Am I better off now than I was 4 years ago? (Part 1)

4 years/209 weeks/1,465 days ago I graduated from college. Now I attended the University of Chicago, so at this point in 2006 I lived in Hyde Park. As I live there now and am moving out of the neighborhood on Monday, I was taking kind of a last walk around this evening. Doing so made me think about this question (am I better off than I was 4 years ago) and as I went through everything in my head, I realized that I don’t really know how to answer that question.

  • Am I better off financially? A damn sight so
  • Do I have more fun now? Not really
  • Is my body in better health/condition? Very marginally
  • Am I better off spiritually? No
  • Do I have more close friends that I spend time with? No

This will probably take awhile, but I want to go step by step through the different stages of life that have occurred the past 4 years. I am a very historical minded person, so I think the best way to understand the present is to look at stories from the past. Additionally, I think a lot of these stories are interesting, and I’ve never really put them all down in one place. I also have a very good, almost creepy memory for dates, but please note I used a calendar for a lot of these. For instance, I know that my last day at Grassroots Campaign Initiatives was the Friday after I turned 21. Looking at a calendar I can see this was August 11, 2006. So without further ado, here we go.

The last road trip of college (June 2 – June 7, 2006)

The first part of this actually begins very slightly before I graduated. In 2005 three friends and myself drove from Chicago to Idaho, and back, over a 4 day weekend. We did this by driving constantly and never stopping even once at a hotel room. We ate dinner with my friend’s parents in Minnesota, gambled at 4AM in an Indian casino, then immediately took off through North Dakota. We made it to Yellowstone Park at midnight, slept in my car for four hours, and were the first people at Old Faithful the next day, and I mean the very first. We waited a half hour until dawn and walked through the steaming geysers alone as the sun rose. One the way back we sat in the open prairie of South Dakota and smoked marijuana under the stars.

All of us were blown away by the experience, and made plans to do the same thing the next year. We talked it up sufficiently that we got 8 people to go along. My car was way too small for this, so we rented a Suburban or some kind of enormous van like that. Fitting 8 people in a van of course was completely ludicrous, but we completely didn’t give a fuck. We invented the concept of the “captain’s seat” where someone would sit between the back seat and the side door. Then 3 people could lie comfortably in the very back, while 2 sat up front and 2 sat in the back seat. To say we were riding heavy is a pretty big fucking understatement.

For this trip, we brought something like a half ounce of weed. Unlike ’05, we smoked to the hilt in 2006. The only rule we went with is that the driver shouldn’t be smoking while they drove. Otherwise, we were passing joints around the back non-stop, so that the whole experience turned into some surreal magical mystery ride. And again, we never stopped driving. The van was moving around the clock and we took off from Illinois to the southwest on a Friday evening. By Saturday morning we were having breakfast in Pampa, Texas. We slowed down a little bit, hiked a little trail on this New Mexico volcano, spent a few hours in Taos, New Mexico, and by the second morning were in Western Arizona. Day 3 consisted of seeing the Grand Canyon, crossing Hoover Dam, and pulling into fabulous Las Vegas around 10 at night.

A funny thing happened when we crossed Hoover Dam. One of my friends who is Turkish was driving at the time, bearded and everything. The Homeland Security officer shined his flashlight into the back of the van (we had our “shit” well hidden) and saw all 8 of us. He briefly looked confused, then waved us through.

We stayed off-strip in Vegas. None of us had much money (this entire trip I only had about $150 in my bank account and under $100 by the end). We all took ice cold showers, shared 2-3 joints in the motel room, and walked the two miles over to the main strip. We saw a couple people passed out with electrical tape around their arms, that kind of thing. We got a few drinks at some casino and watched a 70s cover band full of old men play. The weed was kicking in and the 40 year olds dancing on the carpet at 2AM really kind of blew my mind. The band was playing Jimmy Buffet’s margarita song.

“Take us to your finest strip club” my friend said to the cab driver, and he was happy to oblige. We paid something like $30 cover to get inside, at which point I only had $6 left on me. I couldn’t afford even a single drink in the place, and all of these strippers were grabbing on to me hawking lap dances. I literally had no money top get one, so I contented myself with watching the girls on stage. The strippers tried various sales techniques. Some of them insulted me, some of them were really nice and tried to get to know me. One of them had just moved down from Seattle a couple months before to make it big in Vegas. I hope she’s doing ok now, 4 years later. Some of them grabbed my nuts and tried to turn me on. It was really kind of interesting to compare the different styles.

When we got back to the motel, at about dawn, someone was shooting a porno movie in the empty swimming pool. We slep for about 5 hours and went back to the strip, had a big breakfast, and saw Vegas during the daytime. It was hot as fuck, and we had to get back to Chicago, so we were driving out of town by noon. In total, we spent about 13-14 hours in Las Vegas, got really stoned, spent less than $80 apiece, and this is the only time I’ve ever been there. It was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had, and I try to remember nights like it when I’m tempted to think that one must spend a lot of money to enjoy life.

The ride back was more of the same. We were in more of a hurry, since graduation was coming up, so we basically just drove and smoked marijuana. We got back from Las Vegas to Chicago in 2 days. I remember this trip very fondly, and some of these people I either never saw again or have only seen 1-2 times since.

Graduation to the July Oregon trip (June 8, 2006 – July 8, 2006)

Shortly after we got back from Vegas my family came into town. We went through all the requisite graduation functions and I received a Bachelors in History. I had absolutely no kind of a job lined up, but I didn’t really think anything of it. My parents didn’t really pressure me much on this front, or at least not as much as they could have. My dad gave me $3,000 as a graduation gift to get started in life. At the time, this seemed like a small fortune to me. If I was not worried before, I certainly wasn’t worried at this point.

My living situation was very communal. I had four roommates, all of them pretty good friends, and we lived in a large apartment on Madison Park. This is by 51st and Woodlawn and only a couple blocks away from where Barack Obama now lives. The rent was about $1800, but since there were 5 of us and I had the smallest bedroom (it was about 9 feet by 7 feet) I only had to pay $300/month. I ate cheap food, and when we went out to bars I would spend maybe $10-$20 in a night (and this was maybe once/week). So in this context, $3,000 really was a non-trivial amount of money.

The World Cup was in full force that month, so during a typical day I would wake up at about 8am, smoke marijuana, and watch the two World Cup games. I also had a part time job, left over from college. I was one of the people who sits at the front desk and scans people’s IDs to control access to the gym. I was working 20 hours a week and making $7.50/hour. Ludicrous as it sounds, this was actually a sustainable situation in the short-term, again because my expenses were so low.

I will admit this wasn’t the most go-getter life path I could have taken. However, I should also mention that I was still only 20 years old at this point, and had graduated from college in 3 years. The way our college loan system is structured, the amount pyramids every year. So by graduating in 3 years I left with about $15,000 in student loan debt. By staying for the fourth year and graduating in 2007, I would have left with about $30,000 in student loan debt. This is unequivocally one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in life.

Another factor was that my dad bought me a plane ticket to spend 1 week in Oregon, to visit relatives. I figured it was pointless to get a full-time job before this trip and then put in for vacation right away. Additionally, the 2006 World Cup was running during the month of June, as mentioned, and I was watching almost every game. So in every sense the timing worked out for me to take it easy for a month and then turn it on in July.

On a random side note, there were 4 girls from Ireland who moved in to the second floor for the summer. One of them, Sinnead, took a liking to me. During this month we went out a couple times and made out as well.

A week in Oregon (July 8 – July 15, 2006)

On Saturday July 8th, I flew into Portland, Oregon. My dad flew there separately and we met up with my grandma, uncle and aunt who flew on a third flight. We visited family in Bandon, Oregon for a week. Bandon is a very isolated town on the southern Oregon coast, and I enjoyed this week a lot. My great-aunt had a house about 1/4 mile from the Pacific Ocean, and every evening after dinner I would go and walk by the surf. We ate clam chowder at the local restaurant and all the old people talked about old times. They talked about how the family drove from Arkansas to Colorado to Wyoming during the Great Depression, and how a lot of them went to Long Beach to build ships during World War II. Some of them stayed out there and made their lives in California, and they were now the ones who retired to Bandon.

Sadly, I haven’t been back to Oregon since this time. I have flirted with the idea of moving there, but it is one of the hardest places in the US to get a job, and with the recent economic troubles it is a bad idea I believe to move out there from scratch. It is my plan to amass some wealth over the next 5-10 years that will allow me to visit there frequently and perhaps have a residence there.

Grassroots Campaign Initiatives (July 15 – August 11, 2006)

Once back in Chicago, I started looking for jobs. Having absolutely no idea how to do so, the pickings looked slim to me. The only interview I had gone to was one to teach English in Japan for a year, back in my last year of college. For reasons unknown, both my friend and I failed the interview, even though I know we were more than qualified.

Having some vague idea that I’d like to work in the political world, I responded to a flyer that I saw on campus. The job was to canvass door-to-door to raise funds for the Democratic National Committee. The promised pay was $300-$500/week. Again, I was only paying $300 in rent so this kind of money seemed like a fortune to me. I went to the interview in a full-out suit and tie. The interviewer was another kid maybe a year out of school, in khaki shorts and tennis shoes. I got hired.

The entire job was commission based. Needless to say, you would have to be an incredibly good salesman to hit even $300/week. I was closer to $175-$200. Basically they would drive you out to places like Deerfield, Oak Brook, River Forest, Oak Park, and wherever and turn you loose for five hours. You got to keep like 1/3 of what you raised or something like that. There were also minimum targets you had to hit. They made you wear blue t-shirts with a really garish rendition of the American flag and the words “DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE” in huge font. Needless to say, a lot of people were not happy to see my smiling face standing at the door. Occasionally, some fifty year old suburban woman would let me into the house and act like I alone was the last bastion between this country and the second coming of Joseph Goebbels. Even when I made it this far, I still only got money 2/3 of the time. One woman talked to me for five minutes but didn’t have her checkbook and could only pay via card, which we couldn’t process. Another couple were nice but didn’t have any money to spare. It always seemed like the people who turned me away had more money than the ones who wrote checks. One time I happened to knock on the door of the State Liquor Control Commissioner in Skokie. “If you’re under 21 and you have a drink in Illinois, you’re going straight to jail!” he grunted at me. He was 87 but said he would never retire because he liked working too much.

I knocked on a lot of doors like this one in the summer of 2006

On top of the discomfort of knocking on 60 doors a day and getting 56-60 people rejecting me, this all happened during one of Chicago’s hottest summers of recent memory. It was not uncommon for it to be 98-100 degrees when I started out at 4PM. I lasted at this job for three weeks. I got fired because I wasn’t raising enough money. This is the only job I have ever been fired from.

Unemployed and buying airplane tickets (August 11, 2006 – October 16, 2006)

The very same day I got fired, I had my 21st birthday party (I turned 21 on August 6, 2006 but had a 102 degree fever). Me and my friends worked every connection we had in Hyde Park, and there were actually a lot of people who showed up. I believe we had about 40 people in our apartment, and we drank and smoked our way all through the night. Though I had a lot of friends who were gone, there were still people there who I’d known since 2003 (I have no connections to 2003 in Chicago any longer). Some of these people I haven’t seen since shortly after that night.

Another funny thing happened that weekend that shows how I’m sometimes too honest for my own good. Sinnead from upstairs stopped by and broached the subject of us being boyfriend/girlfriend, as she was moving back to Ireland in a week. The conversation went something like this:
SINNEAD: Well, I’m moving back to Ireland in a week….
ME: I don’t know how we can be in a relationship living that far apart.
SINNEAD: What, do you just want to have sex with me?
ME: Yes
SINNEAD (visibly shaken, almost crying): I’m not like that!! I only do those things with my boyfriend!!
ME: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m being honest and not playing games, and I don’t judge girls like that.
SINNEAD (leaving room): Well thanks! (sarcastically)

I had all day with nothing to do and no idea how I was supposed to find a job. I looked through classifieds and things online, and knew I wouldn’t get hired for any of it (3-5 years experience, degree in subject X, X being “not history”). To be honest, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and no good advice to help me. I went to the University of Chicago career center, and they had me take a test and told me that my predominant personality type was Logical, and my second personality type was Artistic, and these are some careers that match those personality types. Thanks University of Chicago career center for that completely useless information. Useful information might have been them explaining to me the difference between Marketing, Product Management, Operations, and Finance. At that time, I’d never even heard of an “Operations” department. I’m not joking.

Being unemployed with no clue what I wanted to do in life, I decided to buy a six week, round-trip ticket to London for $600, departing on March 1, 2007. This took my savings to a little under $2,000 and gave me 6 months to find a job, work, and get money saved up. In retrospect, it seems like a completely insane decision. My inspiration was Hernan Cortes, who (supposedly) burned all of his ships on the shores of Mexico so he would have no choice but to conquer the Aztecs. I likewise assumed I would have no choice but to figure out my employment situation knowing I had a 6 week trip to Europe coming up. I also had vague plans to find long-term employment in England at a pub or a restaurant.

Somehow, there was still another couple weeks of relaxation. Our lease on the huge place ended September 1, and I had a sublet which didn’t begin until September 22. For 3 weeks I slept on a mattress on the floor of my friend’s room. He had new roommates in the same place, who viewed me as a definite curiosity (they were all 1 year away from graduating).  I still smoked marijuana.

Thai food server with grueling hours (October 16, 2006 – February 28, 2007)

Eventually I started walking around and applying to every place of business I passed. I was contacted by a local Thai restaurant. The owner was a 40 year old woman who moved to the US from Thailand when she was 11, in complete poverty. She hustled her way up with restaurants and turned the profits into other investments. How I got hired I’ll never know. Most of the people who worked there were Thai as well, and they rented their apartments from the owner, got loans from her, and everything. She was the alpha dog of that little community. To monitor her business she had every security camera wired over to her house, and she had a room in her house where she could sit and watch what has happening at her restaurants.

She immediately started giving me about 55 hours a week of work. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I had the 10:30-10:30 shift. I usually worked 6 days a week. The Thai people were nice but I couldn’t really talk to them in depth. They all smiled like the Buddha and didn’t seem to care if I was slower than they were on the tables. This attitude motivated me more than any other could have, and I worked my ass off because I didn’t want to let them down. We split all tips equally, and the money was really good. After a twelve hour shift, I would sometimes go home with $125-$175 cash in my pocket. I also got free Thai food whenever I worked, which was a lot, so my food bills were cut almost to nothing. Overall, I was making about $450/week, which was insane money to me at that time. I was banking a large % of it.

I didn’t do a lot besides working. In fact, I really didn’t do anything besides work, though I did go on a few dates with a third year student. Every night I would come home and smoke marijuana to unwind from the job. I noticed I had smoked quite a few days in a row, at some point, and decided I would start keeping track. My goal was to pull a “Joe Dimaggio” and smoke 56 days in a row. I didn’t make it, but I did buy weed in Columbus and get high on Christmas to keep the streak. This was definitely the “high water mark” of my marijuana days.

On January 1st I moved back to my old unit, to sublet for a couple months. There was one guy there all the time, a fourth year in school who was a very interesting character. He was from the area, grew up on 95th street, was black and everything. He talked about trading a lot. He had a theory that you could use quantum physics to profit from the stock market using the “arm technique”. One aspect of alternative quantum physics is the belief in the holographic universe, in which all information about the universe is contained within each atom. Thus he would hold his arm out to his side when thinking about a stock, and let himself feel the energy of the stock, since all the information he needed about the stock was contained in every atom of his body. He would make decisions about whether to purchase the stock based on the gyrations of his arm. He claimed to be making a killing (this was early 2007 after all). I would talk to him, usually late at night, and he would talk about whether that day was a good day or a bad day. He never used actual numbers when describing his performance. He also had a number of other eccentric beliefs which I’ve either forgotten or don’t have time to get into here.

Jean-Antoine Houdon anticipated the arm technique of stock trading by over 200 years

In my spare time, I also started to write a novel. It was based on my experiences driving to Yellowstone in 2005, and a fictionalized account of the few months afterwords (this part was to deviate substantially from my actual life). The theme was supposed to be the protagonist’s/society’s inability to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and the desire to escape reality and live permanently in fantasy. Sometimes I wish I had gotten this book actually written and out there, especially before the crash in 2008. I wrote something like 50 pages on this book, but my momentum died.

After 4 months of working at this restaurant I had increased my savings from slightly under $1,000 to $4,000. I eagerly anticipated Europe.

Visiting England/Scotloand/Netherlands/France/Spain/Italy/Austria/Czech Republic (March 1, April 15 2007)

I had developed a philosophy of life at this point, that goes something like the following. You can gather material possessions but those can always be taken away. No one can ever take your experiences. Also, it is easy to tell the difference between a person of experience and a bore. With these tenets, a long trip to Europe seemed like a no-brainer.

I landed in London, rode the trains from Heathrow over and up to some hostel in North London. It was a beautiful, sunny day. It was Friday March 2, 2007. The houses were all right on the street and squeezed together. Teenage kids played street soccer after school (on a fenced in, asphalt soccer court), and when that was done they went straight to the bars. All in one of the biggest cities in the world. It would have been my dream upbringing I thought wistfully. I had a couple days in London and did a lot of walking around, visited the Tate Modern, walked through the big parks, made a couple friends in my hostel, and had a good time. All in all a good start.

Next was Glasgow. I flew up there and landed. It was rainy and the entire town smelled like something strange. I went to the Scottish National Art Museum, where there was surprisingly good, realistic work by Scottish artists who nobody has ever heard of. I got drunk of course, which is what Glasgow is best for. At the hostel I had a good 2 hour conversation with a 19 year old boy from Leeds and another girl from Australia, who actually lived in Glasgow and worked in a bar. The kid talked up Leeds a lot, told me if I made it there he’d be sure I got into a rave. That kind of thing. I would have taken him up on the deal if I didn’t  I lose the slip of paper that had his phone number on it (found it recently, between two random pages of a Madame Bovary copy I was toting around with). Thus, I sadly lost my shot to go to an English rave. They also explained to me all about highlanders and chavs and welfare queens and such good stuff about the UK.

Next was Amsterdam. I resolved to keep a straight face, and as I walked into the hostel there were about 40 kids lounging around like Turks smoking nothing but cigs and marijuana. It was an incredible sight. At the hash bar the shit kicked in right as an Arsenal-Eindhoven game began, and I sat transfixed the entire 90 minutes. The next 2 days were more of the same as I got high all over town, though I did take a few hours to visit the Van Gogh and the National Museum, seeing of course some exceptionally talented work by Rembrandt.

Next I spent 2 days in Paris, to coin a phrase. Here I lucked into the best possible situation as my French was and is atrocious. I remember picking my brain to remember how to say “yes” in French as the train approached. In the hostel I immediately ran into a guy from Brazil who spoke every language in the book. He knew English fluently, French, Spanish, German, and Italian. He had been in France for some time and said French girls were nothing like Brazilian girls and he could not understand them. Immediately we went to a cafe, and there was a long conversation between him and this owner, both of them arguing about something. He told me that French people have strange codes of behavior and argue about the most trivial things, and that it drove him nuts. He told me the argument in this case was that we could either stand or sit inside, but we could only sit if we went outside, and that it cost more for our drinks if we stood inside rather than sitting. I may be remembering the details wrong but I know the price was different based on whether you stood up or sat down.

We got drunk and all. The next day I spent about 8 or 9 hours in Louvre, just walking around looking at the different stuff. Though there are of course a number of masterpieces there, I particularly remember La Grande Odelisque by Jean Ingres.

La Grande Odalisque by Ingres

From Paris I went to Barcelona. I stayed here for about a week, spending two of those days in the down in Valencia. The one thing I failed to see there was Gaudi’s park, but otherwise I made it around. I went to the top of Montjuic. I befriended a group of kids from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. We went to a bar that specialized in tequila, and all got smashed. We spent an entire day the next day going out into the Catalan countryside to a place called Montserrat.

In Venice, I saw a friend from college who was interning a the Guggenheim Museum there. I was fortunate in that there was a dinner party that night hosted by a native Venetian. His family lived in Venice since the 13th century or something ridiculous. We sat on his rooftop patio and drank a ton of wine, and there were about 12 people there. The town of Venice was of course fascinating. I walked around for hours looking at the canals and the old Italian buildings. Venice and Valencia were the only two towns where I ever managed to get lost, as they both have absolutely chaotic street structures.

Founded in Roman times, Valencia grew into a massive medieval labyrinth

I was only in Vienna for a day, and it rained very hard almost all day that day. That night I spent some time talking to an Italian girl, who was 18 I think. She was in a band, I was soon to be in a band. We talked about music for awhile and about we both like the Strokes and some other bands. She was there with a big group from her Italian high school, so there was a curfew and she was never really alone, sadly.

Next I was in Prague for almost 2 weeks. The first night there I had two shots of absinthe, along with copious amounts of beer. My group was three English kids, hitchhiking Europe for charity. The absinthe was a disaster, as me and the English girl snuck off for a roll in the hay, ended up vomiting everywhere, passing in and out of consciousness, and so on. Finally I woke up naked from the waist down on someone else’s bed, hours later. She was completely naked in her own right, on her bed, passed out. And the room we were in had 15 beds, it was a truly massive hostel room. I felt like I was murdered the next day.

I stayed in Prague for so long because my money was beginning to get low. I was going to also travel to Ukraine, because I had a friend in Odessa, but those plans fell through. He ended up having to leave Odessa the same week I would have gone, and that combined with the money issue, and the very cheap prices in Prague, caused me to stay there. I also had to buy a plane ticket to London to see my London friend and catch my final flight from London back to the US. Because I was in Prague for so long, I started to take things a little more easy. There were some days where I just walked around and checked out the town with no real aim. I bought some books and started reading. I also met some other kids in the Hostels I was staying at. I was constantly moving around Prague, both out of boredom and also because I could never seem to book a hostel for more than 2 days before some day came up where they were sold out. I spent a couple days hanging out with this group of 8 English kids from Manchester. They were absolutely wild. I passed out one of the nights and they “tea-bagged” me, and took the pictures too. This is apparently a popular prank among the wild English kids. I also went to a salsa dancing club with a couple girls from Ecuador. We had a good time and danced together, though they were too demure to take advantage of, both morally and practically. There was another night where I went out with a French girl and an Australian guy to a Romanian dance party, literally in a parking garage. When that was over we went to apartment party, so there I was in Prague drinking excellent Czech beer out of some Czech guy’s refrigerator. That ran really late and was a lot of fun. The three of us didn’t get back to the hostel until something like 5AM.

After two weeks, I flew back to London for one last week there. This time I had two friends in town who were hosting me. They had been gone the couple days I was there earlier. They had just moved out of an apartment and had me stay there, warning me to deny everything if the landlord dropped by. To avoid this situation, I left at 8AM each morning and didn’t come back until at least 7PM. I walked everywhere this time, as I literally couldn’t afford the London Underground any more. I had a daily routine, where I would go to a Pizza Hut Express. This had the only all-you-can-eat buffet I ever found in London. For 8 pounds ($16), I could eat all the Pizza Hut pizza I wanted. I usually crammed down about 10 slices which was enough to be my only meal of the day. London was wildly expensive and my money really vanished this last week, even without worrying about paying for a hostel. I had a great time visiting with my friend there as well. He was one of the guys I had gone to Vegas with, and we played some soccer and went out to a comedy club, and hung out with another friend of ours from college. To drive home the reality of London, he said “I was at the corner the other day and waiting for the light were five cars. Bentley, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Bentley”

Psychologically, this trip was an incredible time. After two weeks I forgot that there was even a life waiting for me back in the US. By four weeks this life of jumping around Europe seemed like the only reality for me. When April 15 came and I had to fly back to the US, I was deflated. However, I wasn’t without plans. I was about to head to the town of Aurora, Illinois to learn the study of the law.

To be continued…
a. 2007-2010 life history
b. What is better, what is worse?
c. What is next?

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One response to “Am I better off now than I was 4 years ago? (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Am I better off now than I was 4 years ago? (Part 2) « L'Americana

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