August 25, 2020
I have not been this stressed in a while.
A week and a day ago, I still believed that our middle child, Eli, would be moving into his dorm at Michigan State University this Friday.
Then we found out the school would be completely online, and the dorms would be closed to all but the neediest students. So maybe Eli would stay home. But then he and three friends got together and decided to rent a house. Only they couldn’t find a house. They thought as musicians they’d be too noisy for an apartment building — until they learned the practice rooms on campus would be open. So they looked for an apartment together. But all the four bedroom apartments turned out to be in buildings run by a company that has one-star ratings on Yelp (good job, Eli, checking that out before we signed a lease!). All seemed lost — until they realized they could split up, and rent a pair of two-bedroom apartments in the same building.
Saturday morning, he and his friend Juan (sax player, Florida) signed a lease on a two-bedroom, and Emma (bass, Sacramento) and Andrew (piano, South Dakota) committed to its twin in a neighboring building, after Emma’s dad checked out one of the units, because luckily, he happens to be in the area right now, tending to his mother who lives in Michigan.
The rent must be high for this part of the country, because from the pics, Eli will have a nicer kitchen than we do out here (this is not a super-high bar; our kitchen dates from 1952, but still, granite counter tops for a kid who just learned how to make tuna salad on Monday?). Anyway, it’s done. He has a place to live.
But that turned out to be only the start of our worries. He needs a bed. A frying pan. Dishes. Forks. Something to sit on. A way to vacuum the wall-to-wall carpet. A toilet brush, so that I can have the fantasy he will clean the bathroom from time to time. Oh, and a car. He’s 1.7 miles from campus, where he will need to go to practice, apparently, and the already-sketchy bus service has been further reduced due to the pandemic. Juan, the roommate, has a car, but they don’t know how their schedules will mesh.
I’m sure there are more challenging tasks in life, but that said, it is NOT easy trying to buy a used car in Michigan when you live in California. I know what you’re thinking — why not let Eli deal with it when he arrives? This is a perfectly sensible question. And here’s the honest answer: he’s already pretty stressed about this entire new life he finds himself in. All day long, he’s twitching, or tapping his fingers, or juggling his leg when he sits. He’s not there, in more ways than one.
Okay, that’s fine, I’ve bought numerous cars in my day, new and used. I’m up for the task. But here’s the big surprise: there are hardly any cars to be found. You find a used car with reasonable mileage, at a low price? You’d better be on that lot within the hour, cash in hand, or it is gone. I’ve literally never seen anything like this. One salesman told me this all goes back a few months, to the stimulus checks the government mailed out this spring. Lots of people, apparently, decided to use them to buy or lease cars. But because the automakers had shut down production due to the virus, there were no new cars coming onto the lots. So when buyers ran out of new cars, they started buying used. Meanwhile, people who wanted new cars, or who wanted to exchange older leased models for a brand new lease, were unable to do so, further limiting the used car inventory.
Here’s what this looks like in practice: I find a 2010 Honda CR-V with 65,000 miles on it and an excellent service record. It seems rather over-priced, but I’m confident I can bid them way down. I find a nearby mechanic who says he can look over the car for me, then I call the dealership to arrange the drop off at the mechanic’s shop. This is at 11 a.m. my time, yesterday. The guy says he’ll ring up the mechanic, then call me back. By 1:45 p.m., I still haven’t heard from him, so I call the salesman back. Someone’s looking at the car. By evening it’s sold. I ask about the 2009 on the lot, the one with 106,000 miles. Sold too, yesterday, but they haven’t had time to take it down online. I bet. Busy, busy over there.
I find an old Subaru at a different dealer, and call the next morning. Someone is just signing on the dotted line for that one, as we speak. Then the salesman for the 2010 Honda calls me back. Yesterday’s deal fell through. Am I still interested? Yes! Okay, he says, he’ll call me right back. When an hour passes, then two, I know what’s happened. It sold again, even as we were discussing it on the phone.
Meanwhile, have I worked? Have I caught up on my emails? Have I phoned GE to find out why our refrigerator says the water filter is 10 days expired, but its automatic replacement has not shown up in the mail? No, no and no (though as I write this, I realize the missing filter may be less about GE and more about the Post Office under President Trump).
I went on a dog walk with my friend Uttara today and talked her ear off about this car thing for a good 15 minutes before it occurred to me that I am trying to buy a car at one of the worst possible moments of the year, if not of the decade, and that Eli could simply make do until October. That’s when one of the salesmen told me the new cars will start arriving in dealerships again, freeing up the entire system. So unless some amazing deal falls into our lap, I informed Eli at lunchtime, we have officially put car buying on ice until later in the fall.
That gave me a moment to fire off a few emails for an article, and then turn to the next important matter at hand: the apartment itself. This was a walk in the park compared to the cars. Eli plopped down in a chair next to me, and we bought a mattress that will rest on a black wooden platform that the saleswoman at the local mattress store convinced him will be the essence of cool (I’m convinced there’s something in it for them, but I couldn’t figure out what). They’re delivering it the afternoon of the day he arrives in East Lansing. Then we went on the Bed Bath and Beyond site and bought pans and sheets and plates and a few other things that seemed essential. His friend Josh can take him there after he picks him up at the airport, and they can get it all curbside. The store was out of flatware, but Eli said don’t worry, he’ll make do with plastic for awhile. And a colander, as critical as it seemed to me for a pasta lover like himself, was something he says he can figure out down the line, along with a toaster and a trash can.
I was hoping — I crossed and double-crossed my fingers — that I was now done with my part of the move to an apartment in the Upper Midwest.
Then Eli came home from an errand and said he understood about waiting on the car buying thing, he totally got it. But he was stressed, worrying about how he would get around East Lansing when he was too scared to use Uber or Lyft, due to the virus. He didn’t want to be a burden on his friends. He didn’t think it was safe to try to ride a bike with the trombone strapped to his back. He was so, so stressed.
I saw where this was headed. I fired up my internet browser and typed in http://www.edmunds.com. Three hours later and we’re looking at cutting a check tomorrow to Dunning Toyota of Ann Arbor for a 2017 Toyota Corolla with 28K miles on it.
It’s a newer car than we planned on, but it turns out that if he gets Michigan insurance, they don’t ding you for newer model cars there like they do in California. Plus, the cost of the auto insurance in Michigan is less than half of what it would be here in L.A. It’s also a pricier car than we planned to get, but with all the money we’re saving on insurance, we can afford it.
So that’s it, right? I’m just about done with all this apartment stuff? All this spending, throwing the money away so fast it’s like the stuff is on fire and I’m trying not to burn my hands.
Well, after I get him renter’s insurance.
Then comes the hard part. We have to say good-bye.