O Lucky Man
2003: I was out of a job, but my friends made sure I wasn't out of work
MOST STORIES OF GOOD FORTUNE don’t start with losing your job. Mine does. In February of 2003, I was abruptly fired from an alternative weekly newspaper. I had been there for nearly four years, and the publisher was a friend who I had known for more than a decade. She had given me my patio furniture.
And so began a 12-month odyssey of travel, freelance work, and paying my own health insurance premiums. It wasn’t the best year of the decade, but it was exciting and varied. I volunteered teaching “at-risk youth,” appeared regularly on public-access television, operated as a handyman, unlicensed contractor, and (for one day only) a very poor excuse for a dump-truck driver. I traveled to Colorado, New York, Newport, Chicago, and Montreal, painted my house (and those of two friends), wrote articles for two magazines, and hosted the last and best of a series of August yard parties I had inaugurated three years earlier. I ran out of money and sold the first car I ever owned, a 1967 Nova Super Sport, for about one-third of its value. At the end of that year, I had a new home in a new city, a better job (albeit at less pay), and $64,000 cash—more money than I ever had in my life, before or since.
The cash came from the sale of my house, a 1920s colonial I had bought in late 1999 for $76,000. It had sat empty for six or seven years before I moved in.
Even before I was fired, the house ate up much of my spare time. I finished the attic and redid the kitchen, spruced up the bathroom and added a slate patio to the back. The building inspector was impressed enough that he half-jokingly asked if he could hire me.
When, a few weeks after my dismissal from my job, a friend asked me to put in her new kitchen floor, I reluctantly agreed.
I quickly learned that my circle of friends had dozens of small jobs that needed doing. At first, I tried to get away without charging them, but soon enough a quiet arrangement emerged: For $20 per hour plus materials, I would take pretty much any assignment I thought I could handle.
I mortised French doors and hauled pavers out of backyards. I built stairways and resealed driveways. I installed ceiling fans and drilled through bricks to install a dryer vent (not advisable for the beginner). A friend of mine—a skilled mason and landscaper—hired me one July day to drive his dump truck. I got lost at the quarry and under-loaded the truck, forcing him to make a second trip. He paid me anyway.
By August, I had finished my patio, including a substantial roofed section. It was the year of “Freedom Fries,” so I chose a French theme for my annual blowout, ordering a case of French vino from a wine-distributor friend and securing the services of a—close enough—Cajun band whose lead singer I knew. I built a 10-foot tall guillotine from scrap wood and steel and used it to cut the watermelon. At least 50 people came and no one was injured, though things did get slightly out of hand with the catapult and the potato gun.
By this time, I was spending my days re-footing the front wall of a hundred-year-old farm house and milling new floorboards for its porch. I had taken on a partner, paying him the same $20-an-hour I took for myself. As a painter, he was worth more than that. As a carpenter, I’d have been better off paying him to stay home. He also took unnecessary risks. His name was Gary, but his nickname was Scary.
While power-washing aluminum siding, Scary took the washer to the corner where the electric service came into the house. He leaned an aluminum ladder over some shrubs, at a cartoonishly unsafe angle to the wall. I heard the scream when—he said—the power arced from the house and blew him off the ladder.
Amazingly, Scary Gary worked the rest of that day and for two more months on jobs my friends had offered. By October, Scary had fallen under the spell of an Army recruiter. “He promised me I’ll be stationed in Germany,” Gary told me one brisk morning as we worked on a Gilded Age Victorian owned by another friend, who had moved to the West Coast. My doubts would not dissuade him.
By November, I was out of jobs and—owing to my West Coast friend’s inability to pay timely—nearly out of money. Though it would have put me perfectly into the zeitgeist, taking a cash-out refinancing on the house was out of the question. I was hard-up to pay the existing $680-a-month mortgage, and didn’t think increasing that debt made sense. I put an ad in the local bargain paper for my classic Chevy, and gave it to the first guy who showed up with a wad of hundreds. I consoled myself with the fantasy that the new owner would treat the old girl better than I had.
The next week, I learned of a job opening in Baltimore. I decided to keep paying my health insurance premium, which topped $330 per month.
I could not start the Baltimore job as soon as my new boss desired. My own house was still a mess, and now I needed to sell it. I asked for 60 days.
Friends came to the rescue, helping me paint and clean. One neighbor actually cleaned my refrigerator after I moved. My mason friend came with a truck and hauled junk out of the garage, gratis.
I got full asking price—$146,000—from the first person who looked at the house. It was March 2004, and the housing market’s bad craziness was just starting. Later, I would lament that I didn’t rent the place out for a year before selling it, which might have netted me another year’s pay, tax-free. But then I realized: I was incredibly fortunate. I escaped injury during eight months of construction work. I stumbled into a real-estate market near the bottom. And I was writing again. Was I lucky or good? Mostly lucky, I think: lucky to have friends who are wiser and more generous than I—so generous that they insisted on helping when I needed it and wouldn’t ask.
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