Sunday Nibble #52: Turning another corner

Sandwiches

Hey — if this is #52, then it must have been a year now. Yay!

As I wrote about last Sunday, I started a new job last Monday, 100% remote work-at-home, so I’ve now completed my first week — and I love it. It’s doing what I do best, which is creating, and I’ve started out on the same level of the team members who aren’t the CEO and COO, although both of them are great, too — very approachable and open to ideas.

The big surprise of the week, though, was checking my bank account on Friday and seeing that I’d already had my first pay deposited. The pay schedule is twice monthly, salaried, so I wasn’t expecting anything until after the 15th. It was a nice surprise, especially since I’ve never made this much before, and it had been a while.

The story of my life seems to be feast and famine, which is a direct result of me having worked entertainment and entertainment adjacent for so long. When you’re working, you can make a lot of money — a buttload if you’re union, not quite so much if you’re not, although not quite so much was still nice.

I’m thinking back to when I worked on Melrose Place in the late 90s, and all of us on the writers’ office staff were making $600 a week, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot and it didn’t feel like it at the time, but that was basically $15 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, it was $24.74 an hour, or $51,453 a year.

Like I said, it didn’t feel like it, but I just went back and looked at my bank records from the time, and watched my savings account balance go up steadily for all the time I was there.

And looking back at my first office job out of college, for the Directors Guild, I remember that my salary was $28,000 a year or so. Again, that sounds like a pittance, but it was the equivalent of almost $54,000 now.

But, of course, the gaps between these jobs were when I ran into the lean times, having to rely on savings and unemployment, and the occasional temp job outside of the industry. The last gap prior to this job happened around the turn of the century — in fact, it started on January 11, 2001, but at least I had the equivalent of $25,000 in the bank at the time.

Of course, I would have had more if I hadn’t stupidly put down such a huge down payment on a new car — $8,500, or almost $13,000 now.

But odd side-effect of being unemployed with savings from January 2001 until sometime in 2002: My dog Dazé got sick in March of that year, but I was able to be with her, cover her vet costs and do whatever it took, except that it didn’t work. She passed on April 30, 2001, and I adopted next dog, Shadow, on May 11, 2001.

Luckily, by 2002 I’d been referred to a temp agency that only did industry jobs, and wound up on some amazing assignments with Dreamworks Animation and Warner Home Video. And at one point, Warner Home Video poached me to work freelance for a thousand bucks a week, or the equivalent of about $70,000 a year now, although that assignment didn’t last long.

Somewhere in there, my father died and left me some money, although not a huge amount, and my evil half-sister had swooped in before he died, took advantage of his dementia to turn him against me, and got the house that I grew up in (and she never even lived in) signed over to her. Or, in other words, stole the legacy that, had my mother not died long before my father, would have been mine without question.

Oddly, the same thing happened to my father with his mother’s property when, sadly, she did not outlive my father’s step-father. Must be a family curse.

What he did leave me, combined with the income from Warner Home Video, didn’t last long — neither did that freelance job — and I was down to borrowing money from friends when the temp agency sent me to a place called CMI, where I’d be working for the web company of someone called the Dog Whisperer. I’d never heard of him. Well, I’d heard the title of the show, but that was all I knew.

It started as a “one or two day” temp job involving emergency data input/transfer after their server got hacked, but then they kept calling me back, a few days at a time, until they asked me to work temp full time, but that only lasted about two months.

I’d been hired July 13, 2007. On October 29, I became full-time, permanent staff, and that job lasted a decade, in two capacities.

For the first five years, I was Operations Manager and in charge of e-commerce and all things product related. That changed after an office Christmas party, for which I’d written Dog Whisperer themed parody lyrics to two Christmas carols, hired some actors to sing them at the party, and the boss — César Millán — was blown away.

He asked our CEO, “Who did this?” and when Bob the CEO pointed me out, Cesar almost immediately decided I was in the wrong job, so got promoted to Senior Content Editor and Head Writer.

And the pay went way up with that job, too, but it ended as full-time right after Labor Day 2017 — well at least for me — because the company was going teats up due to mismanagement, then petered out as freelance from October to March.

But, this time, I had a metric shit-ton of savings in the bank, plus unemployment, and I decided that I was going to try to make a go of it as a freelance writer, hence this website, which I actually created while working at a (and getting a freebie) marketing seminar run by an old high school friend and his wife.

And I do mean created at the seminar, because that’s when Hank, the friend, talked us through the process of registering a website, setting up WordPress, and so on.

Fun fact: The domain is called joncbastian.com not because that’s actually my middle initial, but because my own name without the initial was parked and not available. I took the first letter of a different family name instead. But it does have kind of a nice ring to it.

This is when I was finishing up the book inspired by my heart failure experience in 2016, so that was my focus when I started the site, and those original excerpts are still here. Over time, I’ve refined the purpose, attempted to theme it for a long while, although that became difficult to do, have done a Christmas Countdown of holiday related videos for two years running now, and have tried to publish every single day.

None of which really got my freelance career to take off. I think the extent of it was editing a book for some woman referred to me by a friend for the ridiculously low price of $250 (hardly worth the time), although it turned out to be pretty craptastic, and she, like all bad writers, refused to take my notes.

Times were getting very lean again indeed, so that’s when I wound up being referred by the aforementioned Hank to a friend of his who was an insurance agent specializing in Medicare. I’d already been working box office and admin for ComedySportz L.A., so for a while I wound up racing back and forth between two jobs, not making a lot of money, but doing what I had to do to survive.

Then COVID-19 put the brakes on that a year ago. The theatre job — and the theatre — went away for the time being, and the day job ended from March to July-August, only starting up slowly.

But that was when I, and a lot of other people, discovered something interesting — and I think that this is why politicians of a certain party are so loathe to extend unemployment benefits, increase the amounts, or (dog forbid) create a universal basic income.

It’s not because they think that people won’t work if they get “free” money. Rather, it’s that people will figure out how little they’re actually being paid by their billionaire bosses.

I made more while I was on that $600 a week from the federal government plus minimal state unemployment than I’d been making working two jobs for the entire seven months plus previously.

Kind of interesting, too, that $600, unadjusted, was the same amount I’d been making at Melrose Place and being fairly comfortable. Oh, side not. For budgetary reasons, we always put down that we’d worked 12 hours a day even though our hours were more like 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except for those times every six weeks when my day would start at 5:30 in Santa Clarita for pre-production meetings, or everyone would be in the office until late during rewrite frenzy right before the first shoot day.

But the reason they did this was creative accounting. If we only worked eight hours, then our hourly rate was $15. This was over budget, so to make it look like it wasn’t, they jiggered our hours to make our rate look like $10 per hour.

Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.

But the point is this: Yes, I really did make more not working for about four months in 2020 than I’d made working two jobs in the seven months before that. I wouldn’t have survived without it.

As always, though, my time of famine came to an end, and around December 2020, an old friend of mine from the Dog Whisperer days contacted me and asked if I wanted to write freelance web articles for a company he’d become creative director for, and I of course said yes.

I wrote freelance from December through February, but during February is when they offered me the full-time staff position, and I took it in a heartbeat.

I’ve noticed the changes already, but I’m reminded that I’ve had the experience of being both rich and poor, in a constant cycle throughout my life, and yes, it sucks to be poor. It always made me anxious and depressed, and I can remember times when my dog and I both had to live off of canned tuna because it was the cheapest human food and cheaper than dog food.

I remember playing “bill roulette,” trying to figure out which ones I could sort of skip on paying for a month or two, and which ones I couldn’t. Always, the priorities were rent and auto insurance. Fortunately, for a long time, health insurance was not required.

Well, not fortunately, but not anything I could have bought if I’d decided to anyway. I only ever had it through employers twice, although the second time I had it while working with the Dog Whisperer, it did save my life for a total out of pocket of about $700 (including a weekend in the hospital) not including about $90 a month in premiums.

Oh yeah. I’ll be getting company health insurance again soon at the end of April

Still — the stark contrast between “being paid what you’re worth” and “being paid what won’t impact the shareholders’ profits” is stark, and it’s also the difference between “Oops, I need to fix/buy this thing, so let’s just do it” and “Dammit, I really need an oil change, but that means Ramen all month.”

And people should never have to live like that if they’re working full time. This is why a $15.00 an hour minimum wage is so important but in some states and cities, even that is not enough. I was making $15.00 an hour in the insurance job, which meant that I would be slowly bleeding money, spending more on just the essentials every month than I took in.

I went from that to covering all the essentials plus a bit with every paycheck, and the second check that month leftover. I’m not saying that to brag but, rather, to make a point about how failed “trickle down” is.

See, I don’t have any investments, really, other than a savings account. For one thing, being artsy, I never understood the concept. For another, having my lean periods, I was averse to putting large amounts of ready cash into places where I couldn’t touch it if needed.

If I had, though, that money would not have gone back into the economy. It would have gone into a bucket that only benefited me.

But given last summer’s infusion of bonus unemployment and stimulus, you know what happened with it? I was able to get some essential car repairs done at a local mechanic, so money went back into the economy. I bought various household things that suddenly became necessary during the pandemic, and that money went back into the economy.

And now that money is coming back in again, I can put mine back into the economy. There are still some car repairs that I do need, but now I can do them without thinking, and it’s way past time I upgrade my computer. And OMG, these things have gotten so damn cheap since the last time I bought one!

I’ll also be able to go back to donating to worthy causes. I started auto-donating $15 a month to the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Planned Parenthood, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, in November 2016, and kept that up as long as I could, until around the middle of 2018.

It’s so much more worthwhile than subscribing to every last streaming service, after all.

But… making the transition from financial insecurity back to being able to take care of anything that comes up is a huge relief. It’s nice to be hear again.

And, again, your Sunday nibble turned into a seven course meal. Sorry!

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