Treading Water


I’ve entered week three of my unemployment experiment, and it has been an ongoing test to my convictions. Not having an income is not a comfortable place for me. I’m treading water. I have been here before and knew that it would be uncomfortable and deliberately made my return to this uncomfortable place anyway. But lately the cosmos have been adding more sharks to the pool, just to make sure I really give a damn.

My brother-elect was in town last weekend, so we went up to the Embarcadero for some gray San Francisco sightseeing. The Embarcadero BART station spits you out right in front of a Philz Coffee, a luxury I’d successfully phased out of my daily routine as a way to cut costs, but I was getting tired of brewing my own coffee by the cup, from scratch, using a tea strainer too small for the paper filters because my single-cup coffee-brewing ceramic filter holder is lost in storage somewhere. I looked for it twice before applying the hole-riddled reasoning that the time investment of further searching would be more costly than the $3.50 a day Philz would run me indefinitely until the ceramic thingy found itself.

Besides, this was vacation, at least from our guest’s point of view, so a little luxury was in order. And since I was the only one present who liked coffee, the responsibility was on me, I hole-riddledly reasoned. So I dragged my coffee-intolerant traveling companions inside and ordered a small, $3.50-costing cup of coffee, told the cashier my order (Philz operates on a weird honor system where you order from one person, then repeat what you ordered to a completely separate person operating the register at the end of a separate line), and handed over my debit card. The cashier immediately let out this groan of relief, which sounds a lot like a groan of contempt, but is followed by happy words instead of unhappy words.

“THANK you for not having a chipped card!” he said. “Saves me a big hassle. Hey, don’t ever switch over, man. Trust me.”

This, by the way, was one of those instances where customer service in America strikes me as unpleasantly personal. I mean, I was glad I’d spared him from the agony of what is surely the most standard type of transaction possible at Philz Coffee, but like, stop shouting about my bank card, please.

Anyway, later that day my account was compromised. Someone took several hundred of my dollars out of a couple ATMs. I’m not saying it was because of the cashier shouting about my unchipped bank card, or even because the bank card was unchipped. I’m just saying I’m not sure he had my best interests in mind when he gave me that advice. Loudly.

So that was one thing. I guess it was kind of a blessing in disguise since I’ve been struggling to cut back on expenses and the fiasco left me without any cash or usable debit card for several days. On the other hand, I’m still not sure I’m getting those hundreds of dollars back.

::UPDATE:: The bank just told me I will in fact get the hundreds of dollars back. Fine. Good. I’m not rewriting this. 

A few days before that, I broke my guitar. Not that badly, but enough to make a point. I had just strapped it on with the strap I’ve been “borrowing” for several years from a friend. I should probably have given the strap back to her long ago, but she’s been in my presence almost every time I’ve used it since first receiving it, so I kind of figured it wasn’t missed, especially since she has a nice, secure leather strap while this particular strap is prone to coming undone without warning, causing the guitar to snap loose right at the best part of, say, “The Rosetta Stone Blues.”

And that’s what happened. Only this time, unlike the dozens of other times, I happened to be holding something with both hands, letting the guitar dangle freely, and I happened to be standing over the small section of hardwood in our apartment. This time, I didn’t catch the guitar. This time, the guitar smashed into the floor and split open at the back seam and produced a three-inch-long dent in the surface. I like to think this was the cosmos’ way of investing in my pursuit of a better life. “Oh, you want to get back into music?” the planet and all science seemed to say. “Prove it, asshole.”

These little misfortunes are aggravating. Couldn’t they have happened, like, when I got my last bonus? Or better yet, to someone who’s really mean to people? I strummed the guitar a few times. It sounded fine. But what if the split in the seam got bigger over time? What if I finally got a gig and right in the middle of the raucous part of “Atomic Girl” the entire thing fell apart in a glorious but fatal explosion of wood and nickel-wound steel and dreams? Actually, that would be perfect. But I wouldn’t be able to do an encore.

I decided to at least take it into the local music store to get a repair estimate. The local music store is a mom ‘n pop shop up California Drive. When I visited, I got the pop. He had an accent I couldn’t place–possibly Hungarian–and spoke thoughtfully, placing each word in each sentence like dominoes. He told me they would have to send the guitar to an off-site technician for an estimate and then call me when they had it.

“If you agree,” he said, “we’ll have the technician start work.” Over the course of our conversation, he said that three times. I thought there was a charming simplicity to the phrase, “If you agree….”

I agreed to this process, silently setting a budget of forty-five dollars. That didn’t seem realistic, but it was the most I was willing to pay right now for a non-essential repair, given my financial situation. If the estimate went over that, maybe I would attempt the repair myself. I used to live like that and it was gratifying.

I left my guitar in his custody, and went on with my life.

Three or four days later, the same afternoon that we were at the Embarcadero, he called back. I didn’t pick up because we were on the move, but he left a message with the estimate. “Ninety-five to one hundred dollars.” I thought that sounded reasonable, but it was more than I could pay. “If you agree,” he went on, “we send to our technician. Please call back.”

I called back on Monday, feeling a little apologetic that I’d let so much time pass. But since the shop is closed on Sundays, it hadn’t even been a full business day. This time, I got the “mom.”

“Hi, my name is Greg. I brought in a Martin acoustic guitar last week for a repair, and the clerk called me with an estimate, but I’m afraid it’s more than I can afford right now, so I’ll have to decline for now and come in and get the guitar. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, um, I think there was a misunderstanding. We send off to technician already. I’m terribly sorry about that. I will call technician and see if we can stop him and send the guitar back. Then I’ll call you back.”

“Oh, okay….Thank you very much.”

Well, she didn’t call back. Three days later, I called her again.

“Hi, um, my  name is Greg, and I’d brought in a Martin acoustic guitar last week. I was just wondering what the status was on that.”

“Oh, it’s ready now. It’s here.”

Ready as in, you did the unauthorized repair and are going to charge me for it? Or ready as in, you got it back from the technician before he did the repair? Why didn’t you call me back? What happened to the apologetic tone from before? Why has this transaction been so gross? She didn’t seem to want to acknowledge any of our prior correspondence, which I took as a puppy-like awareness of guilt. I decided to just go in and see for myself.

The pop was working the register. I entered and he didn’t look up, even though I’m sure he was expecting me and saw me enter. I took this as a puppy-like awareness of guilt.

“Hi, um, you have my guitar?”

“Ah yes, and he did really beautiful job. Here, I’ll show you.”

He reached back and pulled my soft-cased guitar from a stack of music shop stuff and zipped it open and pulled the guitar out to show me the craftsmanship. Sure enough, it looked almost as good as new.

“Wow. That’s great and all, but I didn’t agree to the work.”

“Yes, well, we called you but you don’t answer. Anyway. We already send off to technician.”


“You called me Saturday afternoon. I was out. I called you Monday. You’re closed Sundays, right?”

“Anyway. What you can pay?”

“I could give you forty-five.”

“Okay, so you give me forty-five now, and another forty-five next week.”

“I’m not going to have any more money next week. I don’t have a job right now. I’m sorry, but I had a budget for this. That’s why I called on Monday…”

“Doesn’t have to be next week. Whenever you can. Six months, whenever you can. We trust you. We’re good, honest people.”

“…Look, I appreciate that, but I didn’t agree to this service. My plan was to fix it myself if it was over my budget. That’s why I called on Monday. I didn’t want to pay more than forty-five on this.”

“Okay fine, you pay just forty-five. We not do this again.” His tone was short, but I wasn’t sure if he meant “we won’t be doing business with you again” or “we won’t fuck up like this again” or “we won’t give this kind of discount to you again the next time we do fuck up.”

I handed him my locked, compromised debit card. He swiped it on a dated-looking card swiper, waited for an awkward ten seconds. “It says declined.”


“Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to give you that one. I actually knew that one was locked, sorry.” I handed him a credit card. “Sorry, I know that looks bad right now.”

He swiped the credit card, and it went through. He started to punch in the forty-five dollar amount. “We lose money on this. You want to give more than forty-five dollars, we don’t lose so much?”

“Sir, I’m sorry, but no.”

This is probably the most I’ve ever stood my ground on any matter. I didn’t relish it. By default I’m inclined to think I’m at fault in some way at all times. That’s what sends a boy to Japan. And I’d rather sock it to just about anyone than sock it to an immigrant mom ‘n pop running an independent music store. But come on. Don’t repeatedly stress that you’ll await my sign-off, then jump the gun and do the work without my sign-off. That’s the whole point of a sign-off.

I made my way for the exit with my guitar, feeling vaguely like I was stealing but angry that I was made to feel vaguely like I was stealing. “Hey, I’m sorry it got so complicated,” I said.

“No, no problem. And maybe six months you can come back and give little more,” said the pop.

Yeah. Big maybe.

So that was another thing. I guess that was the cosmos’ way of reminding me that saving money and pursuing music are both things that will require active investment and sturdy resolve. It’s good to be uncomfortable. Except that it’s uncomfortable.



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