Heavy & Sharp

The place smelled of cigarettes and desperation. My dad’s own ten-thousand watt smile never dimmed, but the fear was a living, breathing entity behind his dark brown eyes and the relief at my sudden appearance was palpable. My grandfather’s chair still sat in front of his old color television. A butt smoldered in the ashtray sitting under the lamp on the side table with another arm chair next to that. The only other furnishings in the small living room included an old wooden desk pushed against one wall and a makeshift bookcase under the front window hosting a veritable jungle of house plants. Gordon hadn’t lost his green thumb, which made me strangely optimistic.

Despite the yellow walls and pervasive stink that my nose struggled to get used to, the place was mostly clean from the one bathroom and three bedrooms to the small kitchen and one-car garage beyond. It was a bright spot in an otherwise depressing homecoming. Dad had always been a neat freak with a “a place for everything and everything in its place” so it was nice to see he was himself in that regard even while turning into someone else.

I moved into the spare bedroom with a lone single bed and made my office in the empty room next door using a desk made from an old door and filing cabinets. I owned a Sony laptop that had its screen ripped off from when I ruined the liquid crystals a few years earlier cleaning it with Windex. The screen-less brick of periwinkle plastic sported a well-worn keyboard and CD-ROM drive, plugged into an external monitor. It worked like a champ though it was no longer portable. Every morning from three until seven, I would smoke copious amounts of fine Oregon skunk bud and edit the previous days pages from various scripts in various stages of completion, adding new pages as soon as I was back into the flow of each story.

I would join my uncles Travis or Roy laying carpet when I was done writing for the morning. The drive to Eugene took around twenty minutes, so I used the time to think about the scripts and where I would take each tale the next day. Travis and I started working on what would become the fourth feature script in my creative arsenal called The Crazy Cowboy. It started out as eighteen pages written in Travis’ neat block writing in both black and blue ink. It ended up as 110 pages of dark comedy that hadn’t been a part of my writing before.

I finished three new scripts in the four months I lived with my dad in that sad little house in Halsey. I can’t be as positive about my nascent career as a carpet installer with my uncles. Flooring work is dirty and heavy and sharp. The finished product is a wonder to behold but is a journey not many people are capable of completing. Roy and Travis had been in the industry for twenty years by the time I showed up to work as their helper, so they made it look ridiculously easy. It wasn’t easy and I didn’t plan on doing it for one second longer than absolutely necessary.

By the fall of 2003, I had helped my dad clean up the house, including scrubbing the yellowed ceiling and walls until they were slightly less yellow and smelled infinitely better, then convinced him to smoke in the garage. I couldn’t convince him of much else, really, but I was happy to be a companion as dad tried to adjust his happy teenager diet and lifestyle to account for a chronic illness that was just getting started in its quest to end his life.

We both moved out of my grandpa’s house the same blustery weekend in November. I left Oregon to start a new job Caleb found me as the sales manager for an Internet Service Provider back in Washington DC, and dad moved to a tiny apartment in Eugene to receive regular dialysis treatments at an out-patient center that didn’t require him to drive. Besides the fact that we had been squatting in the home since my grandpa died, he couldn’t drive twenty minutes to get home from dialysis treatments. I was flush with cash for the first time in a long time when my friend negotiated a $3000 moving stipend with my new boss who had hired me based on a single, brief phone call and Caleb’s assurance that I was the man for a job I had never done before. Dude is a born salesman.

After loading the last of dad’s stuff into the back of his old Volvo for the final trip to Eugene, I said good bye with a fierce hug and a tender kiss on his stubbly cheek. I already had my stuff packed into my truck and followed the old man toward the I-5 freeway maybe half a mile away. As he headed south with a jaunty toot of his horn, I continued across the overpass and toward the foothills of the Cascade Mountains that defined the eastern boundary of the Willamette Valley. The sun struggled to climb above the horizon as I ascended into the tree-shrouded darkness that covers the twisting two-lane Highway 20 that connects I-5 to the city of Bend on the other side of the mountains. Driving into the sleepy ski and brewery town to find Oregon’s lonely high desert stretching out for two hundred miles to the Idaho border can be an assault on the senses and reason. The verdant forests morph into rolling hills bisected with steep canyons and rivers and creeks.

I pointed my wheels east and kept going until I hit Colorado for yet another visit with the family on my way from one coast to the other and back again. I stopped midway through in an state park near Mountain Home, Idaho to sleep in the back of my truck on a foam mattress placed on top of the blue plastic bins storing my worldly possessions. With the back of the truck open to the elements and a small fire warming my face, I sat in silent communion with the crisp November night and my turbulent thoughts. I smoked a joint and drank a couple of beers before extinguishing the fire, locking the trailer from the outside and climbing back inside to sleep via the window in the cab once the alarm was on.

I’m usually dead asleep minutes after my head hits the pillow, but that night my eyes stayed open for over an hour while I considered the crazy, twisting path that brought me to this place at this time. I had to give it to my boy. I was feeling pretty desperate after searching and failing to find a job that used my unique mix of skills. The job he talked me into was a Godsend, even if the underlying motive was having his best friend back in town.

I would be back on Caleb’s sofa for the second time since leaving the Navy, which was a bit of an ego ding, but I really had no choice. Oregon had been dead end professionally even while it had been a huge boon creatively. I always knew that four feature-length spec scripts were the bare minimum needed to even consider moving to Los Angeles and start bagging groceries in pursuit of an agent and a deal. I wasn’t all that confident in the marketability of my wares, though, given the initial reception they received from the few people I knew that were even peripherally involved in the industry. I needed time to hone my craft or at the very least repeatedly rewrite all four scripts until they glistened on every page. I’m still working on them and have yet to complete a fifth screenplay despite the intervening years and the skeletons of three or four new ones in various stages of decomposition.

Since I had no intention of being a starving artist at the age of 33, I went east instead to a sure thing even though I didn’t have the faintest clue what the job entailed. The German expat I would be working for seemed nice enough on the phone and satisfied I had the skillset he needed to sell more of his hosting services, so it was certainly the best alternative in a life desperately short of options.

The new job lasted just long enough for me to trade in my almost paid for Nissan pick-up with low miles and a ton of life left in it for a silver Honda Accord with heated black leather seats and five years of payments. The first in a series of horrible financial decisions prompted at least in part by a desire to enjoy the same quality of life as my upper middleclass friend, now the vice president of sales for a DC web development shop with a wife who made good coin as well.

It started off promising enough. The company provided dedicated hosting solutions, both managed hardware and unmanaged colocation, to a variety of commercial clients. This was a few years before hosting infrastructure started moving to the cloud and costs fell through the floor, so there were a number of small vendors who leased Internet bandwidth and provided direct access to the backbone connection for their clients. It was a business with huge margins because the costs were fixed and predictable while the fees one could charge varied wildly by the specific needs of the customer.

I tapped into Caleb’s expertise with business development and invited him over for a beer one day after work. The office was in a small business park not far from the townhouse where I slept on a leather sofa in his basement. Each day after normal business hours, we would crack some good German beers and go over the day’s events as well as any outstanding issues that would carry over into tomorrow. I had fallen into more of a customer service role than that of a sales manager, but I hoped my friend could help fix that problem, so I could pull down some serious money in commissions.

Caleb was dressed to the nines, per usual, and wrinkled his nose reflexively at the strong smell of cigarettes in the lobby from the open door of the “tech room” nearby where the boss had his desk and the system’s engineers did as well. They chain-smoked all day while drinking coffee and fielding trouble-tickets from irritated clients. There was a reason why the Dot.com Bomb led to the current paradigm of user experience above all else in technology services. Back when the web was still under construction, it was a German with a couple of Russian developers and an ineffectual American sales manager operating from a nondescript office park in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, keeping things afloat.

We grabbed beers from the mini fridge near the boss’s desk and disappeared into the back of the space where my desk rested near the room where the servers were housed and kept cool by an enormous air conditioner added just for that purpose. I refused to smoke in the office, so my desk was an oasis of professional order and discipline in the midst of frat boy chaos. The first thing Caleb suggested was the culture of the company needed to change dramatically before I would be able to move the needle on sales in any way. He then took a second look around and said I should probably start considering a Plan B. He had just finished his bachelor’s degree at an online university and provided contact information for their student aid department. Once they found out I had the GI Bill to draw upon, I was quickly enrolled and taking classes, all completely virtual.

I had to convince the rest of the office to stop smoking inside as an essential first step. As a smoker myself, I already went outside when I needed a cigarette so that would at least provide leadership by example. Next, I would clean up the office to look less like a techie teenager’s bedroom and more like a place of business. The latter proved much easier than the former though painting walls and hanging logos was like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic in any case since the company was running on fumes long before I left Oregon.

The morning I lost my job started like every other morning where I sat down at my desk with coffee and a long list of customer complaints to address. The boss had been spending less and less time in the office over the last few weeks, so when he abruptly walked up to my desk and asked to speak with me in his office, I knew it couldn’t be good. It wasn’t. He would be closing the doors permanently in a few weeks once the collocated servers were moved by clients and dedicated server customers secured new space and moved their data to new vendors.

A few weeks later, I was out of a job and my occupation became hanging out in Caleb’s basement and going to school for multimedia and graphic design. GI Bill stipends and student loans to paid for my car, incidentals, and the $500 a month room and board. I also had web gigs coming in occasionally to help keep me cash flush and mildly busy with extra time to spend online or napping. My carefree lifestyle was a sharp burr under my friend’s saddle in short order even though it meant time to party when his family or work obligations allowed. He came home early one particularly bad day to find me napping on the sofa with CNN playing quietly on the huge television. With the shades drawn and the lights dimmed and an empty beer on the coffee table, it was much too cozy of a scene on a Tuesday afternoon at four to allow Caleb to let it go without comment.

He actually went ballistic as he was wont to do at various times in our friendship. He said it was time for me to find a job and a new place to live, not necessarily in that order.

I secured both with very little trouble, so I guess it always works out. There was plenty of work to be had in the Washington DC metro with temp agencies as an overqualified administrative assistant. I took tests on various Microsoft and graphics design programs as well as basic grammar and spelling before being sent out on two- and three-week gigs with large companies and non-profits. It wasn’t a ton of money but it was enough to cover my modest needs. Rental properties were fairly easy to find as well. The small one bedroom attic apartment cost me $1,100 a month, including utilities, and provided easy access to bars, restaurants and the Metro stop at Crystal City.

I started temping for a large human resources consulting firm in Foggy Bottom. I completed my initial temporary gig and was asked back to work another department for another six week engagement. The firm eventually hired me as a full time executive admin for their senior and junior consultants servicing group benefits plans for dozens of high-profile clients across a number of industries. I continued to go to school online each evening, plugging away at a bachelor of science in information technology. All in all, things were shaping up quite nicely moving into the spring of 2004.

Meanwhile, Caleb had moved up to the position of executive vice president at the small web firm where he worked, Proteus, when the founders of the company decided to move into a more silent role and leave the former EVP, Gary Hagel, in charge as the firm’s new President, promoting my friend into his old position. In the leadership shakeup, the chief operating officer also decided to leave and a huge hole appeared in their project delivery capacity since he was the only project manager. While Caleb moved to hire a senior project manager, he invited me in to interview for the junior PM role they had added. I met with the departing owners and COO before being offered the job at a salary higher than anything I had enjoyed up to that point, including the Navy.

It felt like my ship had come in finally, conveniently forgetting the butting of heads that would happen when Caleb and I worked together on a daily basis. I figured he would be too busy driving new business to be overly involved with the day-to-day operations of delivering projects. Again, I conveniently forgot that my friend is a bit of a control freak when it comes to his reputation being on the line, so his fingers ended up in just about every pie because President Gary left a vacuum of project leadership and there was no chief operating officer. I was just a PM, so I kept my smiling mouth shut and my feet moving.

I was working 60 or 70 hours a week for my annual pay, so it really wasn’t as good a deal as I thought it was at first. I was learning a very valuable new skillset, so it never felt like being taken advantage of when I was one of the last guys to leave and had hours more work left at home. Working with clients to create the plans used by developers and designers to build sophisticated database-drive websites was a dream come true and required an equal mix of creativity and technical know-how combined with enough innate people skills to manage the many inputs and outputs of hundred thousand dollar projects.

I was forced to leave my attic apartment in Arlington when the owners decided to sell the house, so I moved into a standard one bedroom in a huge complex in Alexandria, not far from where I used to crash on Caleb’s couch. Later that summer, my little brother Jon graduated from a sport’s medicine program at Colorado State University and secured an internship with a local fitness club. He needed a place to stay and I had a new couch from Ikea that had his name all over it. Jon was twenty-one years old now as well, so the three of us started to party on a regular basis.

Halloween of 2004 found us with the perfect excuse to take a short trip to Amsterdam. The band Maroon 5 was playing at Heineken Hall and recreational marijuana was available at dozens of coffee shops around the city. We also planned to visit museums and cultural shit, but it was really all about the nightlife in the large Dutch metropolis. We took the red eye flight out of Dulles International Airport to Schiphol Airport on the outskirts of Amsterdam. A forty-minute train ride delivered us to Central Station and a short cab ride to our hotel near the outer rings of the city’s main shopping and eating districts called the Leidseplein.

We checked into the hotel Caleb secured for the long weekend, all of us sharing a single room. We were on a budget and didn’t plan on spending much time there beyond sleeping in advance of our next adventure. Even so, it was a tiny room and the queen bed would make for cozy accommodations for two larger than average guys and much skinnier me. We dropped off our bags and slept for a couple of hours to shake off the trip. We woke up around eleven and went in search of beers and food and weed, not necessarily in that order.

We found the first two items in the square directly across a busy road from our hotel in a place called Bar American, not exactly a stretch of the imagination. We ate and drank and started to wander in search of a coffee shop. The first place we found open was a single room with very little light, a coffee bar against one wall and maybe a dozen small tables scattered around, half of them occupied, and the smell of killer skunk bud heavy in the air. We selected five grams of a likely specimen  and asked to borrow one of the house pipes from a shelf behind the bartender. We also ordered more coffees and settled in for a bit of smoking and joking.

We were the only tourists, so when we ordered our second round the barkeep inquired about our stay. We said were in town for the Maroon 5 concert and a little herbal tourism. He nodded and asked if we had heard about the Halloween party they were throwing the night of the concert. We hadn’t heard of the party and took the glossy flyer printed on thick card stock. It featured a beautiful young man with a bare chest and leather suspenders, glittering on a stage.

It took a long moment before we understood what he was asking based on the nature of the party being advertised on the flyer and the clientele of this particular coffee shop playing the rare Bob Marley tracks. We laughed and admitted that wasn’t really our scene, but it looked like fun. We finished our coffee and maybe another ounce of the awesome bud we purchased before wishing him a great event and walking back out into the bright noon sun, a startling contrast after a couple hours spent in the café’s pitch-black spaces smoking high-quality cannabis and drinking coffee. We took another look at the sign out front and noticed the rainbow appellation we had missed earlier when we saw the Rastafarian colors on the opposite edge.

The rest of our time in Amsterdam was spent wandering around looking at the amazing architecture and visiting unique coffee shops tucked away into hidden corners of a city founded before the Dark Ages. We made sure to visit the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum as well. It was the first time I had seen a Rembrandt in person and was blown away by the way the multilayered oils created a 3D effect no matter what angle you viewed the painting. The Van Gogh paintings were every bit as impressive but for the exact opposite reason. His images seemed to shift and blur depending on the where you stood when you looked at them as well as your proximity.

The Maroon 5 concert was something of an afterthought with all the other cool shit we did that weekend. It was a pretty cool venue, though, almost like a huge high school gymnasium with the smell of marijuana pervasive and Heineken girls walking around with kegs on their back to dispense frothy beverages on command. We ended dancing in one spot most of the night with some locals, the stage maybe five feet off the ground and a hundred feet away. We shared our dwindling supply of weed since none of it could go back with us.

At one point, a couple of cops walked over and started giving us the stink eye. They wanted to know if they saw us smoking weed. We hemmed and hawed and saw our freedom flash before our eyes before the kids we were hanging out with and the cops started laughing, the latter moving off into the crowd chuckling under their breath. It was explained to us that the Amsterdam police enjoyed making Americans feel uncomfortable when being marijuana tourists in their wonderful city that was wonderful for many more reasons than the killer weed that could be found in plentiful supply at reasonable prices.

We returned to Washington DC renewed and refreshed and ready to tackle the crazy lives we led. Jon and I had moved into a two bedroom place in the same building where I had been living when he came to stay over the summer. He was now working as a personal trainer full time and learning a new physical fitness regimen called Parkour. I had started grad school that September at American University in their producing for film, television and video program. All day every Saturday for twenty months and I would be the proud owner of master of arts degree. It seemed like a rational direction to go given my desire to make films and television shows in my next career.

Meanwhile, Caleb and Gary decided to purchase the company we worked for in what’s known as a Management Buyout, my friend taking the junior partner position. They used a mixture of cash and debt acquisition, secured by taking out liens against both of their homes, to buy all the equity in the privately-held digital agency started by two brothers and a techy friend in a college dorm room a decade earlier. What was a lifestyle business for all three founders by 2004, with all the inattention that description implied, had much more personal ramifications for the twenty or so people who worked there every day and had very little direct control over their destinies when every strategic decision had to cleared with absentee landlords already off to crest their next horizon.

What this meant for me was the beginning of the end of my time with the firm.

Caleb and I were just too close to ever work in a situation where he wanted to treat me like a friend when it came to our day-to-day life but demanded abject and total deference as the owner of the place where I worked. Had he treated me the same as all the other employees that would have been just fine, but there was a certain expectation that I would work harder than anyone else for less money just because he was my best friend and I wanted him to succeed at any cost. He was mostly a respectful champion of his other employees, but I didn’t enjoy the same regard due to a close personal friendship of nearly 14 years at that point.

The situation didn’t reach the boiling point until I met the woman who would become my wife the following summer.