Sunday, October 23, 2005

Second Wedding Anniversary

For those of you haven't yet the opportunity to read my dear wife's account of our recent trip, please click here to visit "Jasiland". The bulk of the photos we chose to be net-worthy are on her page, and what I want to write here is just an addendum.

Above is my attempt a panorama shot. Anyone who has a digital camera has, at one time or another, takens several pictures and try to piece them together with an editing program. It really sucks when you don't frame it right and you end up with slices missing from you panorama. The shot above suffers from the opposite: too much overlap.

One of the amusing and original aspects of m'lady's
first post on her blog is that she never names the location of our weekend getaway.

No mention of the luxurious cliffside hotel suite I booked at the last minute. No mention of the harrowing drve through scenic forests and mountains we took to get there. She brought her town with her, and I agree, Jasiland is a town that no matter where I am, I love being there. I'm still dying to tell everyone where these pics come from. Those of you who've been there might recognize some of it. For those who haven't, go. Where? Again, I'm not going to say. It's such an amazing place. Using the vernacular of the time, I think it was original said to be that "Men Do' See No mo' nicer spot than this".

Walking around the cliffs will take your breath away. We found out it can be kind of dangerous too. California being the litigious place it is, there are many many signs to remind the hiker to watch his or her step. There are no railings protecting you from the 60 foot drop to the rocky shoreline below. Ironically, it was that at the trail head that someone sprained her ankle turning to read one of these signs.

It was sore for a couple of days, but she's okay now.

I thought it might have been this dangerous aspect to the place that lead them to put the Grim Reaper atop their church spire, but the wife insists that it isn't the "Grim" reaper in this photo, just an ordinary reaper, maybe even a "happy" reaper. I don't know. If I am pumping water, I do not want some guy with a scythe sneaking up behind me, even if he has wings.

When I was taking pictures with wil abandon, I began a theme. I tried to take a picture of every animal I came across. The coast has lots of intresting (and not so interesting) creatures crawling, walking and digging around it. Here are just a few.

We had a great time on our weekend getaway. We both needed some time to relax, enjoy nature, and fight about whose turn it is to take the next picture.

The trip was much better than our First Anniversary trip which I wrote about on this blog a year ago. October 2004 archive

Friday, October 21, 2005

Tricky Gas Station

Boycott Arco gas stations!!! Do not patron these corporate thieves!

What did they do this time, you ask. Is it their rapacious desire to despoil pristine habitats from Alaska to Argentina? Could it be how their interests are being served in our illegal war in Iraq? There are lots of "big" issues we could hang on all the oil companies. I don't know if Arco is particularly guilty of any of them, but I am calling for a boycott because they tricked me out of at least a half a gallon of gas!

I pulled into the Arco on University Avenue in Berkeley because I saw a lower price on their sign, $2.85 for mid grade, than I had seen at other local stations. After stopping, I noticed the sign said "cash price"; if your used a credit or ATM card, it was 1o cents per gallon more. It is already bad enough that with my new car I have vowed to only feed it the more expensive 89 octane mid-grade gas. I had a twenty dollar bill in my wallet; it was worth it to burn up my last remaining cash, even though at today's prices, that $20 wouldn't fill my whole tank.

My first problem was that I had encountered the slowest flowing gas pump I have ever run into. It is hard to quantify, but I'd guess it took at least twice, maybe three times as long per gallon for this newish-looking pump to do it's thing. At first I thought it might be some ploy by Arco to make it seem like their gas was less expensive. When filling your tank with today's gas, it can be depressing to watch the dollars and cents numbers zoom upwards while the gallons indicater spins at the speed it always has. On this slow pumping Arco machine, the amount I was paying crept comfortably slower towards twenty, as if the gas was at 1985 prices. I later concluded that I just had a bad pump when I saw other customers come and go more quickly.

With all this time on my hands, I noticed the price it showed on the pump was the credit price, not the ten cent discounted price I had earned by giving up my last Jackson. Maybe it was actually charging me a lower price, but just not indicating that on the pump display. How many gallons should I expect for my $20? I'm usually pretty good with math, but it took me a while to figure 2.8599X=20, X=20/2.8599, X=number of gallons I should get. My mind was somewhat numb after just playing 4 straight hours of rigorous basketball. No way to do that without calculator or at least pen and paper. When it finished, I was very confident that it seemed like too little, so I marched with my receipt to confront the attendant.

"Excuse me," I began, "I paid $20 cash, and my receipt shows $2.95 per gallon. That is the credit price." I knew something was wrong here, but I wasn't sure how I expected the guy to fix it.

"Are you sure you gave me cash?" he answered suspiciously. Oh, man, wrong move on his part. With the rough summer I had financially, I KNOW when I'm giving up my last twenty. I was now certain he'd made a mistake. After he reviewed the receipt some more he continued, "Ah, sir, you are being charged for the Premium gas. That's priced $2.95 per gallon."

"But I paid cash!"

"Correct, sir."


"You chose Premium." There has never been any standard by which the oil companies name their different grades of products. By the name alone, no one can tell what super, premium, super plus, performance plus, platinum plus or super premium performance enhancing plus mean. I was starting to catch on that the guy was telling me I had picked 91 octane gas instead of 89 octane.

"I pushed the middle button!" thinking that the slow poke pump had malfunctioned in another way, "I wanted the mid-grade! I pushed the middle button!"

"Go, sir, please go look at the pumps," he concluded, actually waving me off with this hand. I went and looked.

I wrote there has never been any consistency in how they name these levels of gas. One thing that has always been the same is the order they're placed on a pump where you push a button to choose your grade. From left to right, like one is reading, cheap stuff, mid grade, premium. The mid grade is ALWAYS in the middle. Not at Arco. I was aghast to see the 89 octane on the left, the 91 in the middle and the 87 at the far right. He was right, I had picked the premium.

Stepping back into the attendant's hut I exclaimed, "No one does it like that! Why do you guys DO that?" I just asked to make myself feel better. As expected, the attendant just smiled and shrugged.

I know why. Some freekin corporate marketing exec sitting in a room, trying to figure out a way to improve sales of their mid grade and premium gas, which I'm sure less people are using now that it's often $3/gal or more. Rearrange the established pattern of placement on the pumps, and just like when people read, their eyes will pass over the mid and premium before coming to the regular stuff at the end. It's basic merchandising; but it breaks a standard operating procedure that we consumers have gotten used to for 10 years or more. I'm sure I'm not the only guy whose has just pushed the button he normally pushes without reading. How about the guy with the high performance motorcycle or sportscar engine who needs that 91 octane stuff? If he just picked the rightmost button like he normally did, he'd be filling his tank with 87 octane which could damage his engine. At least I only got gypped out of indeterminate amount of gas.

Boycott Arco? I know I'm supposed to boycott Unocal 76 because of what they've done in Burma. Chevron/Texaco ain't exactly been the paragon of corporate virtue either, but like most Americans, I'm most likely to go to the station that has the lowest prices. Even if it was Saddam's Oil Change, Rape Rooms and Filling Station, if they were 6 cents cheaper than the place across the street, I'd go there. I'll go to Arco again, no doubt, just not that pump, and trust me, I WILL be reading the buttons from here on in.

Friday, October 14, 2005

File Drama

I just finished up doing a loan for a lady who probably didn't "deserve" to be able to buy a place. It is one I'm going to wonder about for years. I'm going to wonder if I've done the right thing. I'm going to wonder if she'll be able to afford the mortgage, property taxes and all the other expenses that go along with owning a home. At the same time, she is now among the landed classes, something that with equity growth, could secure her future forever. She makes $20/hr, and she owns her own home, something that would normally be unheard of in the Bay Area. Well, in a way, we own her home, as she received 100% financing. The sellers contributed $12000 from the sales price to cover the closing costs. She had a thousand dollar deposit, and was expected to come to the table with about another thousand. If you've got two grand and can buy a $315,000 condo, you've got a great loan officer.

I didn't "state" her income higher than it actually was. I didn't gouge her on the rate (not that I could). It was a good loan, using full documentation, on a relatively inexpensive property. My concern is that she faught me and her realtor every step of the way while we were trying to do something for her. She would send me bank statements with the account numbers whited out. Every document I asked for (and there are lots needed when asking for a mortgage) was greeted with, "Why do you need that? I don't think you need that". I'm sure there was no fraud here; I did get everything I was asking for eventually, it was just her attitude. I was helping her fulfill the American Dream, and she acted like I was forcing her to do so. Two days ago, she went to her final signing, but she needed another $1400 in a cashier's check. She didn't bring it. They let her sign anyway, but they won't record with the county until that money is received. Yesterday, I got a call.

"Gil, I don't think I can go through with this loan," she said.

"What? Why not?" My stomach churned. I had put hours and hours of work in with this lady, going back to the beginning of August. I saw it falling apart, but in a way, I was almost grateful. I imagine a marathon runner is relieved at that exact moment he collapases, unable to continue, within sight of the finish line. The runner will regret it later, but at the moment, there is relief.

"They took my car."

"Who took your car?"

"The car lot. I fell behind on my payments so I could have this money for a down payment, and now they took my car. I need the money to get the car back."

"Wow." I was shocked. I didn't know what to say, but once again, she was being wishy washy.
Mind you, I had already beat up my boss twice to get pricing concessions on this loan so that she could come to the table with almost nothing. There was no room to budge. Heck, the loan had already funded; we were just waiting to record. Still, in my short time as a loan officer, I've never had anyone try to back out of a purchase after they've signed docs. I didn't know if she even could back out at this point. I told her I would check on her options and call her back. After talking to the experts at my office, I learned that obviously, we can't force her to come up with the relatively small down payment. If she never paid it, the transfer would never record, and everything would just rescind.

My phone rang. It was her realtor. Of course, the realtor was panicing. She said she had heard a message from the buyer, stating what had happened, but all her attempts to call her back had not been answered. From what she'd shared, our buyer had the same distant, cold relationship with the realtor as she had with me. Even then, the realtor offered to loan the buyer the money to close the deal so she could get her car back. The realtor asked me if I thought she was doing the right thing. She asking me? At this point, all my doubts about my buyer's ability to handle this place came to a head, and I said "no". I told the realtor, that no, I wouldn't do it, but I am not her. She needs to decide whether to risk her own funds on this lady. At the same time, I recognized that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the buyer, and she shouldn't back out thinking she could get this deal again sometime in the future. She barely qualified for this place as it was, and although the skyrocketing ascent of property values here in California have leveled off a bit, there is no way she'd ever be able to find a condo at this price again, particularly considering the great loan I put together for her and the concessions being made by the seller. Furthermore, although I couldn't share the specifics of her credit report with the realtor, I knew that once this repossession of her car hit the credit bureaus, it would be years and years before her already marginal credit would have recovered to the point where a lender would even consider doing a loan. All this, and the buyer wouldn't return the realtors calls.

After hours of pleading voice messages from both of us, the buyer finally agreed to let the realtor do her the favor. I told her the cold hard facts outlined above. The realtor used a different strategy. She told the buyer that if God puts someone in your life who is willing to help you, one needs to recognize that and not refuse the help. I will let the cynics come to their own conclusion about that, but as a theological determinist, I would agree with that statement in principal. My only question is are we really helping this lady?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Jojo Lapa follow up

More on the goofy Quik Stop guy.... It would help if you've already read the post from a few weeks ago entitled "JoJo Lapa." If not, see the links below and to the right.

Soon after my great bonding experience with the Nepalese kid who works at the QuikStop down the hill, I went in again and exclaimed "Jojo Lapa!". He kind of frowned and looked away and responded half-heartedly, "jo jo la pa." Then, in all seriousness, he added, "You see, my people don't say 'jojo lapa'. The people on the other other side of the mountains, they say jojolapa. My people say something different."

"Namaste?" I inquired, knowing that to be the formal way in Hindi to say hello.

"Ah, yes, but more commonly, 'Namasko'", he replied.

Now, of course, whenever I go in, we exchange hearty namasko's.

Tonight when I walked in to buy my nightly can of beer, Metallica's Master of Puppets was playing rather loudly on the radio behind the register. Namasko kid noticed my enthusiasm for the music and asked if I liked it. Metallica is, of course, one of my favorite bands and an important part of my personal musical development. I told him I liked it without really revealing exactly how significant it was to me.

Namasko Kid began a monologue (much to the dismay of the next guy in line) on how he had felt Metallica to be the most significant musical group to come along in recent history, surpassed only in its impact by Nirvana. He told me how strongly he had been influenced by Metallica which made the arrival of Nirvana and the whole Seattle sound somewhat surprising yet that much more profound. Wow. I had taken this guy to be at least 10 years my junior, but from the timeline he was describing, he has to be near my age. Even stranger was that this is exactly how I feel about how my musical tastes devloped and evolved between the years 1986 and 1995. I was tired after a long day at work and just wanted to get home, but I really have to talk to this guy more about music; his tastes and opinions parallel mine.

Speaking of the next guy in line, his conversation with Namasko Kid demonstrates another thing I'd talked about in the first JoJo Lapa post, namely that the guy has a knack for making his patrons feel uncomfortable. I had my single can of Colt 45 on the counter, and the guy behind me notes, "Colt 45, good beer!" He had a bottle of Miler High Life. I should mention that I've seen the guy a million times in the QuikStop, and he me. He is one of our neighborhood drunks, although for me, thats a bit like we kettles calling you pots black. In any case, the old alcoholic black guy turns to the Namasko Kid and says, "he's buying a beer! How come you don't tell him he's always buying beer?!" I was on my way out at that point, but I started to hear the guy complaining that Namasko Kid told him he was always buying beer, and he didn't like that. If you're the neighborhood equivalent of a retail bartender, it's not a good idea to be pointing out to your regular customers that they're a lot of drunks. If we weren't too sodden to drive elsewhere, we might take our business to another convenience store.