Five years ago, I got fired from my first and only Fancy Job. I was 23, and I was devastated. I had been working as the American Acquisitions Assistant at A Statused Art Museum. My coworkers were snobs (“I know a shoe repair place to recap your heel, but I doubt you could afford it”) and I hated the work (I did not embrace the exciting thrill that is database entry and may not have actually been as “detail oriented” as I’d implied in my interview). The best part of the job was telling people I had it. And then, I didn’t have it anymore.
Who was I, if not the American Acquisitions Assistant? I was about to find out. I cleaned out my desk, I wept in the arms of the mail room staff, and then I was released into a memorably gorgeous May afternoon. I watched a man play a piano in Bryant Park. I met my friend to drink champagne (I thought he was going to pay, he didn’t). I wrote a little poem about how much I hated my boss.
And then the second day of the rest of my life came, and I didn’t know what to do. I called my mother. I filed for unemployment. I went to the public library and paid off my overdue notices. The summer was a mix of fun and fear. I spent an unreasonable amount of time day-drinking cold duck, and a lot of time lying on the dirty beach, my dread creeping in alongside the tide.
To lift my spirits, and slow my spiraling descent into heavy drinking, my parents paid me a visit. I was afraid they were going to give me a speech about how NYC had kicked my ass and I should move back to my hometown, but they didn’t. My mother told me she was glad that I was out of Fancy Job, that maybe now I could find something that would actually suit my personality instead of trying to swallow it. My father shared that he had been unemployed for a long while, something I had never known nor guessed given his admirable work ethic. He claimed that period helped him understand better how to live mindfully.
They gave me an incredible pep talk and encouraged me to use my situation to learn creative living—how to get by on what I had, not what I wanted to have or felt I should have (cue Minor Threat).
I can’t remember everything about that summer, but I do remember that I found unexpected ways to be frugal. I cancelled my internet and worked exclusively from a coffee shop, buying one coffee and making it last (until I befriended some baristas). My old roommate gave me a busted, rusted old bike from the garbage, and I rode it instead of taking the subway. One of the most unintentionally clever things I did date a cook, which lead to many great, free meals and a place to sleep with air conditioning.
Eventually I picked up some artist assisting gigs, which paid about the same as I was getting for boring data entry at the Museum. It was less Fancy, but also came with a lot less attitude. I started learning things. One of the artists I worked with was very into self-help books, and he encouraged me to forget the Fancy Job, and try to monetize the things I like to do naturally. I ought to, he said, give myself ten years to achieve my goals.
I took that to heart. With the longer timeframe I allowed myself, I felt okay applying to what I considered “non-career” jobs. I continued artist assisting, wrote little articles for a music blog so I could get into shows for free, and worked in a clothing store while I sorted out my next step in self-discovery. And then those random “fun” schemes led to Important Life Things. The music writing introduced me to a meaningful love relationship, and the clothing store work helped me meet Manuel.
While I was dragging my hungover self around, full of entitlement and self pity, Manuel was busy trying to keep himself and his neighbors safe from losing their homes to oblivious newcomers. He invited me to help him, and I was so moved by his warm personality and passion about our neighborhood that I did. I started to get involved with community activism, and community education projects. I found myself becoming passionate about my neighborhood, past and present. I learned so much about New York through the process that I became a licensed tour guide.
These were all jobs that never crossed my mind when I was collating tax write-off letters for wealthy art donors. I still earn less than $30,000 a year, but I actually feel useful. I care about the work I’m doing, which I am starting to see is worth more than a new couch or a nice MacBook or a Fancy Job. I loved to brag about my Fancy Job, when I had it. I would not have thought to brag about being a community activist or a tour guide—until now.
I still frequently struggle with ghosts of the Fancy Jobs I once sought, and the respect I imagined they would bring. When people ask me when I’m at work what I really want to do, it still stings pretty hard. Is my work not enough? If I’m feeling toxic, I feel like it isn’t. But I’m happy, and I love what I do. I am trying hard to unlearn that my job title and my paycheck are not my identity. Besides, I am a great cheapskate now, and in New York City, that is something worth bragging about.
Emily Gallagher is, amongst other things, a museum educator and a volunteer community organizer. While she likes to imply that her free-time is spent working on pet projects and “art,” a disproportionate amount of time is actually spent convincing friends to join her at the bar.