Going broke in LA
Anonymous in LA comes to terms with the disappearance of his profession.
The queues at Super King Market, just off the 2 freeway between Eagle Rock and Glendale, are always long, and no one is particularly friendly, but the produce is fresh and the prices are cheap. I can buy big bunches of chard and kale for 99 cents, onions for a quarter a pound, four avocados or ten lemons for a buck. The store stocks every imaginable legume, lining one long aisle, with 20-pound bags of rice at one end. Meat is cheap, too, when I decide to splurge for it.
If I shop early, the store is less crowded, but anytime after 10 a.m., it’s almost unnavigable: hairy-necked Armenian men in track suits; Mexican moms with their kids; swollen-eyed chefs in clogs and black pants; elderly Korean couples picking over the Japanese eggplants. And me, a middle-aged white guy. Everyone trundles a big cart, and, like salmon, we follow a slow, IKEA-like path counterclockwise through the store. Dare to go upstream, and everyone glares at you.
I do the shopping for our household, and when my wife and I first moved to Los Angeles, five years ago, I did so at Gelson’s, with its strange, zombie-like staff. When the money got tight, it became Trader Joe’s, with their Hawaiian shirts and cultivated nonchalance. Now it’s Super King, with its scowling clientele and store announcements in three languages.
You see, I’m driven to save every possible penny these days because we’re going broke here. I’m 50 years old, highly educated, eminently employable, with nearly two decades of work as a professional writer, but I’m barely surviving. The same is true for my wife. We’re both smart, highly motivated, and responsible. We would be ideal employees. We aren’t felons or tweakers. We bathe daily. But for the past five years, we’ve been unable to find lasting work as writers in Southern California.
We aren’t alone. About a half-million people are unemployed in Los Angeles County right now, and if you zoom out to include all of L.A., the number is much higher. While SoCal unemployment usually gets reported at around 10 percent, freelancers — who, like other kinds of workers, aren’t included as part of the stats — understand the figures to be more accurately double that. Or worse.
Unique to Los Angeles, however, is an unprecedented degree of denial. Nobody talks about it. Many of our friends — Ava, Dawn, Russ, Mike; all the names in this article have been changed — are in the same boat. We meet up at cafés, nurse our decaf, try to avoid each others’ haunted glances. It’s not going to stay like this, we reassure one another. Something will change.
But it hasn’t, and potential employers fall into two categories: Either they talk a good game, like we do, with calm assurances that “things are getting better” and “just about to break open,” or they flat-out ignore you, even if you’ve done good work for them in the past. It’s part of the dominant culture here. Whether by silence or prevarication, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news.
Let me give you an example. My friend Dave teaches at one of the city’s art schools, and at his invitation, two years ago, I guest-lectured one night for his first-year design course. I made $75; it went great. A few weeks later, Dave introduced me to another instructor, Tom, who happened to be the principal at one of L.A.’s best-known branding agencies — exactly the kind of work I’m perfectly qualified for. Tom gave me his business card, said he’d love to talk to me about doing some work sometime. Awesome, right?
A few days later, I emailed Tom, sending along links to my portfolio. He never got back to me. I waited a couple weeks and politely pinged him again. Nothing. I waited a month, left him a voicemail. Nothing. The holidays came, and I mailed him a card: “Looking forward to meeting up in the new year!” Nothing. In February, when I was in the neighborhood, I stopped by his office; his assistant said he wasn’t in. Every couple of months, I send Tom an upbeat offer to connect. Nothing. This has gone on for two years.
It’s not even that the work isn’t available; it’s often that the discussion about work never even begins.
Now replicate this experience with dozens of others. It happens everywhere. L.A. is a vortex of pure potential in which change, when it happens, does so geologically — it’s a culture of Slow No. With a standard set by the entertainment industry, where this affliction is pandemic, it’s a place where dreams can string along for decades, until the dreamer eventually dies a long, slow death from gentle, lethal encouragement.
Here’s another example. My wife is a talented writer who is hoping to work in TV. She has several trusted mentors, all of whom tell her she’s well-qualified. Early this past summer, one of them set her up with a contact, a VP who oversees an industry niche she’d fit perfectly. Weeks ago, his assistant scheduled a half-hour call for the two of them to chat. The day before, he called to cancel it. It got rescheduled. And cancelled. And rescheduled. And cancelled — on and on for (currently) its eighth rescheduling. Months have passed and nothing has happened.
In Los Angeles, this passes for normal.
We moved to L.A. from a place where things happen: Someone has an idea, it finds support, folks rally around it, funding appears, people are hired to work on it, a prototype or a product turns out. It happens in record time. Here, even the tiniest egg of an idea takes an epoch to hatch — if it hatches at all. Mostly, everyone just tells you how great your egg is. Good luck with that egg! they say, and you’re left there, sitting.
In moments of insecurity, I secretly wonder if it’s me — if there’s actually something glaringly wrong with my skills or with my résumé. Am I a douchebag? Does my portfolio suck? Has someone in my past, a client I’ve inadvertently wronged, contacted every potential employer with a warning: Under no circumstances should you hire this guy. He is a leprous cretin, a mouthbreather, a menace not only to copywriting, but to the world. Is it possible?
Probably not. When work trickles in from other cities, things usually go just fine: We’ve had clients from New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati, none of whom have had these problems. As challenging as the Great Recession has been for us, a few thin threads of work have appeared from here and there. Just not from Los Angeles.
I hear the implied question: You’re a freelancer; why not work with folks who are available? I will say that after nearly 20 years of doing this, personal relationships with clients I can meet in person are still more effective than ones on the phone from faraway cities. Still, I’m starting to wonder.
There was one Pasadena agency who gave me some work for a few months last year writing for nonprofits. It was a good gig. The work was fulfilling, the office friendly; they spun Boards of Canada on their Sonos, made espresso for us in the afternoons. When the contract was up, the owner thanked me, and recommended me to a Culver City agency for whom I did one more day’s work.
The fear I don’t want to admit — the existential fear bigger than my own insecurities — is that my profession is disappearing. With the rise of blogging and social media, everyone who can peck out a text message on an iPhone these days thinks he or she is a writer. My education, my experience — they count for less and less. One entrepreneurial client, after hiring my wife and me to write the copy for his social networking app, gummed it up with his own introduced clichés, usage errors, and exclamation points. He thought he had improved it. His app is still on the market; meanwhile, I’m trolling the job boards, a prospector from the Gold Rush days, panning for dust.
My wife comes from a rich writing background that has seen the launch of memorable brands you likely have in your home. Last year, she made less money as a professional writer living in L.A. than she did in her last year of babysitting as a teenager.
Meanwhile, our savings have evaporated and our credit cards are skyrocketing. Last month, I took cash out against one of them to pay my health insurance.
I canceled my gym membership months ago; these days I go for long hikes or bike rides in Griffith Park.
I have discovered LA’s cheapest movie theaters, its hidden gardens, its stairway walks, its restaurants where my dollars go the furthest. I appreciate my friends more and more.
Last week, Super King was selling pomegranates. Their flesh was soft and spongy, their seeds pale pink. In time they’ll firm up, turn sweet, and run with crimson juice.
At the moment, I’m surviving. But the center cannot hold.
I want to feel less fearful.
Most of all, I want to write: to work and be paid for my work; to narrate my own evolution through this crazy time using the power of words. They are all I know. The boat is leaking — badly — and words are what I’ve relied on to keep me high in the water.
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