Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mother Russia

Moving day! Ron reserved a City Car Share car for 4 p.m. to move our suitcases, bedding and air mattress to our new apartment. But first Benny and I had an appointment with another daycare in the Sunset. This was the second reference from the nice preschool director with the waiting list. I hoped this second place would work out; it was close to the N-Judah rail line. I didn't think I could make that uphill trek to Reema's several times a week.

I dressed Benny in his striped sweater and little brown jacket and off we went. The train dropped us off at a very busy commercial area, packed with Asian stores. Entering the school required hauling Benny's stroller up two flights of stone steps and knocking on a huge iron gate.

"Yessss, yessss," said a hoarse voice. A face appeared behind the gate, and Benny and I stepped back hastily. It was pasty white face, utterly without color. The woman's hair was impossibly black, cut like Mr. Spock's from Star Trek. She motioned us in. "Gooood, goood."

Nervously, I entered, into a small, cramped hallway that led into other tiny rooms. Heavy white lace covered the windows. Crocheted afghans lay everywhere. Another woman with a long braid turned to look at me and Madam Strange disappeared.

"Benny!" the woman cried loudly in a thick Russian accent. After living in Prague for a year, I knew a Russian accent. (Plus I've watched "Hunt for Red October" a dozen times.)

Benny shrank back.

"Vy, you are so handsome!" She exclaimed.

She stroked his hair, then led us to another room, which was furnished in Early Russian Orphanage style. Four babies, ranging in age from six months to a year, were lined up on bouncy seats, staring straight ahead. A girl Benny's age sat on a small stool beside a bookshelf. She was also staring straight ahead. I looked around for the Teletubbies or Boomba show they must be staring at, but there was no TV. They just liked to stare. Benny's stepped closer to me.

"Mommy, I'm hungry," he whispered.

The woman lit up like a Christmas tree. "Hungry? Hungry? I make good food. Eat! Eat!" In seconds, Benny was sitting at a small table piled high with little fried things, wishing he had kept his mouth shut. He looked at me piteously.

I couldn't help him.

"Taste! Taste! It is all made HERE!" the woman said, pushing a small bowl of soup at me. I gulped a few spoonfuls. It wasn't bad, really.

"Hello? Hellooooo!" A winsome young woman with braids coiled behind her ears popped into the room with a big smile. "You are Christine? Hello, darling! This is ..."

"Benny," I said, indicating the tragicomical character in the corner.

"Benny, how sweet! How handsome! Hellooooo!" The young woman dashed over to pat his head. "Do you like music? It's time for music!"

"He likes music," I said, hoping to liberate my son from his forced snack. We trooped into another room, where a gray-haired lady was playing a goofy, unfamiliar song on an upright piano. "Wave your flags!" she sang to three older children lined up on tiny plastic chairs. They just stared, their colorful flags drooping.

Benny was herded to an empty seat while the young woman sat me down on the other side of the room. She described the school in a singsong voice, calling me "honey" and "darling" and "sweetheart." Benny kept turning around in his seat to look at me. It was time to go.

"Thank you very much, it looks wonderful," I said standing. "We have to go, but thank you."

Fifteen minutes later, we escaped, Benny still clutching his flag, me carrying the stroller and the bag of food they had pressed on me. At the bottom of the stairs, I loaded up the stroller and wheeled Benny back toward the N-Judah without speaking.

After half a block, Benny finally broke the silence.

"Mommy," he said. "I didn't like that school."

I stopped the stroller and knelt down before Benny, my hands on his shoulders. "Benjamin," I said firmly, "you are not going to that school."

"I'm going to the Princess school?"

"Yes," I said. Our choices were limited: the Princess school, the Russian school, or no daycare until fall 2008. "Who's your favorite princess?"

"Nemo," Benny said.

"What about the little mermaid?" I asked.

"I like the crab."

"OK, then." I gave Benny a kiss and stood. "Reema's it is. You certainly need to get your princesses organized, anyway." We headed down the sidewalk again.


"Yes, Benny?"

"I'm hungry."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thank God for Kansas

Meanwhile, the great San Francisco Childcare Hunt continued today. Ron stayed home from work in the morning so he could accompany us to the home-based daycare in the Sunset district. “I’ve hardly been to work at all this week,” he complained.

The place was supposed to be “just blocks” from the N-Judah rail line. Well, they were long blocks, and all uphill. We were panting as we finally crested the hill at Noriega Street and met a lovely woman named Reema.

Her house was very nice, large and clean with a good play yard out back. Reema made all the food for the kids, breakfast, lunch and snacks. She had lots of assistants to help. The kids looked happy, and Benny was captivated when half a dozen children sat around a teacher to hear “The Princess Book.”

“Did you like that school?” I asked Benny as we wheeled him back to the rail line.

“I like it!” Benny yelled. “I like the Princess School!”

Well, that was something.


I finally got the nerve to call Ralf, our moving truck driver who held all our worldly possessions. Ralf sounded very depressed.

“I’m in Kansas,” he said. “The rig broke down. Then the truck sent out to fix the problem broke down too. I’ve been here for days.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said sympathetically as I danced around the apartment. “That’s terrible.”

“I should have been there by now,” he went on dolefully. “Now it could be Tuesday, Wednesday of next week.”

“We’ll get by,” I reassured him.


Our rental agent called. She’d gone to the head of the company and our lease break was now a bona fide transfer. Our security deposit for Cole Valley would be applied toward the new place’s deposit. We wouldn’t have to find another tenant. We could sign the lease on the new place today and take possession tonight or Friday.

“You are amazing,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

I met Ron at the rental agency office. (Benny was starting to think we lived there too.) Ron wore a suit and a harried expression. “I need to write some stories,” he muttered.

We signed all the papers and forked over another check. Ron raced off to write about some guy who dealt in mouse stem cells. I called Ralf on my cell as I wheeled Benny toward our soon-to-be-former apartment.

“They fixed the rig,” Ralf said. “I got stops in Modesto and Navato, but you’ll be first. I should be there Monday.”

“No worries,” I said, smiling. “By the way, I’ve got a new address for you.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hills and Valleys

I woke up Wednesday morning, lying stuffed inside Benny's racecar sleeping bag, and instantly started fretting. Today was the estimated arrival date for our furniture from Michigan. What if our driver Ralf called today, saying he was on Highway 101 outside the city?

Perhaps I should rent a storage space, I thought. That would be a good laugh, if I had to rent a storage space just days after triumphantly closing the one in Michigan. Storage space in the city would cost a fortune. Should I rent one in the East Bay?

Ron departed gloomily for work, and I tried to entice Callisto out of the bathroom. The cat's been perfecting her Evil Cursed Stare of Death for three days now, glaring out of the doorway of her covered litter box. She hadn't touched her food. I finally lured her out with a can of wet cat food with "Fancy Beef Flavor." Let's hope it wasn't from China.

Flushed by this small triumph, I put Benny in his new stroller and wheeled him over to the commercial district to run errands. Benny is adjusting beautifully to city life. When waiting at the bus stop, I always place the folded stroller between Benny and the street, and he stands nicely behind the stroller. Benny used to fight taking my hand in parking lots back in Ann Arbor; now I just waggle my fingers and say "hand," and his little paw immediately slips into mine.

An interesting email awaited me back at the apartment -- the rental agent who found this place for Ron had heard about our squawking. She wants to show me some other apartments and says we can work something out -- some sort of transfer as long as we pick a place with the same rent or more. Elated, I call her and arrange a meeting that afternoon. She'll pick me and Benny up in her car and show us three places.

The first two places revealed a familiar pattern for this rental agency: the neighborhood is great, but the agency always owns the sorriest building on the block. But the third place ... Ron and I were blown away. It was big. It was gleaming. It was perfect. It was also expensive. How could we afford it?

"We'll take it. We'll find a way," pronounced Ron, who has felt just awful about the whole apartment crisis. The agent said she would call us with details.

Well, the agent did call, and the details weren't pretty. I held the cell phone to my ear, my mouth open, as I stood outside a Burgermeister restaurant while Benny and Ron ate lunch inside. We would have to forfeit the security deposit we'd put done on the Cole Valley place. We would need an additional security deposit for the new place, plus first month's rent. AND we'd still have to find a new tenant for the Cole Valley place. But, the agent said happily, they've agreed to waive $500 fee!

"Are you kidding?" I asked incredulously. "This isn't a transfer, this is a lease break. You expect us to shell out thousands of dollars more? Tie ourselves to a new, more expensive apartment as well as the old place?"

The agent sputtered.

"Look, I appreciate your efforts," I said unsincerely. "But if this is a lease break, then we'll break the lease. We'll find a new tenant, and then we'll find an apartment ourselves, without your agency."

No, no, the agent said. Let me call you back.

I agreed and went inside the restaurant to tell Ron. It was a quiet lunch; Benny sensed our mood and concentrated on building towers out of jelly packets. At the end of the lunch, I looked at our bill: $30. One thing was for sure, we definitely couldn’t afford San Francisco.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Missions Impossible

SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm typing this while sitting on my bed -- which, in this case, is a child-sized racecar sleeping bag unrolled on the hardwood living room floor of our new apartment. Ron and Benny share the air mattress, and the cat hasn't left her unused litter box for two days.

We're all a little traumatized. We know we're happy to be here, but we're too freaked out to appreciate this wonderful city. The apartment is not working out, and we're not sure what to do about that. A weird smell developed in the closet while Ron was in Michigan and now it's taking over the apartment. I know I didn't imagine it, because Ron smelled it too.

So on Monday the three of us hoofed it over to the rental agency, a scary entity that owns a quarter of the residential rental space in San Francisco. We were there obstensibly for me to officially sign the apartment lease, but I just couldn't do it. So I left a bored, restless Benny with Ron and sat down with an agent to explain our plight. Crazed by jet-lag and worry, I didn't make a great impression. In fact, I burst into tears.

This resulted in a visit Tuesday by the agency's district supervisor and the building manager, who claimed to smell nothing. We'd have to break our lease if we wanted out, I was told. That meant either coughing up two months' rent or finding another tenant ourselves. It would be ironic, I told Ron, if after spending five months showing a house for sale, I'd find myself showing an apartment for rent. I personally never wanted to see a Clorox cleaning wipe again.

Feeling a little desperate, I turned to another difficult task: finding daycare for a small child in San Francisco in two weeks. Ron had spoken to a lady at a marvelous-sounding school the week before leaving for Michigan. It was small (16 children total) and cute, with a good teacher-student ratio and none of that weird academic bent that I'd noticed on some S.F. preschool web sites. Dinosaur School (not it's real name) was what I wanted. Clutching their little blue handbook, I left a message at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning. At noon, the school called back. There had been an opening, but it was filled while Ron was in Michigan. Ron had scheduled a parent tour for Aug. 1, which I agreed to keep. "Maybe something will open up," the school director said. Yeah.

Now a little panicked, I spent hours on Tuesday searching online for preschools, shamelessly using someone's nearby wireless connection for my laptop. Most schools I called had a waiting list: "We have openings for fall 2008," a few school officials said helpfully. Finally a preschool director took pity on me and coughed up two names for home-based daycares in the Sunset district.

By the end of Tuesday, things looked a little grim. The rental agency's lease department called me back and described how easy it would be for us to find a new tenant ourselves. An editor from the San Francisco Business Times emailed me, asking me if I could begin work Aug. 6. Sure, I emailed back, crossing my fingers.

It's doubly sad about the apartment, because the neighborhood is just great -- everything Ron said and more. It's quiet and pretty, with a nice commercial area just a few blocks away, with a laundromat and grocery, and hardware store and crepes place. Bus lines and rail lines are just blocks away. There's a great playground a few blocks in the other direction. The great location almost makes up for the apartment.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Confessions of a Reformed Control Freak

During the seven weeks that I cared for Benny alone in Michigan, an odd thing happened. I became a control freak. So the day before we left for San Francisco, I was looking for new things to worry about, and decided to fret about the drive to the airport.

We’d hired a car, but what about Benny? His booster seat was in a moving van heading west. Should we bring his old car seat? What would we do with it at the airport, since he won’t need a car seat on the plane? I finally called the car service and they said not to worry, Benny could just sit in back, belted up. But I couldn’t let it go at that. I also changed the pickup time my husband had arranged from 3:45 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. the next morning.

Well, that final bit of micromanaging was to have dire consequences. At 4:10 a.m. on Sunday morning, we were standing in the dimly-lit living room: bags packed, cat drugged, stroller folded, Benny in his coat. No car. 4:20 a.m. No car. 4:30 a.m. No car.

Ron called the car service and learned that no car was coming. The man I’d spoken to had changed our pickup time to 4:15 P.M. Aaagh! Quickly we dashed to the dining room cabinet, pulled out a phone book and started calling cab companies. Then we endured a 20-minute nail-biting wait (which included a false alarm from our newspaper carrier. Damn, I’d forgotten to cancel our Detroit Free Press.)

A cab finally pulled up and we raced over, tossed in our luggage and screeched away. The cab made the short trip to Metro Airport in record time. We arrived panting at the check-in counter (mercifully empty), with Benny in his stroller, clutching his stuffed sheep, wide-eyed with the drama of it all.

“Oh, you’re on the 6 a.m. flight?” the airline woman asked. “I was just about to close it up.”

“We have a cat!” I wheezed, waving the health certificate.

“Yes, I see,” the lady said soothingly. She obviously knew a nutcase when she saw one.

Security was, of course, a pill. Benny refused to go through the arch alone, so I had to push him through, then follow as he yelled. I forgot to take my laptop out of the bag, so they needed to give it a thorough anti-bomb scan. Meanwhile, another security guy made Ron pull Callisto the cat out of her carrier and carry her through the arch.

We made the plane with no time to spare, the last ones to board. By now I was almost weeping with stress and my usual fear of flying. Ron, the saint that he is, amused Benny during the plane’s taxi and liftoff while I listed to my iPod and tried to convince myself we weren’t going to die.

The rest of the flight went beautifully, probably because it was completely out of my control. Benny napped in his stroller during our layover in Houston and Continental Airlines does a nice breakfast service, which we got on both legs of the flight. We landed in Oakland, Calif., on time and miracle of miracles, so did our luggage.

Benny picked out Coit Tower, Alcatraz and the TransAmerica Pyramid during the taxi ride over the Bay Bridge. I pressed my own nose against the window glass and tried to see the Golden Gate Bridge. We were home.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


ANN ARBOR -- FINAL POST -- It’s 1:05 a.m. I’m lying awake on the floor of our home office, staring wide-eyed at the shadowed trees outside. Ron is beside me on the air mattress; Benny is snuggled in his sleeping bag on the floor to my left.

Our plane leaves in five hours. Everything feels unfinished, but I can’t think of a solitary thing left to do. Our luggage is piled in Benny’s empty room, our jackets draped on top. The stroller is folded up nearby. Our taxi is reserved, the cell phones charged. The whole house has been swept, wiped and Windexed in case a buyer with wads of cash turns up with a realtor later today.

Wait … I sit up. I forgot to clear out the liquor bottles. Then I settle back. Nah … we were renting the house to my brother Andy, after all. A full liquor cabinet would only be a plus.

I stretch, and my foot hits the empty cat carrier beside the mattress. Heaven knows where Callisto is right now, probably in the basement, hiding behind the washing machine. She knows something’s up. I’d never flown with a cat before. Do I have the right cat carrier, the right papers, the right pills? How would Callisto react to a sedative? I planned to crush up her pill into wet cat food – I’d even given her a bit before midnight to make sure she liked it. Would it work? What if she spit it out, threw it up …

I sit up again. Did I take the screen door key off my key chain? And what about the donuts in the fridge? Did Andy like donuts? Calm down, Chris, everyone likes donuts. Yeah, but this is Andy …

To take my mind off my rapidly developing psychosis, I think about San Francisco. But the picture is dim, undeveloped. My reality isn’t in California; it’s here, with sighing trees and tinny wind chimes and the faint whine of the neighbor’s lonely dog. Between me and San Francisco stands a daylong airplane trip with a cat, a toddler and a layover in Houston. Try as I might, my imagination can’t bridge that obstacle.

Instead, I think of Ann Arbor: our pretty house; the winding pathway in our backyard; Benny’s school friends; my family, my friends; daffodils in the spring; leaves in the fall. I remember the four-foot snowdrifts I navigated when we brought Benny home from the hospital. I remember the first screening of the “Europa Society” and my neice’s performance in the “Wizard of Oz.” (She was both a munchkin and a monkey – such dramatic range).

We were leaving so much -- whole thing sounded nuts. Who gives up jobs, cars and Mackinaw Island fudge to live in a tiny apartment? Who wants to wait at bus stops, wheel granny carts to the grocery, feed quarters into washing machines? Who wants the hassle?

I turn over and finally, reluctantly close my eyes. Oh hell, I think. Life is full of hassles, no matter where you are. All you can do is choose the hassles you want.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Boxing Day

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Just finished up a tiring but very happy weekend. Three longtime friends came to visit me -- two were roommates from college and the third a fellow reporter from my first full-time newspaper job (I was an education reporter in Battle Creek, Mich.) Seeing any one of these women would be enough to make my week. Visiting with all three in two days makes me realize how lucky I am.

In between visits, I'm frantically packing. Seventeen lovingly taped and labled boxes are stacked up in my home office, each sporting a sassy colored tape that says BEDROOM or LIVING ROOM. That may sound impressive (probably not), except that every box containes resorted and repacked stuff from our storage space. Tomorrow I actually begin packing things that have not been packed before. I suppose that's progress.

The storage space is, thankfully, no more. I'll admit to a happy lump in my throat as I surveyed the empty space. For six months I've shuttled boxes and debris between house, storage space, the Salvation Army and the city dump. At one point the space was completely full. Benny considered the storage facility a second home, squealing happily whenever the big sliding doors sprang open and cadging rides on the little moving cart.

Speaking of Benny, the poor kid's been a trifle neglected in my packing frenzy. I actually gave him a full bath tonight, with bubbles and everything, and scrubbed the areas around his little cuts and scrapes, which had developed dark outlines because I hadn't changed his Disney Princess band-aids in days. It shows a shocking lack of maternal feeling, I know, that I found the time to pumice-stone my toes this weekend, but not tend my child's wounds.

In other news, Xena, Warrior Princess, has invaded my house, yelling "Yi yi yi yi yi YI!" While updating my "NetFlix" queue last month, I thought it would be fun to rent a Xena DVD so I could laugh at funny hats and correct mythological errors.

Well, I must have been tired, because I didn't order just one Xena DVD; I signed on for the entire first season. Every time I opened my mailbox, more Xena was inside. "What's this?" I cried. "What happened to my '24' DVDs? I want Keifer!"

Apparently Jack Bauer just can't take on Xena in open battle. I quickly realized what happened, but I was too busy to update my NetFlix queue. I watched a half-dozen Xena episodes (mostly by fast-forwarding through the fight scenes), but Xena always came back. *

Tonight, however, I emerge victorious. I signed onto NetFlix and banished Xena, promoted Keifer and added the full second season of "Sex in the City," where the battles are equally physical but the hats are always fabulous.


* Don't ask me why I didn't have 10 minutes to log on to NetFlix, but could spend whole evenings watching a screeching acrobat with a bad hair day. Such queries are not helpful.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Christine Gets a Flat Tire and Doesn't Freak Out

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- At this point in my life, when any small crisis immediately becomes a HUGE BIG DRAMA, it was refreshing to have a problem dealt with so smoothly and sensibly and with such dispatch.

I was driving back from Benny's daycare, listening to Pachabel's Canon and repeating my personal serenity prayer ("I have no fucking control over that, so I won't give a shit"), when I noticed the driver next to me was having a seizure.

OK, so he wasn't having a seizure, he was just trying to get my attention. And since I was wearing my 7:30 a.m. uniform of faded T-shirt, rumpled khakis and coke-bottle glasses, the only explanation was that something was wrong with my car. "Your tire is flat!" the man shouted as I rolled down the window. "Back there!"

Oh, crud. My car had just returned from Indianapolis (a 275-mile drive, one way) and I knew my tires were low. Now one had collapsed altogether.

Now, I am not exactly famous these days for my calm, confident responses to life's little curve balls. Generally I react to minor setbacks (a closed day care, a sick cat, a dropped earring) with rhetoric and hand-wringing suitable for a Greek tragedy. When I arrived at the doctor's last Friday for a checkup, I was so wound up from packing clothes and dispensing cat medicine and cleaning the house for a possible showing, that my first blood pressure reading hit the roof. My second one was normal, thank goodness. The nurse said the first reading was probably a bad cuff, but I know better.

Back to this morning. I simply drove to a nearby Discount Tire. They took the tire off and floated it in water to find where the leak was. "I'm turning in this car in two weeks," I begged. "I can't spend much." Discount Tire did not fail me. Those guys scrounged up a used tire from somewhere and put it on the car, free of charge. In 30 minutes I was back on the road.

Alas, my new maturity couldn't last. Within an hour I was in a loud altercation with a stubborn roll of packing tape, my shouts echoing off the walls of our nearly empty storage space. Oh well, I thought as I ground the tape roll under my heel (hard to do in flip-flops), I'm not always like this.