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San Diego's hustlers, jugglers, bottom-feeders

Some people make livings. Others piece them together.

“They go really high, almost to the point where you can’t see them anymore, and they come down real slow.”

Maybe you’ve been in the Gaslamp at night and noticed purple lights ascending above the mayhem of partiers and rancorous lines outside the clubs. Those lights are Comet Copters flying, courtesy of Charlie Griffin, who makes a tidy gig-living from the rubber-band-powered contraptions as well as from blowing huge soap bubbles around town.

Griffin, 32, who goes by the self-assigned moniker of “The Bubble Guy of Coronado,” has tried a lot of ways to make money, but his role as a dispenser of novelties has proved the most lucrative; he’s just moved to Coronado and life does seem to be all (as the quaint saying goes) “Skittles and beer.”

“I was having the worst day of my life, a really, really bad day. My friend said, ‘Make some bubbles.’ I wasn’t into making bubbles. I said, ‘Fuck your bubbles!’ She said, ‘Just try it.’ She wouldn’t leave me alone, so I tried it, and when I did, the craziest thing happened; all the bad, negative energy I had started flying away with those bubbles. By the time I was done, everything was okay. The happiness it gave me... I decided to pursue it. I fell in love with it. And I thought, If the bubbles were able to do that for me, maybe they could do the same thing for somebody else. That was several years ago.”

Charlie Griffin launches a rubber-band-powered Comet Copter into the night

Charlie Griffin launches a rubber-band-powered Comet Copter into the night

Before his bubble epiphany, Griffin says there wasn’t exactly an overabundance of joy in his life as a wage (or commission) slave. “I worked at a gas station and at a Big 5 Sporting Goods, and I’ve been a car salesman. Just before I started doing the copter thing, I was working as a maintenance guy at a run-down place that used to be a bed-and-breakfast. The owner was a hoarder, so it was pointless.”

By late 2012, Griffin, wielding what looks like a divining rod of sorts, was shaping soapy loops five days a week, three or four hours a day, hoping to entice admirers to buy $10 bubble kits. “The smallest one is the size of a big beach ball; it all depends on the wind. If it’s windy, there will be hundreds of thousands of smaller ones, but when there’s no wind, I can put people inside of them. Summer is better because bubbles are cheaper to make then. I have my own secret recipe, and the ingredients are a lot easier to find during the summer because stores stock them more.”

Griffin says that during San Diego’s modest winter, he can’t sell many bubble kits but can still work birthday parties. “Those are mostly at Spreckels Park in Coronado; I try not to do them inside because it gets messy. I charge $50 for a half hour; any longer, the kids get bored.”

Griffin admits that the bubble biz is a dicey financial proposition. “That’s where the helicopters come in. When I was doing bubbles one day, there was this guy downtown selling these things you shoot in the air; they have a little light on them and they look cool. He asked me if I wanted to sell them and I thought it would be perfect because once the sun goes down, I can’t really bubbles anyway. I started selling the helicopters and it just took off from there. I thought the helicopter business would be seasonal like the bubbles are, but it’s not. It’s down since last summer, but it’s still way better than a minimum-wage job, even if I were to work 50 hours a week. Worst-case scenario? I will not take less than $64 in a day; I won’t stop selling until I make that much. Some days I make $400 to $500, other days only $100. But I make more money selling helicopters than I ever have in my life, even selling cars.”

Charlie and his comet copters

Charlie Griffin talks about making a living selling his comet copters toys on the streets of San Diego.

Charlie Griffin talks about making a living selling his comet copters toys on the streets of San Diego.

I asked him about the micro-economics of selling toys to the passer-by. “They’re one for $5 or three for $10. I buy them at a right price, 75 cents each, so it’s all profit.”

When I ask, “What about competition?” Griffin answers, “These things are getting more and more popular. There are already a couple of people down there at Market and Fifth. I try not to go too close to them.”

Do the Comet Copter guys have territories, turf?

“That would be nice, but unfortunately, it’s not like that. One of the guys I brought into the business who was helping me — I don’t know if he just can’t find his own spot, but every time I go, he shows up and it really frustrates me, and I haven’t found a way to overcome it. He lacks courtesy.”

While there might not be a lot of busted kneecaps or shakedowns, catering to bubble fans and toy-copter buyers does present occupational hazards in the form of local hoteliers and gendarmes. “It was weird,” remembers Griffin. “For about seven or eight months, I was making bubbles right in front of the Hotel Del; there’s a grassy area at the corner off Orange where tourists cross through coming from downtown Coronado. One time, the hotel people finally said something, told me I needed to move on; but the very next day it was okay.”

Was it private property?

“Funny you should ask that. There were bikes left there one night, so I called the hotel and asked for the security department, because bicycle theft is all over Coronado. “They said, ‘Call the Coronado Police Department. It’s not our property.’ Also, let’s say I’m in the heart of Seaport Village. The cops will tell me I’m not allowed to sell the helicopters because they aren’t ‘home-made or hand-made.’”

Before he hangs up, Griffin tells me, “Right now, I’m setting up at the Kissing Statue. It’s gonna be a good day. But just in case…luckily, I live with my girlfriend, who makes pretty good money as an RN.”

Unlike the Bubble King of Coronado, “SV” of Imperial Beach doesn’t have backup, so she can’t afford to let many of the pieces fall through. At 20, she’s a San Diego City College dropout, an aspiring actress and dancer who supplements her sparse stage income by writing for blogs and toiling in the occasional part-time job. Neither resigned nor artificially enthused, she’s under no illusions.

“I am doing this by choice. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoy it; I mean, I do like it, but mostly because I’m keeping myself doing things that are fun, in my opinion.”

SV says that although she’s no stranger to 50-hour weeks, there’s a lot of fluctuation in hours and pay.

“I audition for parts in plays and musicals at theaters. The blog-writing (mostly political satire) pays me a minimum of $150, up to $500. Right now, I’m collaborating with a few people on a secret project that’s pretty much in the alpha stages.” She confides, “In a good month I make a little over $2000, but if I don’t work too hard, it’s $1250 a month. The part-time jobs are mostly in sales or housekeeping. I once had a janitorial job I actually wanted because it was at a movie theater and they let me watch movies for free.”

Lisa Sawicki

Lisa Sawicki

While some San Diegans with patchwork incomes have never entered the full-time workforce, others, like Lisa Sawicki, have bowed out.

Sawicki, of Golden Hill, fled Detroit in 2012. She works 35–40 hours a week, with an income approaching $4000 a month. In an average week, she puts in eight to ten hours as a manager at a public relations outfit in Vista, as well as a dozen hours as a “certified life coach,” some of it counseling on “dating and romance issues” for a matchmaking service, some in private practice. Throw in a few publicity workshops at coffee houses around town, and it’s a new-age patchwork. She says, “A lot of my bread and butter is in life-coaching; I charge my private clients $80 an hour.”

But what exactly is life-coaching?

“You gently work alongside clients to find the truth about their needs, issues, upsets. You try to figure out blocks, get them to reframe things and come up with a strategy. It’s similar to being a psychologist, but I refer clients for specialty mental health problems. I deal with things like weight issues, bully relatives, unhappy job situations. I have a certificate, but it’s really basic, common-sense advice and compassion. It’s the job of the coach to illustrate how they sabotage their goals.”

Sawicki harps on self-promotion.

“To make this work, you’ve got to be constantly selling yourself. If you’re going to be a freelancer and attract that kind of work, as opposed to going into a job with a salary, you are your own sales representative. You have to be willing to go up to a stranger and pull out your business card, to sell and to close.”

At the end of our interview, Sawicki sounds a “life-coach heal thyself” note. “After having a really large career for so many years, and now that I’m in my middle-50s, I’ve gotten to the point where I know what I’m ‘yes’ to and what I’m ‘no’ to. I set healthy boundaries by avoiding saying ‘yes’ to what I don’t want.”

“What do you want?”

For Tony G, that’s not the question; his life is flush with neither choices nor pleasant dilemmas. There are no bubbles in Tony G’s world. “Piece together a living? Hell, yes! Easy enough to do when you don’t have enough focus to formulate a plan, let alone put one in motion long enough to create a consistent, stable form of income once they take away your food stamps and health insurance.”

Tony says he earned over a hundred grand in 2010, after which life went downhill big-time.

“I was laid off and became disabled due to foot wounds that wouldn’t heal. Went to the emergency room, collapsed, had a major digestive-system operation and ended up with a colostomy bag. I was hospitalized for two months. My landlord served me with an eviction notice. Spent all $15,000 of my savings and was denied disability because I missed the filing deadline.”

And, as they say, “Wait, there’s more.”

“The degenerative arthritis in my hips has progressed to debilitating, mind-numbing pain where I can only barely get around with the use of two canes.”

That’s the hand dealt to Tony; there are no “brick-and-mortar” jobs in the cards, just a gaggle of Mephistophelian jokers. “I wonder,” he says, “Who hires people without shoes?”

His desperation is palpable. “So, what to do? How about driving people for money in a soon-to-be-repossessed vehicle? Try to sell your blood only to find out they don’t want unhealthy plasma? Sign up for clinical trials you never get picked for? Fill out one thousand online surveys that take a week for $1.50? Fall hook, line, and sinker for millions of online scams trying to take your last buck? Sell all the crap I have about the dwelling on eBay?”

When it comes to particulars of bringing in the dough through what (in pre-internet times) might have been termed “odd jobs,” not everyone is forthcoming about details. Tony is wary when I press him.

“I do shit like cyber-begging and crowd-funding; have you heard of those? But as I said, I can’t really go into that; I could get in trouble if I admit to some of the ways I make money.”

Making money, according to Tony and other San Diegans, can be done, and is increasingly done, in ways other than the traditional, steady, nose-to-the-proverbial-grindstone job. Piecing, cobbling, or patching together a living is the hard road many locals are forced to tread these days. It’s a story that’s a function of general hard times, but also one as eccentric and particularized as those who live it.

Craigslist and Reader ads figure prominently for some “piece” workers, who diligently wade through the chaff to find the “germ” that will fund the next SDG&E bill or rent payment. And speaking of germs, medical research studies are one avenue for quick (if not always easy) cash.

Back in 1992, eccentric writer Jim Hogshire (the fellow who instructed us on how to make our own opium using legal sources) wrote a how-to tome, Sell Yourself to Science: The Complete Guide to Selling Your Organs, Body Fluids, Bodily Functions and Being a Human Guinea Pig. 

That’s what Derek Franklin does for part of his income.

“It’s constant looking,” laughs Franklin, who lives near UTC. “Here’s the dilemma: I’m a hairdresser and there’s basically no business, so I’m free to do these gig things. I don’t want to do them, I have to do them. I’m here 40–45 hours a week because I have to keep certain hours, but I’m not paid hourly. There are hardly any customers; maybe ten hours of work a week. I charge $30 for a man’s haircut, $100 for a woman’s cut and color. Split it 50-50 with the shop.”

If Franklin has a gig-métier, it may be his role as a human guinea pig.

“I do a lot of UCSD studies; you can find them in the Craigslist ads. I’m on a cholesterol study right now; been on a couple, because my cholesterol’s pretty high. They give you shots or pills and always a monthly blood draw. But you never find out the results.”

I asked the disgruntled hair jockey about side effects. “Isn’t it a little scary?”

His response displays the calm of the drug-study veteran. “They’re pretty rare; it’s a double-blind study, so no one knows (the nurse doesn’t even know), but if you had side effects, you probably would know right away. You have to be willing to take that risk, but you’re talking about a ‘Phase 3’ [study], which isn’t too bad, because it’s right before it goes to the public. ‘Phase 1’? That’s with rats — you don’t want to do that.”

I ask, “Is it a good use of your time?”

“Oh, yeah; I get $1000 for the cholesterol study.”

Franklin also participates in cognitive studies. “They want to know how your brain’s functioning; those can be over a length of time, even years. I did a schizophrenia study last summer at UCSD. They need normal subjects for comparison. You spend two hours there, they do a bunch of tests, and then you leave. There are dexterity tests, a lot of memory tests; they’ll give you a list of 20 words and make you repeat them. But that’s only $50; you’ll get a lot more for drug studies or overnight monitoring, like sleep studies. A while back, I did one where they gave me a phenomenal eye exam which lasted something like four hours. Got $200 for that. The exam alone would’ve cost a huge amount.”

But even this king of cholesterol testing gets screened out now and then. “Tried to get into a study in Encinitas. They asked me what my cholesterol was and I said, ‘260.’ They said, ‘You’re not even close. We’re looking for over 500.’”

Speaking of trials, Franklin says, “I just did a law focus group downtown. Took about three hours. They get a group of people together to get Joe Blow to give his opinion on how strong a case is. It’s 5:30 to 8:30 in the evening, about 14 other people. Pays $50 cash.”

Almost as an afterthought, Franklin mentions, “I’ve worked for years and years in data entry through Manpower. I go in mornings, eight hours a week for $15 an hour. Also, if someone’s moving, I’ll help him out; maybe I’ll get $50 for two hours. I find them on Craigslist, but there are a lot of scams on Craigslist.”

“How do you define a scam?”

“A scam is when anyone is going to pay you money for doing almost nothing. You need a name, a company and a phone number, not just an email address. You know those ‘car wrap’ things with the ads? Those are all scams.”

And then there’s the old skid-row standby: blood products. “You just walk in, they see that you’re healthy. No screening at all. Blood takes five minutes, but plasma takes an hour, hour and a half. You’re on a machine. Plasma is usually $50 for a pint. The pay for blood varies. It can be $20, sometimes up to $50 or $60 for three or four vials; it depends on what they’re looking for.”

Answering a question I regret having asked, Franklin sounds a weary note.“I have no choice but to keep doing this.”

Patching together a living from multiple sources is often more prosaic than soap bubbles and flying toys that light up in the night. Nonetheless, it seems that in San Diego, many of those who cobble together a living (whether at the subsistence level or otherwise) eschew the grind of old-style, multiple part-time employment. There are a few holdovers, however, like Sheila (not her real name), whose dual-job routine combines ringing up spools of yarn in the afternoon and turning on the gas pumps after midnight. If my interviews are any indication, most of the locals who stitch together a living (or facsimile of one, reasonable or otherwise) are ambivalent, if not downright proud, about their day-to-day mosaic. However, some (notably the older folks) express a sense of near-shame. Sheila, who’s 61 and lives near the slough in Point Loma, would rather keep mum, at least with respect to her workmates at her regular job.

“After my husband left, my savings started to dry up. I’d already been working at a large arts-and-crafts store around 30 hours a week; they pay me $12 an hour. But I needed extra income. I applied for all kinds of part-time jobs — clothing stores in the mall, that kind of thing. But they told me, pretty much, that I was too old. Those weren’t the exact words, but it was obvious they didn’t think I could sell lingerie to some cute 20-year-old with her ass hanging out of her shorts.”

Eventually, Sheila landed a job manning (or “womaning,” if you will) a gas station kiosk in Kearny Mesa. It’s a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. stint three nights a week; it’s minimum-wage but you get a free smock. She’s not enthused with the ambience. “Gets kind of creepy,” says Sheila, “especially around 3 or 4 in the morning. That’s when you remember the faces of those sex offenders you see on the internet, the guys who kidnap and rape, chop up bodies.”

But Sheila claims she can live with that, as well as with the constant fatigue brought on by all-nighters. “What really bugs me is, the other gals at the store always ask me to join them for drinks after work; there’s a lounge close by. I used to go, but now I have to make up excuses why I can’t. They’re getting suspicious. I just don’t want to tell them that I have to work at this dirty gas station.”

Mike Minjares has been known to juggle three gigs at a time.

Mike Minjares has been known to juggle three gigs at a time.

Just a few decades ago, classified ads in the local daily were the domain of most job-hunters, and even those who ended up as consultants and such tended to start with an old-fashioned “brick and mortar” tenure, including careers in the public sector. Not infrequently, this is the realm of what the mass media dubs “information workers” like Mike Minjares, who’s been known to juggle three gigs at a time.

“I was on track to be a vice president of student affairs at San Diego State, would’ve made up to $150,000 a year. It was a conscious choice to spend more time with my kids, to be there for things like softball practices in the afternoon. I was willing to sacrifice to be with my family, and I think it was a great trade-off. “

“I’d done the whole nine-to-five thing for 17 years at SDSU; then I left to work as a grant writer for the Sweetwater school district for 16 months. In early 2008, my brother was starting a community magazine for the City of Chula Vista and he was looking for an editor, writer, and ad salesperson. It was full-time but I got to work from home, two blocks from my son’s school. Andrew was having some behavioral issues, and it helped knowing that I was just five minutes away, even if it meant going to the principal’s office. His eyes would light up and he’d say, ‘My dad’s here; how did that happen?’”

After three years elapsed, Minjares (seemingly always at the right place at the right time) got an offer to freelance for a public-relations firm and then an invitation to serve as interim director of development at the San Diego Food Bank. “So, by 2012, I was working three jobs.”

Minjares stresses that being able to work from home, venturing out only for the occasional client meeting or onsite interview, was the key to keeping sane: “I was writing and editing for the community magazine 30 hours a week; freelancing for the PR company maybe 6 or 8 hours a week, and spending another 10 working for the food bank. Made about $55,000.

“The great thing was, I was able to carve out my own schedule. I could work at nights, Saturdays, and Sundays. But at the end of six months with the PR company, I realized that it was too much. I was spreading myself too thin, couldn’t do the quality of work I wanted. I still did the other two for awhile.”

These days, Minjares has upped his hours at the food bank to 30. Now salaried, he’s required to be in the office; his income is down to $35,000–$40,000 a year, but he’s fine with that. He’s also doing a bit of freelancing again, rewriting a website. So far, he’s resisted calls by the food bank to give them more. “The president called me and asked, ‘Will we get you 40 hours a week now?’”

Minjares admits that without his wife’s steady and substantial paycheck, he couldn’t have trod this path. “She’s made it feasible for me to give up benefits like sick leave, vacation, pension, and medical insurance.” In any event, he’s confident that he has the option of bailing out at a moment’s notice. “After my kids are out of school, I’m sure that I’ll go back to a traditional, full-time office scenario. I don’t think there will be a problem finding a good position; it’s always there waiting for me when I want it.”

Just as there are myriad paths leading to the pieced-together living, there are varying standards of living to be had among its participants. At the far end of the economic continuum from Minjares are folks such as Michael Davis of Escondido.

When I spoke with Davis, he was downtown waiting for his next Uber passenger.

“Right now, I’m parked at the side of the street on Market just waiting for the next one. The application has ‘heat spots’ showing the amount of traffic. It’s dark green here, which means it’s busy.” Uber, he explained, is one of the new breed of cyber taxis, companies that are filling a niche recently approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. “They call it ‘paid ride-share.’”

“I started on New Year’s Eve. You use your own car, supply your own insurance (the company supplies supplemental insurance). It’s all done though iPhones. The customer brings up the app on his phone, I pick up the customer, and the fare is charged automatically through the phone; no cash changes hands between driver and passenger.” He adds, “I never even see the customer’s phone number because it’s relayed by Uber.” Davis also notes, “The cars are nondescript, not marked; so we can’t pick up folks flagging us down on the street.”

Born in the San Fernando Valley, Davis spent his teen years in Florida, after which he bounced around between San Diego, Portland, and Phoenix.

“The last time I drove a cab was in Phoenix, in September 2012.” It didn’t work out.

“Traditional taxi is a dead-end job; I’d be out there 80–100 hours a week and barely make poverty wages because the leases on the cabs are huge. I was paying one of the cheaper leases, $475 a week; some of them are $600–$700. The driver has to pay for his own gas, of course.”

And then there are the hidebound hurdles of the old-fashioned taxi trade: FBI background checks, drug tests, and fingerprinting. “By the time you’re done with it, you’re hardly making any money. Lucky to take in $400–$500 a week. Most of the time is spent waiting for fares, maybe 10 percent driving, and you’re stuck in the cab, because if you’re not there when a call comes in, you’re out of luck.” Aiming for $500 a week with fewer hours (he’s an independent contractor on the better side of an 80/20 split with the company), he’s confident that his role as an app-empowered cabbie with Uber will be different. But he’s got more irons in the fire.

“There’s a trucking company in Santee that occasionally asks me to co-drive a rig for a firm which supplies (what I’ll just call) ‘medical research materials.’ Last month we went to Boca Raton, Florida, and I made $1050. We drove 24 hours a day. There’s a bed behind the back seat, and I traded off with the other driver. It took two and a half days to get there, four to get back; they paid for motels on the return to San Diego. On Monday we start off for Minneapolis; I’ll take home $850 for that one.

“Right now, though, my primary income comes from being a full-time student on the GI bill. They pay me $1648 a month to go to Palomar College, but tuition’s free….”

Davis also dabbles in website design. “I’ve got a business called Southwest Webs, where I’m trying to build a small business-networking resource. I can get $500–$600 per single website and could do one a week — if I had the clients.”

Davis is candid. “I just fell into this stuff; at this time last year, I was in a homeless shelter. I qualified for a new VA program for older homeless veterans; I’m 57, went into service just as the Vietnam War ended. So, that got me out of the shelter. All kinds of great things have happened; this has been a wonderful year for me. You never know if you’ll make the money; you have to get out there and hustle.”

James Bogart

James Bogart

James Bogart “hustles” his voice. Google “voice123.com/jameswax” and you’ll find the intermittently remunerative stylings of James Bogart, who relies on television and radio voice-over gigs to pay the bills. A native of Upstate New York, he’d worked back home as a radio disc jockey under the moniker of “James Wax,” while his wife Brandie waited tables at a Red Lobster. It was a pretty good living, he says, for a Rust Belt town.

As Bogart tells it, his move to San Diego was “unexpected.” After the radio stint ended; after his wife mangled her hand in a walk-in cooler at the crustacean joint; and after a death in the family triggered a nasty feud, it was time to leave Corning.

“There’s almost no private-sector work unless you’re an Indian and work in a casino or have a ‘legacy’ job at the Corning Glass factory.”

With “Crystal City” long-vanished from the rearview mirror, voice-over projects (along with Brandie’s small jewelry-making business) have kept the Bogarts afloat. But when it comes to using one’s larynx for lucre, gigging for a living can be feast or famine. Work is sporadic, and, according to Bogart, the industry’s superstars are all hooked up with major talent agencies like Atlas and William Morris. With nary a trace of self-pity he quips, “I’m a bottom-feeder.”

James Bogart voiceover reel

Download audio clip

Even on the proverbial ocean floor, though, pay is good when calculated hourly, ranging from around $150 to $500 for perhaps an hour of work.

Voice-over work, notes Bogart, is all about selling others on the notion that your intonations can help them sell their products or services. To that end, it’s essential to put together “demo reels” with samples of one’s work. What kind of voice does “Wax” have? Well, what kind of voice do you need? According to the website descriptors, he’s a lot of things: “Conversational but edgy, hip, neutral accent; medium tenor, young and sexy, slightly sarcastic, clean, all-American guy-next-door, bright, energetic, fun and natural.” The site features clips from his work for Michelin, Samsung, Toyota, and other advertisers.

In the interim (and the voice-over biz is nothing if not a series of pauses), Bogart has looked for employment in retail and service settings, only to be turned away, he says, because he can’t speak Spanish.

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