What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Total Black: -$199.61
Total Red: $269,947.74
This is the end. My only friends. The end. Of my elaborate plans. The end. Can’t you picture what could’ve been? So limitless and free. Desperately in need . . . of some . . . stranger’s hand. In my desperate land. It hurts to set you free. But you’ll never follow me. This is, after all, the end.
Or is it?
A year ago today I was thirty-three years old and unemployed, living in a hard city living a hardscrabble life. I had been receiving unemployment benefits for over nine months, surviving from one extension to the next. Light was dimming at the other end of one of the many tunnels life sends you through. I did not want to emerge in darkness. I did not want to have to leave New York. Defeated. Demoralized. New York does that to you. Unless you’ve conquered that town, you end up hating to leave it and yet leaving and hating it. I had very few options. The legal profession had been, and remains, profoundly affected by the Great Recession in a way unlike many other professions. A perfectly serendipitous storm of greed, opportunity, and excess.
A year ago today, I faced a dilemma: stay in New York and risk descending deeper into debt, possibly pulling others down with me. Or return to the safety of mother’s arms perhaps prematurely. I had just sat for a second bar exam but months remained before I would learn the results. If had passed the Pennsylvania bar exam but stayed in New York, I’d be locked in to an extension of my lease, probably with few job prospects. At two thousand dollars a month, rent was not a bill I could easily swing. Six months working for free had already netted me nothing. But if I returned home early and hadn’t passed, I would have been left with a license to practice law in a state where I no longer resided. Since I had registered for my second bar exam on the last date possible, and faced significant obstacles along that artificially-abbreviated road, including the passing of my maternal grandmother days before the exam, well . . . let’s say I was not optimistic about my performance.
Like a diver the pressure mounted the deeper I plunged into my situation. And my despair. That serendipitous storm left me adrift on the sea of adulthood, mastless, seeking any port in that relentless storm. Or even a beacon. So what did I do? I went to the movies to forget for a while. I accepted an invitation to go see the seemingly light-hearted film Julie & Julia. Two hours later I re-emerged with a heavier heart than before. But somewhere off on the periphery of my mind that beacon was breaking through.
If the Ancient Greeks believed in muses, I now know that call. A year ago I had never read a blog let alone written one. But something spoke to me that day. Something told me to write my own blog. But what to write about? Julie & Julia left an impression on me. The sense of existential weightlessness Powell spoke to weighed me down as well. Heavily. Julie Powell had set as a goal getting through all of Julia Child’s recipes in a year. So something measurable pulled at me. A few months before I had started selling off my possessions in an effort to keep afloat. Couple that with my unemployment, mounting debt, and diminishing income, and the most obvious topic for a blog was my then-current plight. But while misery may love company, company doesn’t always stay very long. I needed something attractive. Uplifting even. And then it hit me: blog about my debt. Set a goal of a year, just like Powell, but use that year to do everything to get out of debt. A Herculean task to be sure, but one, I thought then, entirely within reach.
It’s a year ago today that I sat down at my computer and began to write this blog.
I set off on an adventure for sure, burning midnight oil too often, scouring websites for gigs and jobs. I became an impromptu art seller with a pop-up gallery, the Recession Art Sale. I signed up for a medical experiment testing unapproved anti-depressant drugs. I almost got sucked into a sex party scene working as a nude DJ. I spent months working for Colleague only to have to come within inches of suing him to get him to pay me. The flack I took on this blog for wanting more money for more work still baffles me. I had to lose his friendship to get my pay. But I did sue someone else: my landlord when I countersued for the bedbug infestation I inherited when I had moved in, only after the landlord filed suit against me for two months of unpaid rent. The judge dismissed my counterclaims on procedural grounds; I was too exhausted to refile. I suffered through three or four illnesses since last year: colds my body couldn’t fight off. I applied for numerous non-legal jobs, and a few legal ones too, which all went unanswered: from coat-check clerk for a one-off warehouse party in Brooklyn to staff attorney for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. I also took on a pro bono client I had while an associate at the law firm but ran into roadblocks along the way. I toiled at four different temporary projects as a contract attorney. And though they represent the lowest points in my career, it still felt good receiving a paycheck, having somewhere to go each morning. And it exposed me to the wacky world of doc reviewers. I enjoyed it for what it was. Then one fine October eve, after my first true document review project ended, I drank too much bourbon in celebration of the project’s completion and was rewarded with an ambulance ride to the emergency room. And a night in a hotel afterward when I found myself drunk, and in puke-stained clothes, locked out of my apartment. No one warned me that the drugs I was testing wouldn’t mix well with alcohol. Luckily that dry spell—between projects—lasted only a short while, long enough that I had to resume unemployment benefits for a bit. Soon enough a new assignment came through, one that took me to Wall Street everyday where I worked until they fired us on Christmas Eve. Thankfully, while trolling Craigslist for gigs, I had come across an opportunity to volunteer with an off-Broadway theatre, New World Stages. Just before Thanksgiving, I signed up for three shows and fell in love with the experience. So just after Thanksgiving I began working as an usher until the holidays ended and that career too faced a reprieve. But in short order they called me back. Working as an usher helped float me through the end of that year and into this, particularly when nothing else materialized. So when a new project finally surfaced, with a new temp agency, I flat-out told them that I could work the project only if I could continue to work as an usher. A risky move but the blue-collar job had bent over backward to keep me employed; something no white-collar job ever would. A lesson learned. Thankfully the firm agreed, and thereby entrenched a daily grind like I’d never known before. Each morning I plodded the path from my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen through Times Square and across town to the temporary attorney staffing agency’s space near Grand Central Station. And then back across town to the theatre to hear the melodies of Avenue Q or watch the swagger of Naked Boys Singing, since I’d risen to rank of head usher. Sometimes I’d have to wrangle children as they scrambled after bubbles during The Gazillion Bubble Show. Or entertain them at their birthday parties. Quite humbling to pick up other people’s trash. Too often after work at the theatre I went back to the agency’s space to resume there, working quite late in the evenings. Or even into the next morning. A few times the sun rose, set, and rose again while I toiled in that space. It tired me so much that one night I laid myself down on a hard table just to nap a few minutes in an effort to regain some energy. It was hell. And but for the friends and freaks I met along the way, I don’t know that I would have made it through. People I met through contract attorney work, like Office Manager and The Woman Who Sat Next To Me, and the people I met at New World Stages, like Drunk Texter and all the other fellow ushers, they made the difference in this crazy year. And now that it’s over I can say I’m better for having met them.
When I decided to take this year to invest all my efforts into getting out of debt, I simultaneously determined to put my career on hold. More than a few friends gave me flack for that. Flack I couldn’t understand. It was only a year, not a decade. The economy was not improving, in fact it was progressively getting worse, especially within the legal market. Out-of-work attorneys abounded. No one would question a year doing whatever I could to get by, I reasoned. But I gave life an “out”: a clerkship. I’d cease my antics for a clerkship. And then one frigid week in February two colleagues contacted me in short succession both about a clerkship. I applied to both; only got one. A few months later I left the concrete jungle for the tropical beauty of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Over this past year my income and my debt has yo-yoed more than a celebrity’s sobriety. I’m in a tug-of-war with my debtors, struggling to keep from falling into the abyss. I’ve been hit with multiple insufficient funds fees for mismanaging my finances. I was sued by my landlord and lost sleep to my student loans. SallieMae called me more often in a few months than my mother has in an entire year. And all too often I had to lean back on my mother for financial and emotional support. Although that’s what family may be for, it would have been nice to have had other company for those miseries. But I guess that’s what this blog supplied after all. Perhaps that’s why I’m saddened that this day has come. Not because I haven’t achieved debt-freedom—despite what the countdown clock screams in the sidebar. But because it’s hard to let go of something you spend a year of your life doing.
But everything, in one way or another, comes to an end. And this is the end.
Thank you for accompanying me along this journey. It certainly isn’t over. My debt isn’t gone. But I appreciate the hours of your life you’ve given to me. I hope I’ve been able to return the favor, if only to have you wipe your brow and sigh in relief, thinking that there but for God’s grace could have gone you too. Over the past year I’ve come to own my truth and own my number: now at two-hundred sixty-nine thousand nine-hundred forty-seven dollars and seventy-four cents. Ironically, my debt is higher, and my income lower, than at any point over the past year. But that’s ok. Worrying about it won’t solve it. I’ve learned that much over this year, including that I enjoy a second job to keep me grounded and humble, and sane and secure. The law is a worthwhile profession but white-collars can be restrictive. Donning a blue one a few nights a week can keep us in the real world among the people many of us aim to serve. I’ve also come to accept that I may struggle with ADHD; something that might have contributed to my unemployment, albeit unknowingly to me and my former bosses.
Hard to believe all this happened in just one year. What’s next? Guess you’ll have to wait and see like me.