Back in 2001, my News Corporation subsidiary employer collapsed our office and laid off a large percentage of the staff, including myself. (That was in January. Boy, what a great New York year lay ahead!)
I got decent severance and set out to support myself in Manhattan for the first time since acquiring my sturdy Murdoch paycheck four years previously. It wasn't pretty: My rent got jacked up, so I had to leave my Upper Upper West Side apartment and move into one half the size down in Murray Hill. Then I proceeded to face a string of either freelance or staff jobs that paid just barely enough and, frankly, sucked. Unable to pay for my nights out anymore, but unwilling to give them up, I started to carry a credit-card balance for the first time.
During this time, I would hear about fellow ex-employees. One was spotted lounging at a Greenwich Village cafe with friends. Did he have a job yet? A year later, no. Another one was splitting his time between New York and Florida, where he had just bought a house. Then there was the Fabulous Couple: Friends of my cousin and just over 30, like me, they owned a gorgeous loft apartment and eventually moved to Australia to attend cooking school together, despite the fact that they seemed to be available at all hours of the day and spoke of no employment.
Having been brought up to believe that there are no free lunches, and as a corollary, that you should never order the most expensive thing on the menu, I was flummoxed by these people, and secretly fascinated by them. It drove me crazy that their financial status went unexplained, and that no one in the vicinity saw fit to broach the topic. How, how, how did they do it? Trust funds? Savings? Drug-dealing? A clandestine business? A sugar daddy (I grew up reading Cosmopolitan, I know about these things)?
Now, in San Francisco, I'm facing an even more financially mysterious breed: the culinary career-changer. Unlike my New York friends of leisure, these people are not dot-commers, so far as I know. They talk of previous careers in marketing, recruiting and biochem. Somehow, they have escaped these careers, attended culinary school, and are now volunteering on farms, teaching cooking classes and demonstrating recipes. And, just as in New York, I am too afraid to ask: How are you paying your bills?
The cost of culinary school, as compared to the income you make when you get out, has been well documented in the press lately: One six-month program I am interested in costs close to $20K, yet most cooking jobs I see advertised top out at $14 an hour. What am I missing?
Right now I am fortunate to have a partner who a) makes more than I do and b) is generously letting me explore my options right now. But I still feel like shit about it, and wonder how I could pay for some kind of education without coming out in the red and screwing both of us over. It makes me skeptical that I can withstand one more sunny kitchen conversation without finally buttonholing someone and asking the offensive questions.
Have you ever known someone who mystified you financially?