The debit card made it official.
It read, in embossed silver type. The guy at the bank convinced me to get one on the same day I applied for a credit card.
“It’ll help you when it comes time to do your taxes,” he said.
It was early June, and I had just moved to Portland, Maine to start my career as a freelance journalist. I also wanted to make rent, so I had gotten a job waitressing at a fancy Latin American restaurant downtown. It was my first waitressing job, and in my interview I had told the owner I only wanted to work part time so I could focus on writing.
“I like the idea of supporting a young journalist,” he said.
I did, too.
But I also liked the idea of struggling, just enough, to afford everything: my sunny apartment with the stained carpet and fake brick wall; the vaccinations for my cat, Moo; a brake job for my car. I felt like there was something noble about piecing it together instead of taking a stable job that paid better. It felt like a big middle finger to my friends who had gone into grad school or the corporate world.
Besides, Portland in the summer was crawling with New Yorkers who dropped $90 on bottles of cabernet sauvignon and all ordered desserts. Waiting tables was stressful but lucrative, and it gave me time to write.
And because I didn’t rely entirely on freelancing, I could afford to only write about what I wanted: where my trash went, or who lived in that abandoned house with the ratty lace curtains. After a piece was done, and I saw my name in the local paper or heard my voice on the public radio station, I was giddy for the rest of the day.
But for every high point, there were many more low points tarnished by feelings of insufficiency.
During one of my first weeks at the restaurant, I waited on two couples in their mid-60s. As I wiped down their table between courses, I overheard them talking about their days at the college I had just graduated from.
“I went there, too,” I blurted out.
“You did?” asked one of the men at the table. “What are you doing here?”
I blushed. I said that I was freelancing in addition to waitressing, and his surprise turned to sympathy. But my sudden eagerness to prove to these people that I had gone to a “good school” embarrassed me, and it bothered me that I had to justify the fact that I was “just waitressing.”
As the summer progressed, it became difficult to live up to the title on my debit card. For every story idea that was accepted, three were turned town. More often than not I just got stonewalled: editors told me that freelance budgets had been exhausted, that my stories weren’t timely.
After three months, my bank account had less than $800 in it. After Labor Day, business at the restaurant dropped off sharply, and they cancelled my shifts. I had too much free time and not enough money, so I spent long afternoons at the park, staring out at the harbor.
During one of my empty mornings, I got a call from the public radio show where I used to intern. They needed someone to fill in as a part-time producer for two months. This time, they would pay me.
So, three times a week, I commuted to Boston on the Amtrak with all the other professionals. I liked driving to the train station in the pale morning light, and napping until the train crossed the Massachusetts border. I liked telling people I was working as a radio producer. I liked wearing nice shoes.
But mostly, I liked being told what to do. I liked knowing that my pieces would always make it onto the show—even if the topic didn’t interest me. I liked my coworkers, my weekly meetings, even my drab, fluorescent office. I felt like I was part of something bigger than me. By the end of November, the job was over. The show couldn’t afford to extend my contract. My editors baked me a cake on my last day, and promised to let me know if they ever had another job for me.
My first week back in Portland was my loneliest since the summer. I hadn’t freelanced in months, and the restaurant was too slow to offer me more than one shift a week. I began to envy anyone with a steady job.
Eventually, I received an e-mail from the editor of a local weekly—the one I read when I was waiting for a haircut or eating a sandwich. They had a permanent job opening for a reporter. Was I interested?
As I read his e-mail, I realized that after months of struggling to fill my time and my bank account, I wanted what I had snubbed months earlier: a regular income, a regular schedule, and a job title that didn’t embarrass me. Yes, it would mean less independence, but I didn’t care anymore. I wanted stability — at least for now.