Strange Journeys: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the ride

February 10, 2015

bike beach journeyIn college, I had one basic job requirement: wherever I’d work, it’d be in a hoodie. You can only be a barista for so long, though, before caffeinating the collegiates has you thirsting for something a bit more substantive.

In law school, I came to terms with the fact that my slacker attire might render me unemployable—so I suited up, got a job at the public defender’s office, and substituted my old rule with a new one: wherever I’d work, I’d commute by bike.

My first paying job after graduation was as a judicial clerk in a town 57 miles away from my apartment. That trek would require Spandex and a jet pack—and Spandex was one thing I was not willing to compromise on; I decided to suck it up and drive. It seemed I had landed in the epicenter of car culture: not only did people drive the one and half blocks between the courthouse and the regrettable Chinese buffet—their cars became a place of refuge, an office annex where they could take breaks, phone calls, and post-hot-drop-sweet-n-sour naps.

But the judge was cool and the paycheck was nice (even if most of it went to gas, gas station cappuccinos, a set of audiobooks, and scratched Learn Spanish While You Drive CDs), and I still had enough time to volunteer back home. Also, I could spend the day hiding behind a computer screen. I wore that blue glow like a security blanket, having experienced public speaking twice in law school—once to my classmates in ConLaw and once to a Court of Appeals panel, both equally terrifying and disastrous. New rule: wherever I’d work, I’d spend no more time speaking to groups than I would practicing my español—which, given the disc skipped and my patience was waning, was about tres collective minutes a week.

Before long, the comfort of the chambers gave way to a greater desire—the need to advocate. While clerking at the public defender’s office during school, I’d been thoroughly bit by the criminal bug. I spent lunch hours not in my car, but at my desk scrolling through statewide job postings for PD positions—and the moment one opened up on the Leech Lake Reservation, I was gone.

It hadn’t really occurred to me until I was standing in front of my first jury pool that being a public defender inevitably meant public speaking. A lot of it. I trembled so violently I nearly bounced into the jury box; I wept throughout voir dire, going through the entire box of Kleenexes typically reserved for defendants. At one point I uttered aloud what everyone must have been thinking: Well, this was a poor career choice. My client, understandably, sunk even lower in his chair. But I hit stride somewhere between cross-examining the cop and closing, my client was acquitted, and all was forgiven.

I loved that job—it was exhausting, it was exhilarating, it was what I felt I was meant to do. It didn’t hurt that I could pay my bills and splurge on good beer—when I could find it. Thus was born a new rule: wherever I’d work, I’d still be able to afford Surly.

Without surprise, I came to care deeply for my clients and the larger community. One night, over pea soup with an elder, I began to really take stock of the perpetual punishment of guilty pleas—men and women had lost their jobs and licenses, lost their homes and kids, been kicked out of school and locked out of Canada; youth had futures foreclosed before brains were even fully formed. I knew little about these sanctions, and even less about how to appeal or circumvent them. It seemed absurd not to understand the overall terrain while in the trenches, so as soon as a job focusing on the collateral consequences of a criminal record opened—I seized it.

And with that, all of my rules were broken: as a VISTA, I took a $42,000 pay cut; suited up, I drove all over the state; and at each destination, I would speak to groups of employers, landlords, legislators, and licensing boards about the need to give people a second chance.

I eventually was promoted to director of advocacy and public policy and stayed there for four more years. Last fall, though, I decided to leave my day job and focus on a side project I’d been working on, called We Are All Criminals.

Yesterday, I suited up in my trusty two-piece, now so well-worn the elbows are shiny bits of threadbare fabric held together by habit and hope. With a lavalier mic picking up each sniffle, snort, and sigh, I addressed a crowd of more than 200 people. (My hands still shake too much for me to actually hold a microphone.) I drive my unfunded project all across the country, and while I haven’t had a paycheck since July, I am having the time of my life.

I would have missed out on it all had I stuck with my first or second or third or fourth rule. But here are some I’m glad I hung on to: do good work well; feed your soul and mind before your bank account; stay flexible; move around; make your degree count; keep challenging yourself. Yeah, they’re platitudes—and I’m sure you can find more profound advice on a coffee mug; the key is in truly embracing them.

But I’m still vetoing Spandex.