Return to Ohio: Money & Anxiety in Loser-takes-none America

I can distinctly remember sitting on my dad’s lap behind the steering wheel during the first leg of the trip. He smoked a cigar as we barreled down the freeway, east through the desert towards Arizona. Though he would occasionally let me “drive” in that manner, most of the time me and my two brothers spent the five traveling days in a cleared out space under the dining room table in the back of the moving van. The table was walled off by bags, suitcases, and other pieces of furniture. A small opening led to the captain’s chairs in front.

We were headed to Dayton, because that’s where my mom grew up and where most of her 8 siblings still lived. It’s the type of place one heads to once the dream is officially dead and it’s time to return, hat in hand. 

We had about $500 to our name when we hit the road. My dad had been fired from yet another job, this time as a used car salesman, and that was that. My mom watched through the kitchen window as the dealership dropped him and drove off, taking the courtesy car back to the lot. Her sister’s husband offered up a job selling aluminum siding and windows back in Ohio. 

For the previous five years we’d been living in San Diego, a city burned into my brain as Eden for most of my life--until I’d move there myself 30 years later and create my own disaster. But my early childhood memories are full of sunshine and walks down the steep hill that led to the beach, making Christmas cookies in 70-degree weather, the school lunch room that was outdoors year-round and the playground that overlooked the ocean.

The first thing I registered about Ohio--everybody looked sad and heavy, dragging themselves across salt-caked parking lots toward cinder block strip malls. It was the middle of winter when we got there, always overcast. The whole family--which included my parents and two brothers--all slept sprawled across the beige living room carpet of my aunt’s ranch-style home in a working class suburb. About a week later we found an apartment.

I wore a brown, hand-me-down jacket to school. A late joiner, I had no friends and would spend recess hands-in-pockets staring up at the cloud-covered sky, waiting for the sun to peek out and warm things up. But the Ohio sun was different from the one I’d known. Even when the sun did come out, there was no warmth to it. 

Money was tight, but the cost of living was low--a dubious but very practical selling point for the Ohio valley. My dad got trained up on sales at the business my uncle worked for, then bailed to start his own company. 

This was total lunacy for any number of reasons. Reason number one being the three growing boys all under the age of 9 he was legally obligated to feed and clothe. Plus, he had no savings and no reliable income whatsoever. He also had no home improvement experience besides the bit of training he’d stolen from the company. An emotional man by nature, he was prone to burst off into the future, driven by whatever passion overtook him at the moment, a trait I’d unfortunately share as an adult.

Luckily, housing in Dayton was absurdly affordable and soon enough we broke the lease on the apartment and stepped into a small suburban home of our own. The property management company that owned our lease didn’t much care for us breaking it, so they hauled my dad to court. The reason I know this is because my parents showed up mysteriously at school one day and took me out. A very bored sympathy prop in a sterile courtroom, I swiveled nonstop in my chair and was repeatedly reprimanded for it. 

My dad represented himself and, naturally, it didn’t go well. On the way out to the car he grumbled that “they were gonna have a hell of a time” getting the money out of him.

Money, or rather the fear of not having enough, was the only constant in our house, and led to regular shouting matches between my parents. I quickly concluded the obvious--my existence cost them money. Although my dad didn’t exactly intend to impress this on me, it was clear he’d reached the same conclusion. His scolding had the common refrain of “Everything I do is for you and this is how you act?” 

The weekends were particularly volatile. If he wasn’t busy outside of the house making sales or checking on jobs, all that anxiety had to go somewhere--and there we were, balance sheet-busting good-for-nothings lounging about. By virtue of being first in line, my oldest brother had it the worst. I cowered behind the couch one morning and watched my dad chuck him out the front door by his belt loops. This had something to do with him inadequately weeding the front walkway. 

Mostly, me and my younger brother tried to avoid our dad as much as space would allow, though that only worked so well. Unpredictably but regularly he’d come barreling into whatever room we were hiding out in, furious with agenda. On many occasions he ripped the plug to our Nintendo from the wall, save points be damned. Having friends over provided no immunity, either. He once threw a hoagie at my youngest brother’s head because he hadn’t mowed the lawn yet, his friend frozen in shock beside him.

My earliest memories in that house, though, were the weekends we’d spend with all of us piled into the beat-up white station wagon. My dad would creep down side streets, scanning houses. If he felt one needed siding, windows, or a roof, he’d write the address down so he could later look them up in the phonebook and cold call them. I can only imagine the conversion rate was abysmal, but it got the ball rolling. Jobs led to other jobs and the business slowly grew.

But the precariousness of our situation didn’t improve much and the anxiety never left. I’d feel guilty every time my dad pulled out his wallet to buy me a hot dog or soda or football cleats. More often than not, though, it was my mom who did the buying, typically in secret. A new pair of pants and a shirt from Marshall’s would always be paired with the directive to “not tell your father about this.”

Much later, despite the intense economic fear that weighed down every family decision, from car purchases to lunch choices and everything else, I was paradoxically instructed by my parents to set aside monetary considerations when “choosing” a career. Instead, I was told, repeatedly and forcefully, to “follow my passion” and “to be creative.” In that spirit, I headed off to college with no real direction whatsoever, eventually declaring a double major in philosophy and creative writing.

After college, I was sent into the job market hopelessly unprepared at a time when Ohio’s job base was getting shredded. Factories were closing, along with the parts manufacturers and shipping companies that accompanied them, which rippled out to devastating effect through the entire region. A dead-in-the-water gloom took hold.

I worked as a waiter in Columbus for a few years, then shipped myself off to Korea to teach English, because it required literally nothing of me, qualification-wise, other than having been born a native English speaker who possessed a college diploma of any kind. Near the end of my contract year in Korea, I learned that I’d finally been accepted into grad school (after blanket rejections for three consecutive years), and so felt I finally had some direction, however tenuous.

I took my first advertising job after moving from Korea to New York for school. Though I had no interest whatsoever in advertising, I desperately needed a job and figured I could handle it part-time for two years as I got my MFA. It would only be temporary, or at least that’s how I justified it. But as the saying goes, there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary solution, and I’d spend the next fifteen years in and out of advertising, trying to figure out some alternative way to make even an adequate living. 

Over and over, I’d quit marketing jobs abruptly and declare myself finished with the field “forever.” I worked in bookstores and university writing centers and a grocery chain. I worked for a time as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. I wrote resumes for “C-suite” executives while literally earning poverty wages, an irony that was certainly not lost on me. 

I also worked for a time categorizing typo-ridden search results for Bing--gig work that only paid while I was actively signed in, which meant I was also being timed and monitored. An ominous countdown clock would tick as I frantically tried to decipher borderline nonsense phrases like “Bejstor digsein STpd ersbugg bug?” and categorize the four displayed search results according to the company’s classification. Other gig workers did the same, and if my results were different from theirs, or if I took too long, I’d get flagged for “more training” (which happened to me) and ultimately released. I gave up before it got to that point, the pay was terrible.

Without any plan, real savings, or family wealth to support me, after a year or two of scraping by, holding down multiple part-time jobs and “gigs”--typically foregoing health insurance to save money--the full-court press of our financier-driven austerity economy would get to me. I’d break, and find myself messaging old friends and colleagues, looking for a way back in.

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Until I’d moved to New York after my year in Korea, I honestly didn’t know there were people who’d always had so much money on hand that it would never occur to them in a visceral way that money was something to be concerned about. Economic anxiety for them, far as I could tell, was and would always be largely an abstraction, in much the same way that the absence of economic anxiety was and is to me today an abstraction. While in grad school, I met many students who mysteriously (to me at least) either didn’t work or worked extremely part-time jobs, while living in the most expensive neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities in the world. 

One girl I knew worked part-time at a cheese shop, but lived by herself in the West Village in a building where at least one TV star also lived. An absolute rube from the midwest, I was sincerely dumbfounded by this, because I was missing the family wealth part of the equation. I’d later find out she’d been on her dad’s company’s payroll since she was a teenager. 

Another guy I knew didn’t even bother with that sort of ruse, he was simply rich. In his spare time he might write an article for one of his rich friend’s magazines. Once, he was late meeting me for dinner because he’d stopped into some store on his way over. While there, he’d picked up a t-shirt so vintage and rarified that it was actually worn at one point by a coal miner in the early 20th century. I didn’t know something like that existed or could exist and I can only imagine how much it must’ve cost.

None of this is to say that these people are unthinking or unfeeling or terrible in any way. Rather, I bring it up only because it points quite dramatically to the reality of the creative economy, which mirrors in many ways the general economy. That the field is tilted, and fabulously so, toward the wealthy few is indisputable at this point. 

But the question I keep coming back to is, why was I pushed into the creative field in the first place? And why did I find so much cultural energy around the idea of being a “working artist,” but virtually no underlying economic support that would make such an idea possible?

The answer to the first part of that question begins, as it often does, within the family, while the second question can be answered by looking at the same “free market” fundamentalism, with its corresponding policy choices, that hollowed out the middle class as a whole over the last 40 years.

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For as long as I can remember, my father always had an easel set up in his home office. On the margins of long and stressful workdays, he’d find a way to sneak in just a little painting time. His work was mostly abstract and conceptual, though he’d occasionally take a crack at landscapes or portraits. 

At one point, he hit on the idea of painting celebrity portraits on the brick samples that were sent his way by home improvement suppliers, a series he worked on for years. When he’d show me his latest portrait, the first question would always be, can you tell who it is? I almost always could, after a beat or two. The celebrities I remember offhand were Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Paul Shaffer, but there were many others. 

That this series featured celebrities showed his hand--it was ultimately a money-making scheme. After he finished a portrait, he’d mail it off to the celebrity--unsolicited--with the hopes that they would either (a) send him money for it, or (b) show it off via their massive platforms. In an ideal world, they’d do both--though none did either, with the exception of an old high school friend and successful author who cut him a small check.

His hope, he told me one muggy Sunday afternoon in the garage—encircled by an oversized Harley and window samples and a toolbox plastered with Ron Paul campaign stickers—was that this would build buzz among celebrities, who would ultimately come clamoring to get their own portraits made. This is my retirement plan, he joked, though the joke part of it was unconvincing. The truth is there was no retirement plan besides winning the lottery, which he played every week. The paintings brought even worse odds, but it was something, so he played that, too. 

Any hope of becoming a working artist had actually crashed down decades prior, when he turned around to discover himself the father of three young boys in San Diego. In his mid-30’s, he had no real job experience besides a short stint in the Navy, and no college education besides a semester or two of art school. Whatever his creative dreams were, they would be forcefully shelved by the financial demands of being our family’s reluctant breadwinner. He and my mom would eventually add a fourth boy to the mix as well, ratcheting up that pressure even more. As many a child has discovered over the years, the frustrated ambitions of a parent--along with the hardly-concealed resentment this cultivates--often land squarely in that child’s lap. 

This came out in a strong but predictable manner. Most noteworthy was that my brothers and I were continually encouraged to “be creative.” This was in many ways positive, as it resulted in music lessons, new guitars and drum sets, basic recording equipment, and other useful things of that nature. But even something seemingly positive, even innocent, had its dark side.

There was a strange pressure to be creative, a pressure that continued into adulthood and even middle age--and it was paired with an at-times delusional expectation that we not only be successful, but wildly so. When I put out a small book of political satire through a friend’s micro-press, for example, my father liked it. He liked it so much that he insisted, repeatedly, that I was doing myself a disservice by not getting the book in front of the likes of David Letterman. He believed that would result in me ending up on the show, reading from the book, which would then lead directly to superstardom and celebrity status. 

There’s parental support, and then there’s parental support that’s both unhinged from reality and in many ways a back-handed compliment. Sure, he liked the book, but he also made it clear I was ultimately failing the very important task of self-promotion. We’re talking here about a “book” that was literally handmade in a friend’s art studio in an edition of 100 (at the very most). If we sold half that I’d be surprised. 

On another occasion, I proudly handed him a poetry book I’d put out through that same friend’s micro-press, of which we’d made about 500, and within ten minutes he’d given it away to an illustrator he chatted up in line at the coffee shop while waiting on an espresso. This was a valuable networking connection, he told me afterwards, maybe you guys can collaborate on something. My desire, of course, was simply that he take the book with him and read it, not hand it off to a stranger like a business card.

Obviously, we’re witnessing a drive that goes far beyond me simply expressing myself (though that was certainly part of it). All those years of feeding me, clothing me, and putting me through college were not cheap--he needed to see a return on his investment. This was, crucially, also part of his retirement plan, and as far as he could see, the return part of the investment wasn’t exactly panning out.

But there is also immense, and in my view immensely damaging, cultural energy around the idea of being a working artist, writer, “thinker,” or musician. Social media is full of cherry-picked “motivational” quotes supporting this notion--quotes from Steve Jobs, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Bruce Lee, Warren Buffet, Jack Kerouac, the Dalai Lama, Jim Carey. The quotes all differ to a degree, but the through-line is that anyone can be successful doing whatever they’re passionate about, if and only if they do exactly what “the universe” demands--which means being fearless enough to throw caution to the wind, take a leap of faith, and never look back.

Far as I can figure, this line of thinking has its roots in post-war America. Against that backdrop of economic growth and stability for the middle class, risk-taking of the leap-of-faith variety--which we’ve internalized as a prerequisite for creative success--actually makes sense. But it only makes sense on account of the fact that the risks were themselves very low. The risks today, compounded as they are by the severe threat of medical debt, ballooning student loans, and vanishing middle class jobs, are something else altogether.

As for my father, who is now well into his 70’s, retirement remains as elusive as ever, and I suspect it always will. On the upside, he still finds time for painting, though I’m not sure what series he’s working on now. The truth is, we don’t speak much these days, though he makes it a point to check in from time to time and ask whether I’m still writing poetry. And for whatever it’s worth, yes, I still am.

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