carol's kitchen

Monday, February 10, 2014

VALLEJO - Real Estate

Part 2 -
Not only did I find my dream house, I found two -- fixer-uppers with panoramic river views, rooms galore, and spacious grounds in the neighborhood of singing neighbors.  With the first, I was going to knock down walls, transform windows into French doors, build decks, add bathrooms and a new roof, just for starters.   I went nuts.  Unfortunately, a bid was already in place and I couldn’t do anything about it. The second one required even more work, but I was at it again, tearing down walls and building new ones in my mind; I even designed a Zen garden with lines to hang laundry.  But, before I had a chance to bid on the second one, I received a barrage of phone calls and emails from home-owner friends, warning me not to do it.  “Enjoy your retirement, spend time with the grandkids, travel; don’t open that can of worms.”
They were right.  As Wharf Rat correctly observed, I was getting too shi shi.  I’d lost control and got carried away by my fantasies.  I’d caught a bad case of Vallejo real-estate fever, like quite a number of people I know.  My friends brought me back to reality.  I am, after all, a woman of “a certain age,” and what I don’t need now is a junk-pile of renovation and upkeep troubles. 
By the end of January I was doomed to return to L.A. without finding my home in Vallejo, but I had a realtor who understood me and would keep on looking.  Two days before my departure, I got a call from one of my new Vallejo friends.  She knew someone, who knew someone, whose neighbor had just moved out of a condo.   I went to see it and recognized right away it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was exactly what I needed: carefree living, with a view.  I’ve put out my mojo to get it, and with the help of my agent I expect that will happen.  As I’m a superstitious person and afraid to jinx my luck, I’ll write more about that later, when it’s mine. 
There’s no doubt the waterfront is my favorite territory in Vallejo.  I love to walk along the river from bridge to bridge, stop in at Panama Red’s, chat with the helpful young woman who works at the info desk in the Ferry Building, sit on a bench near the daffodils, and watch the ferries come and go.   Best of all, I love Vic’s Wheelhouse, what I consider the primo spot in Vallejo for afternoon tea, or a hand-made Bloody Mary, or a good glass of local white with a cool plate of fresh oysters on the half shell, while watching the sun set behind Mare Island.  I’d rather see music videos than the football matches on their TV screen, but I doubt the regulars at the bar would agree with me.   I look forward to warmer weather when I can sit outside on their floating patio, and, the inevitable day when someone starts a concession of paddle boats to rent by the hour, I’ll bring my grandkids here. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014


Part 1 -
During my stay on Kentucky Street, I couldn’t help notice a lot of police cars and fire-engines racing through the streets, day and night.  When I mentioned this to a friend, she said, “Good.  Let them work.  They’re paid more than enough, and when they retire they’ll be overpaid.”
I know my friend wasn’t glad about fires and crime in Vallejo, but her attitude reflects a discontent I hear from many people here, a backlash to the dire financial problems of the city, the subject of a story I saw on PBS recently, and a conundrum that must be solved.  Cut pensions, or fix roads & improve schools?  Is there really a choice?   I also know for a fact that nobody gives up power or money voluntarily.   Challenges await my arrival in Vallejo.
I called a friend of a friend, a retired academic who moved to Vallejo because of cheap real estate prices, to tell him I was planning to move here too, and maybe we could meet.  “Are you crazy?” he asked.  “Better you should move to Marin or Tiburon, where people don’t get robbed in their own homes, prostitutes don’t walk the streets, council members aren’t ultra-right tea-party types, and the city isn’t run by religious bigots and corrupt politicians.”  I wanted to discuss this challenging situation with him, but he wasn’t done yet. “Vallejo has no culture,” he said.  “My wife and I have lived here 13 years and haven’t met anyone to talk to; there are no intellectuals or cultured people here.”
My month in Vallejo taught me otherwise; my networking efforts had brought intelligent, interesting, artistic and helpful people into my life.  I suggested he become politically active, meet good, like-minded people, help make the city a better place.   As it was Wednesday, I invited him and his wife to join me at the Empress Theatre for a jazz concert that night.  He’d never heard of the Empress Theatre, and had no desire to go.  He suddenly remembered a prior appointment and said he’d call me back later.  Never heard from him again.
I met a poet, a real intellectual artist, originally from New York, who works as a school administrator in Vallejo.  I asked how she liked living in this city.  I know poets don’t need a lot of words to express emotions, but I didn’t expect such a succinct response. “Vallejo sucks,” she said.  And, as if that wasn’t graphic enough, she added, “Vallejo is Staten Island,” an image she knew I would understand. 
The auto mechanic who repaired my flat tire told me he’s been working at the same garage for 17 years.  Recently, however, the owner sold his business and the new boss reduced everyone’s pay and told them if they wanted health insurance they’d have to get on their own.  This mechanic grew up in Vallejo, went to school here, married and brought up his kids here.  His whole family lives in Vallejo. Now he has a heart condition and has lost all his front teeth.  He can’t afford to take care of his heart so he can get new teeth, and doesn’t know what he can do about it. 
A blue-eyed blonde real estate agent, who grew up in Vallejo, told me she moved to Napa when she got re-married and blended families.  Her second husband’s from South America and his daughter is black.  The agent has a Mexican son-in-law and grandchildren of various colors.  She said her family stood out like a sore thumb in Napa, which, in her opinion, is uptight and bigoted, so they moved back to Vallejo and feel much more comfortable here.
While I love living in an integrated city, and am ready to take on its challenges, I wish I was more democratic and tolerant when it comes to art and culture.  After attending the book shop opening on Marin Street, I walked around the corner to watch the open-mike talent night at the HUB.  While I was impressed with the general enthusiasm, I found some of the work amateurish, and complained to my companion. 
He told me my attitude is off the mark: “It’s better than getting mugged on the street corner, or being accosted by junkies and prostitutes, which is what used to go on in this neighborhood.”
Wharf rat is right, I’m too cosmopolitan.   I’m going to work on that when I move to Vallejo.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014



Before I drove up to Vallejo, I put a sticky note on my desktop with the following: A big house, on a quiet street, with a front porch, and view of the river.  Safe. Not expensive. 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.  Big kitchen.

I walked beside the river yesterday, a lovely path in a park of protected wetlands, scanning the hillside homes whose windows reflect the setting sun and shimmering river, and thought about how much I want that view. 

OK, it’s not a river, but rather the Mare Island Straits in the mouth of the Napa River that empties into the San Pablo Bay in the northeast corner of San Francisco Bay.  But river sounds so much more poetic.  

Went to the Empress Theatre Wednesday night to hear blues and rock and roll, with the Daniel Castro Band, first class artists from the Bay area.  The music is sponsored by local businesses as a service to the community, and I thank them for it.  The band is as good as any I’ve ever heard, and Daniel’s blues guitar made me weep.

After living in Hollywood so many years you can imagine my shock when I saw grey-haired men of 60 years or more, get up and dance by themselves, rockin’ n rollin’ in front of the stage, same as they did 50 years ago, and women of all ages, who weren’t skinny, gyrating ecstatically to that hot wailing guitar.  Couples too, young and old, up on their feet. groovin’ to the music.  A fellow in a wheelchair joined in and wheeled himself wild.  I went to the bar during intermission and chatted with the band, who told me they love Vallejo.  People carried cocktails back into the theatre and drank in their seats, which is ok to do in the Empress Theatre.

Did you ever go slowly through the aisles of a supermarket , examining exotic fruits and packaged items with not a word of English on the label, then turn around to sniff some lemon grass and squeeze a purple yam, only to find your shopping cart has been replaced by someone else’s, who’s obviously gone off with yours?

That happened to me in Seafood City, a Philippine supermarket with the best fresh fish section I’ve seen outside of Tokyo.  Wild Mexican halibut, Canadian salmon, fresh skate wings, live crabs, shiny mackerel, and bright-eyed Oregon sardines at $1 per pound.  Everything is pristine fresh, with a team of guys who gut and scale your fish.  I found beef tendons, good for what ails me, which I’m now cooking with ginger, star anise and lemon grass.  I also found pig snout, pork blood, and pink tapioca, which I managed to pass up, and green grass jelly drink, coconut cider vinegar, sardines in a glass jar, and butter in a can, which I couldn’t.  I love this shop!

I soon found the manager, who, together with a bunch of friendly bystanders, combed the entire market with me, but we didn’t find my cart and I had to start all over again.

Vallejo has no Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.  Someone told me we don’t have the demographics for those shops.  But, between Seafood City and a year-round farmers market every Saturday morning on Georgia Street near the ferry, I’m covered.  

Now, all I want is a home with a view of the river.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


     I didn’t love the house enough, and withdrew my offer. I did love the location, however, and still hope to become part of that cool neighborhood and its singing community. People tell me there’ll be more houses on the market when spring comes.  But the experience of watching inspectors crawl around under the foundation looking for termites made me wonder: do I really want to deal with such things as dry-rot, mold, fungus, drainage, and termites… at my age?? 
     At a friend’s suggestion I went to look at a gated community of luxury condos a few miles from the center of town, but when I got there kept thinking I’d gone to the wrong place.  I thought I was in Disneyland or Las Vegas; everything so phony and pretentious, with faux plaster statues and fountains, mausoleum-like slabs of marble in the kitchens, massive carved walls of dark cabinetry, a la mad King Ludwig, to house the 8 foot flat-screen TV, giant four-poster beds, decked out with tassels and braids and enough overstuffed fancy pillows for a Russian Queen, and piped in music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss, after whom the condos are named.  I kept looking for slot machines inside the cavernous walk-in closets.   
     When I asked who designed it, the Barbie sales person announced with pride that she herself created the color schemes and interior designs, which you could only change after you bought the home, and that it was inspired by a palace in Vienna (name withheld to protect the palace).  But I want to tell you I’ve seen that palace in Vienna, and this was no palace in Vienna.   
Been through two realtors, so far.  The first lost me because another offered to do the job for less than half the fee.  But he turned out to be not right for me (don’t ask), so I’m on to number 3, one of many recommendations given by friends.  It seems that everyone in Vallejo either is or has a favorite realtor. 
     I’ve learned that outside real-estate vultures swooped into Vallejo when it lay dying from the busted bubble and relapsed into bankruptcy.  Prices went down the toilet and they bought up everything they could sink their claws into.  And, they’re holding on, collecting rent, not caring for their properties, unconcerned about their tenants; just waiting for prices to rise.  Absentee landlords are blamed for a lot of the problems in Vallejo – but not all.   
And there are the flippers, who buy, fix and sell fast.  It’s so profitable I keep thinking I should do that too, but then I remember I know nothing about this business, and had better stick to my own onions. 
    So, for the month of January, I’m renting a room in a beautiful Victorian house on Kentucky Street.  Had I found it myself I would have bought it.  I even made an offer to my landlady, who laughed at me; her house has more than doubled in value since she bought it in 2010.   
Today was the first day I went drove around Vallejo without my GPS and guess what?  I got lost.  

Monday, January 13, 2014


            I figured I’d get flak from friends who don’t want me to kvetch about them not having time for me.  Quite a few, however, acknowledged they share my feelings, my desire to be included, and yearning to belong.   All think moving near my kids is right and tell me YES, I can do it; pull up roots and change my life, even at this stage of the game.
What are the chances I’d open Craigslist and find someone wanting to exchange their beautiful Victorian mansion in the heritage district of Vallejo for a home in Los Angeles for a week in the middle of December?  The stars guided me north.  I packed my feather duvet and cashmere sweaters and took off up the I-5 like a penguin searching for fish.
What are the chances I’d sit down next to a city council member in Java Jax my first day in town, who gave me the name of someone who might have a house to rent, and that person gave me the name of her neighbor who’s selling his house, and that a week later I’d make an offer on that house?  And while all this was going on I’d be invited to that neighborhood’s annual potluck Christmas party, where after dinner, folks sat around the fireplace strumming guitars, picking on banjos, and singing in harmony with all their hearts?   Could I bear so much love?
It seems like everyone in Vallejo shows up at Moschetti’s regular Saturday morning coffee tasting.  We see friends, make new ones, and drink our fill of free delicious fresh brewed joe.  Local artisans offer samples of homemade chocolates and pastries. 
The atmosphere is lively – artists, political activists, mothers and fathers with kids, dowagers, curators, carpenters, chiropractors… live music! The chief coffee maker expounds with authority while offering tastes of the best coffees in the world, in addition to the dozen urns of Moschetti’s many blends.  The owner, a congenial Frenchman, chews the fat with one and all as his garage and trailer establishment overflows with conversation, neighborly good-will and discarded paper cups. 
I’ve talked to more people on two mornings at Moschetti’s than I do in Los Angeles in a year.  They tell me they love Vallejo in spite of its problems, and are glad I’m coming.  My unofficial poll reveals most have come for affordable real-estate, to be near family, and enjoy good climate.  Me too.
My exchangee turned out to be a kind, intelligent, gentleman real-estate investor/contractor who drew big black X’s on the city map over the areas I should not look for a home, and took me on a tour to show me where I should.  He introduced me to his realtor, who would help me buy the house I found that first day, with the good neighbors who sing together.
Last night a yellow full moon hung low over the mountains in the east.  And just now the ice-cream truck is driving by playing a familiar tune.  Is it the Catcher in the Rye?


Friday, January 10, 2014

Can I do It?


I never imagined I’d live in California; then I moved to West Hollywood and thought I’d stay forever.  But, after twenty-five years enjoying the best weather and the most beautiful apartment in the hood, a rent-controlled historic landmark haven, I believe it’s time to go. 

I need to re-imagine a new life.  How many times I’ve done that, I can’t even count, but this will be the last time, so I’d better do it right.  I want to be near (but not too near) my grandkids in San Francisco; I need clean air, good climate, and reasonable housing - which doesn’t exist in San Francisco - plus something I always missed in Los Angeles – a sense of community, a feeling of belonging.  

So, thanks to my friend, Collette, a smart, sassy school teacher who moved to Vallejo eight years ago, & told me about this unusual city, I’m camping out in a temporary rental in northern California, bundled up in warm sweaters, scarves, & boots, hunting down an old house, or a new condo, or I-don’t-know-what, and a new way of life in Vallejo, on the banks of the peaceful Napa River.  My location is 33 miles by road, or a stunning ferry ride of less than an hour to San Francisco, where my sweet little chickadees reside.  

Vallejo’s an historic city on the edge; it’s gone through tough times, hit hard by the housing bubble & major budget problems due to gross political mismanagement, and two bankruptcies in recent history.  It has nowhere to go but up.  Meanwhile, cheap real-estate abounds, an active community struggles to pick itself back up, and a feeling of optimism prevails.  I’ve met a lot of local artists, who are connected and like to get together, and welcome me.  I’ve met people who care about the city and are working to make it better.  

This morning I called a couple I know & suggested we get together for dinner this evening.  They said yes, and offered to pick me up.  In Hollywood, my friends are always fully booked, or can’t commit, or busy until the last week of next month on Thursday, & invariably will cancel when the time approaches.   In Hollywood, one is always holding out for something better.  Getting picked up depends on which direction we’re going & usually falls on me.  Really!  Most of my friends in L.A are too busy for the likes of me.

I think, I hope, I’ve found a place in a community where I belong, where I can enjoy clean air & visits from my grandchildren.  I’m dreaming of family Sunday dinners in a place I call home.