Ballad of a Dirtbag
Just three years ago, I was an up-and-comer in an up-and-coming city. What the hell happened, to me and to this city?
This is a story about me and about this city — a recession-age reality check, and an ode to what might have been and is instead.
We will begin inside my pickup truck, after midnight, at the start of this past Valentine’s Day. A strange woman and I sloppily kiss. I’m parked behind a crumbling and deplorable old apartment complex on Euclid Avenue in Dilworth, the nose of my truck in the brush below a mess of trees. In this part of town I know of no darker place.
One of the dimly lit, roach-infested apartments behind me was my first home in Charlotte. Back then, in the summer of 2007, this lot was distinguished by an abandoned boat. The boat is gone, but the slimy feel of the place remains. I was surprised to find this downtrodden patch of Dilworth intact. All around it, clean-looking condominium complexes have appeared. My building was once slated for that fate.
Taking long breaths through her mouth and jamming her tongue into mine, the woman attempts to climb over the center console and into my lap. She is about my match in size, which makes this tough. She retreats after accidentally honking the horn with her butt.
We met a few hours ago, toward the end of her shift at a restaurant that I’ve been using as an office. Later, at a Dilworth pub, my old home base, I methodically drained several pints of Guinness, complaining that the price had jumped in my absence. Then she ordered shots.
I don’t ever remember the other party in a barroom courtship being the one to suggest the shots. Maybe she read me. I was not attracted to her, on any level.
After learning of her passion for Sarah Palin, in fact, I’d even excused myself to the bathroom, intending to flee. As I looked into the familiar mirror, though, I realized she probably saw something I’d only recently accepted about myself, which is that, since leaving Charlotte in July 2008, I’ve become an outright dirtbag. I asked her out because I figured it’d be easy. With the shots she was just trying to help.
I can taste them as we flail and fumble about the truck. There’s no room to maneuver. We can’t recline the seats, because the back of the cab, like the bed, overflows with everything I own. We can’t go to my place, because I don’t have one. At the moment I live on a friend’s couch. So I drop her back at the pub and hurry off.
Brushing my teeth in the half bathroom across from the couch, I try to recall the confidence I had when I left this city, infused with a sense of optimism that helped define Charlotte for me. I figured I’d be back soon enough. Just not like this.
Iam from the North. I went to school down South, then moved to Charlotte. I used to call it a starter city — a safe and practical way to bridge the gap between college and adulthood, whenever that might come. In many ways I was a typical Charlottean.
I fancied myself a writer and envisioned a career as a foreign correspondent based in some eminent city on one of the coasts. After spending a year abroad, I found my- self broke and lacking connections and direction, and the journalism industry in shambles. Charlotte seemed as good a place as any to start.
I progressed from summer intern to low-level editor at the Sporting News, going to work — clean-cut and decked in wing-tipped loafers and Brooks Brothers business casual — at a Morehead Street office in the shadow of the skyscrapers, which to me symbolized manly achievement and success. From there I found the trappings of young urban professional life surprisingly easy to come by: impressive center-city apartment, smart and pretty long-term girlfriend, trendy dog, health insurance, three-branch uptown YMCA membership, maxed-out employer-matched 401(k).
I considered myself an up-and-comer and started to think the same about my new city. Each summer it flooded with capable and ambitious recent grads like me. It was the country’s second-largest banking center, which implied great importance. Bank of America was expanding like a well-fed snake. So was Charlotte. I watched the new skyscrapers rise as I made my morning rounds of Fourth Ward Park, my Boston terrier stopping to sniff with pugs and retrievers, or every so often to yap uncontrollably at the odd homeless guy on a bench.
I even came close to buying a home (with a subprime mortgage!), and in the process learned the buzz phrase of the local real estate scene: "pop the top." As in, I could buy a place, stay a few years, then pop the top and renovate, either to settle nicely into upper-middle-class life or to sell that sucker at a tidy profit. Up to me.
I felt cocky enough to take a gamble, a quick stab at my foreign correspondent dream. I quit my job for a two-month journalism fellowship in Germany, which I hoped to parlay into something better. If it didn’t work out, there would always be Charlotte.
Charlotte magazine was growing with the city, and Rick Thurmond, the editor, expected to create a new staff writer’s position — a coveted job in journalism — at the start of the new year. A week before I left, Thurmond and I met for beers. If things didn’t work out overseas, we agreed, the job was mine. I felt the smug satisfaction of a man in the right place at just the right time.
Rumblings of the financial crisis were already being felt, though, so before he paid the bill Thurmond left me with a single caveat: unless, of course, the economy tanks.
More than a year later, I drove my truck through the night and the filthy Houston, Texas, sprawl to a particular patch of strip mall. I parked and entered a nondescript bar that sells only warm bottles of Corona and tiny bags of cocaine. I wore a T-shirt, jeans, and faded brown cowboy boots, and tried to not seem like a reporter or cop. I walked down a narrow hallway until the doorman stopped me with a hand to my chest.
He looked over at the coke dealer, who was shooting pool. "He’s cool," the coke dealer said. "I know him." I bought two small bags for $20 apiece and went back into the night. I’m fairly open minded about drug use, depending on the context. Smoke some pot in your dorm room, do a few lines in a nightclub bathroom, even drop ecstasy at a concert, and you won’t get much of a reaction from me. But scoring drugs at a creepy coke den? It was unsettling to realize that I’d become a recognizable face.
It hadn’t taken long in Germany to see that my gamble wouldn’t pay off. From there, I nervously watched as my Charlotte job exploded with the economy. That sent me careening into a sea of uncertainty. I drifted south, through smelly hostels and underpaid freelance gigs, until in December I found myself nearly broke and a little unhinged in Naples. There I received an e-mail about a low-wage trial gig at the alternative weekly newspaper in Houston.
I hoped the temporary job would keep me afloat long enough to land a real one, there or anywhere, and re-create some semblance of the comfortable twenty something existence I had in Charlotte. I found a cheap place in Houston’s Dilworth and woke early for work, jogs, and trips to the gym, trying to chip away at my desperation and six-foot, 220-pound frame. Tread water long enough, though, and you just get tired and sink.
The Houston skyline is ominous and haphazard. Skyscrapers thrust into the air like smokestacks, and it all seems plucked from some 1970s oil baron’s twisted vision of the future. It was probably my twenty-fifth birthday when I officially settled into despair. That’s April 16. A week earlier, I’d learned that my temp status would be indefinite, thanks to the recession. Mean- while, my hours of compulsive job-board trolling had landed me a single interview, which I promptly bombed. And I was spending an inordinate amount of my time with homeless people.
"Homelessness" had been my first assignment. My editor said it suited me. And so I spent months hanging out under bridges, alongside freeway ramps, and on the steps of the public library. I grew uncomfortably close with a group of guys about my age who had me drive them around, watch their stuff, and buy them fast food. They even started calling me on weekends, and on the days I was particularly unshaven and hung over telling me I looked like shit.
One was trying to sell his kidney to a local businessman, and on my birthday I needed to track down one of his co-conspirators. While searching at the residence on his rap sheet and then a local shelter, I was nearly mauled by a pit bull and threatened with a knife. On my way back to the office, a truck ran a red light, and I screeched to within inches of getting T-boned at full speed.
Late that night, I sat on my tiny couch and silently watched as the clock on my cable box approached midnight, sipping from a bottle of bourbon and fully unnerving the girl I’d been seeing, who had stopped by to wish me a happy birthday. Down on the street my car alarm went off, and I scrambled out to see the culprit sprinting off into the darkness. I returned and told the girl she could take off if she wanted, not really meaning it. She up and walked out the door.
By fall I’d fully embraced my miserable state. I slept in, wore T-shirts to work, and picked up that since-discarded habit of occasionally buying drugs at sketchy bars. I even moved to a friend’s spare bedroom in the hood—one neighbor bred pit bulls, and another had a deranged rooster that crowed all day and night.
Finally, as winter approached, the newspaper had mercy and offered a staff writer’s job. After more than a year of painful purgatory, normalcy was once again with- in my grasp.
Dirtbag —N., slang: a dirty, unkempt, or contemptible person —Merriam-Webster
Some Americans go crazy when they’re faced with age twenty-seven. It can inspire a crisis—a quarter-life one that by nature of youth seems more dangerous than get- ting a divorce or buying a cheesy Porsche.
There is Andrew Cunanan, whose five- person murder spree came in his twenty- seventh year. There are also Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain— once-young stars, all dead at twenty-seven, who couldn’t take what in our psyche must be the turn into adulthood.
What if you’ve never been a star, have dealt with that sad fact by promising yourself you’d eventually become one, if only in your own mind, and then must accept that you probably won’t be one even there? What then?
I guess most people just grow up. They get the wife they may later divorce, the sensible vehicle they may later replace with a needless stick shift, and in the gap between the quarter- and midlife crises put together what could be considered a normal life.
Charlotte teems with such life. To me the city’s quintessential image is that of the jogger. On sunny weekends and before and after work, joggers fill tree-lined sidewalks in comfortable neighborhoods within an easy commute to uptown, all arm bands and Under Armour, iPods and sometimes strollers. In the jogger I see bankers, lawyers, and commercial real estate agents, carefully ordered lives and thoughts, small and methodical steps, day by day and year by year, toward better health, salary, and upper-middle-class success.
Instead of taking a step forward, I took several back. Instead of moving out of the hood and into someplace nice, I turned down the Houston job and began drift- ing back north, living out of my truck and sleeping on couches for way longer than at first agreed. And instead of staying in the United States, where I can easily attend the bachelor parties and weddings that are beginning to ominously pile up, I plan to move to South America.
That’s because the best way to deal with this recession, at least for me, is to embrace it. Instead of trying to rebuild the façade of an easily attainable American Dream, in which one settles in for a few years of hard but safely mapped-out work, then pops the top and moves on to something greater, over and over, I’ve decided to be thankful it’s been blown to bits and be on my way.
Why South America? Well, why not? I could go into boring detail about how the economy and shrinking news industry make this a perfect time to blah, blah, blah, but instead I will refer to something I learned in my brief postgrad sojourn as an English teacher in Thailand. It is that there are two basic types of expatriate English-language teachers in this world, which rep- resent two competing philosophies.
There are the young optimists using the job to explore life for a couple of years be- fore buckling down and becoming sensible careerists. And then there are the people who just couldn’t (or maybe wouldn’t, but what’s the difference?) hack it back home. They took a look at their lives in the first world and decided they’d be better off living in the third. They saw that they were poor, so they went where they were not poor. They saw that their love lives sucked, so they went where they would be more impressive. Earning a living was hard, and now they did it by teaching something they picked up as toddlers. They basically said, Screw it; I can have little at home or happiness here. They are dirtbags, in a sense — contemptible by the standards of modern America, simply because they’ve turned their backs on it.
When I was the former, I was a little disturbed at my inability to fully look down my nose at the latter. I think I was worried that these people have things figured out.
On Valentine’s Day, a Sunday afternoon, I sit on a bench in Fourth Ward Park, eating a Harris Teeter discount sub. It’s cold outside, and with my Houston wardrobe I’m not prepared for the weather. I wear a hooded sweatshirt beneath a heavy brown blazer and a thick red winter cap topped by a fluffy red ball, along with a few days’ stubble. I am dangerously close to the homeless/crazed college professor look.
It’s quiet in the park, not a yuppie, terrier, or retriever in sight.
Charlotte feels different now. Cranes and construction have stopped in place; the Euclid Avenue apartment complex stands. The city never quite achieved that vision it had of itself, of the pristine and bustling Wall Street of the South. Bank of America has shriveled. So has the city’s up-and-comer’s swagger.
And yet, Charlotte is still preparing for its newest batch of freshly minted yuppies. It even built a temple for them, called the EpiCentre, a concentration of over-priced bars, posh restaurants, and high-end bowling. The second Wachovia skyscraper was finished as planned and simply rechristened the Duke Energy Center. Maybe I just no longer fit in.
As I sit on the bench, wiping mustard from my face with the sandwich bag, a couple rounds the corner of the pretty brick footpath—a young guy clean-cut and smartly dressed, and his pretty, probably smart and long-term girlfriend.
I look up as they approach. They avert their eyes, pick up speed, and hurry past.
Mike Giglio is a freelance writer. For the May issue, he wrote about Stephen Curry and his devoted fan following.