everything from ancient sand dunes, mountains, swamps, bogs, junkyards, barrens, hills, wild blueberries, wild raspberries, wild animals, valleys, farmland, deep forest, and a rocky coastline every bit as spectacular as California's Big Sur. Amazingly enough, all these land features are spread out and follow no discernable pattern. On maps they appear as "clumps" of maintains, rather than ranges. The Appalachians chase the East coast while the Rockies follow the West coast. Maine, however, dances to a different tune. Thousands of glacial lakes, ponds, rivers and flowages season the land equally and "spread things out in equal proportions" so one minute you're on a mountain and the next your sloshing your way through a bog, turn around and you're back up on a mountain again.

Maine has a unique affluent-educated-backwoods status that no other state can boast through its dry Downeast humor. I had a chair once that the right side armrest kept falling off of. I glued, screwed, nailed and clamped that sucker so many times I lost count. Finally, my son who spent many long summers in Maine, suggested I simply break off the left armrest so it would match the right. It was the easiest thing I ever fixed. Quick too.

California, though, is a different country entirely where money trickles in all directions: up, down and sideways. I landed in Oakland, the Bay Area, which includes all the interesting places surrounding San Francisco Bay. It's been my perception that Oakland enjoys its companionship with its neighbor, Berkeley, more than it values any ties with San Francisco across the bay. San Francisco claims Alcatraz but Oakland seems to own Treasure Island. The Golden Gate Bridge, of course, is the undisputed master of all and magically appears different every day, something nobody's been able to figure out or duplicate. Even the Pacific Ocean is impressed with this bridge.

During my early days working in San Jose, Silicon Valley's capital, I would mutter to myself in frustration "I'd just like to just make it through one whole day without spending a hundred bucks." Three years later I rearranged this phrase to: "I'd just like to make it through one whole day and only spend a hundred bucks." I spent a year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before returning to California. My boss in Cedar Rapids was a prominent and successful businessman in the automotive field who had seen the world several times over. Once, during a conversation about the West coast he casually admitted he liked California but he'd never move out there. Instinctively, I replied "I don't think you could afford it." I've known millionaires who swear they can't afford to live there. It's one of life's mysteries.

From Oakland I landed in Los Gatos, just outside San Jose where I worked. Nestled at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, my trusty dog, Yoko, and I hiked a portion of the Los Gatos Trail more times than I can remember. The six mile figure eight trail took us up and down mountains where signs warned us of mountain lion and bobcat and what to do if confronted. Once, I actually wore my basenji out and had to carry her. A natural hunter and native to Africa, Yoko was nearly overwhelmed with the exotic scents only dogs can pick up. Every day her eyes popped out of her head as her nose touched the ground.

Money is a whole new beast in California. The big fish eat the little fish and the little fish eat the big fish. It seems to gang up and bottleneck at certain points. In most states when they call in the architects to design a mall or shopping center a certain amount of consideration is given to the parking facilities. Not so in the Gold Rush State. What I considered simple logistics in third grade arithmetic had become an intersection to avoid. Holiday shopping is a career decision here that can affect you the rest of your life and not in a nice way. It's no mystery parking spaces cannot be found at the mall and it's no greater mystery valet parking for twenty bucks can be found here.

Although I had lived in many places across California, north to south, Oakland was the hub I'd return to between adventures and thus became the adventure by default. Oakland always held a distinct advantage when relocating in sunny California. It seems to be right in the middle of everything I like. I feel I've spent five lives in Oakland and might get whisked back there again if I blink too fast and spend five more. The only major disadvantage here is a street named "Adeline." Avoid this street at all costs. I see this route as a failed experiment in transportation, a mutation. At any given moment horns are blaring and tires are screeching as this street zigzags its way mercilessly through Oakland. Once you're on this street you're lost.

I'm not as familiar with the lay of land in Southern California although I did spend a year in Los Angeles but that's a whole different story. With towering mountains to the north and the ocean due south, navigation is easier than you'd suspect through this urban sprawl.

Santa Cruz, over the hill from San Jose via the infamous route 17, is the Mystical Capital where aliens with ESP must surely thrive as they go quantum jumping from universe to universe, always finding ample parking, while Berkeley retained the lofty title as Political Activist Hotspot where many believe the entire Love-Peace Movement hatched in the 60's. Joined at the hip, Oakland is relatively flat and sits on the east coast of the San Francisco Bay while Berkeley, adjacent, occuppies the inland hills further inland to the east.

One of the greenest cities of the U.S., Oakland stays right in step with Berkeley, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and the other cities that rank high on the list. Recycling is an important part of the "sustainable city" or "eco-city." Green cities are designed with consideration of the impact they will have on the environment in mind. The people of these cities are bent on minimizing the amount of energy required to operate the city while keeping a check on pollution output. There's a whole lot more to ''green" than this, but in a nutshell…this is how it works and this is where we're going. Trouble enters the picture as people try to maintain a high quality of life while consuming less energy and creating less pollution. A juggling act from any view, I'm fairly certain the West coast is leading the country and is in first place by a length at this point in the game but who knows what the future holds? Maine (Auyhh!), Pennsylvania (Ya think?), Iowa (You betcha!), Massachusetts (Er-eh!), California (fer sure!) are only some of the contenders. I wouldn't rule out anybody just yet. It's a big racetrack and anything that rolls is invited. Even with the horrendous odds it faces New Jersey has a shot at the title.

A close friend, Iriana, allowed me to roommate with her in Oakland and only charged me a token fee which was extremely generous on her part and unheard of in this neck of the woods. I'm thankful from both the bottom of my heart and wallet and we're dear friends to this day. I think of her as a mentor in my California Education which focuses equally on the environment, the legendary traffic jams, and possibly the best restaurants known to man and a million other things.

The number one rule in any house where you become a roommate is to follow the rules of the landlord, right, wrong or otherwise without question, hesitation, unflinchingly and as soon as possible. The feudal system is alive and well and the roommate is the true underdog here. Rules are posted, rules are observed and the keeper of the key reigns supreme. It wasn't until years later I recognized any significant priorities here. Like a dog, I just pointed my nose and let the rest follow as best as possible, tail wagging. I always kept the door locked regardless of the side I was on, inside or out. The recyclables were recycled and separated into glass, plastic, garbage, paper, light blue, dark blue…. it seemed endless but everyone did their part. The little icon stamped in the bottom of plastic bottles was as popular as the label on wine bottles and was read with as much enthusiasm. It determines how the bottle should be categorized but often lead to confusion as well. More than once Iriana resigned this duty to herself in the name of expediency and to make sure it wound up in the proper bin. Heaven help us if some plastic snuck in with the glass.

Another rule, possibly the most important, was the water conservation rule that I was totally blind to when I first moved in. Used to taking long hot showers, it was nothing for me to spend several days and several nights in the bathroom singing, whistling and practicing Karate with the hot water running full blast. I thought nothing of ordering out for pizza so as not to be interrupted. The Bay Area is cool and damp 364 days out of the year and there was nothing like a hot shower to warm the bones. There was no appreciable amount of insulation in the walls so running the furnace just didn't make sense. Everybody just added and removed clothing all day long as required. This was when I discovered first hand, by the way, how moisture condenses in clouds to form rain. The bathroom was miserably cold without any form of heat, except for a lit candle or two, and when I'd finally emerge from the hot shower I found myself literally in the fog. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face as water droplets were falling from the ceiling sort of making an ecosystem of its own in there. It was like camping out indoors.

One more rule, and an appropriate way to bring things to an end, is the old tried and proven law of the septic tank that no doubt is gospel in any trailer park; If it's brown flush it down, if it's yellow let it mellow. Although connected to a public sewer system, this rule was also tied into the water conservation act that prevailed in Iriana's house. Apparently, every time you'd flush the toilet someone over at the Hoover Dam, 569 miles south-southeast, would have to open or close a valve and we couldn't have this. We were thinking globally. We were all aware of this rule and only flushed when the unthinkable occurred and someone had a bowel movement. Once, when company was over and relieving them self behind a closed bathroom door, we heard the unmistakable sound of the toilet flush which was instantly followed with an exuberant apology"Sorry, I forgot!"