Hello, Gareth John, got a new motor?


Sunset in Benicia

Jonesey's car expertise.

As all who know me are aware, I don't drive. Not just that I don't care to, I never learned how. It's one of the few things that I seriously tried and wanted to do, but totally failed at. My first try was when I was 20, and I failed so badly that the examiner stopped the test, and I quote, "in the interests of public safety...and your own." I suspect the examiner's safety might have also been a factor.Shortly after that I got a job in London and joined the crowds of commuters every day. Since I was also saving up to get married, I couldn't afford a car and the expensive train ticket, so I forgot about the idea for many years. The next time I decided it would really be a good idea to be able to drive was when we decided to have kids (again, if you've known me for a while, you'll know this wasn't the same person I'd "been saving up to get married" to. That went west, and who knows the long and dismal story may surface in these writings at some point.)

In my head was the standard TV/movie moment - "The baby's coming RIGHT NOW!" where an emergency drive to the hospital is urgent. As it happens, that's an extremely rare scenario, and certainly didn't happen with either of our kids. But anyway, that was in my head. So Liz took me out in the car, I got some lessons, and eventually I did one of these intensive week-long courses where you drive all day every day and pay a ton of money to do so, They practically guarantee that you'll pass. But not me. There was some progress - we got to the end of the test - even the bit with the quiz about the Highway Code, before the examiner told me no, I'd failed. He said it wasn't the worst attempt he'd ever seen. Damning with faint praise, methinks.

So it seemed to me that if I kept trying, I might eventually pass, only to become one of those drivers that everybody else swears at, and says "How did that bloody fool ever get a license?". It didn't seem to be an attractive prospect.

One consequence of this is that, whenever I've moved house, it's always been to somewhere with decent transport options.

Just a bit of an aside here, and advice too, by way of an anecdote. Back in the late 80's, my parents moved to Wales - something my Dad had been wanting to do ever since I was little. They moved to one house, then a few years later to where my Dad still lives now. As he's been a driver all his life, it never occurred to them to trouble themselves about public transport. But if you're lucky enough to live to old age, there comes a point at which even for the best driver it all gets too much. That point arrived a few years ago for my Dad, at which point he realised just how damn out-of-the-way his house was, and he's been moaning about it ever since. The advice is, don't assume you'll always have a car. Though if the self-drivers really take off I guess that won't be such a big factor.

Incidentally (yes, I know getting off the track, but it's MY blog and it'll go wherever I want), my Mum never learned to drive either. She did make one attempt to, which lasted only a few seconds. My Dad took us out to a big empty factory car park one weekend (this was way back before my first driving test). He took me and Mum both, so we could both have a learning experience behind the wheel in perfect safety. When my Mum's turn came, Dad explained how to start the car, how to turn the handbrake off, how to get it in gear (yes, he didn't hold with automatics) and all that. She put her foot on the accelerator, the car moved forwards at about two miles an hour, and she threw her hands up and screamed "stop it, John! Stop it!" She never bothered again.

So where was I? Oh yes, moving house, public transport, blah blah blah. I'll come back to that.

When we moved to California from New Jersey, we didn't bring the car. It costs a lot to do that, or you have to drive about two thousand miles. The car we had wasn't worth the effort. When we got to CA we decided not to buy a car for a while - there were buses nearby to get to the BART system if we ever wanted to go into San Francisco (where Liz didn't want to drive anyhow), and we were in walking distance of shops, restaurants, swimming pool, school, and various other necessaries. We had a theory that it might be cheaper to go carless, but to rent one for however long was necessary every so often. We were probably right, and things were certainly going that way when daughter Poppy (then in her Junior year at High School) was required to learn to drive in order to graduate. At that point it made sense to buy a car for her to learn in - it was much dearer to get lessons in an instructor's car than to just get an instructor in your own car.

Eventually, in a story which, again, may appear here at some point, that car ended up back in New Jersey with the daughter.And we managed without one quite well thank you for a while.

Once Poppy had left the house we decided to move again, to our presnt location in Benicia. The story of the search for the new Casa Jones is below.

We checked that there were buses, that we could get to the BART system into the city, and the airports when needed, all appeared fine. But we shot ourselves in the foot, because it turns out that the buses stop running at about 9pm, and after that the nearest you can get on public transport is about a 2-3 hour walk away.

Now, Liz has been away in Ghana for a fair percentage of the time we've been in Benicia, and once she'd been back for a while, she just grew too frustrated with the lack of car. I have to say that this is the first place in many years where I have myself found it very frustrating not to have access to one.

So we went out and found a car. I'm completely clueless where cars are concerned, but we saw a couple of decent ones, and Liz made her choice. Paperwork and financing had to be arranged, so we couldn't drive it away right away. The salesman told us that he would deliver it to us once that stuff was sorted. A couple of days later I came home from shopping and saw a car outside the front door. Going indoors, I said

"I see the car's been delivered"

"What?" said Liz. "Isn't that it?"

"That's white, The new car is red."

"Oops. still, it IS a Honda."

"We bought a Toyota."

See, I told you I didn't know anything about cars.

Here, very probably, is a picture of the new car.

Our new car (probably)

Here is a picture of the car which is very probably not the new car.

probably not the new car

Hunting for Casa Jones

We moved to California in 2014. There were several criteria for the new place that, once the kids were both elsewhere, no longer applied - so we decided to move again two years later.

Once we made that decision, we wanted to take a look around at what was available. There were several criteria: it had to be cheaper to rent than the place in Pleasanton. It had to be big enough (though maybe not quite as big as the Pleasanton place - I'd scouted that one out with the idea that both kids might be living with us for a while, and now neither were). It had to have access to transport (hmm, OK we messed up on that in the end). And we had to like the area. So we planned a Grand Tour.

We looked far to the north, as far as Sacramento. We also sampled places quite a bit further south - down as far as Carmel. on the coast. First, I looked online at various towns, what facilities and transport they had, what rental prices were like, and so forth. We hired a car for a few days, and headed out to reconnoitre. We went to a great number of places, bypassed many more that did't meet the list of needs. Knowing how places can blend together in the memory after an exercise like this, I kept a notebook. There were two parts to it: first, the planning part (how long does it take to drive from A to B ,is there anywhere we just want to glance at as we go by, what theatres do they have, what are the rents, etc etc.; and second, notes as we went along - what struck us about each town, good things and bad things etc.

The Haute Enchilada

For instance I can tell you that in Manteca there's very little litter*, we had a noticeably good baklava, there's nice street art, but it's not great for restaurants and bars. Escalon has lots of antique shops, but is a bit dull. Ripon has a lot of churches but not much else.Modesto is apparently "a bit warehousey" - I'm not quite sure what I meant by that.... Several places in and around Carmel (where Clint Eastwood was once mayor) have nice things about them, and the surrounding farmland has lots of gorgeous farm shops but transport is a problem... We stopped at Moss Landing to eat, and fell completely in love with the Haute Enchilada, a bar/restaurant/art gallery/ music venue/ centre of much weirdness. But again, it's too out-of-the-way for any sense.

A lot of places struck me as dull, or scruffy. One seemed to have nothing but auto repair shops, One claims to be the "Garlic capital of the world" but had little else to commend it. I took a real dislike to Pittsburgh - the notes say "Soulless, most places boarded up or closed. Dull, dull, dull."

Rio Vista was charming, and had wild blackberries and a nice swimming pool, but (as with many of the candidates) was too far off the beaten track.

Strange brickwork in Walnut Creek

Against Oakley I simply wrote "NO!".

We spent altogether two days to the south and two more to the north. Then we returned home and discussed, googled, discarded. Now we were looking at specific houses (and some apartments too), with some extra things added to the list of "musts" , including "Must be walkable to the downtown area in a reasonable amount of time... preferably slightly nearer than the Pleasanton one."

We then took a second outing, to check out our two favourite sites - Davis and Benicia. They are very different towns - Davis is big, bustling, and quite arty It's very much a university town. There was a shop there selling new and used books, games and comics which would in itself have made the move tempting. Benicia is smaller, but pretty (if you don't look towards the refinery) and for a small town has lots of places to eat and drink. It's on the water (the Sacramento river becomes the Carquinez Straights just here). It's a lot nearer to San Francisco, and would we thought be easy to get into the city from(oops).

Benicia would probably have won out anyway, but at this point there was some urgency to the matter as we were getting near the end of our lease, and there were no suitable rentals in Davis.

And so here we are.

*it has been my experience, especially in the USA, that excessive litter is always a sign of an unpleasant place. Maybe it's simply that it shows whether people respect their hometown or something.

By the way, I have a new website, about my novel - thedragonsrun.webnode.com

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