DEL MAR — Can you imagine yourself in the following scene?
It's a rainy Saturday, your first morning in a new home. You are surrounded by unpacked boxes, you can't find either your toaster or your coffee maker, a mysterious rash has broken out on your elbows, and you are already feeling homesick for the friends you left behind (rainy Saturdays have always been your days to play poker). And the dog doesn't seem any too well, either.
Suddenly, there's a knock at the door. You peer through the hall window.
Who is that friendly looking woman standing on your front step? She's carrying an enormous basket. She must be a Welcome Wagon hostess! Oh, no. Now, you'll have to open the door wearing your 10-year-old shorts with the green ink stains.
"Moving can be so traumatic," she murmurs sympathetically as she steps inside and puts down her basket, which contains not only samples from local merchants but also such handy items as a local map and a Department of Motor Vehicles change-of-address form.
By the time she leaves 30 minutes later, you have the name of a dermatologist for your rash and the name of a vet for your dog, plus the cheering information that the local Welcome Wagon Newcomers club has been looking for someone who enjoys playing poker.
"The best time to call the Welcome Wagon is when the moving van is pulling out of your driveway," said Arliss Adams, Welcome Wagon hostess for Del Mar.
There have been times when she has been unable to reach newcomers until they've been in their new home for a week or more.
"They'll say things like, 'Oh, I wish I'd had this information earlier. My dishwasher overflowed, and my child had a toothache.' "
Was Founded in Memphis
The name "Welcome Wagon" evolved from the wagon of provisions that people living in frontier towns often drove out to welcome approaching pioneers. In 1928, a group of Memphis business people realized that Americans moved more than anybody else in the world and founded Welcome Wagon International Inc.
Hostesses (and male hosts, too, though there is only one in San Diego County) have been turning up on U.S. doorsteps since.
"People often worry about us seeing them in a state of chaos, surrounded by all those boxes," said Martha Fleming, who covers the Encinitas area. "But how else could things look?"
Fleming, who has five children and has moved 11 times since she had them, said she always feels a strong sense of empathy for people undergoing the rigors of moving.
"The other day, I called at a house where they had four children under 7, including a 6-week-old baby," she said. "And the first thing the mother said to me was, 'I'm so sorry about the mess.' But if it isn't messy, you haven't moved!"
A recent study by the San Diego Assn. of Governments estimated that, in North County, 42 people are moving in every day. The region now has a dozen Welcome Wagon hostesses.
"It keeps us busy," Adams said. "It's wonderful!"
Laura Breitel, who has covered Rancho Santa Fe for almost 10 years, said, "I've noticed a big change. Five years ago, I'd go back two or three times to a house where I found nobody home. Now, I'm so overwhelmed with names--even in Rancho Santa Fe--I just leave a card."
Variety of People
"We get such a variety of people," said Millie Drobnicki, who covers the Encinitas area with Fleming and is Breitel's mother. "We get young marrieds, yuppies, single parents, retired people, snowbirds. And all of us are seeing more bachelors, more Canadians, more foreigners."
Said Breitel, "People who were born in America always know who we are, but those born in other countries have frequently never heard of us."
A few weeks ago, she said, a man from Mexico who had just moved to Rancho Santa Fe assumed she was there as the official U.S. greeter.
"He was charming! 'How nice of you to come,' he said, as he ushered me inside. 'Would you like to ride one of my Arabian horses?' "
Occasionally, however, they are greeted less than enthusiastically. People sometimes suspect that a Welcome Wagon host or hostess is trying to sell them something. (They aren't. It's against company policy to either sell or solicit information for mailing lists.)
Hostess Trudy Whitlow, who has welcomed Solana Beach newcomers for two years, recently called on an elderly bachelor.
"He was so suspicious of my real motives for being there that he left the door open the whole time I was inside," she said.
But Carol Straub, whose territory is San Marcos, said, "Most people are really glad to see us. They have so many questions. Where can they get a good haircut? Find a reliable roof-repairer, a chiropractor? Lots of people ask about chiropractors. Moving is very hard on the back!"
Formal Attire Dropped
Welcome Wagon hostesses no longer pay visits clad formally in a hat and white gloves. That rule was relaxed 20 years ago. But they do always appear carrying a basket--a large basket, decorated with flowers, and unique because each hostess buys and decorates her own.