Debt has a particularly unique effect on the human psyche, and i’m not talking about credit card debt. I’m talking about school debt, student loan debt, the big bank stuff. The kind of financial obligation that’ll violently shred up your college degree and spit you into the workplace kicking and dragging your feet into the machine. It’s the ability to both destroy your childhood fantasies of living the bohemian life you thought you could have while at the same time activating your humility in order to find a way to make money that makes student loans so goddamn oppressive. We all have to pay our bills. That’s the way our society functions. And debt, it seems, is one of this societies key machinations.
I owed about $85,000 in student loans. And after my father had paid for my first year of school in cash, he lost his job, and in a manner which defines my father exactly, he was fired, and left his family with an empty bank account and massive credit card debt. My father was real fucking good at getting fired, and even better at spending money than I am, because he always spent the money he didn’t have. So three remaining years of school were paid in full by the banks with no help from the federal government because, well… they, rightfully so, didn’t believe my father was dead broke soon after writing a check for $30,000 to pay for my freshman year. So I borrowed everything I had to, and promised to pay it back with a signature and a family member as my cosigner. And it was about a month after I graduated when I got my first bill in the mail from the bank… for something like $750. No way I could afford to pay that. So I deferred the payments and continued working at Louis Boston — the most unbelievably lux boutique on Newbury street — for about $300 a week after taxes, an salary which at that time nobody had believed when I told them.
I worked full time, scribbling down tight budgets every week, with I think something like $50 available to spend on food. My college girlfriend had wanted us to move to Brooklyn together. This was back in 2004 when you could get a one bedroom apartment in Carrol Gardens for $1,500, but I knew that if I moved to NYC with my college girlfriend that most of my life as I understood it would be laid out in front of me. And whatever I thought I could accomplish, whatever I dreamed of being as a young man, felt as if it would slip through my fingers. I had relied on her for the kind of emotional and financial support that a child would expect from his mother, and I wasn’t speaking to my parents much at the time. I was sick of them even when they loved me; I wanted to find another way through my life. A big ask, really, when I had nothing available to me other than a sweet, loving woman who had offered her life to me, so long as I was content to eventually move out to the suburbs and raise a couple of good Christian children. I refused her and her life, and I tried over and over to explain to her why, but soon we went from being together and it being long distance to breaking up. She drove from her mothers house in Long Island all the way to Boston one morning to declare her love for me and to hope it would get me to stay with her. I almost sent her back home packing without so much as opening the door. I was so angry at her persistence.
She went back home after a day or so of us talking, talking, talking through it. Which really must have been the two of us finally releasing ourselves from each other. She was, in many ways, my mother as I wanted my mother to be. But it was about time for me to detach from her, from my real mother and father, and all my memories of the past life I had lived until now. I packed up my books and poems from college and rented a one bedroom on Adamson Street in Allston, stored all my ambitions deep in a front hallway closet and buried my head instead into a job I didn’t want, but fascinating enough to keep me going back every day. It was a paycheck, and I decided if I was going to pay off my debt I had to buckle down and learn everything I could about this new, alien world. The world of commerce.
At first I keep my face flat to everyone at Louis Boston, and I ask a lot of questions. The mens shop in the tall four-story building was happy to answer, but as I was tasked solely with maintaining the fitting room area, it was really my duty to be proactive in asking questions. Being humble and getting to know everyone there. Often, it was necessary at first. But soon, the questions became distractions. One of my first Saturdays — the busiest retail day of the week — I watched a man spend the entirety of my student loan debt… that’s right, about $85,000, on a seasonal wardrobe for himself in a single transaction. I wondered if I could walk right up to him and ask him for the money I needed, and what he’d say to me. I ran it back again and again in my mind as his things were being bagged up at the register downstairs near the exit, but I knew it would cost me my job. I wasn’t an idiot, just desperate. That night, and in the coming weeks, I remembered that payment, and where it had placed me in this new world. I was nothing. A steel washer stacked onto a single moving part of a system so immense I could be burned up or broken off without impeding a single operational transaction. This world didn’t need me, but it would absorb me. So I kept my face flat.
I had learned how to do this in college studying performance, how to control the muscles in my face. I can morph my body into stone, or into a carnival, depending on what’s necessary for the moment. And since I didn’t have anything to say to anybody and didn’t really even WANT to be there, I relied on whatever training rose up within me to manage my employers expectations when they looked over at me. Keeping busy, asking questions, and all with a flat, affable posture and face. And I watched them, the salesman — or Wardrobe Consultants, as they so put it… how they carried themselves and the clothing they were handling in front of the customers. One man, Arthur Jordan, a tall thin old man, a real handsome character, one of the oldest of the group, pulled me into the fitting room one afternoon about a month into working there and let me in on it. “It’s all in how you handle the merchandise, Derek. Present it like this — and here he would set the tie down on the shirt abruptly and crudely — and it doesn’t read. Present it like THIS instead — and here he studies the tie, holding it carefully, preciously, and rests its long blue body across the shirt collar with a simple grace — and they’ll love it. It’s all a performance, Derek. Lets give em what they came for.”
Had I decided to work in a new kind of theater? Would this insight be the key to rising up in this world? I left work that day and went home like any other day and ate my dinner alone in my room. It was November, or early December, when the sun is running out of warmth, and the room grows cold at night. I write a poem about it, a bad one, and listen to some music. I play a song I love to sing along to and sing along to it, but hushed so as to not bother anyone else in the apartment. I get up and shake my body to the music, my reflection in the mirror. If it’s performance they want, I will oblige them. It’s what I know, after all.