Last year, I moved from rural New Hampshire to San Diego, mostly aware of the financial inferno which comes with living in America’s Finest City. Though I had not yet been burned, I would soon learn what all the heat was about.
A few examples:
I packed my one bag to the breaking point and prepared to fulfill my own, less aggressive manifest destiny. Goodbye, bleak, frostbitten trees and post-holiday New England winter blues. Good afternoon, toasty San Diego winter, with your life-giving sun and palm trees. To many of my friends, Southern California radiated a paradisiacal energy, alluring yet foreign. For me, it was simply alluring. I had visited around my first year of high school. My oldest brother decided to settle in San Diego ten years ago, so I had an anchor point when I flew out to tour universities and visit on holidays. By this point, my feet were sufficiently wet in San Diego life. But this ticket carried a different and more powerful significance, as it was a one-way ticket.
The price stung, but I had insisted on purchasing my own ticket. Two hundred bucks (plus taxes) for a ticket sure felt like a punch in the wallet, even if it was peanuts compared to flights circa 1940 (adjusted for inflation, over $4000 to get from Boston to L.A.). But for one who still perceived $230 in terms of how many guest passes it could buy at the dining hall, it didn’t feel crazy cheap. It was cold water on the face, letting me know that I was off to start fresh. A one-way ticket. I’m moving to San Diego.
Two-and-a-half in-flight films later, I stretched my cramped legs and waited for my bag on the carousel at San Diego International Airport. As soon as I stepped outside, the smell of the bay greeted me. The scent ousted what remained of the recycled air I had been breathing with 150 other people, and excitement gripped me as my brother pulled up to the curb in his white pickup. I would stay with him and my sister-in-law in the spare room. What a prime and generous opportunity for a cross-country traveler, to have his own space waiting when he arrives. Best of all, they didn’t demand rent.
The sun was already down when we got to the house and lugged my one giant red bag inside. We cracked a welcome beer on the porch, and I felt both a momentous sense of purpose as well as pride: this was the beginning of my San Diego journey, and I was the lucky one who made it happen.
Well, I had to go do something. One doesn’t make friends sitting in one’s room. Acting on instinct, I attended a Super Smash Bros. tournament at 710 Beach Club in Pacific Beach. Back home, I was a force to be reckoned with on Nintendo’s classic party game-turned-fighting game. I relished the older editions of the game, whereas I had played the newest edition just twice. But, same thing, right? With my brother’s Truck Blessing, I jetted over to fight tooth-and-bumper for parking in PB, and strutted into the 710. Five dollars bought my way into the venue, five more ushered me into the tournament. Locals had brought their consoles and monitors in a collective effort to rig up a pretty solid-looking video game tourney spot. The event (titled “R.I.P Waluigi” in memoriam of Luigi’s purple, mustachioed rival who didn’t make the roster of the newest game, contrary to players’ expectations) had a pretty regular competitor base, and I was swiftly singled out as a newcomer. Aside from the occasional dour competitor, I received smiles, welcomes, and offers for pre-game practice rounds. Soon, the signups were locked in, and managers hollered the first matchups over the din of the bar.
The competition handled me like a cat handles an asthmatic mouse. I doubt it was a competition for my opponents, even in the loser’s bracket. I was outclassed, outskilled, and out of the tournament before you could say, “Hey, that was a good game, is this your first time playing?” I gathered my controller and last vestige of pride and slumped out front to smoke with the other losers of the evening. Consensus as to the imbalances between This Character and That Character lifted my spirits, and I continued to admire the congeniality of these strangers and competitors. Even before I was proven not a threat, I felt thoroughly invited to the local happenings.
The highlight of the night, as it turned out, wasn’t even how I spent those first $10. It was how I spent the next $10: on my post-defeat pick me up, the beach club’s Monday night special, a beer and a burger. At first, I was skeptical. Spending ten smackers on only a beer isn’t that difficult (as I learned in the story of $22), and a deal this feasible has proven too good to be true in the past: the beer or burger might be awesome individually, but seldom do both exceed expectations. Imagine my pleasure when a Hamilton earned me a satisfying pilsner and a respectable patty on a toasted bun. I enjoyed it with a note-to-self: burger and beer before tournament. I called this evening a success.
One Monday night, I only wanted to go out with my friends to Lancers in University Heights. I found myself at Lancers quite a bit, due to its respectable pool tables and $4 gin-and-tonics that put a little chalk on my cue. It exemplified the qualities I sought in a weekday bar. Weekday it may have been, but it was also a birthday, and we twenty-somethings fancied ourselves obligated to get plastered in the birthday girl’s honor. Several cocktails, high-fives, and table scratches later, we had fallen into our stride quite nicely, enough to abandon the pool and amble over to Cheers for some karaoke.
Cheers offered 24-ounce beer for $3.50 on Monday nights. That’s certainly a fine complement to karaoke. We stumbled in the door, interrupting a rendition of a song I did not recognize, but which everyone else seemed to thoroughly enjoy. After poring over their gold mine of a set list for half an hour, my buddy and I selected Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” as the intro song to the evening. The rest of our party followed suit, inspired by our antics. All genres of music blared as all patrons of the bar found the threads of commonality between one another.
The weeknight wore on, and the telltale signs of a night coming to a close started to materialize: singing voices petered out, DJs filled the lapses in karaoke signups, and last call lurked around the corner. The after-hours hangout session outside the bar is a most coveted time. Conversation made twice as easy with booze is twice again easier when you don’t have to screech directly in the other party’s ear. My hammered pals elected to Uber home, so I bid them Godspeed and I stayed (equally hammered) to mingle with the new friends I had made: two girls who had belted their lungs out on the mic and one dude who talked about L.A. for longer than any other soul I had thus far encountered. We blabbered until The Spins took hold of one of the girls, and she seemed keen to rely on L.A.’s Biggest Fan to help her home.
Not to be denied a chance to sweat the liquor out before bed, I took my leave and started to walk home, only to be joined by M, one of the friends I had made that evening. Specific songs in her set list that night evaded me, but they were big and boisterous: Adele, Bishop Briggs, and the like. She hadn’t the cell service for an Uber ride home, so I had some company for the majority of my trek. After all, M and I were currently best friends, united in inebriation though we had only met that evening. We laughed and wondered about many great mysteries of life. Gradually, she came to tell her whole story.
Her story was one of pain, born of frequent betrayals and traumas, and, to be sure, bad decisions. Now, here she was, wrought with indecision and vodka cranberries, “floundering through life.” Would I be a good neighbor if I didn’t offer consolation? Don’t we all find ourselves, at some point, hopelessly lost amidst a tidal wave of responsibilities?
Walking proved exhausting, so we posted up on the curb. M’s phone still had abysmal service, and now her battery approached its demise. With no intention of taking her home, I pulled up the app on my phone and punched her destination in. The ride cost $16.19. So be it. I called it, then struggled to my feet, standing in the empty street at 2 am.
I told her she must listen to me. I was the mysterious stranger from the other side of the country, and she would be wise to heed my wisdom.
I told her there was hope, she simply must have it.
I told her change can be self-wrought, she need only take action.
I told her she was capable, independent, and most importantly, worth it.
I told her she must Venmo me $16 when her phone came back to life.
All these things I told her with conviction, riding this wave of drunken philosophy. M looked at me with wide eyes, and I could’ve sworn something flickered within. “I will try to do these things,” she affirmed as her ride pulled up near the curb. I wished her the best, and I hugged her farewell.
She never sent me the money.
As a delightful consequence of crashing a wedding afterparty, I started seeing a girl who lived up in Carlsbad. I found myself making the trip north frequently, a trip that looted $20 from my wallet every time. My brother’s truck, which he very nicely loans me, guzzles rather than sips gas. Now, every single time I pulled into her enormous apartment complex, I parked in the exact same remote spot as I had done the first time. Management didn’t seem to mind a battle-scarred, white pickup from the late ‘90s stealing a permit-enforced parking spot. But on the evening I drove my sister-in-law’s black, soft-top Chevy Camaro, they minded quite a bit.
On the veranda that morning, I enjoyed my standard English breakfast tea, a smoke, and the lengths of silence in between the hubbub of weekenders preparing for beach trips. Scanning the parking lot bathed in sunlight, it took me a while to realize I couldn’t find the Camaro. The spot it had occupied the night before was empty. Gradually, I connected the dots: the Director of Ensuring Nobody Gets Free Parking noticed a sleek convertible wearing a racing stripe but no parking pass and sicced the tow truck on it.
The sign bearing the tow agency’s number was so faded we couldn’t make it out. I spent the next several hours calling the police to find the Camaro, calling my brother and his wife for VINs and license plate numbers, and calling the tow company to find they were closed that day. But for the small fee of $90, they could send a representative to the location to get me the car. I grudgingly agreed and stormed out to Vista to retrieve it.
While we waited for the tow man to arrive, the price of retrieval buzzed around my head like a pricey wasp: $270. For a fiscally intelligent adult with a job and budgeting skills, $270 is a pain in his neck and perhaps the lowlight of his month. But for an uprooted, unwealthy migrant, $270 changes the way he lives for the next few weeks. Stack on another 90 bones and you’ve got yourself a broke sandwich.
The arrival of a massive tow truck broke me out of my self-pity 20 minutes later. I strained to the absolute limits of my good manners to remain pleasant, until the guy refused to return the keys to me, as I wasn’t listed on the insurance for the vehicle. He closed the shuttered window in my disbelieving face.
My mother would have been as proud of my restraint upon meeting the tow man as she would have been disappointed at the verbal onslaught I hurled at him as he left. Deep down, I knew there would be no “hell to pay” if he didn’t return the Camaro to me this instant, but I like to think that, just for a moment, he considered it. Regardless, he skedaddled. So it was back to the phone again, desperately trying to middle-man between the tow agency and my sister-in-law down in San Diego.
A great many phone calls and one fax later, we returned to the scene of the incident after four hours to get the car. The vastly more agreeable dude who met us there charged $360 to my debit card. Such a little mistake, such woeful consequences.
Despite how the day turned out, this girl’s willingness to cart me back and forth without question amazed me. If I close my eyes, I can conjure the same scenario without a cheerful teammate able to lend me her car, no friends in North County, I’m paying for Uber after Uber, and the drivers aren’t as readily empathetic towards the passenger fuming in the back.
In my travels, I have yet to discover a night-life situation as appealing as small college-town bars. There won’t be a bottle of Blue Label on display behind the counter, but the counter-balance makes it worth gritting your teeth through the well whiskey: dollar drink nights. Such was the weekly ritual while I attended the University of New Hampshire. This is not a cantankerous look back on the “the good ol’ days.” No, this tradition for broke and thirsty college students is still over the bridge and tucked behind the pines. Typically running for an hour or two, dollar drink nights are the only times you see a line around the block, other than St. Patrick’s Day. “Cover charge” is a prank the bouncer plays on the already-wasted. I cannot count the times the crew and I closed down the bar on a Thursday night, thanks to the 30-minute overlap in 50 Cent Wings and Dollar Drinks.
Then again, one tends to get what one pays for: dingy interior, grouchy bartenders, plastic cups littering the dance floor, and Theta Ki swarming the corner tables like they do every week.
In the few months following my Camaro disaster in Carlsbad, I did my best and didn’t scare the girl off, and her birthday was around the corner.
“Oh, we are absolutely going to The Shout! House,” she answered when I asked her what she wanted to do for the occasion. “It’s the coolest place in the Gaslamp district.”
My only knowledge going forward was that The Shout! House had two grand pianos at which performers played requests from the audience. She liked piano, so I imagined a dimly lit, lounge where the pianists played smooth jazz in-between requests and smoked indoors. Instead, the interior opens up into a two-tiered miniature amphitheater, with one wall lined with mirrors and a platform supporting the dueling pianos covered in crumpled, yellow request slips. I hadn’t even ordered my drink, and I was sold. The performers played two-part harmony and took turns belting out the choruses. No genre unwelcome. I heard everything from “Enter Sandman” to “Gin and Juice” to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” My jaw dropped as a bidding war to play/cease playing Frozen’s “Let It Go” catapulted up to $150.
When it came time for a drink, I opened up a tab with a gin and tonic, and make it a double.
I finished swaying along to “Someone Like You” with the rest of the crowd and it was time for round two. Given the success of the gin drink, I ordered another, only to find it sour beyond what was acceptable. As much as I hate being “that guy,” I went back to the bar and pestered the bartender for a new drink, playing it safe with a beer; the only thing worse than returning a drink is returning two because the replacement didn’t cut it either. Thank you, generous bartender. Now I return to the floor to dance an extremely reluctant jig to “Cotton-Eye Joe.”
I didn’t grow tired of the music so much as I grew weary physically, and we eventually made our way to the bar to close out our tabs; mine consisted of a double gin and tonic and a substitute Modelo — a tiny tab this evening. I scowled at the receipt when it requested my signature for a charge of $28.
“Hey, man, there might be a mistake here. Did you charge me for the G&T I swapped?” I carped to the bartender, who genially printed me a full receipt. The beer, $6. The first double gin and tonic cost $22.
The barman shrugged, “Gin and tonic is 11, a double is 22.”
Well, hey, I can do math. I just figured there was a discount incentive to buying a double cocktail over a single. But so be it: I will pay more for a well drink than I ever have in my adult life. We aren’t in New Hampshire anymore.
Living at my brother’s house rent-free was a gift I didn’t even know I was thankful for until it came time for my nephew to be born. A nice bed and a patio for those sunny late afternoons were all mine, and I just needed to buy groceries once in a while and clean up after the yellow lab. My monthly expenses amounted to a moderate $60 phone bill and $365 for student loans. These became easier to pay when I landed a part-time gig as a barista, setting an unprecedented standard for English majors everywhere. But alas, the baby boy was on his way (October!), and my room was to become a nursery.
So, I had to buck up and do something I had never done before in my life: find an apartment.
In college, I “looked for a place to live” every year, but only during a campus-wide, maniacally scheduled online event. Each student was issued a specific time at which they might select a room on-campus, which meant much nervous sweating at the library computers at 8:28, praying through 8:29, and signing up for a suite at 8:30 (if you were lucky). Securing student housing taxed one’s reflexes more than one might imagine, but it was streamlined and, more importantly, consistent. You might not get what you wanted, but you’d get something. This newest installment of relocation was the Wild West to me: unknown apartments and strange roommates, veiled behind mysterious horizons.
I unearth Craigslist goodies in my spare time anyway, so I tentatively clicked on the “apartments/housing” link. At first, the prices were just four figure headlines: some of them really wanted to be rented, this very moment. But as I scrolled and explored, I started to do the math: divide by two, factor in utilities, add $X for a parking spot. $2500 a month for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, $1450 for a studio. It was a sick joke at the commoners’ expense. If the minimum wage is 12 dollars an hour, and one is blessed enough to secure a full-time position, then a month’s work garners a mite over $1900. Factoring in taxes leaves that commoner with a paycheck unfit for the studio.
I closed my laptop and despaired. A roommate was imperative, perhaps even two. My café job couldn’t grant me my full-time wish either. I imagined myself in a random unit with five other roommates, last names unknown to me, competing for the microscopic space we agreed to share because it was affordable. Sure, there are worse ways to live, but I wouldn’t leap at the opportunity.
As the days wore on and the August due date inched closer, I bemoaned my condition to those who would hear it, but received only wishes of good luck without solutions. Nobody needed a roommate or wanted to be a roommates, so I was prepared for a potential Craigslist Mystery Surprise when a door opened: my co-worker’s roommate had peaced out, and he offered me the space, smack dab in University Heights; my share of the rent would be $847.50.
I accepted the offer in the first week of August. Look at me, mom, I signed a lease! I am now a member of an elite group of functioning adults. I pay money to live securely. So, pay money I did, by writing the dollar amount (correctly) on a shiny blank check with my account number emblazoned on the front, and signing it (incorrectly) in the endorsement field on the back, because I had never, until that moment, written a check. Seriously, I actually argued with my roommate about that. As someone who had only received checks, I was unaware signatures went anywhere else.
There were numerous residential skills and priorities I needed to learn faster than the final exam study guide to Nursing 101. For starters, the place was mostly unfurnished. The living room belonged to the ex-roommate, and he had practically taken it with him upon leaving. But an extra set of wheels from my brother and an extra set of hands from my roommate made it simpler to seagull a T.V. stand, a sturdy walnut coffee table, and two couches, all from our fine friends on Craigslist. The only piece I paid for was $25 for the coffee table.
There was mail that needed forwarding and there were bills that needed paying, but the biggest hurdle for me to clear was budgeting properly for food. The shopping list changed weekly, and my diet was determined almost entirely by how merciful my bills were feeling. At the start of my lease, the rent knocked the wind out of me after the utilities bill had tied my shoelaces together, and I found myself truly living paycheck to paycheck.
I learned to ditch the Top Ramen. It is all about rice and beans, baby. A fifty-serving bag of white rice and five cans of black beans cost less than 20 bucks and gives you that veggie-protein bonus to combat poverty-induced muscle atrophy. Add salt and butter (another note: add salt and butter to most things, if you enjoy good taste), and enjoy a scrumptious 15-day meal.
That said, I count myself extraordinarily fortunate to have a family member right around the corner, so that actual starvation is improbable. (Working in food service helps, too). Not everybody can be so lucky.
As a child, with plenty of food on the table on any given winter night, I had often romanticized the idea of post-collegiate poverty. The concept of struggling to get by and kicking it with other impoverished friends is alluringly human. You say, “Man, this sucks, I wish we weren’t broke,” and your friends comfort you: “You know, at least we have each other, and this cool movie we can watch for the eighth time this month,” and everyone brainstorms broke shortcuts and moneymaking schemes.
But this allure is built on the absence of uncertainty, the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring, perhaps another surprise bill or erroneous charge that will condemn one’s already strangled budget. When it is down to brass tacks, the fear of potentially sacrificing meals in order to make rent is haunting, and asceticism in a city bursting at the seams with activity can be humiliating. If one can find one’s financial footing, the renter’s adventure can be as fun as one makes it, but the included responsibilities force a person to reevaluate priorities to more or less align with what Maslow had in mind.
So why come out here? The rent is damning, and there’s seldom a parking spot when you need one, but less than half of San Diego’s citizens were born here. It’s a transplant city, and everyone has a reason to be here. It’s the things that cost nothing. It’s the silhouettes of the palm trees against the exclusive sunset of the week, every day. It’s the hole-in-the-wall Mexican food spots found by accident and remembered for next time. It’s the weekly beach volleyball meetups. It’s that first step off the plane seeing the high rise lights twinkle in the bay. It’s the 70-and-sunny-year-round weather.
Though, for myself and many others, appreciating these merits can be difficult when living a life consumed by the price tag. “Can I afford it?” is the question preceding every activity, want, or need, and I grow weary of letting my bank account command my day-to-day as well as my future.