My life has always been categorized by playlists. This filing system began way back when I got my first Walkman and created an original mixtape over painstaking hours of recording and pausing while listening to B97 FM. Back then, it was a choppy compilation of New Kids on the Block, Tiffany and The Bangles – bubblegum angst with which an eleven-year-old could pretend to relate and feel cool. In the summer of 2001, a year after college graduation and about a dozen years since my first playlist, my CD Walkman was still laden with substantial angst, but I didn’t need to pretend to relate to any of it. I was broke, bored, and basically up against a cliff, holding my breath for dear life.
I’m a songwriter’s dream audience. I don’t just fancy a particular composition and lyric mash-up, I drink that tortured Kool-Aid melody like it’s written just for me. That particular summer I was guzzling Lifehouse until I was drunk on “Hanging by a Moment.” It wasn’t that the lead singer and guitarist Jason Wade was crooning of a romance with which I was struggling. The romance was a metaphor for my, up until that point, completely amateur existence. What had I really experienced? I hadn’t experienced much beyond that bubblegum angst. I’d just quit my first job out of college because I’d convinced myself that all it did was trap me further into a dead end of the same. And so I was hanging by the moment before I let the other Steve Madden platform mule drop.
Two things got me off that cliff: acne and beer. Yes, you read that right. Acne and beer.
Around the time I quit the supposed dead-end job, I broke out like only one should experience if they don’t want friends. The acne was red and bumpy and ran up one cheek and down the other. The only makeup I could find at the time to hide that horror show without making me look like I did, in fact, have on a mask was a Christian Dior concealer that cost way more than what was in my wristlet. And the prescribed chemical peels? Good Lord, I’d have to sign away my first born, who wasn’t in the script, let alone the picture.
This was also around the time that I realized just how unsatisfying beer could actually be, that is, if I stuck to what was in the plastic, cracked pitchers on Penny Pitcher Nights up and down Maple Street. While working the “dead-end” job, I’d discovered craft beer. It was the frothy sip of medium-bodied, toasted, toffee flavor with notes of citrus that would change my life. In the real world, acne wasn’t a cheap fix, and no disrespect to Milwaukee, but The Beast had become much like the Amaretto Sours I slurped up too: a quick buzz, but ultimately training wheels.
I had a choice to make. The cliff, I believed, was the job I immediately took after graduation, the one that paid well, came with a slew of connections, and kept me chewing bubble gum – sweet, familiar, safe bubble gum. Below the cliff was what Lifehouse and other bands – Radiohead, Linkin Park, and Green Day – were singing me toward. Broke was no longer an option and the ultimate propeller.
There are these really crappy annoyances that pop up in life, like acne (pun intended), and then conveniences, like craft beer, that we suddenly can’t live without. Nowadays, crappy annoyances are my kids’ braces and conveniences could be that sparkling rosé that I can only buy from wineshops (though I still love craft beer). But let’s be honest, craft beer and fancy wine aren’t necessary. On the other hand, comforts and rewards are necessary. If I can afford what I want, I’m not just making enough money, I’m doing well. But acne, braces, and crap like student loans are an ugly part of life that we have every right to bitch about. We can either continue our adult tantrum over them or we can be fueled by them.
A set of braces is $6000. Holy hell, teeth are expensive and maybe I should have gone to dental school? But like that job that was actually an awesome job with a pretty high ladder and step upon step of more connections and hobnobbers with whom to call my people, dental school lacks what I need to keep my juice pumping. Somehow I knew at 23 that the desire to not just do well but to be happy with how I do it would plague me for the rest of my life. What’s that saying? “Find something you love to do and get paid to do it.” Damn if that’s not inspiring. But mother-of-pearl, is that easy to say but hard to achieve.
Off the cliff was the creative world I craved where I imagined cultured people named Ebony and Girard went to underground parties and ate bizarre Burmese food and sipped wines I couldn’t pronounce after performing original plays in garages in the East Village. I’d just returned from having set my eyes on New York City for the first time – that glorious concrete jungle. Nothing I’d ever experienced thus far compared to what I felt when I stepped out of a cab on the corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Like the best alternative melody, I drank that shit up. Then I went to L.A. for a week and again, my pulse quickened. I realized back at home that it wasn’t just the job that was the cliff. Home was the cliff – everything that word encapsulated. Home was safe, sweet bubble gum and it was keeping me stagnant. Nothing bad would ever happen to me if I stayed put but little would change either.
The other Steve Madden had dropped.
With my college degree and year of solid hospitality management under my belt, but broke from my two trips, I took a new job, bussing tables at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. My friends thought I’d lost my mind. My parents were just grateful that I had money again and could buy my own Christian Dior makeup and craft beer. But there was a greater purpose to my madness. I needed an adventure and it was mine if I spat out the bubble gum – except, like a solid mixtape, adventures need organization. You can’t just jumble a bunch of songs together willy-nilly. There’s a process. If I could be promoted to server, I could transfer to a Ruth’s Chris in New York and have a guaranteed side hustle waiting for me so I could pound the pavement in search of whatever it was I was looking for.
Lord knows it was the best leap of faith I ever took. I moved to Brooklyn five months later and saw and lived and tasted more than I could have dreamt up. I even ate Burmese food, but sadly never met a single Ebony or Girard. I did, however, learn more about myself in that season of life because I finally listened to myself. That’s the thing about adventure. We have to be the voice of it. Our adventure is our story to tell. And, if there is one important epilogue to my story years later, it’s this: Adventures aren’t limited to a physical somewhere far, far away.
I know enough to know that an adventure can be just outside your norm. We can have our next great adventure in our zip code by freeing ourselves from whatever safety net we’re holding onto. Adventures are easily labeled by romantic notions of the extreme – “I went to the foothills of Himalaya to find myself,” or some similar plot for a book club feature. But as with the meaning of a really good alternative song, the meaning of adventure doesn’t come from any place more exotic than the heart. Take the new job. Break up with the loser. Ask out the hottie at the end of the bar. Buy the house. Buy the juicer. Whatever. Step off that cliff.
The eve of my big move to New York I couldn’t sleep. I guess Pop couldn’t either because in the middle of the night he found me crying at the kitchen table. I’d made a huge mistake, I thought. What the hell was I thinking? I was scared out of my mind.
Pop, that glint in his eye sparkling brighter than ever before, said to me, “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
I say that to myself today each time before I step off a cliff. I won’t know unless I go. And if I’m scared, that’s just because it’s unfamiliar. Bubble gum loses its flavor. A good song, a great story born from chance? They’re timeless.
Incidentally, I met my husband in New York on my very first day at Ruth’s Chris Steak House Manhattan. Thank God for craft beer. And acne.