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Travelling cross-country by train

party poker

Shipping/Moving Your Stuff: A Consideration of Options That All Suck.
We never should have moved to Reno
Big mountains and big casinos
Bright lights and American cars
Too many free drinks in all the wrong bars
We should have moved to San Francisco
Gay bars and Latin disco
Kabuki girls Japanese karaoke
The way I felt when you used to hold me

-- Holiday "You've Got Nothing"

As someone who has moved twenty billion times in the last two months, I have some advice that perhaps you will find useful. A typical household move is a big money hole, but perhaps you can save a few bucks by reading this article that you are reading right now. There is a secret super-saver tip at the end that no one knows about that could save you up to a thousand dollars or maybe not but no one knows about it but I can't say anything about right now because then you won't read the rest of this article, it's about a little-known package delivery service run by the government subsidized by you, the American taxpayer unless you are foreign.

If you're moving out of an apartment, remember this simple mnemonic: Your Landlord Will Destroy You (YLWDY). The "return" of your security deposit is dependent on your ability to avoid psychological landmines the landlord has had years to hone to a razor-sharp edge even though with a landmine you really don't need to sharpen it, it pretty much has the same killing power as a non-sharpened or "dull" landmine unless there's spikes or the like on the outside, then those could be sharpened, I guess. During our last move, the landlord approached us all buddy-buddy like, and indicated that we should just leave stuff in the apartment that might "come in handy" for her cousin who was moving into her first apartment. But then, on the last day, suddenly the tune has changed and there will be substantial penalties if we leave anything in the apartment (parenthetical tip: to get rid of stuff fast, take photos of it and post it in the laundry room or set it on fire). The landlord's itemized list of charges represented bold new avenues in fiction -- the lowest charge being twenty dollars for an "inoperative" keycard that had been used faithfully every day for years. To sum up: give yourself massive breathing space for moving and cleaning your apartment. Take photos for the ensuing small claims court visit. Landlords in Arizona (at the very least) save you the hassle of trying to rescue your deposit by creating the magical "non-refundable deposit" oxymoron. You may have the unique opportunity to kiss $100+ goodbye when you move into your new AZ apartment. It's like Japan's "key money" that is paid at the same time, but at least the Japanese don't call a sleazy payoff a "deposit.".

The first thing you should do is throw out all of your stuff. This will be difficult, start with the heaviest stuff first. Every time I've moved I've thrown away stuff to the point where I possess about three hundred cubic feet of things. Total. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it is, and it's getting harder and harder to toss stuff. Take photos of mementos, throw 'em out. Take photos of business cards, gifts that you never use, tchotckes that you normally store in closets. Throw ... it ... out. I know you want to sell it. I know it's worth $25 on ebay. You move that $25 ebay thing a few times, you've probably paid more for it in moving costs. Because if you can break things down enough, get rid of enough stuff, you can avoid U-Haul and use the Secret Super Saver Tip that I haven't even mentioned yet but will at the end of this thrilling tale. Anyway, just post it on Craigslist for like, seven bucks. Someone will take it. Your furniture, too. I've been trying to buy a futon on Craigslist for the last two weeks and people are like on the button screaming "I'LL TAKE IT TAKE IT" to used futon sellers seconds after they post the ad (2006: in retrospect, buying a used futon is probably one of the stupidest things I've ever contemplated: (1) futons suck -- they get flat and painful within months, unless you buy the $$$ inner spring version [here I'm guessing, perhaps these suck as well] (2) hello bed bug vector. Buying a new futon rots as well, futon sellers are all skeevy operators, at least in Berkeley, and that just may be because it's so easy to fleece newly-minted pseudo-hippie Berkeley college students). Seriously, it'll sell, if you're not a greedy person (ask yourself: "Am I rich?" if you aren't, then you're okay).

Now that everything has been moved out of your living space and you cleaned it AND DON'T FORGET TO USE TOOTHPASTE AS SPACKLING BECAUSE THE ROACHES LIKE TOOTHPASTE THAT WILL SHOW THEM -- SHOW THEM ALL!!!!, how are you going to get your stuff to your new home? Well, I can tell you about several ways that you probably already know about, and one AMAZING way that works if you don't have furniture. Did you get rid of your furniture yet? Furniture is heavy and not worth lugging around (Here I make a special exception for period art deco furniture. If you have this type of furniture I would like to have sex with you on or near said furniture. We've all got our kinks, you know it, I know it, let's just be open and honest and naked on art deco furniture about it). It is not special, and if you have furniture that has been "passed down" from generation to generation perhaps when you're moving it there can be a comical mishap involving a high porch or a shotgun/axe/fire combo. Jesus, that's too bad about the way you accidentally left that Explosif Plastique in your antique dresser. Do not worry, there are furniture trees growing everywhere. God is furniture heavy. STAY TUNED!

You could rent a moving truck. U-Haul offers many fine trucks that are not. Fine. From my experiences with U-Haul trucks, I give those suckers a wide berth when I see one in traffic and I weep silently for the driver. Also, a friend rented one, I helped move the stuff and for some reason bees really liked the truck and when we returned the truck the owner wanted to charge my friend for the orange juice that had been spilled in the back of the truck by the previous renter because we totally didn't have orange juice -- remember, we were puzzled by the bees. Their customer service is also atrocious, you can wait a half-hour just to buy boxes. This is all that U-Haul is good for -- buying boxes. They have a wide selection if you can't get free ones. You can also buy tape there to to move the collection process of your U-Haul lawsuit forward. Heh.

The secret to U-Haul's bizarre counter-intuitive success is that there are actually two U-Hauls. There is the U-Haul of a local move, and the U-Haul of a one-way move. People moving locally get the shiny, (relatively) nice(r) trucks because then the shiny, (relatively) nice(r) trucks are returned to the same U-Haul. The people who are moving one-way get the dregs because that U-Haul location is never going to see the truck again. Can you imagine the phone calls between location managers? "Oh lordy, got a real boat anchor comin' your way ... if it ever makes it, that is! HAR HAR HAR HAR" "HAW HAW HAW" [17 minute communal phlegmy coughing fit]

If you do eventually decide that my mewling isn't going to stop you from U-Haulin', let me quickly mention two things.

(1) Triple-check the mileage on the truck with what has been written down on your contract before driving away. Perhaps the numbers will match.

(2) The gas gauge indicator on many U-Haul trucks is upside-down. Empty is at the top, Full is at the bottom. One of my friends was fooled by this incident so he ended up paying to completely fill up an empty tank that was scammingly reported near "full" when he checked out the truck. I almost fell for the same ruse a year earlier. When I caught it, the guy said "oh." That's what they teach them to say in the U-Haul Academy when their bullshit is discovered. "Oh." Do you understand the implications of this? They're scamming you through spurious graphic design. That's how desperate this company is, the scamming is in their hardware. GOD. That should be their logo, the upside-down fuel gauge. [Send me photos of this if you're unlucky enough to get a chance, I'd appreciate it.] Avoid.
Free candy in the office: no.

You want your truck at 9am. You made a reservation. You show up at 9am. "We don't know where the truck is." They have lost contact with the truck, which was supposed to be returned to them the day before. Finally at noon they have the truck, but it will take two hours for them to "clean and inspect" the truck and they will call you and then it's 3:30pm and you call them and they say the truck was ready at 1:30pm and they couldn't call because it was so busy (the trick here, apparently, is to rent the truck a full day before you need it, not that I'm advising you to go with Budget; I've heard good things about Penske, but haven't used them). The truck is given to you without a back license plate -- this is apparently not part of the inspection. The full ashtrays are apparently not part of the cleaning (you are charged if you leave the ashtrays full on returning the truck). The truck also has something called an "exhaust brake" which is in the same spot as the windshield wipers on the steering column stalk and if you activate that (say, when it starts raining) and the exhaust brake is unhappy (most likely) it will try to warn you by emitting a hair-raising beeping sound that fills the cab. Normally a warning light goes on at the same time so you can figure out what the screeching is all about. Normally. Avoid.
Free candy in the office: no.

Cheap-ass movers
Tricky price breaks -- reasonable for n pounds, ridiculously high for n+50 pounds. Do you know how much all your stuff weighs? I sure don't, and I'm not even you. If they give you the measurement in cubic feet, run away -- they're preparing a massive hoax. Avoid.
Free candy in the office: no.
(See also Moving Scam)

I don't know what they call this -- there are several companies that do this -- you pack your stuff in a shipping crate, then it's loaded onto a semi, then the semi goes and picks up some other shipping crates, then it spends a month in New York City on vacation or something, then there's the threatened lawsuit, then your stuff is finally delivered. True story. Avoid.
Free candy in the office: no.

God, why does anyone use this company? The breaking point for me: they delivered a VCR -- the van driver dropped it from waist-high onto the metal step right in front of me and we both watched the foam peanuts dribbling out of the package or at least one of us did. You know, just try to at least create the illusion of a company that actually isn't brain-damaged. Earlier, I was able to push some computer equipment through them during a strike just before the new insanely-padded "shipping wall" requirements, and only my scanner was trashed ... a new record of non-incompetence! Instead of paying their drivers and throwers a decent wage or even slowing down the line, their profit margin depends on airborne packages, crammed packages, and you have to pay more for their incompetence. What's their slogan again? "The Big Brown?" SYSTEMIC FAILURE.
Free candy in the office: no.

Fed Ex Ground
Haven't had a problem with these folks, though they need to get their invoicing system fixed. First you get the bottom copy, then they put a sticker on that, then another sticker, then a sticker on top of that, then a separate receipt, then stapled to another form, and then a cup of coffee is taped to that and then everything is attached to your muffler with a coat hanger. This service might be a good way to move your lighter items that can't be used as packing material, like for example large airy three-dimensional confectionery statues. Shaped like an Emmy®? It is your choice, you are the artist! [throws hands up in air]
Free candy in the office: no.

United States Postal Service
Packages are delayed. Packages are lost. Do they have a package destruction service? I do not know, but here's a small anecdote that really tells you nothing about their reliability, actually, but it's the only place it would "fit": I shipped a 78rpm record without packaging it (these are really fragile, that's the thinking part of this thinking performance art piece) through the mail with the message/address written on it using a cow-marking pen (you use them to mark cows. duh.) and they were nice enough to deliver it to the addressee after (A) putting the pieces back together momentarily to suss out the address (B) throwing everything in a bag with an apology. Puzzles for all my government friends! Also, the Jeeps are cute ... someone should make an independent documentary film about the planning that goes into the purchasing of a USPS Jeep followed by the actual purchasing of said Jeep. I mean, another movie. Anyway, I used to have a P.O. Box that one or more of the postal workers used to pick through to find free CDs and other promo crap, so you know I'm tight with these idiots. You probably have your own USPS horror story, so I'll let you ruminate on that. Ruminate.

But ... but. USPS might be a good way to move records/cds/books if you're trying to send a bunch of stuff via shipping services. Use "media mail" which is specifically for printed/recorded material. It's one of the cheapest shipping rates out there. Read up on the restrictions before packing five million vinyl albums up, though. Don't forget to put the good records in the middle of the box where they're less likely to get trashed. I'd also shy away from creating a hernia-inducing media mail masterpiece, even though you can pack up to 70lbs in one box. People don't like carrying 70lb boxes and there might be an "accident" ... capiche?
Free candy in the office: no.

Amtrak Express
This is it, my friends, the real, actual reason I sat down to write about moving cross-country in the first place. You can ship packages by train and the cost is very attractive (see below). To ship thirty-three 10-ream paper boxes 2500 miles, it cost me $285 (1998 dollar figures; as a comparison, I shipped four boxes directly to my new house via UPS using the "maximize delay/damage" rate and this cost $134 -- these packages had insurance on them, I don't know why I bothered, trying beating a claim out of UPS sometime). I dropped all of the boxes off at the Dearborn Michigan station, and I arranged for a local shipping company, Cal-Pack, to pick up the boxes in Oakland California and deliver them twenty miles South right into the garage (an additional $40 or so). In Dearborn, they wrapped all of my packages together to form one big pallet -- you might want to see if you can be there during the palletization so you can take advantage of the insulative properties of the pallet's "core."

Recently, Amtrak has cut the number of stations that feature this service, so you'll have to call them to see if your move is feasible (800 377 6914). They're not anxious to ship entire houses through this system (there's only so much room on their baggage cars), but if you're determined, you can do it over time. You will definitely want to chat them up if you have a lot of stuff to move -- there is "regular express" (REX) stations which can accept packages up to 75lbs and "heavy express" (HEX) stations which can accept packages up to 100lbs and pallets/skids up to 1000lbs (they used to have most of this information available on their web page, but Amtrak's cutting back! on everything! even static webpages).

Though this probably won't happen to you, one of the less-informed members of the Dearborn station handed me a pamphlet with guidelines on what could be packed in checked baggage, which is not the same as Amtrak Express packages.

The 800 number indicates that they do not ship "automobiles, furniture, engines, appliances, artwork, motorized vehicles" but that they do ship "books, clothing, musical instruments, bicycles, motorcycles, and mopeds."

If you're really smooth, you'll somehow paste multiple copies of the waybill onto your packages along with your contact information so someone doesn't remove the only copy on your pallet.

Someone recently broke down the price of Amtrak Express and found it comparable to Fed Ex Home/Ground. You should probably do the same, because I'm too lazy. Lastly, remember, this is a government service, so it has the potential to be 20% less efficient than anything else. Except UPS. Check it, yo: Amtrak Package Express
Free candy in the office: no.

If you're going to rent any type of vehicle from anyone, take tons of digital "before" photos of every little ding and discoloration, distant shots, close-up shots, arty shots with gauze draped over the vehicle, "boudoir" photography, etc. Whatever keeps your ass away from their infinite little scamfests. Prediction: The guy who sends you on your way is sweetness and light personified, the guy who receives you miles/days later will be a gruff turd. Be ready, do your homework, search for your chosen rental company with the words "[shipping company] sucks" on your favorite search engine, etc. Wait, I'll do it for you. Alternate spellings, too!

"U-haul sucks" (1530 hits)
"Uhaul sucks" (903 hits, some are the same)
"Budget sucks" (672 hits, some of these are of course not relevant)
"Penske sucks" (13 hits, some are for Penske Racing)
"UPS sucks" (715 hits)
"United Parcel Service sucks" (449 hits, some are the same)
"FedEx sucks" (1310 hits)
"Fed Ex sucks" (317 hits, some are the same)
... and we all know how much the United States Postal Service sucks.

Wow, did you read some of those horror stories? Like the guy who rented a car from Budget in France? Oh lordy, there are some shifty operators out there. Anyway. Moving is a nasty business and the less stuff you have, the more liberating it is. Throw stuff out, throw stuff out, throw ... it ... out. Good luck, and I ain't helping you move, I don't care how much pizza you're offering.