You may not know it to look at me, or think it given my upbringing, race, and education, but I have been living at the poverty line for about the last ten years; my entire adult life.
According to the United States Health and Human Services’ Report 2012, yearly income for an individual at or below $11170 is considered to be in poverty. Take a look at my income tax returns for the past three years (the only ones for which I have used Turbo Tax, therefore the only ones I have readily available).
2009 – $10057 (Poverty Rate $10830)
2010 – $10171 (Poverty Rate $10830)
2011 – $13078 (Poverty Rate $10890)
All while living in the two most expensive cities in the United States: New York and Los Angeles.
So how did I survive, you may ask? The answer is multiple jobs, some cash under the table, parent and partner subsidies, and the good old kindness of strangers.
When I was growing up, I never really thought about money. My parents had succeeded their parents in the “class” game; my maternal grandparents were factory workers and skilled laborers, Grandma quitting school in the 6th Grade to help support her family by making dresses, Grandpa running a boat harbor (a time when they lived in a trailer) and eventually becoming foreman at a copper plant; my paternal grandmother never worked outside the home and Grandpa Saia supported eight children on a Willie Lohman salary. But Marge and Richard were toward the top end of middle class as medical professionals and had the two story we-designed-it-and-paid-someone-to-build-it house that sat on 2.5 acres to prove it. We had a pool, a garden, a trampoline, a piano, nice furniture, a few cars, even more dogs (breeding Ginger twice, taking on extra mouths to feed), took vacations, ate out regularly, hosted large family parties, got gifts on every major holiday (what 17 year old atheist still gets DVDs for Easter?), and Christmases, despite my mother’s vows each year to “not go crazy,” were like backing up the living room into the loading dock of a mall. If they had financial woes, I would never know it.
As I grew older and had adult conversations with my parents about finances (and realized the realities of bills, loans, and the chronic problem of eating), the veil of auspiciousness was raised like a curtain on opening night. Of course, we were better off than a lot of people in our tiny town of Troy – population 9000, charm 0; we didn’t live in one of those trailers we passed every time we came home from picking up dinner; we didn’t rely on the bingo hall for our entertainment, nor its winnings to pay our mortgage; and we bought our groceries from Schnuck’s all the way in Collinsville! bypassing Troy’s own Super-Valu or one of its five (five!) gas stations – but that didn’t mean we were living the high life over in Chesterfield either. I had jobs in high school and when it came time for college, there was no fund (I had spent all of that potential money being in shows for the previous ten years) and I was left to take out loans on my own. Unfortunately, my parents made too much to get enough public money (but not enough to pay the insane tuition AMDA and The New School charged – 50K each) so I had to go the private loan route.
This is where I shot myself in the foot and have essentially ruined the last decade – or at least made it as difficult as possible. I didn’t apply for scholarships, I didn’t work while I was at AMDA, and was very irresponsible with the money. I’m going to justify (or at least rationalize) it by saying this was a product of age and hubris. I moved to New York when I was 19 with the crazy notion that I was going to be a star. But of course I would. I had been “a star” in Troy and even “a semi-star” at The Muny. I had been performing for most of my life, was constantly told I was good, and believed it. But as every MidWestern wannabe must learn, I was just a big fish in a tiny puddle. This is not to say that I couldn’t have matched toe to toe with those city folk had I truly given it my all. But I didn’t for a myriad of reasons.
Maybe it was the sense of entitlement my generation was sold wholesale (“You are special!”) that made me assume someone would just give me – a nobody from nowhere – a role. Maybe it was my distraction to find a man. Maybe it was so I could hold onto that precept of potential if fame had passed me by, like Mama Rose who had been holding it down inside of her for too long and if she ever let it out there wouldn’t be lights bright enough…But perhaps the biggest reason was the constant fear of paying back the money I had borrowed.
My mother was the most vocal of the two. Not that my father was gung-ho about it; after all it was his name that was being co-signed to the loan, this last of which was for $80000. This was designed to pay off two of the $20000 loans I had previously taken out for AMDA and the $40000 I still owed The New School (minus the federal loans and student grants I was given). You see, I was going back to school.
After my year and half at AMDA (the duration of the program) and my two year tenure at Harry’s Burritos (making $10 an hour at the counter, $3.17 + tips on the floor, while sleeping on a couch in Spanish Harlem for 400 bucks a month and then living way out in the asshole of Brooklyn with five people in a three bedroom apartment for $250 a month), I decided that for my future (because I was going to be a film director now), I needed to go to school (because apparently you can’t learn the requisite skills from a book, volunteering for student projects that are always needing free help, and watching hours of movies). It was time to get out of the food industry and time to start my life. Or so I thought.
I knew this time around I would have to be smart and work while I was studying; I didn’t really have a choice unless I wanted to take out a loan to live on and knew that was not an option. However, I did allow the school, as part of their already exorbitant tuition, to tack Housing onto the bill. Out of the “worst neighborhood in NYC” (which I didn’t know at the time) – where I was glad I wasn’t a woman after dark; where the corner “restaurant” (a place you could get a sandwich, fries, dessert, and a drink for under $5) was encased in four inch bullet proof glass; where, inexplicably, I was told by the fat ugly Pakistani who ran the deli that he wanted to cum in my crack; where that shady office building and their want-ad promised managerial positions starting at 25K only to be a pyramid scheme selling lifted items) – and into one of the wealthiest (and gayest), Chelsea. I figured it out once that if I actually had to pay the rent up front (instead of having it rolled into my future monthly payments for the next 40 years), it would have cost me $1100 a month. $1100 a month. For a room I shared with two other people.
Even though most of my loans had been deferred because I was matriculating, there were some that required payment then and there because they had been matriculating (and gaining interest) already for four years. These were the federal loans I had taken out for College Number One, SIU-Edwardsville, back when I was planning on just doing the local school thing, living at home, saving money and moving to New York when I was done, but realized half a year in that I had to get the fuck out of the MidWest, started applying to schools (half-assed-ly like everything else in those days), and went to the only one I got into, a $50000 waste of time called AMDA. These payments were about $65 bucks a month. I was able to survive on one job for a very short period of time until the next batch of loans had hit their sell by date.
The 80K loan didn’t cover another 20 grand I owed to AMDA; I purposefully took out more money than I needed so I didn’t have to get a job and instead of giving the extra money back at the end of the term or saving it for later, I blew through it on food and superfluous purchases like Season One of Married…with Children and Who’s the Boss, causing me to have to borrow money from Tasha to eat my last two days in New York – last because I was moving home for a few months to live with my parents, work, and save because I, well, had no money to stay in New York. Turns out you can only defer private loans for so long (despite what my boss Nicca, a New School alumnus herself, told me those slow days at Harry’s we would sit at the bar and eat chips); Wells Fargo, Loan to Learn, and American Education Services want their money. And they want it now. They have been more than patient waiting the last two years, enough time for anyone to find a suitable job to pay back their ludicrous interest rates and principal amounts they never should have granted you in the first place. So on top of the $65 dollars a month I owed the federal government (which shortly thereafter jumped to over $100 when other federal loans began to kick in), I now owed an additional $225 dollars a month. So there is $325 a month just on loans. Figure in food because you aren’t getting it for free anymore (the best perk of working at restaurants, fast food, or catering) and you have a good 200 bucks a month. Then you have transportation (the subway was $1.50 a ride then, which I have heard has jumped to over $2 per), which can run you, if you buy the monthly Metro card, $85 (now it is over $100). Take into account you are living in the most amazing (and costly) city in America, a city where you are studying film and they have retrospectives and rare prints on rotation ($10-$15; at the multi-plexes, I would sneak from one movie to another, mostly around Oscar time and its endless parade of You-Have-to-See-These!), world famous museums (free-$30), rare book stores like Strand (I devoured that 99 cents bin), megastores like Virgin and Tower (I would spend hours roaming the aisles trying to decide the one thing I could afford to buy – back when they were still open) and, of course, the best theatre in the world, of which I saw roughly 12 shows in five years because it was just too damn expensive ($10 Off-Broadway = a huge meal at McDonald’s; $20 rush tickets are two movies; and the normal $50-$400 a seat prices were simply out of the question). So let’s average that I would spend $50 bucks a month on discretionary items and another $50 bucks on things like soap, toothpaste, and their ilk. That’s $325 on loans, $200 on food, $85 on transportation, and $100 on everything else. Which brings it to a budget of $710. All without paying for housing.
Now let’s talk employment. At the time, I was working in the stock department at Hershey’s Times Square, doing the graveyard shift at $8 an hour, which was not any different than what the people on the register made during the day (some jobs pay their night crews extra as an inconvenience fee). I had specifically requested this shift because A) It would give me my days free for school and another job if necessary B) it afforded me the luxury of working in customer service without the customers. Our shifts were anywhere from 2-6 hours, depending on the size of the shipment and we worked only 3 days a week. Obviously some quick math would prove that this was just not going to cut the financial mustard. Also, working from 9 pm to sometimes 3 or even 5 am on the big shipment nights is a taxing schedule and puts your body on a different rhythm than the rest of the world, making it difficult to get up early ever and makes you contemptuous that when people are going to sleep or watching TV, you are going to unpack pillows in the shape of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. So I switched to days. And to my delight, a promotion.
I expected to get a promotion on the night shift. The manager needed an assistant and told the GM that I was the guy. But like the empty promises at Taco Bell, Pinkberry, the Angelika Film Center, Rubio’s, and every other job I have spent more than six months enduring, my title change and the infinitesimal raise it would have yielded were not to be. Instead, I was made a “Merchandiser,” a position I enjoyed very much, on paper. My co-hort Candice and I were responsible for making sure the store always looked perfect. We were in charge of working with the day stock people on helping them put things back that were in the wrong positions, that when new items arrived they were arranged to Plan-o-Gram (the detailed schematic from corporate so every store looks exactly the same) standards, and when we ran out of something, it was up to us (oh, the power!) to decide what would be a temporary replacement. We also got to design window displays and did not – I repeat did not! – have to work the register. Unless, it got really busy and then we may be asked to knock out the lines. The thing about working in Times Square is that it is always really busy. And the major gift holidays (also the major candy holidays) Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas?! Forget it. People were lined up around the block, waiting for us to open. So there Candice and I were ringing in Kiss earrings and Mr. Goodbar purses.
For those of you lucky enough to never have worked on a register, let me enlighten you to its true awfulness. Imagine standing in one place for up to 8 hours – minus the never long enough 30 minute break that you either spend sitting in the disgusting break room (and they are always disgusting), spend sitting on some loading dock with the smokers (these are usually the youngest employees, smoking to be “cool” and “edgy,” the ones who don’t give a damn and are only showing up for work so they have money to blow on Jamba Juice and designer jeans OR they are the oldest employees who smoke their cigarettes like they are life support – elongating their waste of existence, their broken dreams, and their shouldacouldwouldas into an endless stream of Mondays – as they are given a temporary stay of execution from their “Would you like to supersize that?”s and “The receipt is in the bag”s), or spend sitting in your car (laying down in your car!) trying to catch a quick nap as the sun boldly shines through the window and the cars continue their never ending parade of screeches and honks. Imagine always having to look present to give the customers – excuse me, the “guests” – that never waning feeling that you are there to serve them at a moment’s notice. Imagine being told not to talk to other cashiers or write or read a book or do anything that will take you away from the robotic stance they want you to maintain at all times. Imagine the uniform that always accompanies this type of job: a t-shirt or polo (always tucked in) with the company’s logo embroidered near the shoulder, the ugliest pants, the most uncomfortable shoes, and the most degrading two pieces of the puzzle, the name tag, and God help you, the hat. The name tag, ostensibly designed to “personalize” you to the guests, put you on a first name basis with the guests, making it easier to swap recipes and “request you every time they come in” (some jobs actually quantify these “referrals” and other meaningless bullshit designed to distract you from how meaningless it actually is, with a gold star on some stupid hand-made Excel spreadsheet on a poster board next to the sign that reminds you the state’s minimum wage – is this supposed to make us feel like we’ve “made it” if we make 50 cents more? – safety rules, and the number to call for sexual harassment like every one is not sexually “harassed” at every job every day via sex jokes and the symbolic rape of your soul, all located in the disgusting break room). But what the name tag actually does is remind you that you belong to them. Your name on their name tag on their shirt in their store. It also serves as management’s safe guard (or so they think) for rude behavior to customers through the fear that they can report you by name to the supervisor. Well, let me tell you as someone who has gotten in trouble for his attitude on every – and I do mean every – customer service job he has ever had the misfortune to stumble into. If you are the type of employee who is going to mouth off to a customer full well knowing they can report you, you will either A) take your name tag off (although this hasn’t mattered in many of my jobs where I am the ONLY white person) or B) You just don’t care. Why? Because this job. Fucking. Sucks. The final indignity is the hat. Again, it labels you as being owned by the company and quells even more personality by cramming your hair under an itchy piece of fabric. And. It is ugly.
I could afford this $710 because I was making the big money of about $1000 bucks a month. That is before taxes, so I saw roughly $850 of that, allowing me to save a very little amount or you know, actually do something marginally expensive once every two months. But come summer time, I had to move out of student housing. If I wanted to stay there through the summer, I would have to pay double the rent, which meant that I would have had to come up with $1100 out of pocket each month. For three months. I was thinking of finding some cheap (very cheap) room to rent somewhere or stay with friends, but after my mental breakdown on Easter, eating my Easter dinner at McDonald’s, alone, on a much needed break from Hershey’s register of death, the breakdown where I called my Mom and wept over my Big Mac of my loneliness and misery, I decided to get out of the City and move home for the summer, job lost or kept upon my return. I didn’t care. I needed out. My parents were more than happy to oblige.
But it wasn’t a summer of fun, a summer of parties and swimming, a summer of watching TV and bonfires. This was a summer of work. A lot of work. In order to not be destitute upon my return to New York, I quickly got two jobs. The first was Assistant Manager at Body Central in the mall. I secured an AM position at this “urban” girl’s clothing shop directly from the GM, a high school classmate. She didn’t ask why I had returned and wanted to work in retail and I didn’t tell I would only be there for three months and bounce. The pay was something ridiculous like ten bucks an hour (after all, this was IL money now!), but the hours were good (30+). Plus, I started dating a boy who worked next door at the Gap.
Of course, I wanted to make as much money as I could, unsure if Hershey’s was taking me back, so I called up my old boss at Taco Bell and returned to the steam line. For the third time. (Time Number Two was when I ran out of money the first time from blowing my money on DVDs). I should probably explain, and I am not sure if you will believe me even if I do, that I loved – Loved! – working for Taco Bell once upon a time. I worked there for two years from 17-19, my senior year of high school into my first failed year of college. I was a kid with no direction who didn’t give a damn, only showing up for work so I had money to blow on Denny’s and trips to Vintage Vinyl. I worked constantly, over time even. I was the guy Josie would call for extra shifts because I was fast, fun, and organized. And did manager duties without manager pay (the first of many employers I allowed to exploit me on the chocolate covered promises of promotion). I was the Steamer (the one who slops the “meat” into the tortilla) almost every shift without fail because I was incredibly fast (you should have seen me on 25 cent Taco Days; damn you, St. Louis Blues) and they knew if I had to deal with customers I would be a bitch. When I was having one of those days where I didn’t want to be there (something that happened more frequently with each passing return) or wanted to be alone with my thoughts to brainstorm things to write, I would request (announce, actually) that “I’m on back-ups.” Back-ups was the person that did the dishes (once a very soothing and enjoyable task); restocked the wrappers; “dropped” (into 350 degree water) the frozen bags of chicken and nacho cheese for seven minutes; fried the chalupas, twists, chips, and Caramel Apple Empanadas; swept the floors; took out the trash; added water to the packets of dried beans and red sauce; and, because I am Jonathon, counted the manager inventory in the walk-in. It was a position that allowed you to constantly be moving, constantly be doing something new every few minutes; when you were “on the line,” you could be stuck standing in one spot for up to two hours during dinner, constantly looking up at the order screen, hunched over in the “Stuff” position ready with your three fingers of lettuce and your two fingers of cheese, or burning yourself on the quesadilla grill every 27 seconds if you had to do “Expo.” I loved this job so much that I even made a scrapbook – a fucking scrapbook – to commemorate my time there full of photos, hand written notes from co-workers, cut outs of the wrappers, and even a poem I penned especially for the first page. Most embarrassingly (because that isn’t embarrassing enough), when I left the building for what I thought would be the final time, I kissed – this is beyond shame – kissed the front door before walking to my car on the verge of tears. Loser.
Back in NYC, my prediction was correct. Hershey’s had already replaced me. I could tell they were glad to be rid of me and my stank attitude. Well, fine. Who needs you? I got a “job” very quickly as a ticket barker in Times Square (“Who likes stand-up comedy?”) that lasted all of about two hours. Commission based pan handling? No, thanks. I like eating. Plus, now that I was out of student housing (I could no longer justify “spending” that kind of money) I needed a good job. And fast. I didn’t find a good job, so I got two mediocre jobs, one that allowed me to see movies for free and the other to have all the frozen yogurt I wanted.
Angelika Film Center is a bougie “cinema” in the West Village that shows those arty, farty films you won’t find in towns with a Wal-Mart. The pay was abysmal ($7.25/hr), but the work was simple. Most of the time, I got to be box-office (clearly word had not yet reached that part of town that I was not someone who should have face to face interactions with patrons you want to return). Here was a job where you actually got to sit AND read! The work itself, answering phones and selling tickets, was so mind-numbing you could do it on autopilot. All of the work there was mind-numbing (in fact, all customer service work is formed around the theory of draining all thought and replacing it with physical labor) that you could completely check out. The concession stand (making popcorn! counting candy boxes!) could have been done by a complete moron and the ushers (sweeping floors! changing trash!) were responsible for the kind of work they give ex-cons to prove they deserve another chance or reckless celebrities to work off their DUIs. The Harvard School of Law this was not. So one would think I would be hired as a manager because I was, you know, the same age as the managers, and, you know, college educated. I asked. They said, yes. Then it never happened. And after three months, without time to see movies, which was the perk of working in that Hell hole, I quit to devote full time to my other employer, the one who had promised me at my hire date that I would be advanced to management ASAP (and then of course, never was): Pinkberry.
Despite their obsessive attention to cleanliness, their stupid Korean chachkies we had to dust daily, their low-rate of pay ($9.00), their ugly ass uniforms – complete with nametag, hat, AND apron! – and their extreme levels of paranoia evidenced by “the mix” coming in unmarked Myler bags so some nefarious Philip DeBrassiere couldn’t steal their recipe, Pinkberry was not a horrible place to work. At first. In fact, the first few months of any job – even the worst jobs – are not beyond tolerable. Those first few months take you from outcast to cult member, the time to learn what you need to learn and feel confidant doing it. Pinkberry afforded me two things necessary to survive any job you would rather not be doing: a perk (their yogurt is amazing!) and a friend. The former is always nice to have, but doesn’t always materialize (see Angelika Film Centre), but a friend is beyond crucial. You need someone to remind you you are a human with feelings, dreams, and thoughts and not just a walking, talking, button-pushing cog. Someone to be a repository for all of your angst, disdain, and contempt toward being stuck in a terrible job. Someone who yells, rolls their eyes, and threatens to quit every day but somehow can’t take the ten steps to the front door, just like you. Someone who in spite of their bold animosity still shows up, does a good job, is nice to people as long as they can be because hey, it’s not their fault your life sucks, and resists stealing money from the safe when all they want to do is grab it, surveillance be damned, and run to Mexico. Just Like You. Taco Bell gave me Jessica, Body Central gave me Ty (the sexy ‘mo who took me to Boxers and Briefs, a gay bar in Centreville across from the Hustler club with all-nude men flopping their huge dicks on the bar under a shower and the worst drag show I have EVER SEEN), Candice and other I’ve-forgotten-their-names black girls (white gay boys sure love their black girls) at Hershey’s, David and Co. at Harry’s Burritos, and Cintrella at Pinkberry. Cintrella was an ex-model and actress. Beautiful and, as a fellow black girl once said on an episode of Tabitha Takes Over, “boug-hetto.” The sophistication and worldly ways of her professional side, the one that presumably got her the job as well as her clients (she was also a wedding planner), would give way to the ghetto side when things got ugly. It was this side that would come out when corporate (on one of their numerous fascist inspections) was in the kitchen, leaving Cintrella and I to compare sexual escapades, or when on New Year’s Eve, Cintrella left the store – during her shift – to get a pedicure for that evening’s party, causing her termination. (This was not a huge personal loss because I had already been transferred to the Flushing store after moving to the outer limits of Queens, known as College Point. My friend at this branch was Ashley, a 21 year old Italian Brooklyn native who had lost custody of her daughter because she assaulted her baby-daddy and went to jail. This and her previous gigs selling coke and changing “100s” – fake $100 bills that you would take into convenience stores and get changed for real money; “I would get $40 bucks, my boss would get the other 60…” – made her a fascinating replacement for Cintrella’s foolishness. To wit, she was also, what else?, my supervisor.
*As a general rule, I always make friends with management first so I can get away with having a bad attitude. But our friendship is not what keeps me employed. Despite my habit of taking my frustration out on others, I stay employed because I am a damn good worker with an attention to detail, an almost assembly line acumen for organization, lead when called upon, and have the ability to multi-task through tunnel vision.
But even living all the way out in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where you are when you take the 7 train to the end of the line and still have a 20 minute bus ride, at $500 a month for a rented room, Pinkberry was not cutting the mustard. And as tasty as the yogurt was, you can’t live off that stuff (and survive to be 30) so I knew I needed to get out of there. But where to now? Definitely somewhere with food. I tried going back to Harry’s, but like Hershey’s, I think Ronny was glad to be rid of me. My loans had begun to rise again (after many months -years – of deferment and forbearance) and I knew that I needed a drastic life change. This type of life was just not sustainable. And this type of work was just not acceptable. I’d done food, fast food, clothes; merchandised, stocked, and sold; managed and cleaned toilets. Customer Service was out. So what was in?
I’m sure you are thinking, “Audition, dummy! Write. Put your artistic skills to use!” Which you would have a point. I should have done those things. In between being a full time student, working all of my free hours at jobs I hated to make as much money as possible as fast as possible, and working all of my other hours at finding a husband the long way around, I don’t know why I didn’t have the energy or interest to go out for shows that won’t be starting for another six months or go out of town when I am in New York at least another year or gigs that don’t pay any money. Silly, silly me. [I did, though, attempt to be a singer during this time, collaborating with some guys in Queens on some songs, until one of them got arrested (?) or went on the lam (?); the phone call was muffled]. Instead, I started seriously contemplating life as a…
*An Interruption: The following segment will be of a graphic nature. If you would rather not conjure up these images of me in your mind, feel free to skip the section between the lines.
Still with me? OK. Let’s go.
After all of the customer service shenanigans and misery, I thought I would take “customer service” to the ultimate level and become a sex worker.
I thought I would start out small, more metaphoric than literal. I tried to get work as a bar back in a gay club, one of the guys in the bar who get beer from the basement and clean up dirty glasses used by the dirty men who want to do dirty things to you when you get off (or in the bathroom). When this didn’t pan out, I thought, shot boy! I could totally walk around in my underwear and let men grope me for tips. Or a go-go boy! Whatever. I can totally dance in my underwear for a few hours. So I auditioned at Rawhide on 23rd and 8th, right down the street from my house and one of the points of my cruising triangle that hooked up with that seedy video store and Rainbow Connection. If I had done any homework at all, I would have realized that Rawhide was for fans of Leather Daddy muscleheads. Which I was not (a Leather Daddy musclehead; a fan though? most definitely). After my 20 minutes of nary a glance (God, how humiliating), the manager told me I may want to try another bar that specialized in twinks (for those of you not aware, twinks are the 16-23 year old, feminized boys most appreciated by that part in a man’s brain that desires to dominate; anything older than 23, and even that is pushing it, no matter how submissive you are, loses the “twink” moniker as each passing year almost guarantees that you will not have been the first to plow the field). For some reason, I didn’t pursue this – or any other – “dancing” avenue. I decided, I guess, it would be easier to hook.
Porn was never an option. Despite my respect for Jenna Jameson and her I’m-A-Woman-in-Charge-Bitches swag, porn is on tape. Which means forever. And ever. And as long as my parents were alive (and I held dreams of doing something “important” with my life), I could not have absolute beyond the shadow of a doubt freeze-framable proof. Which meant to the streets (or the Internet, actually) I went.
To be honest, it wasn’t that big of leap. I wasn’t some bathhouse 1970s fag with 100s of scores to my credit or numerous prescriptions for Penicillin lying around my house, but I wasn’t shy – or particularly picky – procuring trysts. I also wasn’t ashamed of sharing stories of my adventures (Hell, I even wrote a memoir all about it) and thought it would make for some great tales to tell the grandkids I will never have. Turns out, though, I was a picky hooker. I hesitate to even call myself a “hooker.” I did it once and it wasn’t even “real sex.” $100 for a blow job. In a condom. From a guy who needn’t have paid for sexual favors. Another guy offered me 500 clams to eat my ass, which I turned down because he was old and busted, and the only other time I attempted to sell my body for cash was with this other old guy who had told me he had paid off another young hustler’s college education and said to myself What the Hell?, get it done, grin, and bear it. He was reticent to pay for it because “he didn’t need to” (according to whom?) and the evening actually consisted of us sitting on a park bench in the East Village near some Starbucks where he played therapist/parent to the whiny ramblings of a homesick 20 something whose life was turning out way differently than he had imagined back in his lime green bedroom at 5 David Drive.
I knew this was not a viable way of life for me either. You want to talk about hard work? People think hooking is taking the “easy way out.” But if you take it on full time, it is probably the hardest profession there is, constantly skirting death, the law, STDs, drug dealers, and a nearly irreversible life. The hilarious thing is that this wasn’t even my “lowest” point. In fact, upon exiting that guy’s house with the memory of his begging for more, the exchange of cash, and his pathetic attempt for a legitimate date, I felt a sensation of absolute power that I had never felt before – nor since.
The lowest point was when I worked as a tele-marketer for AT&T in some dingy office building in Long Island City with people who were, without hyperbole, ex-cons and drug addicts being given a second chance by society, answering phones and reading surveys for $7 an hour. I was, again, the only white person (which is not mentioned as a racist jab, but as a signifier of a system where people of color are shuttled into the shittiest jobs due to lack of opportunity and education AND as a point of frustration because I did have a good education and came from an upper middle class family and was now slumming as if I were born and raised into situations that made it nearly impossible to elevate – which of course fed my moods and complete dissatisfaction with the facsimile of life I passed off as existence).
So back to customer service I went. Or at least I was prepared to. I got my loans deferred – again – and got some money from my parents – again, the eternal candles of support burning to tide me over until I found some other blah blah blah to pass the time. (This was also the wake-up call to “Never quit a job unless you have another to take its place”). I also got some occasional day gigs (dressing up as a toy soldier to promote the Rockettes’ Christmas show) and personal favors for food (helping Cintrella and her family move). I was also in therapy for the first time, attempting to fight through the inexplicable, undeserved feelings of unshakable sadness, as a “free” service (at least for 12 sessions) through the school’s Health Department. Through her positive mirror (therapists don’t “cure” you of your ills; they only hold up a giant picture of yourself to stare at and leave you to change what you dislike), I went out and auditioned for a cruise ship. And got it. After years of wasting time trudging through the trenches of muck and mire, I asserted myself and came out victorious. For the moment. One week before I was to hit the Atlantic from Florida, the producers fired me, not for my attitude, mind you, but for my out of practice talent. I couldn’t keep up, had trouble lifting the girls, and they needed to drop the dead weight. I wasn’t angry at them – they were completely in the right and I knew it – but it was starting over from scratch. Mercifully, all of my loans were in forbearance for the moment due to economic hardship (you think?) and I was back home at my parents’ house, proving once again that I had failed as an artist and failed as an adult.
I met Julian just prior to leaving for Florida. Due to his persistence for my affection (he really loved me?!) and my desire to give it a go, I moved back to New York (New Jersey, actually) to move in with him – after knowing him for a month. But love waits for no man and on the 4th of July, I was back on a plane to try again. And then, out of nowhere, while walking down the streets of the “Dominican Republic,” which is around 145th and Broadway, outside my temporary abode (I didn’t want it to look like I was taking advantage of J for a place to live so I rented a room from some lady who barely spoke English who then kicked me out because her sister was coming from…wherever she was from and needed the room), I got a phone call. Apparently, one of the random auditions I had attended months ago had paid off in the form of a national tour of Rumplestiltskin. By no means glamorous (in addition to performing the role of the Tax Collector, I was also a part of the crew, constructing and tearing down our set in a new place each day – shitty gyms, lobbies, or make shift class rooms in the nation’s poorest schools – all for $500 a week) or good (the show was so horrible that over the course of our almost 300 performances in six months, we would try and come up with various ways to make each other break character or forget their lines just to keep it interesting), but it was theatre for money. And I was thrilled.
Due to no rent and the continued forbearance of most of my loans, my overhead was very low (very cheap hotel rooms, fast food, and “entertainment,” which consisted mostly of roaming the Wal-Marts at midnight) so upon my return to New Jersey, I could manage to not work for a while. But as it always does, the money began to run out and instead of trying to find a job (or give some of my excess money to the blood sucking loan companies), I relished in Julian’s own unemployment (he had been laid off a few months prior) as we lounged around the house, ordered Chinese food, and went to cheap movies at the Newport, our local mall. But then Julian got a job in LA. So we packed up our house (an awesome three story house that we still talk about buying one day), packed up the car, and headed cross country, draining every last dollar of my savings.
Thankfully (I suppose), the day I arrived in LA, I was interviewed for and got a job at Staples. The return to customer service post-theatre for cash (no matter the grueling circumstances) was not an easy transition. Why didn’t I hit the audition circuit full steam when I returned to New York? Because I didn’t want to leave Julian again. We had been apart for too long and knew if we were gonna make it, I needed to stick around. OK. So what? What about shows in New York? Maybe I could have gotten cast in a show – a good show, a well paying show – that allowed me to be the bread winner and kept me working on the dream. But I didn’t. I wasted my time watching Judge Karen and being in love. This is not to stay that either is mutually exclusive or that I would have traded Julian for a healthy bank account, but I definitely allowed myself to exist as a fun seeking, twitterpated teen instead of a You Have Responsibilities adult. And I ended up paying for it in the end by being trapped in the Copy Center for $9.75 – and then $10.25, my first raise at a job since Taco Hell bumped me from $5.75 to $6.25 – an hour. For a year.
Of course, Staples – the most corporate of all my jobs with their stupid “team building” meetings, stupid training videos, and stupid rules about sitting even when there were no customers in the store – was not some bridge to financial freedom. Like every customer service job, they purposefully keep you under 40 hours a week so they don’t have to pay you benefits and even if they gave you 50 hours a week, the portion that would come out of your paycheck for said benefits is tantamount to your food budget and I would rather eat than have the option to see a physician. Since being taken off of my parents’ insurance in 2008, I have not seen a doctor (nor needed to, mercifully) and I have no idea the last time I was at the dentist (free clinics are super sketch and the waiting list, as well as the co-pay, at places like UCLA and USC Dental School are just not worth it).
One day while working “Ink and Toner,” a cash register job that occasionally required you to come out from behind the cage and find some Brother LC61BK or Epson T017 for a “guest” because they didn’t want to take the three minutes to find it themselves, a woman came in who returned me to the world of fast food, or “food fast” as she called it: the GM of Rubio’s on Bundy and Wilshire. She talked all this talk about needing a supervisor, an assistant manager even (a familiar music to my ears), and she just got this great feeling about me, but then when I met with her a week later – surprise! – she needed me to start as a crew member. Um, I’ve already done this job. Eight years ago. When I was 17. I told her the only way I would do it is if I started at 10 an hour (the other people in the back I learned were making somewhere in the 7 dollar range – Hell to the No) and that I would be fast tracked to management ASAP. B.T. agreed and made some genuine sounding plea of “I need you” and it’s nice to be needed, right?
Because I am not a complete idiot and had done variations of this job (all customer service is the same house with a different coat of paint), I learned all I needed to know, including manager duties like walk-in counts, register functions, and closing procedures (without getting extra money for doing them, of course) within three months. But the ball rolls slowly in Corporate America and B.T. wanted to make sure that I was serious about the job before putting in the effort lobbying her DM and ponying up the money (her store would be responsible for my corporate training, where I guess I would have learned the company cheer and how to take their giant dick without lube). She shot herself in her own foot. If she would have hired me as supervisor from the go, as it should have been (one supervisor barely spoke English, fine for the other kitchen staff who barely spoke English, not fine for the English speaking customers with whom it is your job to communicate; the other supervisor was a high school drop out mother of three, proving that in fast food, excuse me “food fast,” education means nothing) I wouldn’t have had the chance to realize what a horrible job that indeed it was (Have you ever changed a fryer? The most vile job this side of scrubbing toilets in a nursing home), wouldn’t have had the mental wherewithal to understand that $11 an hour for a supervisor or $13 an hour for an assistant manager – an assistant manager! – was a slap in the face and I could be doing much better. But B.T. waited too long and the wool, thin at best, sheer at worst, had irrevocably been pulled from my eyes. I quit after four months.
So it was Staples. And Staples. And therapy. And Staples. I did not weather the move West well, mentally, and was most definitely at my lowest point, psychologically. Depression, or so I thought (what else would you call it when you can’t seem to dig yourself out of a cavernous pit of darkness, exacerbated by Roads to Nowhere you passed off as employment and the lack of being a part of anything artistic, which caused you to make up stories about your life mate in your own mind, assuming that he was the enemy at every turn which of course was just your own anger and malcontent turned outward due to not being able to pay your own way, which of course makes you less of a “man” and brings up all of the old wounds of being called a girl, and your loans – particularly the giant one, the $80000 one that had monthly payments upward of $600 – had reached the end of their deferments while you had no money to pay them so you started borrowing again from your parents all the while trying to quell the screaming voice of your mother and the fact that she was right, you never should have taken out these loans in the first place and thinking that your life, at least the life you once thought you would have, the life you once thought you deserved, was gone with the wind) consumed me and knew that I needed some sort of assistance. I found this place that worked on a sliding scale ($27 a session, which embarrassingly I ended up months later not being able to afford, having it dropped to a measly $17 a session, the lowest they could afford to go). Despite my financial burdens, I tried to remind myself that depression and the treatment of it, was a first world problem, and a luxury at that for the people who could even afford to have it. Most poor people, and I was and am a poor person, don’t have the time or the resources to “deal” with their problems the way the privileged classes do, the way that girls in Ethiopia will never understand anorexia because there is not enough food to worry about eating too much of. Mercifully, my “depression,” which my therapist Terence diagnosed in our final session as “hypomanic episodes,” was not so debilitating that I couldn’t get out of bed. At the end of the day, it really boiled down to me saying – and believing! – “Get busy living. Or get busy dying.” It was about learning the lies and discerning the truth, taking away the power that the sadness had over me. And just growing the fuck up.
During this year of parental ruminations (and blame), game plans, and the continued combat of the self-esteem monster, I began the next branch of my quest for money: production work.
I stumbled into production by accident. One night at Staples, a man came in to print signs (the ones that say, “Quiet! Filming in Progress”) and I struck up a conversation. “Do you need PAs?” For the uninitiated, a PA (Production Assistant) is the grunt of a set who makes the coffee, makes the copies, and keeps that shit on lockdown. It really requires no experience so he hired me. This was it, I thought. I will finally start down the road to my dreams. The gig was a week (making $125 a day for 12 hour days, the standard rate for reality TV) at some dog show, the kind parodied in Best in Show, which they got so right, FYI, in Long Beach. I had a walkie. I answered phones. I made copies. I organized. I set up Crafty. Much better than standing around pretending to look engaged while people tried to decide on which stationary to buy.
The Industry, particularly the reality branch of it, is very small and one job can very easily need to the next. I started doing day shoots for Game Show Network, Fox, VH1, Disney, Deal or No Deal, and Q’viva, a Latin version of America’s Got Talent judged by the then recently divorced Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.
But production, without a car especially, is not easily sustainable. Plus, it is anything but steady. So I tried Office Team, a temp agency that had me sitting at various desks for eight hours, which is better than a register because you can at least write and cruise the Internet, but still just as braindraining; plus, they only paid $10 an hour and never had jobs to send me on (was this the economy or something about my character?). So it was back to customer service.
I found an ad on Craigslist for caterers. What the hell? At least I would get to eat. And I quickly discovered that if you have to work with food, this is most definitely the way to go.
Catering is better than being a waiter on many accounts.
1) You very rarely – if ever – have to take an order.
In catering, most of the time it is buffet style or prix fixe. The guests choose their own food or shut up and eat was is given (unless they are a vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, have soy, gluten, wheat or dairy allergies, or any other bullshit excuse why they don’t want the plate put in front of them; most of which you know ahead of time by little placards or notes on the function sheet because the world knows how obnoxious these “special” people are). If the party is large and expensive (these are mostly weddings), the guests will have a choice between Fish, Steak/Chicken, or Veggie, and you do have to write these down on a paper pinwheel, counter clockwise with the #1 chair in the 6 o’ clock position. But compared to being a waiter in a restaurant (“Mine was pinto beans, not black.” “You forgot my sour cream!” “This soda is flat.” “The beef is too spicy.” “Oh, that looks good. Bring me that instead”), this is only a minor inconvenience.
2) You very rarely – if ever – have more than one table.
In restaurants, sometimes you are tasked with watering, waiting, bussing, and putting up with the crying babies and whining adults at 2, 4, 8, 16 (!) tables at a time. Catering, because it is a luxury and exists usually only at events that can afford the man power, is so grossly overstaffed that your personal responsibility is next to nothing.
*This depends on the company. I have worked for five different ones and I will list them in ascending order. Party Staff (or Party Slave as they are called within the industry) was my first foray into the world of catering. They are a staffing agency that other catering companies, such as Patina and Wolfgang, hire as back-up. Their employees do the same amount of work (which I will get to in a few moments) as their parent companies, but at a drastically reduced rate. I was hired at $11 an hour (after an embarrassing moment of pleading for the job, the only time I have begged for employment) only to see that my first paycheck reflected a $10.75 an hour rate, a “training wage” they called it, until I demanded they up it to $11, which without fanfare, they did. I stayed with them for about a year, calling in almost daily for work, while trying to figure out how many hours I could work that week and make it worth my while to lose my unemployment check money.
Next up the chain was Imperial Staffing, They paid $14 an hour, but it was mostly country clubs and if you want to feel degraded, work for a bunch of rich white people who hang out and play golf all day and drink mint juleps on something called the Reagan Terrace.
Host Pros, while paying a slightly better $16 an hour, yielded a similar clientele. But you never “quit” catering companies. You just stop emailing them for work. Until you are desperate and appear out of the blue to score a quick 100 bucks.
Sodexo, own of my current employers, also pays $16/hr (now a whopping $16.65 since the union stepped in). This started out as a great job. It is a company located within LMU, a Catholic college, so naturally (you would hope) the clients, the students, and the staff are nice. The events are smaller and it really feels like a family. True, it’s not getting paid to perform, but the people (Carolyn the cantankerous chef, Chris the cute waiter with the Justin Bieber hair, Maria the spicy Latina who always calls me “guapo,” and Jason, the saucy manager who is simultaneously over it, sharing in an eye roll and a huff and a puff, yet cares enough to get flustered when it isn’t perfect) make it worth it. Or at least did. Now they just make it bearable. I was going to be a supervisor. Then I wasn’t. Whatever. Count the days til you are out of there. It is actually a blessing that I wasn’t promoted because then I would be stuck in one job, working 30/35 hours a week, without a lot of say over availability, making maybe $18/hr, which would still require me to have another job to pay my now almost $1000 a month in loans and another $1000 in rent, food, and living expenses that my “husband” (no we aren’t married, yes I want to be, someday, and no we don’t want kids, but we exist as a married couple, so whatever you want to call him) picks up the tab on when the going gets rough.
The best of these catering gigs, and probably the best job I have ever had, definitely in customer service, is Wolfgang Puck. I get paid $20 bucks an hour to work the same gigs that some Party Staff people do and most of ours shifts, we end up spending half of it sitting – SITTING! – waiting for instruction or killing time while the client’s presentation is going on. Through WP, I have worked the DGA Awards, the Oscars, movie premieres, bar/bat mitzvahs and proms (at, where else? movie studios, of course), and Scientology conventions (“Money, money, money, money…MONEY!”). There are A waiters (“Would you like the Chardonnay or the Cab?”) and B waiters (“Excuse me, are you still working on your salad?”) who depending on the event, double as runners (standing in line waiting for the plates for “sweep” or if it is a buffet – “Buffet 4 for Marty.” “Go Buffet 4.” “Buffet 4 needs pasta salad.” “Copy Buffet 4” – you run the platters, bowls, and 200 pans out to the grazing mob of socialites), tray-passers, or bussers. It is like being a lemming, a mindless lemming, none of which really want to be a server (is there any other company so full of struggling entertainers than Wolfgang Puck Catering?) so yes, they care because the client is paying a lot – A LOT! – of money for our services, but they are also completely understanding with scheduling (you call the shots via an online calendar) and the general attitude is one of marking time. In a very professional way, of course. The great thing about being one of these struggling entertainers amidst a sea of them is that you are all in it together (the uppity patrons, the long hours) and you see, first hand, the realities of the industry (people who have made million dollar movies, had guest spots on TV shows, the gamut of ages from 25-65), reminding you to get up, get out, and do something before it’s too late so you don’t end up like the others: approaching senior citizendom, yet still carrying trays and pouring wine on Saturday nights.
3) You are not doing the same thing with the same people in the same place every shift.
Working in a restaurant – or a retail store, bar, office, etc. – can get very monotonous very quickly. Same people, same staircase, same broken down coffee machine. You realize the horribleness of the job much faster – and more often – when you are forced to relive its downfalls day in and day out. But catering is different. It is always a different party with different co-workers (catering companies like WP and Party Staff have hundreds of employees) in different venues (like L.A. Live, Hollywood and Highland, Sony Studios, Paramount, Pacific Design Center, Long Beach Convention Center, Pepperdine University, or some ranch out in Pasadena) at different times of day (definitely not a 9-5 gig).
4) You are not working for tips.
When I was working at Harry’s answering phones, I remember my co-worker (and INCREDIBLE singer and actress) Aly Wirth yelling at me because I boasted that I didn’t tip servers. “What for? They are simply doing their jobs!” I didn’t understand they were making less than half of minimum wage, only enough to cancel out their taxes (because God forbid Uncle Sam doesn’t get his money). I actually was quite the asshole, eating out at Denny’s on the regular, leaving “tips,” little witticisms on scraps of paper like “Don’t park next to vans. They could be owned by serial killers” (an homage to Sigourney Weaver’s “tip” to a college girl before getting tortured in the bathroom by Harry Connick Jr. in Copycat). Now, no matter my financial situation, or their attitude or level of shitty service, I tip at least 20%. I get it. Your job sucks. And unless you physically assault me or spit in my food, I got your back.
In catering, no matter if you are put in charge of ten tables or just one, sit for four hours or on your feet for eight, you make the same amount of money.
But catering is not a recession proof business. And because the economy is in such a great state, there are dry spells, causing you to either be hooked up with numerous catering companies (I have friends who are on the payroll of more than ten; I am actively on two and could call up two others if push came to shove) or branch out elsewhere. So instead of getting a job in a restaurant, which for all of the aforementioned reasons would be, you know, awful, I fell into, surprisingly, doing something that, on paper, is part of “the dream”: teaching dance and choreographing shows.
After a three year hiatus, I returned to the theatre in 2008 with A Chorus Line. I hit it off with the director, Anne Gesling, loved the space, and wanted to continue my theatrical career anyway possible while I made the “real money” elsewhere. I choreographed a string of shows (Throughly Modern Millie, Pinkalicious, How I Became a Pirate, Seussical, and the upcoming Once Upon a Mattress) at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre for their youth program (ages 8-18) and worked with teens and adults alike staging The Geoffrey Awards, an annual self-congratulatory event to commemorate the season. I became deeply ensconced in the MWT, heading up their play reading committee, joining the YES (Youth. Education. Entertainment. Series) committee, and ushering for mainstage shows. While the MWT has upped the happiness quotient over the past two years, it hasn’t done much for my bank account. Being a non-profit, non-union theatre, stipends are small if they exist at all, which will eventually lead me to a necessary phase out in the search for a sustainable future.
But the MWT (and the relationships I have made there) has led me to other theatrical paying gigs such as choreographing Annie at Community Magnet Elementary, Bye Bye Birdie at Paul Revere Middle School with the awesome Nancy Cassaro Fracchiolla (who got me a job teaching Movement at AADA), and teaching in the after school CREST program in Santa Monica, as well as giving private lessons for the children of friends. But like Cassie, these jobs are a taunt to what I should be doing myself: dancing. Performing. Waking up in the morning to find I have somewhere exciting to go. So I started auditioning. Yes. I started auditioning. And booked shows. That paid. Not much, but mixed with my catering money, could have, maybe, fingers crossed, been enough to survive – and enjoy the survival.
But thanks to the greed of the car companies in the 1920s (mixed with its varied topography and the We-Had-No-Plan-For-the-City-So-We-Will-Just-Make-Neighborhoods-Wherever lay-out), LA is a car town. And without one, it is impossible (or takes up to four hours one way) to travel by bus and/or the shitty rail system to places like Cabrillo in Thousand Oaks where I was cast in Annie with Sally Struthers (paying a sum total of $500 for five weeks) and had to turn down Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Sherman Oaks because the performances conflicted with work and they only paid $20 bucks a show (they must have been desperate for me because they offered me $35, which I also had to turn down) or playing Tulsa (a dream role!) in Gypsy up north, which I had to turn down because $200/wk was not going to cut the $1000/month I owed in loans, plus the $900 I had to send to J for the rent (he’s got a good job, yes, but he ain’t got Sugar Daddy money). So back to Sodexo, Wolfgang, and Steve I went.
I met Steve about three years ago, not too long after we moved out here. I came across him on Craigslist, looking for “Gig” work, doing anything (within reason, of course; I am a married man, after all) for cash (one day, I put all of those organizational skills and experience gutting Grandma and Grandpa’s basement to work, cleaning out some old dude in WeHo’s storage unit; the whole time I was there, I felt like I was in Gods and Monsters, just waiting for the old troll to pounce on the young buck sweating in his tight white t-shirt, which he, thankfully, never did). Steve was looking for a research assistant, $25 an hour. Cash. Um, yes please.
I had volunteered as a research assistant back in NY for a few months on this indie short, which of course found its way to the top of my resume (along with various versions of fabrications and stretched truths that are crucial to resume writing). Steve liked what he read and we clicked immediately and have worked together on various projects over the years, culminating in a joint venture, a scripted television series. The great thing about this project, which I guess I am supposed to keep secret (?; I have no idea or interest in the politics. I just want to write!), is that I am no longer a gun for hire, but an equal partner, entitled to moneys from networks and residuals if and when it gets picked up by…well, I guess our leads should be a secret to, especially when they are famous (God, the waiting). The bad thing about this project is that I am no longer a gun for hire, which means I am not getting paid to work on it. OK, sure. If it takes off, I am entitled to potentially millions and a career as a professional writer (adios, Sodexo!), but what about the interim? I know it is not Steve’s responsibility to keep me afloat; that would be unfair and a strange business arrangement. But it doesn’t make it any less difficult on the pocket book.
In my spare time – what is that? – I’m sure most of you know I am an avid movie lover (check out the latest version of my 100 Greatest Movies in the archives of this blog) who watches as many as he can when he can. But what you may not know is that I also love to read. The only good thing about riding buses to and fro is that it gives you plenty of time to devour books (and I mean a real book made of paper, not this Kindle crap). My friend – and previous writing partner on a past TV series that never went anywhere (another year bites the dust) – Mary Helen (a fellow 20 something faking her way to the middle) let me borrow a book so apropos to our lives we could have written it ourselves: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Barbara is a journalist and author of 12 books and the proud owner of a Ph.D in Biology who decided to go “undercover” and report on the low-wage existence of millions by experiencing it herself in various states, working as a maid, a waitress, a nursing home attendant, and even a Wal-Mart employee. She didn’t just get to go to work though and come home to a place she paid for through savings from her white collar life. She had to live off the money she earned from these jobs of destitution. Talk about suffering for your art.
I didn’t really “learn” anything from the book, having lived a version of the story every day for the last ten years, except without the albatross of children that seems to breed poverty like mold in a basement. What it did do was force me to remember every crummy job I had ever had and reevaluate where I have come from and where I am going next. Since student loans are non-bankruptable (and the Student Loan Forgiveness Act like everything in Washington is moving at a snail’s pace), this is not a personal problem that will go away. I tried before to pretend it didn’t exist by deferring and forbearing and just not sending in payments, but I’m an adult now and it’s time to pay the piper (especially when my parents’ credit is affected by my level of responsibility).
What pisses me off the most is the indignation rich people have for the poor like it is somehow all our fault. One of my students said to me the other day, “Ugh. I would never shop at Goodwill.” To which I quickly retorted, “There are many people in this country who can’t afford to shop anywhere else.” To which she responded with ultimate shock (she is 17 and from Europe so I guess she hasn’t gotten the memo that America is in a class war), “Oh. That’s so sad! Well, I do give my old clothes to Goodwill,” as if that was some sort of I’m-Not-Racist-Because-I-Have-Black-Friends defense. I have shopped at Goodwill (and its “upscale” competitors like Marshall’s, Ross, and K-Mart) for years. I’ve even had friends so poor that they steal from Goodwill.
I admit freely my financial mistakes. I should not have taken out loans, should have applied for scholarships, or just not gone to college (it’s really not necessary to be an artist). I should have worked while in college the first time, should have been more discerning with spending, and should have been more focused on finding a job than finding a husband. But are these “crimes” tantamount to murder? Or rape? Or any other indiscretion worthy of 40 to life? Because that’s what this is: a prison term.
And sure. “I do the crime, I do the time.” And I would be fine with that if everyone got equal treatment. If the minimum wage was so high that you would have to be an irresponsible fool not to be able to live a happy, stress free life. If there were so many jobs in America that if you didn’t have one, clearly you were just lazy. If “affordable housing” was actually affordable and didn’t mean you were living in a project trying to skirt being accosted by sexual predators and drug dealers. If drug dealing and prostitution was some sort of mental defect instead of a by-any-means-necessary way of life for millions. Or if when heads of banks gambled away their patrons’ money they weren’t given more money by said patrons only to be used on vacations and bonuses that equal more money than most people make in a year. If those who had “made it” thought about how their decisions affected everyone and not just their billionaire friends. If people were treated like people instead of profit-making robots, designed to shut up and sell.
The great thing about America is that, yes, we have the opportunity to be anything and anyone we want. But the worst thing – the poorest thing – about her is that she makes it so goddamn hard. Even trying to get off welfare or reinstating yourself into society after paying recompense through time served, positive steps to make you more productive members of society, is met with stymies and No-I’m-Sorry-We-Don’t-Want-Your-Kind-Heres. You must know your place – which in America is defined by your race and your financial worth – and stay there. While the Army begs you to “Be All You Can Be” and to die for a country that doesn’t respect you as an equal citizen. And corporations are begging – demanding – your last dime because “I Gotta Have My Pops!” and “L’Oreal – You’re Worth it!”
Revolution is here, but it is misguided. If the members of the Tea Party, the ridiculous grassroots organization run by people like “Joe the Plumber” that harkens for financial responsibility, actually took a second to understand that the politicians they were aligning with – Republicans – have historically not been on the side of the poor and the struggling, constantly trying to cut social welfare programs so the Top 1% can continue to buy planes and start wars, maybe they would see past their racism and “socialist propaganda” for a President who is trying to help them, but is shut down by a baby-like Congress at every turn.
I’m not here to place the Democrats on a pedestal. First rule in politics is to get reelected. And sometimes that means you do things that are not always in the best interest of the people (like sign “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Mr. Clinton; or send Japanese-Americans to internment camps, FDR). There needs to be an overhaul of the entire system. To not have people elected by how much money they can raise (Look out, Bam! Mitt is moving on up!) or their religious – or non religious – beliefs (so much for Church and State). But this will never happen because America is a business. A business that sells dreams on clearance to the highest bidder.
So what happens now? I’m not going to change the system so I have to make my life work within it. First things first. I need to get a better job. But how? Persistence. I can’t wait around for this TV show to take off or not and catering is a means to an end. So what can I do that won’t make me want to shoot my boss or kill myself? The possibilities will expand in two weeks. That is when I will have a car. I can finally return to PA work, maybe get a job at a studio. I can start auditioning for shows that are a 30 minute drive away that allows me to meet people that might get me better paying jobs elsewhere. Right now, I can apply for writing gigs; magazines, help polishing scripts, maybe even be a reader writing coverage. Somedays, I just want to pack up my clothes and head back to New York to try all over again. But I’m not 21 anymore, not single anymore, and I am much to jaded to think it will be a fairy tale the way it once was. So I stay.
Wherever I go and whatever I do, I know that I am not alone. I have Julian to laugh with. Dodger to snuggle with. My co-workers to struggle with. My parents to listen. And two fully loaded six shooters on my hips, ready to face any job that mozies my way.
So, all you employers out there, I just got one question for you: Do you feel lucky? Well, do you? Punk?