Freelance Hell: I Turned Down My Dream Job Because I Couldn't Afford To Live
It’s a week after Independence Day, so here is a little story about Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, and how hard it is to have all three of those supposedly unalienable rights at the same time.
In 2008 I was living in a 5 bedroom apartment in Harlem. Or I had just moved to a 2 bedroom in Bay Ridge, above a car dealership, off the last stop on the R train. Either way, I was doing everything I could to pay my rent, feed myself, and still cover my student loans. I finally had a full-time job that gave me health insurance, which was great because during my immediate post-college stint working freelance for a movie producer I’d gotten slammed with surprise taxes (despite paying my quarterly estimates) AND racked up some pretty hellacious medical bills. Thanks MRSA.
Turns out waiting until you’re about to get blood poisoning and then finally going to the ER for some antibiotics is NOT a good way to deal with infections. Ah, youth.
Anyway, my newfound career stability was glorious. Taxes were taken out of each pay check! I could see a dermatologist, who diagnosed my MRSA immediately without all that “maybe you have HIV or diabetes” nonsense those guys in the ER kept telling me. Sure, my job wasn’t what I’d ever imagined myself doing and I was still getting paid peanuts as an assistant, but it was interesting work with interesting people and I knew I was lucky. Until we all got laid off, because the studio I was working for maaaaaybe made a few too many bad movies those last few years.
So as my time wound down and we approached the day the doors would close on our office for good, I began looking for my next gig. And I ended up getting an interview with a couple of Hollywood writers who had already scripted some great movies and had more exciting projects lined up.
This was the opportunity that college-me had dreamed of. I could watch how writers worked, and see if it might be the field for me! I could put all my research skills to use! And they even liked the fact that I was a nerd with comic book knowledge, since they’d been starting to talk with Marvel about an upcoming property…
So I interviewed, and wrote some script coverage for them, and eventually got the call I’d been hoping for. They liked me! They wanted to hire me!
Just one caveat. The writers’ assistant position paid less than I made already, and would be freelance again. With no benefits.
Look, I have no problem taking a step backward to move forward again in the right direction. Considering what I was making at the time, it wasn’t even a huge step back (peanuts is peanuts). And generally I think that doing work you love is more important that doing work that makes you rich. But at that point in time, having just dug my finances, sanity, and health out of the hole they’d been in since the last time I’d freelanced? Yeah, I couldn’t do it. I was scared to do it. I was barely making ends meet as it was.
So I turned down my dream job.
That was almost a decade ago, and things more or less worked out in the long run. I moved on to other gigs at other cool companies — never doing quite the job I wanted, but always doing work that was interesting to me. I worked at seven consecutive San Diego Comic Cons, and at upfront parties, and organized press tours, and fetched my fair share of fancy fat-free lattes for talent. I learned, I grew, I have a bunch of cool stories to tell and I don’t regret any of it.
And now? I’m working freelance for the first time since I graduated college, because I have a husband who provides me with health insurance. Coincidentally we also finally left NYC and fucked off up a mountain where rent is much lower. I am, oddly enough, finally at the point in my life where I can take that step backward and try something new. For the record, I just turned 34.
Bitching about rent in NYC is like blaming the rain for getting you wet. You knew what you were getting into when you walked outside. I remember the advice I got from the assistants at my first internship at Miramax: “If you want to get started in film, you’ll probably need your parents to pay your rent.” So I take a perverse sense of pride in having managed to support myself in NYC, in the general field of work that I loved, for over a decade — without parental help. I was also fortunate to have the option to NOT work freelance, to find less exciting jobs that offered benefits, and to weather layoffs, no matter what I had to pass up in the process. It wasn’t always easy going but I had a choice. Not everyone does.
But the lack of affordable and accessible health care is something that hits close to home for me. Granted, those were the days before Obamacare, when my only feasible option was to take up my roommate on her offer to get married so I could get on her insurance. Other than some mild hypertension I didn’t have any chronic conditions, which makes me lucky. But even if you’re at the peak of health, shit can still happen. Like MRSA. Fucking MRSA. Seriously, it’s so gross. And if it’s that bad when you’re in your early 20s? Honey, strap in because your health woes aren’t going to get any better as you get older.
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness — you have the freedom to choose your health, or your happiness, and if you’re very lucky you might eventually find a way to have it all. Or not. That isn’t guaranteed.
So when I hear about millennials not buying houses, or living with their parents, while at the same time they are looking for work that gives them purpose and room to grow, I know it isn’t a quirk of a particular generation. It isn’t whiny, or needy, or self-indulgent. It’s a symptom of young people trying to navigate a world that doesn’t offer the same opportunities that it used to. A world that isn’t overly concerned with those unalienable rights. Let’s face it, we can’t even get the whole “all men are created equal” thing right (sorry ladies and non-white men!).
Maybe the way to have it all IS to live in Mom’s basement a little longer. Or get married. Because doing it on your own? That’s getting to be almost impossible.
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