(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.
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
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
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.