HOW TO GO BROKE

The Memoir


(This is chapter 44 of 46 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

After my job at ArtAndCulture.com collapsed, I began going broke.

The long-term effect of the dot-com stock crash of 2000 and the September 11 attacks in 2001 became fully clear in 2002: the tech job market in New York City was flooded with laid-off developers like me, and no companies were initiating new projects. Programmers who had jobs were staying put, so there were no openings to fill. The headhunters who once annoyed me with persistent phone calls had simply vanished, their own phone numbers now disconnected. Where did they all go, I wondered? And where was I going to go?

It's scary how fast you can go broke when you have no income. Each month a new child support payment was due, and rent, and credit cards. I was out of ideas; I had never thought this could happen to me.

I sent out dozens of resumes, answered newspaper ads, looked up old contacts. I got back in touch with long-forgotten co-workers from my Wall Street days, even though I hated the idea of slinking back to the banking industry I'd been so eager to leave for the Internet sector nine years before. It turned out I had nothing to worry out: Wall Street was just as dead as Silicon Alley.

I often wondered if it was the physical proximity of Wall Street, Chelsea and midtown Manhattan to the gaping hole now known as "Ground Zero" that made Manhattan's economy shut down in 2002. We don't usually imagine corporations having feelings, but it seemed like many New York corporations did after September 11: they were simply in a state of shock, not hiring, not spending, not building, not doing anything at all.

I hated the idea of reaching out to older friends on Long Island, where I'd grown up, and where I'd begun my career at General Instrument in Hicksville and Robotic Vision Systems in Hauppauge before migrating to New York City. But I couldn't turn down any opportunity, and the engineering firms on Long Island were doing much better than the finance, media and entertainment companies in Manhattan.

It really killed me to crawl back to the engineering world I'd left behind, and when I got a couple of interviews I half-hoped I wouldn't get the jobs, because working on Long Island would feel like returning to high school.

Not surprisingly, I didn't get any job offers. It turned out that after ten years away my C++ was kind of rusty and I'd forgotten nearly all the principles of embedded system design. Now I felt like I'd couldn't even go back to my old high school.

It's a funny thing, going broke. There are a lot of good songs about it:

Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
Spent all my money, I just did not care.
Took all my friends out for a good time,
Bought bootleg whisky, champagne and wine.


Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go.
If I get my hands on a dollar again,
I'm gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins.


'Cause no, no, nobody knows you
When you're down and out.
In your pocket, not one penny,
And as for friends, you don't have any.


When you finally get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
It's mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you're down and out.


Unlike the singer of this old blues tune, I didn't actually lose many close friends when I went broke. But I did sense that some of my former co-workers felt ashamed for me, and perhaps saw me as a reflection of what they most feared for themselves.

My final recourse was to borrow from my parents. It really pained me to do this. I think it pained them too.

My mother, father, stepmother and stepfather are all very different kinds of people. My mother, Lila Weisberger, is a very charismatic and intensely individualistic psychologist and poetry therapist. I think it was my Mom who taught me to be a brazen non-conformist, to never be embarrassed about who I was.

My father, Eli Stein, is a cartoonist and graphic designer -- I think I got my artistic sensitivity from him, along with my appreciation for classic comedy from Gilbert and Sullivan to Jackie Gleason to Mad Magazine (which published one of his pieces in 1968, when I was six years old, to my great pride both then and now).

My two stepparents also played big roles in my life: Gene inspired me in business, while my stepmother Leftie inspires everyone in the family by being nice and watching out for us all. My four parents are all very different, except for one thing: they all grew up fairly poor, and are all very, very sensible about money. Going broke is a thing you don't do in my family.

I like this work ethic, this stern emphasis on financial independence. I've tried to raise my kids with the same common sense. It was very difficult for me to go to both sets of parents and ask for help. To soothe the agony, I prepared my plea to Gene and Mom in the form of a business plan, presenting several pages of paperwork along with my request for a $5000 loan. By the time I finished this ordeal, I was exhausted and just asked Dad and Leftie for money straight out, and they were kind enough to quickly hand over a check as a gift.

It was nice to know I had strong family support, but I also realized I had only bought time with this money, and hadn't solved my basic problem. The $10,000 would get me through three months, but there was no sign that the economy would improve by then. It seemed likely that our country would invade Iraq in a few months, and the growing public anxiety and uncertainty was not likely to help.

In desperation, I began looking for a business model within LitKicks, which kept growing more and more popular. I now had 25,000 registered members and about 15,000 pageviews a day, but there was no obvious way to monetize this traffic. My best idea was to sell ads to indie writers and small presses for $75 a month, and after many weeks putting together a new system and publicizing the service I did sell several ads, bringing in over $1200 in the first year. This was a good start, but it was also the hardest I'd ever worked to earn $1200. I would have to make much more to turn LitKicks into a real business, and $1200 wasn't enough to dig me out of my financial hole.

I enlisted Caryn and Jamelah to join a new "executive team" on Literary Kicks, and we began brainstorming how the site could possibly make money without resorting to cheap gimmicks that would ruin its reputation. An online writing contest with a $20 entry fee? A book of short fiction and poetry? All these ideas had merit, but when I ran the numbers I didn't see any sustainable profit model to replace my lost paychecks.

Ironically, it was around the time that I began trying to monetize the Literary Kicks message boards that I also began wishing I could get rid of them. When I launched LitKicks 2.0 in January 2001 I'd hoped to develop a sharp, focused, cutting-edge literary community. Instead, mostly due to the site's original reputation as the Beat Generation site, I'd gathered a lot of "keyboard beatniks" who loved to post drunk on Friday nights and never read books that weren't by Kerouac, Bukowski, Chuck Pahlaniuk or Irvine Welsh. There were also way too many "happy birthday" messages and "how was your weekend?" conversations that had nothing to do with literature.

I tried constantly to change the tenor of the conversations, but the site wouldn't budge. Imre Kersetz won the Nobel Prize in October 2002; I posted about this and nobody responded. Then it'd be "SooZen"'s birthday, or "Dave the Dov" would see a good movie, or "Lightning Rod" would think of a dirty joke, and the boards would light up for hours. I'm glad they were all having fun, but it was my website, and I wasn't having much fun at all.

Could we make some money selling merchandise? Caryn and Jamelah helped me launch the "LitKicks Shoppe" on CafePress.com, featuring stylish black backpacks and fitted baseball caps with the Paul Verlaine logo and baseball jerseys with our message board headers. Caryn agreed to be the Cafe Press model. We did move a few units, but again the profit was nowhere near enough to pay my monthly bills.



I enjoyed working with my new "executive team" and it was nice of them to try to help. But in the end the best idea we came up with was to start emailing funny pictures back and forth just to keep ourselves amused, like one Jamelah made of me in a trenchcoat wearing a LitKicks cap with a cardboard sign reading "WILL CODE JAVA FOR FOOD". At least we had a good time.

Finally, in late 2002 one of my ideas got some traction. I'd taught some corporate courses at Sybase years ago, and had contacted every technology training school I could find to see if I could get hired as a teacher. The New York City tech schools were all closing down, but I finally got a callback from a small family-owned tech school called Hendricks Institute in Lindenhurst, Long Island. They needed a substitute teacher for a Saturday HTML/Javascript course. This was bad because it would cut into my weekends with the kids, but I couldn't turn anything down and agreed to start.

The money was lousy -- $35 an hour, $280 a week -- and since I didn't have a car I had to commute over an hour each way on the Long Island Railroad and then walk another twenty minutes to reach the school. But I liked the students, mostly laid-off adults looking to change careers. I liked it that they were motivated to work hard, but I hated the thought that after they graduated with a two-year Hendricks certification there might not be any jobs for them. It wouldn't have helped if I told them that the only reason I was teaching them instead of working was that nobody was hiring HTML/Javascript developers in 2002. The hope, of course, was that the market would pick up soon.

My outlook started to improve towards the end of the year when Hendricks invited me to begin a second course, a night class in Oracle and SQL, starting in January. The money would still be lousy and I'd barely be able to pay off any debts, and I'd be spending a whole lot of time on the Long Island Railroad. Still, I would have my weekends free for the kids again, and it felt like things were moving in the right direction.

That December I arranged another Bowery Poetry Club extravaganza in December with a delightful folk troubadour and pamphleteer from Vancouver named Ralph Alphonso, featuring Lauren Agnelli, Dave Rave, Paul Hyde, George Wallace, Bob Holman and David Amram. Caryn and Jamelah performed too, and Elizabeth, now 17 years old, did her first poetry club reading, accompanied by David on piano. A few LitKicks poets showed up too: Julianna Harris, Sean "Firsty" Hogan, Lucy "Gothic Hippie Chic" Torres, Angus "In Extremis" Ramsay. A bitter winter rainstorm that night kept the audience small, but cozy.

This was a significant night for me because it was the first time I tried to read a piece with some semblance of rhythm and flow. I'd been hanging around the Bowery Poetry Club long enough by now to realize that my old act of blandly reciting from a piece of paper into a mic wasn't good enough. The Bowery Poetry Club scene was all about spoken word and hip-hop poetry, and even though it would never be my style to stand up there and "spit" with the best of them, I did want to add some rhythm to my performance. The first step was to write poems that rhymed, and I showed up with a few new rhyming poems to choose from.

Up till the last minute I expected to read a poem I'd written about the miseries of being broke, but then I decided to try a different one, an angry piece I'd just written about all the ethnic and religious and nationalistic hatred I'd been seeing around me in the post-9/11, pre-Iraq War days. All the lines didn't rhyme, but enough did to help me find the music in the words, and this was the first time after several years of live readings that I really felt I nailed a performance. It didn't hurt to have David Amram banging out a hard minor key rhythm behind me.

I decided something today
today is the day I'm just gonna smile and let it go
you know, a few things have been getting me crazy lately
like this guy who says he loves me
and keeps sending me pipe bombs in gift-wrapped boxes
or this other guy who says he needs to kill me
but it's nothing personal and he hopes I don't mind
I'm trying to love my enemy but I'm running out of love
and I don't know how much longer
I can hold on to my sanity
this must be the garden of eden, or is it
the museum of inhumanity
like that story about the guy with the machete
who was selling girl scout cookies
or the woman who killed her bridge partner
for playing the dummy low
well, today I'm just gonna smile and let it go


I can't watch the news anymore
because it keeps telling me the world's a cauldron of hatred
but I see a hundred different races and religions
when I pick my children up at school
wanna say a dirty word? call someone a muslim or a jew
so they think there's something wrong
with the way that we were born
well, my friend, I don't think this is anything new
so now the tanks are rolling again
so now the bombs and rockets flow
I guess we're just gonna smile and let it go


I try to maintain a peaceful mind
but it's hard to stay zen
when
I thought you guys were grown men
stop comparing yourselves to each other
and look what's in your own hands
everything I told, I fought to keep
and if you think I didn't struggle
you have got to be insane
and if you think I didn't have to grow
well, you just don't know
but today
I'm gonna smile
and let it go


Maybe I'll run for President
or maybe I'll just blow up the fucking world
because that's the way I feel sometimes
but no, I'll just try to keep my head straight
I must be a child of the universe
or something like that
and if the nuclear war comes
I'll just wear my special hat
in the end, we can blame it all on the superpowers
and no, I'm not done talking about the towers


so as I travel, here's the advice I take:
change at Jamaica, but don't be afraid of change
because change is actually more afraid of you
and don't write any books
because nobody's done reading all those other books
that have already been written
and don't get sick
because you don't have any sick days left
just remember to stand straight and show no fear
and if we get through, I'll meet you all at the globe
and when it's all over maybe we'll be able to use tools
and our planet truly is a ship of fools


if you think i'm gonna lay down, the answer is no
but today, I'm just gonna smile
and let it go


Well, if a poet can't feel confident onstage with David Amram playing piano, I guess nothing will help. At the end of the evening we all stood there together as David led us in a reading of the last page of On The Road, our big closer.



I think the whole audience was onstage, although somebody must have been watching to take a photo.


This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is SINGLE POINT OF FAILURE. The previous post in the series is LUCKY GUY.
23 Responses to "HOW TO GO BROKE"

by stevadore on

Wow. I was laid off in November 2001 for about 10 months. Like you, I was desperate, didn't know what to do. Three kids and a mortgage - yikes! Somehow, we made it on meager unemployment checks and any handyman jobs I could scrounge up. (Good thing I'm good with my hands!)

I finally found a do-able job in August of 2002, literally the day after I received my last unemployment check.

All the time I was surfing Litkicks and had no idea you were going through the same thing.

Somehow we made it through. Yet I find unemployment looming over my head again. We'll see what happens. I'm not worried.

by Bill Ectric on

Yeah, we chattered the hell out of your Litkicks boards, heehEEEE, hell of a party! Say, how'dja know I was drunk?

Levi, that's a great poem about "Letting it go"
in the end, we can blame it all on the superpowers
and no, I'm not done talking about the towers

do you have that on video anywhere?

Man, I had no idea what was going on in your life during that time.

by Bill Ectric on

I should add, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, that it was my immersion in this madness that jarred me awake, made me want to be a serious writer, which in my case involved getting sober eventually, so thanks for not kicking me out early on, I would have never made it home...

by Levi Asher on

Interesting, Stevadore, I never knew you were going through that at this time either. I guess it's the kind of thing people don't talk about, especially while it's happening ...

Thanks Bill ... hey, at least your jokes were funny.

by jamelah on

You forgot about Henry James. HENRY JAMES!

Or maybe that was later. The point is that oh, those LitKicks Staff meetings... good times. Also, I still wear my Mindless Chatter t-shirt sometimes. And anybody who didn't buy a backpack missed out, because that is a really good backpack. I've taken it all over the country with me and it carries a lot of stuff.

The best thing about the LitKicks boards, for me, at least, was that I think if I hadn't started posting there, I wouldn't have started writing again. I'd hung it up, but poking around the boards and having that community gave me a place to play with words again, so I'm glad for that.

by Steve Plonk on

Great poem, Levi... Hey, they kicked around Melville and Poe. I guess we writers have all paid our dues one way or the other. The rent is so high in NYC and in the DC area, etc., it is a wonder how anybody makes it. We've recently had some rent gouging in our area down in Chattanooga, TN. Tenants are trying to do something about it. We are still making house payments and surviving fairly well. But I remember the lean years, in my twenties, and times I was nearly homeless. Hopefully, my daughter, a recent (May) college graduate will find a job soon...She's welcome to stay until she makes ends meet. Family and friends are good help when times are rough. Kind of like a mini-cooperative... I always have appreciated the insight this literary blog and poetry has on this site. I also appreciated the "boards" when they were up. May we all continue onward and be as "upwardly mobile" as we can be. Seasons Greetings!

by david on

(:

by judih on

this feels so close to home, i'm almost buzzing with the resonance.

i'd have hired you for java code if i'd walked by your sidewalk locale.

by Bill Ectric on

What about Henry James??

by Levi Asher on

Well yeah, exactly, Henry James -- would it have killed everyone on the boards to occasionally chat about Henry James? Would that have been so terrible? If we could have just kept one little conversation about literature alive every once in a while, I wouldn't have had to murder those boards dead like I eventually did.

The truth is, I miss the boards too -- there was a lot of good stuff there, but it just wasn't the type of site I wanted to run. I like the blog style much better. Several of the LitKicks old-timers have gathered at http://www.studioeight.tv/phpbb and are still hanging around there, still chatting about the weather, wishing each other happy birthday, etc. You know, when you have 25,000 registered members, every day is a lot of peoples' birthdays.

by Bill Ectric on

I like the current format much better, and I don't really miss the old boards that much. I'm just asking, what is the "Henry James" incident that Jamelah mentions above?

by Levi Asher on

I can't remember exactly, Bill, but I think I used to complain that nobody on LitKicks ever talks about Henry James.

by mtmynd on

Hey, Levi... speaking of birthday greetings, didn't yours pass by not too long ago..? ;)

Henry James... now there's a name who begs to be read and not talked about. There's a lot of those writers then and now... seems the course for most and if they're damn fortunate, someone writes and talks about them after they're dead. The artsy thing to do.

Is there any way or some day when the old Litkicks boards will be accessible to we, the public? Sure would enjoy perusing some of that writing. It was momentous in it's own (w)rite and such an excellent program you devised to operate it.

by Levi Asher on

Hey mtmynd -- well, I'm hoping to redesign this whole website in early 2010, and restoring all the archives will be a part of it. It's a whole lot of data, not so easy to restore, but I do want to ...

by Doreen Peri on

Hi Levi and Litkicks!

Someone directed me over here and I'm glad I stopped by. I have some great memories of the Litkicks boards as well as going up to NYC to perform poetry at the Bowery Poetry Club with the Litkicks gang and celebrating my 50th birthday by reading poetry with the Litkickers at the Back Fence six years ago. It was great fun! I enjoyed meeting so many of you!

Thanks for the glimpse into your autobiography, Levi. An interesting read about you!

Just also wanted to comment that the Studio Eight forums ( http://studioeight.tv/phpbb ) is a site for "Uniting the Arts". Though there are some friendly birthday wishes and some small talk about the weather which helps make a community feel like a community, mostly the members post their creative writings and share their visual art creations. We have events where members participate in Word Jams as well as Image-ination Jams. We have created a community anthology entitled "Infinite Tide" - a coffee table sized book which is filled with poetry, artwork and photography. It's been a wonderful 5 years online and we have a growing member list which includes poets, artists, photographers, & musicians from all over the world. It's really not a chat room. *smile*

Thanks so much for linking to us in your comment, Levi!

We also have an online radio show called Radio8 which includes a variety of music and spoken word poetry by many independent artists. You'd really enjoy it!

Check it out some time:
http://studioeight.tv/radio8/radio8.html

All the best on your memoir!

-Doreen Peri

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the update, Doreen. I hope it's clear, when I deliver smart-ass comments about "talk about the weather" etc. that it's with a smile. You've done a great job with Studio Eight.

by Kevin on

The haiku boards were quite lively.

by Doreen Peri on

Of course! ;) I know that. All smart-ass comments should be delivered with a smile. *smile* Thanks, Levi.

All the best to you and Caryn... and Litkicks, of course!

by Levi Asher on

Hi Kevin -- yes, the haiku boards were excellent, but why past tense? You can still post original poetry here on the Action Poetry page. It's slower and a little calmer now than it used to be, but I actually like it that way. Haikus happily accepted.

by mike on

i second what mtmind said, and whatever happened to qat ?

Hey, mtmynd! Still meditating? Still making art?

by Dirk McShanksky on

WHoa! Hungry Freaks Daddy

Drunk? More like drunk, stoned, or tweeking, dreaming of the lips of one of the lovely lit-ladies of LK, however phony it/they wuz

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