Author’s Note: I’ve told the Spark Notes version of this story to people only twice. I’ve been approached by almost everyone who was within earshot to write the story in its entirety. By the very nature of its content, I’ve never been comfortable disclosing it. Until now. What you’re about to read recounts the events between January 18, 2012 and December 1, 2012. All of them true to the best of my recollection.
Part I — Anxiety
The haggard pharm tech won’t give me my Xanax, and I have a cross-country flight to catch so I can sit behind a booth in a suit at a Fine Art Show.
This was my life. I was 29 years old. I took home $750 every week. And I hated my job.
The Fine Art Show was a cacophonous, panic-inducing mess where the one truly lingering piece of beauty — the only part of the experience that coaxes a smile from me now — is a woman I befriended later in my life.
I regularly had to leave the Los Angeles Convention Center into the crisp January to catch fresh air, and shotgun a beer at the ESPN Zone across the street.
My boss micro-managed me like I was a piece of Ikea furniture he was trying to put together without instructions. I never worked fast enough for him. I didn’t know enough Photoshop. I didn’t use the right words to speak to his audience. I didn’t hang the self-portrait in the right place.
He was the type of self-important narcissist who’d say things like, “Black women on covers don’t sell magazines,” and “Is our Graphic Design assistant a lesbian?” (She was, but my official response was: “I’m not sure and I don’t think that’s relevant.”) and “I let go of anyone who doesn’t abide by Good Christian Values(TM).” He also commissioned a self-portrait for each issue of his art magazine and had them hanging all over his office which we shared — an attic above a garage that remained unfinished and barely furnished (aside from his executive chair, which could’ve been an easy $5K worth of Tuscan Leather).
It was enough to drive me to drink. And drink I did.
I drove home 45 minutes from the office in Westlake down 360 to my apartment in North Austin. I dropped off my laptop and proceeded to the nearest bar, a Buffalo Wild Wings on the corner of Parmer and I-35. And I dropped a Xanax, slammed two 24oz. Stash IPAs and stuffed my face with a double-order of wings — half spicy garlic, half mango habanero. Every night. I’d lived in Austin for 15 months, and my only friend was the bartender I regularly chatted with about music, school, sports and radio. I was closer with the Inside the NBA crew than my family.
The bartender was sweet. A feminine firecracker bombshell quick with a quip. The kind who sprinkled salt on the app napkin to keep your frosted mug from sticking to it. DJ’d on the side and invited me out to her SXSW showcase at Geisha Room. It was the first time I’d been invited anywhere in the city in which I’d lived for over 500 days. I always worked from home and never had a hobby.
In early March, through a combination of a lifelong immunodeficiency that left me susceptible to respiratory infections, poor diet, stress and an inability to deal with it in a healthy way, I became very sick. I called into work and went immediately to the doctor. Pneumonia caused by stomach acid leaking into my lungs and causing them to burn up. I was moving at a glacier’s pace, hacking up motor oil and could barely find the strength to leave my bed. I called into work a second day. Cancelled a weekend trip. Called into work the following week.
When I returned to work on Monday, March 19, I called my sales rep to catch up. Her response:
“I’m so sorry.”
— “For what?”
“What [BOSS’s NAME] did to you.”
— “What’d he do?”
“Oh … you don’t know?”
“You should probably talk to him, then.”
I got off the phone and called him. Voicemail. I checked my email and scrolled down to the emails from 3/13/12.
SUBJECT: NOTICE OF TERMINATION
I printed out a copy of the email and shoved it in my desk. Too upset to read it. Too scared to tell anyone about it. Thought I could ignore it and try something new.
I called my other boss, a kind humorist with a keen interest in sports, a knack for sales and an affinity for gourmet coffee. He said, “I knew he was going to let you go months ago. But he liked you as a person. He was waiting for the right time.”
This likable person was now jobless and alone. In an unfamiliar city. Free … yet doomed. Liberation through damnation. I popped another Xanax and let the SVP & Russillo sing me to sleep in an early afternoon.
When I woke up, I glanced at my phone.
I now had nowhere to be.
Part II — Adagio
Against the wall lay a dusty Ibanez rare wood guitar I hadn’t picked up and plucked in 15 months.
I had no intention of playing live music in the Live Music Capital of the World(TM). But loneliness is a nagging mistress, and I recalled music (and, by extension, music and booze) as the Great Social Lubricant. I met most of my blood brothers (and sisters) in my hometown of Buffalo in this fashion. So I scoured the Austin Chronicle for Open Mics and selected to hit one that evening at the Red Shed on South Congress, about a 40-minute drive from home.
Like a fish relearning to ride a bicycle, I hacked my way through four songs I remembered writing and playing in my younger years. I never played there again.
I chatted up the host and she sweetly let me into a secret Facebook group called of people who routinely make rounds on the Austin Open Mic circuit. On that group I found a place called Backroads to strum at the following night — a Cheers-era bar attached to a Best Western.
I introduced myself to the host, assuming he’d forget about me and I’d disappear into the ether as just another face in the crowd who drank beer too fast and played songs too slow. I was wrong. After 15 minutes of playing, he pulled me aside and informed me he was starting a new open mic at a bar called Stompin Grounds the following Monday. I made it a point to come, because lonely.
The following Monday, and for each Monday following that, I meandered the 20 minutes down I-35 (an hour in traffic, depending on your luck) to the swanky semi-dive to play a few tunes and guzzle some Dogfish Head. It was here I met kindred spirits. There were grizzled veterans, soul singers, sensitive songwriters, hipsters, hippies, drunks, brawlers and bawlers. And as I kept coming back, I began to realize something unexpected— these people were beginning to like me.
I noticed myself, for the first time in a long time, opening up. An unfamiliar city became more familiar. Tameable. We traveled as a roving band of raconteur rogues to each other’s shows, buying each other shots and doing the kinds of carefree, irresponsible things that young adults do when they’re allowed to party for free and in some cases paid to do so. Within three months, we were as tight a bunch as a group of goofballs could be to each other in such a short period of time. I imagine the music helped. So did the drinks.
I began scheduling my days around Open Mics. Sundays were Baker Street. Mondays were Skinny’s and then Stompin Grounds. Tuesdays were Rusty’s (oddly, both a country line-dance bar and a gay bar). Wednesdays were Backroads. Thursdays were Flipnotics. Many of those haunts have closed, since replaced my condos and luxury hotels, as so much of Austin has become indistinguishable from Dubai.
One night in June, a couple of us went over to a friend’s pad to wish her Happy Birthday. We guzzled a couple beers, downed a Tres Leches cake, smoked several bowls and watched “Louie.” I passed out on the the couch. Content.
When I awoke, I pulled out of the apartment and drove up South Congress to find my car had run out of gas.
Undeterred, I grabbed my gas can and meandered up the way to a pump where I inserted my card and got the dreaded “See Cashier” euphemism for “Fuck Off.”
I logged into my bank app to check my balance. It was negative.
Oh right. That.
Part III — Avoidance
A bastion of truth, Craigslist ain’t.
Precisely two help-wanted ads on much-maligned marketplace have piqued my interest. The first was sent to me in 2007, saying “Aspiring Sportswriters Wanted.” The second was forwarded to me in 2011, saying “Dream Job: Writers Wanted.”
I was never a writer, but I fancied myself a scribe from time to time. The first ad turned into a four-year partnership with a couple of fellas that turned into NCAA Press Passes, four million pageviews, links from sites like Deadspin, ESPN and SI.com, and life-long friendships.
The second turned into freelance demand gen copy for one website, followed by an ignominious exit while I was struggling to breathe without coughing up shards of lung — right around the same time I was being ejected from my attic office I shared with Tyrannosaurus Boss.
I struggled to find additional writing work with such a small, specialized portfolio, but a friend of mine contacted me and asked me if I’d be willing to come aboard to his sports website and write some freelance columns. Would I ever. My first month … I was given daps by Desmond Howard and retweeted by Mark Cuban. For my gift of gab, I made $11. Then they assigned me to write a slideshow of the “20 Hottest Female Volleyball Players.”
No thanks, I’m good.
In the interim, I applied to some 150 jobs in the Austin area ranging from Environmental Surveyor to Marketing Coordinator and none so much as even granted me an interview. Time was running out. Bills were mounting up. Credit was taking a swan dive. Where left to turn when there’s spiked walls on three sides?
To say I felt filthy walking into a Loan Star Title Loans in the baking hot Austin summer as demons sizzled inside me is a fantastic understatement. It’s a reprehensible feeling that leaves you with a nagging lump the size of a grapefruit in your throat and a football-sized knot in your stomach. It’s pathological to think anyone would choose such a pursuit — essentially taking out a second mortgage on your car at an APR of 500%+ — as anything but as a gallows maneuver.
The lights inside are dim, barren. Pictures of smiling people line the walls like old print cigarette ads where everyone’s “Alive with Pleasure.”
“Get the cash you need today. Take your life back.”
I sheepishly borrowed $1,000 to get me through until my check from my 401K cash-out cleared in 7–10 business days. That check never came.
I called a former employer (not my previous employer, but the one previous to that as I’d barely been at my last job long enough to roll over) to assess where my 401K check was.
“We are switching 401K providers, so we’re in a 30-day blackout period,” replied the man who replaced me at that company. “Don’t worry. Your money is safe.”
That was 30 days ago. In the meantime, I’d needed to re-up my title loan and take out additional toxic money from a shady joint called EZ Money to cover the cost of bills and paying for Advair — essentially the drug that keeps me alive — without medical insurance (a $300 per month endeavor, which is roughly an extra car payment for me). In the month of June, I’d borrowed $2,500 to pay rent, my phone, my Internet, my electricity and the cost of gas for attempting to maintain a facade with my girlfriend at the time that everything was just totally Business-As-Usual-Nothing-To-See-Here and I could totally afford to keep traveling to San Antonio to visit her every weekend.
July’s rent was due.
I called my old employer for my 401K again. Voice trembling. Losing my grip. “Let me check on this for you.”
Crickets. It went on like this a while. A cat-and-mouse game of telephone-tag that became increasingly feverish, fervent and desperate on my end — and increasingly evasive, apathetic and lazy on his.
I knew I’d be late with rent. I called my landlord to let them know this.
“We can’t wait.”
I applied to another 20 jobs or so and even sat down for an interview at the Buffalo Wild Wings I drank at regularly.
- “Hi, John! This is the owner from Austin School of Real Estate! I saw you saw our Craigslist ad and applied for our Marketing Director position! We’d love to have you in for an Interview!”
We scheduled one for July 24 — the day I was also scheduled to move out to avoid going to court and being locked out of my apartment. I began packing my things to move them into an air-conditioned storage unit a couple miles down the road. Perhaps I could crash there for a week or so while I waited for a paycheck. No one would have to know.
I walked into the interview and wowed the man so hard with my grand ideas, quick wit and impeccable taste in ties that he’d hired me within 45 minutes. He asked me to email him within 48 hours with a start date and my compensation at my last position. I did exactly that within 48 minutes. I believe the entire text of my email, beyond the requisite “Thank you for this opportunity. I am looking forward to it” was “50K. I can be free next Monday.”
And then I went right back to moving out of my place.
The open mic host from Stompin Grounds was actually kind enough to drive up and help me pack up my things to move them into the storage unit. I joyously thought to myself, “I am just now beginning to find my way here. I’ve got a job. I’ve got friends. I’ve got my music and my social circle. I’ve got a 401K check coming. I’ve got a short reprieve from bills. Everything’s going to be alright. I just need to get through these couple weeks.”
I checked my email that evening.
I packed up my cat from my old place and packed her in her carrying case with some kibble. I was going to spend the night in San Antonio with my girlfriend after playing one last Stompin Grounds open mic. I played two songs and sang as hard as I could, for although I assumed I’d be back soon, if I’d learned anything from the past couple months, it was that no luxury is guaranteed. A lot of friends gladhanded me and even kindly offered me a couple rips off a one-hitter and a shot to send me off proper.
I then made the 70-mile drive to San Antonio and waited for Austin School of Real Estate to confirm my start date.
I called each day and left voicemails.
A bastion of truth, Craigslist ain’t.
This job I was offered. This position for which I’d been hired. I was reneged and worst of all the gutless prick didn’t have the cojones to call me and tell me.
Now I needed to grow some cojones.
Now I needed to let my girlfriend know I wasn’t in town on vacation.
Blackout period, indeed. If only I could black it out.
Part IV —Atonement
Money isn’t power. Money is options. And options are very, very powerful.
Conversely, a lack of options? Well … let’s just say San Antonio isn’t a prison, but it sure felt like prison to me.
If you ever want to feel inferior and incapable of guarding yourself against the oncoming evils of this world and the human spirit, try living as long as you possibly can without earning one cent. Try explaining to the world why you’re suddenly available all the time, but unwilling to initiate plans to go on a trip or out to a bar. Just a nebulous, “We should hang out more.”
My gal and I would go out to lunch. I’d order a couple of baja fish tacos and a chocolate chip cookie. We’d reach the register.
[Me, whispering at a barely audible level] “Hey, ummm … c-c-could you, uhhh … m-”
Try to stare directly into the resigned sigh, so subtle as to feign stoicism, as she reaches into her wallet and passes you her credit card from her hand to yours, so you can feel like you paid for the both of you.
Try to answer to her friends, her parents and her colleagues when they ask, “So, what are you doing?” Or, when they observe, “So, you’ve been around a lot lately.” Try to do it without kicking rocks. Or holes in walls.
Some mornings I would drive her to work, and spend the rest of the morning hijacking the free Wi-Fi at EZ’s, a 50's themed responsibly-sourced burger joint on 281 and Bitters, ordering a single iced coffee and applying to somewhere between five and seven jobs, writing two to three sports columns and making all your “business” calls, like, trying to figure out where the fuck your blacked-out 401K money went and staving off debt collectors without screaming in public.
I’d run to her house and take a quick lunch break. A single egg with a wedge of laughing cow and a handful of spinach, because I was too ashamed to eat all her groceries.
Afternoons, I’d put on decent clothes and parade around to San Antonio restaurants where I’d fill out applications looking for some work to tide me over. They’d without fail look at my sparkling resume (I have seven years of serving and bartending experience!) and politely decline. I guess the market for a pudgy, balding 29 year-old professional who isn’t local and would leave for an opening at corporate HQ isn’t booming in the restaurant biz.
I’d pick her up from work. I’d cook dinner and do dishes. She’d go to sleep and I’d lay on the couch awake. Thinking.
Austin. I had to go back.
My girlfriend had connections in San Antonio and probably could’ve found me a gainful position with a moderate salary and decent benefits at any agency/firm/non-profit/company in the city.
But that life would not be mine. Not that it even was anymore.
I never once asked for a referral.
On the sixth day of #JobApplicapalooza2012, July 30, a friendly voice emerged from an email. (NOTE: Each email has been copy-pasted in full, to keep the story rolling smoothly and for the sake of your own sanity, you’re welcome to only read the bold text in each.)
“ Hi John and thanks for your inquiry on where we are with this job search — Job #99087.
I apologize for the delayed response here as the process for this particular position is moving very slow. We have passed on pursuing your application because the client is adamant about the candidates having current and/or recent writing work experience for the high tech industry. This is a tall order! Plus they must have both marcom and tech writing to boot!
I hope you will continue visiting our site for any future possibilities that would fit better with your writing skills. Till next time and thank you for your patience and interest!”
Desperate, but not yet defeated, I replied:
I’m curious as to how my application didn’t convey recent writing work experience and marcom in the high tech industry, as I did plenty of it up until 2011 (for Cisco, no less). Perhaps I didn’t make that 100% clear, in which case I would love some pointers on how to fix that.
I would be curious to see what other openings on your site you think would suit someone with my skills and experience (I am under the impression you’re a recruiter, if not, pay me no mind), as I would love to continue to apply and make each application better than the last.
She called me the next day. In an unusual twist, I felt completely confident talking to her about my situation, my qualifications and my enthusiasm for the job.
I am glad we discussed this position earlier. I look forward to your short description detailing some of your work so I can submit your presentation today.
I wrote back 20 minutes later:
Thank you so much for giving me a call today. Great discussion! As promised, here are some bulleted items that should give you an idea of my experience.
In my career, I have:
- Wrote/edited copy, directed creation of marketing communications/sales tools for Cisco (and other high-tech companies, but Cisco is the big ‘name’)
- Projects include: Email blasts, web content, blogs, SEO, PDF brochures, PPT, fact sheets (At-a-Glances), KMO (Statement of Marketing Strategy), social media, full campaigns, event materials (trade show collateral / event promotions / takeaways and leave-behinds)
- I regularly asked questions of SMEs (Subject matter experts) and took their answers/explanations and transcribed/re-worded them for the desired audience
- I directed clients on expectations and guarded against scope creep, feature creep and unreasonable deadlines
Maybe that’s what I wanted to say in my resume all along. =)
Please let me know if you have questions/comments or wish for me to clarify/refine anything. Look forward to hearing from you; please confirm receipt!
I meant to ask if you could please provide some work writing samples? I have your sports column attached but they will want work samples. Darn, I forgot to ask you while I had you on the phone when you rung me up.
Could I? I sure could.
Please check the attached word documents I have (due to NDA, I have XXXXX’d out client/proprietary info) for some tech-ish/sales writing, and then for an even broader scope of what I have, check out these three sites I created myself, including:
Lead-Generating Website for Financial Services Corp.
Promotional Website for Media Company
Informational Website for Annual Travel Event
Press Release for Media Company Event
And, also, some PDF promotional materials (attached as PDFs). These are not really technical, but they do demonstrate that I can take industries about which I’m not well-versed (let’s be honest, I know art like I know String Theory, which is to say not at all) and turn them into effective marketing pieces. That media kit in particular is a big deal because it’s lengthy, and the client did mention they wanted experience with lengthy material.
Hope that works! Please let me know if there’s something in particular you wanted to see that you are not seeing!
This copywriter role requires big agency dedicated writing experience. I’m sorry, but again, this one does not seem to be a fit but I did alert my colleague to your application.
Keep up the search John–
I wrote back in 20 minutes. Again.
I appreciate the feedback. Sorry I don’t appear to be a good fit! I am wondering what I can do to somehow convey to your client that I have the skills and passion to do the job effectively, since apparently it’s not showing in either my resume, my cover letter or any of my previous writing work. Thanks for your help!
“Hi John, this is [REDACTED] from [REDACTED]! I got your information from a recruiter who says she’s been working with you, and I was wondering if you had some time to come in for an interview on Wednesday for a copywriting position.”
— Of course!
“Great! We’ll see ya then.”
And on Wednesday I drove 70 miles from San Antonio to Austin, and for the first time in three weeks, I felt free. We chatted about being in bands, the writing process, the silliness of their culture and the greatness of the city of Austin. I saw the only shred of hope I could reasonably cling to. I drove 70 miles back to San Antonio that afternoon. After, of course, stopping to send a quick note of thanks.
The following day, he sent me an email:
Our onsite manager at [INSERT GIANT CORPORATION NAME] would like to meet you Wednesday [8/22] at 10am. Could this work for you? If so, I’ll send you directions and more info. If not, please let me know your availability for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Ho. Ly. Shit. Now I *have* to get this job. My single-mindedness hamstrung my half-hearted attempts at finangling restaurant work and exploring other careers. Done.
A further email:
I have you set up for a “meet and greet” for next Wednesday 8/22 at 10am. This will be about 45 minutes to an hour.
Also, now is a good time to start references. Please provide the names and email addresses of 3 people you’ve worked with before, preferable including a couple of managers or clients. thanks!
When you get to the lobby please have security call [REDACTED] from the lobby.
How to prepare:
A couple of copies of your resume would be helpful to have. Dress code is business casual on an ongoing basis, but a little more dressed up for a meet and greet. Leave plenty of time for parking.
When you’re done there and you’re walking out, give me a call at my desk at 323–0550.
I’m sure you will impress [REDACTED] and be impressed by him.
Thanks for the vote of confidence. No pressure.
I kept up my routine of applying to other jobs, leaving voicemails in vain for the man holding my 401K hostage and trying to ward off debt collectors with a stick.
August 22 came and I drove the 85 miles up to just north of Austin, where the company is headquartered. The glass buildings and tall ceilings were unlike anywhere I’d ever worked. There were soft chairs and couches where one could wait. I wore a tie. It was 90 degrees outside but I didn’t start to sweat until I got into the air conditioning.
A meet-and-greet was had. It lasted nearly 30 minutes. I made them laugh and dropped old writing samples, clips, resumes, letters of recommendation and a cover letter that could’ve ended World War II.
“We’ll let ya know.”
August 24. An email.
Sorry no news yet. I will almost certainly have an update for you Monday. Have a good weekend. Enjoy it with the knowledge of the fact that you probably will get a job offer from me, and even if you don’t, you will still TOTALLY ROCK!
STOP TEASING ME YOU SWEET, WONDERFUL SONUVABITCH
August 27. A bulletin.
I am excited to officially offer you the position of Copywriter onsite at [INSERT CORPORATION].
Your start date would be September 17, 3 weeks from now.
Thank you very much for your efforts throughout this process. I sincerely hope you will accept this offer. I am eager to have you on board!
It had been 31 days since I’d applied to this company. 34 days since I’d been kicked out of Austin. I’d just earned my ticket back.
I couldn’t wait to begin apartment hunting. Visions of stocking my place with groceries. Eating fresh food. Sleeping in my own bed. Spending a sunset running around Town Lake. Unearthing and reuniting with all my worldly possessions from storage. Pure, unadulterated, undistilled joy.
On September 10, one week before I was due to start, I drove 70 miles from San Antonio to Austin for orientation and apartment hunting. I completed all the requisite forms and shook my recruiter’s hand.
That afternoon, I started to drive the 70 miles back from Austin to San Antonio when I realized I didn’t have enough gas to make it. I begged and pleaded with the gas station attendant to let me have $5 worth of free gasoline because “I was so far from home.” After 10 or so minutes, he obliged and I graciously thanked him. I loaded up and made it the rest of the way home to greet my gal home from work with dinner.
The sweet life had returned.
One hour later, I watched my 2009 Hyundai Sonata get loaded onto a tow truck. A storm was gathering outside.
10 minutes later, I was crying for the first time in years. On the floor of a home that wasn’t mine. 85 miles from where my future lay in wait. Completely powerless and out of options.
My car had been repossessed.
Part V — Austerity
On the morning of September 17, 2012, a clean-shaven, freshly-showered 29 year-old college graduate walked inside the shiny glass exterior of one of the largest companies in the world to start his new career as a copywriter.
On the evening of September 17, 2012, a clean-shaven, corporate-approved 29 year-old college graduate walked outside the shiny glass exterior of one of the largest companies in the world to a maroon 2011 Jeep Liberty.
I had nowhere else to go.
Through the grace of my girlfriend, who let me borrow her credit card, I was able to secure a rental for the week, so I grabbed something roomy with leather seats and tinted windows to protect against the harsh Texas sun.
That evening, I wandered to a nearby Wal-Mart parking lot in a well-lit part of town I was familiar with. I saw similar cracked faces of broken people. People who were meandering up to frenzied shoppers asking for dollars and cents. I wondered what life must be like for people with no hope. And I wondered what separated people like me from people like them.
I drove some 20 miles south while the sun was still lit to see my friends at the bar I played at. It was a welcome return after a seven-week absence that felt like six months. Everyone was still in fine form and folks were asking me how I was doing and what I’d been up to and usual small chit-chatty stuff and then they’d circle to “Where do you live?”
— “I’m staying with a friend. For now.”
Brief periods of normality surfaced from an abyss of aimless haze. A laugh with a friend. A strum of a guitar.
I said my goodbyes and wandered back to that parking lot. It was still now. Vacant. Occasionally a drifter would surface down the sidewalk. Walking from god-kn0ws-where to only-god-knows-where. I’d lock the car doors.
What separates me from people like them?
My dad offered me $100. I gritted my teeth and took it. I had to make the money last until September 28. I ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. I ate a lot of imaginary food.
I had hung up my week’s attire onto the “Holy Shit” bars of the Jeep. I had a laundry basket of assorted belongings in the trunk. I had a spiral notebook and a Gita in the passenger seat. I lived simply — but not peacefully.
Some people claim there’s a kind of Zen-like calm that comes from being reduced to only what you are. That thing never arrived. I was restless.
The nights were steamy. I was torn between letting fresh air through drawn windows and baking to death in the safety of a completely locked car with blacked-out tint. I charged my wireless at an AT&T Store in the adjacent plaza. I brushed my teeth and washed my face in the morning at the restroom of the H-E-B down the street from where I worked. Occasionally, someone would barge in on me in a bathroom stall. Life.
On Saturday, September 22, I received a surprise phone call from my mom.
“You owe me big time.”
— “For what?”
“For getting your stupid car out of hock.”
I never asked her to do this. I never wanted her to do this. I cannot remember giving her my banking information. And I couldn’t even afford to drive to San Antonio to grab my car until the Friday, September 28. Payday.
But I looked around at the drifters and panhandlers. The answer was becoming more clear.
After spending nine of the last 11 nights holed up in a parking lot, I would finally be able to breathe, with enough money to fix myself a proper meal and drive back down to San Antonio to visit my girlfriend. For the first time in weeks, I rang up my debit card that morning for a coffee and a banana. Declined.
I called my payroll to ask what had happened. I tried hard to keep it together and not let on that I absolutely, positively needed this money in the worst way.
“I guess it didn’t go through on the first round. Maybe next pay cycle it will take. We can cut you a paper check in a couple days.”
And I called my bank. The account was closed due to excessive negative balance and inactivity.
I walked into a Wells Fargo and opened up what’s called an “Opportunity Checking” and deposited $17. I blew $15 of it on gas to get to San Antonio for the weekend. I had $2 left. Yet the following day, I meandered over to the impound in a remote corner of San Antonio that no Texan knows exists, and was able to take my car back free and clear the day before it would’ve went to auction.
On Sunday, September 30, I was thrown a surprise party by my girlfriend and her friends. It was amazing afternoon — one I can barely recall beyond 4 p.m.
I drank partially because I was turning 30 in three days. I drank partially because the New England Patriots hung 45 second-half points on the Buffalo Bills. I drank mostly because just for a day, I wanted to forget what I was going back to. Another night in a car. Even though this time the car was my own. People smiled and congratulated me and bought me bottles of whiskey which I vowed not to drink until I had a place of my own again.
On Monday, October 1, I starved myself. I had zero money for food and wandered the streets of Round Rock looking for change from anyone who would give me the time of day. I had to change out of an Oxford and slacks and into a scrubby t-shirt and cargo shorts to pass for … well … homeless. Later that evening, a friend called and offered to buy me tacos.
On Tuesday, October 2, at 12:37 a.m., I checked my bank balance because by this point it’d become a nervous habit. $830.
I looked at it again.
I looked at the transaction history. My unemployment benefits finally arrived.
I drove to the Hampton Inn next to where I worked and asked for a room. They said that had one left. “It’s a smoking room. Is that alright?”
Hell. I’ll even smoke in it tonight.
I took a warm shower. I bought a bottle of ice-cold water out of the vending machine. I ironed my outfit for a Tuesday at work.
By 1:45, I was fast asleep.
At 8:15, I woke more refreshed than I’d been in weeks.
I drove to work and on my lunch hour I drove to my payroll office where I picked up my paper check they promised to cut. I cashed it at the issuing bank and deposited the cash in my new bank account.
That evening, I drove down to San Antonio where I was taken out to dinner by my girlfriend at one of the nicest restaurants I can remember eating in where I didn’t need to wear a sport-coat. We fell asleep in each other’s arms just after midnight watching “The Fifth Element.” Happy 30th Birthday, John Gorman.
What separates me from the drifters with whom I shared a parking lot for nearly three weeks? I have people who believe in me. From my mother grabbing my car out of the pokey, to my father gifting me money for grub, to my friends offering me a place to chill and be normal, hell, even the people who brought me aboard my new job. I have people who believe in me. And I know that makes me lucky.
The greatest thing you can do for someone in this world, beyond any tangible metric, is believe in them. When you offer love, money, support, time or advice, what you are really saying to the other person is, “I believe in you.”
And if you receive those gifts from someone, you be sure to hold onto that belief as long as you can, because it’s fleeting and fragile unless you come through spectacularly. The easiest way to get ahead in life is to ensure other people hope that you do. The world’s desire to see us succeed what separates us all from wandering around a Wal-Mart parking lot, sleeping on a sidewalk and holding our worldly possessions in a laundry basket.
On the morning of October 4, 2012, I drove 85 miles from San Antonio to Round Rock, to start my last two days of work for the week.
That zen-like calm finally arrived.
Part VI — Aggression
I made it 30 full years without ever being offered crack.
I was walking into Room 415 — my Room 415 — of a dingy Red Roof Inn on the corner of 35 and Rundberg. The kind of hotel with cigarette burns on comforters in non-smoking rooms. The kind of hotel where displaced people live with their three cats. The kind of hotel where depressed and divorced men go to hang themselves from their ties.
“Ayo, son!” Said a passing stranger in the corridor.
He seemed harmless enough. Solidly middle-aged. Possibly a construction worker in ripped up denim and a T-shirt stained by sweat and paint. I had a habit of saying hello to everyone if they say hi first. So I did.
We made awkward small talk. The type where you try and twist your legs away to subtly suggest you’re out of words but the other party clearly hasn’t. I told him I was in town on business. He asked what my business was. I told him “marketing.”
“Well, hey, if you’re down to party later, I’ve got some ladies coming over to 403. Got some beers. Some herb. Some rock. If you’re down with all that.”
I gave him four words: “I work early tomorrow.”
I walked the long way around the building, so he didn’t see which room I was staying in. I didn’t want him knocking, crack in palm, knife in pocket.
It went on and on like this, for several weeks. I stayed in various rooms at this dive for $32.99 per night, four nights per week. Each room got 12 channels, of which thankfully ESPN was one. I watched a lot of football (NFL on Mondays, college on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and ordered a lot of takeout, sampling approximations of various Asian countries’ cuisines.
Sometimes, I would roll up into the Buffalo Wild Wings across the street, where to my surprise, the bartender — my first friend really in the whole damn city — from the old joint several blocks north had relocated. She was pleased to make my acquaintance again, but I never told where I was staying. Only what I was doing.
Hotel life has its subtle charms: A housekeeper brings you fresh towels and makes your bed each day for you. No kitchen means no dishes to clean. On-site laundry for emergencies. A vending machine for whatever sugary soda suits your fancy. Peace and quiet, tucked away from the mayhem of home life, at least when the meth junkies and gangbangers aren’t busy roaming the halls like zombie brown bears.
At work, I was performing well and catching on fast — outworking and out-hustling all previous iterations of myself (I developed a reputation at nearly every previous job of being pokey and lackadaisical, and the place that canned me unceremoniously in March sited that lethargy as the definitive reason, and so I made it a point to basically be the 2004–05 Phoenix Suns of copywriting)— though I had trouble making friends at work immediately. It’s hard to project an aura of confidence and “I’ve-got-my-shit-figured-out-ness” when literally everything you are outside of your 9-to-5 is some of the slummiest scum you’ve ever been.
I ate in my car a lot, and listened to 104.9 The Horn on my lunch hour. Many of my lunches consisted of a handful of spinach, an apple, a banana and a Topo Chico.
I spent each payday evening swinging by the old title loan and payday loan haunts I once ripped for all they were worth to keep myself afloat. Now that I had started earning money again, they decided to come collect — and collect they did. The interest on the loans I’d borrowed were nearly half my paycheck. Every two weeks, I lit over $700 on fire. That money could’ve gone to an engagement ring for my girlfriend. Or a vacation. Or a 401K.
A 401K. Perhaps one with an endless blackout period.
After repeated emails and calls to my old employer, my old 401K provider and, eventually, the California Department of Labor’s investigations division, the process started to get unstuck from its glacial freeze.
Some time around Halloween, I got an email from a west coast company saying they were the new guardians of my retirement fund, and they understood I no longer worked for the company, and they asked me if I wanted to roll the funds over into my new 401K. I hadn’t worked at [ULTRA LARGE LOCAL TECH GIANT] long enough to have one yet, so I told them I just wanted to take a check. They said it’d be there in 7–10 business days.
On November 8, 2012, after a particularly brutal cycle of toxic debt hell, I’d been reduced to a negative balance in my bank account. I made a bet that by this point, my check from my 401K had to be in my P.O. Box. So one night, after work, I drove — without telling my girlfriend at the time — to San Antonio in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to escape this hell on the wings of a nighttime moonshine run in a 2009 Hyundai Sonata. I’m pretty sure I did some 94 in a 75 the whole way down I-35.
When I reached the mailbox, heart racing, I ran into the post office and reached 700453. I put my key in.
I shuffled through letters. Speedy Cash offer of $50 off. ValuPak. A couple unfamiliar envelopes. Several, in fact.
Collections. Collections. Oh! A commission check from sportswriting netting me a cool $93. Saving that. And then …
I sauntered back to the car and haphazardly turned the keys in the ignition. And I began to cry. And scream bloodcurdling screams of sinful, mournful, unchecked rage. Curses and cacophony and all. I pounded the dashboard of my car so hard I made myself bleed. I threw myself against the window head-first and knocked it off its track. And then I cried some more.
Fuck this whole life and this world and my own stupidity and ego and pride and rage and clinging to false hope that at some point everything as promised and deserved will be laid out on a silver platter and why on Earth can’t I just catch a break and how the hell am I going to find a warm bed of my own and who are these hacks who have lives so breathtakingly easy who can’t possibly be as talented or as hard-working or as lucky as I’ve been why me why me why and when will I ever buy a three-bedroom colonial marry my girlfriend in Belize have cute little rascals who play soccer in a goddamn yard I’m 30 years old and I’ll be dozing in my car tonight and this hell-on-earth will remain until it freezes over and I die from hypothermia and my soul goes directly to real live atheist fire-and-brimstone-and-anal-rape-with-a-hair-dryer hell
I took the $93 and ran to H-E-B to cash it, dropped $20 in the gas tank and lugged the remaining $73 to Austin, where I tried, in vain, to grab a room that was cash only. I looked in some of the seediest parts of Austin — at the kinds of places where gunfire and fifths of MD 20/20 were just another Tuesday.
Even these bastions of calm wouldn’t open their doors to me without putting a hold on my debit card I could not afford. I drove to the Wal-Mart parking lot. I reclined the driver’s side seat. I never closed my eyes.
The following day was Friday, and payday, so it was a regular day for visiting Loan Star Title Loans and E-Z Money to fork over half my paycheck, and then drive down to San Antonio telling my baby I had to “stay late at the office.”
Before stopping to visit my ladyfriend, I made a quick pit stop back at the mailbox — just in case.
I reached the mailbox, heart racing, I ran into the post office and reached 700453. I put my key in.
One envelope. Unlabeled. I opened it.
One check. For $4,256. And I unleashed a grin that stretched from Round Rock to San Antonio.
A 30-day blackout period that lasted from April until November. Just over seven months.
It’s time to get my goddamn life back.
Part VII — Acclamation
When I walked into my future home, I knew it immediately. Open kitchen. Gray spackle walls. Glass-top stove.
The location? Unbeatable. Dozens of restaurants within walking distance, as well as a Walgreen’s, an organic grocery store, four independent coffee shops, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office, a bank, bike trails, the best pizza in the city and a couple surprisingly classy sports bars. I’d died and ascended to White People Nirvana.
I mulled it over just to be safe, and on November 19, I pulled the trigger and walked in to sign the lease. Two full months worth of rent’s cash on hand.
“There appears to be a problem.”
“You’ve been blacklisted. You owe money to your old apartment complex.”
— “Oh! For what?”
“I can’t see that. You’ll have to call them.”
I frantically rushed out of the leasing office and gave a call. Closed for the day. I needed to call back. I needed to come back.
The following day, I called the old apartment complex, who referred me to a collection agency, who referred me to another collection agency, before I could get a concrete answer. The total damage was $2,900. I negotiated down to $2,100.
I needed to wait for the agency to fax a “paid in full” receipt to the new apartment complex. Tick. Tick. Tick.
On Wednesday, November 21, I dropped $1,250 and signed a lease for a December 1 move-in. I drove to San Antonio to celebrate Thanksgiving with my girlfriend. She was headed to New York the following weekend with her family, and I would be trucking my things from her place and my storage unit into the new pad.
When I returned to Austin, I spent my final week at the dirty Red Roof Inn in what they straight-faced called me their “Presidential Suite.” A multi-room, 600 square-foot monster that included a flat-screen TV and a king bed, and was completely blocked off from the rest of the hotel riff-raff. They offered it to me as a way of saying “Thank you” for my loyal patronage.
Seven weeks I spent there. Plus three more spent sleeping in a car. I had started my job 75 days ago. 75 days dodging drunks, druggies, deadbeats. 75 days of lamenting every circumstance and happenstance. And they would all be over.
I received my keys on Friday, November 30 — a day early. I drove home on lunch and picked up the keys to my new place. I still remember the way the jingled in my hands as I cuffed them to the carribeaner I carry my car keys on. I ran through the parking lot and down the sidewalk to N220, twisted the doorknob and walked in. The power was on. The A/C blowing cool, dry, fresh air against my face. The kitchen and bathroom were spotless and the carpet smelled of lavender and steam-cleaner. I took off my backpack, threw a four-pack of Dogfish Head Punkin in the fridge to cool it down. I reached in and grabbed a 750 of Glenlivet 15 Year French Oak, unscrewed the cap and grabbed a rocks glass I’d been stashing in my pocket for just this occasion.
I sat on the carpeted floor of an empty apartment, on my work’s lunch hour, and I sipped straight single-malt scotch as the sun bled through the glass door leading to my balcony, reaching me for the first time in months to tickle my face with warmth instead of heat.
And for 30 minutes, I just leaned against the wall motionless. No Facebook posts. No texts. No phone calls. No movement. Just let me have this.
Please, God, let me have this.
At five-o-clock, the air-conditioner shuts off at [CORPORATION NAME], an auditory cue to GTFO and your workday is done. I bounded from my chair and zoomed to my new place, where I again laid on the floor, this time clutching an ice-cold Dogfish Head Punkin in my fist and periodically raising it to my lips to remember what it tastes like to drink something for the sake of pleasure rather than just drowning my sorrow.
It tasted much different. It was all different now.
I uncapped my bottle of Xanax and cackled as I dumped the remaining pill and a half into the toilet, while my gal boarded a cross-country flight, as I sat on a balcony overlooking a pool in the setting sun of a gorgeous Austin evening.
This was my life. I was 30 years old. I took home $875 every week. And I loved my job.
See? That wasn’t so bad, after all.
Part VIII — Aftermath (Epilogue)
I was told recently that this is not the most interesting story, and that the real interesting story I should write is what happens after. In a way, she is right: This is not an inspiring story. It’s a foolish one, and a cautionary tale. Like a box set of Beatles rarities — worth it for completing the collection yet not the cornerstone of it. (That would be “Rubber Soul” for the Fab Four, and basically everything from January 2014 — present for me.)
Since the Great Ruin of 2012 ended, I have been fortunate enough, lucky enough and (grits teeth) determined enough to accomplish quite a bit for a man who spent six months without a paycheck.
I tuned up my body into decent enough shape to finish my first competitive half marathon in 2:41. Drank sazeracs in New Orleans twice. Hosted an Open Mic at a cocktail lounge I’ve discovered downtown. I wrote a very popular soon-to-be-published short story for children (and adults). Lost 30 pounds. Experienced the chaotic joy of the South-by-Southwest Interactive and Music Festivals. Threw a benefit concert. Saw both oceans. Drove across the country. Flew to Colorado. Underwent shoulder reconstruction (and rehab!). Went to two Buffalo Bills games. Saw all my family members multiple times over in different parts of this great nation. Moved one more time. Bought a condo.
After all those open mics in 2012 during my #Funemployment period? Laid the groundwork for my music to take off. I play 5–10 times per month here in the Live Music Capital of the World(TM). I’ve even recorded a few songs. Strangely, the powers that be actually pay me to do this.
30,000+ miles on the Sonata I never thought I would see again. 150+ sets of songs played. 40+ concerts. Amazing memories. Incredible moments. And the best people. People people people. More on that in a moment.
No bullets left. No drops wasted. Love. Laughter. Unicorns. This is as good as its ever been.
And it all came so close to never happening. So much of life since has been spent (perhaps unwisely) emotionally and financially recovering from all that you’ve just read. A lot has changed.
I am now single. I could no longer live with the damage I did to the woman I loved when I essentially blindsided her with a “By the way … I’m broke.” I wanted to love her yet had nothing to offer. I knew it. I don’t think she did.
I am sure if she were to read this entire mammoth entry she’d discover dozens of revelations about me that would shock and astound. Chances are, if you’ve known me in the past three years, I’ve lied to you, too. I hope you see why. Because I don’t.
To quote Pulp Fiction, “That’s pride fucking with you.”
Perseverance takes courage, sure, but sometimes it just takes ego. I think I’ve been cursed with both lot of the latter and none of the former.
“That’s pride fucking with you.”
Pride is what stops you from flailing your arms for a life-raft when you’re drowning in the middle of the ocean, because you think you can swim to a shore you can’t see.
In life, we don’t get what we earn and we sure as hell don’t get what we deserve. We get what we ask for.
Ask your boss why he’s so adamant about his tyrannical demands. Ask your friendly open mic host how his day is. Ask where the hot new open mic is. Ask about your bank balance. Ask for informational interviews. Ask for the job you want at the salary you want. Ask for help from those who are willing to lend a hand. Ask for your Father’s wisdom, your Mother’s generosity and your spouse’s undying love. Ask for forgiveness. Ask for a late payment extension. Ask what’s required. Ask for $5 for gas when you need $5 for gas. Ask for the place you want to live and ask how to exceed expectations at every turn. Ask for your raise, your promotion, your mortgage.
When I was toiling around in the oppressive Austin heat in the early evenings, I would call my dad and whine and moan and say, “I didn’t ask for this.” I was right. I didn’t ask for anything … and this is what I got.
I spent 17 weeks in therapy last year. I took much wisdom from it, but it would’ve been worth the $850 just to find that out. I credit that small kick in the ass for changing the course of my life after treading water for about a year or so after I got back to living in a real home.
I’m still working on the self-loathing bit, clearly. And, of course, I worry to all holy hell that this can all be taken away from me again. It’s a mental scar I’m not sure will ever fully heal, and so I try to outrun it as if it’s not a part of me.
But that job, though. It saved my life. I’ve had my words uttered on the radio in India, plastered across billboards and signs in and around our airport, printed in the pages of Fader Magazine and posted to YouTube as one of those ads you probably wish you could skip before you watch your favorite cat video.
I am so blessed to be able to do the things I love (write, play music) for a career, in the city I wanted to do them in, surrounded by the very best people. I did it all without asking for any of it. It didn’t have to be so hard. Had I asked even for one more additional thing, pressed harder on the hostage 401K or [INSERT MISSED OPPORTUNITY HERE, YOU HAVE A TON TO CHOOSE FROM], I could’ve avoided so, so much of what you’ve just finished reading. I guess the things that make for great stories are not the same things that make for great lives.
I just told you a great story. Now I’ve got a great life to get on with living. I only ask that you continue to be there for me as I try and forge my way forward. I hope you won’t mind if what happens next is a little less interesting than the chaos that led us to here.