You may have heard me on public radio a few times, and thought, "I bet that man's doing all right." Actually, I was homeless for most of last year. Not on-the-street homeless, but staying in a series of fold-out beds and couches in different cities, trying to work out how the hell I was going to get enough money for a car. (I asked around, but my family and friends have no connections in the automotive industry.) I had risked everything on a book that didn't sell, and then I wrote another, and that didn't sell either, and by the time I realized I was in trouble, I was out of money and my problem was deeper than I thought. It's a risk of the job. I guess you'd call it a bad year.
Have you ever found yourself in St. Albans, Vermont in mid-November, staying with the nearest friend who could put you up, with all your belongings reduced to two suitcases of 75 pounds each? (Amtrak's rules. I blame Big Government.) There are precious few jobs in tiny St. Albans, and even fewer available when they have to be in walking distance through ankle-deep muddy snow in 0 degree weather. Have you ever tried to get a job at a meat counter, at age 43, when your only job experience is teaching and writing, and everyone can see the mud on your trousers? I could have lied on my resume—everyone told me to—but you know, Mitt, I never like misrepresenting my past work. People always figure out when you've been dishonest.
That was a winter filled with surprises. If all you have is $200 to your name in a town with no bus lines, that few thousand dollars for even the shittiest car looks impossible. You live in constant fear, because you never know when your brain will say, "Hey, I just thought I'd remind you that you're almost broke and out of food, and the only way out is to get several thousand dollars from a job that doesn't exist. And shouldn't you be moving out soon?" These random check-ins are a poison in the air. I found myself crying in the shower every morning, shuddering in the stream for almost an hour sometimes, until I felt like I could face the day without flying into shrapnel. What I'm trying to say to my host at the time is this: Thanks very much for putting me up for four months, and I promise I'll give "Portlandia" another chance. I'm sure it's a very funny show if you're in the right frame of mind.
After months of writing and self promotion—and we can both agree that promotion is hard work, am I right?—I wrote my way out with Kickstarter. Not enough for a car and gas—that would have cost $5000! What am I, a gambler?—but enough for a bus ticket to anywhere. I eventually made my way home, with only one suitcase (Greyhound's even stricter than Amtrak). Now, living in my dad's trailer in rural Tucson, I could finally get work, maybe.
I had actual job offers this time–low-paying jobs that I knew I would hate, but could eventually get me a car if I took the bus to work, never ate out, and socked away $8-an-hour paychecks for 8 months. But—whoops!—they were all off the bus lines, or were on weekends when the buses didn't run. Half the time I couldn't even get to the interviews. (You might ask, "But Dave, why didn't you just start two hours earlier and walk to the interview?" You got me: I'm lazy.) And by the way, if you're traveling by bus, you can only hold one job at a time because the commutes take 90 minutes each way. It's exhausting. If you can borrow thousands of dollars to start your own business, Mitt, I highly recommend that route instead.
I won't bore you with the details of what I now call "my year of shiftless entitlement," except to say this: it's over. I got a call, someone had recommended me as a game show writer, and presto: I spent six weeks in LA, and I now have a ten-year-old Dodge and a few thousand in the bank. It's not much, and I don't think I'll be paying any income tax this year. But I've got a car, and the climb should be easier now. Not trading-in-my-family-stock-
But let me be clear. That call came from nowhere. I wasn't trying for that job; I didn't even know it existed. For all my striving, what finally saved me was this: I got lucky. And I am deeply grateful. Because if I couldn't tell the difference between hard work and good fortune, what kind of asshole would I be?
David Ellis Dickerson is the author of the memoir House of Cards and is a humorist best known for his regular contributions to public radio's "This American Life." He is also the creator of the YouTube web series "Greeting Card Emergency." His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Story Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. He has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Florida State University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. He currently lives in Tucson, where he is working on several things at once. He'll keep you updated if anything happens.