Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

September 10, 2013

For travelers, there's a whole new rental world out there

By Andrea Sachs
The Washington Post

— Halil pulled up in front of his apartment complex in San Francisco and turned off the engine. We sat in his car side by side, as if we were on an awkward first date. He asked for my driver's license and snapped a picture of it with his smartphone. I awaited further instructions. None came, so I took the initiative.

"Anything in particular that I need to know?" I asked.

"Fill the car with premium gas," he replied.

"That's it?" I was surprised by his nonchalance.

"Use your common sense," he said, then added, "The passenger door doesn't open from the outside." And here I'd thought that he'd leaned over to open my door because he was being chivalrous.

And that was it: Halil disappeared into his home, and I drove off in his 1995 BMW. His car was now my car; that was the extent of our sharing.

In the sharing community of locals and visitors, what's theirs can nowadays become yours or mine. The grass-roots garden of on-the-go give-and-take is growing wildly, allowing travelers to pluck an assorted bouquet of items to enjoy on their vacations: cars, apartments, meals, bikes, boats, local expertise, even friends and dogs.

The homespun rental services and social swaps are rooted in the neighborly tradition of borrowing a cup of sugar or a rake, if everyone lived in a co-op run by opportunists. In many cases, the purveyors want to make a buck off their surplus goods, but they often charge fewer clams than traditional suppliers. Sharing arrangements also foster unique opportunities and interactions that you'd probably never have with, say, the agent.

To experience the sharing universe, I assembled a trip to San Francisco based primarily on these outliers. I wasn't a purist: I flew commercial air across the country instead of hitching a ride through Craigslist or RideBoard.com (Michael: "57 year old and friendly mellow dog driving Route 80. Share driving, gas and hotel room").

But once on the ground, I relied solely on off-the-corporate-grid services, such as RelayRides (car), Tripping (pals, accommodations), Meal Sharing (home-cooked dinner), Spinlister (bicycle) and Vayable (tours and outings). I also sniffed around Boatbound and PhoRent, which feature recreational vehicles that require helmets or strong captaining skills. I was comforted by the fact that if I crashed the scooter or the speedboat, I could hire Lyft, a ride-share service, to transport me to the emergency room.

— — —

Rachel was my first wannabe-share. She wore dangly earrings and beamed a broad smile. In her online profile, she described herself as a "fun creative chef" who specialized in French, Italian and seafood. She called her pre-birthday dinner "Summer Night Delight."

Rachel appeared on HomeDine, a meal-sharing Web site where members post their let's-eat events and invite strangers to grab a seat and dig in. She had 20 spots for her San Francisco meal and was charging $22 for raw oysters with pickled serranos, strawberry spinach salad, steak with brie and mushrooms, and French bread pizzas.

I submitted my request to join her gathering and booked my flight to San Francisco. I lined up the car with Halil and reserved a room through Wimdu, a spawn of Airbnb that rents different styles of accommodations owned or run by individuals. With all my alphabet blocks stacked up, I was ready for Rachel's meal. But then the R tumbled off.

On HomeDine, you're not officially a guest until the party planner accepts your RSVP. I e-mailed Rachel for a confirmation. Tumbleweeds rolled across my computer screen. I messaged the site host, Kat, for assistance. She answered: "The response time is in the hands of the host." Hours, days, a week, a flock of migrating Canada geese passed by.

OpenTable, I pouted, would never ignore me like this. I didn't like suffering for a dinner reservation. But if I wanted to participate in the sharing society, I had to follow its rules. So I did.

As instructed, I set up a profile on my chosen sites and included a trustworthy photo (no tequila-swilling shots) and a zesty description that made me sound peppy but not annoying. I scanned the pages of options, weighing the Awesome Oldsmobile against Rebecca's Dodge, a 106-year-old San Francisco native vs. a kilt-wearing Scotsman, a homeless tour or a mushroom-foraging excursion. Then I threw myself at these people and waited like a lovesick high-schooler beside her Princess phone. Will my crush ever call?

The reply times and success rates varied. On average, I heard back in one to three days with an even split of "yes" and "no" responses. Emmy, for instance, e-mailed within a day to say that she was on vacation and not leading her Vayable-listed Wilderness Sushi tour in Berkeley. Jeff, whom I contacted through Tripping, didn't have a guest room in his tiny studio but offered to meet up to "play tourist." Galo, another Tripping host, accepted my home-stay plea but asked for an additional 24 hours to check with his roommate, who agreed and even invited me to stay a second night.

I moved on from those who never replied and sent out a second and third stream of requests. After three weeks of planning, I'd finally locked down all my arrangements, including a Meal Sharing dinner in Oakland. And though I'll never know whether Rachel's dinner party was a success, at least I won't be forced to share my secret with a group of strangers: I don't eat oysters.

— — —

The text message from my Meal Sharing hostess arrived at 5:36 p.m. It read, "I haven't prepared anything."

Until then, all my shares had clicked into place. I'd picked up Halil's car without incident and had easily located the Bernal Heights apartment I'd rented for the night. I even had time to meet Kurt and take a brief tour of his art-choked place. He showed me the pantry (the man loves Jell-O); the fridge, including a shelf for my groceries; my room, with a pyramid of fresh towels; and the backyard garden, a micro-Amazon jungle. Sam, the vocal cat, accompanied us, tossing in his unsolicited comments.

Kurt left the apartment before me, and I struggled to remember his instructions: I was holding three keys but staring at four doors with locks. Plus Sam was howling at me — to go out? To stay in? I chose the overprotective route, bolting all the doors and sequestering the cat inside.

Perhaps Sam was forewarning me, because as soon as I left the house, my spool of shares started to unravel. After the text, which I received while standing outside the front door of the "confirmed" home cook, I received a phone call. The mystery chef apologized for the last-minute cancellation and explained the personal reason behind it. I said that I understood but would still like to meet her and give her the gift of potted herbs I'd bought. Well, that wouldn't work either, she said, because she wasn't at home. She was at an Italian restaurant with pals.

She invited me to join her, her treat. But after an uncomfortable back-and-forth over directions and transportation, I told her to enjoy the time with her real friends. I wouldn't go hungry; I could always eat my hostess gift.

I ended up donating the herbs to Kurt, who deserved them more, anyway. Later that evening, we ordered Indian pizza from a nearby restaurant. On a small table, he placed two pieces on each plate, an equal share.

— — —

I found the self-styled "retrofit enthusiast" and his one-speed bomber on Spinlister, a site where people rent out their bikes. He charged $9 a day and threw in a helmet and a lock. The pink bell was the sweet icing on the cruiser's black frame.

I picked up the bike at his parents' house (he was eventually moving out, he informed me) on a leafy street in Oakland. He attached the kickstand and tested the new bell, which was more mouse squeak than bear growl. Before I set off, he mapped out a route that incorporated bike-friendly boulevards and lanes. My destination: Lake Merritt, a liquid blue playground speckled with sailboats and islands.

Unlike San Francisco and its Everest-in-training hills, Oakland is flapjack flat, with a few humps to jolt you from your easy-riding position. I cycled twice around the lake before choosing a return route . As I waited at a red light, I noticed that the front wheel was sagging. I rolled forward and heard the slap, slap of a flat tire.

I called the owner, who told me to pinch the tire to see whether I could feel the frame. Yes, I could. He instructed me to find a gas station, but I suspected that the air would never hold. So he told me to find a bike shop that would replace the inner tube. I asked whether he'd cover the repair; he said no. I was about to appeal, but a tiny voice reminded me of the liability contract resting on his backyard table.

I walked the bike several blocks to Bay Area Bikes, where co-owner Clay Wagers replaced the punctured inner tube (diagnosis: a buildup of glass shards and thinning rubber) and tightened the brakes. The bill came to more than the rental. I asked Clay how he would have responded to a customer with a flat tire. He said that the shop typically sends bikers out with an emergency kit that includes a patch and spare tubes. But if a customer couldn't fix the problem on her own, the shop would reimburse her for any off-site repairs or pay for a taxi ride back to the store.

I set off on my new inner tube (selfish thought: It really was mine), arriving at my starting point with no more upsets. I dropped off the bike, hoping to make a quick getaway in Halil's BMW. But bike guy still seemed to be in a sharing mood and invited me in for some toast. I declined, though: I'd had enough breaking bread for one day.

— — —

Joey the Cat is a triple sharer. He lists his Mission District loft on Air-bnb, his fixed-gear bike on Spinlister and his tours on Vayable. But I needed only one of his shares: his skeeball expertise.

The two-time National Brewskee-Ball Champion started our lesson with the game's history and his own. For the former: born in Philly in 1909 as a boardwalk and arcade amusement. For the latter: lost to Skee-Diddy in the 2010 national championship in New York. To avoid another bee sting of loss, he bought a skeeball machine and practiced with the fixed determination of Rocky. He won in 2011 and 2012 but conceded the title to Snakes on a Lane this year.

"The goal is to have fun and get some stats on the side," he said. "No one takes it as seriously as I do."

I stepped up to the machine and followed his instructions: plant feet, bend knees, straighten arm, swing it like a pendulum and release. I chucked nine balls at the board, tallying 120 points — far below the league average of 270. I focused on my wrist motion and watched my star rise, cracking the 200 mark with a 220, a 230 and a 240.

I nearly jumped out of my skeeskin when I saw the board light up with a 310. I turned to Joey, searching the skeemaster's face for approval. He flashed a sheepish grin and broke the bad news: The machine had triggered the 100-point hole instead of the 50-pointer, so my real total was 260.

Joey gave me two more opportunities to polish my toss. At the SoMa StrEat Food Park, he runs a pair of outdoor skeeball machines set among food trucks and a bar housed in a barn. We competed against each other; no need to guess who won (310) and who lost (170). I left with a personal best, however, sinking my first career 100-pointer.

"You're in the zone," Joey cried out.

We finished the tour at the Clash Clubhouse, an events center illuminated by cheeky light fixtures fashioned out of fanny packs. We rolled several games, but our energy was waning. We played one more for the road, before Joey handed me a hot-pink headband for my team effort.

I slipped it on as soon as he drove away.

— — —

I sent the text message at 8:25 a.m.: "Hello, temp roomie. Are you in the apartment? If so, want to get coffee? Wait till you see my pancake bed."

It was my first morning with Galo and John, who'd agreed to shelter me in their Inner Richmond apartment. New to the world of slumber-surfing and unsure of roommate protocol, I didn't want to awaken Galo with a standard knock or holler. So I quietly texted him, and he quietly appeared outside the glass door of my bedroom, which the day before had been the dining room.

Before heading out for coffee at a Russian cafe, I showed Galo the air mattress that he'd so graciously pumped up for me the night before. It had exhaled all its breath; the plush carpeting was my primary source of cushioning. Fortunately, the box of booze near the pillows hadn't seeped any liquid onto my head.

Galo, who runs a global student exchange company and often works from home, was a consummate guide and insta-friend. He and his roommate have hosted more than 40 visitors. I was their first American — most guests hail from abroad, and to expose them to the U. S. of A., Galo will prepare an American breakfast and organize outings to a Giants baseball game and dive bars.

"The people who 'surf' or 'trip,' " Galo said, "want the die-hard local experience."

As soon as I landed in San Francisco, Galo loaded me up with suggestions, including the dynamic murals in the Mission District, nourishment at Mission Chinese Food and John's birthday party at Golden Gate park.

Once I was officially the third roommate, he offered to take me on a personalized city tour. When he had work obligations, he sent me out on my own, but with motherly warnings.

"They'll either ask you what kind of drugs you want or will ask for money," he informed me about Haight-Ashbury denizens. "Just keep your head down."

As a thank-you for my hosts' generosity, I offered to take them out to dinner in Lower Haight. Our dinner ran late, or maybe we ate slowly, and my red-eye departure was creeping up.

I'd planned to take Sidecar, a donation-based ride-share service, to the BART station. Galo looked up the wait time (a driver was about three minutes away) and the suggested price ($20). In the true spirit of sharing, he offered to drive me instead.

As a member of the community, I accepted.