Roaming About

A Life Less Ordinary

Fruitvale Stationed – A Week in the Hood

(Oakland, CA – February 14th to February 21st, 2017)

A little while ago, Mark and I saw a house sit posting in Oakland, California that sounded just perfect. We still had a little gap to fill between our time in Costa Mesa and our current, two-month house sit in Sebastopol, and the listing we were eyeing promised to be “an oasis” in the middle of the city. Mark and I immediately thought back about the time and place we met, a desirable, pedestrian-friendly area of Oakland called Rockridge. Based on the description of this potential sit, it had to be in a similar area. After our one-week sit in Fairfax, we decided to swing by the place and meet its residents on our way south to visit friends, and then continue on to Costa Mesa.

Following the GPS directions, we arrived at Fruitvale Avenue. “This can’t be right,” Mark mumbled, as we drove along the dirty road with cars haphazardly parked and small stores reminding us of the ones in Central America. He knew the area and its reputation. Then, we turned into one of the side streets. Every house had a metal fence and bars in front of the doors and windows. Garbage was littered on the street and along the cracked sidewalks. Paper, plastic, cardboard, ripped cushions, discarded computers. The houses appeared dilapidated and every car had scratches, dents or parts missing. “You have arrived at your destination. The road guidance has now finished,” our GPS voice concluded. “There must be another address like this in Oakland. What is the zip code again?” Mark asked. “94601,” I read from my email. “This must be it then,” Mark sighed.

We parked our red Prius with enough space around it. We got out of the car, which held all of our belongings, looked around sheepishly, and made sure we locked it. Then, we made sure again. We opened a gate, knocked on one of the paint peeling doors and met the female owner and her three dogs. Chaos ensued, as the two small ones barked and charged through the door, which set off the big dog, held in a cage. While still a puppy, he was huge and he had a broken leg. We were introduced to the three animals and had a quick tour of the small and messy house, and muddy back yard. “The hot tub doesn’t work anymore, but feel free to pick as many lemons as you possibly can,” the owner said, pointing at a laden lemon tree. “The dogs never go on walks. They stay in the yard. But, make sure you clean up all the poop and stay on top of that, because I have a tenant in the back.” We looked at the separate building in front of us and all the other structures in her small “tropical oasis” garden. There were three in total, one an Airbnb cottage she rented out to visitors. Tourists, here?

Back yard for people and dogs

“We can still cancel this sit,” I said to Mark, once we were seated back in our car. We needed a moment to let everything sink in. “Do you feel safe here?” he asked. I let out a massive sigh. “Between all the metal gates and doors and the dogs, I don’t think we have anything to worry about, inside the house. And we can park our car in the driveway, once she leaves with hers,” I replied. “We will have to make sure to be back inside the house before dark. She was adamant about that,” I continued. “Yep. It is not the greatest neighborhood,” he stated the obvious. “I can’t believe she told us she got T-boned in her car and then robbed recently. Why would you tell your house sitters that, right before they are going to stay here?” I was in awe about her lack of tact. “Well, I think it will be OK,” Mark said, “And, it is only for one week.” “That’s true. It sure will be an interesting experience,” I suspected.

The infamous BART station

This area in Oakland became well-known thanks to a police incident and the ensuing 2013 movie “Fruitvale Station”, which we watched on Netflix during our stay a few blocks away from this infamous BART-station. It is a great movie we recommend watching. We frequented the grocery store “Farmer Joe’s”, which still looks exactly like in the movie, and we walked big stretches of Fruitvale Avenue, mostly in search of taco trucks and to buy fresh produce. Unlike in the movie, our area was more Hispanic than African-American. The whole time we were there, we did not see another white face and English was the second language. All the signs were in Spanish, even the menus inside the restaurants. For the first time in a long while, we felt like we were traveling abroad; we loved the friendly, foreign atmosphere. We did manage to get home before dark, sometimes barely. But, the amazing tacos were worth it!

It rained during most of our week-long stay in the hood, which made it hard to deal with all the dogs, especially poor Hank. We had strict instructions to take him outside via the front door (the least number of steps), around the house and to the back yard for his potty breaks. Despite his sedating pills, he was always very excited when we opened the door to his crate and we needed to be really careful and adamant about his plastered leg. We patiently put a waterproof boot around his back leg and, on a leash, refrained him from running or jumping. Chaz and Teddy needed to be locked in another room, while we dealt with Hank. We felt so bad for the guy, that we gave him an extra potty break after lunch and added some time and space to cuddle. Poor pup!

While the other two dogs were easy to care for, Chaz was a bit of trouble when left alone, which didn’t happen often, since we stuck to our work schedule during the week and the weather was awful. Teddy was a sweetheart, always ready for a cuddle. Whenever Mark and I left the house, the two of them (Hank spent 23 hours a day in his crate) sat in front of the window until we came back!

“When will you guys be back?”

We did have a chance to meet up with friends from when Mark lived in Oakland and one day, we finally made it back into San Francisco. It had been twelve years since we last visited “our city”. While it was biting cold and overcast, we enjoyed our walk along the bay and gazed over Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. When the sun peeked through the clouds, I felt very happy to be back.

Surprisingly, we didn’t hear any gunshots during our stay, but the noise of cars, sirens, Latin tunes, alarms, honking cargo trains and zooming BART trains made it hard to sleep.  Despite the dinged cars along the street, the double-parked vehicles and trucks not having enough room to turn around at the end of our street, our car remained unscathed after two nights on the street. Despite the double homicide that happened right outside our front door a few years ago (which we read about in the owner’s memoir while we were there), Mark and I survived our week in the hood and we are yet another experience richer!

Best feature(s): An ethnic neighborhood with great tacos, friendly people and the sense of being abroad. The Airbnb unit proved to be the perfect escape office for Mark.

Best gadget(s): A water cooker with different temperature settings. The one for “green tea” was ideal! We could drink our tea almost immediately after pouring, instead of having to let it cool for at least 10 minutes. The correct temperature did wonders for the seeping as well – the flavor of our tea was perfect.

Surprise(s): The dogs did not have any toys at all and urgently needed a haircut. While I’m sure the owner loves them and is overwhelmed with life’s tasks, we think they could be better taken care of.

Downside(s): The area was not desirable and the house was not as clean as we have become accustomed to. Both were a bit misrepresented in the listing.

You can read about all our other completed house sits here.

Have you seen the movie “Fruitvale Station”? What did you think about it?

36 Comments

  1. What an adventure. I’m not so sure I’d have been brave enough to stay (not because of the area, but the misrepresentation by the owner), but it looks like you made the most of it (and gave those puppies some much needed love and attention.

    • It was a bit of a toss-up after we actually saw the place. The neighborhood didn’t face us too much and seemed like a great adventure, but the home situation was a bit weird, indeed. Since the owner had some credibility to her name (she is a published author and renowned instructor), we went ahead with it. Of course, we have more information than the readers of this blog (for good or for bad). 🙂

  2. It makes me so sad when people keep dogs who never walk them – in this country the dogs would be taken away to be rehomed with responsbile owners who give them the exercise and care they need.

    • Really!? I had no idea that there were countries where not walking dogs would be seen as “abuse”. That’s a good rule for the dogs! I have seen many instances where small dogs never or rarely get walked and just have the yard to play in. Of course, it probably depends on how big the yard is as well. I mostly feel bad for the big dog, because I doubt he gets walked, and for him, the yard is too small. He broke his leg jumping from the deck.

      • Dogs here are entitled to suitable accommodation, food, water and exercise and members of the public can report any concerns to the local dog warden (in extreme cases to the SSPCA or RSPCA) who will attempt to educate the owner and if the situation does not improve the dogs will be rehomed with more responsible owners. You may want to check with animal welfare organisations what the guidelines are locally.

        • That is fantastic, Xenia! We should have probably educated the owner a bit as well (I tried once over email, approaching the dog toy situation nicely), but being the house and pet sitters, it is a touchy subject. She probably wouldn’t have listened anyway…

  3. You and Mark are brave souls! I am sure that Richard and I would have cancelled!

    • This is the first time that the thought crossed our mind, Donna. It is where finances come into play as well, since not taking this sit, might have meant getting a motel for a week… Although, we would have declined if one of us would have really felt it was a bad idea. The timing worked out well and the location (as in: close to San Francisco and to friends) played into it as well.

  4. Our Sally stopped playing with toys when she was 5 (I still kept some around just in case though). But she was a working dog (Husky/Chow mix) and always had a bit of an attitude about things she considered beneath her (like fetching balls and listening to her people). Even with that personal experience, it’s hard for me to believe there are a lot of dogs out there who would say no to a game of fetch or tug.

    Stephanie @ SV CAMBRIA

    • I totally agree, Stephanie. Just having toys around at least gives the dogs a choice! The absence of toys on this sit probably bugged us the most, especially for the big dog in his crate. What was he supposed to do all day, except for eat, sleep and drink? On another sit, with a therapy dog who didn’t ever fetch or played with toys, we bought her a toy while we were there. But, she really wasn’t interested in it. It happens, but we loved her so much, we wanted to get her something more substantial than treats. 🙂

  5. What an interesting sit! I’m glad for you that it was only a week, but at least you got to see a few of your old haunts – including beautiful San Francisco! I’m sure the homeowner was struggling but not to walk her dogs regularly and to misrepresent her property doesn’t seem right at all. But, as usual, the two of you made the most of your stay, gave great care to the dogs, and I’m sure (I hope) your sit in Sebastopol is much more to your liking.

    I did see Fruitvale Station. It was a very powerful movie and did a good job making those of us who will probably never experience racial profiling understand the danger, tragedy, and ugliness it causes.

    I look forward to your Sebastopol stories!

    • If this sit would have been longer than a week, we probably wouldn’t have taken it. The owner is an “interesting” person to say the least. She really loves her dogs, but there were many things we would do differently. I’m glad you saw the movie, Janis. It might have made our location resonate with you more. Sebastopol, by the way, is incredible. We really love it here. The house is so comfortable and the area has a lot of things to offer! Now that I am pretty much caught up with the other things I wanted to write about, my future posts will focus on this sit! 🙂

  6. Highs AND lows, Liesbet! 🙂 🙂 You are a wonderfully adaptable lass and I bet you have heaps of friends.

    • We have a lot of “virtual” friends, for sure. 🙂 I like to think we have a bunch of friends, Jo, but we really only see them once a year or so, which makes staying in touch with all our “travel friends” that more important. Often, I feel more connected with them that with the ones in Belgium and New England. BTW, I thought the word “lass” was male? I guess not…

  7. I’d like to think that I’ve become more adventurous over the past year or so, and that my standards for cozy cave to curl up in has relaxed quite a bit, but I really admire your sense of adventure.

    • You become more adventurous with age, and I become less. I truly am enjoying this comfortable life of house sitting! Once in a while, there is a little adventure (like this one) to make us feel alive, but they are calculated and usually involve safe explorations in nature. 🙂 When it comes to traveling, I am becoming more of a wimp. Even our plans to take a camper throughout South America and Eastern Europe, or even back to Mexico, gives me the shivers sometimes… 🙂

  8. That was a tough one – not sure I could have done it. You are true adventurers! How lucky for those dogs to have you, even for just a week.

    • It was an adventure of a different kind, Lexie. We never felt unsafe and have no regrets, but we prefer sits like the two-month one we are currently on in Sebastopol, Northern California. Wine country in spring! 🙂

  9. OMG thank goodness we haven’t had that experience!! Had to laugh at your thoughts when you arrived, as that’s what we thought of the area we stayed in Houston, though the AirBnB was lovely the surrounding area was not that great. Always go by my gut-instinct when housesitting, and won’t do one without photos. I suppose she sent you good ones. Well done you two for completing it. Not sure we would’ve. So annoys me that it doesn’t take much to have some pride in where you live, just energy! Good read, thanks Liesbet.

    • You hit the nail on the head about the owner, Suzanne. She did pick her photos well and isn’t a bad person, just very self-centered and proud. We follow our instincts as well, but veered a bit towards the adventure factor of this one. 🙂 It does happen once in a while that you find beauty and comfort behind the walls of what initially appears to be chaos and ugliness. I love nice surprises like that.

      • I love your insight on this and I would have done the same. Looked at it as an experience a bit different then the others. Glad you still managed to have a good stay.

        • It sounds like you are prone to excitement when faced with new experiences as well, Sue, even when they don’t sound too appealing at first. What’s life without a little bit of adventure? 🙂

  10. Your stories of house-sitting are stirring an interest I didn’t know I had! I’m curious, have you already blogged your beginning steps in that “business”? I’m wondering how one starts…

    • We had no idea about the concept of house sitting, until we decided to take a break from our boat in Tahiti for two months in April of 2015 and didn’t have/wanted to spend the money to fly all the way back to the East Coast of the US. We flew to New Zealand instead, where we looked into the concept after a friend told us about it. But, we ended up staying with those friends for 6 weeks and traveling the South Island with a discounted rental camper (it was cold) for 3 weeks.

      When we left our boat Irie for good and were caught up with friends and family visits, we didn’t want to settle anywhere, remembered the house sitting concept and looked into it in the States, while we were based at my in-laws. Since October 2015, we started this lifestyle and have been doing it full-time ever since. It is awesome! It is the best mix between comfort and adventure in my opinion and it is cheap! As long as we need good internet (to work) and enjoy our hot, pressurized showers, ever-changing kitchen appliances, unlimited electricity and comfy couch, we will hold off starting our next adventure (which will likely involve another camper and overland travel). 🙂 This link might help you get started or provide some more info. I wrote the blog post a little while ago, so the fees might be different: http://www.roamingabout.com/how-to-find-the-right-house-sit/

  11. What an adventure! I feel with the dogs.

    • Us too. We involve dogs in anything we do, as far as it is possible, and shower them with love. But, maybe that’s because we don’t have children… 🙂

  12. Sounds challenging! But you made the best of it. Read your conversation with Jo and you are definitely a lass! In Scotland you might even be a lassie. (Male equivalent lad or laddie.)

    • Lassie, just like the dog? 🙂 Glad to learn a new word, or a new meaning to a word I had heard before and misinterpreted.

  13. Knowing what i know about Oakland, I would have declined. But you are adventurous and it worked out!

  14. Wow Liesbet this is one that really shows your flexibility and adaptability. I suppose in the business of house sitting these less than ideal stays will come from time to time. I have no doubt those three pups felt like the fairy godsitting parents had arrived for a week. If anything the dogs had a fabulous week with you.

    • That was indeed the highlight of the week, Sue, giving these babies some love and attention. Even in this short of a time, they bonded with us. But, part of us felt sad for them as well, which was hard. If this week would have been at another time and/or longer, we would have passed, though. Luckily, most advertised sits are more glorious. And, of course, we have our favorites. 🙂

  15. You guys are brave! You couldn’t have paid me enough just to get out of the car when you first arrived. Glad to hear you survived it! Lol 🙂

  16. Great story and glad you managed to make the best of it. I would have done the same for a short sit. Maybe not a long one. But , sounds like it all worked out especially for the doggies who maybe got some extra attention !

    • We felt quite sad for the dogs, Sue. We wished the owner would take better care of them and had more time to walk and love them… All we could do was counter it! 🙂

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