(The author, in her natural habitat, on stage with mic in hand.)
I'm thrilled to share with you the second installment in the How I Got It Together series! These guest posts are written by people who have overcome adversity, are pursuing their dreams, or have an inspiring tale to tell.
This series is about highlighting voices from all walks of life to provide you a small dose of hope, empowerment, or maybe just a relatable story. I'm all for throwing some positivity out into this hellscape we call the Internet! If you'd like to contribute your words to the How I Got It Together series, please email me at catie dot L dot hogan at gmail dot com.
Our guest writer today is my friend Rachel Garbus! I met Rachel last year when we were cast in a couple of sketch comedy shows together. In that time, I've been endlessly impressed with her intellect, kindness (she so graciously fed me Cheez-Its and put me to bed on her couch after I drank far too much at a concert in Brooklyn last fall), and wit. She is so goddamn funny. Rachel recently relocated to New York to pursue her dreams and is an expert side-hustler. I often talk about using side hustles to fund your bigger dreams, and that's exactly what she's doing. For many of you creative types reading this, I know you'll see yourself in this story. You'll also laugh your ass off...
Without further ado, here's Rachel Garbus:
“Hi, is your soup gluten-free?”
I glance over at the tureen with the phone next to my ear. The soup is potato leek. I know it’s at least vegan, because it said so on the container when I poured it in the morning, and I’ve sold it to approximately twenty-five grateful vegans whose cheekbones were showing on account of not being able to ever eat anything. I can’t imagine what it could possibly have in it that’s glutinous, but I don’t have the recipe, and I know people take their dietary restrictions very seriously. We are in Brooklyn after all.
“I’m pretty sure it’s gluten-free, yes.”
“Pretty sure?!” Comes the shrill voice on the other line. “I can’t work with that!”
She hangs up.
I put the phone back in the cradle and turn to the next customer. She smiles, her cheekbones showing.
“Hi! Is your soup vegan?”
I’ve been working at this café for a month or so. Food service was the first industry I worked in, after babysitting: my first job was a grimy music hall-restaurant. Over the years I was there my turquoise high-tops slowly turned black-lung-colored, as I dragged kitchen mats off the floor to mop with a tangled collection of Medusa’s old dreadlocks. I graduated from there to the local brewery, but once I left for college I’d thought my food service days were in the past. I studied Political Science, was going to be a lawyer, was going to keep my shoes tidy and build a career.
Ah, but then. I started ambling along that track – working as a paralegal, taking the LSAT, meeting-and-greeting with law school representatives – but the closer I got to taking that plunge (specifically that debt plunge) the more I was forced to reckon with the true heart of my desire. Did I really want that life? Was law going to light me up – and light me up enough that the lights would stay on as I forked over $3,000 a month to pay back the degree? I decided that it wouldn’t.
Instead, I decided to do the practical thing.
I quit my job. And then I blew most of my savings traveling around Europe to get some inspiration. And then I got back to America, cashed out my 401(k) – which smart people like Catie Hogan, finance whiz, will tell you never to do – to have something to live off of while I figured what the hell to do next.
So now I was really poor, and really not going to law school, and really not sure how I was going to keep my shoes clean. But I could feel my heart singing. And when your heart starts singing, in my opinion, you better make the rest of your life the harmony that goes with it. So I started teaching theater; got an agent and taped auditions, got modest work in theater and in film. I started writing. I performed onstage, improv and sketch comedy, sometimes for money, mostly for not. And to make ends meet, I hustled.
Oh, I hustled. Freelance copywriting, babysitting, contract paralegal work, tutoring. I’ve done so many jobs in the past two years, I could probably offer myself as the final at "tax preparer school" and they’d have to pray that thing was graded on a curve. I sold antiques for an estate wholesaler. I walked dogs. I walked kids. I walked dogs and kids at the same time. I helped students write their college application essays. I even – for more pay than you’d think – climbed into the suit of a giant dog mascot named Cali who sported pink bows on her floppy ears and was assaulted by small children trying to expose the human they knew was inside.
(The author – pictured in dog suit – with Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal and mascots from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, attempting to make “Paws Up!” her lasting mascot legacy, as yet unsuccessful.)
While dressed as Cali, I attended a press release with Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal for their campaign against child hot car deaths (this was for me personally ironic as I nearly suffocated in the June heat wearing eighteen pounds of faux dog fur). I was even photographed with the First Lady, along with two other mascots from a local hospital - their even bigger heads loomed over mine, and as we gathered for the picture their grinning green faces seemed to be silently lording this over me. Undeterred, I turned toward the cameras and beamed widely, thrilled to be photographed with the First Lady, before realizing that I had a fucking dog head over my face and it was neither evident nor germane that I was in fact a literate human with a college degree. Like I said – I hustled.
This fall, after two years of the artist hustle in Atlanta, I surveyed the vast wealth I had not accumulated, the many accolades I had yet to accrue, and decided the most astute move would be to relocate to the most expensive city on the East Coast. I sold the car I’d bought with my cashed-out 401(k) and immediately handed that money over for first, last, and security on an apartment in Brooklyn so small that a grandma with emphysema could spit and it would still hit her back in the face after ricocheting against the far wall.
But my heart was singing louder than ever. For curious people who love surprises, there is no place like New York. So here I am. I have no 401(k); I have no investments. I have no retirement plan and no leverageable assets and a mediocre credit score because I haven’t purchased anything valuable enough to require a loan, don’t even own anything worth more than a grand (and that’s assuming anyone would buy this laptop which definitely has peanut butter stuck under the "B" key). I work a bazillion jobs and since no tax preparer schools have called (line’s still open, guys, whenever you’re ready!) it’ll just be me doing my taxes, trying to figure out if I can write off the Gatorade I bought after climbing out of the lethal sweat box known as Cali. I’m working in food service again after nearly ten years, rattling off the ingredients in potato leek soup to anxious vegans, my boots sliding inexorably towards grime-caked black lung. Evenings you’ll find me trying to peel plastered raisins off the floor while my coworkers, who are three years younger than me, patiently finish my closing work because, let’s be honest, I’m as hopeless in restaurants as I was at sixteen.
But I’m happy. I have undergrad debt but it’s paltry compared to what I’d have paid for law school. I make enough to cover my rent – with some left over for a slice of pizza on the way home from the bar. I teach theater, and write, and get onstage as often as I can. Even when my heart doesn’t want to sing – because it’s cold outside and my boots have holes in them and I kind of feel like the kitten Berlioz under the bridge in The Aristocats moaning “what’s to become of us!” – it is usually humming. I’m happy.
If I have energy after a café shift, I’ll head to a bar with friends, where my cash tips from the day evaporate in the vapor of a single expensive cocktail. The curled lemon rind has been sliced elegantly by the bartender, tattooed and mustachioed, who is perhaps himself a hustler of the same variety. There are many of us, after all: and I salute each and every one of you, listening to your hearts singing, being brave and foolhardy enough to forego security in pursuit of a bright, hot dream. If we miss the moon we shot for, we’ll still land among the stars – and there we’ll have no oxygen and freeze to death and people will generally lament our lack of good sense and we won’t even be able to offer our 401(k)s as evidence to the contrary - but what a story, eh? And that’s a part of the bright, hot dream, isn’t it – a good story.
On the other hand, I just forked over $20 for this cocktail plus a tip, so honestly this bartender is probably killing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s contributing the max to his Roth IRA and comparing Mini Cooper models. Kudos to you, sir – may your hustle be fruitful.