My first traffic ticket was before I ever had my actual driver’s license, which should have been my first clue.
I had the piece of paper that said I would one day, very soon, have my first official driver’s license. I had my provisional. And, if memory serves, I used that responsibility to drive to Vienna for a friend’s birthday dinner and then kind-of, sorta race my friend Rob back to the Burke area (He had passengers in his car. I believe my father had expressly forbidden me to take anyone in my car – or is that a Virginia statute about provisional licenses? Either way, it was a good thing).
I was driving my father’s 2005 Hyndai Accent, a new acquisition and one he got because it was under $14,000. The car that would later become Barbara Ann was a two-door hatchback – no power windows and, more importantly, no CD player. Barbara Ann was the reason I became obsessed with having cloud music services that I could jack into my phone’s headphone plug.
I also didn’t know how to turn on the car’s lights in 2005. Which is why I got pulled over.
I mean, I was also speeding, but it was probably the lack of headlights that caught the officer’s attention. He pulled me over into my Colony Park neighborhood and asked me to check if my lights were working. Like an inexperienced lover, I fumbled around the dashboard and managed to find the knob, turning the lights on. So he only gave me a ticket for speeding.
Anyway, that my was my first traffic ticket. In the decade that followed, I’d be involved in the following:
- Bumping into the back of a Lexus SUV on I-66 in the middle of rush hour on the way back from an internship with the Fairfax Connection newspapers
- Smashing the right wheel of my mother’s Honda Accord into a curb on the way to a public gym
- Causing a five-car chain accident on a rain-slicked Fairfax County Parkway that completely accordion’ed the front end of Barbara Ann
- Getting pulled over for breaking 90 in a friend’s car on a flat road in Kansas
- Turning right on red in a blind-spot intersection in Blacksburg, Va.
- Speeding on Virginia Tech’s campus past the Duck Pond (I never showed up to court, but neither did the officer)
- Accidentally staying on I-66 past the Vienna Metro stop during HOV-only hours
- Missing a stop sign outside of the Springfield-Franconia Metro station the week after my license had expired for being 25 years old
But this particular traffic ticket was my first and only time I had to hire a lawyer.
I was heading back to Blacksburg after completing an important Faceback interview with my high school friend Matt. It was also a trip I needed to take to get away from Blacksburg during a major party weekend. It’d been almost a year since I graduated and I’d been working a big-person job since September. But I was still living in the same college house where I’d finished out undergrad and I was living with (mostly) students. The environment was…a bad fit for professional life.
On my way back from Richmond, I was, as usual, thinking about a girl. For most of the trip, I was thinking about how I would get this girl back.
Until I saw the cop car ahead of me on the hill and then looked at my speedometer. My thought process changed pretty quickly.
I was charged with going 83 in a 65, or something like that. The officer told me I’d have to have representation in court because of the reckless driving offense. I told the officer I thought reckless driving only happened if you were going 20 or more over. The officer informed me that, in Virginia, reckless driving is anything over 80 miles per hour, which of course meant many, many cars driving along the Virginia interstates were driving “recklessly,” especially since the institution of boosted speed limits.
I’ve taken a certain attitude toward getting stopped by police officers: There’s just no damn point in freaking out about it. So I drove back home, probably still thinking about that girl, but also making sure I never, ever broke 80 in Barbara Ann again.
I was in the Caesar’s Palace slot machine area, playing the penny slots.
Press the button.
Lots of lights. Lots of noise. I remember the carpet was soft. Close by was the entrance to the mall, which has a ceiling painted with blue sky and clouds, so that it looked like daytime even if it were pitch-black outside. Not that it’s ever pitch-black on the Las Vegas strip.
Press the button.
I got a penny back.
I was killing time and killing money before my acquaintance Steve was going to come pick me up on the Strip and take to his place outside the city for the weekend. I couldn’t afford a motel anywhere in the area, let alone the hotel that The Company had put me up in for the convention. I had booked a return flight with my boss, who wasn’t coming back until that Monday.
Press the button.
Two weeks earlier, I’d made my last payment to my lawyer for the reckless driving offense. They’d successfully pled it down to a standard speeding charge. So I’d paid David L. Parker & Associates $500 and the county of Augusta $250. I’d also just moved out of my Blacksburg apartment to a Christiansburg house. Though my parents shouldered the majority of that burden, I’d had to squeeze some expenses to pay for initial deposits and utilities.
As timing would have it, I now had to partially fund a trip to Las Vegas to come with The Company to our major show in Las Vegas, as the guy in charge of the booth. The Company had had the foresight to give me my per diem ahead of time, rather than reimbursing me afterwards. One of the problems was that they’d left out a day of work in my per diem, but I didn’t ask them about that until later.
The convention was over and I was down to my last $20. I’d used $10 of them on this penny slot machine. I don’t know why. I have absolutely no faith in gambling. But I figured having $10 was the same as having $20, so why not have a Vegas experience.
Press the button.
I had just made a net profit of twenty dollars.
I’d eventually use most of that to take the bus and cab back to the airport so I could return to southwest Virginia.
Up until this point, I was always quick to tell people that I was lucky, really. I held a bachelor’s degree in Communication, but I still had health insurance, which was paying for my therapy. I mean, really, I was beating the odds. I had a traditional entry-level position as the secretary of an engineering firm and I had a good relationship with my direct boss and my coworkers. I was the guy in charge of keeping the office fridge stocked, but I was also directly working to rebrand the company and make marketing materials.
I’d like to think if the company were actively involved in an ethical industry, I might have made the effort to stay, despite what I came to realize after the traffic ticket.
If you factored out the unhealthiness of my personal relationships with my undergrad friends, I was doing everything well, by-the-book. I was making progress on student loans and credit card debt. I had enough money for drinks and food, and even though I needed to learn how to cook more and eat out less, I felt like I would soon be getting a raise, and maybe then I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Southwest Virginia has a very comfortable cost-of-living compared to where I am today.
Then I was hit with $900 in unexpected expenses the summer of 2012. And suddenly, it was like I hadn’t made any progress at all.
I started thinking about what I was really making. My salary was $24,000 a year. I was expected to work a minimum of 40 hours a week. That’s 2,080 hours in a year. Before payroll taxes, I was making $11 an hour. But after taxes, I was making something like $9. And things had reached a point where I was juggling several different responsibilities at work. A more business-oriented guy committed to time-management strategies could have made it all work in 35 hours a week and still had time left over to tweet at his friends. But I would’ve had to stay more hours and my boss implied that this would be the only way to see a promotion or a raise in the near future.
There are a lot of angles to this traditional story of an employee feeling undervalued. For one thing, I had a generous benefits package — it’s just that I barely used it. I only ever used my insurance during my last four months of employment so I could start seeing a therapist. I never went to a doctor for a primary check-up, nor did I use the dental benefits. Inexplicably to me, I also had a life insurance package that would pay my family upon my death, except that I wasn’t providing for my family – I was trying to get out of debt. Given the option, I would’ve gone with a higher salary and a health insurance package that just covered me in the event of a catastrophic medical event.
And, I mean, I definitely would have felt like I was being generously paid if I didn’t feel saddled by the $35,000 in debt I’d incurred over the course of being a student. But, as it was, I was seeing a good portion of my paycheck swallowed up by loan and credit card expenses – some of which I had to take on to go to school and others of which were a result of drunk nights downtown with an open tab.
The point is, all of this led up to a point where I was haggling with an airline representative about a $20 baggage fee that I couldn’t afford, minutes before boarding a flight to Roanoke.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
The day of my flight, I woke up before 6 and made my way back to the Strip, so I could pick up the suitcase I had left at Mandalay Bay. I took a cab to the airport, which left me with less than $5 in my bank account. My boss greeted me in the lobby and saw me wearing the same clothes I’d left with on Friday. She could also probably tell that I was running off 3 hours of sleep.
When I told her about my plan to haggle for the baggage fee, she fished in her wallet and took out a twenty-dollar bill. I stammered that it shouldn’t be necessary, but she insisted and told me she’d wait for me in the terminal. I walked up to the customer servie desk and asked to see a supervisor.
About 15 minutes later, I went up to the terminals and saw her near the Starbucks, holding a coffee. I gave her back the twenty-dollar bill. “Thank you,” I said. She asked if I was sure I didn’t want it. I said I didn’t.
That’s how I ended up going to Las Vegas with The Company and coming back broke without having gambled more than $20 on slots.
I turned in my resignation a few weeks later.
Three nights before my scheduled last day, I sent my boss a text through drunken tears. “I’m sorry,” it said. I never went back to work. Instead, I found myself driving to Tennessee, hungover and afraid.
I haven’t seen her since.
“So I told the airline guy…I told him that the handling of my luggage was the reason my computer was broken. I told them there’d been toothpaste and cologne spilled in the bag. And rather than suing them, all I was asking was for them to waive the baggage fee on the return flight.”
“But that wasn’t why your computer had failed?”
“Well, no, but I didn’t agree with the baggage fee, you see…”
“Did your boss know you were doing this?”
I looked at Tabitha, my therapist, and saw the creeping disapproval in her face. “I made the mistake of telling her afterwards, yes. But I gave her back the cash she’d offered.”
“You didn’t take the money you were owed.”
“Okay, but the COMPANY owed me—”
“She is the company.”
“Right, but I wanted it to come from-” I stopped, flustered. This was going worse than expected. Tabitha looked at me sadly. “I felt that’s what I had to do. The whole trip was stressful and I’d gotten fleeced almost everywhere and I needed that victory…”
“You are not equipped to handle the business world this way.”
“You felt like you had to hustle people to get ahead. This whole time, the way you’ve described how you behaved in Vegas – you put on a front. You pretended like you had more than you do. You lied.”
“I have to lie.”
“It’s the only way you get ahead in society.”
“That’s not true.”
I looked at her, exasperated. After living in this world at least 20 years longer than I have, how could she think honesty gets anyone anywhere? I frowned and sipped my tea. “You’re one of the few people I don’t lie to.”
“You need to take a look at that. You can’t go through your whole life putting up this false persona. It’ll eat you alive. It’ll hurt you.”
I grimaced; stared at the floor.
“You can’t keep hustling people.”
Four weeks later, I quit my job. And, thus, I lost the benefits that allowed me to keep seeing Tabitha.
“So…What’s new with your life?” my brother asked. He said it awkwardly, in a way that sounded rehearsed, as if he had just recently learned how to show interest in people. I knew he cared. And he was making progress.
“I quit my job,” I said through a mouthful of burrito bowl.
“What?” He let it process. “You quit your job.”
“So…what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. Apply for others, I guess.”
“Well, how are you going to pay your bills?”
“Don’t know. Maybe I won’t. It’s not like I have been.”
Sidenote, debtor’s prisons are still illegal, right?
He looked at me, running the scenario through his brain. “If you get in trouble with the government…I don’t think I can bail you out.” He was referencing every other time he had bailed me out financially. My younger, soon to be 19-year-old brother.
I nodded. “I don’t think it’ll be like that.” I had no intention of asking for him to bail me out if I got in trouble. I was finally free. I was done taking advantage of people just to tread water. If I was going to use people, I was going to make sure we both got ahead.
I shoveled another mouthful of steak into my mouth.
“Hey,” I said, bits of corn salsa falling out of my mouth. “Do you want to start a website?”
“It’s amphibious. It’s sturdy. It will protect your oil spill relief team from terrorists. Narwhalphant. It’s awesome. Let’s build it. Let’s do it this weekend.” I practically dropped the mic and swaggered off the platform, confident in the fact that I had shown…well…confidence.
I’d just delivered a fake pitch based on a combination of two random words. I’ll let you piece together which.
I was at Startup Weekend and I was there to save myself from the impending unemployment crisis. I was there to turn my life around. Because I had an idea. I’d had it for a while, though I had to spend an all-nighter laying out the groundwork
This was my time. Something, for once, had to go right.
For whatever reason, things in my life would not stop changing. New house. New employment status. Completely new ways to screw up interpersonal relationships. I even had a cat now.
It’s as if I didn’t know how to function if things weren’t in constant flux. I think I’m subconsciously making sure I never sit still, because if I do…when I do. That’s when the hammer will fall.
I was at Startup Weekend because I’d applied for one of the sponsored tickets on a whim. The day I found out I was going, I’d been in Roanoke, dabbling with the idea I’d pitched to my brother the week before.
I came home to get the phone call informing me that I’d been selected for a free ticket. I felt good. For a while. It seemed like I had a window of opportunity to save myself from the slow, consuming burn of jobless hell. But somehow discontent with the nice feeling of winning something, I proceeded to send a text.
“Hey, can we talk at some point tonight?”
Which. You know. Always ends well.
But that was two days before. Ancient history by startup timetables. And when I finally arrived to the event, almost a full hour after everybody else, I was a little confident. Because I had concept printouts.
On photo paper.
So it came time to make my real pitch. Time to harness that inner confidence I was good at faking and convince people to join me in my little revolution. Time to change the world and make my millions. Because if I couldn’t find happiness the way most other people do, I could at least be rich and famous.
I stepped up to the stage. I pocketed my notes, because I didn’t need them. I saw the minute-timer start ticking. And I spoke.
“I’d like to tell you a story about my idea. An idea I call….Gwyb.”
Aw, fuck, I thought, as soon as the ridiculously stupid name spilled out of my mouth.