I Was Couch Hopping and Had No Money Before I Started My First Business
(Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash)
It was March 2008.
I had less than fifty dollars cash, no savings, and no place to live. I was staying at a Youth Hostel in the Mission District of San Francisco. The hostel had two-week maximum stay, and my two weeks was almost up. I needed to find another place to stay.
I already exhausted my maximum stay at the other Youth Hostel in downtown San Francisco. There was one Hostel in Berkeley, but I couldn’t afford the $15 subway fee to commute to my temp job.
One day, I was riding the bus when a familiar face hopped on and sat in front of me. It was someone I hadn’t seen for two years.
"Janice?" I said.
"Kaz?" the girl answered. "What are you doing here?"
“Well..." I told Janice all about my situation - broke, and nowhere to go. Then, something miraculous happened.
“You can stay at my apartment for a couple of weeks, if you like.”
"That would be great!” I accepted with excitement. I can’t even explain how grateful I was for her generosity.
Janice's apartment was tiny. One bedroom, with a small kitchen, and a living room. The first night, I slept on the couch in the living room, but it was small and uncomfortable. Plus, Janice worked in a downtown office and woke up at 6:00 AM to shower and eat breakfast so she could make it to work on time. She made so much noise in the morning that it was impossible to sleep through.
After that first night, two things were certain:
I had to find my own place to live as soon as possible. Two weeks would be entirely too long to stay at Janice’s
The couch in the living room wasn’t going to work. I had to find somewhere else to sleep. But where?
I looked around the apartment after Janice left that morning to see what else I could do. The kitchen was a decent size, but there was no way I could sleep in there. Besides, Janice used it every morning and every night to cook. I could sleep in her bedroom, but I didn’t think Janice would approve. I mean, we were friends and all, but we definitely weren’t that close. Then, I found a little closet-like room, long and thin, just big enough for a Yoga Mat. I can make this work. I thought. When Janice got home, I asked her if I could sleep in the closet. Even though she was surprised, she agreed. I wound up sleeping in her closet for ten days before moving in with another friend, Tom, in Oakland.
Couch-hopping from friend to friend was difficult. I knew I desperately needed a place of my own, but that required money and a job. At that point, I didn’t have either one. I decided to sign up with a temporary staffing agency doing on-call event catering because I thought it would be a quick and easy way to make some much-needed money.
The first job the agency sent me was a café at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. As soon as I walked into the kitchen, I saw about thirty chefs rushing back and forth, carrying sheet pans full of potatoes, sliced chicken appetizers, and large bowls of salad.
The kitchen manager shouted, "Can you make whipped cream?"
“NO,” I shouted back.
Next, he asked me to cut the bread, but I didn’t own a bread knife.
"Have you ever cooked Roast Beef?" the manager asked.
"No, not really," I replied hesitantly.
Frustrated, he finally asked, "What CAN you do then?"
"I can make sushi and cut fish," I said confidently.
He looked confused, paused for a second, and said, "Well, sushi isn’t on the menu. I need to find something for you to do."
So I chopped onions. I was a little embarrassed, but I didn’t care. I was willing to do whatever it took to make some money.
After the Museum, the agency sent me to work in a cafeteria at a biotechnology company, Genentech. The campus was located in South San Francisco, and my shift started at six in the morning. To get there on time, I woke up at 4 AM and caught the very first subway at the Ashby Station near Tom’s apartment. I’d take the subway to the Colma Station and then ride a bike for 30 minutes to Genentech. Not only did my friend Tom let me sleep on his couch, but he was also kind enough to lend me his bicycle. I didn’t have any money for groceries, let alone to buy a bike. In fact, I even ate dried nuts and granola from Tom’s cupboards when I was hungry. Sorry, Tom. I barely had enough money to ride the subway.
I also had to ride uphill to get to the Genentech campus, and Tom’s bike didn’t have any gears. It was a painful commute, especially early in the morning, before the sun came up. Every time I rode that bike, I swore I wouldn’t do it again. I had to find a better place in my life. I was 41 years old, making $17 an hour. Every kitchen manager I worked for was younger than me now and made quite a bit more money too. None of it made me feel any better.
One morning, I fell asleep on the subway, and when I woke up, I realized the train wasn’t moving. I frantically looked around and realized that I missed my stop. I was at the end of the subway line. CRAP! I was going to be late for work. I panicked. I hate being late. If I’m late, they can fire me, I thought. Not good. Not good at all.
Wait... the train has to go back the way it came from, I realized. I sat as patiently as I could and waited for the train to start traveling back. I think I only sat there waiting for five minutes, but it seemed like at least 30. Sure enough, the train started heading back toward San Francisco. We arrived back at the Colma Station at 5:50 AM. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up! I yelled in my head. Once the train stopped, I jumped off and rode my bike more furiously than I ever had before. It only took me 15 minutes to get to work that morning. I was completely out of breath and exhausted when I arrived, and luckily, no one even realized I was late.
After just a week of getting up at 4 AM and riding Tom's bicycle, I was ready for payday. Thankfully the agency issued checks every Friday. TGIF, indeed. I picked up my checks at the office because I needed the money and couldn’t wait for them to arrive in the mail. Every time I walked into the office to get my check, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. They knew I was in dire straits, desperate. Something had to change. I had to get out of this hole someday. No, not someday, soon.
Since I was determined to stop the painful 4 AM commute, I started looking for a different job. I found an ad for a catering company in Emeryville, just north of Oakland. They were looking for chefs and were closer to where I was staying. I could save subway money.
So, I sent them my resume, and they responded, saying that I had a unique experience. We did a simple phone interview, and they asked me to come in for their employee orientation. I was excited. Maybe this is it, the change I need. I thought. Unfortunately, there was little work in the beginning, but it was enough to start saving, saving for a place of my own.
I still don't remember how, but eventually, I saved enough money for my first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit on a $700 per month apartment in Emeryville. I signed a one-year lease and finally moved into my very own, one-bedroom apartment.
My apartment wasn’t exactly in a great neighborhood; in fact, many considered it to be in a "bad" neighborhood. There was a lot of drug activity, theft, and vandalism, the “hood,” for lack of a better word. My ten-unit apartment complex had a massive metal gate surrounding it, so it was considered safe as long as you didn't go outside of the complex at night. I heard gunshots and police activity almost every night, but I felt pretty safe staying up in my apartment.
Since the catering job wasn’t steady, I found a second job at a sushi restaurant in San Francisco. But even that wasn’t enough.
A friend then told me about a small firm looking for a graphic designer. I applied and interviewed for the position, and finally got the job: decent pay ($25/hour) and steady, daytime hours. My nights and weekends were still spent working at various restaurants in San Francisco too. I got into a bit of a rhythm. Working multiple jobs finally started to stabilize my income, and I was finally able to focus more on what I wanted to do instead of what I had to do.
Working at a restaurant was fun, but at 41, I started to feel that the long, physical labor at the restaurant kitchen wasn’t something I could do for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to find myself still working as a chef in a restaurant at the age of 50 or 60 because I had nowhere else to go. I also didn’t want to stay in the graphic design business. It just didn’t make me happy.
I needed a breakthrough.
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