Last year, I had seven different jobs in the span of nine months. With tax season on its way, I’ve amassed a small stack of W-2s, and my 2013 federal tax return is beginning to reveal a strangely foreshortened image of my first year in New York.
I graduated from college in 2011, and by the following summer I’d been unemployed and living at my mother’s house for nearly a year. I was John, Who Lives at Home. As my standards for postgraduate success slowly sank and my resume started to stale, following a four-month stint as a completely unqualified middle-school Spanish tutor, I thought about interning again (internships, of course, being extra credit for the middle-class). I managed to secure a spot for the fall at a small book publisher in Manhattan.
My mother—eager to see me somewhere other than her living room sofa—generously agreed to front me a few months’ rent so I could take the internship while looking for a part-time job, without running down all $600 of my life’s savings.
Job #0: Intern, August 2012–January 2013
Pay: $0/hr plus monthly unlimited MetroCard, 20 hrs/wk
My sole compensation as an intern—aside from Valuable Experience and Professional Connections—was a monthly subway pass. This meant, at least, that I wouldn’t have to spend money to make money at my real job, once I found one; I just had to spend 20 hours a week at a computer.
I found a cheap, one-month sublet, moved in, and after a week of buttered pasta and frantic searching, a friend of a friend got me a job as a host at a tony restaurant on the Upper East Side.
Job #1: Restaurant host, August 2012–April 2013
Pay: $15/hr plus coat check, 15 hrs/wk, net take-home: $186/wk
This was my first restaurant job, and it turned out to be a fairly safe place to start; after a month I was sure a polite child could have done my job equally well, if not better, but I was glad to have the work instead.
I coordinated seating, hung people’s coats, and placed takeout orders. More than that, though, I listened to old, rich people gripe through 6 p.m. meals that cost twice my weekly income, then leave half their food untouched. Occasionally there was something worth intercepting between the bussers and the trash, but most nights I went home to spaghetti, alone on the couch after midnight. If I was lucky, I’d make enough in coat check, at least, to buy a bottle of wine on my way to the train.
Job #2: Freelance copy editor, December 2012–present
Pay: $3.75/2,000 characters (including spaces) of edited text, projects vary
The book publisher I was interning with specialized in international fiction in translation. In December, they offered me a freelance gig, copy editing the English translation of a French novel. The book was around 400 pages and just over 600,000 characters, which worked out to about $1,125 (taxes TBD). It took four weeks, and getting paid took another two, but it was the most money I’d ever earned at once. Subsequent projects have varied, but they still throw me a bone every other month or so.
Job #3: Bookseller, December 2012–January 2013
Pay: $10/hr, ~40 hrs, net take-home: ~$8/hr
Also in December, and also through my internship, I was hired for some odd holiday shifts at a bookstore in Soho. I probably worked forty hours between December and mid-January, but it wasn’t nothing, and it allowed me to splurge on a few Christmas gifts without skipping groceries.
Compared to the restaurant, the bookstore was Club Med. No one was hungry, or angry, and everyone wore glasses and sweaters and never raised their voices. When the holidays were over, I practically begged to stay on, stopping in every week to see whether any booksellers had been squished by a train or had left to join the clergy. No such luck.
Jobs 1 through 3 took me through the holidays into the new year—on one day I worked at all three, on top of my internship—and my internship was set to end in late January. I’d been applying and interviewing anywhere I could in publishing—the desperate terminus of the unpaid internship I’d borrowed money to take—to no avail. Since the bookstore wouldn’t have me, I was staring down interminable months of lonely pasta dinners, hanging coats for mean old white ladies.
It might have been romantic, in a starving artist sort of way, but starving is depressing, and would have been a let-down at best for the investment of time and money I made to get here in the first place. And all for what? was the question I couldn’t avoid, squatting on the 14th Street platform waiting for a Q train home to Brooklyn.
As it happened, I would have been lucky for interminable months. At the beginning of February my hosting hours were cut to one five-hour shift per week, to the tune of $65. Job #2’s payouts were large, but too far between and slow in arriving. Now that my internship had ended my schedule was more flexible, but at my new pay rate I would barely clear $250 in a month.
Job #4: Restaurant host (II), February 2013
Pay: $14/hr, 8–15 hrs/wk, net take-home: $90–$168/wk
My manager, feeling guilty, gave my number to a friend of hers in need of a host at a restaurant downtown, and I was hired on arrival. I was still earning almost double minimum wage on paper, but what began as a promising twelve to fifteen hours a week quickly dwindled to eight in a late-winter restaurant slump, and I was still well below where I’d been with just one hosting job three nights a week.
One night I asked whether there might be a way for me to work more hours, maybe training to become a waiter, and not twenty minutes later I was in an apron bussing tables.
Job #5: Busser, March 2013
Pay: $5/hr plus tips, 24–28 hrs/wk, net take-home: $277–$420/wk
I was, without question, the worst busboy in the city of New York. I was forever dropping silverware in the dining room, and worked exactly one night without breaking a wine glass. I could maneuver a water pitcher between even the fattest of heads, but my arms were too skinny or round or something to reliably balance the trendily huge New American cuisine plates on which everything was served. Ultimately, the head busser started just following me around the restaurant, doing half my job and all of his. I was pathetic, and beyond help.
In spite of my general incompetence, the job solved a number of my problems: I was making Enough Money, which is a relative concept, but I was making rent and I wasn’t hungry—or, no hungrier than usual. Polishing silverware in the seven-foot basement had a kind of Down and Out in London and Paris quality, but one that is romantic only well after the fact. I was not George Orwell; I was just a boy in the basement, breaking wine glasses.
I narrowed my now-constant job search to finding a better part-time job, or at least one I might be better at doing. Being bad at a bad job was defeating, and more than ever I questioned the basic point of living in New York, or trying so hard to. I’d been switching up my weekly dinner menu by substituting rice and beans for pasta, and vice versa, and I hadn’t the time or money to actually enjoy any of the perks of city living. Lonely walks in half-deserted city streets can have a certain charm—a charm not unlike that of the Orwellian busboy—but it doesn’t last.
Job #6: Bookseller (II), April 2013–June 2013
Pay: $10/hr, 22 hrs/wk, net take-home: $187
In late March, God smiled. After more than a month of shopping myself around to bookstores in the city—still swooning from over my last bookstore post—one came through with a few shifts a week. The day I got the news, I gave my two weeks’ at the restaurant where I’d been bussing, and started work April 2.
It didn’t take much to rationalize the pay cut to myself. I’d be able to live and work primarily in Brooklyn, and my new manager had promised me an increase in hours soon. Between hosting and bookselling I was clearing my floor of $200 a week, and my freelance pay continued to burble in, such that by the middle of May I felt steady enough on my feet to let go of the hosting job and be in Brooklyn full-time.
Job #6a: Bookseller/manager, June 2013–August 2013
Pay: $12/hr, 40 hrs/wk, net take-home: $370/wk
In June I became full-time in my full-time-Brooklyn lifestyle, and things were rosy. I biked to work, I upped my coffee intake, and never worked later than 10 p.m. I was settled in more ways than I’d been all year. As I acclimated to my new job and its attendant money, I started to ease slowly out of the tightfisted habits that came with living paycheck to paycheck. I bought cereal and went for drinks with my coworkers; I was able to start saving some of what I made. I bought new pants for the first time in a year and a half—and nearly returned them. I didn’t agonize over impulse-buying a cup of coffee, or an extra slice of pizza.
Job #7: Copy editor, September 2013–present
Pay: $38k/yr plus benefits, 40 hrs/wk, net take-home: $479/wk
In August, I was offered a full-time position as a copy editor at a nonprofit in Manhattan—full-time, plus benefits. It was the Holy Grail I’d been chasing since the previous August. This was the job I’d imagined from my sofa of unemployment, and again, later, from my basement of broken glasses.
It’s not lost on me that I make only slightly more now, freelance notwithstanding, than I did as a busboy in almost half the time. The numbers don’t lie, but they can’t convey the intangibles—chief among them health insurance, coffee breaks, and sitting—that were admittedly a considerable piece of my quest for a desk.
I don’t—or don’t any longer—hold a romantic view of struggle, economic or otherwise, in New York or elsewhere. I don’t believe that a month of bussing tables has made me patron saint of the 99 percent. For all its confusion, my experience has been rather tidy. But tidy or otherwise, it’s an experience I’m glad to have had, and would be equally glad not to repeat.
My small pile of IRS forms has reduced the past 12 months to digits and commas and numbered fields, with predictable dryness, the fine-print totals standing in for days and weeks of striving and self-doubt now mostly indistinguishable from one another. Hindsight blurs the same lines, for better and worse, and a year becomes an object lesson rather than a haunting ordeal; the past arranges itself along lines of logic that seem to have been there from the start. Set down in legal black and white, each dollar earned is a tiny victory, one more sandbag heaped against financial entropy. And next year will be the same, and the year after, if perhaps in fewer forms.