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

Enough with this ‘Millennials’ Bullshit

When I was growing up, I was part of Generation X. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was the youngest of 5 siblings all born from the early 70s to the early 80s, so there it was: Gen X. I never felt particularly tied into everything that seemed to define that generation (we were slackers, we were aimless, we liked Hawaiian pizza), but that’s who I was and so be it.

And then, a few years ago, I started noticing that I was, by chance of my birth, now being grouped in with a whole new generation: Millennials.

I’ve always felt a bit older than my immediate contemporaries. People who are my age or just a couple years younger seemed to have grown up in a very different world than me, and I attributed that to the fact that I had older siblings who, by the force of their personalities and interests, shaped my view of everything from pop culture to politics.

This isn’t just idle comparison: Even if you were both born on January 1st, 1980, the youngest child of a family mostly raised in the 70s would have a very different experience from the oldest child of a family mostly raised in the 80s.

So, despite being born in the early 80s, I felt more or less connected to the generation of the previous decade. Until recently.

You see, I’ve never really liked the music of the 80s. If you were a child born in the 70s, you came of age during the Reagan presidency, those post-Disco years where cocaine was all the rage along with AIDS. It was… a weird decade. And I have almost no memory of it except what has filtered down to me from my siblings and family photo albums.

My one personal connection to the 80s is Back to the Future which is still (along with the sequels) one of my favorite movies. Otherwise – I can admit it – I’m a child of the 90s. Nirvana was so massive in my world that, despite a prohibition on “secular” radio, they loomed large in my mind (more so their legend than their actual music until I was old enough to have my own car).*

In the early 90s, my sister had a car and would occasionally drive me around, which is how I began developing my infatuation for 90s pop music. I will still blast the shit out of some “What A Man” (like I said, it was my sister’s car).

By the time I was old enough to drive, the 90s were coming to the end. Nirvana was long gone, replaced by a lot of crappy post-Grunge bands that I still listened to because that was what I knew of ‘rock’ music. I was never a Creed fan, at least that I can say.

My favorite songs of the era took Cobain’s angst and self-loathing and processed them through gentler, friendlier acoustics. Think Gin Blossoms and Better Than Ezra. The anger was muted, but so was the sense of humor.

I mention my musical preference because, where I once felt like I was Gen X by default despite not actually feeling that close culturally to a lot of them, it seems like I have suddenly become a Millennial by no choice of my own. The most obvious proof that I’m more Millennial than Gen X is that I’d go to a 90s Music Night well before going to 80s Music Night.

And yet I still don’t feel like a Millennial.

Kurt CobainWhat the Hell is a Millennial?

Let’s back up and define the term: Millennials are the generation born from 1980 to 2000. Or from the early 80s to the late 90s, or early 00s. Gen X are people born from the early 60s to early 80s, and a new generation, so-called Generation Z, is from 2000 on. As you can see, there’s a lot of crossover and it’s not very precise. These distinctions have less to do with birth years than with nebulous ideas of cultural and social homogeneity.

Millennials all share some traits, according to some thoroughly scientific analysis, you can be sure: They want meaning from their work; they challenge hierarchy: they embrace technology and change; they “crave” feedback and recognition; they can’t stand Hawaiian pizza.

These traits (among others) are why Millennials are such odd fits in the modern business world. Businesses run by Baby Boomers and, increasingly, Gen Xers, are having trouble integrating this new generation into their system because Millennials expect so much and demand their efforts be recognized immediately. They just don’t seem to understand that business is a machine and humans are the cogs. It’s pathetic.

If you ask some of the current (soon-to-be-former) Leaders of the World about the future LotWs, they’ll explain why Millennials are the way they are: They were never told ‘No’; They watched non-stop television; They all won participation trophies; They grew up with the latest technology; They were never forced to watch that shitty episode of The Brady Bunch where the family went to Hawaii and Bobby finds a mystical Tiki Idol.

These are the reasons why Millennials are not fitting in to the modern business world, and the reasons why they must be crushed so that they will.

And there’s me: I was told ‘no,’ a lot. I watched a lot of television, but I’m starting to realize that in comparison with my peers, not really that much (we were a reading family). I probably only won 3 or 4 trophies in my life, and I played a lot of sports (I was terrible at all of them). Oh, and fuck The Brady Bunch.

Unlike a lot of my peers, I didn’t grow up with constant technology. We had a single family computer with no internet, but it wasn’t until high school that it became a regular part of my daily activity. I didn’t own a cellphone until after I graduated college and bought one for myself.

By all accounts, I’m not much like the prototypical Millennial. And yet: I’m open to change (obviously); I seek meaning in my work (less so my night job than my occupation as a writer); I’m good with technology, and I like (crave is too strong a word) feedback and recognition for my work.

If I entered the business world, I would probably look a lot like a Millennial to the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in charge. What gives?

Is it possible that all these theories about what defines, shapes and unifies a generation are mostly just bullshit that people make up to easily label, clarify and compartmentalize incredibly complex and diverse groups of people? You know, like racism.

Hard to say. But if so, let me offer my own theory as to why Millennials aren’t fitting into the nice little boxes of the business world.

The Baby Boomers and Generation X fucked the Millennials over.

Like, bent us over and didn’t even think about reaching for the lube.

The Great Recession that pulverized the economy and killed career paths for so many of my peers – and which led to me spending 2 weeks in a hospital doing a medical study because I couldn’t find work – was directly caused by Baby Boomers and Gen Xers doing “business as usual” which means with no ethics or consideration for consequences.

The generations that preceded the Millennials fall somewhere in the range from idiots to evil, and maybe it’s for that reason that Millennials don’t go into the workforce willing to just play their role and silently take orders from a group of people who nearly flushed the global economy down the toilet.

Just a theory.

If you’re among the Baby Boomers or Generation X and you bridle at being grouped in with the people who caused the Recession even though you had nothing to do with it, well, there: Now you know what it feels like to be arbitrarily grouped under one negative umbrella because of the random years you were born.

So shut the fuck up. You don’t like how the Millennials behave? Guess what, you created them. You birthed them, you raised them, you gave them all the things you couldn’t have, and then you’re mad at them for being the results of your shitty parenting.

Or, maybe, it was good parenting and this is what it looks like when smart, dedicated, socially-conscious people enter the business world. Maybe business-as-usual is the problem, not Millennials.

Whatever the case may be, the fact is, it won’t be long until the Millennials are the ones in charge, and then we’ll see the world they help shape. Maybe it’ll actually be a welcoming, diverse, forward-thinking business climate.

Ah, who am I kidding, you guys will beat the idealism out of them, just like every older generation has since the dawn of time.

The Me Me Me Generation

Oh, and Millennials: Enough with all this idiotic nostalgia and childhood fetishizing. You’re too young to be this attached to your youth.

*The first non-Christian CD I owned was the Presidents of the United States’ debut. It was immediately taken away when my mom heard “Kitty” playing from my boombox.

The American Century

The numbers make for cold calculations and lazy embraces
I’m in your house, on your couch, beached like a whale
You’ve been giving your kissing disease, again
Spreading your keys among the guests of your party
one to the cellar, one to the front door, one for your safe
and one for your chastity chest
I watch the bottles of liquor drain to the seventies shag
with feet dancing, change jangling and the silence shattered
We’re pretty ugly, but you make us beautiful
just by the glancing touch of your glass fingers along our cheekbones
with all the grace of Gatsby giving in to the bullet
I can see it happening before the fire can suck away our air
You crumbling down the stairs of a black and white movie
Shimmering like a blood diamond, you’re bleeding from the mouth
while they stare and gawk and check their watches
I’ve got your head in my lap like so many hearts in your purse
Mark one, powder and blush, sell the story to the tabloids:
Sad Boy Falls For the Fallen Star of Hollywood
You don’t make eye contact, the world looks at you
Even if it comes at the cost of your lungs, you’ll have last laugh
last affairs, last mistakes, last exits and last cigarettes
Your sweat has soaked through my pant legs before I realize
Even now you’re still using me, a pillow for your death bed