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Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Shape of Eugene Part 2: West 11th Avenue

11th Avenue is the main artery into Eugene from the West, under the guise of Oregon Highway 126, aka the Florence/Eugene Highway. Florence is the nearest coastal town, about an hour's drive away over the Coastal Mountains, where Highway 126 originates.

As you approach the outskirts of Eugene driving East along 126, the first big building you see on the North side of the road is a Target store (on the corner of Beltline and 11th), and opposite on the south side is a Wal*Mart Super Center, where I currently work. Driving on, and slowing down as the speed limits decrease, you are driving along the road I consider the equivalent of London's Oxford Street, but with one big difference - few people walk far down West 11th Avenue, it's far too long and not pedestrian friendly.

There is a bus service running the length of the Avenue, taking people to and from Downtown. There are many retail outlets along its length between Beltline Highway to the west and Garfield Street to the east. Beyond Garfield the avenue continues into Downtown but becomes one way (going west), so drivers continuing east turn either north along Garfield to continue east along 7th Avenue (still Highway 126), or south to 13th Avenue which is one way going east.

West 11th offers department stores (Target, Wal*Mart, Fred Meyer), restaurants (generally bigger chain names like Applebee's and Shari's), fast food outlets with drive-through windows (KFC, Arby's, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, to name just a few), big specialist stores (e.g. Lowe's for DIY, Staples for office supplies) many automotive centres (Les Schwab, Oil Can Henry's, Autozone etc) for supplies and servicing of vehicles, and UPS store and the Post Office, the DMV center. Many people coming into Eugene from the smaller outlying towns to the west (Veneta, Noti, Vaughn) will stock up supplies here on West 11th and never drive further into town.

I have a fondness for this area because when Beth and I came to visit in June 2009, wide awake at 2am through jet-lag, we came here to poke around Wal*Mart which is open 24 hours. If you don't have a car then I think it'd be a pain to visit and you'd do your shopping locally, but of course in the USA only the very poor, the very young, the ultra-green and students don't have a car.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Shape of Eugene: Part 1 Downtown

I'm always interested in the history and geography of an area, so I thought I'd start a series of posts about the layout of Eugene.

Eugene was founded around 1846 by Eugene Skinner, who staked his claim in Oregon around a hill that became known as Skinner's Butte, during the days of the Oregon Trail.

Like many American cities it is laid out, as much as the landscape will allow, with Avenues running East-West and Streets, Alleys and Roads running North-South. The Avenues are numbered from 1 southwards, and 1st Avenue runs in line with the highest point of Skinner's Butte. The Streets, Alleys and Roads all have names, and Willamette Street is the central point, which if extrapolated would intersect with 1st Ave at that high point.

Starting with 1st Avenue, the numbers run southwards as far as 52nd Avenue, though by this point we are well into the South Hills area. Downtown is bordered by 1st Avenue to the North and 13th Avenue to the South.

Counting West from Willamette the Streets are, with a few exceptions, named for the Presidents from Washington through to Wilson (1913-1921), before this trend is broken and we have odd and slightly less inspiring names slipping in. Beyond Wilson Street we have a few more streets before Seneca Road and the start of a more open area with larger business plots.

East of Willamette the Streets have older names: Oak, High, Mill, Ferry Street, until they take the names of what I take to be early city Benefactors, Patterson, Hilyard, and Kincaid Street, followed by tree and stone names - Alder, Beech, Onyx, and Agate Street. Downtown reaches West as far as Lincoln Street, and East as far as Hilyard Street in ragged sections.

Downtown is the hub of the city, where theatres, restaurants and cafes rub shoulders with the Police Station, City Hall, the Library, Bus Station, Train Station, The Hult Centre (classical music and other concerts abound), and many small shops and businesses. It's the one area in Eugene where you might have to pay to park, either on a meter on the kerb, or in one of several multi-storey carparks, though two of these offer the first hour for free on weekdays, after 6pm, and free all day at Weekends.

Downtown is characterised by smaller city blocks, one-way streets on most arteries, slower speed limits, and a more closed-in, maybe slightly cramped feeling. There are many residential areas scattered around the centre, with generally smaller, older houses, often let out to students.

It would be possible to live your whole life Downtown and have all your needs met and catered for, though you'd miss a lot of the best of the City. I like the area and it's distinctive feel, though driving through can be a chore, especially if you're looking for a particular sideturn.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

New Wheels

After months agonising over what car I would buy when the time came, the decision and purchase were completed in a couple of hours, and it wasn't a car I'd considered before today.

This 2007 Mazda3i Sedan fit closely with my needs, big enough to seat four adults when necessary, a room trunk, reasonable mpg (by US standards) and around 60,000 miles on the clock. It's quite sporty, bright red exterior (easy to spot in crowded car parks) and black interior (hides the dirt), and was within my current affordable price range. It is also automatic transmission, so either Beth or I can drive it as necessary.

Beth drove us to the dealership and we took a test drive. Everything was fine, and we'd checked the Kelly's Blue Book price before we set out and it was right on the money. We also checked the Carfax report for possible accidents or problems and it came out clean. We looked at a few other possibles at the same dealer and elsewhere, but this Mazda stood out to me as the car I would enjoy owning and driving.

I wrote a check, signed some papers, and in minutes the deal was done. Beth drove home her Mercury Sable station wagon, and immediately transferred my half of the payment on that car so it's now fully hers, while I stopped off at the bank to warn them of the big check coming, then at Les Schwab Tires to get a new set of tires fitted and a couple of other things checked over. I'll be back at Les Schwab Monday for new disc brakes, and then I'll know the car is as safe as I can make it.

The current muffler/exhaust is designed to be as noisy and roarty as is just legal, so tomorrow I'll be seeing if I can get a quieter one fitted, as I prefer a well behaved car. There are a few small nicks in the paintwork as must be expected in a second hand car, which I'll be looking to get fixed in time.

Overall I'm very happy, and now we have two sets of wheels we can each schedule our own activities without needing to juggle the car.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Boxes and bags of.... stuff

At around 1:40pm on Thursday a big truck arrived carrying our long awaited shipping pallets. They nearly didn't arrive, as the person Beth arranged the delivery with over the phone on Monday had written down the wrong day, but we called after waiting over three hours and they managed to send a truck almost immediately.

Five pallets, three stacked nearly six feet high and one of them six feet long to accommodate bed parts, were soon standing on the kerbside just yards from our apartment door. In fact we started tearing into the a pallet as soon as the first was ready, while the driver was still unloading, and by the time the last was off the truck we had unwrapped and stowed the contents of the first two.

The pallets were very well protected with layers of black plastic, thick bubble wrap, shrink wrap, cardboard, and yet more shrink wrap to cut through, before we could unstack our bags and boxes. We were hurrying against possible rain, and indeed large drops started falling as we got into the last pallet with the bed parts. We piled the wrappings in piles in the covered alley that runs through our apartment block, and later used the car to distribute the piles round the dumpsters on the apartment complex, so as not to completely fill one.

Beth wrote down the bag numbers to tick back against our packing list, while I stacked and piled things round the apartment in predetermined zones as much as possible. When we had all the numbers from each pallet, Beth joined in the stacking process. At first it didn't seem possible that we could get everything inside, but the apartment is deceptively commodious, so after an hour and a half we had everything inside. Admittedly there was very little empty floor area left, but still enough room to manouver. Just.

First order of the day was to assemble our beds. The only furniture we sent over were some bunk beds, because we had only bought them in 2008 and they were expensive. So we find the slats, the sides, the head and footboards. Hmmm, we can't find the bolts and screws to hold all the bits together. They must be here somewhere, so we begin searching each bag and box for a heavy bag of clinking metal pieces.

Nothing. We've checked every likely box or bag thrice, the unlikely ones at least once, and no nuts and bolts. So we sleep on the mattresses on the floor for another night.

The next day Beth starts to search the boxes and bags again, while I head out in the car to see if I can get the necessary parts at a DIY shop. The main ingredient is a set of bolts which fit into cylindrical retainers which hide inside pre-drilled holes in the long sections. I locate the cylindrical pieces at my first stop, but they only stock the bolts up to 60mm lengths. I didn't know what length I needed at first, so I got a couple of these to test. No good, but at the second stop they give me the name of a third store, Eugene Fastenings, where I locate 90mm bolts, but not 110mm which turns out on closer inspection to be the necessary length.

We have a house appointment with our realtor at 2pm so we break the search, but after that is done we go together to a fourth DIY store, but still they don't have quite the right 110mm bolt. They do have 4.5" roundhead bolts though, and we decide to try these, with a washer on each to pad the bolt head.

Finally, they work. To cut a long story short, we assemble the beds in a couple of hours, push them into place, and lay our mattresses on top. They don't fit.

At least they don't quite fit, being slightly wider than the box-shaped bunk wants to accommodate. Metric meets Imperial, America conquers Denmark. Beth squishes hers into place, and I use the thin foam mattress that we also had shipped to fill the box of my bunk, and lay the mattress on top. It's not perfect, but for the first time in two months we won't be sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and the cats will have to work a bit harder to wake us in the morning.

As for our other stuff, and goodness there's a lot of it, about 80% will stay in the boxes it travelled in, as we don't need it right now, and we haven't go room to unpack anyway. We'll dig out the odd book, DVD, game or item of clothing, but we've managed without most of this stuff since August, and we can last a couple more months until we really have room to spread out and reorganise.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Clocking On

I've completed my first four-day week as a Wal*Mart Sales Associate, though three days were spent entirely in training, so I've had just one day on the shop floor.

Wal*Mart gets a certain amount of flak in the US, in the same way that Tesco does in the UK. Some people resent the company's success, and they way their presence in a town can damage, and often eventually destroy, local shopping high streets and old established (i.e. dusty and outdated) companies.

I can't resent Wal*Mart, or Tesco, for doing what everyone else is trying to do and being more successful at it, and I'm very grateful that they're prepared to employ me, even though I have no previous retail experience, or indeed experience of working in the USA at all. Meanwhile I'm learning a lot, and enjoying a job that requires more physical activity than my previous 15 years as a desk jockey, though I did feel quite stiff after a day standing, lifting and carrying, pushing and pulling, and generally working the store.

The first thing for me to grasp is what I am required to do every day. Let's assume that at 9am on day 1 the shelves are all neatly filled with items the customers want to buy, are correctly labelled for price, and are in good condition.

By 10am some items will have been bought (excellent), some taken off one shelf and returned to the wrong shelf, or moved to a different part of the store entirely before the customer decides to abandon it. Some may have been broken open to smell (this seems to apply particularly to tumble-dryer sheets), or feel (tissues), and left, the customer of course taking a fresh unopened item if they decide to buy. Some items will unfortunately have been stolen.

By 9am on day 2 the shelves will be a mess, if the Sales Associates don't keep busy. During the day then, I am "zoning", which means tidying the shelves, ensuring the items are easy to see and reach, bringing stock forward on the shelves if the front row has been disarrayed or bought, and also making sure the area is safe for everyone by picking up litter and mopping up any spills. I'm working in Pet Supplies, Household Chemicals and Paper Products, so there's plenty of opportunities for spills.

I'm also available at any time for a customer enquiry. At present I know very little about our stock and where things are located, but I'm picking things up rapidly, and even on my first day was able to guide several customers to what they wanted, take them there, or find a more experienced Associate to provide the knowledge I lacked.

During the evening hours of day 1 after I've left the store, the overnight shift will be "picking", which I understand to mean they examine the sales figures (via the till receipts and the computer system), and put out replacement stock on trolleys in the back (or receiving) area, ready for Associates to put onto the shelves. They may also be putting stock on the shelves, and possibly arranging new displays. Wal*Mart is open 24/7, so we restock the shelves continuously.

Stock which has been abandoned within the shop can be returned to the shelves (if it's undamaged), or put side at the front of the store for someone else to do so. Yesterday I tended to di it all myself, but if I don't know where something belongs then I'll have to let someone else do it.

Broken items and items with broken packaging we usually remove from the shelves and take back to "Claims". For things that people like smelling or touching (e.g. air fresheners, tissues) , we might leave out one open box as a tester, because if we don't someone will only open a new box anyway. "Claims" (named for the fact that we will usually try to claim a refund from the manufacturer) covers anything that is in an unsaleable condition, and also deals with stolen stock, assuming we have something (say an empty box) to show that an item was stolen. Of course there are security cameras and other methods in place, but you can't catch everything. Wal*Mart actually catches and prosecutes about three times the number of shoplifters that our rivals do, so it's a really bad place to try your luck.

Customers may also return items after purchase for many possible reasons. These may go back on the shelves, or go back to claims if they are damaged or otherwise unsaleable.

So after Day One on the shop floor, I'd define my main three work goals as:

1) Maintain a clean, tidy, safe and friendly environment for the the customers and staff.
2) Keep shelves stocked and items and prices easy to find, so the shopper can find the items they need.
3) Help the customers enjoy their shopping experience, so they leave happy and want to return.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Frog Chorus

Beth and I just drove a mile west to a carpark on the edge of the Wet Prairie, to listen to the frogs singing.

Every evening at dusk they start up, and we can hear them from the just outside the door to the apartment, but we wanted to get closer and hear them properly. It's now 9:45pm so they've been going for hours with no signs of stopping.

It's fun for us, and we hope to still hear them in the new house, asd there's a creek running right across the end of the garden. Maybe the locals are fed up with the noise, or maybe it just forms a susurrus, but I don't think we'll ever tire of feeling closer to nature.