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August 12, 2002
What I Did On My Summer Vacation
Recently I took a vacation to California with my wife and daughter to visit the in-laws. Yes, I said vacation. Despite being unemployed - still - we determined that what we really needed was to get away from everything around here and just have some time off. The Civic holiday was approaching, and it was decided that I would lose less job search time if we planned our trip to straddle that weekend. Off we went.
Don't assume that I just completely slacked off, drinking until I couldn't see and trying my damnedest to get a melanoma. I took a floppy disk with my résumé down with me (just in case) and checked both my voice mail and e-mail daily, as well as looked at the job boards for new postings. (Gotta love the web.) Instead of it being the focus of attention, however, it was just one thing I did once a day, and the rest of the time we were either out at the Ventura County Fair, walking and enjoying the sunshine and sandy beaches, or I'd stay at home and read while the 3 generations of women went out on one of their marathon outlet mall shopping sprees. It was good.
Things got more interesting when my mother-in-law told me about a little office a few blocks down the street from where they live. It appeared to be the home office of an Internet-based recruiting agency, so I decided to look them up online. Sure enough they had a few things that might be up my alley, so I gave them a call. Well! Halfway through the conversation (while summarizing my résumé over the phone) the guy I was dealing with got quite excited. Apparently I had experience that would match very well with a company that he's been trying to fill a position for over the period of many, many months.
So, after four months of Canadian companies barely acknowledging my résumé, I travel across a continent, three time zones, and one helluva climate change and finally find a company that not only gives me the time of day, but wants to interview me in a bad way. Am I the only one that finds something seriously wrong with this picture? I can now sympathize and relate to ex-pats who went south to find their fortune.
According to Mapquest, the journey that I would have to make for the interview would be just over 250 miles, or about 400 km, one-way. That's a lot of driving for one day (if you're not a truck driver), and gave me lots to see and think about on my way to and from my potential future employer.
My journey began at 4am local time. I decided that I should get up and beat as much traffic as I could and get there as soon as possible, so that I'd get back at a decent non-bedtime hour. It also worked out that I'd be getting up at the same time the next day to go back home to Ontario, so getting up at 4am Pacific Time would condition me better to get up at 7am Eastern Time again. I drove off into the darkness with my directions beside me, wondering what I'd see.
Well, the first things I noticed I didn't exactly see so much as felt and heard. Those of you who haven't spent any time in the southern reaches of the US may not know what Botts dots are, but I know intimately. For some reason the US has collectively decided that painted lines on the roads aren't enough, so they install these low domes on top of the road, right over the lines, and in some cases even between the lines. Some are reflective, which can be helpful, but in general all I find they do is make a helluva racket whenever I change lanes. I'll admit it may have something to do with the shitty little compact that I rented - an unrefined steaming pile as far as vehicles go - but even in more refined and isolated vehicles changing lanes over these little domes can't do anything good for your tires. Unless they're meant as the US equivalent of rumble strips that we find at the edge of major highways, I see little point. If anything, they acted as a lane change deterrent to me.
...which may explain another phenomenon I noticed. It is possible that Californians are so conditioned not to change lanes that when they do, they are in such a foreign realm that they completely forget about turn signals. I know that Ontario drivers, and drivers everywhere for the most part, aren't always good at using turn signals. Whether it's a taxi trying to sneak into another lane without anybody noticing or lane-slaloming asshole trying to get to McDonalds faster, there are frequent daily occurrences of failure to use turn signals. Californians take this to new heights, in that turn signals are near universally ignored. The ratio in Canada, from what I've seen, is fairly good, but on my drive through the Valley I'd say less than 50% of the drivers I encountered bothered with them.
One stark difference between Canada and the US became obvious at the beginning of my homeward journey. The marathon interview had concluded, I had eaten lunch (at a little Mexican hole in the wall with glacial service), and I was in search of a gas station to refuel the aforementioned rental shitbox. I found a station, guessed at which side the tank was on, was wrong, switched sides, and attempted to start gassing up for the ride home. In my neck of the woods (the entire 401 corridor), to pump gas you pull up to a pump, insert the nozzle into the tank, select the grade, and begin fuelling. For some reason, this wasn't working for me mid-Valley in California.
I stepped inside to ask what was going on with the pump, and was somewhat surprised to learn that I have to either pay first, or use my credit or debit card in the pay-at-the-pump device before I could get any gas. Huh? Pay before I pump? I opted for the credit card pay-at-the-pump method, which worked and got me on my way. It stuck with me, and made me wonder how on earth such a system came into being. Are Canadians more trusting in general? Are Americans less so? Or have too many people simply pumped and run in the States? In either case, it was another subtle yet distinct difference between our two tightly interdependent cultures.
When I finally got back from my marathon drive, I had to once again fill the steaming turd on wheels before returning it to the rental agency. With my hours-old previous experience, I figured I was old hand at this now, and was ready to use my credit card first, and then pump. I pulled into a nearby gas station and hopped out ready to pump. However, there was no pay-at-the-pump device. Instead, situated between the pumps was some sort of kiosk that looked like a central pay-at-the-pump machine. I went up, punched in the pump number I was going to use, and inserted my credit card. The machine then asked for a PIN number. Huh? Confused once again, I went inside to ask.
This one really blew me away. The lady at the cash told me that they didn't take credit cards for gas. I assumed that she meant that the machines outside wouldn't take credit cards, and that I would have to pay inside with my credit card. No, she meant what she said - they do not accept credit card payments, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Debit cards and cash are the only acceptable methods of payment. What!?!? Absorbing this fact, I decided to try my debit card in the machine. When it told me it didn't like my card, I just got the hell out of there and found a gas station that accepted credit cards. To this day the only explanation I can come up with is that by not accepting credit cards, this cash-only station can slightly reduce their prices because they no longer have to pay the credit card charges that accompany each transaction. I guess if your margins are that pathetically low, every milli-cent counts.
"Enough about gas stations, are you going to take the job??" I hear people screaming at their monitors. Well, hold your horses there Tex. I don't know yet.
Previously whenever I heard of a friend or friend of a friend who went south for a job, I'd always think "Wow, they're really raking it in now!" After all, I'd simply take what they're earning, convert it from the ever-stout US Dollar into our meek pocket change and come up with a fabulously large number, in comparison. With the present possibility of being on the receiving end of a US Dollar paycheck (no more paycheque) I've learned that it's actually a much trickier proposition.
California can be expensive. Damned expensive. So going into this I knew that I would have to find a way to calculate a California cost-of-living so that I'd know exactly what my salary could actually get me. For all I knew, doubling my previous salary would leave me a pauper, or maybe just a bit less than what I was making would let me live like a king. The biggest cash outlay in my life currently is my mortgage, so I decided that I'd see what an equivalent house to the once I'm living in now would cost in the Central Valley.
Well, any notions of my US-based friends living large has been pretty much destroyed. To simply keep my current standard of living that I have here in Canada at bargain-basement Canadian wages I would need to ask for a very substantial salary in the US. How substantial? Double ought to do it. I'm serious. Whether it's just that the real estate market is going berserk, the fact that American's can't seem to live without at least a two (sometimes three, and I've seen a tandem four) car garage, or that 80% of houses in that area are bungalows, things just are not cheap. About the only place you could theoretically save money is in auto payments, but I somehow doubt that's ever actually realized.
So, as it stands now, I have some serious research and deciding to do. Do I damn the torpedoes and go for the gusto and try my luck at the American Dream, or do I stay at home and keep looking in my own backyard? Only time, and salary negotiations, will tell.
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