Being a freelance writer is very sexy – very seldom. It was a career decision that could not have been predicted. Neither was the internship at the State Department, the year I spent in Austria, or deciding that I was going to temporarily relocate to Northern California for a travel writer’s class and show up for it a week later. It has only recently occurred to me that I could take this freelance show on the road – what the hell is the point of going for it if you’re not really going to go for it, right? So off I’ve gone. And it’s been exciting and wonderful. Friends at home think I’ve been on vacation, living it up. But, there are some incredibly unsexy parts to it too.
If you live in a place where wifi is plentiful, you have no concept of how hard it can be to find and how FUUUUUCKING frustrating it can be to share bandwidth with 100 other people watching funny cat videos while you’re trying to upload an image for a client’s social media page. You find yourself hopping from location to location, in search of a solid signal. You also under-estimate the importance of a password protected signal until you get an ominous email from your bank after hours when going online is the only way to address the problem.
I was not a Starbucks fan before I hit the road. A former Barista friend said that if I don’t like the French roast, I should ask for the lighter roast – okay I did that but they don’t make lattes with lighter roast. That’s a “misto” – get your coffee ordering lingo right – jeez… newb. It is still not my favorite coffee. And now even less because of how important they have become to the gig economy. It is Walmart for freelancers, a haven for anyone looking for a place to juice up their laptops and phones and take advantage of some unprotected wifi being shared by 100 people watching funny cat videos. Thankfully, there are some civilized places in the world where Starbucks alternatives exist, most of which have available wall sockets. But you also run the risk of walking into an Apple commercial, where every 2-top table has been commandeered HOURS AGO by another freelancer. I am also now, thanks to my freelance lifestyle and need for wifi, a shaky, jacked up, over-caffeinated coffee addict. That’s the cost of rent at these wifi hubs, of course – you gotta buy some coffee! I wonder if wine bars have wifi… hmmm…
When I was a corporate girl, I was a bashful public bathroom user. I didn’t want anyone hearing anything that was happening in my stall. NOTHING. I applied all of the usual tactics for deflection – flushing the toilet when I knew noise was coming, waiting for the others in the bathroom to leave so I could do what nature needed me to do. Usually though, all things bodily function related waited till I got to the privacy of my own home, where air freshener and privacy were plentiful. When you’re freelancing and traveling at the same time, you realize that there’s no ‘home bathroom’ and my body has gotten tired of me waiting for a convenient time to do what I need to do. Poop happens.
Home isn’t “home” (not matter how bad ‘home’ is)
Comfort does not come with guarantees. When the now infamous accommodations known as the Crazy Lady’s Place in Sonoma fell through, my trip became the one I had initially planned to have but ran out of time to create – every week in a new home. This was the trip I was supposed to take so I went with it. And most of it has been great – wonderful opportunities to experience vastly different areas of California, particularly the Bay Area. But, carrying my life around in 2 very large, very heavy bags has been exhausting. Adjusting to the nuances and quirks of each place – cluttered shoeboxes aside – has been kinda neat, kinda exhausting. The discomfort of propriety and courtesy living in someone else’s space, varying degrees of heat, laundry, kitchen access, parking, security, privacy. Discomforts like these heightened my awareness of what works and what doesn’t for my creativity, how stuck I have been in excuses and self-induced stagnance and that while ‘home’ is a mere character-building shithole back in Maryland, there is still no place like it.
Luggage Repair is Expensive
In the 21st Century, everything is temporary and disposable. I know a guy who doesn’t buy new ink for his printer, he buys a whole new printer because it’s actually cheaper that way. So wasteful, but that is just part and parcel of our experience today. Luggage however, is another matter. I learned that the cost of a new pair of wheels is infinitely more cost effective than a whole new piece. Being able to walk 15 miles through downtown San Francisco – or any airport – with 60lbs of stuff (THAT is never happening again) that is rolling instead of being carried is REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT. Returning a borrowed suitcase in the same or better condition is a motivator too.
Laundromats are not all created equal
Every time I think I have encountered all the different ways there are to possibly rent a washer and dryer for an hour, I discover a new one. Cash – or a thousand quarters (who the hell carries cash anymore?), pre-paid cards that cost something to purchase for the one week you’re going to be anywhere near this particular Laundromat, leave you with just enough left over on the card to not be able to do anything with and another useless thing in your possession, or better still tokens – I swear I looked for the arcade to use the rest of the ones I got stuck with.
Neither are Parking Meters
Same problem – 20 minutes of signing up for an online only parking meter service with a full bladder, that accepts all of my information and fails to mention that 6 minutes later, paid parking is no longer necessary. Or maybe it takes credit cards – not fun. Or maybe it’s the old fashioned coin meter. And ALWAYS, ALWAYS the signs for hours and restrictions are too small or too tall to read once you’re parked. It’s a conspiracy, I think.
Must Love Alone Time
If you’re going to travel alone, you’d better be prepared for all the alone time you’re going to have. Lots… and LOTS of time of you, and no one else. Your friends are in a time zone far, far away and nowhere can you feel more alone than in a bar full of people who are hanging out with THEIR friends. If you’re female, you are the juicy T-bone that just walked in and you count the minutes till the first dog comes adroolin’. If you’re open to it, you sit pretty and smile a lot. If you’re not interested, you put on your most intimidating bitchy resting face and pray that your open laptop will ward them off. But, if you’re looking to connect with your surroundings, you find a gentle blend of bitchy and smiling and wind up in conversation with the other alone people at the bar or better yet, the bartender, who has no agenda other than to serve you alcohol and get paid at the end of the night. Heck, you might even wind up sitting next to the publisher of the Pacific Coast’s answer to The Atlantic, Pacific Standard. Yes, if you’re not perfectly happy in your own company, being a traveling freelancer is going to be rough.
Remembering Unphotographed Moments
The biggest down side to being a traveling freelancer is all the unphotographed moments you drive by. Without a copilot or two handy to keep the camera at the ready, so very many moments you take a mental photograph of with your eyes wind up in the mushy gray part of your brain where a million other memories live unremembered.
If you’re lucky, the encounters you have, however temporary they might be, are connections that will enrich your life. It could be the lady at the coffee shop with the sweet looking golden retriever who, in the telling of her favorite beach that’s only 30 minutes away, changes the course of your day. You abandon your freelancing responsibilities while the sun is still in the sky, warm on your skin and the air around you, in the hope that your clients will understand that you HAD to live in THIS moment of YOUR life, and you find that your temporary friend was SO RIGHT. You arrive at the beach and feel overwhelming gratitude to her for telling you about the beach, for all the people in your life who love you and encourage you to not give up, for those forgiving clients who know how important it is to be present for these rare, precious moments, and for this crazy, chaotic, uncomfortable career you’ve created as a freelancer.