The Wendy Diaries: NorCal

In California I picked up a hitchhiker.

“You want a ride?” I said.

“Sure.”

“I’ve got a lot of crap in my car, but we can make it work. Only thing is: I have a surfboard.”

“I’ll put my stuff in my lap.”

I looked down at his stuff.

“No no, we can make it work.”

His name was San Jin and he got in and started telling me about his life: Living on an island in the middle of Lake Baikal in Russia; trying to write a novel; island hopping in Indonesia; hitchhiking all over Africa.

I was driving slow. We came to a stop light where they were doing road work and I asked San Jin if he had any cigarettes and he said yes and gave me his last Marlboro 100.

This is going to destroy me, I thought.

I took a long drag and the nicotine invaded my lungs and brain. I felt relaxed and cigarette memories came rushing back to me, nights out in Mexico City and Spain, sunsets and soft afternoons. The light turned green and we followed the winding coastline, the sun slipping lower and lower in the sky and finally below the horizon. San Jin suggested just pulling over wherever, he said he’d been doing what he called “wild camping,” so we found a side road that had plants growing up the center line where wheels didn’t tread and branches encroaching from all sides, obviously out of use. I eased Wendy in, the branches making a screeching sound down the length of the car and the undercarriage assaulted by foliage. San Jin and I went to setting up camp and I took out a bottle of Fin du Monde I thought I might save for the end of the trip, but not having to camp alone seemed like a good enough occasion to celebrate so I popped the cork and we sat on the ground and drank while San Jin cooked ramen with fresh garlic and his special blend of spices.

When we finally went to sleep I had a dream in which someone was telling me: “Mark, wake up. You have to wake up. Something important is happening in the outside world.”

I ripped myself awake there was a truck idling just above us. Its lights were right on our tents. My heart slammed.

I was just about to say something to San Jin, to see if he was up too, when there was the sound of the truck being put into gear and it started to reverse. The sound got smaller and smaller and I lay back down, feeling my heart, waiting a few minutes to see if it was coming back, and then sleep finally claimed me.

THE NEXT DAY I surfed Moat Creek, just south of a town called Point Arena. There was one other guy looking at it when we pulled up to the spot and I immediately decided he wasn’t very good, just by the timbre of his voice. He sounded soft. I was almost shaking as I put my wetsuit on and then said, “See you in a bit,” to San Jin and ran off down the trail toward the beach.

The water was cold and the offshores strong. I had been thinking a lot about sharks the last few days, because on almost every spot description on the forecast site it said, “Watch out for white sharks.” But once I was there in the water and not reading about it on a computer, the reef to my left, the waves breaking, the kelp heads bobbing and someone else out, the fear evaporated.

It was a shifty peak, but a predictable shift, like a marching band taking steps to the left in unison. The first wave I got was the best. I clawed into it, the waves were deceptively hard to get into, and then stood up and looked right and saw the best sight a surfer can see (well, second best), the face of an unbroken wave lining up in front of me. I pumped a few times but then sat in the pocket since it was mushy. Toward the end I crouched down and dragged my hand in the face, the spray blown out the back by the offshore winds, the sun shining. I almost screamed with delight.

AT THE SAME SPOT we also met Mary, who told us she’d be camping in a place called Bodega Bay Dunes State Park later that night, and San Jin and I said we’d try to find her. We yearned for company.  When we got to Bodega Bay we bought some ingredients for making stew at the awfully expensive local grocery store, and then grabbed our stuff and headed to the park so we could use the hiker biker sites.

At the site San Jin and I made our stew, a mash of onions, garlic, cilantro, potatoes, and every spice San Jin carried with him in his bag. Afterward San Jin took a shower, and then we smoked a cigarette on the picnic table near the bathrooms, me lying back and looking up at the stars, San Jin for some reason sitting down, craning to look up.

Then Mary showed up. She looked bedraggled and stoned. Apparently she had made camp in a day use park just before Bodega Bay and one of the rangers had kicked her out. We talked for a few minutes, the conversation petering, but I wanted to keep hanging out, and Mary looked expectant as well.

“Should we smoke?” I said.

She looked relieved. I hate smoking, but wanted to keep the night alive. Of course, I got too high. Mary took a few drags to start it off, and then passed it to me. I took two drags, passed it to San Jin, and around it went again. My world started to fragment, as happens with me and marijuana. I’d get focused on one thing, like the way the sand felt underneath my butt, and then realize I was in the company of other people and that they were having a conversation and it felt like an hour since I’d said anything. I tried to pay attention. Tried to participate. But kept losing myself, thoroughly concentrated on trivial details.

For some reason Mary looked like she was glowing, or like the background behind her was glowing Then this image changed, and suddenly I could see the real Mary, Mary at her core, which was disturbing because the real Mary was a 20-year-old drug addict, and also male. Again I tried to focus, to participate in the conversation, but it was impossible. Every time I hauled myself back to reality I would slip away again, consumed by another detail. Eventually I stopped worrying about filling the silences or contributing to the conversation, and the end result was a stream of monologue from Mary, followed by a silence, followed by more monologue.

We sat there for probably 20 minutes but it felt like several millennia. Afterward I asked San Jin if I had been normal, and he just said, “Mary kept talking!”

We giggled and bumped into each other trying to find the way to our tents, still extremely high. In my tent I struggled to get comfortable, but thoughts consumed me, and images, too. They came in waves, ripples. I was flying over a vast Aztec jungle, the sun shining, mist rising from the trees. There was an eagle, and everything rippled.

Meanwhile, outside the tent, the eucalyptus trees groaned.

Confessions of a Light Rail Fare Dodger

It’s a sunny morning, but it might as well be drizzling as I leave the Greenlake neighborhood in north Seattle and make my way into the interminable sprawl south. I must make it to Capitol Hill, and I must make it to Capitol Hill as soon as possible. But I also have very little money, and if there’s a way I could do it without taking the bus I must take advantage of that method, for to spend money on several bus fares today — not just one but several! — would be folly.

I am not a criminal.

I make my way south and soon I’m in the University District, home of the University of Washington and budding minds everywhere. Oh, to be young again! To cruise down the Avenue on my skateboard, smoking a cigarette, flashing the bird at a driver who gets in our way. Laughing with friends. Mobbing around the town. Getting on the bus and making our way straight to the back where we recline like kings, our feet up on the seats.

But that will not happen today.

The sun warms the trees in the U-District, but in my mind dark clouds have gathered. How to solve this conundrum, how to make it halfway across town while spending very little money. And then it dawns on me: the light rail, Seattle’s nefarious transportation system. Ah, the light rail, you devil. I can ride you free, as long as they don’t catch me. Of course, they’ll never catch me. I’m nimble as a goat and can jump like a gazelle. Even if they run after me they’ll never catch me. And even if they DO catch me they still won’t catch me, I’ll disappear from my overcoat and the only thing they’ll be holding is a couple of rags.

But I digress.

The light rail lies in a deep dark cavern at the foot of the campus next to the stadium. I make my way down countless sets of electric stairs, deeper, deeper, and deeper still! What recess of the hearts and minds of men lies before me? What abscess? What excess? As I descend deeper my thoughts descend deeper as well. I suddenly think of every bad deed I’ve ever done and shudder with regret. With remorse. Am I a terrible person? Yes, yes, it is decidedly so. But now is no time for introspection. I must be fleet of foot, but more importantly, fleet of mind. For I am on lookout for the men in the blue coats. The men in the blue and black. The secret police. The fare enforcement officers.

When I lived in the Old World, in Hamburg, the fare enforcement officers were much more cunning. They were dressed in plain clothes, like any regular Joe Hardy, and halfway through the ride they would stand up — a man who a minute ago was a regular passenger reading the newspaper looking in need of a good shave — and exclaim, “Fahrkarten!” Oh, how I would tremble when they would say this, but not because I wasn’t a paying passenger. No, no, I always paid. I was an upstanding citizen! Things were good when I lived in the Old World! I ate Greek yogurt everyday and sometimes even grapefruit! Pamplemousse! And then of course there were Thursdays where I’d have the pizza. Ohhhhh, the pizza. How it lingered on my tongue. The salami. The provolone. Was it provolone? No, definitely not. It was mozzarella. Or mascarpone. One time I did put mascarpone on a pizza, and was chastised for a week because of it. I never committed the same error. I only need be chastised once to learn my lesson. I’m like a dog.

The fare enforcement officers in Seattle, however, they announce themselves. They wear clothing that says “Fare enforcement officer.” Ha ha! What fools! Ahhhhh, but they’ve played right into my hands. Don’t they realize that I’m manipulating their world? That I, actually, am the fare enforcer? Of course, the fares I’m enforcing are of a different variety. I enforce the fares upon their souls. Please, sir, give me two quarters. You don’t have two? Fine, give me three. There, that’s it. Now, tomorrow please have your fare ready.  Today is just a warning, but tomorrow…..

I don’t see any fare enforcers on the platform. The train is scheduled to leave in 3 minutes. Perfect, perfect. This is going just according to plan. I stand in the train car, just inside the door, looking this way and that like a weasel. They may come, but I’ll see them coming, and if they do come I’ll either get off the train or change cars. But they’ll never catch me. Oh, they’ll never catch me. One minute left. A girl comes dashing on the car and gives me a fright. Sit down! I say. Sit down right now and don’t move a muscle! Still no fare enforcers in sight. That man, that man there, is he wearing a uniform? Yes, but it’s a green uniform. This distinction is important. The green uniforms are Light Rail Security. So I’m saved, for the time being.

Finally, a bell chimes, and the doors begin to close. I take a deep breath and look up at the ceiling. God, see me through this. See me to my destination without losing a foot or a hand. Without losing face. God, help me, for I am a sinner, I am a fare dodger, but I am not a criminal.

I am not a criminal.

The Money

Part 1

Reclining in a chair at Odegaard Library at UW. It’s 10:58am. I just got done getting an injection for a clinical trial I’m doing at a major cancer research center here in Seattle that will pay me gross amounts of money. I feel apathetic right now. I feel lazy. The only thing I want to do is go to Chipotle and get a burrito bowl with cheese and sour cream and the tortilla on the side, but I can’t afford it. Instead, I’ll go home and eat the pasta leftovers from yesterday, the pasta I made with onion and carrot, doused in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with freshly ground sea salt. It’s not a terrible option. My life is not worse for not being able to go to Chipotle.

I check the balance of my Charles Schwab account. Eleven dollars and one cent. I’m waiting to get my first payment from Leapforce, the semi-awful company I work for doing search engine evaluation, but they’re net 30 which means I might not get paid until the end of this month. And my first check from my main job doesn’t come until April 26th. And interpreting, somehow, I don’t even think this is legal in the state of Washington, is something like net 60, which means I won’t get paid by them until sometime in May. Which means that of all the work I’ve done since I got back from Europe, of all the three jobs I’m working, I haven’t gotten paid a single cent. Which means the balances in my checking accounts are getting lower, and lower, and lower. And I’ve had to become more frugal. It’s a victory when the bus driver gives me a transfer that lasts for longer than it should and I don’t have to pay several bus fares in one day. It’s a victory when I go to Trader Joe’s and get samples, which I’ve been doing almost every day. It’s a victory when I see my friend H driving by in his car, give him fist bump, and then walk home and see a compost bin full of bread and grab one of the loaves of sourdough and then eat it with my pasta. All these things are victories. Life, right now, feels like a victory. I know I might sound somber, but things are actually pretty good.

I did have money. But I didn’t consider it my money. It didn’t feel right to have it. So eventually, I gave it back. I gave it back because I wanted to be forced to work, and that’s exactly what happened. Within a few weeks of arriving back from Europe I had found a solid, part-time job, and figured I could supplement that with medical interpreting and Leapforce. And then there was another job offer, this time from Booking.com, to be a customer service representative in Spanish. The job was effectively a call center. But it felt like the right thing to do. It felt like I should take the job. I could see worlds opening before me, international travel, meeting all kinds of interesting people, getting transferred to the office in Bogota, living, living, living! But then I thought, How will I manage that with the other job. How could I do both jobs at once. I’d essentially be in a cubicle most nights of the week until 11:00pm or 11:30pm. I’d never do anything. I’d never go surfing.

But at the same time, I knew these were lame excuses. You have to pay to play. After the interview I got in the car with my friend M and she had me completely convinced. “Do the job,” she said. “You know it will be good for you. You know it’s the right decision.” And I fully agreed with her, of course. I felt like I should do. But I didn’t WANT to do it. I really didn’t. And after we parted ways the resistance started to kick in, and within a few days I knew there was no way in hell I was going to take the job. Too much work. Too much commitment. Too much unknown.

People think that because I travel to weird places and don’t know where I’m going to sleep the next night I have no fear of the unknown. They’re completely wrong. That, for me, is the known. That’s what I’m used to. Taking a 40-hour a week job, having to sacrifice my freedom, having to do something I don’t want to do, that’s the unknown for me. And ultimately my fear of the unknown was stronger than my desire to better myself or expand my horizons. I wondered if I would regret not taking the job at Booking. I do, a little bit, but those regrets fade every day.

Of course, my plan wasn’t to use the money I used to have until I gave it back. First I had to decide whether I even wanted to accept it. But it was a fairly large sum, so tantalizing to just be offered that kind of money, so I deliberated on it and eventually decided to accept it, even though something deep inside me told me I shouldn’t. I ignored this voice. The older you get, the better you get at ignoring the little voices telling you what to do. The better you get at rationalizing. I think some of the most “mature,” “responsible” people I’ve ever met are actually just people who have learned to ignore this voice completely, and always do what is “smart,” always do what is “rational,” always do what is “right.” These people are so boring. They surround themselves with other people who do exactly the same thing, and this way they can constantly make each other feel better about it.  But this little voice is the only thing we have. It knows what to do. It knows which path to take. And if you ignore it for long enough, it eventually just shuts up. It doesn’t talk to you anymore. And then maybe, maybe, a mid-life crisis can come along, or some other dramatic event, and save you. But maybe also you’ll just be too far gone.

After I accepted the money I didn’t use it. I continued to work. I traveled around Eastern Europe and wrote a book about it called Snowflakes in Lviv. It was a fairly terrible book. But it was a book. And then I came home for a little while, but after reading a book titled What Should I Do with my Life, or something to that effect, I decided I needed to move somewhere and commit, commit to at least a year of living somewhere. I chose San Sebastian, Spain. I wanted to be somewhere that satisfied the following conditions: Spanish-speaking, had surf, had a climate similar to Seattle’s, and was a decent-sized city. San Sebastian, or Donosti as it’s called in Basque, satisfied all those requirements perfectly. Sure, people speak Basque there, but a lot of people don’t. The language you hear most in the streets is Spanish. If you walk into a store they’ll greet you in Basque but they won’t be offended at all if you don’t speak it. I had an apartment for 400 euros a month with a balcony across the street from the beach. I would wake up in the morning, walk to the living room with my laptop, the house was silent because my roommates had either gone to work or, in the case of my Eithopian-English-Italian roommate Kara, still asleep, and put my laptop on the table to get ready to work. If there were waves I would go for a quick surf  first. I’d check the waves from the living room window, put on my wetsuit in my room, wax my board while sitting on my bed, and walk down the six flights of stairs to get to the entryway where’d I’d squeeze through the door, careful not to ding my board, and head down to the beach. I was, of course, a stranger in the line-up most of the time I was there. But by the end of my time in San Sebastian I started to get a few head nods from some of the regular surfers. Not full on head nods, not “hi’s,” but simple, almost imperceptible twitches of the head after making eye contact to signify, “I’ve seen you before. It’s OK that you’re here.”

After two months in San Sebastian I gave up. I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore. I still hadn’t touched the money I’d been given. I was working online doing search engine evaluation for a company called ZeroChaos, getting paid 15 dollars an hour. I wasn’t supposed to work outside the US, but I started doing it anyway and they never said anything. Fifteen dollars an hour might not sound like a lot, but most of the world is cheap. In most of the world, 15 dollars an hour is a fortune. Spain is certainly not an exception. Spain is cheap. My room was wonderful and, like I said, cost 400 euros a month. The food in Spain is cheap (as long as you don’t eat out), the wine is ridiculously cheap, and surfing, when you have a break right in front of your house, is pretty cheap too. What more could you really want? Well, you could want friends. I knew going to San Sebastian that it would take awhile to make friends, and that until I had friends I wouldn’t be that happy. That’s why I had to force myself to stay there for a year. But I didn’t do it. I gave up. I got bored. I got lonely. I got sick of going to the same coffee shop by myself and writing. I got sick of surfing by myself, even though there were other people around me. I got sick of not having real friends. My roommates were sort of friends. There was a girl from Barcelona, and most nights we’d smoke hand-rolled cigarettes in the living room and talk about whatever. She was studying costume design. I think she might’ve liked me at one point. One day we decided to go ice-skating together, and it was a little bit awkward. We had had a little bit of a falling out. I don’t even remember what happened, now. I only remember that we spent almost every evening sitting in the living room smoking cigarettes with me possibly eating yogurt, and then all of the sudden we barely talked. But then slowly we started talking again, and I mentioned there was an ice skating rink over on the other side of the town, and we went one day together, on a random weekday afternoon, and I spent the hour we were there blazing around the rink as fast as I could on the rented skates which weren’t very sharp, I spent elementary school in Minnesota so ice skating still runs in my blood, and meanwhile she was teetering around, always on the verge of falling, but with a big, semi-strained smile on her face. I still have one picture of her from that ice-skating session. The picture is blurry, she’s holding on to the railing, and smiling a real smile, not a strained one. Behind her the ice is blue and white and the lights are bright.

I bought a roundtrip ticket from Madrid to Seattle. I went home for a month. I think I got seasonal depression. Then I got on the return leg of my trip to Madrid, spent a night there, and then flew to Morocco to meet up with my friend and other friends for his 30th birthday. We spent a couple weeks in Morocco. It was wonderful. They’d rented a beautiful little villa in the town of Taghazout, just north of Agadir and close to some of the best waves in Morocco and, for that matter, some of the best waves in the world. At night we’d hit the streets like a little gang, eating a crepe at the crepe stand that catered to tourists, going to one of the popular restaurants in town that had cheap pizza and tagines. At night, my friend S and I would usually watch an episode of Orange is the New Black before going to sleep. We’d cook communal dinners together, drink tea the way Mohammed, the manager of the property, had showed them how to prepare it. Every day we’d pile in the rental car, all the boards on top, some of them rented, my green board that I might’ve called Wendy, my friend H’s board name Steve that we constantly made fun of because it was tiny and hard to surf. And then we’d head to one of the spots, Boilers, Anchor, Banana, or somewhere else. One day we drove up to Imsouanne to check out the wave there, rumored to be one of the longest waves in the world. I only got one good wave, but it was the longest wave I’d ever gotten. It was probably waist high. I was pumping the entire time. There was section after section and with each section a mounting excitement and when I got done with the wave I screamed, but the scream was also tinged with a bit of sadness because I was pretty sure no one had seen the wave. My legs were burning. On the way back we drove through rocky fields with thorny trees with goats standing on the branches, nibbling at the tender upper leaves.

And then Morocco was over and I was on my own again, and I flew to Belgrade. My flight was actually to Zagreb, Croatia, but I got off in Belgrade because I’d never been to Serbia before. My goal was to write a book, and that’s what I did. I wrote 1,000 words five days a week for over two months, and eventually I had a book that was around 50,000 words long. I called it Snowflakes in Lviv because I stayed for three weeks in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, a wonderful, gorgeous, quaint, alive city, and one day I was lying on the bed in my private room at Post Hostel, a new hostel with exposed brick walls, comfortable duvets and friendly staff, and I had the song “Requiem” by Mozart on, the full 55 minute version. I was curled up next to the radiator, feeling the heat, and outside great big snowflakes were plummeting towards the earth, and they looked like creamy specks against an off white sky, and I lay there, just lay there, listening to the music, watching the snowflakes, enjoying the warmth.

The trip ended in Berlin, where I saw my friend C, my cousin M, and walked across Templehofer Feld on a beautiful April day. At this point, though, I was ready to go. I was ready for the trip to be over. It didn’t even feel like the same trip, the one that had started in Belgrade and taken me through Romania and into Ukraine and Poland and then into Germany. Now it just felt like I was on sort of an aimless vacation. I was in that kind of purgatory where you know you’re going to go somewhere and being in that other place is all you can think about to the point where it compromises your ability to be present in the place where you are. I was drinking a lot of coffee. I was taking a lot of walks. My cousin and I went out one night to a wine bar where you could drink as much wine as you wanted and then just pay at the end, and I got mildly drunk. It was the first time I’d ever hung out with him in my life. I still feel like I don’t know him. I’m glad I saw him, but I still feel like I don’t know him.

Part 2

I’m getting hungry, sitting here at Odegaard. The library is full of students. Somehow my login still works, but only at the computers here. I tried it at Suzzallo, the “graduate” library, but it didn’t work, which means I must be among the hordes of undergraduates who are involved in whatever it is undergraduates do. I, of course, was an undergraduate once, but I don’t remember doing much schoolwork. I majored in Spanish, which is probably one of the easiest majors UW offers. The longest paper I ever had to write was four pages. The standards were incredibly low. The Spanish I learned was not so much at UW but mostly during a pair of study abroads in Spain and Mexico. And most of the learning in those came from a series of conversations with particular people. In Spain, it was a young dancer girl who I used to watch TV in the afternoons with and smoke Chesterfields. In Mexico City, it was a girl named Juliana who I’d get tacos with several nights a week and with whom I spoke exclusively in Spanish. Because of these two girls, my Spanish skyrocketed. Which was maybe what made the Spanish major so easy at UW. Maybe it was easy because I liked Spanish.

I’m slowing down now, and getting hungry. I really want Chipotle, but unless some kind of miracle occurs I won’t be able to have it. PayPal! Maybe I have money in my PayPal account!  I’m pretty sure I don’t, but there’s always a chance. But no, my balance is $0.00 in “all,” currencies.

I’m realizing now that I got massively confused. When I left Spain after living in San Sebastian, I didn’t buy a roundtrip ticket. That was a different trip. The year before Spain I lived in France for two months with a woman named F who rented me a room two blocks from the beach in Seignosse, near Hossegor, and after living with her I walked the Camino de Santiago, the Camino del norte, 500 miles from Irun to Santiago de Compostela, and then I flew to Madrid and back to Seattle, and that trip, that was the trip where I bought the roundtrip ticket and came back after a month of seasonal depression in Seattle and met my friends in Morocco and then eventually went to Belgrade and Ukraine and wrote the book. But after San Sebastian something different happened. I went home to my parents’ house in Washington State and I decided to quit my job. I still hadn’t used a penny of the money I’d been given, but I decided I was going to quit my job and become a writer. I was going to go to Latin America, first Mexico and then Honduras for a volunteer gig my nurse friend and sort of ex was doing, and then onward, probably to Colombia, and maybe even further on. The idea was that I’d eventually run out of money. That was the point. The point was to run out of money and be forced to either become a legitimate writer or starve. Of course it failed. I sold my book online, and it was mildly pathetic. It wasn’t a great book, so only my friends and family bought. One girl I didn’t know bought it, a girl who’d been following my blog through a few years, and that was flattering. But deep down I knew it wasn’t that great, so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t sell much. Plus, my marketing campaign wasn’t exactly effective.

Of course, in my head I knew that if things really got bad, if I was really destitute, then I could use the money. And I think on some level I knew all along that was exactly what would end up happening. But I did give it a decent go. My money ran out completely on the island of Chiloe in southern Chile. Or actually, Chiloe is where my money got low. My money got law so I bought a tent and a sleeping bag and went to a smaller island called Puqueldon where I planned to sleep on the beach and maybe even live off the land till I was able to start making money from writing. And although I spent some wonderful nights on the beach, the rain eventually drove me indoors. I started to sell the book, and made about 100 bucks. But at this point I knew it was over. I knew I wasn’t going to really risk it, to risk true destitution to make myself become a writer. So I made my way to Santiago, and that’s where I started using the money. I splurged for a first class overnight bus from Temuco to Santiago, it cost 50 or so dollars and had entertainment, food, and a nearly lie flat seat, and then when I was in Santiago I went to my favorite coffee shop, Colmado, and got a delicious latte, and then I spent 200 bucks on Alaska Airlines to get enough miles so that I could fly business class home to Seattle and have a lie-flat seat there, too. When I went to the airport in Santiago I was exhausted after not sleeping that much on the overnight bus from Temuco and having to kill the day walking around the scorching city, but since I was flying business class I was able to go to the LAN lounge where they had a multitude of drinks and snacks and I was even able to take a warm shower. But it was, of course, bittersweet. I had given up. I was now living on money I hadn’t earned but rather money that had been given to me. It didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel good about myself. And I knew that the money wasn’t the problem and I still know that to this day. If someone gives you a large chunk of money it shouldn’t ruin your life, or ruin who you are as a person. And it didn’t ruin my life, of course. My life was fine. It was great. From an outside perspective, it was great. But there was something gnawing at me that was related to the money. Something wasn’t quite right, and I knew that eventually the only solution would probably be to give it back. So that’s what I did. A month ago, I gave it back, and that’s why now I have $11.01 in one of my checking accounts and why I can’t go get Chipotle and why because I still haven’t gotten any paychecks I’ll probably have to ask someone for a micro-loan in the very near future.

But, as I was telling my friend G today, I’ve noticed something recently. As my checking accounts inch their way towards zero something curious has happened. I haven’t gotten sadder, but actually happier. And it’s made me realize that when people say that “Money doesn’t buy happiness” they’re only talking about half of the story. This is what I’ve learned: that when you need something, and you buy it, that’s good. That’s fine. But when you buy something you don’t need not only does it not bring you happiness, but it actually makes your life worse. Spending money on things you don’t need, in other words, being wasteful, doesn’t bring happiness but actually brings sadness. It lowers your quality of life.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If I had the money right now to buy my friends and myself a surf trip to Indonesia on a boat in the Mentawai Islands, I think that could bring some legitimate happiness. I don’t need that trip, but it would bring happiness. But most things, most things we buy that we don’t need just make our lives worse.

So at least I’ve learned that. Maybe I haven’t internalized it, but at least I’ve learned that. And now I’m going to walk home, eat my leftover pasta, and sit on the couch.

 

 

Welcome to Biomat USA

I wake up this morning at the fresh hour of 7:30am, shave, and go to Peet’s coffee shop, where I work for precisely 34 minutes. One of the tasks I perform for the job, which involves search engine evaluation, is 12 minutes long. I complete it in five minutes, and then just sit there watching the timer, thinking, “I’m getting paid right now. I’m getting paid and I’m doing nothing.”

Peet’s is full of regulars. I used to go to Fix, across the street, which is approximately 16,000 times cooler than Peet’s. Fix always has young, attractive people doing stuff involving coding and social media on their MacBook Pros.  Peet’s, on the other hand, has 65 year old men who mark their coffee thermoses with a Sharpie so the girl working knows EXACTLY how high to fill it up. In other words, the antithesis of cool. But Peet’s is cheaper. And less pompous.  And the music at Peet’s makes it easier to work, usually some kind of soft jazz or singer/songwriter, as opposed to the ultra-hip indie music emanating from the speakers at Fix.

That said, I love Fix. But four dollars for tea? Give me a break.

After Peet’s the idea is to go to the community college where I’m currently teaching a class in the afternoon, but first I have a stop to make. I have almost no money right now, which means I’ve decided to donate plasma again. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Donating plasma is ghetto. And this is true, but it’s also precisely why I like it. Since I’ve been back in Seattle I’ve had two jobs offered to me which could’ve gotten me firmly out of financial trouble. I turned them both down. The thing is, I like doing stuff like donating plasma, even though, due to the clientele, it’s sometimes a bit terrifying. I like scrounging money together in order to pay rent. I like being forced to be ultra frugal. If I didn’t like it, I would’ve taken that job for the cool hotel booking company where I would’ve spoken Spanish all day but worked in a cubicle. I would’ve taken the job at the place two blocks from my house that paid surprisingly well for being a grocery store. I’m currently struggling financially, but I’ve chosen this struggle.

At the plasma donation facility, called Biomat USA in North Ballard, I’m easily the nicest-dressed person. This is exciting, because I’m never the nicest-dressed person anywhere. The lady asks when the last time I donated was and I tell her “a long time ago.” This is true. I’ve done this before, but I don’t remember exactly when. I remember being mildly traumatized each time. I also remember the last time I tried they said I couldn’t because my protein levels were off. I think I was in the middle of a fast when they took the sample and thus had blood readings similar to those of a shipwreck survivor.

“You’ll have to fill out some forms,” she says.

I take the forms over to a chair, where I sit down. They’re playing a movie. This is one of the things I remember, actually. In the waiting room they have several rows of chairs, and everyone waiting is watching some kind of movie, usually terrible. Today though it’s a movie with Jack Nicholson. I recognize his voice. Then I see Helen Hunt. What’s the name of this movie again? It actually looks kind of good.

The questions on the form I fill out are the all in a similar vein: Do you have tattoos? Do you have piercings? Have you ever had a piercing? Do you wish you had a piercing? Have you have talked to anyone with a piercing? I have no tattoos and no piercings and no desire to get either, so I figure I ace the test. Then they call me to the back, where I have to give a sample.

The back is an interesting room. It’s a bunch of people on beds, pumping their fists, with tubes hooked up to them, gazing around idly or, if they can see the screen, watching the movie. It’s relatively silent. I put my backpack down and sit on one of the beds, and a girl comes over to me who might be Belorussian. She asks me how my weekend was, and my first inclination is to say terrible but I say, “It was OK. I worked quite a bit.”

She sticks a needle into my arm. It feels awful.

“Make a fist,” she says.

There is nothing I would less rather do, but I do it anyway.

I look around at the other people, and recognize a guy who was on the number 45 bus with me from Greenlake. He’s red in the face. He looks like he’s been drinking steadily for the past 14 years. Next to me is a woman who’s overweight and wearing some kind of a track suit. There might be Italian food spilled on it. And then there’s a gregarious, middle-aged man who’s joking with some of the phlebotomists. They know him by first name. He must come in here a lot.

Finally it’s over and she takes the needle out of my arm. Am I seriously going to do this? I wonder. Am I going to do this so I can get 30 bucks twice a week?

Yes. Obviously. I love this stuff. There is no place I’d rather be right now than in North Ballard trading my blood for cold, hard cash. What a wonderful country we live in, where this is even possible. With any luck, the phlebotomists will be on a first-name basis with me, too, in a few weeks. I’ll come in here, watch the movies, donate plasma, and be on my merry way. Because like I said, I could get a regular job. But regular jobs are for suckers. And I’m no sucker. I mean, how could I be a sucker? I donate blood.