How To Save Your Life
The short version is I was born to wonderful parents who loved me very much, but nevertheless come from humble beginnings. My mother initially worked as a secretary when I was a boy, if I recall correctly. My father sold Dudley haircare products. They loved my younger brother and me perfectly. But financially they were strapped for cash, and obscured this fact rather well until the early 1990s. The burgeoning drug epidemic in America swept through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and devastated black neighborhoods.
Suddenly my mother lost her mother. She was more hurt than my father understood at the time. The addiction to crack cocaine would arrest my mother helplessly not long after. I remember feeling equally helpless, angry at her, wounded by the name calling from my idiot friends. What began as a working-class former steel town devolved into a thick morass of poverty, crime, and anxiety within a year’s time.
I grew up skinny, allergic to work and athletics. I was funny and disdainful at an age when other kids wanted to throw the ball around. I did that for a while. I could catch a football and at one point even had a decent jump shot. But I was bored by these activities. I liked to write. The feeling of executing what was on my mind in a rhythmic even eloquent format was exhilarating. I started with poetry. I finished with raps. And I was actually good.
It may have been my only redeeming quality in a dying neighborhood of intolerant tough guys and corrupt police officers. By 8th grade, I was fairly known, but not popular. Only close friends knew I had worth. I didn’t sell crack and I didn’t play sports. No other demonstrable eccentricities allowed me to stand out. But I could rap. I had a talent for verse. I used to write love poetry to my mother’s friends. This is how I began to develop my imagination: by writing. This is also how I learned to look outside my bedroom window beyond the neighborhood where I felt imprisoned. I simply imagined a better life.
I even played this out dramatically through different personas, postures, and visions of myself living well. My childhood hero was Alex P. Keaton (deftly played by Michael J. Fox on Family Ties). I think this was because he was clever, but also because he talked about economics. This word “economics” was foreign to me, but I knew it had something to do with money. He had my attention.
I was born in 1979. I was a kid during the so-called Reagan ‘80s. I had no idea what that meant. And I couldn’t have cared less. All I knew was there were happy families on television, which meant the chances of my one day having a happy family were possible. That is what Family Ties meant to me. Here was a happy and stable family with a sarcastic kid who spoke my language better than I understood it.
I distinctly recall sashaying into Miss Dithrich’s 4th grade math class in a suit carrying my dad’s briefcase with a copy of the Wall Street Journal. I insisted on reading it and my dad insisted I have it. Remember, this was a man, my dad, who sold hair products around the city of Pittsburgh. That his young son was enterprising and dressing up was a boon to his existence.
There I was, a black bespectacled 4th grader, a sport coat flung over my left shoulder hanging from my left index finger with a briefcase of homework in my right hand, happily attending Barrett Elementary. This went on for weeks. The neighborhood wasn’t that bad in the mid-to-late 1980s, so I got away with it. I imagine my classmates thought it was just odd. Many of them complimented my look.
By middle school I caught a break. My dad was renting my grandfather’s home where my mother and her fraternal twin sister were raised. My mother and father quietly separated because of my mother’s addiction. But they were both very active in our lives. We had Christmases, some better than others. We had birthdays that followed the same trajectory. One particular good Christmas involved a Nintendo 64, a racetrack that went up the wall, and some nice articles of clothing.
The next morning many of our gifts, my brother’s and mine, were strewn down the stairs of our duplex. We lived on the second floor. It looked as if we were robbed. The truth was my mother had sold some of our toys, likely for crack.
I was also grappling with a social life where I wanted the respect of the cool kids on the other (west) side of the neighborhood. I had plenty of friends on the east side. I grew up there. Our street was the main street and our house was the main house. My mother allowed us to have company more frequently than the other kids and I emerged as a leader taking friends on trails, collecting lightning bugs, and fire belly newts, at a far away creek. But I grew bored of these activities and safety. The house my dad was renting was a real house. There was an upstairs and a basement. And a yard. And it was near where the cool kids lived.
Unfortunately we weren’t there very long. But I distinctly recall my 13th birthday party there. My dad helped me set up the basement and all the cool kids showed up. All of them. My dad bought me a Cross Colours outfit. I had a pompadour (we called them “pumps,” likely a misunderstanding of pomp, also because the hairstyle pumped forward). New shoes. And my dad sat on the basement steps quasi-chaperoning the party. That was the moment I came on the scene. I was noticed.
There were no science fairs or after school programs engaging the neighborhood. There were no galas or fundraisers I was forced to attend because my parents were charitable. No town fairs that were anything more than tourist traps for opportunistic vendors existed. I was interested in fame. We commonly called this “respect.” That is what the cool kids had. It was what working-class adults demanded. It was what the pretty girls required if you wanted to date them or even ask them the time.
Social acceptance is even more protracted in a place like this. All children experience awkwardness. Most children experience feeling like they’re not enough. Few experience committing crimes risking their lives to gain respect. Fewer experience the pressure to harm another human being to be awarded the kind of respect permitting you or someone distantly related to you to safely walk down the street at night. Things only got worse.
I used to steal car stereos so I could buy weed and candy. I was big fan of weed. It helped me mentally escape and it inspired me to write. Unfortunately I didn’t realize I possess some perverse chemical response to the drug the way my mother does to crack cocaine. I was addicted to marijuana. One day my friend Jay and I were walking down my back alley. It was like any other day. There is an old trick where sucking on a spark plug creates an electric charge. When thrown at a glass surface, the surface explodes and shatters quietly in place. We passed a car we liked, one with a removable and expensive stereo.
Jay dashed the car window with the flick of his wrist. We kept walking. The idea was to keep walking and turn around at the end of the alley coming back towards the direction whence we came. Returning back to the car, one could softly push in the window. The window would land on the seat still loosely held together and you could unlock the door from the outside. You get the point.
I also used to smoke cigarettes. I tossed a finished but still lit cigarette into a nearby garbage can. The can caught a little fire and a neighbor called the police. They assumed we were kids starting fires. The police showed up at my house that night. I was arrested and taken to Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. My younger brother was now alone.
My first night there was strange. The other kids were goofing off, rioting, as if they’ve been there before. Some of them were openly sarcastic with the guards. I was trying to be obedient, reasoning the better I behaved the faster I could get out of there. That’s not quite how it works, but it’s good advice up to a point.
10:00pm was lights out. There was a weak nightlight in your cell for the guards to peek in to make sure you weren’t dead. I distinctly recall the clink and ding of the lock on the door, whose steel width was maybe four-to-five inches thick. I cried. I felt... incarcerated. I prayed. I would eventually become calm. I began to rationalize that I couldn’t stay here forever. This helped me with future nights and I began to settle in, goofing off with everyone else. When my court date came around I was found guilty of arson.
I was sent to a group-home, a type of private foster care home or caregiving facility designed to give children a chance to rehabilitate. It was called Wesley (I think). It was much better than jail. It was a ranch-style house you’d find in Palo Alto off the highway. I was there with maybe six or seven other kids whose names will remain private, with the exception of two.
The first was a kid named Rick, known as Frog (Frog-Loc), who was from a considerably rougher neighborhood than me. I admired him for his authenticity and breadth of knowledge about life on the streets compared to my own. My best friend at the time was a kid named Deon (whom I rechristened D-Dogg). Deon and I were close for a lot of reasons and really enjoyed each other’s company. He liked the hip-hop duo “Eightball and MJG,” and ice cream blizzards from Dairy Queen. The director of Wesley, Jeff, favored Deon and often took him to get blizzards for no apparent reason.
The summer was chill. We played spades at the kitchen table, smoked Newports, and riffed on each other’s respective neighborhoods. Deon was notably fond of the rapper AZ, which nicely paralleled my fondness for his contemporary, Nas. The song “Sugar Hill” became something of an anthem of ours. AZ lyrically captured how I was feeling about my childhood and what I wanted out of young adulthood. Like Nas, he was smart.
Black men from neighborhoods like mine only respect other black men who are also from similar neighborhoods, who have notably achieved some financial success. It is chiefly why gentrification, higher paid teachers, and other government programs like Wesley have minimal impact. For the ‘hood to change, black men have to change. And black men from neighborhoods like mine will not change until you change the economy.
Men from these streets require the same respect, power, and autonomy, as a result of, say, investing, that they acquire now as drug dealers. It is not about gold chains and sneakers. It is not about bravado. It is about dignity. This is also why financial benefits do not change the behavior or course-correct the paths of blacks, generally. That is not what we need. Only black men can save other black men. Ancillary attempts to raise wages, ban assault rifles, institute curfews, increase sentencing on drug and arms trafficking, are political patchwork. They are afterthoughts. But there are anomalies.
Wesley was in a relatively well-to-do white middle-class area in the suburbs. That Fall we attended the local high school, where kids attended classes in different buildings. It was a campus, except this was a high school. It was mind-blowing. I remember we were impressed with the sheer scale of the campus. The scale was equally impressed with us. We were celebrities.
The kids knew who we were, and our booming presence had the reverse effect we were anticipating. The hot girls liked us and the cool guys wanted to be our friends. This was great. At Wesley, every other week we were granted “passes” to go home. You could leave the property and catch the trolley back to the city. You needed to return by Sunday night.
A few months following our red carpet arrival at the local high school, a weekend-pass came around. I decided to skip it and told Deon. He asked why? I asked him ‘why not?’ We can smoke weed here (clandestinely, if unlawfully) and beat the urine test by getting one of the cool white guys to put together a sample for us. We both had girlfriends (Jenn and Kim, respectively). We could go to the mall with supervision, and he could eat all the blizzards he wanted. Deon became a little irate and insisted I “liked it” here. He made certain to remind me in so many foul words that we were in jail. I knew that. Except it wasn’t jail. It was a house. And I enjoyed the stability.
This was my first taste of how life without the anxiety of having to move, soon, might feel. I liked knowing there were packages of toilet paper just a few feet away instead of (maybe) a roll under the sink. I liked the general calm in the house. I liked not getting urine tested. I liked not having to rush home after a hot weekend of doing essentially nothing in the ‘hood. I liked having a girlfriend who was happy to do unspeakable things to me, if I could get away from the ranch for a few hours.
I was eventually transferred to a halfway-house on good behavior. This was better. The community was even wealthier and our house even nicer. But the best thing was you had more liberty. You were trusted to walk around the neighborhood on your own, on your way to being released. Jenn and I broke up for some young people reason. I honestly forget. But at the halfway-house, I would attend their high school and get a job at a nearby Wendy’s. I fell madly in love with a very generous, short girl from the ‘hood, who smoked Newport longs, owned piercing green eyes, wore too much hair weave, and flashed a Cheshire grin that could stop a locomotive. Her name was Niki.
We were never an actual couple. Honestly, I was too scared to ask her out. She knew I liked her and was cool about it. It turns out I was still good with words. I wrote her a letter months after starting at Wendy’s and working beside her burning with passion. I got a response not long after.
Niki’s letter basically said I needed to do three things to win her over. The first was I had to get out of the halfway-house: check. The second thing was I had to stop “cripping.” To be clear, I was never technically a Crip. I was never initiated. But I hung out with Crips in Pittsburgh and represented the gang. Whatever. Check. I forget the third thing. Essentially it was in the style of ‘you need to become a man.’ Check. I would do whatever she wanted. A week or so later I hung out with Deon, and two other guys. We decided to go the mall where I met them. This time they were allowed to travel without supervision.
For the sake of privacy and clarity, let’s call me Guy 1 and Deon Guy 2. Guy 3 and Guy 4 completed the group. Coming home from the mall, me back to the halfway-house, Guy 2 and 3 to the group-home (Guy 4 was from the area), we stopped at an odd stop, so that I could possibly (finally) borrow a mixed-tape from a friend. He was the only one who had it, but never seemed to have it on him as I insisted. We disembarked the trolley where a girl was standing in what appeared to be a work uniform. I’ve always had poor eyesight, but I’d seen enough. She wasn’t my type. Guy 2 and myself continued walking toward my mixed-tape friend’s home across the parking lot where the trolley let off. Across the street from the lot laid an alley where my mixed-tape friend lived. We arrived and knocked. No answer. We headed back.
As we crossed the lot, Guy 3 was walking up a hill on the other side of the trolley tracks with the girl from the trolley stop. The hill led to a set of woods. My first thought was ‘wow, he works fast.’ I thought nothing of it. Things only got worse. Guy 2 and myself crossed the lot and walked toward the park adjacent the woods. We sat on the swings and talked about whatever until the trolley arrived. You could hear it coming. I rushed back to the stop as it approached, boarded, and went back to the halfway-house. That night around 4am, police showed up at the halfway-house. I awakened to flashlights, commotion, and my arms being gripped by a man maybe three times my size. I was taken to the car and shoved inside.
I attempted to solicit a reason for my arrest from the police. No answer. Turns out the girl from the trolley stop reported to her parents, who then reported to the police, that she had been raped. I couldn’t believe it. Raped? How? Black men do not consciously rape women, unless they’re sick in the head, I said to myself. One would usually only associate rape with familiar physical violences such as striking a woman in the face or beating her with a gun. “Beaten and raped” was the only time you heard “she was raped” in a sentence. It was notably a sign of weakness on the part of the man. The logic was simple. Girls should want you. What sort of sap needs to take a girl’s humanity? What sort of sick sap gets off on taking a girl’s humanity? How do you not get girls? This was how I thought.
So women in those days (and even today) who may have been actually raped were routinely not believed. Especially if they were seen on the block two hours later smoking cigarettes and talking with friends. Why isn’t she at the hospital? I was conditioned to think as much. These were the days of Tupac and Mike Tyson. They were heroes to black men in particular and superstars in their fields, who could have any girl they wanted. Both men were accused of rape.
Black men from my block (and similar blocks to mine) overwhelmingly replied “...these bitches are lying.” We were taken to the county jail with the adults. We were incarcerated for months. Four black men, and one white woman, in a Pennsylvania rape case, was something out of bad mystery fiction. My story was considered to be the most believable, as the recurring refrain of my retelling was “I wasn’t there.” The jury, too, thought as much. It was no matter. We were four poor black kids.
When our day in court finally came, we had a professorial-looking public defender, who looked as if he had seen ten cases before 10am. He gave us two alternatives. We could plead guilty to a lesser charge (sexual assault) and go home on probation, but said charge would be on our permanent records.. or... we could plead innocent, and fight the case, go back to jail from court for six or seven more months, and risk, if found guilty, doing 71⁄2-15 years in the state penitentiary. This is what our public defender told us. We were between fifteen and sixteen years old. What do you think we did? We were taken to Shuman Detention Center and eagerly waited for the paperwork to be processed over the weekend. We were released on house arrest by Monday morning.
I attended some weird class where I was supposed to, more or less, if I recall, report to society that I was around town and being productive. This meant get a job at a fast food restaurant or a temp agency like Labor World. But I never thought that critically about what happened to me. I didn’t feel guilty. I wasn’t there. I do remember reasoning that I had done bad things before, such as steal car stereos, so this must have been some cosmic retribution.
What I actually experienced was injustice, although I never called it that. I didn’t have the world model to possess such language. I remember going back to the west side of the neighborhood not longer after being released to buy a little weed. I was petrified. The ‘hood knew that I had been incarcerated for rape. They didn’t know why. My return was the news of the day, and I was afraid of what might or might not happen. But I needed some weed.
I approached a popular corner and was asked about what had happened. I told them. One of the old heads said “man, he ain’t do that shit,” to which a chorus of voices agreed. I was ecstatic. I was stamped to continue operating on the streets as usual with the friends I had made. One day, twenty years later, I thought about this response. Why did the old head believe me? I mean, thank God he did. I was innocent. And I needed some weed. But why did he so readily believe me? Was it in support of me, of men, or in opposition to another woman “crying rape?”
The thought filled me with dread. No one believes women. This is why they’re angry. I believe men should be, too. We should all be blood-boiling irate. I never discovered if the girl from the trolley stop was raped or not. At the time, I assumed she willfully walked with my friend into the woods of her own volition and that she could just leave if she wanted. This is often not the case. I also wouldn’t see Niki, again, for years.
I was finally glad to be home. I walked to my mother’s new place a block away on 10th avenue. I owned a really bangin’ mixed-tape with tracks from my favorite albums, “The Infamous” by Mobb Deep, and “It Was Written” by Nas, with a few other jams thrown in for their one hit wonders. I knocked on my door and someone not my mother opened it. This was impossible. My mother even in her state would not let that happen. Turns out in so many ways she had. She was “kicked out,” I was told by the new tenant. All of my stuff was gone, too. Oh, and where was my mother?
I was broken. And being a mama’s boy pretty disturbed. I walked to the other side of the ‘hood to my cousin’s where my younger brother had been living. He informed me that our mother was in rehab. I was actually happy to hear that. But now I had no place to go.
I couldn’t stay at my cousin’s for other reasons. My dad lived in Virginia and for reasons I’ll skip over, for the sake of brevity, I could not stay there either. It had nothing to do with him. I suspect if he knew what was to come next he would have rushed to Pittsburgh to retrieve me. By this point, my late aunt was sick of my nonsense. After house arrest and violating probation, again, I was in trouble, again, except this time she was not to be party. She said I had to find some place else to go, which was a shock. We could always count on Aunt Wandy.
I used her phone to contact a staff member from the group home who took me in for three or four days. He had a family and made it clear this was not a permanent situation. He was cool about it, but was clear. He helped me get a job at a temp agency. I did back-breaking work for eight hours a day with old men making ten dollars an hour. Some days there was no work and you didn’t get paid. I had a good gig. I made eighty dollars and the guy from the group home took me to Whales Tales the following morning on day four.
Whales Tales was a homeless shelter for young people in a rougher and much bigger ‘hood than mine. This may sound bad from your perspective, but he really did me a solid. He took me in and let me go with my own money, the money I had earned, and dropped me off at a place to rest my head. I was at Whales Tales for maybe a week before I started hanging around the drug dealers who literally hustled crack on the corner where the shelter was located.
I eventually started hustling and became a good earner. I was to no one’s surprise kicked out of Whales Tales for dealing. I moved in with my connect (dealer) who was twenty plus years my senior. The outside of his place was a beat-down, mess of a house, inside of a bending even more hideous alley. The inside was luxurious. He had a big screen television, leather furniture, a glass dining-room table set, and amenities like cable television and packages of toilet paper.
I would also lose my virginity in this house from a cute pie-faced girl who worked at a fast food joint across the street from Whales Tales. One day a guy from the ‘hood, but not from our block, robbed a friend and me at gunpoint when our old head wasn’t around. The guy had a .38 snubnosed revolver. I was not impressed at first. My friend and co-worker immediately spit the crack from his mouth into his hand, and gave it to the robber. I followed suit, recognizing if I didn’t I would probably get shot.
The next day word spread who had robbed us. The guy didn’t wear a mask and my co-worker recognized him. I was told not to worry about him and that I would never hear from or see the guy again. I never did. From that day forward, we kept a pistol in a McDonald’s bag behind an abandoned car tire on the block. We never walked near it for two reasons. One, to ensure no one thought it was anything more than trash that we could quickly get to in the event of a drive-by. Two, the law stated, I believe, that if you were fifteen feet away from a gun when the task-force inevitably raided the block, you couldn’t be charged with said gun. That’s how we moved.
One day a message somehow got back to Whales Tales that my mother was home from rehab. She was in a low-income apartment complex converted from a two-story home. The Whales Tales staff informed me of my mother’s return, and I left the corner, and my connect’s house, and never came back. My mother was on bed rest with pins in her foot. I forget why. But she was clean and ready to get back to work in a few months. But she couldn’t walk at all. I supported her and myself by selling crack at a bar downtown.
She eventually went back to work and kept the same job for ten years. She was punctual and friendly. She was my mother. I kept hustling. Over a three-year period I continued to sell drugs up until the age of twenty. I saw Niki once downtown while looking like a million bucks. I was a drug dealer. This was better than cripping. Nothing ever came of us. One summer, I was earning up to thirty-thousand dollars a month. The bar where we hustled and congregated eventually fell apart. So did the trips I took out of town with a friend where I earned the majority of my take.
I needed a plan. I was accustomed to going to nightclubs at 18 (because of how I carried myself and with whom I drank cocktails), having a private driver, and spending money as I pleased. I was a regular at the Squawkers Club, a semi-swanky place where I was dressed to the teeth next to my old head. I had become his number two. I had a Rolex and a pair of New York Nike’s (now known as Air Force One’s). Family depended on me. I was successful.
I had an older half-brother who relocated to North Augusta, South Carolina some years prior. He once floated the idea of my moving down there. I thought nothing of it until a friend from the old neighborhood, now a military man, who was visiting his mother in Pittsburgh, was now heading south to see his father maybe two hours from my older brother’s home. He offered to drive me there two hours out of his way. We would catch up. I took him up on it. I left Pittsburgh and headed south. I told no one except my younger brother and my mother. I smoked weed the whole way down.
I lived with my older brother and his family. I quickly butted heads with his wife and one day left without saying anything. I made friends with an old man who I would see driving around the neighborhood in a jeep. I forget his name. But we talked about ideas and became friends. I told him of my recent family troubles and he offered to take me to Augusta Rescue Mission, a Christian shelter in Augusta, Georgia. To me, it was a crash- pad while I plotted my next move.
The city of Augusta is just a bridge cross from North Augusta, South Carolina. I would live there for a few days. It was weird. This was more than a stone’s throw away from champagne and beautiful women, but it was a place to live. It was there I learned of a ministry a few blocks away that served food if I were willing to listen to a sermon. I figured, sure, why not? I don’t believe this stuff. Just looking for a hot meal. The ministry had workers, most of whom were addicts and general rejects who were accepted by the church. I was neither. My story was ‘former drug dealer turned... entrepreneur?’
Whatever that means.
I was polite but intolerant, classy but broke, and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. The woman who ran the ministry was kind and approachable. She comfortably led a group of grown men whom she believed were loved by God and needed to be taught how. She was cool, dynamic, but more sincere than charismatic. She may be the most precious woman I have ever known outside of my own mother. Her name was Margaret Elizabeth "Miss Betty" Crenshaw.
She let me live in the ministry, which was a huge step up from the rescue mission. You could eat whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. The ministry received trucks of food three times a week from large generous grocers. We got the day olds, but they were fine. The woman and her men attended the main church every Sunday for service, of which this ministry was an outreach. I didn't. I was planning to take over this town. After a few weeks, I blithely loaded into her big blue van and attended a service to check things out. After months of arguing and avoiding conversations about God, I decided to get baptized. I felt left out. I was teaching myself piano at the ministry, reading business books, and annoying everyone.
The man doing the calling at the end of service told me I needed to be saved first. That’s not true, but it’s usually a package deal. Getting baptized without confession is a tradition for infants, but not a replacement for salvation for adults. But he knew I knew what he meant. I was a troublemaker on the whole ‘get saved’ thing. It felt submissive, invasive, and forever. The man doing the calling was the only black leader in the church of mostly white congregates. That didn’t matter except to me I suppose at the time it felt safe. He was familiar. So I said okay. I got saved.
I recall praying in repetition to what he told me to say. I opened my eyes and half the church had surrounded me. The black leader wept. I felt loved and awkward. Over the next four years, I became a leader and gave sermons that I thought were more relevant to living well as a Christian in the real world than the “turn or burn” messages we were hearing from visiting ministers. I wanted these men to live freely in Christ. I wanted them to learn how to renew their minds, so that they might change their circumstances. The bible was clear about that. I know. I read it.
Not long after, I got a job working at a new restaurant-cum-jazz club around the corner as a lead maitre d’. The place had created a buzz around the city. It was called D.Timm’s Jazz Café. The house band was called The Blue Diamond Express. They were exceptional. The bassist piqued my interest for jazz and for the classic rock impromptus they played after hours. He made me a mixed CD of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Harold Land, and Clifford Brown, among others. This was 2002. I was twenty-three years-old.
I was also introduced to the music of Diana Krall by the Front of the House manager. Krall’s 2002 Live in Paris performance (and version) of “Let’s Fall in Love” became one of my personal favorites. Notable jazz musicians visited and played on weekends. I moved out of the ministry, and for the first time in my life I had my own apartment.
A year later, the restaurant-club shut down temporarily for renovations. There was no time. I needed another job and a place to stay. I couldn’t keep my shiny new Olde Town apartment two blocks from the club. I moved in with a friend who had a spare bedroom, two little dogs, and a heart bigger than yours and mine. I also randomly met another man on the street coming out of a pizza joint (conveniently called “Pizza Joint”) who told me he was in e-commerce and that the internet was the future. I was excited about such a prospect. I had only heard of the internet at this point. This was 2001-2002.
I attended a meeting dressed like a mobster from the Wesley Snipes movie “Sugar Hill.” It was what I knew. The organization was called Quixtar. I enjoyed it. I learned quite a bit about sales, human behavior, economics, and believing in something bigger than yourself. And I attended every meeting. I traveled long distances to conferences with my sponsor to listen to wealthy men and women proselytize the gospel of entrepreneurship. They attempted to connect with me on a human level, even a spiritual level. In 2005, I found myself in Athens, Georgia, two hours outside of Augusta, with my best friend at the time.
I had had enough of Quixtar and my growth there. My best friend at the time was happy to host me with his new wife in Athens. But Athens was mostly a bust. I returned to Augusta three months after when that situation soured. My best friend compared the situation to the movie “You, Me, and Dupree.” Never saw it. But I know I was not a good roommate. I was immature, unemployed, and untested by the real world. I wasn’t a bad person. I was passively selfish, which is worse. At least when you’re actively selfish we know what to do with you.
In Augusta, again, I ended up crash-landing into a friend’s diminutive one-bedroom apartment. He was still in Quixtar, but I was long gone. He was kind enough to let me stink up his couch for seven months. I spent the first few weeks or so in a bookstore for seven or eight hours a day. That was where I randomly discovered Byron, Shelley, Keats, (Leigh) Hunt, and Wordsworth, whose works summoned something primal and perfect from me. Byron in particular. I felt alive again. I was comfortably living on a diet of Emerson and Thoreau after the books Quixtar recommended we read kept quoting them. My best friend at the time said one day, “David, why don't you just read Emerson?” I did and I fell in love. But I was a poet. I had been since age nine. Byron made an impression and I researched everything I could about him.
Another friend I made doing Quixtar was gone long before me. But we remained friends. His name was also David. He was a young student at Augusta State University. He wrote poetry and went even further than that. He actually published books. Well, a book. He walked around campus selling copies of it out of a messenger bag for ten dollars.
A good story involved him coming home to his then-girlfriend now-wife one day and showing her a knot of four hundred dollars in cash. She told him he should be a poet. He and I met again at the bookstore one evening. He told me I should publish a book. He knew I wrote narrative poems with a particular penchant for rhyme and meter. I told him books were written by syndicated columnists and old ladies who wrote tales of romance and murder. He told me books were written by people who write them and were published by people who publish them. Seven months later, November 11, 2007 (my mother and Aunt Kim's birthday), I self-published a book of essays, poetry, and a play, in one volume. The book was entitled, “Beloved, David: The Selected Poetry and Plays of David Oliver Doswell, II.”
The work was largely in the shadow of Emerson, Byron, and Oscar Wilde. Emerson was the first writer and poet I had ever seriously read. I carried a checked-out library copy of his volume of Essays as a young starving intellectual skulking around the ministry. The Picture of Dorian Gray was the first novel I ever read front to back. I was very interested in learning from people who weren’t in the church. I had learned from the church and wasn’t getting much else after a certain point. I required more. I wanted something more applicable to the world I was trying to improve.
Byron and Wilde were not exactly replacements for Jesus in this regard. Yet their work challenged convention in a way Jesus did, and that didn’t discard the proverbial candy with the wrapper. Both Byron and Wilde inspired me to seek beauty and taught me how to imagine realities that didn’t exist. This would become relevant years later.
David put together an event at The Morris Museum of Art, known as the oldest museum in the country dedicated to the art and artists of the American South. I gave a terrible performance reading what I later discovered should have been an excerpt from my book. The essay was ironically called Courage. I was scared to death. I read the entire chapter. There was tension in the room. But the audience clapped and filled the room with praise. My friend David served as both publisher and publicist.
We told invited guests the dress code was formal and we really dressed up. My mother and aunt showed up in gowns and wept when they arrived. People wore tuxedos. We served Perrier, and I signed maybe one hundred copies of something I wrote on a broken fuzzy couch, on a laptop I was “renting” from Rent-a-Center. And by renting, I mean, on which I was not exactly making the weekly payments, because I was broke. The company had a fake address for me but a real phone number. After a while I stopped answering the phone when I saw a number I didn’t recognize. This became a problem at one point because I met a girl who had my number but whose number I forgot. This was 2007.
David referred me to a guy named Tom, who served as an editor of an alternative weekly newspaper. Tom was the kind of guy of whom everyone thought very highly, all at once. He was so down to earth he stepped in and out of the pavement, as if walking through two-feet of snow. He sometimes wore a grizzly beard, smoked cigars, despite biking to and from work everyday. He was a great writer and adored Hunter S. Thompson. Tom was a staunch liberal, but not annoyingly, and brilliant. I was paleo-conservative at the time, somewhat more annoyingly. But not for the popular reasons.
I was uneducated about fiscal, tax, or immigration policy. Essentially I was what I called a moralist. I didn’t care for the equivocating and gray areas I believed liberals defended. It was illogical to me. Far as I was concerned “right” and “wrong” were self-evident, and liberals were the architects of their own misery. Conservatism may have been less fun and free, but it was wiser. My perspectives have since evolved. Tom and I occasionally butted heads, but playfully. He gave me space in his paper. I had two cover stories, one covering James Brown’s neighborhood not long before Brown passed. Brown was a brown child of Augusta. The story was called “Christmas in Bethlehem.” I won an award from the city of Augusta. There was a little ceremony and everything. This was affirming.
I was an author about whom many in the city were chattering, and now a young stringer (freelancer) becoming a journalist. I was a stringer, despite my protests, because I didn’t have a college degree. No matter how much I begged or proved myself I could not be a proper staff writer. I needed to go back to school. This was not the first time I felt shafted for my lack of credentials versus my demonstration of talent. So I had no salary, no benefits, and no stability. But who cares? I was a poet with a published book of work.
I was also freelancing for this alt-weekly where I eventually had a sliver of space as a mens columnist. Not bad, I thought. During this transition, my time on my friend’s fuzzy couch had come to an end. Tom would open the home he shared with his wife to me, for a month, I believe, before helping me move into College Station Apartments. He also drove me back and forth to a small school outside of Atlanta, so that I could get my GED. I wasn’t interested in getting one, but it seemed a necessary step to getting into a four-year school. I got my GED.
I recall an early plan where I thought about working for the paper while in college. I would then graduate and become a journalist. But I wasn’t really keen on this. I wanted to write books. Maybe if the paper took me on despite my credentials I’d be an investigative reporter today. I liked Jack Cafferty. I used to watch cable news regularly in 2007. College Station was a turning point. It was there when things began going downhill again. My local celebrity was waning. I had another friend named David Hutchison who owned a local bookstore called The Book Tavern. I became close with him and his wife, Gabi. David encouraged me to keep writing. David is still the most well-read person I have ever met. And he owns the best analysis of the books he reads. I would often haunt his bookstore to see the copy of my book on the shelves grasping at relevance.
I began to lose space in the paper and finally lost my column. Tom wanted to spice up the mens interest format and I wanted to write Thoreau for the modern man. I had nothing. For the first time in close to ten years, I began smoking pot again. My thesis is I have a chemical complication that renders the drug highly addictive for me, as perhaps crack or heroin for you. I also had extreme dental issues. I was in aching pain and self-medicating over the counter. I was “working” a dead-end job at a mall kiosk telling people I was an investor in the kiosk. At one point, I was stealing money to buy pot. I was also borrowing from friends, and friends of friends, to get high and write poetry. I was also reading more than usual.
I continued dragging myself around Augusta, Georgia like a smelly corpse in the Fall of 2007. I dressed like a homeless person, which was conveniently en vogue at the time. I dated a string of girls, who were always good to me when I was less than accountable to them. By April 2008 I was fed up.
Tom hosted a party a few months prior where a guy named Ed said, in reference to my book, “...you can always say, ‘that was some crazy thing I did in my twenties.’” The conversation turned to ‘what do you want to do, now?’ I recalled the movie “I Am Sam” I had recently seen. I thought Sean Penn was sympathetic and mesmerizing. “I would be a movie star,” I said.
What I wished I would’ve said was “I want to tell my story and maybe change the world by playing interesting roles that make people question what they think. Maybe change their behavior in the end.” I went back to College Station, searched “best acting schools,” and Google spit out New York Film Academy and Point Park University. The latter was in Pittsburgh. And there was a way I could audition in.
I read Stanislavski, because The Book Tavern stocked the three volumes the master had published in the early century. I carried around “An Actor Prepares” the way I used to carry around Emerson and Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” the latter of which I printed out on sheets of paper from the internet. I spent my 20s and early 30s in libraries and bookstores. I then found Lee Strasberg’s history and students through researching, and dedicated myself to Method Acting.
My best friend at the time had moved back to Augusta from Athens. He was not happy I wanted to leave for acting school. I left and arrived in Pittsburgh, to my mother’s shock and horror. My teeth looked like I was on methamphetamines. I had a nappy afro and was twisting different parts of it to manage my cravings. I wore an overly-fitted Goodwill army jacket, holey jeans, and a pair of dirty Converse.
I experimented with cutting myself in sets of three skin-deep cuts to release endorphins. There were marks everywhere. My mother’s home was better than I left it at twenty as a failing drug dealer. And it wasn't bad then. This time the carpet seemed softer. The television programs were bright. Reality TV was a thing. And she had food and packages of toilet paper. There was bad news, as well. Most of my close friends from the old neighborhood were in prison. I also learned that both Deon and Frog were dead. Both murdered. I mourned, but I needed to keep going.
I attended the audition and got it. The talented woman who auditioned me, Shirley Tannenbaum, liked that my background was different. She also taught me two stanzas from Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” that I still use for prep and confidence even today before doing a scene. At the time I was miserable to these kids. I was arrogant and older than them. I was also an addict. I had seen a dentist after my Aunt Kim’s kindness and largess. I had minor surgery receiving dental implants, and explored a passive romance with Vicodin. I had the smile of Julia Roberts and the itch of Dave Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums.
My attitude was piss poor. Tannenbaum warned me of potential discomfort because of obvious age and generational differences with my fellow students. They were all nice to me and very fine actors. These young people were truly without spot or blemish. I was a creature from Saturday afternoon Syfy. I was dismissive of college despite actually kind of liking this one. Point Park is the so-called “fancy” arts school. The kids who attend have money. It was no matter. No amount of favor could deter my misfortune. I was plain ungrateful. I would break into the ballet room to play piano. They eventually locked it properly. I kept to myself despite a classmate pining for my friendship. I was rude to people. I scheduled appointments with the school therapist, whose profession I openly mocked and whom I would directly hit on during a routine session.
One evening, I attended an event at the school after roaming the halls after hours. This event was not for the actors. But I heard music and rioting, so I crashed it. I saw people I didn’t know and started participating, notably in all the dancing. I enjoy dancing and am rather good at it. I captured the attention of a girl from Iraq with whom I would fall in love, and who would become one of the best things to ever happen to me. She never knew how bad my addictions had become. She also never knew how much I really loved her until it was too late.
But our relationship was passionate and rich with cultural differences. She turned me on to hummus. She loved (and actually laughed at) “George Lopez,” the TV show. Our relationship was forbidden, if sincere. We were not married and our public galavanting would bring shame to her family if discovered. But we loved each other, and life was beautiful with her in it. She believed in me, in my writing, and hoped that I would change. She encouraged me to wear bright colors. She said I looked better. I listened.
She was intelligent, mature, sexy, and good to me in every way I failed to be to her. One particular fight involved her telling me we should break up. She hinted at not “being good,” but I paid it no attention. I was not enough for her and she left me for a guy she told me she would marry within a week. I was destroyed. My addictions got worse.
Not only did I have nothing, I was... nothing. I became a rotten, crinkled bag of blood and waste, a pitiful thing once a beautiful boy on his father’s knee. I felt inhuman. And I was in pain. The only thing that kept me from suicide was my younger brother, Brandon, on whom I would never give up. But my mother was worried. She worked and invariably supported me when I couldn’t support myself. This was the darkest period of my life, darker than any of the four times total I was incarcerated.
I creeped around craigslist on all fours looking for opportunities. I was very interested in writing, acting, or any opportunity where I could earn money to buy weed and pills. I came across a guy who was a student at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He was making a student film called “Look Both Ways.”
I auditioned and got the lead part.
They all thought I was good despite my thinking the audition was merely okay. I made friends with the director and while the film took some time to come together, it did. I liked it. I wanted to sell copies to friends as I had my book. I wanted to be discovered. This was not the ambition of the group, at least not visibly. But the director and I were huge potheads and we bonded over weed and comedy. We would riff on film and how good television had become. He turned me on to “Arrested Development (AD),” which helped me through my sadness, but not my addiction.
I would walk miles from my mother’s to the director’s place to smoke and watch entire seasons of AD on his large computer monitor. I was finally excited about writing again after watching the show. It made me happy and reminded me of Wilde’s work. This was 2009-11. I also co-starred in a documentary entitled “What Does Trouble Mean: Nate Smith’s Revolution” by Robert Morris University Center for Documentary Production and Film Study.
I happened upon another a guy on craigslist, not long after, who was calling himself a “mixologist.” He said he had an absolutely impossible life and no one would believe him if he told them about it. He was looking for someone to make a documentary about his story. He was coughing up a cool one hundred dollars for something simple: him, someone, and a camera. I met him that week at a Starbucks and proposed the idea of a mockumentary. He had no idea what I was talking about. I said like “Arrested Development,” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” or “Parks and Recreation.” You know, the good ones. Nothing. He was living under a rock. I insisted he meet me, again, at this Starbucks in three days.
I went home and banged out ten pages like a pro. We met three days later. I mentioned Entourage. He got it. He read my script and laughed. I told him I had access to a production team who was champing at the bit to do something new. The guy had invented a popular brand called “The Cocktail Chef.”
I suggested we name the show that, film a pilot, and begin pitching Hollywood. We did the first two. This was late 2012. During the production, a producer who really really wanted to be on the TV show “Survivor” suggested I get a Twitter account. I told her Twitter was dumb and only works if you’re famous. After some prodding, I relented and got an account. This would be one of the best decisions of my life.
I followed some artists and social justice warriors before they were called that. At the time, they were vocal but interested in ideas about changing the world. One of the dead-end jobs I had was working for various charities. I was depressed and thought I would die soon. Respiratory failure came to mind among other infectious diseases. But I didn’t want to die without doing some more good. So I worked for non-profits.
I realized how potentially damaging charity as a concept can be when the organization goes from existing to solve a problem to unwittingly existing to enable one. At one event when a co-worker announced the subject’s statistics and recited mantras such as ‘since we started this charity the problem’s only gotten worse,’ I didn't think ‘well, hell, we need to give more money to charity!’ As a once charitable case, I thought ‘this place is not doing a very good job.’ If the problem you exist to solve is getting worse, you need to be punished. In charity, ideally, this would mean fewer donations not more.
The relationship between the mixologist and myself was fun, and often contentious, and ended when a disagreement arose over who was the creator of the show. I attempted to make it clear that he owned his name and brand. I didn’t want it. But as the creator of the script, I would be recognized as the... creator of the show. I suggested we be co-creators à la Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, where Seinfeld is the star and co-creator (him) and Larry is not only the head writer and showrunner, but the co-creator and ideas man (me). You see the misunderstanding. Creative differences we called it.
This particular experience had monumental impact. The Cocktail Chef proved to me that doing something you care about matters. His belief in me helped me to kick the drug habit, as we starting working together. I was more enthusiastic and high on the prospect of being a serious comedy writer than I was stealing, getting high on pot and pills, and feeling unproductive. That's not usually how addiction works. But that is my story. I was writing again, and had the respect of my peers. That matters. And I was finally clean.
I took a Megabus to New York City and tried shopping a few pilots I had created. Entire season ideas existed for all of them. I had two episodes of Cocktail Chef written, too, for good measure. By this point, I had become fascinated with the tech industry on Twitter. Maybe it was the beautiful weather in California. Maybe it was because Marc Andreessen kept randomly appearing retweeted in my feed (before likes were retweets).
But for certain, it was the agency with which tech founders could create and wield an idea in the real world that ignited something familiar in me. These were not schlubby salaried adults who cared about how IRAs and annuities worked. They weren’t interested in saving money. They were interested in making money. And they were doing it with software.
Some of these tech guys, with all due respect, were kids from my vantage point. And yet they conversed fluently about venture capital, debt and equity markets, and arcane economic models. They had rough predictions on how the world would evolve based on data and why certain problems were more important to work on than others. For brevity, through a series of events, good and bad, I had become much more leftist and politically anarchist than I had realized. I hated capitalism and laid the world's problems at its feet. To me, it was obvious. How could a system producing such wealth tolerate such mass poverty and disenfranchisement?
I also dated a few anarchist hipster types at that time. I was and am sympathetic to the plight of working people, good people, who were never taught the things I was reading and discovering. I was one of these people my entire life. I somehow emerged more empathetic to the notion of maybe being wrong, learning different things, and what it meant to work smarter. I’m an ideas person.
I became impressed with what it meant to have an idea in Silicon Valley. This is not the same as when you and your friend agree that it would be great if someone automated how senior citizens were dispensed and delivered their medication. One of you invariably says after hashing it out ‘that’s a great idea!’ Not in Silicon Valley. A great idea is only great if the economics work. I found this extremely abrasive, naive, and inhuman, at first. It sounded as if they were saying you cannot help people unless you can make a profit off of them. But Silicon Valley is better than any other industry at executing on one thing: building and shipping product.
And what Silicon Valley is saying, I believe, if poetically on my part, is a sound economic model is the nucleus of every great idea organism. It is what makes an organism (organization), profit or nonprofit, work or not. When you get the economics right, first, you can achieve homeostasis in the organism. Homeostasis is what keeps an organism (organization) dynamic, balanced, and alive.
Every other idea organism will experience apoptosis, or death. Such ideas are small-talk at best, churlish fantasies in the worst case. They are thought exercises and armchair pontifications over IPAs. Silicon Valley is interested in a more complete idea, one that has the potential to be instantiated. Thought exercises are fun and even necessary. Continuing the analogy, abstractions are eukaryotic, and where great ideas begin. But without economic models to validate them with machinery, they have diminishing marginal utility. My leftist friends were visibly less sympathetic to this notion. And I understand.
I was simply exhausted with poverty and a general lack of agency to positively impact a neighborhood I was legally and ably permitted to meaningfully impact. I was conversing with otherwise intelligent people who nevertheless blamed their lack of agency on everything and everyone but themselves. And I was vocal about this phenomenon.
I didn't get on well with this attitude and it was beginning to bleed through the cracks. I, too, identified with poverty, random injustice, and the like, but never engendered the plight of a victim. I am still not sure why. But I hope it's not genetic. I wasn’t sold on capitalism as a solution to all the world’s problems. I had more questions. But I was and am absolutely sold on the idea that unless some new system can solve the mass-scale coordination problem, without coercion, it is not going to work.
Marc Andreessen continued to appear in my Twitter feed. He was saying the craziest things about the future and it was intoxicating. I had followed a few more folks in the Silicon Valley tech space by late 2013, early 2014. I was fond of Balaji Srinivasan's (whom I would befriend years later) Twitter account, who via Twitter turned me on to Bitcoin. Twitter was mostly “Tech Twitter” then, and pseudonymous accounts like “@neontaster” and “@SwiftOnSecurity” were just heavy-wit/light-snark mediums. They were clever and that was it. Twitter was not the extreme place it has become.
The social network had its problems, but it was less battle-ground and more interactive RSS feed for ideas. Tech Twitter was dreamy in those days, before Donald Trump decided to run for president, and before aging investors began publicly insisting that startups go public. Most conversations were on who raised a new round, how to start a startup, and what people at what companies were doing what. But I was becoming frustrated by the frivolity of ideas being discussed.
I had an idea for a startup in the food space. It was what I knew. I had been a waiter, off-and-on, for 15 years. I wanted to improve food security by incentivizing food secure individuals to subsidize food insecure individuals. I had (have) an economic model and everything. I met a guy at a Pittsburgh Bitcoin Meetup who was good at business. I had a waitress co-worker/marketing student friend who was good at sales/marketing. I was the ideas man, who could tell the story and show you logically and game theoretically why it would work. But there was no prototype.
The startup was based on a smartphone application. I understood the basics of game theory from researching the subject as a serious side hobby. I discovered that social networks with sound economic models that could coordinate correctly could change the world in a positive way. But it was no matter. There was no app. And I couldn’t find an engineer to work for equity. I would later discover this was an old problem.
It is famously the subject of a Dilbert cartoon, where the pointy-haired boss has a great idea for a company, who just needs an engineer to code it up. The anticipated reply from the boss’ sarcastic employee goes something like “I believe the economic term for what you have is nothing.” I decided to become the engineer. I couldn’t afford an apartment and was living with my mother. I was just fired from my umpteenth restaurant job. But I learned to interview well. I got a job at an AT&T authorized dealer selling smartphones.
Not even a real AT&T. I rented a twenty-four hour office space the size of a single public restroom and moved in. I pretended to go home in the morning to sleep after a long night of coding. What I really had done was move in.
I remember asking the guy at REI what was the best sleeping pad. He asked “for the woods?” I said the “No, for the office.” He said, “Oh,” with a very sad for me look on his face. I was showering at the YMCA and working during the day at fake AT&T. After work, I biked across town to the office. Everyone had gone home by 7pm. I was coming home. I had access to the all the quiet I could absorb and Italian espresso I could drink.
The office was a new complex on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. This meant the bathrooms were, to quote Oscar Wilde, “unmoored by the world.” It’s useless to invoke the quality of a toilet without invoking the great George Constanza. The flush was like a jet engine. This was the best part of the night. And this went on for months. I slept in the office because it was cheap (albiet illegal), showered at the Y, and programmed at night. I heard Elon Musk say he did this, so I figured it was good enough for me. I think he was allowed to sleep in his office, to be clear.
I lost my job at AT&T before I could raise money. I wasn’t good enough to get a job as a programmer. Or raise money, to be honest. I had to move back in with my mother. I was thirty-five years-old, and embarrassed. I was down but not out. And while I had no money, no savings, no job or prospects, I kept coding. I eventually shipped (published in the App Store) a microblogging platform for tipping users in bitcoins. The idea was to weekly switch out topics on which users could write an article (comment) to keep it fresh. Comments were required to be two hundred words. I wanted you to think. Just post your bitcoin address at the end of your article. I called it Article Project.
I asked a Twitter friend for feedback. I was excited. He was a smart guy. He downloaded the app and used it. He replied with maybe seven things he hated about it. I was no longer excited. All of his critiques were correct. I quickly learned the simplicity of app design. Users should only be required to think when creating something, not when navigating something. There are some exceptions. But they should not be aspirations.
I began working on another app while waiting tables, again. I was insufferable to work with at every restaurant. I detested the conversations, didn’t care who won last night's game, and had little interest in going out and spending the money I was scarcely earning. I was on Twitter. That’s where the world was turning. That’s where I was learning to improve. July 2018 was another day. I saw a tweet that night from a guy I once followed, because he founded a citizen journalist startup called Grasswire.
That didn’t work out, but he was interesting on Twitter. He had a new startup called Lambda School. I honestly paid it no attention. There’s so many new projects in this space sometimes they all run together. But this guy kept tweeting. And tweeting. And tweeting. One tweet was about the school’s new iOS track. They were launching it adjacent an experiment: move to San Francisco (“the nice part” - that’s what he said. He was right), get free housing and a free Macbook, if you qualify. Just take care of your own food and toiletries. I thought I was too good for it.
I had shipped two apps. I am also historically a terrible student. Why would I do this? Well, I have always wanted to live in California, especially in SF where all the people I followed lived, I thought. The people I admired from afar hosted podcasts that I listened to that reached hundreds of thousands of people. They got jobs and raised money on Twitter, not LinkedIn. They took months off at a time to explore side projects or go hiking. This is abnormal behavior to entry-level Americans.
These kids had high contrast in the world outside of technology and frightened that same world in a way I had never seen. They encouraged me to think even more critically about money, diet, exercise, and sleep; ambition, relaxation, risk, in concrete ways that were previously fantastical, or simply not well-reasoned on my end. Silicon Valley gave me hope without explicitly doing that.
Lambda School’s game theory was also solid, here. They had codified an economic model called an Income Share Agreement. Essentially, you defer your tuition until you are trained to work and earn enough income to pay it back in installments. It also has a five-year cap, though you will likely pay off your tuition in three years. It was a Nash Equilibrium. This was a much better deal than any university model. The facts are harsh, but simple.
Information is free. Education is a business. The reason is, teachers will not (and should not) work for free, and you have no exceptional right to their labor. In the world of public education, student loan debt is (as of 2019) over 1.6 trillion dollars, and climbing, with many students not even working in their particular field of study. Ivy League universities have become licenses to live and badges of honor, to the point of wealthy parents manipulating them to enroll their considerably-less-than-qualified children. And there is no parameterized economic incentive for the university to ensure you acquire gainful employment after you graduate, despite selling you an education with that implicit promise.
I skipped the pre-course work at Lambda and took the test. I passed. I got the phone call from a woman who said I qualified for the experiment and that she would give me chance. But I had to decide then and there to relocate to California within a week. I thought I had at least a month.
I was working part-time with children at a popular arts and technology makerspace. I told them I had to go. I cried. I was also tutoring an extremely bright kid at the time with whom I had formed a bond. I told him I had to move and he wept. I was sad by engaging both of these affairs. But I had to go, and I knew it. I arrived in San Francisco with one hundred and twenty-seven dollars. My Lyft driver took me down Dolores Street and it was the first time I had ever seen palm trees. I love palm trees. I think “The Price is Right” did a number on a lot of people. Palm trees are symbolic of freedom and the good life to non-Californians-Floridians.
I hopped out the Lyft and let out a soft bitch cry at how cold it was in late July. That night I went to Haight and Ashbury hoping to bump into Grace Slick, and maybe ask her out. She was no where to be found. The times had changed. I worked hard at Lambda School, but didn’t do well. I am uncertain as to why other than the terrible student thing. But Lambda School gave me the San Francisco I’d always wanted. And it gave me the opportunity to meet all the people I wanted to meet and with whom I’ve always wanted to network. And I did.
I went everywhere and met everyone. People out here will meet with you, especially if they only know you from Twitter. It’s one of the best things about the Valley. I did more interviews than I could count. Interviewing as a software engineer in Silicon Valley is a topic for another blog post. I did well in some interviews and catastrophically bad in most of them. But one agency called and I killed it. They were moving fast and wanted to make an offer by the next day. I was all over the place. The next day, they called and made me an offer for ten times more than I was making as a waiter and a tutor.
I couldn’t believe it. It had been so long, and so hard. Of course, I accepted. I went from three homeless shelters, two group homes, and a smattering of addresses throughout the course of my life, to a full-time iOS Engineer in San Francisco. I moved out of Lambda’s temporary SoMa housing and into an Airbnb until my new place was ready. A guy I met in Whole Foods one day, and with whom I made friends, loaned me two grand to move. Another friend I met at a Lyft Meetup loaned me five hundred dollars. I paid the latter back already. It felt amazing. My daily life is also different. I am not as price sensitive, and that is underrated. Life is good.
Sitting here in Philz Coffee on 4th street, staring at nerdy tech girls crossing the street, I am reminded of why I keep a gratitude journal that I inscribe every night. None of this was guaranteed. I am anxiously reminded of that. I was almost living on the street. Literally. And no one would have cared. This is San Francisco. I took a risk. But I reasoned the upside was greater than the potential downside. Thinking big is not a privilege. If you can understand that, you can save your life. I remember a customer success person, or another, at Lambda School, offering to fly me back to Pittsburgh, after I was dismissed from the program.
I told them, “I don’t live in Pittsburgh. I live in San Francisco.”