“Washington Mutual, how may I help you?”
That was me. I was sitting in the middle of a call center in the San Fernando Valley, with a headset on and my fingers poised at a keyboard. It was a late and chilly Thursday night as I worked the night shift as a CSR for Washington Mutual Bank. I was one of those faceless people on the other end of the phone who help you figure out why the ATM ate your debit card. I got screamed at by angry people when their cards were declined and told how amazing I was when their account balance was higher than they had recorded. Not that I had anything to do with either. If it had been up to me, I would have just given everyone a little financial boost, sort of like Matthew Broderick in WarGames. Sadly, that was not in my power. I was just a telephone bank clerk.
It wasn’t horrible, but it was definitely not where I saw myself at 30. We lived in a tiny apartment next to an industrial park. Our two kids shared a bedroom. Jenni had a coupon book that magically provided groceries we couldn’t otherwise afford. Our little car had no AC and a clutch that worked when it wanted to.
Just the year before, we were living in New York City and I was head of the storyboard department for the globally phenomenal TV show, Blue’s Clues. It was a glamorous, high-paying job and it was so amazing that I… gave it up. I know, right? After only a short while in television I got this bee in my bonnet that we could move to Los Angeles and I could work in animation there.
That didn’t happen as quickly as I imagined. The few things that I had lined up before we left NYC fell through and I was suddenly very much unemployed. I continued to freelance for a couple of directors on Blue’s Clues, but it wasn’t quite enough to keep our heads above water. Credit cards suddenly made possible what my low income could not (hot tip: don’t do that).
When the credit card delinquency calls started, we knew that we couldn’t go on much longer like that. I did the only thing that made sense, which was to get any kind of job I could find, and fast.
It was on that chilly Thursday night that my friend and animation director called me from NYC and asked how things were going. When I told him, he offered me a job doing animation on Blue’s Clues again, on a freelance contract. My heart took a leap and almost knocked me out of my swivel chair. Small wrinkle: I had to actually be in NYC. Still, it was more money than the call center and I could bandage my wounded pride, so ultimately I said yes. Two friends graciously offered their floors to sleep on, and back across the country I went. Jenni and the kids stayed behind in our tiny Valley apartment on stilts. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a solution that paid the bills, even if temporarily.
I was back in animation. I turned in my headset and felt a renewed sense of pride that I lost when I took the job at the bank.
Not long ago, there was a big ol’ hubbub about Geoffrey Owens, an actor known for The Cosby Show, when someone found him working at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey. He hadn’t had any steady acting gigs in several years, His residuals also dried up when networks pulled the reruns because of Bill Cosby’s lesser-known work of abusing women was finally brought to light. So he did what he had to do. He got a job to pay the bills. And of course, as soon as he was “discovered,” the internet shamed him for falling off Mount Olympus and ringing up groceries for mortals.
With all the media attention, he was soon offered a job on several series and films. Later he said, “I found myself in the dark wood of unemployment and debt, but instead of switching careers like a sane person, I took a job at a local Trader Joe’s to see if I could hang in there with my career and it’s actually worked out pretty well,” he said. “I’m Geoffrey Owens and I’m an actor!”
In a separate interview, Owens also summed up the way we need to think about work in general:
“…[O]ne type of work is not better or superior than another type of work, so we reevaluate that whole idea and start honoring the dignity of work and the dignity of the working person.”
I’ve often asked myself what I would have done if I hadn’t been invited back to freelance on Blue’s Clues. Between the two gigs, I definitely had a preference and it wasn’t staring at a screen all day… except that ironically, I did end up staring at a screen all day, just a very different screen. TV paid more and was certainly more interesting than reciting bank lobby hours over the phone.
I’m still not ashamed that I took that bank job. Ten out of ten debt collectors and kids agree (there have been several joint polls, I’m not going to find them for you), paying bills and eating dinner are overwhelmingly preferred.
Much of getting what we want in life comes down to persistence. If you really want something, you have to ask yourself if you want it enough to keep doing it even when the chips are down, your back is against the wall and Kylo Ren won’t stop chasing you (a limited demographic, I admit).
If you want it, you’ll do what you have to do. The only shame is in giving up when it gets too hard.
For more inspirational quotes such as, “Don’t give up, just go on!” and a song by a skating snail, check out Blue’s Big Musical Movie*. Look me up in the credits and say hi.