Making it through: Surviving the Great Recession on opioids and vodka

Chapter IV

[Note: The names, they are a-changin’.]

The most scenic route to San Francisco from Orange County is the 101: long stretches of coastal views and cool, dry air whipping through your windows. For our cross state move, Selene and I drove the 5 through the desert.

The trip started with a fight over a flimsy IKEA mattress that refused to stay strapped to the roof of her Jeep. Selene argued for dumping the thing, but I was determined to get that slab of hay to our new home even if I had to ride on top of it. Ultimately, we dumped it by a gas station dumpster just outside L.A.

So began Year 4.

This would be Selene’s first time living away from her parents.

Relocating every year bred routine: rent an apartment, explore the neighborhood, find a job. For Selene, though – joining me despite the vehement objections of her father (strangely immune to my charms) – this relocation upended her entire existence. In addition to her family, she was leaving behind a job, college, and her college boyfriend – her entire life up until that point – to be with me as I pursued my dream; a dream, mind you, without a raison d’être.

We’d gone in with two other couples for a lease in the unfashionable Portola neighborhood of southeast San Francisco. Though the predominantly Asian neighborhood is at a remove from the more celebrated and urban areas (or, at least, was back then), wherever you find yourself in the city’s 49 square miles, you’re never far from some activity.

We arrived under the red glow of the gloaming. Greeting us at the Jeep were Ann and Don, he an aspiring stand-up from Australia, and she the manager of a clothing boutique. Inside were Samantha and Glen, an earthy, vegan couple who, like Selene and myself, were brand new transplants to San Francisco. After first impressions, I expected to have more in common with Ann and Don, but they’d soon demolish that assumption.

With greetings out of the way, Selene and I unloaded our belongings and called it a night. In echoes of my first night in Philadelphia, all we had to sleep on was a pile of blankets.

Exhausted, Selene still couldn’t sleep. The alien surroundings mixed with a motorcycle engine revving belligerently beneath our window had her on edge. I offered to go out and say something to the cyclist, but Selene insisted I stay with her. I was her anchor to the familiar, and would be for some time. I had every intent of staying awake until Selene fell asleep, but eventually I dozed off. She never did.

Our first San Francisco morning, Selene was clearly operating on frayed nerves. I suggested a walk to familiarize her with the neighborhood so the strangeness might dissipate.

She appeared to have calmed some by the time we came across a discarded mattress a few blocks from our apartment. We hauled the find back to our place, and even though we didn’t have the right size bed frame, just having a real mattress to sleep on felt like a victory. Laying sheets down, we crawled into one another’s arms. For a moment, everything felt settled.

The moment was brief.

“Are you okay?” I already knew the answer. I could feel Selene crying into my chest, her body taut as a violin string.

“I can’t do this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t stay here.”

Since our arrival, her anxiety had only grown worse. I attempted to convince her to stay and give San Francisco a chance, to trust that in time she would acclimate. I knew well the unease of unfamiliar territory. My best efforts weren’t enough, though. Even as I begged her to reconsider, she gathered her things and headed to the Jeep.

Out on the street, I tried every last arrow in my quiver to change Selene’s mind. For an instant, I thought I might have succeeded when she slid back out of the driver’s seat. But it was only to give me a tearful, trembling goodbye.

Another woman driving away.

Selene didn’t answer her phone while on the road, so I called Kate, a mutual friend, and filled her in. Kate had worked with us at the bookstore in Costa Mesa and had been privy to every development in our romance from the beginning. Sometimes she seemed as invested in Selene and my relationship as we were.

Kate leapt into action. Throughout the next week, she worked on persuading Selene to give San Francisco another shot. Sometimes, Selene and I would talk by phone, but with 400 miles between us, it was up to Kate to act as our mediator.

Alone again, I had little else to do but wander San Francisco. One afternoon, having stepped into a bookstore, a title caught my eye: Stuff White People Like. Absentmindedly flipping through the pages of the book, one entry stuck out: “Difficult Breakups.” Touché, hipsters, touché. Under the circumstances, the humor was a bit lost on me.

Day by day, Kate chipped away at Selene’s doubts. Finally, Selene called and we discussed what it would take for her to feel comfortable in the city. I vowed to spend all day, every day with her until she felt at home. We would go to shows, take in the sights, have our bohemian, San Francisco romance.

Meanwhile, Selene was remembering why she had gone with me in the first place: her boredom in Orange County, the lack of ambition she felt there, her desire to see more. She was primed to travel. Would she take the risk?

A week after I had helplessly watched her drive away, Selene returned.

It might have been the biggest mistake of her life.

September 2008

It’s hard to express just how disastrously those first months in San Francisco went for us, but consider: We moved to one of the priciest cities in the world at a moment in time that economists have identified as the nadir of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. So, not ideal.

Up until that point, it had never taken me more than a month to find work. In San Francisco, I went without employment until January of 2009. Selene had better luck, landing a gig with the San Francisco Symphony, selling tickets on commission. Bafflingly, the middle of a recession is not the best time to try to hawk tickets to the opera.

And then there was Ann and Don, the Platonic ideal of horrendous roommates. Don, the Australian comedian with an allergy to jokes, didn’t have a visa to work and so spent his days lounging on the couch in his underwear. He might have pulled off the charming layabout cliché if he weren’t such an unrepentant piece of shit. Verbally abusive towards Ann, he berated her for her cooking (though she worked all day, she made his dinner every night) and could be heard yelling at her behind their closed door almost daily.

Ann, who could be perplexingly chipper and assertive with the group, confided her grimmer truths to Samantha: she was pregnant and hoped to keep it, but Don was demanding she abort or he’d leave her. Having furthermore admitted a penchant for finding (nay, seeking) abusive relationships, there was little question which decision Ann would ultimately make. One weekend, the couple disappeared without announcement; when they returned, the matter was closed.

Samantha, Glen, Selene, and I resolved that they had to leave. Best case scenario, Don might be forced to return to Australia and would simply ditch Ann. Since they were persistently behind on the rent and owed Samantha and Glen money, their protestations garnered little sympathy. Still, Ann knew there was only one person responsible for their ousting: me.

Cornering me in the kitchen one afternoon, she unloaded, arguing that she and Don only fought because of my sinister presence. I, it turned out, was the real corrosive element in the household. More stunned than angry, my bemused expression must have rubbed her the wrong way because suddenly she reared back, snatched a spoon from the counter, and flung it at my face. Thankfully, her aim was as poor as her taste in men.

In the midst of that drama, Selene and I had our dwindling finances to worry about. We rarely went out. Instead of drinking cheap whiskey, I settled for cheaper vodka (sacrifices had to be made). We did manage a pleasant New Year’s Eve out when an elderly queer gentleman at the bar took a shining to me and bought us drinks all night in exchange for the occasional ass grab. Worth it.

As our poverty worsened, I grew convinced that my project would become a causality of the recession. The stress dissolved our bound like acid; Selene and I existed in a perpetual cycle of fighting and reconciliation.

In November, Samantha alerted me to a two-week medical study that paid $2,100. I promptly signed up. It was a drug trial. I was administered two different drugs: the first was a potent opioid, while the second was supposed to nullify the narcotic effects of the first in an effort to quell withdrawal symptoms. Either the drug worked or I was on a placebo, because the only effects I felt were constipation.

For the length of the study, I was sequestered on a single floor of the hospital, leaving Selene behind two months after promising to be by her side through everything. She was on her own, and she was fine.

Home sweet home

When I left the hospital – practically rich – Ann and Don were gone.

Shortly afterwards, we received news that Selene’s great-grandfather had passed. Driving down to Orange County to attend the funeral, we had no choice but to stay with her parents where I was not a popular guest. Still, aside for a few pointed remarks about my joblessness, her father was generally civil.

Preparing to leave, I carried our bags to the Jeep. With Selene in the house, her father stood on the driveway, drinking a beer.

“Must feel good to be the man for once,” he called out. We didn’t speak another word to each other.

(At this time, I was also dealing with excruciating pain: my wisdom teeth were coming in, but jobless and without insurance, I had to live with it.)

In December, a charming young woman named Nicki moved in with her kitten, ushering in a quiet, calm breath of fresh air. Our living dynamic was now peaceful. The five housemates spent many nights playing board games or watching movies together.

In January, I interviewed for a management position at the locally owned Books, Inc. I had interviewed for this exact same position when I first arrived in the city, but never received a call back. That was 2008; in the new year, the store manager hired me essentially on the spot. After five months adrift, we found land.

Then Nicki’s breathing problems began. We discovered moist, black mold growing in almost every room of the apartment. At first, we only noticed dark spots in the middle of the walls, but upon investigation, we uncovered thick sheets of growth behind our bookshelves and dressers. Our attempts to wipe it away were futile: the apartment was a lost cause.

Leaving behind our friends – comrades in arms, by this point – Selene and I moved to Outer Richmond, a short walk from the beach. We had been in San Francisco for six months.

After half a year of constant, roiling turmoil, our lives were stabilizing. The new apartment was clean and the new roommates were boring, but in a good way. Selene, adapted to her new life, worked as a bank teller. We could afford the occasional date night, usually Mexican food and margaritas at a corporate chain followed by a film at the indie cinema. We were making it work; we worked.

But there’s no such thing as status quo in my life.

Year 5 was on the horizon.

Keep reading: Chapter V – Chicago

The Road Taken

This road again.

For ten years, I was in a near constant state of financial insecurity as I scrambled to find work, pay off accrued debt, and then save money for my next move. There were precious few moments where I could just relax and feel confident in my situation; when those moments did come, they didn’t last long.

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that as I committed myself to yet another move, my finances would go to hell. As of today, both of my part-time jobs are cutting back hours in the wake of revenue shortcomings, and with that, the razor-thin line I had been attempting to navigate on my way to making my savings goal for the next move has all but vanished.

With just over half a year until my planned departure, I’m looking for a third job just to pay my bills, forget savings.

On the one hand, this is nothing new. I have been here before, more times than I’d like. The constant calculations running through my head, the tightening budget, the imagined conversations with people who I will have to disappoint with broken plans; this is all so routine by now as to almost be laughable. You always stress out, I hear a voice in my head saying, and then it always works out.

Which, while technically true, doesn’t make it easier. Because things don’t just work out, I have to make them work.

Between looking for a third job, taking a TEFL class, working on my writing projects, and trying to have some semblance of a life, something will almost certainly have to give. For sure, if there’s anyone hoping I’d come for a visit before I left, you can pretty well scratch that. Come to New York City, if you like, we have things to do here, too.

And hell, I haven’t even moved to Spain yet; I’m still in the easy part.

This is the part of my life that I hate, honestly. It can feel like drowning. I don’t have a safety net or family to fall back on. I either figure it out, or… I don’t.

Of course, I must not hate it too much or I wouldn’t keep doing it to myself. Or perhaps I just hate the thought of not doing it too much to quit. Either way, once again, I’m locked into a path and the costs are adding up.

Every road in life has a toll; we choose which ones we’re willing to pay. I could have chosen a different one.

There’s a version of my life where I’m not 33 and uncertain about next month’s rent. There’s a version of my life where I’m thinking about taking my girlfriend (or, hm, wife?) out for a Valentine’s Day dinner tonight. There is some version of me in one of the multiverses where I haven’t thought about money for a decade because I make so much of it.

I’ll never meet those versions. The only life I will ever know is the one in which I sacrificed money, stability, career, relationships, and health in the pursuit of a dream. In this universe, I’m doing it again. I suppose it goes without saying that I’ve sacrificed mental health for this, too.

I don’t know how this trip ends. In the long term: Alone and in the dark, just like everyone else. But the path I’m on – this road that keeps winding and threatens to lead me off a cliff – doesn’t have mile markers or destination signs. I can’t look around and say, “I’ve made it this far, I’ve only got a little ways to go,” because there are no landmarks on this route. This life doesn’t have a roadmap, and some day, that lack of direction may just catch up with me.

You know, that famous Robert Frost poem from which I cribbed my title today has two interpretations. The first is the optimistic, greeting card interpretation that people give it when they’re slipping it into graduation speeches and posting it as a Facebook status. “If you choose your own path, that will make all the difference,” the poem seems to be saying. This interpretation is wrong.

The real message of the poem – the warning – is about constantly second guessing our decisions. The narrator spends his life obsessing over the roads he didn’t take. It’s not about a man of  decisiveness, but a man of regrets. We either learn to live with them, or they become everything we see.

It’s something to accept – when I’m broke, when I’m sick, when I’m uncertain how far away from normalcy my next detour will take me – that every path leads to regrets, even when the destination is happiness. I don’t know how this one is going to turn out. One day I may choose the road that leads to nothing but regrets.

Until then, though, I guess I’ll just keep walking.

3 Months in Boston

December 1st marks the end of the first quarter of my year in Boston. This is the last year before I move to New York, the final year of the project and the green light at the end of the dock (and, yes, I get the ominous foreshadowing that reference entails).

The Green Light

Comparing years and cities is a futile exercise, requiring a jumbling of terms that simply do not have the same meaning across the board. City life in Boston is nothing like city life in New Orleans. Apples and Oranges, red socks and bead necklaces.

It’s not even relevant to compare my personal state of being from 1 year ago to that now, as so many factors come into play. In New Orleans, I was working a job I hated for a distasteful company, I had recently been thrust out of yet another ill-advised relationship and my only friend in the city was my roommate, a relationship that would disintegrate into open hostility within a few weeks. Mentally, I was not well.

Here in Boston, the situation is almost comically superior. I have an easy job I enjoy (most of the time), no relationship baggage weighing me down, and a living situation that is conducive to my penchant for enjoying either long, masturbatory conversations on various topics or just saying, ‘Fuck it,’ and getting wasted on a random Wednesday night. Nothing’s ever perfect (especially with a less than impressive reality agent), but after 9 years of this project, the ease by which I’ve settled into this year feels like something I’ve earned.

Which could make moving to New York City a little harder than I expected. As far as cities go, Boston isn’t quite big enough to hold my attention for too long. I will inevitably start feeling that familiar traveling-itch in half a year or so. But a guy could get comfortable in this situation. Drinking buddies, friends who can go out on a moment’s notice, enough financial stability to allow for those random excursions and a location within the city that makes exploring as simple as walking two blocks and getting on the train. I would have to be insane to blow up a situation like that.

I never made any claim to sanity.

The number of causalities this project has racked up could fill a Tarantino film. Romantic relationships, both good and bad, have drowned because of it, close friendships have withered from the distance, jobs with potential for advancement and permanent financial security have been recklessly abandoned, and established social dynamics have been capped at the knees. All for that damn green light.

Who is to say what will happen in the next 9 months? A lot can happen in that much time, even a baby (*a baby will not happen), but a year also has a way of flying by so fast that the boxes I never got around to unpacking are suddenly being taped back up and I’ll be waving goodbye, yet again.

I’m not there yet. I have a lot to look forward to in this year, including exploring more of Boston’s hidden gems and an upcoming cross-country road trip that I’ll discuss further in the upcoming month. But, perhaps what I’m anticipating most is the simple pleasures of a life flush with friends and opportunities. Ultimately, that has always been what 10 Cities was about. The crazy crackhead bosses and drunken debates with moral relativists add spice to my journey, but the building blocks of my decade on the road are the relationships that sustain me in a year, the friendships that pull me out of my head long enough to keep me going just a little bit longer.

If the next 9 months in Boston are anything like the last 3, it’s going to be difficult to say goodbye.

I can’t imagine a better problem to have.

Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge

Google, You Are Fucking My Shit Up


With my current job soon to expire, I’m out there beating the streets (and the internets) looking for work.  I’ve turned in probably 30 applications and/or resumes over the past month, and I will continue to do so as long as I haven’t found anything.

One glaring hindrance when looking for work is the fact that I will be gone in a year (or in this case, less).  For employers, this is certainly a mark against me, even in industries where turnover is normally pretty high.  It’s a bad investment to spend time training a guy who is just going to up and leave, no matter how strong an employee I’d make (and I am reliably a hard worker).

In the past moves, there hasn’t been much real concern that employers would know anything about my project or even be able to Google me, so even if my work history spoke of a nomadic employee, there was still a chance I could convince them that I was there for the long haul. 

Publicity has changed that. 

It’s not so much that I think any of my potential bosses would have read the various articles, and even if they had, they likely wouldn’t remember my name.  However, a Google search of my name plus ‘Seattle’ returns pages of articles about me: a few of the original stories, and the rest a vast network of blogs and websites that merely copied the story.  While that could be a nice little ego boast, in reality all those links translate to very little traffic for my blog all the while guaranteeing that anyone doing even a rudimentary background search on me is going to have my full story laid out in front of them (with pictures).

Forget embarrassing party pictures of drunken debauchery, I’m a search engine away from being un-hireable.

It’s a Catch-22 situation, because I want to build on any publicity to eventually sell this book, but a more public profile could backfire and make finding work increasingly hard each year (and it was already quite difficult).  There’s no 10 Cities / 10 Years if I can’t pay for year 7.

Granted, in the food service/retail industry, background checks aren’t as common (or, at least, rigorous), but when a Google search is only a phone away and the potential employee pool is so vast, it’s hard not to think that my uphill battle is only going to get steeper each year, assuming I can even rally from behind this year and make it out of Seattle.


It’s hard not to be frustrated at the ineptitude in government and the corruption in American business when someone who wants to work, has never been fired and doesn’t want government assistance can’t even land himself a part-time gig.

It’s a frustration felt by a lot of Americans right now, and unfortunately with the election season really gearing up, it’s unlikely anything will be done to rectify the situation anytime soon.  Any successful changes would be too drastic and thus too risky for a politician to attempt right now, so 2012 will almost certainly prove to be a dead year for job growth.

The other side of the coin is hoping for Big Business to put the American worker ahead of profits, and since I don’t believe in unicorns, I won’t hold my breath.

I believe something will come around for me, as it has in years past.  I know, even when it does come, the struggle to save up for my next move will be an arduous one, but I will make it work, somehow.  It’s going to take a little luck and some good timing.

I don’t know how others will make do, though.  I’ve had some good fortune in my life and I’ve luckily avoided major missteps that could make me ineligible for work.  There are plenty of people out there, though, looking for work but with a few mistakes in their past that will negate their efforts.

It’s not about being lazy or looking for handouts.  There just aren’t enough jobs.


To say the least.

The Grind

(I’m loath to write this post, because the well-meaning responses it may illicit will undoubtedly annoy me.  But I write it anyway.)

I’ve been grinding my teeth.

I don’t even realize I’m doing it.  I grind my teeth when I’m reading, when I’m watching television, when I’m at work.  Probably even when I’m sleeping.  I can feel it in my jaw, this sort of radiating soreness from my cheeks to my tongue.

You see, I’ve been stressed lately.

In one of the seemingly most successful job hunts of my seven cities, I landed a job here in Seattle within three weeks of touching down, right in the heart of the downtown shopping district.  Working in retail again – clothing retail, at that – wasn’t my ideal choice, but it was a job and one I knew I could handle with ease.  If need be, I figured, I could snag a part-time gig somewhere else, preferably in food service.

But then, on the dark side of Thanksgiving, in my least favorite time of year, my co-workers and I received the news:  The store is closing in January.

To be honest, I’m kind of amazed that in all the cities I’ve lived, at all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve never before gone through a store closing.  Well, I can’t say that anymore.

The timing of this couldn’t be worse, for me personally (and my coworkers), and for the store in general.

The store (for legal purposes, I won’t say the name of the store, but let’s just say they’ve been famously making jeans for 150 years, give or take) is currently shedding its stock with a ridiculous sale.  This is dumb. The decision-makers in this whole process clearly were not thinking this through. 

It’s December and we’re in the weeks leading up to the ultimate consumer holiday.  People were going to be buying gifts anyway, even without the product being preposterously cheap.  So, now, instead of milking the holiday buying frenzy for a few extra weeks, the company has shot itself in the foot and is now shucking off its stock at cost.  I’m no business major, but this strikes me as remarkably shortsighted.

The other poor decision was to close in January instead of February.  This decision is certainly financially motivated, and just as certainly not made with any consideration for the employees.  If the store remained open an extra month (to run out the lease), the employees would be out looking for work on the verge of spring, when companies start gearing up for their summer hiring season.  Instead, we are forced to look for work in the dead of winter.  It’s called the dead of winter for a reason.  Nobody is shopping (they’re all too broke from their ‘religious holiday’), and in turn, nobody is hiring.

Staying open an extra month would have cost the company a little more money in order to pay its employees, but on the other hand, they could have taken better advantage of the holiday shopping season and still had the Crazy Blowout Everything Must Go Sale afterwards.

Everything about this decision reeks of corporate indifference and ignorance.

I wish I could say I would never work for a corporate store again, but I know that I don’t have the personal leverage to make that sort of stance.  I have to take whatever work I can find.

Which brings me back to the grinding teeth.*

I’m out there looking for work.  My coworkers are, too.  We’re taking each other’s emails and phone numbers and keeping our eyes open for any info to pass on.

I’ve been looking for work longer than most of my coworkers because I knew I needed a second job even before the store closing was announced.  I’ve interviewed at multiple places to no avail.  I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the week before Christmas is probably the absolute least-likely week to find a job, but I’ve got to try.

This all has the whiff of San Francisco for me.  That was the year that took me nearly 5 months to find a job.  The recession had only just begun earlier that year and I was probably the most stressed I had ever been.  A well-paying medical study helped get me through long enough to find work.  This current job is kind of the equivalent of that medical study, a stopgap source of income before I find my real Seattle job.  At least, I’m hoping I find a real Seattle job.

Being on my seventh year, I have two voices raging a debate inside my head:

Voice 1:  You’ve been down this road half a dozen times, and a job always turns up.  Don’t be so worried about it.  Everything will work out.
Voice 2:  Yes, but past experience is not predictive of future experience.  This could be the year I fail.
Voice 1:  Maybe it’s not predictive, but it can be sufficiently indicatory.
Voice 2:  I don’t think that’s a word.
Voice 1:  Of course it’s a word, you ignorant twat.
Voice 2:  Shut the fuck up.

As you can understand, these are very annoying voices to have in my head.  I can’t help but feel Voice 2 has the more logical point.  There is no guiding spirit here, no rule that says I have to succeed.  There are plenty of people out there who cannot find work in this economy, who have looked so long that they have given up.  What sets me apart?  If I press my luck long enough, might it give out?

Voice 1 still gets its say and when the sun breaks through the clouds, I find it easier to listen to him.  But Voice 2 has me grinding my teeth, even when I don’t think I’m thinking about my situation.

This project has always been about my right to fail on my own terms, to fall on my face pursuing my dream rather than to achieve success following someone else’s.

And maybe failing would have its own perverse sense of satisfaction attached to it.

But failure is not something I have ever done gracefully, and it is not something I am willing to concede. 

In the wake of corporate greed and political stagnation, I press on.  We all press on.  Collectively.  Alone.

And if I grind my teeth to the gums, well, so be it.  There’s always dentures.

*I’d hate to think how much more stressed I’d be if I celebrated this present-based holiday.

Thoughts during an illness.

I’m flu-ish and on medicine and I thought of writing this post while I was unable to sleep last night, so let’s hope it manages to stay coherent.  If not, enjoy the ride.

(Some fitting musical accompaniment for this post.)

Ever since I’ve been on my own, starting with my freshmen year of college, there has been one consistent theme in my life:  a lack of money.  Granted, that’s a pretty common theme for most people (like, ninety percent of the world’s population, actually), but we’re focusing on me today.

In college, I dated a girl who went to college in Chicago while I studied in Kansas.  Having to be apart so much, we decided to live together during the summers while she did internships with newspapers.  First, in Washington D.C. and then, the summer after I graduated, in Charlotte (which is where my 10 Cities Project began).

While I only lived in D.C. for 3 months, in many ways it was the practice run for these yearly moves.  I had to find a job within a short period of time while exploring a city I had never been to before.  (For the record, D.C. is an amazing city.)  While saving up money to make the move, there was a constant fear of not being able to make enough, and then, once I was in D.C., there was the concern that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job and be able to pay my half of the rent.  Well, I made it, but just barely.

And then Charlotte:  Wash, rinse and repeat.  All the same concerns, all the same pressure.  In fact, every year since the year I moved to D.C., I have had to deal with the same series of concerns:

Would I have enough money to make my move?
Would I have enough money once I moved to last until I found a job?
Would unexpected expenses sideline the whole endeavor?

Repeat ad nauseum.

It’s that last concern that is particularly stressful, exactly because it’s all about the unknowns.  While I can’t control how good the job market is going to be in any city I move to, it’s my responsibility to get out there and apply over and over again until something comes of it.

And saving money is, if I’m allowed to boast, my one special skill.  Every year, I must hit my savings goal without being such a tightwad that I miss out on opportunities to enjoy the city I live in, and I’ve been fairly successful.

But there’s no way I can possibly plan for unexpected expenses.  Obviously.

It could be an illness that waylays me for a few days (I’m missing a couple shifts of work because of this current bout).  Maybe it’s the sudden and unforeseen implosion of my laptop.  Maybe it’s the death of someone I know requiring that I fly out for a funeral (thankfully, this hasn’t happened, but it’s conceivable that it could).  Any number of events could pop up out of nowhere and throw a wrench in my plans.  And they have.

For instance:

When I was dating the girl in Chicago, I managed to snag a few pricey speeding tickets while visiting her (in fact, the only speeding tickets I ever received in my life were in route to or from seeing her).  One particular time, while driving home from Chicago late at night, I began feeling woozy and nauseous.  I was zipping down the road, attempting to get home as quickly as possible so I could sleep.  Which is when I passed a cop car that was crawling on the highway.  He nailed my ass going 90 in a 70 (I was actually going faster, but I had managed to hit the brakes).

After that, I was sick for the next couple of weeks.  I assumed it was the flu.

Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago (flying this time) for my girlfriend’s birthday.  I bought her tickets to see a concert (Ben Kweller, with The Unicorns if I remember right, though I was pretty sick so there’s no guarantee I do), at which I spent most of the show in the back hallway, barely able to stay on my feet.  It wasn’t the flu.  It was strep throat.

The next day, having no money and no insurance, the girlfriend and I went to a free clinic in a sketchy part of Chicago (I’m guessing South Chicago, but I can’t honestly remember).  There we waited for approximately 2 hours (maybe longer) before I managed to see someone who confirmed what I already knew, strep.  They gave me a shot of penicillin.  In the ass.

I’m not sure if there is an ideal place to receive a shot of penicillin, but the ass isn’t it.  My right leg went completely numb and I hobbled out of there like Frankenstein’s monster in a cast.

For the next two years, I came down with strep throat at the same time of year, like it was a holiday.  Unlike Chicago, Charlotte and Philly didn’t have free clinics (at least, that I could find).  I had to pay a couple hundred dollars each time for clinic visits and antibiotics.

The point, if I feel like getting to it, is that there are always these kinds of unpredictable costs every year.  I haven’t gotten strep in a few years, but every year there is some random expense that, in the moment, seems like it’s going to ruin everything.

Which makes me wonder, what if those unexpected expenses didn’t pop up?  In a hypothetical world where I didn’t get strep throat, where my computer never crapped out, where any number of financial surprises didn’t appear like a Cheshire Cat, how would my travels have been different?

Would I be sitting on a larger pool of savings right now, or would I just have more stuff?  Assuming I didn’t have to spend that extra couple hundred dollars to have the porcupine removed from my throat, likely I would have bought a few extra CDs, some books and movies,  maybe gotten a few extra drinks with friends.

Would I be better off with more money, more things?

I don’t own much right now.  Other than a little bit of furniture that I’ll leave behind when I move again, all I own are my clothes, a laptop, some kitchen supplies and a couple boxes of books and DVDs.*  I don’t really need any more than that.  Want more?  Sure, but need…

Make no mistake, I’m not grateful for strep throat.  No one who has ever had strep would ever be grateful for that throat holocaust.

But having these extra expenses in my life over the length of my travels has taught me, forcibly, just how minimal a life I can live.

I have a sort of odd fear that someday I’ll achieve enough financial security that I’ll be able to fill my life up with stuff.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live my whole life stressing over money.  I would love to have a steady enough income that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or buying groceries.  But, at the same time, I know how security leads to complacency and laziness.

I’d like to think that if I ever get to a place where I’m financially secure, I won’t completely lose the ability to live minimally.  I want to have enough money to take care of myself and my loved ones and to travel and experience the world and art.  But once those basic needs are taken care of (and traveling is a basic need for me), I hope I find better things to do with my money then buying a TV with 3D glasses or sheets with a 500-thread count (both perfectly nice things, I’m sure).

It’s too easy to forget the difference between what we want and what we need.  Sometimes, an unexpected financial crisis helps bring things into focus.

*I realize that in most of the world, owning what I own would practically make me a king.  I have no delusion that I am by any means poor or lacking, not in a global sense.