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Location Twister

I live 3 miles from work. Strangely, I also lived 3 miles from my previous employer in the Seattle area and I didn’t have to move when switching to Microsoft; that was just serendipity. But I’ve learned via experience that it is extremely important to my quality of life to have a minimal commute.

Sure, it means that I’m usually in suburban areas; but I don’t need the pity of those who think it’s some sort of burden to live in Redmond. It’s pretty, quiet, has everything I need within a few blocks – including a board game store, emergency room, grocery store, drugstore, multiplex and several restaurants *visible from my balcony*, and even a stained glass studio a few blocks away and about a hojillion wineries a mile or two down my street. Win. I mean, Redmond is terrible, don’t move here and crowd up my streets. 😉

But some would argue that my acting life – when most of my performances and rehearsals are downtown – renders my choice of locations moot. Not so, I say! Were I to live in Seattle and commute to Microsoft, that’s 10 guaranteed rush hours a week. Whereas even on a bad week, I still only have 5 rush hour commutes (and 5 quiet late night drives) to and from my acting work in town. Perhaps the most annoying part of commuting into the city is parking the car, but no choice of location in Seattle would save me from having to do that all of the time.

I learned my own desire for proximity to work at my first post-college job at Electronic Arts. At first, my studio (Maxis) was in the same town I was (Walnut Creek) – no problem, and a lovely little situation. Very walkable little town, if a bit yuppie at times. Stressful at first – we had to sign the lease for our first place sight unseen, but it worked out well for what we needed. At the time, it was an internship, so we drove to CA with everything we could fit in a Volkswagon Jetta, which… isn’t much. And the story of the drive and our early, humbling, retrospectively comical time in CA is an entirely separate entry.

It’s when our studio moved to Redwood Shores that things became problematic. You see, that’s 50 miles. In the Northeast where I grew up, 50 miles usually means changing states. In Seattle, it means Tacoma, which is annoying but as it turns out doable in the right circumstances. But while 50 miles in CA is not an unheard of commute, traffic in the Bay Area would put that at consistently 2 hours each way – even on weekends. “Precedented” can still mean “psycho” in this case.

But the Bay Area has another problem – residence availability. Now, admittedly, this was before the crash so things have probably chilled a bit. But it’s near impossible to find a livable affordable place, especially in desirable areas. (If you own a house, it’s even more ridiculous because there are so few affordable neighborhoods to choose from – some coworkers actually started PLANEPOOLING to work rather than try to move with the company.)

We ended up searching quite a bit to find a new place. And it was always high-pressure, even as renters. There were usually 2 or 3 other couples at your showing time, and you kept them in your peripheral vision trying to see if they started talking about deposits before you could. Plus you’d probably see them 2 or 3 more times that day, since everyone was looking at the same open apartments. I’m surprised we didn’t claw someone’s eyes out. It felt like an SNL sketch waiting to happen.

The kicker was that no one EVER seemed to be living where they actually WANTED to be living. No one was happy where they were. I began suggesting we spearhead a “housing mulligan” where everybody resets and moves to where they want to be, freeing up THEIR places for people who DO want to live in those places. Like real estate musical chairs where everyone goes home happy. Or a game of Twister where right hand is your work and left foot is your home, but there are people in the way in every direction.

As for us, eventually we settled on a pretty good deal near University in Palo Alto (on Ramona St) – a desirable, walkable neighborhood and an apartment with 2 stories. (No dishwasher or A/C but we took the hit for the livability.) Even then, with Palo Alto just a few stops on the highway from work, it could sometimes take 40 minutes to get home since we were sandwiched on 101 between SFO, EA, and Oracle on one end and Google/Apple on the other. Oy.

I learned other things during this period of time too – how to orchestrate a cross-country move; how bad it is to let other people pack for you; how much letting a company plan your relo can burn you at tax time. I also, at one point, had THREE ACTIVE LEASES (one in Pittsburgh, PA, one in Walnut Creek CA and one in Palo Alto CA). EA was subsidizing some of those rents via relo packages, but the sheer amount of money flowing through us was enough to pay off my grad school loans in a few months. Instead it went to pay for residences we weren’t using and couldn’t yet find tenants for. Talk about wasteful and depressing. Especially since we were still using upturned cardboard boxes for furniture in places.

In the end, I moved three times in about 18 months over thousands of miles. (PGH -> Walnut Creek, Walnut Creek -> Palo Alto, Palo Alto -> Seattle) Moving trucks still give me hives sometimes when I see them. I got to the point where I was evaluating ALL purchases on “how easy will this be to pack?” and “how heavy is this?”

Incidentally, if you’re looking to make a big move, I had two very good experiences with United Van Lines (PGH, Palo Alto, Redmond) and one very bad experience with Ace Relocation (Walnut Creek). Use that information as you will. The United adjustor in Palo Alto accurately estimated the weight of my 2000+ pounds of (already packed) goods and furniture WITHIN TEN POUNDS. I suspect he makes a fortune at carnival guessing games on weekends.

In my current situation, it’s easier for me to work from home because I know I can come in on almost a moment’s notice if an emergency arises or I need corporate resources. And my drive home is short enough to be safe even if a little tired – meanwhile, at EA sometimes I ended up staying at the Sofitel across the street because it wasn’t safe to drive the 15 miles home at highway speeds that tired.

Ironically, after all of the searching to find that Palo Alto place, in Seattle we ended up taking
the very first unit we saw – and I still live here today. Now I own instead of rent, but otherwise it has been blissful stability. And with the 520 tolls starting, the final piece of the puzzle falls into place. Suddenly living near work is fiscally responsible – and the traffic I’ve dealt with for 7 years when trying to act in the city has disappeared for the most part. Home sweet home.

The one thing I’ve lost is the empowered feeling of being able to pack at a moment’s notice and move on. I felt like I could consider any opportunity without being fearful of the relo process. But in the end, freedom doesn’t matter anymore when you find there’s no other place you’d rather be.

But I still have about 3 packed boxes from my last move 7+ years ago. Because every time I finished unpacking, I’d have to move again. No harm in a little superstition, right?

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