About seven months ago, I left a staff reporter position at a daily newspaper in New Mexico.
I decided to piecemeal my living together by pairing two of the most combustible, unsustainable professions ever: freelance journalism and amateur gambling.
By day, I was starving the artist to feed the feverish, bug-eyed blackjack player at night. In short, it has been an apocalyptic prospect, like handing Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo a salt shaker of cocaine and a galaxy of drugs, and expecting the goods will still be there in the morning. My life is filled with fear and loathing: the fear of journalism’s professional insecurity, and the loathing of watching my bank account dwindle from a gambling addiction.
And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s the big contradiction of my existence. Journalists are destined to live shitty lives because the best stories are born from the worst circumstances. The human spirit has nothing to escape unless it’s subjugated.
So as I write this, I’m back at my folks’ humble abode, sprawled on a makeshift bed in the guest room, wondering (and knowing) why I went to J-school.
And pondering more deeply why, of all of the shrinking relics of reportage I could have chosen, I picked the University of New Mexico, whose communications and journalism department had only just been re-accredited right before my freshman year.
It’s no surprise that I ended up couch-surfing in the home where I spent most of my adolescent life, until my 20-year-old brother moved into his own apartment. As soon as all his belongings were out, I immediately plopped down all my shit. And so it went. Me, squatting. My parents quietly ruminating on how their residence has become a flophouse for marginally employed millennial degenerates.
I no longer have a mattress. Instead, my bedding consists of layers of comforters and stacked sleeping bags. I wish I could tell you that I sold the mattress to settle an outstanding gambling debt, or so that I could go plop down one last desperate $50 bet on black at the roulette table, but that’d be a lie.
In a sense, every time you write an article, you’re putting your credibility on the line.
No, it’s actually a really stupid story about nonexistent bed bugs and sudden, unexpected downpours in the desert. One day I came home and discovered a nasty crop of red bumps on the trunk of my body, and was instantly convinced I had been eaten alive by the haunting, creeping little bastards.
My dad pulled out a magnifying glass and quickly scanned the mattress for signs of an infestation; he found none. But I wasn’t convinced, so I put the mattress outside to bake in the sun and went for a run. When I got back, I discovered it had been washed out by rain. A few days later, after realizing it wasn’t bed bugs, I discovered I had an adult case of chicken pox.
Turns out, the chicken pox is an affliction not unlike journalism and gambling.
The varicella vaccine has dramatically reduced the disease’s incidence rate, much like the internet has greatly crippled print journalism. But sometimes a person still gets it—the disease and the itch. And once they get it, it stays alive and dormant in their system, sometimes returning years later as shingles. That’s journalism and gambling addiction in a nutshell: once a journalist/gambler, always a journalist/gambler.
I might be setting myself up for shingles (financial ruin) later in life, but I don’t care. Journalism and gambling evoke visceral feelings in me. I hate that I love them because that means I can’t quit them.
Every time I sit down in front of my laptop, I try to make the words dance. Vary my sentences, mix up my structure, throw in a few interesting turns of phrase, and voila. The rush comes from the risk. In a sense, every time you write an article, you’re putting your credibility on the line. Will this piece be accepted or hated? Ditto for gambling.
Every time I walk into one of the smoke-addled casinos I feel like Achilles after he bedded a gaggle of concubines. My brain lights up like a slot machine. I have hope as I strut toward a blackjack table, pull out a wad of $100 bills and plop a couple on the table, setting a clock ticking toward my next ATM trip.
More or less, these casino visits end the exact same way.
After tapping out my daily limit, I make a beeline for the exit, looking like a Bobo doll—knocked down, abused, with that stupid half-smirk painted across my face. I’m somewhere between healthy denial and bemused trepidation walking toward my vehicle. A stream of expletives greeting visitors walking in while I frantically file out.
Then come the rhetorical questions, like, “Why do I keep coming to this place?” or, “When is my luck gonna change?” And then the sinking feeling that I’m going to have to write 5–7 articles to recoup what I just lost. And then, finally, that “oh shit” moment when I realize I don’t have 5-7 assignments lined up, because freelance is feast or famine. And even when it’s feast, it’s a Spam spread.
There’s no solace in excess for a freelance journalist, only anxiety in scarcity.
This is how I manage my gambling addiction.
I’m fortunate enough to know where my next meal is coming from. After all, I live with my parents, and this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. When they brought me into the world, they entered into a pact: feed, clothe and house this child for 18 years. Tell him that if he gets his degree, he’ll find a profession that provides a piece of the American pie.
Here I am, 24 years old, with a bachelor’s, and I don’t even have cobbler.
I’m further away from home ownership now than when I was 10 years old, staked out inside my sister’s full-sized Fisher Price doll house. Only by employing financial triage—prioritizing some bills, skipping monthly installments on others—have I scraped together my car and insurance payments. At this point, my credit score probably resembles my college GPA.
And yet there’s some weird satisfaction in it all. When people ask me why I don’t abandon journalism for something more lucrative, I explain that there’s an intangible value to it. There’s the autonomy and the passion and the creativity and the ego.
Money buys a lot of things, but not change. Only journalism can effect that. It still doesn’t pay well, so that’s why I’ll never give up gambling. It’s the only way I can (attempt to) subsidize my love affair.