Below is an essay I wrote a few years back. I won’t give you a context, because… well, just see for yourself. Thank you so much for reading.
The 101 is almost grid-locked. It’s all stop and go, where the go is a couple of inches each time. The brake lights ahead of me flicker off and back on again. I release my foot from the pedal, inching forward. I press back down on the brake. Almost onto the 101 from the on-ramp. Two, maybe three, more “go”s and I will be on the 101. How exciting. I will be about five feet closer to work.
Just one hour ago, I was sitting on the couch, enjoying some cartoons and cold pizza. That was the life. Only an hour ago was the life. My phone rang. I checked the caller ID: work. Reluctantly, I picked up. Why did I pick up? “Brett, can you work tonight?” I had just paid my phone bill. I needed the money. So, I said I could work. A night of staying in, catching up on my tv shows, the potential of walking to Chipotle for dinner, all canned.
The brake lights in front of me go off simultaneously. They aren’t flicking back on right away. I’m hopeful. I release my foot from the brake. Still, no brake lights come back on. I press on the gas. Is this right? I’m actually pressing the gas pedal? I’m actually moving? I merge slowly onto the 101. And brake lights all around. I practice breathing exercises.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I’m discovering that screaming at the top of my lungs doesn’t actually make the traffic move any faster. And at least traffic won’t last forever.
In forty-five minutes, an hour tops, I will be in the parking lot at work. I will sit in my car, thinking about the poor life choices that have lead me to this place. I will think about how I should have just said ‘no,’ as that wise cliché suggests. Just said ‘no’ to working tonight. I will practice my breathing again. I will practice my breathing so long, I might just be late to work. I’ll walk in and head to the time clock. Managers and employees and customers will all approach me before I clock in and I will tell them that I will help them, hear them, whatever they need, as soon as I clock in. My manager will proceed to say that I would already have been clocked in if I had been on time. I will clench my jaw and literally bite my tongue to prevent saying something that would make me wind up unemployed.
Maybe the traffic isn’t so bad. The longer I sit, the longer I can postpone walking into my workplace. The cars start to move again. Great. Just as I was appreciating what little benefit I receive from sitting still, traffic starts to move forward, almost no brake lights lit. But it’s okay. I need a job. I need to work. I have bills. They don’t pay themselves.
I had bills and life expenses in college. I didn’t always have a job, though. Not in college. Somehow, my rent was always paid; my phone bill was always paid; my life was taken care of. A bill came up out of nowhere? Poof! Gone! No big deal, like it had never shown its ugly face in the first place. How was that? Ah, that’s right. I was in college. For one thing, I didn’t have student loan debt. So, there is a couple hundred bucks a month difference. Another thing is that I lived in Alabama, not California. Okay, so those are two huge factors. However, the biggest difference is that my parents paid for most of my life and what they didn’t pay for my brother and sisters paid for. To quote from Avenue Q, I wish I could go back to college. I don’t really wish that. I’m a way better person now. A ton smarter, better looking, and more socially adjusted.
Alright! Traffic is steady now!
Hold on. I can’t remember how I feel about that at this moment. Am I happy that I’m not stuck in traffic? Or am I pissed that I’m getting to work faster? Why does it matter? I’m going to end up at work anyway, might as well just get there and get the annoyance of traffic behind me.
I pass the Hollywood exit. Ahh… Hollywood Boulevard. It’s dirty, but at least it’d be more fun than work. I change lanes to exit. The Walk of Fame, overweight men dressed as Spider-man, gutters filled with McDonalds wrappers, are all so close. But, just as the off-ramp splits, I steer back onto the 101. No. Bills. Gotta pay bills. Don’t need to make bigger bills. I need to just pay the ones I have.
You know, work may suck, it does, but for tonight I just need to put in my seven and a half hours and then I can leave. In five hours, I will be on lunch. Two and a half hours later, I will be finishing up nightly tasks. Thirty minutes later – THIRTY MINUTES LATER – I will be done for the night and will be able to leave.
But, then, I will go home, go to sleep, wake up six hours later, and do the same stuff all over again. I will inch onto the 101, argue with myself about going to work in the first place, try to keep myself from screaming at traffic; I will go to work, I will be talked down to, I will have wasted another day. But at least I will pay my student loan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I pass Universal Studios, In-N-Out, and I get on the 170. The next exit is Starbucks. Actually, it’s Magnolia Boulevard, but, for me, it’s just the Starbucks exit. Can I justify spending three dollars on a coffee? No. I don’t need coffee this late in the day. And I definitely don’t need to spend more money. Woah. How did I end up on Magnolia? I turn into the Starbucks drive-through. If I have twenty minutes before I have to be at work, I have enough time to sit in the drive-through. I look at my phone; it’s twenty till. No, on second thought, I’m cutting it too close. I get back onto Magnolia and then merge onto the 170.
I’m gonna be beat without coffee tonight. I’m gonna be dragging. People are gonna look at me funny. They’re gonna ask me what my problem is or tell me that I look angry or tired. Or, depending on who is there, someone might ask me if I’m okay. That is the best thing I can hope for: someone thinking I’m depressed because I haven’t had coffee today. Same thing every day I don’t drink a coffee.
And it will be the same issue tomorrow. Tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day. But not the next day because that’s my day off. And the next day and the next day. Until I die. Hey, there’s something to look forward to: one day, I will no longer be alive. Dead people don’t work! Hurray and huzzah!
The next exit is mine. In the distance, I see the red sign lit up above all of the other buildings. This place that makes me look forward to growing old and dying. And I’m almost there. But I’m not yet. I still have another two or three minutes of traffic to enjoy.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I wasn’t meant to live like this. No one was. My life hurts. I’m not being funny. I feel pain for my life. If I would rather be dead, then I would certainly rather be poor, right? Being poor can’t be too bad. Not for me. Maybe for some people – obviously – but not for me. Even if I struggled to get another job, there are too many people in my life who would catch me if I fell, or, at least, would help to catch me. There are too many people in my life who would help me stand back up and keep it pushing. And these people who would catch me and help me stand again, they can’t want me to actually spend my life like this, dreading each day, not even enjoying free time because of the impending approach of work the next day.
And, even if I didn’t have these people, even if I was alone in this world, who then would I be living for? Who am I living for? Right now, I am living for the purpose of continuing to live, perpetuating my own existence, living check to check, unable to save because of a low wage and unexpected expenses. But expenses will never go away. Paying for housing, a car, a phone, will never go away. My student loan will eventually dissipate, sure, but even that will be replaced by something else. Looking up from here, I see no plateau on which I can catch my breath. I see no end to the struggle. There will never be a stopping point. I will never feel comfortable leaving financial stability in pursuit of happiness.
Since college, I have always felt like I was preparing for something, getting ready for my life to start. But my life isn’t about to begin. I’m living it right now. This moment is not leading to my life; this moment is my life. And my life has got to be better than this. All that I am waiting on is enjoying my life.
This is my exit: the exit to the place at which I am presently occupied. I put on my blinker, check my mirrors, and merge right. If I am going to be late, it won’t be for heavy breathing in my car. I will be late because I will be typing up my appreciation to my employer for this opportunity. I will write about all the things that I have learned, about how much I’ve grown as a person and leader, and about my reluctance to resign from my position. Tonight is the night that I move forward with my life. I will even go so far as to say that this is the night that my real life begins. My life begins right…