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A freelancer’s beginning

On August 24, 2006, Emerson College sent me a letter asking me to take part in their Graduate Certificate in Book Publishing. They had denied my application to their Masters of Arts in Book Publishing but judged that I would fit in with their certificate program. I saw the program as a distinct end to my post-college unemployment, my living off near-to-minimum wage in combination with parents’ gratuity while I tried to find my place in the world. Hell, the program could define my place.

Also, I had wanted to leave Texas since I was a child and had made many frustrated attempts throughout my life. I was determined that my exodus to graduate school would not be denied, however.

When I received the news, I shouted, actually screamed for the joy of it. I called my mother and father, who had not been home when I opened the letter. I called Justin and Steve, two of my high school friends I still kept in touch with. I called Sarah and told her all about it, told her about how this meant no more jobs at coffee shops and no more crying about the worthlessness of Texas. I told her that this meant everything would be all right.

It wasn’t until later, when she had asked me if I would come to Waco for her birthday or if I wanted her to come to Dallas, that I realized this meant leaving her. In hindsight, it’s strange to think that neither of us recognized that immediately. But Emerson started on September 12 that year. I had to get up to Boston somehow with at least my clothes and Kallion, my dog.

How does one completely disassemble their life and relocate to Boston within two weeks of receiving the news that he could go if he wanted? I mean, I didn’t have to accept Emerson’s invitation. I could’ve stayed in Dallas, living in Steve’s parents’ house and working at Starbucks while I scrounged for gainful employment unsuccessfully, resisting Sarah’s insincere invitations to move in with her back at Baylor instead.

My parents had kicked me out after six months because my dog sheds a ridiculous amount. Part Husky and part German Shepherd, she sheds year round, her short coat when it’s hot and her long coat when it’s cold (Texas only has two seasons, hot and cold.). They asked me to keep her outside all of the time, even when I was home and when I was asleep. But I sleep with Kalli in my bed. She lies on the couch next to me when I write. She loves me and trusts me, and all in all I’m more of a parent than an owner to her. I would no sooner leave my four-year-old child outside all day, and I flatly refused. So away I went, and I took my dog with me.

My parents had hoped that kicking me out would give me the spark I needed to find a job, as if my unemployment had come by choice rather than circumstance. My Bachelor of Arts in Great Texts of the Western Tradition, while being a great conversation starter (General response to hearing it is, “What?” Never “Huh?” always “What?”), looks worthless on a resume. I also listed the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, which–despite how it’s sold to freshman–no one actually cares about outside of a collegiate environment. I had zero office skills, zero contacts worth pursuing, and zero prospects. Hence, I put my college degree to work at Starbucks.

Dallas is a tech city, and I am not a techie. While I’m fascinated with computers and video games to a point where I know computer languages simply to make me a better player, I couldn’t finish a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science at Baylor. Dallas has almost no art scene and actually no writing scene, and I stood out like a sore thumb among the resumes of my more technically proficient colleagues.

The one job interview I received was for a proofreading and copywriting position at a young health insurance company, and I misspelled guarantee in a sample they had me write on the spot. They caught it; they questioned my proofreading skills over it (fairly), and that was the end of the interview.

I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, and Concise Rules of APA Style. I was determined to find freelance work by cold contacting companies and just asking. They can’t reject you until you ask, after all.

I found two freelancing gigs through Gmail, Google.com’s email service. As one by one my cover letters to Dallas companies found their way back as rejections, the language used in the conversations prompted Google’s adbot to list a series of self-publication and editorial companies for amateur authors. A light went on in my head.

ProofreadNOW.com had taken me on staff because the owner, Phil, had a daughter attending Baylor when I contacted him. I told him that I had no proofreading experience and that I was still browsing the style guides I had bought with minimal understanding. He took me on anyway. After two months he fired me, saying that my proofreading skills weren’t par with their expectations.

A-1 Editing responded to my query with an editorial test. I completed the reading section with some light proofreading and editorial queries, and apparently my effort pleased the owner, Nicole. She sent the first manuscript about a month afterwards. I worked on it slowly and carefully, attempting to maintain my good first impression. I returned the manuscript to her on deadline and promptly received another.

Nicole wrote one of my letters of recommendation to Emerson, one of the few tokens of proof that I had some experience in publishing. My acceptance into the certificate program probably rested largely on her merit alone. She lifted me out of unemployment and creative stagnation, a shift in my life for which I’ll never quite be able to repay her.

All I had to show for one year out of college in Texas was Starbucks and two freelancing gigs, one a failure and the other a success. My parents had kicked me out of their house. I couldn’t afford to move out of Steve’s parents’ house because my Starbucks wages only covered my credit card minimums, car payments, and student loans, not all of which had come out of their grace period yet. Unemployed, broke, and homeless with my dog in tow, I could’ve stayed.

I still can’t explain how I fit all of my most important possessions in my little two-door 2000 Honda Accord. I knew how to break the computer chair down with hex keys, but even in its component parts the base of the chair, a five-point plastic star with a wheel on each leg, never quite fit anywhere. I ended up shoving it into the floorboard in front of the passenger seat. Kalli took the passenger seat herself, eyeing the base distrustfully. Three heavy, book-filled boxes took the back seat and rested on a comforter and a few bedspreads to protect the leather. In the trunk, my computer (but not a monitor) sat next to the space heater and my one bag of clothes.

The whole time I packed, alone over the boxes and still more alone carting the heavy items to the car, I kept asking myself how it was going to work. How could I, broke and alone and afraid, make it to Boston? I had $700 to my name, which included my last check from Starbucks (Stephanie had gotten corporate to print it early so that I wouldn’t have to have them send it to me later on.). How could the next few days of my life play out successfully? How would fate find yet one more way to bring me back to Plano, dejected and frustrated?

I determined that while I wasn’t sure about a single moment in the rest of my life, I was sure as hell gonna head to Boston and find out.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Features, YM&S

Starbucks: The third place

Dear readers, commentators, and friends,

I cannot begin to express my surprise and gratitude at the readership surge in this blog. I passed several important new-blog milestones Friday night, a claim followed by boring stats that you can skip past if not inerested: having more than a hundred visitors in one day and breaking a thousand views to the site total. Further, breaking one hundred in a day was itself a caveat: the highest day before had only seen ninety-seven viewers, and the day afterwards [sic] had seen just over sixty. Friday, though, I have one-hundred and sixteen views, followed by a Saturday of exactly one-hundred and sixteen views. Even on Sunday, with no new post for days and very little advertising from me, I reached what only a week ago would’ve been stupendous. Thank you, seriously, for supporting the effort.

I have spent so much more time developing this site than I thought I would, and I have so many plans now for the future, long before I ever thought that I would need them. Soon, though, you’ll see the first item on my to-do list, a Featured Fan story about Kate Barkhurst, an old friend from highschool and faithful Facebook friend. Thank you, everyone, and look forward to more stories from me, more guest posts, featured fans articles, and more… you know… as I get around to doing it.

My best,
Greg

**

They don’t understand, they haven’t listened to me. They called me arrogant. They’ve had all semester to see who I am, to see how I resent that label, and yet they called me arrogant. Not only said it, but spit it in my face, an accusation that seemed to say, “You can never succeed as a writer.” They read it, and they missed the point. All of them.

No, not all. There was Jenny. Jenny understood the torment of miscommunication; of course she knew what it was like to speak and yet not be heard. So sweet and so deep, she writes about moving from China to Boston as an experience of change, a flowing river of time and philosophy that soaks and bathes her mind. But writers as audience largely gloss over grammatical mistakes (as they should), and ink-on-paper doesn’t communicate in accents.

I think, and the other students notice it, too, that her writing is permeated by beauty over frustration. She writes so well, one might assume because of passion and integrity. But I have passion and integrity, too, and where does that get me? Labeled as arrogant is all, and alone. I suppose it’s about as lonely and isolating as not speaking the language of the land you’re in, but you hope in that other circumstance there remains the mysticism of discovery, or at least the obvious route of escape. For me there’s only years of letdowns, my adolescence into my waking life, of conversational successes mired by literary failures.

The cold wind of Boston winters blows through the Public Gardens and against my wool coat. I can feel its malevolence despite scientific objectivity having drowned out the world; the wind wants to bite my skin, wants to punish me for protecting myself from its harshness. Nature wants, like all life, love, to receive love as it exists, to receive without bending. My coat speaks for me my refusal of the unspoken request. My hands hide inside my pockets’ cashmere lining, helping the buttons to hold the coat in place. I had felt so sexy the day I bought this coat, had looked at myself in mirrors to memorize the way it weight and thickness complemented my girth rather than hid it, the day I thought there might be something to expensive designer labels after all. I remember the deflation upon coming home, of Sarah meh-ing her apathetic approval.

The wind cuts through my khakis instead since they’re exposed underneath the three-quarters coat. I’ve worn my Starbucks uniform to class for the last few weeks, thin-material long-sleeved block polo with dark khaki pants. Since money from Fidelity finally ran out and Sarah started asking me to pay her back for mostly legitimate expenses—to which I did not contributing but neither, really, did she—I had to get the job, and now I’m at class and at work, never at home. Sarah misses me, comes to Starbucks sometimes to sit with me, but I’ve had years to resent her attention, loath her presence. The absence of both in preference to her laptop drove me into romantic despair. World of Warcraft didn’t help on that topic, though it did relieve some of the years’ boredom.

The reading of my colleagues has broken my heart. I take criticism well—I write and people talk about the writing, and I love them for pointing out errors and paths I haven’t noticed—but like lay readers, my fellows decided to psychoanalyze me. They had done it before, when I wrote about my relationship with Sarah, talking about how sad I must be instead of the impact of the piece on the abstract reader and how that impact could be improved. The saying goes that these days everyone’s a critic, but that’s not quite the case in my experience; everyone is a psychologist, everyone thinks that they understand you by slapping their archetypes onto you, especially the ones who tell you (not ask you) not to judge. Not “Please don’t judge me until I’ve told you the whole story, or perhaps until you’ve researched it yourself,” but, “Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!” Of course, the latter ones are right; I don’t know them and never will.

I walk under the monument to ether, the world’s first anesthetic, used first at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. “We have conquered pain,” it reads. If only the words spoke truth. The wind blows again, cuts again at my shins savagely like a rusted and knocked razor.

I want to speak with someone about the disappointment. No one thought the writing was poor; the professor spoke its praises in that regard. The students merely wanted to ask me who the fuck I thought I was, in the nicest phrasing possible. But on that ground, I thought the piece stated rather clearly exactly who I claim to be.

I can’t talk to Sarah about this. She’d listen, but she’s cold, lacking in empathy. Or she has empathy and doesn’t show it. In four years, or in six if I count our friendship, I haven’t figured out which is the case.

I could go to Starbucks. It’s almost on the way home, less than a block from Sarah’s Back Bay condo, but I opened this morning and sat at a table once I got off shift until I had to leave for school at five. I literally sat there all day, and now I’d go back to do what, to stew? After all, who would I talk to? I’ve been there three months, but I’m not really friends with anyone. I go to work, I do homework, I play World of Warcraft; that’s me condensed. And when I got home, what? Sarah will already have gone to bed, not that I’ve joined her in months, and I’d stay up all night—til four, maybe five, maybe six—playing World of Warcraft, trying not to talk on the microphone so that I can relish in secret human contact in my home.

The churches at Berkeley Street, the Lutheran one with the homeless person (gender unidentifiable; I default to male) in the wool coat that I pass every night as I sing along to my iPod, so separate from his condition and just as vague a character to him as he is to me—but I’m not listening to music tonight, fuming instead; tonight, for the first time, he watches me, but I don’t mind—and the other one with the largely ignored cement hole. Clarendon, the rundown yard with the painted-black metal staircase and the door to the garden. The Newbury Street sidewalks, bricks that speak of old money, the townhomes broken into condos that lament the money’s loss. The plasma screens, shining vibrant blues and greens off beige walls, reflected off faux crystal chandeliers except that one home with the library, the dusty old tomes and the ladder on the right side; their crystal shines legit, reflecting white light off white walls.

But I have a friend at Starbucks, Ashley. But not quite a friend. She’s attracted to me, she told me so. Why would I call her? For an ego fest, so I can gain some pride off of how attractive she finds me? I don’t think so. I told her that rainy day that she walked me to Emerson that I wouldn’t turn her into a ’50s cliché, some girl hanging onto a man who says he’ll leave his wife (girlfriend) but never will, and I won’t. We had sat on the steps outside the piano shop, and she had told me that she couldn’t play the piano—not well, anyway. She had looked at me and told me she liked me, confessionally. She waited, seeing what I would do with it. I watched the automatic piano play a tune, and then I rubbed my hand down her cheek and told her that I wouldn’t abuse her. There she is; she is there.

She won’t be, though: she told me that the schedule marked her off at eight and it’s almost ten. She’ll have gone home, have left for the day, and I’ll be just as alone and just as forlorn as I feel now.

Call Mani instead. Call Steve. Call Justin and Mom and Dad. Consider calling Allison, and really feel like an asshole. Resent the way Murphy’s law applies to people answering their phones when you actually need human connection.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi, Ashley. I’ve got a strange question for you.”

“Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to still be at Starbucks, would you? I mean, I know you’ve probably left for the day.”

“No, actually. I’m here.” A thrill hits my spine between the shoulders and shivers its way down, the thrill of success; necessity or fortune falling into place I can’t tell, but it doesn’t matter and this is what I wanted, what I needed, to cut short the onslaught of despair. “Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I stayed late to cover.”

Pause. Blink. Consider.

“I need—” But do I really want to do this to her, to rely on her when I don’t know how things are going to go with Sarah, when I can’t even pin down my feelings for a girl I just met at work, not to mention the girl I’ve loved for four years? Do I really want to be that asshole?

“I need someone to talk to.”

“I’m here.” She laughs, and weight falls away.

“Do you have anywhere you need to be? Do you need to go home?”

“No, I’m here, and I can stay. You should come. I want to listen.”

I turned left and walked down Dartmouth to Boylston, along the broad brick pathway of the private school, across the tree-lined Commonwealth Mall, and passed they dying Newbury Street. If I had gone to Exeter, Sarah might have seen me and asked where I was going. No, I turned left, kicking a pebble in the process.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Creative nonfiction, Writing