I’d originally written this self-indulgent nostalgia piece, titled “Doors Closing”, after visiting DC for work last year, and never published it. I’d forgotten about it until recently, during a discussion with a junior designer I’m mentoring here. We were discussing paying one’s dues, when is the right time to go out on one’s own?, is there value in working for an agency first?, and, at my insistence, the disturbing trend of young designers expecting to have it all—immediately. Ego, ego, ego. But what is an artist without struggle? Does it matter?
It caused me to recall my own story of clawing my way to where I am now. So, I’ve repurposed this a bit, refocused it to be more of a narrative of how I came to be a designer, now in my 10th year looking back (and, you know, ahead).
It’s a meandering story of bad neighborhoods, drunk bosses, bounced paychecks, and barely getting by in our nation’s capital. But it’s mine.
I’m here in DC for work, pitching a project to a prospective client. Wearing heels and black dress pants, it all feels so familiar. The Metro pulls up and everything smells exactly the same. Almost nothing has changed.
I first rode the Metro my junior year in college. I flew to DC on a last-minute whim to hang out with a boy I’d met in Iowa a few weeks earlier. Young and reckless, in the middle of the night. I’d never been to DC, or any major city really, and I felt so insufferably cool, I’m ashamed to say, riding a train. Doors opening, left side. I remember the rumble and hiss of the train rushing over tracks and through tunnels, me wide-eyed and clutching my paper fare card in my hand, fascinated with the city just beyond the windows.
Two days after graduating from college, my boyfriend and I drove to DC with just $400 and my English degree through the hills of Ohio and West Virginia. Our ears popped, we ate pizza Combos, we acted like everything was normal. I had found a room for rent on Craigslist, and taken one previous trip to see it and meet the roommate I’d later discover was entirely crazy. And so we lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, together for the summer. Me, my boyfriend, and a bisexual burlesque dancer. I could see the district line from my window. Close enough, I’d think to myself.
I rode the train every morning to my job waiting tables at an upscale Mexican restaurant in Chinatown. I sprinted up the escalator every morning, nearly late, headphones in, music pounding, running through traffic with a white apron on. I rode the train home every night, so long as the good people of DC paid their checks and went home on time. Otherwise I took my time, spending most of my tips going out to bars and nice restaurants with the other servers, and riding a cab home alone in a familiar, comfortable silence.
Summer became fall, and I decided it was time to cut the shit and the going out and the waiting tables and get what I figured would be a real job. My post-college grace period was up, and it was time for some health insurance.
I managed to secure a horrible, character-building job as a publisher’s assistant for a long-running community newspaper in Georgetown. I worked shifts too long and too late to ever catch the Metro home on a weeknight. I was paid in part with trade from advertisers–in other words, I couldn’t make rent or buy groceries from the good stores, but I could eat for free at Michel Richard’s restaurants and was invited to every opening and gala and Embassy party in town. I ate lunch with Valerie Plame Wilson just days after her CIA leak, I went to rooftop parties with the DC-Famous, and received champagne spa treatments from people who wanted me to write an article about them. I was the richest, poorest person you’d ever know. I’d take home leftovers from company lunches, just to have dinner. My paychecks would bounce, the business account routinely overdrawn by the owner’s personal expenses.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask my boss for more money, on the grounds that I was doing the reporting, the bookkeeping, the designing, the editing, and getting everyone’s coffee. I buckled and told her I had a job offer at another (read: better) paper. She threw her laptop at me and broke down into dramatic sobs on the floor, the rest of the office girls huddling over her and patting her back. I walked the long walk home in the cold, my eyes stinging with anger and betrayal. I’d been to hell and back for this woman. This insane, unstable woman.
Eventually I became less afraid of riding the bus in my neighborhood (which was great since I couldn’t afford cab fare), the city, and the people around me. I became more calloused, and stopped caring about what people said to me, or how they looked at me. I was changing, and I still felt unbearably, unreasonably cool about it all–living in a city, a bad part of it, and becoming tougher somehow than all the people I’d left behind. That mattered to me, for some reason. But I lost most of it one night when I decided to be brave enough to walk home alone through Shaw. A kid named Bobby pulled a gun on me (at least he was kind enough to introduce himself before doing so), and I managed a soft and sloppy punch to his throat. I ran to the entrance of my building, where my keys jammed in the lock, and he just stared at me from the darkness. It wasn’t 72 hours before my boyfriend and I packed up and headed for Arlington. I felt guilty, white, and weak for running away after our first fight. Mine and the city’s.
Thanks in large part to Bobby from the Bus, I enjoyed an even longer commute from Rosslyn to Adams Morgan, where I now worked as an arts editor at a notable alt-weekly paper. The shifts were slightly shorter, my boss was sober, and my paychecks didn’t bounce. But, I cried in the bathroom stall almost daily. I’d sniffle and wipe away hot tears in a hurry whenever a toilet would flush. I’d pinch my cheeks, splash them with cold water, and ignore the girl next to me doing the same. Unless our eyes met in the large mirror, and then we’d give a sort of small nod before going back out to the bullpen with brave faces. On Wednesday nights, I ate $1 cheese sandwiches from the McDonald’s on the corner while my stories circulated the copy desk. I supervised people 8 years older than me who were, incidentally, also the bassists from my favorite local bands and had not, in fact, gotten the job, my job, for which they’d applied. In the middle of this certain hell, I learned to be more accountable, more honest, and rapidly grew a much thicker skin than I’d developed in 22 years of living in the Midwest. Where I saw small victories, others saw I was barely surviving, and my family was more than a little concerned. I gained weight. I had black hair. I was sad.
To periodically escape the editorial bullpen, I would sneak upstairs to the design department, still reveling in my brief stint as the de facto designer at the previous paper. I’d help the overworked, underpaid production artists lay out the showtimes, manually entering each listing for hours on end, with 100% more passion than I ever felt writing or editing articles. I loved InDesign more than I’d ever loved anything.
Less than a year in, I realized I couldn’t keep up with the never-ending cycle of terror that accompanies a weekly paper, the inability to ever take a day off, the late hours, the low pay, the soul-crushing culture of the newsroom, and the political beat I cared less and less about with each cycle. And of course, the dudes peeing in empty bottles as they typed their stories into the late hours of the night, lest they miss a deadline while using an actual, proper toilet. And there was so much yelling. God, I hate yelling.
Casting my job search beyond the city this time, I found a job that was equal parts writing, assisting other people (you must do this to become anything at all in DC, I think), and a little bit of design work for people who didn’t care too much about design. And so, I became responsible for redesigning and laying out a medical journal each month. I did a bunch of other assistant things, and wrote a few articles (not on the DC nightlife this time, but on biomedical engineering devices, naturally). I left my desk everyday at 4, started running again, started eating real food again, lost probably too much weight, and stopped dying my hair dark.
And then suddenly my life stopped being so much about settling, and surviving. The city had taught me, like so many of its residents, to want more, and to fight for it—and to be a little bit of a bitch about it as necessary. I’d always been hungry, always wanted out of my small town, but it started to seem actually possible.
I headed back into the city, but a better neighborhood this time. I got a nice-enough studio in an old art deco building in Adams Morgan, which I could barely afford. I got a second job bartending on U Street at night to make it all work, and because I didn’t want to be alone at night. And, ever wanting more, after about a year I traded in my job with the medical journal for a marketing and design position at a prestigious university at their campus in Dupont Circle. On paper, it was starting to look like I had it all figured out.
But if I’m being honest, the bar had rats, my apartment had no AC, my stove was in my closet, and my job at the prestigious university was a bureaucratic shit show wrapped in red tape and moved at a snail’s pace. A far cry from the grind of late nights and hard deadlines I’d grown accustomed to. I felt like I was sliding backwards. Living alone, with a discarded engagement ring in the ashtray of my car, showing up to work everyday with wet hair on about 3 hours of sleep. I kept wondering why I stayed in DC. I kept telling myself leaving was not an option. Not like this, not defeated.
And then, one night I declined a shared cab ride to a surprise party, and instead walked alone. I was enjoying the breeze, passing the alt-weekly building where I’d once worked, forcing a little introspection and trying to be happy with how far I’d come, how much I’d been through since those darker days. Along the way, a guy stopped to ask me my name. I was a little bit short with him, deep in thought, unhappy to be distracted and talking to a stranger on the street. Not at all interested in talking to a guy, having just extricated myself from one. If you know me, you know how this ends, though. He posted an ad on the Craigslist Missed Connections section, I happened to see it, he happened to recover my reply from his spam folder, we happened to go on a date, and several more bad dates after that, then fall in love, and get married exactly one year later.
Unable to stand the commute from his house, our house, in the DC suburbs to Dupont Circle for a job that bored me to tears, I found a better option closer to home. One that was 100% design—at last.
This new design job was perfect. Once again, I shut down at 4pm. But this time I worked for a sweet, humble-but-super-talented female Creative Director. I learned how to design websites and code them by hand using tables. I mastered Dreamweaver and a handful of horrible, proprietary content management systems. I did print design, logos, everything they needed from an in-house designer. I got to set the deadlines, and work with a huge variety of non-profits and trade associations. My job was challenging, rewarding, and reasonable. I was making more money. I was living comfortably as a newlywed in the suburbs. I had a pretty easy commute, and this time I actually owned a car. And after awhile, I had a little baby and a nanny. I had a break room and an espresso machine and a closet full of Ann Taylor.
And I was so, so goddamn bored.
I was ready to surrender and leave DC, finally. Not because it was hard, or because it was killing me, or because I was barely surviving, for once. I just wasn’t getting anything out of the city being so far from it, I was only paying the price of living near it. In rent, in not having a yard, in traffic. I was tired of my on-again-off-again relationship with a city that was so rough on me.
And so, we quit our jobs, sold most of our things, one of our cars, and headed west. I’d never been to California, ever, but I knew it would be better than DC.
DC had made me the person I am today, had given me love and a family, scars and success. But it gave me those things brutally, begrudgingly, and so I didn’t feel much tender gratitude towards my harsh teacher. At the time. I left without a bit of nostalgia. (Unless you count the fact that I still have a DC area code on my cell, which for whatever reason I feel I earned and can’t bear to let go of.)
When we first arrived in California, I was freelancing a little bit, staying home with my son a little bit. Kind of a double life, and a lot of smoke and mirrors as I built my client base, taking meetings from the bathroom, the only quiet place in the house. My husband worked to start over at a new company, the one of his dreams; I worked to build a business I could run from home, help fill in the gaps, and make everything work. Once again, starting over. Once again, clawing our way up.
The story gets a little sleepy from here, and ends, for the moment, with me working for myself from my quiet home in California. Doing what I love, for no one but people I believe in. Doing much more than surviving, and starting to reap some small dividends of those early years of hustle. I still hustle everyday, boy do I, but it’s for passion now, not survival. And anyway, hustle is kind of the only pace I’ve ever known or loved. I’ve been living from deadline to deadline, with just hours or days between, for almost 10 years now. The hustle keeps me going. The struggle keeps me real.
I’m ready for the next 10 years. Let’s do this.