Going, Going, Gone

hoarding1On the morning of January 20th, I was alerted to a fire at what I called the Hoarder House. I’d never witnessed a fire in real time. It was equally fascinating and disturbing (see January 31 blog post). When the burning finally stopped, the property was surrounded by barricades and crime scene tape. Eventually, a chain link fence was erected to keep passersby safely away from the crumbling mass of charred rubbish.

rubbleMonths went by. Winds and rain caused the waterfall of junk to precariously shift. People started asking me why the City hadn’t torn the place down. I’m flattered they have the impression that I’m privy to the goings on around town. I actually know next to nothing, and often stifle an urge to make things up.

Due to my years-long obsession with this house and people counting on me to know stuff, I recently took precious time and energy away from watching “Judge Judy” and launched an investigation. City Manager Tabitha Miller eased the burden of this task by sending a press release dated July 9, 2018.

Apparently, the City had a heck of a time getting someone to take responsibility for clearing the property. None of the parties involved—the owner, mortgage holder or insurance company—would cooperate. In April, Nationstar (the mortgage holder) received an insurance payout of $175,000. In May, they foreclosed on the property, which made them the official owner.

House2bSo what you think Nationstar did?

  1. Acted like grownups, admitted their liability, and offered to immediately clean up their property that stood like a gaping wound on the edge of downtown just off Main Street.
  2. Acted like juvenile delinquents, stuffed the money in their pockets, and ran.

Sadly, they chose number two. The City diligently tried to contact Nationstar, but they would not return phone calls or respond to letters.

On June 8—nearly six months after the fire—the Community Development Director sent a certified letter to Nationstar informing them that they had until July 10 to start cleaning up the property. For each day of delay, they would be assessed a $1,000 fine.

The threat of $1,000 a day seemed to catch the attention of the suits at Nationstar. By July 3rd, the contractor hired for cleanup applied to the City for a permit.

House3aA few weeks ago, black tarps were draped over the chain link fence and the demolition began. Within a couple days, the dumpsters supplied by Waste Management were filled to capacity and work paused until they could be hauled inland and emptied.

As the process unfolded, I finagled my way around the tarps to snap photos. For decades, this house stood as a shameful monument to hoarding. Within days, it was no more.

I find it hard to say goodbye.

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Heather Sears

HeatherHead2Heather grew up in Morro Bay where she learned commercial fishing from her dad. “I moved here in 1999, and immediately began a flaming love affair with Mendocino County.” By 2001, she had saved four thousand dollars and bought a small boat, the Julie. “My idea was to have a floating fish market—to sell fish right off the boat.” She admits that running her own boat was a different experience than crewing with her dad.

“I made a lot of mistakes. The first time I took the boat out, I went on the wrong side of the red can [at the entrance to the harbor]. Kelp got tangled in the wheel and killed the engine. I was able to reverse the boat a few times and got untangled. Another time, on my way to Eureka, I ran into bad weather. I thought the boat was going to roll and I was going to die.”

HeatherDogsHer dad tried to help her, but she was intent on doing things her way. “At one point, he threw his hands up and said, ‘You’re going to kill yourself,’ and went back to Morro Bay. Bless his heart, he must have been so worried. This strained our relationship, but a few years later, we fished together in Alaska.”

As she worked towards saving money for a larger boat, she took classes at College of the Redwoods. “In 2001 a friend said, ‘You can go to college anytime, you’ll never see fishing like this again.’ I literally walked out of my English class, went down to the boat, and started fishing.”

The local commercial salmon season closed in 2006, and she fished in Alaska. “When the season reopened in 2013, I came back to Fort Bragg and vowed to do whatever it takes to stay.” After living on her boat for years, she bought a house that same year, anchoring herself to the area.

HeatherCrew2Along the way, she sold the Julie and bought and sold two other boats. In 2009, she purchased a larger vessel with a blast freezer named Princess. Given that she has an all-woman crew, it’s the perfect name. “Because we’re able to freeze the fish on board, we can stay out for 18 days and catch up to 11,000 pounds of salmon. When we return to port, the fish is unloaded into a freezer truck and taken to storage in the Seattle area. After the glut of fresh caught fish is over, we can sell our sashimi grade fish at a higher price. The process we use makes it better than fresh.”

Heather was so excited about her ability to provide the market with this type of seafood that she caught 44,000 pounds of fish her first year. “I started direct marketing and thought people would be knocking down my door, but I didn’t have the connections the other boats with freezers had. I was scared I’d lose my house. I started selling at the Fort Bragg and Ukiah farmers’ markets and off the boat. Most of it went to San Francisco. It took me a year and half to sell it all.”

For four years, the Princess was the only boat in Noyo Harbor with a flash freezer. Recently, another fisherman purchased a boat with this capability, but he only freezes tuna. The Princess is one of only five boats in the lower 48 that freezes salmon at sea.

The life of a commercial fisherwoman is often rugged and demanding. “When I go to Alaska for king salmon, it takes 15 days and $3-5,000 to get there. Once there, I only have four to six days to make 80 percent of my income for the year. I’ve always managed to find fish, but because of the stress and long hours there’s no joy in it.”

HeatherCrewAs a woman in this field, Heather is not unique, but rare. “There are a lot more women in Alaska.” She admires her crew which includes Maia and Anna—graduates of Humboldt State. “The salmon season lasts about six months. It requires a great deal of endurance. We get only five to six hours of sleep a night and are away from home so much. I got a crab permit last winter. Catching crab is easier and is a lot more fun.” Maia and Anna also sell the fish at the farmers’ markets.

She’s grateful for the comradery she’s developed among the other fishermen and women who travel up and down the coast. “I can look out and see a boat a mile away and know we have each other’s backs if there’s a problem. Even if we don’t like each other on the dock, we put those differences aside on the water.”

Heather is passionate about educating the public to support sustainable fishing. “All fisheries in the United States are sustainable, which means not harvesting past the point of the stock being able to replenish itself. Since the seventies, the 4000-boat California salmon fleet has been reduced to 100. Our port went from 20 draggers to six—and these are managed very carefully. Every boat has a tracking system that is monitored by a team in Washington DC. All fish stocks are rebounding, but many of the seasons that were closed have not reopened.”

Between seasons, Heather does maintenance on the boat. “A woman once told me we have to repay the boat for the service it gives us.” In 2016,  she received a grant from the Mendocino County Air Quality Board and spent that winter installing a clean-running motor.

Heather has recently expanded her business by partnering with friend a former crew woman Wendy Holloway to reopen Nemo’s Fish Market as Princess Seafood Market and Deli in Noyo Harbor. “Wendy was my first crew member back in 2004. Our goal is to make our amazing, west coast wild seafood more accessible to our local community in the most delicious way possible. Sustainably caught sashimi grade fish and shellfish will be our specialty. We also offer healthy cooked food, local beer, wine and a selection of seafood-centric prepared food for take out.”

Despite the challenges of a life at sea, Heather can’t imagine doing anything else. “I love being my own boss and being out on the ocean. The Lost Coast around Shelter Cove is stunningly beautiful. The upsides of this business are so great—like seeing a rainbow at the same time a gray whale leaps out of the water. I love it so much.”

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Heather offers wholesale and retail sashimi grade king salmon, coho salmon, albacore tuna, lingcod, rockfish and black cod. Live Dungeness crab is available in the winter. You can find her crew at the Ukiah Natural Food Coop, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, Santa Rosa & Sebastopol farmers’ markets and on the boat at Dock A in Noyo Harbor. The food at Princess Seafood Market and Deli is fresh and delicious. If you’re busy, you can get it to go. Better yet, take some time to enjoy the patio and soak in the unique ambience of Noyo Harbor.

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Jason Fruth

JasonFheadshotSometimes the inspiration to move back to the place you love arrives in the most random of ways. An email sent by your wife, added to the hundreds you received that day, nearly lost until a couple weeks later when you find it and ask why she sent you a link to a house for sale in Fort Bragg. She knows how your long work days often spill into late nights and take a toll on your personal life. Since leaving the Mendocino Coast over 20 years ago, you’ve always said you’d move back. Maybe now is the time.

Thus began the journey of Jason Fruth and his wife Cate who uprooted their lives in the Silicon Valley to create a new, fulfilling one here.

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JasonF&momJason was born in Houston, Texas and moved to Elk with his mom Laurie Graham when he was seven years old. “My mom’s whole life was her children, but she was always willing to open her home to a friend in need. She loved nothing more than spending time with family and friends.”

He loved growing up in the tiny coastal enclave. “Through the fifth grade, I went to the Elk School which only had about 20 kids. My friends and I had the freedom to hike the bluffs, roam the beach and camp by the river. I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. It shaped who I am. I didn’t realize how special it was until I went to college and met kids who went to school with 2,000 or more students.”

He graduated from the Mendocino Community High School in 1995. “I grew up in a working class family. I wasn’t college oriented, but my paternal grandparents in Texas insisted I go. I applied to San Francisco State, San Jose State and Cal Poly Pomona.” He was accepted by all, did some research, found Cal Poly Pomona was the most highly rated, and decided to go there. His grandparents and father paid for tuition and housing.

When asked to declare a major, he asked, “What’s a major?” He laughed at the memory. “I had no idea. I was fascinated by airplanes and watched the NASA channel a lot so decided on Aerospace Engineering.

“I’d never heard of Pomona. I’d been to Disneyland once when I was a kid. I packed my two huge stereo speakers into my old Mazda 626LX and stuffed the rest of my meager belongings around them. A friend from high school made the trip with me. When I dropped her off at the airport a week later, I broke down crying.”

JasonFcollegeThose were the days before cell phones, when a homesick kid had to pay for long distance calls if he wanted to talk to his mom. Jason didn’t have this luxury. He got an on-campus job as the audio visual tech manager at the student union. He eventually became the building manager.

In 1999, friends who were riding the dot-com wave encouraged him to join them in the Silicon Valley. He moved into an apartment in Palo Alto with Joseph Huckaby, a friend from Elk. “I got a job in tech support with Connectix. When I looked at my first paycheck, I thought, ‘Are you serious?’ I’d never made this much money at one time in my life.” After a year, he was promoted to quality assurance engineering. In 2000, the dot-com bust began and Jason survived numerous rounds of layoffs. The company was bought by Microsoft which laid off 90 percent of the employees. Jason remained.

At Microsoft, he spent two years as a quality assurance engineer. “We tested code for the Mac Business Unit—the unit that creates Word, Excel and PowerPoint.” He was promoted to lab manager where he remained for eight years before becoming a regional information technology (IT) manager—a job that required long hours. “I’d work all day and go home to spend hours answering emails. I was part of a global team and often on conference calls in the middle of the night.”

JasonFCateHe bought a condo near San Jose State and rented out a bedroom, usually to a college student. “In 2009, a friend told me her friend Cate—who lived in Willits—was planning to go to San Jose City College and needed a place to stay. I rented her the room.” They began spending time together and slowly became a couple. They married in 2013.

Cate earned a degree in Anthropology from San Francisco State. She worked for a number of companies before becoming a business manager at Stryker, a medical technology company.

“My fourteen years with Microsoft was a good experience, but intense. It was a great company to work for in my twenties and thirties, but it kept me away from home.” Over time, he and Cate grew more stressed and less happy with living the city corporate life.

They hadn’t talked about moving until Cate emailed him that link to a house for sale in Fort Bragg. It turned out to be the catalyst that put in motion his desire to one day return to the coast.

Jason contacted a friend since middle school—Sage Statham—who had recently become the manager of Mendocino Community Network (MCN). There were no openings at MCN, but this didn’t deter Jason and Cate’s decision to move. “I called my sister and asked if we could live with her and her husband until we got settled. She was thrilled.

“We moved in late 2016. A month later, Sage called to say a guy at MCN had decided to retire. He encouraged me to apply for the job of field technician and I got it.”

The house Cate found on the internet was still on the market. They made an offer, but the deal fell through. They looked at many others, but none appealed to them. Three months later, they made the same offer on the original house and it was accepted.

“Cate and I kept going back to this house because it was newer, well-constructed, in town, with city utilities. It had a serendipitous feeling given that it popped up so randomly in our lives. It was meant to be.”

As he settles in to his new life, Jason contemplates how he might become involved with his community. Growing up, he attended Camp Rubber Soul, which brought groups of able-bodied and disabled kids together for a week at a time in an effort to foster understanding between the two. “It gave me an appreciation for not judging people.” By age 11, he became a camp counselor. “I used all my vacation time to return each summer until I was 28 when the camp shut down due to lack of funding. I’d love to see something like that again.”

Jason enjoys his job at MCN, which is far different from what he did before. “There’s a nice mix of being out in the field to fix problems and doing office work. At the end of the day, I leave it behind and go home to spend time with my wife and play fetch with our dog Cassie. It’s a pretty good gig.”

Welcome home, Jason.

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