On Being Lifestyle Rich and Credit Poor, or “The New American Dream”
“This is my super famous writer friend.” That’s how a former friend in the liquor industry would often introduce me to her colleagues, always carefully delivered with an air of backhanded condescension. I always found it confusing to be announced in this manner because I already knew most of these people.
After writing about restaurants, bars and hotels for the past 15 years, it was understood that should there be a good angle for a story, we would undoubtedly connect. I never saw myself as a super famous writer or even successful. Just someone doing their job. Still, I winced with embarrassment. I had written a book, after all, and it felt so gauche and condescending. Give me some credit.
This is the New American Dream: to fake it until you make it, and still feel like it’s never enough.
There is no manual for when you start making little wishes and dreaming big little dreams, then end up in this extremely shitty spot chronically trying to prove and explain yourself to everyone.
Then the day you need help because you made some financial miscalculations and would like to profit off of the many years of work you invested into projects that keep getting deleted, you finally have to let it go
So you say, I’m REALLY going to DO IT: write The Next Great American Novel. Or rather, a humorous sort of take on that. It’s a little bit of an audacious statement, after all. The Holy Grail for American writers.
You should try to do this horrible terrible thing because you will fail even if you succeed. To succeed requires everyone hating you because they’re jealous petty bitches and you’d be one of them for such a bold claim to a throne.
“But who is this bitch?! Trying to write The Next Great American Novel?”
You have to suffer really hard for it, destroy all of your relationships, spiral out on a drug-fueled adventure where you truly find yourself Under The Tuscan Sun in Ireland, throw a tormented love story in there, face death multiple times, curse God, find God, have a complicated relationship with God, apologize to God, thank God for being alive, accept your body, confront your past, present and future, walk through the flames of hell, and then go get a day job being grateful.
But back to the insecure bartender: Given incessant need to name-drop every so-and-so band, bartender, dealer or whomever else was in her “super famous” arsenal, I assumed I received the same treatment when it was relevant to her immediate self-serving needs.
“You know, I know a writer for GQ,” I would imagine her casually purring while trying to solicit a new Instagram follower. Both seemed to bear the same level of importance to her, as to say, “I know people; I am relevant.” I preferred the other method: “Literally not giving a fuck about these people and concentrating on my own needs.”
In retrospect, I don’t think she ever delivered a genuine compliment to me in her life, though she was very good at “looking out for me.” For example, offering to hook me up with her “Jew lawyer friend” so we can make “Jew babies,” then immediately sleep with him, almost to spite me.
This is a woman that I helped settle into two different homes, cleaning her apartment and buying snacks to help her with a housewarming party. A woman who I believed and supported as she left her abusive marriage. Who I celebrated with time and again. And who would eventually cycle her own abuse onto friendships and relationships like a mob boss, because making other women feel small while vying for the attention of men is how she survives in the world.
Or maybe we just triggered each other. Who knows? It’s hard to say when you’re not busy being insecure about yourself but just wrapped up in the notion of survival.
“Don’t forget,” I said, after spending two hours unpacking her room. “I’m your real friend.” And like that: as soon as I left New York, I was dead to her and a lot of other people who I thought were my friends.
“Super famous writer friend.” Famous? Not really. Accomplished? Depends on your definition of success. Certainly lifestyle rich and credit poor, or “The New American Dream” as we say around these parts!
Lifestyle rich and credit poor, or “The New American Dream” as we say around these parts!
Admittedly, I sound pretty good on paper: “James Beard nominated journalist. Author. Four content marketing awards. International food and travel writer at illustrious magazines. Former edibles columnist for Snoop Dogg and cannabis astrologer to the stars. Seasoned hotel and restaurant reviewer at Fodor’s Travel, CNN Travel, and NBC. Influential woman of cannabis.” Then you look at your bank account and think, “Oh fuck. What do I do now?!”
Of course, we don’t use paper anymore, so the digital footprint requires a substantial amount of finessing within the fiercely competitive digital landscape. Do I sound quippy on Twitter? Do I use emoji on Instagram? I wavered back and forth about how much I should talk myself up or play myself down on LinkedIn, or if I could even go back into an office again. Even then, that’s not a business.
That’s the secret: nearly all of your favorite award-winning writers have shitty day jobs or are trying to make ends meet through speaking engagements, and if you want to be ethical, trust that it will cost you more than you hoped for.
Turns out that anyone can call themselves anything they want now, and then erase it like it never happened. The HR system is an algorithm, if you’re lucky enough to get a response. Keywords, hashtags and algorithms have made “content” so reductive.
“Content is king!” “Join the conversation!” “Yasss kween be a girl boss!” Can I stop using hashtags now? I am an adult woman growing a bit tired of infantilizing myself to be “hip with the kids.” I have truly arrived at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the Millennium dream.
I may not have health insurance or a steady job, and operate constantly within a questionable future, but at least I can remain entitled to my complete lack of surprise any of this is happening. Also: I reserve the right to use all of the aforementioned because I am a Millennial and our generation is still considered very entitled.
No one actually wants to be a broke writer. And no one is surprised when it happens, either. We all love a good “Life in Crisis” segment on NPR these days, but most of us want to be the writer who works for NPR and somehow makes enough money to live on the Upper East Side while musing sympathetically about what it must be like to truly suffer.
Still over here trying to figure out how to pivot into full Fran Lebowitz with sardonic wit about the true “New York experience.” Just haven’t found my partner-supported meal ticket. Instead: you cross your fingers hoping that when you’ll get that J.K. Rowling moment where you can look back and say, “I was my most raw when I was writing out of a car.” Then, you can be exalted to sainthood only to be torn down. At least she has her billions to sleep on and a successful back-up pseudonym while being canceled.
That said, I wasn’t quite living out of a car when I was living hard and desperate. To be fair, I am still living hard and desperate, but it would be so much better with a car right now. Carrying all of your belongings around with you is exhausting. At least with a car, you can sleep in it. But you need a residence in order to register one of those things. So, it makes sense why so many people are living the RV #vanlife now. Is that a hot trend? Maybe I should pitch it somewhere. Tiny homes are the new Hoovertowns of these Roaring ‘20s, so maybe RVs are the new… “something.”
Where can I pitch stories anymore? So many outlets are folding.
Fifteen years ago, I didn’t anticipate the demise of journalism, so I spent a very long time trying to establish credibility, which is quite expensive. I grew up with a single mother and absent father, where I was told I could “Dream it, live it, be it” and also, if I wanted to go to art school, I could the military and they could pay for it.
I put myself through school, paid off my loans (which I have been advised retroactively was stupid), worked my way up, and accepted that many of these jobs weren’t for people like me. I never tried to compete for them, so I never really understood or appreciated success.
If you want the flashy job at the cool magazine, agency or to get ahead, you are expected to dress the part. No one was surprised, of course—which honestly worries me, considering lifestyle writing is known for carrying the ad support that pays for free press for hard and investigative news journalism to exist. The real privilege was being able to get a dead-end job. Anyone can just start their own brand. See what I did there?
As a result of writing my first book (which I actually love so much and is pretty helpful, if you want to buy it!), I am proud to announce that I am still struggling to make ends meet, slammed with substantial credit card debt, taxes I still need to file and two friends I owe money to while living on my friend’s couch, desperately trying to find a decent sublet without credit, residency, insurance, or regular income during an anxiety-inducing coronavirus pandemic. It sounds like a pretty sweet life, if you remove all the bad parts hiding below the very fragile surface.
It’s much more inspiring to write the story of how you overcame tragedy after the fact, but when you are in the middle of a crisis, know that how you carry yourself will always be judged. And some people never make it on the other side. Fortunately (I guess?), this isn’t the first time I have experienced housing insecurity. I grew up living in motels, charity housing, and a stream of apartments. This is just the idiocy of me making a few misguided choices to go pursue some misguided pipe dreams.
The thing is, a lot of people are living this way offline. The amount of exceptionally talented career journalists, copywriters, marketers, and other word-oriented talent had started to diminish in the age of text-based communication.
In October, James Beard nominated writer, Shauna Ahern came forward with her article, Offline, No One Knows You’re Poor. I knew many people who had privately moved home over the past few years, unable to secure apartments and crushed by the weight of keeping up with rising rent costs and a lifestyle that says, “I can afford this.” I was helping to manufacture that, and wondered: Who is buying all of this, anyway?
I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was willing to take me in Ireland for a few months, but her perception of what she saw in the States and poverty was limited to her own understandings in their country or elsewhere. She thought I was exaggerating. She didn’t get it. She just saw my stuff because the internet is different there and we had a Jewish-Catholic cultural misunderstanding. As a friend said, “You’re matrilineal polar opposites of guilt and shame.” I smother with affection to guilt; she represses to show tough love. We both loved each other and hated each other because we couldn’t see each other, and our friends refused to help us understand each other. We all disbanded.
Many people I know are chronically overdrawing their accounts to keep up with rent, car payments, food, internet, phone, and small budgeting for a way of life. To be fair, it is hard to explain how you are carrying a substantial amount of luxury goods you never paid for as a result of your ultra-glamorous lifestyle that doesn’t match up to your impoverished writer realism. I don’t know, I was listening to a lot of music about being a bad bitch, since I writing about it so much. Isn’t that the dream? This is how these industries work: you get everything for free so that the years of expertise and research you worked on suddenly look like hobbyism and you look like a spoiled brat.
Don’t get me wrong. The perks are incredibly nice to have on the side while you’ve got a job. But eventually it became its own form of survivalism, assuming I’d get some job and continue to write on the side. That became its own double-edged sword.
Any other day, this would sound pretty par for the course in New York City. I recently met a real estate agent who sells $10 million condos yet lives with roommates in Ridgewood. How does that work? That’s the perception of money and success in a world where you can just put an image of yourself online and people can judge you about what they think they see or what you have that they want, rather than manifest their own dreams. I just wasn’t expecting the backlash to come from my best friends and sisters from different misters.
Am I a digital nomad or homeless? I can’t tell anymore. Most people in this situation have the comfort of their parents to fall back on, which is incredibly common now. “The Boomerang Generation,” as they call it.
In their worst case scenario, a basement or childhood bedroom can provide an unfortunate but beautiful crash pad. A judgmental sibling, or a partner to rely on. Man, I wish I was that lucky. Not like that’s a lucky situation for anyone, though painfully common.
My mother and grandmother rely on each other in the south suburbs of Chicago, where my mom suffers from feeling like she is being harassed, gassing with chemicals, the sink water is contaminated, and she is being doused with yellow bloc. She was wearing face masks before it was cool, and never quite got the cred for it. She is suffering, I believe, because of trauma. I suffer because she suffers. I love her because I want her to love herself. She wants so badly to shine, but it’s been so many years. I survive to help her survive. I create hard boundaries as to not become her. Though, living back out of my suitcase meant I relived it all over again.
In these very strange times, the delusions of my mom’s lifelong struggle dealing with prolonged psychosis don’t sound that farfetched when considering the reality we are presented with of The New Normal. Who knows? Once you’ve been marked, it’s hard to reestablish your credibility, and that’s why I have tremendous empathy for those who have been unfairly marked in the mental health and prison sectors.
Honestly, if she wasn’t getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to scream at the neighbors about being victimized, re-traumatizing me from my childhood of watching her cycle through the Cook County prison and psychiatric systems, it would be a really comfortable living situation.
It’s the piercing screams I can’t take, and the knocking on the walls. I can always hear her whispering to herself in the other room, or talking loudly in the shower. She has no one else to talk to, so maybe this is how she has coped over the years. I love her so much because I want her to be happy, and I don’t know what to do for her anymore. So I just run away and remind her that she has made her own bed.
To that point, as everyone went home, I realized that wasn’t an option for me and many didn’t understand, which is how I ended up in Ireland in the first place: I just needed a rest, to recoup my money, to get away from the coked up bartenders and their incessant drama, to figure out my next steps, to clean myself up, dry out, and be ready for love. It was love that changed me and broke me, because I didn’t feel at my best anymore and had become upset at the woman I had become.
Everyone was infuriated at me or didn’t even notice, and many didn’t even believe me because I don’t “look” like someone who is struggling, even though I had only made $12,000 that year and was living off the luxury lifestyle industry, friends couches, hostels, hotels or whatever travel, food and commodity writing I could get just until my book came out and I could get a another job.
I genuinely love both of them, as they both instilled a deep sense of empathy in me. My grandmother is an expert cook, keeps a safe, clean and comfortable home, and they both love me dearly. It’s too bad that it is both psychologically damaging for me to live there and I don’t have a car, because otherwise it would be chill. They mean well, and we all high-fived as my mom proclaimed that she would be on my team no matter what: “Team crazy!” It’s nice to be accepted for the anxious-depressive ball of mess I’ve become.
All I wanted to do was to be successful and make enough money to ensure that I would have a nice life, eventually provide a nice life for my mom. Kind of like the movie Hustlers, but with intellectual prostitution instead of stripping. We all sell our bodies one way or another. Up until all of my “success,” I had a great paying job and had just hit the six-figure mark. It was love that made me realize I didn’t care about all of that stuff, I just wanted to be home, safe, and cozy with the gentle man I had fallen for. I was embarrassed for him to meet them, or feel burdened, and realized no matter whom I’m with, that’s always going to be apart of my past. The admirable parts and the difficult ones, of a family you feel so much love and estrangement from.
It is painful to see someone live with such torment. The anticipation of losing my grandmother has left me with considerable amounts of guilt knowing I could barely take care of myself most days and didn’t know what to do with her, which they remind me of at every moment. No one wants to be reminded of that. Why wouldn’t I run away to cover fancy hotels and restaurants, like everyone else?
Obviously this is highly unsympathetic. Eventually you are not a child anymore, and what you went through doesn’t matter. People take you at face value, so when you ask for help and are not the image of someone who needs help, it becomes quite a really complicated ask. You are reminded that others have it worse, and you know that they do.
Still, what to do you when you can’t find a home, even if you have a job? Maybe you had six of them, and the checks all came in at different times or never at all for work you had done. You just try to remember when you had the good job, the good apartment, did everything right, paid off your student loans, got the good clothes and the nice food, bought ethically and tried to be a good person. Because no, this only happens to bad people.
Is this what happened to my mom? Did she just make a wrong turn and couldn’t get out of her own ditch? She can’t remember anymore. She’s been living in her own trauma loop that long. Between my crazy mom and my elderly grandmother, I just get caught in the middle of listening to two sides where both people think they’re right when both sides could be wrong. Or sometimes one side was right, and the other was wrong. It felt like an amazing metaphor for how no one listens to anyone anymore in this country.
When you grow up learning survivalism through constantly moving and living with extremes, it becomes your sense of normalcy. So when it came to living off of the luxury hospitality industry, it was somewhat of a precarious Catch 22: it was both my area of subject matter expertise and the intent to write about, but also no where to publish. In my attempt to keep up with vetting information, it seemed as though my reputation didn’t even matter anymore.
That was fine. I was OK with getting “a job.” I just didn’t know what I did anymore since most people admitted they were barely reading magazines. I wondered if anyone was seeing anything or remembering it anymore, as the whole world competed against itself just to get a tiny fraction of information out there.
That said, how can I not have a healthy sense of humor about all of this? Please name me someone whose family does not have issues and I will give you a sprawling list of people who come from broken homes. The best part: We are all in this together! Except some of us are not, have not, and never will be.
This is why a lot of people don’t want to discuss things, and also when terrible things happen, it makes everyone uncomfortable. I don’t know to do for her, she doesn’t know what to do for herself. You stop asking friends, you talk about it in therapy, and then the day you can’t afford therapy anymore, all of the problems you have been quietly holding onto for the past 35 years become everyone else’s problem. Sorry, I didn’t ever expect you to figure that out, I just couldn’t go back there!
Still, even with the best laid plans, things can go awry. She falls within the gray area of not being an immediate threat to herself and other people, while also always being one step away from pissing off the wrong person. She deserves some peace, which would give me a sense of peace. I was pleased to hear they’re making strides with cannabis and psilocybin. I have a lot of opinions on that, but I am not going to touch that quite yet.
On my end, I was hoping I’d have another job right now, preferably the one within the industry I spent 15 years working towards. The good news is: I no longer take any of this personally.
Existential despair had become a problem over the past year while living out of my suitcase, floating around like an air plant with no real reason to be anywhere. But also: the panic over needing to plant some roots.
“What do you want to do?” It’s hard to rectify what you should “do” after spending two years writing yourself to death while oscillating between extreme poverty and luxury.
Tell no one. No one must know. It will undermine your authority, which is the thing you have been working on for 15 years. If anyone knows you are struggling, it will make you look like you do not know what you are doing, even though you are clearly an expert in digital nomadism, extreme luxury, an infinite amount of topics as a subject matter expert and generalist, and also being homeless. This is a phase. It will get better. This isn’t that bad. It could be worse. You are OK.
One minute, you’re living off rice and beans most of the week, dealing with your alcoholic roommate routinely burning out your pots and pans after coming home shitfaced nightly from post-shift crying drinks at the 4 a.m. bar you live above with the cokehead bartender. The next: you’re whisking off to enjoy the spoils of an all-expenses-paid trip to the $690 million Palms Casino Resort grand opening to witness the Caligula-approved fall of the Western Empire decadence in the desert among hundreds of beautiful faceless social media influencers from Los Angeles, overflowing shellfish and caviar platters, endless pools truncated with the most eye-rolling collection of Damien Hirst statues during a water crisis, with a sampler platter of performances from Cardi B, Travis Scott, Marshmello, Skrillex, Alicia Keys. It was all circumstantial, I swear!
The caveat, of course, is that free isn’t free. None of this is about you.
I had to actually tell people who were interested in this particular experience that this was the coolest place on the planet in order to get paid for my time. For how else would they continue to sell $1,000 Grey Goose bottle service to everyone wanting a taste of the club life?
If I was going to pay for my own Vegas weekend on the actual earnings I could afford from my writer life, it would be extremely cheap. We would all be splitting beds, hitting the dispensary, and watching Robo-Britney while hoping our ticket price goes towards her legal fund for giving her a sense of autonomy. However, I did live my own super awesome Vegas life experience while there — I just never wrote about it in that light. Sit back, enjoy the trip and write about it for everyone else.
To be a professional is to recognize it is never about you.
I am both a smashing success and an utter failure. After all, how can you narrowly survive through such disaster without such a skillset, talent and a touch of luck? Good news: I have learned trial-by-error. They don’t teach you these things in art school or journalism school, which I know because I have been through both. This is incredibly common. In the words of RuPaul: “Charisma. Uniqueness. Nerve. Talent.”
Handling other peoples’ budgets is something I am quite skilled at, but managing my own is a pain in the ass. Give me a million dollars and I can make content magic. Ask me to do my own taxes, and I’ll have a complete breakdown. I am still working on my taxes, and I am still crying.
When you are a freelance writer, you become a one-stop shop. Except intellectual property requires negotiations and chasing checks that don’t show up in order to deal with the massive amounts of paperwork usually handled by an accounting department.
Writing a book was my first mistake; going back into journalism was my second. I was making great money before I did either of those things. You see, I was smart enough to independently pay off my student loans, but not smart enough to look into establishing an LLC or S-Corp before signing on to become a subject matter expert on Hudson Valley and the Catskills — two incredibly complex, historically embedded, sprawling regions — into an easily digestible travel book format geared towards the incredibly diverse needs of New Yorkers.
That’s how this all of this started and how I ended up here: I birthed a beautiful bastard. Some people think that’s an unfair assessment, but considering the whole thing was an accident as I was saddled with a permanent manifestation of my intellectual efforts and a sizable amount of debt sufficient for a college fund. I’d say that I deserve to be showered with all the gifts I gave everyone else for their weddings and babies who suddenly went M.I.A. And here I had to buy my own Kitchenaid!
Writing a utility book is much harder than writing free-flowing writing. It is also much, much more expensive. Writing from your memory requires the gift of imagination. Writing a travel book requires things like a budget, which will never be offered again by any publisher. Or, in my case: negotiating with nine tourism boards to arrange FAM trips, fronting expenses and invoicing, and hoping that you can just write all this stuff off eventually on your taxes, which you forget to do because you are very busy being intellectually enslaved to your publisher and writer life now that you do not have the funds or emotional bandwidth to pay taxes.
But will there be dividends on the royalties?! I did this all so that you could have a good time and support the existence of nice things like farms, artists, museums, nature, and cozy bed and breakfasts!
Writing from your memory requires the gift of imagination. Writing a travel book requires things like a budget, which will never be offered again by any publisher.
No one saw I was murdering myself writing my book while also full-time freelancing. But most of my friends and family members had lots of unsolicited advice to give me when I finally burned out and asked for help:
“If your journalism career isn’t working out, maybe you should get a different job, Carly.”
“Your book isn’t going to sell. No one is going to care about your fucking book.”
“I bristle at you using the word ‘artist’ to describe yourself.”
“I wouldn’t call you an ‘artist.’ Maybe a ‘creative.’”
“You should be sensitive to the fact that other people haven’t written books.”
Not Jackie. Jackie didn’t judge me. “You are not a product of your productivity.” That’s what he says, reminding me of this every morning as I wake up on his couch, gripped with panic as I face another day ahead. Fuck, what am I supposed do today? I can’t even remember. I used to be so on top of my shit, too. How embarrassing.
Embarrassment. That’s a nagging feeling. I had been feeling a lot of that around the time I started asking for help and was instantly judged for it.
As it turns out, while everyone on the internet wants to have “a candid conversation” about poverty and mental health, there is always a level of decorum required when asking for it. “Please sir, I would like my basic needs met on the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.”
If you don’t have things like insurance, a job, or permanent residence, it is somewhat difficult to sit through the complicated process of filling out paperwork, conjuring up money to pay for the services, and then there’s the stigma. Please explain to me how someone can suffer from being in the red zone without anxiety and depression?
When you’re desperate, you say and do a variety of unfortunate things because time, patience, and tact are, unfortunately, not options when you are actively displaced.
I was always on top of my finances, my mental health and tried to stay out of trouble because I knew that once you have been branded with these issues, you are basically considered a threat to the same society that never cared about you to begin with. I know because I saw this happen to my mom, who was among the many who have been through the Cook County prison system, which currently doubles as a psychiatric facility. She is permanently traumatized from her own psychosis, as well as the reminder of what she went through being there. Imagine how black and multiracial people must feel, too.
This is why I never spoke of her and spent my entire life trying to get a good paying job, save my money, and ensure some kind of future for myself until I was laid off and impulsively decided to take a book deal. Sorry I didn’t become an accountant or computer programmer. Even now, I feel weird speaking on her behalf and talking about this is exceptionally challenging.
Considering that I’m an accomplished white woman who was born here, I don’t exactly fit the image of poverty in America. Because I’m not. However, I am the average American who is lifestyle rich and credit poor as a result of making a series of taking opportunities and trying to chase an aspirational life I was writing about but not living. Faking it til you make it.
You have to spend money to make money, which is why to dress the part of a successful person requires looking top notch. Shopping at sample sales, stocking up on skincare, and all of the best make up. It feels good to treat yourself, and you are reminded of this. There is a fantasy of the way that we want to live our lives and the ways that we actually do, and when you travel into another neighborhood, another state or suburb, it makes sense why none of us are on the same page.
Even when I was making really good money, I wasn’t exactly the target demographic for Gucci even though I was writing about it all the time. It’s not like you’re making mad cash as a sales associate at Balenciaga while hawking products to guys in marketing and fintech, or whomever is buying Gucci and Balenciaga these days to wear to ZOOM calls.
It’s easy to think that fashion is indicative of wealth and class, but not really. For example, the gorgeous vintage tweed coat I picked up while I was traveling was £10. Meanwhile, years ago when I was “lifestyle decent and credit responsible with an editorial budget,” I ate at Chez Panisse (which will go down as one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life) where I sat across from some shlub guzzling down wine in a Facebook shirt, who presumably worked there, or at least makes enough money to eat a tasting menu at one of the world’s most iconic modern American restaurants and was unable to afford a decent shirt or to wash his hair! So sad!
So, it made sense that when I was operating out of my suitcase as the fanciest homeless person on the planet, and it became an absolute mindfuck trying to figure out where I belonged, and not a particularly empathetic ask for anyone when I needed help.
It also takes a few months to find a job and apartment. If you do not have one or the other, most people live out of their cars—something I also didn’t have, and also requires the aforementioned. Do we understand the homelessness problem and disconnect of people who willing and capable to do jobs and unable to? How is it that I am both remarkably successful and it has taken me this long to find “a job”?
It is somewhat challenging to explain to people when it looks like you’re gallivanting around Europe that it’s actually cheaper than trying to find a place to shack up in the U.S. Most Americans don’t have a passport.
Plus, I was living off my press credentials. I did plan on writing about all of these places, however, dealing with insanely long follow-up emails that went nowhere meant I wasted so much time. I really should have become a social media influencer. Those people apparently make $100,000 per month. In a past life, I would love to write for the New York Times travel section—it’s too bad no one is going anywhere these days.
I find it utterly confusing how the shitty bodega sandwiches in New York are somehow more expensive than a sandwich made with delicious ingredients in France, a place where they actually have organic agricultural standards.
That “farm-to-table” stuff wasn’t a mouthpiece: it’s actually healthier for everyone and promotes ecological sustainability, which is why these educational articles and championing local food is important for things like feeding marginalized communities through educational farming, food development programs and addressing disparity in access.
If anything, this does make me an incredibly gifted travel guide to living beautifully on a dime—something which the U.S. is going to take a very, very, very long time to recover now.
I am here when you need me.
Here, let me plug my book again for micro-tourism travel in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, which I pitched to multiple outlets over the past six months and was rejected for while chasing the other checks that might have shown up, while sending out my resume to try to get a new job, explaining what I was doing the past two years as I was writing a very exciting book and living an exceptionally weird and desperate life.
Besides, I did bring this all upon myself, after all. I guess that’s why I understand why a lot of people quietly suffer. No one really wants to hear it because “there’s always someone who has it worse.”
Most people believe that getting “help” or talking to someone is a transactional thing for money or requires the absolute worst downfall on the planet, in which people can shake their heads and say. “Man, did you hear about what happened to that person? So sad.”
Breakdowns are so inconvenient and messy. Actually, I don’t like that word. Let’s call it “digital burnout.” There. That has a much nicer ring to it. See how reframing everything works? You get to accept responsibility that you were both a hot mess because you were desperate, while also acknowledging we live in a mentally unhealthy society suffering from class division that brought you there. We both win and lose.
After all, it’s not like anyone plans to completely burn out. When exactly are you supposed to pencil that in? Seems like a waste of perfectly good vacation time or sick days, if you’re lucky enough to have either of those. You don’t expect to wake up one day living out of your suitcase slammed with the painful realization no line of credit and owe a stupid amount of apologetic greeting cards.
Do you pick the bereaved greeting cards or the well wishes? You may try to salvage about 20% of those destroyed relationships, as the people in your life who actually have a sense of empathy will be inclined to forgive you.
When the dust settles, you start to realize that all of these people are replaceable. We’re all born to die and there are 7.8 billion people in the world. Until we fall prey to coronavirus, cancer, being hit by a car, slipping in a shower, our life choices, or dying peacefully in our sleep, it’s every friend for themselves.
New York is my favorite city for that reason. One of the draws of living here is that it is next to impossible to run into your ex unless you are attached to your sense of “community.” It’s pretty easy to disappear and start all over again in the same city, which is wonderfully freeing and painfully isolating all at the same time. This not a new sentiment for anyone who has grown to know and love this place. You are either born here and deal with what you were handed, or end up here because it was the only place you felt like you belonged.
I envy the people who know exactly who they are and where they see themselves in 20 years. I am still trying to sort out where I am living next week and where my next check is coming from while hustling and trying to act like I am “OK” while everything shuts down around me. Surprise! Being a writer is fucking stressful, even after 15 years, all of the awards, bylines, and all the free shit.
After six years of living here, I still don’t have an emergency contact. Which I guess is fine when you consider I also don’t have insurance, and also: no one picks up the phone anymore. You now have to train your toddlers on how to figure out dialing 9–1–1 on a protected smartphone and hope they can pull it off. Technology has made everything so unnecessarily complicated. I really want a LAN line.
I started thinking a lot about emergency situations when I was in the middle of crisis. I didn’t even have a cat to eat my face off if I died alone in my apartment, and questioned how long it would take for anyone to notice I went missing.
Jackie wasn’t afraid to take me in, no questions asked. He understands what it means to be down on ones’ luck because, like him, I also grew up without means. When you grow up with nothing, when you see darkness and trauma as a child, you know how to do without. Blair also didn’t judge me because she understood a life attached to writing and producing the road. It was one we both lived in our own ways. More on that, another time.
Every day feels like a nightmare, but at least I have all that free luxury luggage I assessed when writing my expert tips to living without a home. Durability, as it turns out, does matter and I truly am an authority on the topic. After all, I grew up homeless, so it seems like a fitting karmic loop that I would cycle through it again after a lifetime spent trying to escape it.
Unfortunately, you can’t pay for rent in luxury bags, nor friendship. I tried handing off luxury bags to my friends in exchange for a place to stay while I tried to catch up with my finances, which was never “a good time,” then never heard from them again. “Everyone is going through a hard time, Carly,” my friends would say. True, but like, do you know anyone looking for a roommate?
“Get a job.” That was the first thing everyone said to me, as if I wasn’t trying or I thought I was “too good” to do “real work.” That’s the funny thing about intellectual property and creative work: no one considers it “work,” but everyone wants to enjoy the spoils of it.
All things considered, I was making about the same as working in a coffee shop. Those jobs are competitive, by the way. I worked as a barista for six years while being a full-time student and a resident advisor. Having to manage three jobs at once was something we always dealt with graduating into the depression of 2008. In 2016, I had just tapped the six figure mark. It is weird to go from six figures to $12,000, but I’ve seen worse moments and it reminded me of my humility. Also: I am clearly an amazingly stylish bargain hunter!
That’s the rub: you need experience to gain experience, but once you have experience, you’re suddenly overqualified. I had plenty of experience and ROI to prove it. I was also competing against a lot of other people willing to do the job cheaper, and also a mass exodus of exceptionally qualified talent entering the field.
In the words of Shauna Ahern: “Online, no one knows you’re poor.” I applied to seasonal jobs at Sephora, temp work, restaurants, marketing jobs, administrative assistant jobs, project manager jobs, social media jobs, bookstore jobs.
I did, however, find out that for the first time ever: I was officially cool enough to walk into a Chicago record store, and possibly land a minimum wage job. I just didn’t get it together in times to get my resume printed out and across town (where I was also sleeping at four different houses).
None of these jobs have assurances or insurance for that matter, either. We’re all gig workers in the gig economy. Even getting a job with Lyft was going to prove problematic, given that I didn’t have a home and my credit was fucked because of my book. Yikes! Wish I could have gotten in on Mike Bloomberg’s $500 million ad budget for his failed campaign, because my debt is comparatively a drop in the pan.
Can you believe I independently paid off my student loans, too? What a joke. My perfect credit from three years ago means nothing now, and everyone wants a guarantor. “Ask your parents!” Does social cred count? I wrote a book!
My mom once told me to print out some resumes and drop them off at offices. Aside from the fact I don’t have a printer (I live out of my suitcase), everyone wants you to enter the HR email blackhole as though technology is some highly protected and reliable way of verifying people. And the digital footprint is fleeting. Bylines from my 15 years in print started to reduce in importance over the past several years thanks to social media. Websites where I would pour my entire being into would suddenly vanish, erasing bylines and becoming a relic of the past. Kill fees, things that never published.
All the other creatives who came from good, middle-to-upper class homes already had their parents help lawyer and accountant up. Established LLCs and S-Corps. Stupidly, when I decided to take on writing a book — something that was pitched to me as a project, and not a personal passion project — I didn’t think of doing either. And here we are. As a perfect example: I recently received a newsletter from a former acquaintance, allegedly written from her station at The Wing, in which she wrote about gratitude and politely asking for help. What a quiet battle cry. “I don’t know who to ask for help from in my professional life because I no longer work in a newsroom.” Feel that, sister. I wondered if offline she was crying herself into a ball every night like everyone else I had spoken to, feeling devalued and desperate while marketing budgets were all on hiring freezes. Or maybe she’s fine, just like everyone else thinks I am.
My former psychiatrist — who thankfully agreed to see me pro-bono when I was in Chicago because I could no longer pay $500 per session out of pocket and without any insurance or established residency just to get a basic prescription for the smallest dose of Zoloft — was gracious enough to remind me: “You can do poor, Carly. You don’t like it, but you can do it.”
“You can do poor, Carly. You don’t like it, but you can do it.”
Depending on how I frame it, I could be incredibly accomplished or totally desperate. Overqualified or not specific enough. A “lifestyle generalist,” mused one journalist while trying to figure out what I “do.”Am I an entitled millennial or a person who just took opportunities as they came just to get by?
And all things considered, I’m kind of lucky. And definitely really hateful. I mean, I did lose 40 pounds out of this and look fabulous. I kicked a bad drinking and drug habit. I got to travel the world in the most extraordinary way.
I didn’t mean to be lifestyle rich and credit poor, but I didn’t mean to do a lot of things. The good news is that even coming from nothing, I am still better off than I was before. I chose to live hard and free, and I know that was a choice I am paying for now. I didn’t want to be a broke writer, but I will always know that I am a successful writer. Because I will know that I might always be one night away from the street or close to my next big break, but I did write a book, after all, even though it wasn’t the one I wanted to write. And since I murdered my life over a friendly travel guide, it seems like I can always write whatever I want, making me a shining success.