On a chilly fall day in 2008, I walked into the back of a Starbucks and asked for an empty cup.
The barista handed one over, without asking any questions. I went to the front of the cafe to the condiments station, filled the cup up with milk, and simply walked out.
I was embarrassed about stealing milk, to say the least. I wasn’t in the habit of stealing food, but it hadn’t always been this bad. However, working as a freelancer comes with its ups and downs, and this was my first experience on a downward cycle.
My first first foray into freelancing started out well enough. I earned enough not only to make my bills and enjoy life every month, even when work slowed down a little (I’m an expert saver), but also to send myself to London for work and play for all of September 2008.
But then the economy went to hell and took me with it.
Lehman Brothers collapsed and banks stopped making loans. On every channel, the news blared on about the recession. However, as a professional in a creative industry, I was ever-optimistic, perhaps in complete denial, that I wouldn’t suffer any fallout.
I was very, very wrong.
In subsequent weeks, gigs were planned, then cancelled. The phone stopped ringing. When I reached out for more work, I got crickets in response. Not yet ready to panic, I went about my usual business, thinking something would come in at any moment.
Reality set in, however, and I went through October without working a single day. My savings started to dry up. I don’t remember the exact amount between both my checking and savings accounts, but it wasn’t enough for one month’s worth of rent plus bills. I went full-fledged into panic-mode and did what I could to avoid dipping into my meager stash. This included flat-out ignoring my credit card bills for two months straight, and there were a lot of them. I lived off toast and tea and didn’t venture out casually, even for a cup of coffee. Since I paid my landlord through PayPal, I discovered I could use my credit card to pay rent, which I did twice; it was a stupid move which I still regret it enormously.
There was a Starbucks at the end of my block; they had free wi-fi and I needed to stave off cabin fever, so I hid at a corner table one day with my laptop and bought nothing. I justified this by telling myself they were a huge corporation and one cheapskate – or even a few hundred – wouldn’t make a difference.
I sat and typed away, looking for work, until closing time. As the baristas cleaned up, I joked with one of them about a cheese-and-fruit snack box he was holding. He asked if I wanted it, and I politely declined, making some crack about watching my figure. In truth, I wondered if he suspected anything and considering I had already glommed onto the their internet, pride stepped on my greed. He asked if I was sure, because it was otherwise going to go in the trash.
What pride? I took it immediately.
This location became the scene of my crime when I returned a week later, for the milk. I had given up everything else: eating out, drinks with friends, cable, even chocolate. I needed something to look forward to every night, though, and it was a warm, sugary mug of chai.
I made that cup last for a week, using it only for tea. When it ran out, I went to another Starbucks – not wanting to run into the same baristas – and did it again. This went on for two or three more weeks before I broke down and faced the facts: I couldn’t – didn’t want to – steal milk anymore. The situation itself was emblematic of a larger problem: I had to cut more expenses, and the biggest item chopping block was my current living situation: I lived by myself.
So, two months later, I waved goodbye to my quiet, sunlit Manhattan studio apartment and the neighbors I hardly knew and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, with a high-strung, heavily-medicated roommate who was hell-bent on saving the environment and wanted me to try a menstrual cup. The other tenants included the landlords and their two kids, below, and a couple, above. I could hear the mother yell at and berate her daughter nearly every day (the husband was nice, I remember), and the couple threw loud parties almost every every weekend.
My bedroom was actually a large pantry connected to the kitchen and for six months, I didn’t have a door. When my roommate’s friend finally installed one – purely as an act of charity – it was a bi-folding door with a quarter of the wooden slats missing. I didn’t need an alarm clock, because the sounds of my roommate slamming cabinet doors and using the microwave woke me up bright and early every morning.
The new setup saved me $500 every month, though. While it wasn’t a huge amount in savings, it was enough to help me stop living a ramen life.
I went grocery shopping a week after I moved in. Thrilled to be able to spend a tiny bit on actual food, I made a beeline for the dairy section and grabbed a carton of milk.
It was delicious.