Friday, March 24, 2017

Hat Mike's Council on Aging

I’ve been telling this story over and over lately, so perhaps it’s time to put it in writing. Honestly, this should have been done ages ago, but halfway through seems as good a time as any. At least this way I can ~record-scratch~ “You’re-probably-wondering-how-I-got-here” this situation.
I quit my job on September 1st last year. With an uncharacteristic use of foresight, I had reapplied to grad school some months earlier, thinking I’d hedge my bets in case the startup didn’t pan out. The hedging quickly felt irrelevant, so when decision time rolled around, I deferred my admission for a year. Really, that was just a way to kick the can down the road in my typical fashion. The startup had a lot of promise and I didn’t plan on leaving for several more years.
A few months later, when I realized I had been sitting on a lot of work-related anxiety and wanted to get out to do something else, I quit. It was rather sudden and unfolded over the course of a few days. One or two nights prior to the date of departure, I had a heart-to-heart with a friend who made me realize that leaving my job could be an opportunity, and not necessarily a failure. The prospect of doing anything but another job seemed unfathomable to me. The more I thought about it though, the more rational it seemed. With no additional effort on my part, I would be starting grad school one year later. Nobody would demand anything of me for the next year unless I wanted it. I had some savings. When else would I get such an opportunity?
In truth, I had been dreaming of such an opportunity without knowing it. Having recently become obsessed with mountaineering, I was constantly thinking about climbs I wanted to go on and scheming about finding the time to actually do them. This was the perfect set of circumstances to stop scheming and start doing.
Fast forward a few months, and the scheming-to-doing ratio has been all over the place. September was spent sorting out some neglected aspects of my life and October building up some financial reserves through engineering contract work. November through mid-January were some of the crazier months, taking me through Australia and New Zealand (with some short stops in China, the Philippines, and Hawaii), followed by a mountaineering adventure in Mexico. Those are stories worth telling another time.
Since then, however, scheming has been my modus operandi. From the start of this year-off, the plan has been to move into a van and travel the country, climbing mountains and visiting friends before heading to Europe for the summer. Yet, for reasons I cannot fully explain, January and February flew by with little substantial action. I picked up rock climbing in an attempt to round out as an alpinist, tried my hand at ice climbing and cross country skiing, saw friends, ran errands, experimented with cooking Indian food, and all sorts of other mildly fulfilling pursuits. It was a relaxing two months, which I probably needed, but I was getting more anxious with each passing day. My crazy plans were slowly becoming fantasy again.
At the end of February, I heeded some solid advice: “Don’t think. Just do.” I decided that all my worries about money and uncertainty needed to take a back seat to my worries of squandering an opportunity to fulfill a fantasy, and I started aggressively hunting for a van to turn into a home. Several hours of craigslisting, phone calls, and rental-car-driving-around-New-England later, I had seen a wide spectrum of potential vans: VW campers, Toyota-pickup based RVs, work vans, former Fox and ABC news vans, wheelchair vans, and even government research vehicles. Each vehicle seemed to have a more ridiculous story than the last. One vehicle stood out, though, and I knew when I saw it that I would be purchasing it. That vehicle was a 2006 Ford E350 Super Duty Cutaway Van, built out as a wheelchair bus for the Stoughton Council on Aging. After a call on February 28th, I decided to put down a deposit so the bus wouldn’t sell while I sorted out insurance and other routine vehicle purchasing bureaucracy. I quickly learned there is nothing routine about this vehicle.
The headaches began when phone calls to every major insurance company I knew revealed that regular private passenger insurance does not work for buses in Massachusetts. I spent hours on hold with the RMV, trying multiple avenues to get some clarity on the situation. I began calling local insurance brokers who could access specialty insurers. I quickly learned that insurance companies don’t like to sell insurance when they know you won’t hold it for more than a year, and brokers won’t get their commissions if you sell the vehicle too soon. I refined my telephone pitch with every step, after several forms of rejection.
“I don’t know… I’m just not interested. It’s too complicated,” said one insurance broker.
I simplified things for the next one.
Even still, nobody seemed to be able to find an insurance company that would write a policy. I called the people who inspect school buses for the state (incidentally, they don’t get very many calls and the phone rang about three dozen times before someone picked up), the titles department, the safety and compliance people, and many others to see if I could get the vehicle to be considered an RV instead of bus prior to the conversion. Not a chance. So I hunted for bus insurance, and after several redirects, reached one of three people who insure buses in Massachusetts.
“You’ve got yourself a catch-22. I can’t help you,” he said.
So after a week of no progress, I decided to do the rational thing: buy the bus anyway. I laundered some money through a friend, showed up with the remaining $3k in cash at the tractor trailer/equipment dealer, worked out a temporary storage agreement, and began working on Plan B.
(At this point, I made a quick trip to the RMV to have the title transferred into my name. I asked the person at the counter for clarification about having the vehicle re-titled once the conversion is complete, and she asked me to meet her at counter two. We walked around the entire floor on opposite sides of the counter and met again at counter two, where a familiar face was sitting, helping another individual. Pam, the familiar face, was very engaged with this gentleman, until her coworker approached her and asked, “Do you need to have a vehicle retitled after it is converted to an RV?”
Pam slowly peered around the man at her counter. Upon seeing me, her shoulders slumped and she exclaimed, “Ugh, not you again!”
Frankly, becoming a regular at the RMV was the least of my worries.)
Driving the bus without insurance and consequently no registration or license plates was not an option. I needed to find a place to store the bus for the duration of the conversion process. A week-and-a-half later, I managed to work out an agreement with a friend. After temporarily remobilizing my other stupid-vehicle-purchase (an old RX-7, which I vehemently insist was a fantastic purchase), we stashed my car at his office and freed up space for the conversion to happen. A few phone calls later, the people who sold me the bus coordinated a tow-truck delivery. They seemed amused by the project and offered to do more leg work than they usually would, which certainly saved me effort and probably money. Three weeks after putting down the deposit, my bus finally arrived.

I greeted the bus with enthusiasm, followed by a huge kick of doubt and uncertainty about my decision-making abilities. I probably bit off more than I can chew. Historically, though, the memories I am fondest of have all originated with a similar disregard for what is reasonable. Why should this time be any different?