This is your homegirl Ellie here, signing in from across the pond. Next Tuesday (holy shit, that’s tomorrow!?) my gap year officially draws to a close, so I figured it was about time I did some good old reflecting on all the growing and learning and changing I’ve done this year.
It all started July 2015. I came back to Scotland from the home I’d made in Costa Rica, and despite the ecstatic reunion I had pictured before I boarded the plane, my family’s joyful faces couldn’t compensate for the drizzling gray that welcomed me at the airport. I felt depressed and lost. I no longer understood this place that was supposedly home. I didn’t have a job, or school, or program to attend. For a structured, ambitious person like myself, having no plan was terrifying. I was out of rhythm and out of place.
I knew that, being a barista, it wouldn’t be hard to find work. Yet given my stubborn personality, I was fired from the first few jobs I got. I couldn’t believe my fellow countrymen could be so exploitative! I was mysteriously dropped from the rota of one coffee shop after enquiring what the company tipping policy was (I’d noticed on several occasions the duty manager dipping in to the tip jar on her way out for her lunch break). The second coffee shop I worked in gave me my last paycheck after I switched out a Sunday shift to meet a commitment I’d made months prior. No one had discussed potential availability with me. Another coffee shop fired me because apparently I wasn’t wearing the correct uniform (no one had bothered to tell me what that uniform was. The offending item was a pair of brightly coloured sneakers – which, unbeknownst to me, were supposed to be black…).
I was fired 5 times in 6 weeks. It wasn’t the best start to my year of adventure.
Luckily, this got me involved in a campaign called Better Than Zero, which fought for better working rights for young people. I was part of several actions, including a flashmob in a restaurant we knew was paying staff below the minimum wage, and a protest in which I gave a speech about the benefits of treating one’s staff with dignity and respect. The latter protest caused the targeted establishment to reverse an abusive tipping policy, which docked staff tips unless they earned a certain amount. I had a brilliant time being part of the Better Than Zero campaign – the lessons I learned have been invaluable.
August came. I passed by a wee sign on a window in Blackfriar’s pub in Glasgow’s Merchant City which proclaimed free swing dancing lessons. I couldn’t have anticipated the impact that one Monday night has had on this year. I’ll never forget dancing steps I barely knew with a total stranger, who asked me excitedly if I was by any chance coming to Blues dancing this Thursday? Well, of course I was! And that Thursday, after an exuberant first Blues lesson, another excited stranger asking if by any chance I was going to a live blues gig they were planning to attend (blues-bomb) the next day? And, that very Friday, after dancing in a tight space to live music, yet another almost stranger asking if I was coming to their house party on Saturday?
And so I fell in to the most welcoming family I could have imagined. These characters formed so much of my experience this year. They knew how to party – and they partied hard. Events would start around 9, wouldn’t light up until midnight, and more often than not go on until four or five in the morning. One of my most poignant memories was the first party I attended. I was stoating drunk; so drunk, in fact, that I decided to show everyone how to drink tequila the Costa Rican way, which resulted in me drinking tequila from the bottle, which of course ended up with me spending the rest of the night cradling the toilet bowl. I was so sick the next day that I vomited from 11.30am until 9pm that night. That’s almost 10 hours of solid chugging. Nasty.
(In the above portrait, I had just been giving all my fellow party-goers piggy-backs. My pal Kev decided to return the favour. Laura captured the moment)
The reason that memory sticks in my mind is my new friends were so conscientious of looking out for me. They all teased me heavily afterwards, yet lovingly told me how they’d taken shifts to rub my back over the loo, and that they’d all been there too at some point or another.
My job-hunting luck changed when I handed my resume in to Cup Tea Rooms – a dainty, borderline pretentious café on upmarket Byres Road. They offered me paid breaks (!), a monthly schedule (!!) and I only had to work weekdays. The staff were lovely, the food delicious. The company was organised and precise, which was a stark contrast to some of the other chicken coups I’d been employed in. I am so grateful to Cup – not only did the rota allow me to party like mad on the weekends, but I was able to keep my evenings free for dancing whilst saving money on the side. I developed a strong connection to some of our regular customers, and became much more attuned to navigating the complexities of a work environment. Working at Cup was my first exposure to the ardent education inequalities within Scotland; but more on that later.
The other very significant thing that happened to me during my time in Glasgow was the development of my band – The Wanky Hat Trio (or, how we’re colloquially known, “The Background Sounds”). I decided we would be christened the Wanky Hat Trio after observing our mutual fondness for pretentious hats. Unfortunately, my fellow bandmates disapproved – hence our alternative name. But don’t worry, our original title is much truer to who we are.
We consisted of Jack Heavenor (or Jack King Cole) on clarinet, Stig (with no conceivable second name) on guitar, and yours truly on double bass, and we all sang here and there. The arrangements of the jazz standards we covered were very democratic, and thus quite creative – a personal highlight was a jazz mashup of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Hey Ya” by Outkast. Trust me, it worked, I promise! Playing for my newfound family to dance to was a truly exceptional feeling. Stig is a perfectionist, and a very loving slave driver, so when we performed I felt like we’d produced something very special.
We’d rehearse once or twice a week in my living room, and occasionally go busking when we were all a bit skint. I saw them both at dance classes as well as band rehearsals, so we met at least three times a week, every week, for about six months – often more. Our connections grew as dancers, musicians and friends – it’s been over six months since I’ve seen either of them in the flesh, yet when shit happens they’re still the ones I reach out to. I miss them both more than words can say.
I spent my time dancing, playing, and protesting – and then Christmas arrived out of nowhere. Apparently, gap years are for travelling, right? I swore to myself I wouldn’t stay in Glasgow in January. Come January, I was going to leave.
So I did. I took my six months’ savings, and I bought two plane tickets – one to China, and another to San Francisco. I’d just been rejected from Oxford, and three out of the five universities I’d applied to in the UK. As far as I knew, I was academically fucked. My American dual citizenship allowed me to work in the States. I thought “fuck it, I’ve got nothing to lose”.
San Francisco was – is – a shock to the system. I like travelling to a place with very few preconceptions, so I don’t like to know too much about where I’m going until I get there. The most terrifying thing about SF was how expensive everything was. $6 for a sandwich is bloody cheap here! I felt my meagre savings dribbling away.
(Here I am leaving Glasgow at 5 in the morning. I remember hugging my mother goodbye, and wondering when the next time I’d see her. I had a nagging suspicion it wouldn’t be for a while)
I arrived on Wednesday, printed and distributed CVs on Thursday, interviewed on Friday and was in work by Monday. The first job I found was in a very pretentious smoothie shop in the Castro district. The Castro is San Francisco’s gay mecca. A ten foot Pride flat flutters to attention atop the station roof. My boss, Sergio, was the campest man I had ever met. He would excuse himself when he needed to pee by saying “I need to go to the little boy’s room”, and blast Madonna from a little speaker in the corner of the shop. He was very precise. When setting up the patio at seven in the morning, he would actually come out and measure the accuracy of my work! I had to work alone from 7am until 2pm (or whenever he decided I could go). The nature of our relationship shifted when he decided I would close down the entire shop on my own after only one training shift! I’ll never forget the feeling of a massive bag of fruit and vegetable scraps bursting all over the floor I’d just cleaned, at the end of an 8 hour shift. After three weeks, I couldn’t take it anymore. His parting words to me were “Your definition of hard work and my definition of hard work are two different things”. Given that I arrived early and stayed late for every shift, I internally disagreed.
By this point, I was three weeks in to what was supposed to be a six week trip. I had toyed with the idea of cancelling my return flights – what did I stand to gain from going back to Glasgow? – but I hadn’t realised how difficult it was to find an apartment in San Francisco. After quitting my job at the smoothie shop, I had virtually resolved to returning home.
And then I was rejected from Edinburgh University. And then from Aberdeen. After rejection from nearly every university I’d applied to, my only hope was a reply from UC Berkeley – serendipitously, only 45 minutes away from San Francisco. Bear in mind, my expectations weren’t too high considering I’d applied to Berkeley after a rather wild weekend in the south of Scotland, at my pal’s dad’s house. We got massively drunk, and I was very sleep deprived when I pressed send. I did not deserve a place. So I was flabbergasted when they waitlisted me; it was significantly more than I deserved.
After I received the response from Berkeley, I was trawling through the Craigslist jobs section – just to see what I could find – when I encountered an ad which began:
“Ever wondered what it’s like behind the counter of your favourite neighbourhood coffee shop?”
I remember gulping. I was going to go home! The Hats were playing at the biggest swing dancing festival in Scotland that summer! I had to go home, I’d made plans!…
“Well”, the ad continued, “Now’s your chance! We strongly encourage fans of 90s hip hop to apply.”
There was no turning back once hip hop was mentioned. I sent in my CV, and got a speedy reply with an invitation to interview. The café was lovely. Beautiful stained glass, delicious looking cakes, and, worst of all, adorably friendly staff. I wanted so badly to hate it, to have any reason to reject them.
I was interviewed under the shade of a beautiful tree outside the café. I was surprised when the owner, boss lady, manager, simply took a chair from the patio. I somehow doubted that they’d be out with a measuring tape in the mornings when we were setting up.
My interviewer was lovelier than lovely. Introducing herself as Lauren, she offered me a flexible schedule, informed me of their very detailed tipping policy, and was adorably sweet. This was problematic. It got worse when she introduced me to her husband, and business partner, Jason. He was a tall man with a full beard and a ring in one ear. (It later transpired that Jason has a degree in the history of Latin American revolutions. I loved the pair of them instantly.)
A few days later Lauren sent me an email informing me that she and Jason would only offer me the position if I promised to stay in town for six months. Wellll shit.
I had to take it. Stig and Jack were the first people I checked in with, even before I told my folks, and they both gave me their full support. I think the rest of the Glasgow crowd are still confused as to what my plans are. I guess you could say I am too…
Anyhoo, once I accepted my position at Matching Half Cafe, I had to undertake the task of finding a place to live in the Bay. Given that I don’t like researching places before I visit them (or maybe it was just plain ignorance…) I hadn’t realised what an affect the property bubble had on your average Joe.
And some of the offers I received were simply shocking.
One woman seemed convinced that letting me sleep on the couch in her living room for $1100 a month was a good deal. Another wanted $920 for a mattress on the floor of a shared room, in a one bedroom flat shared between 5 girls. 5. People. One. Bath. There weren’t even enough keys. $920 a month, with no key? Nae chance.
I applied to 200 places in just over two weeks. It got to the point when the person who’s floor I was sleeping on was soon leaving town – I had merely ten days to find a place, or I… I don’t know what I’d have done.
I got a reply from a spot in a house that I was 100% sure was a scam. The advert claimed two bedrooms, two baths, with just one flatmate, for only $900per month. Under normal circumstances I’d simply trawl past such ridiculousness, but by then I was applying to nearly anything.
It transpired that this was not a scam; the potential flatmate was a lovely black American poet named Kevin, who had a deep affinity for 90s hip hop. On the way to meet our leasing officer, we chatted about the hip hop greats, and their involvement in modern civil rights activism. From his beautiful, near constant belly laugh, to his magnificent dreads, I knew he would be my platonic partner in crime for a long, long while.
We had to fight tooth and nail to get our place. The reason it was so affordable was that it was a Below Market Rate apartment (BMR). Essentially, in the 1980’s when San Francisco’s housing market really started to go berserk, the City authorities mandated that every new apartment complex build had to either set aside a portion of their new apartments for affordable housing, or contribute towards building new affordable housing elsewhere in the city. My apartment was a part of the former initiative.
And so, in order to “qualify” for my place, I had to demonstrate that me and Kevin’s combined income was under $65k per year – before tax. The cafe lifestyle involved an incredibly flexible schedule as a requirement – some weeks I would work 6 shifts, others a mere 2. Proving I had a fixed income, no matter what it was, was a challenge in itself.
Luckily enough, my bosses were absolutely lovely about the whole thing, and simply gave me as many shifts as I needed to qualify. We moved in in April this year, and we get on like a house on fire. The other day I came home from work to find Kevin blasting out 50 Cent tracks from his wee speaker – cue impromptu dance party!
(Believe me, it didn’t look like this when me moved in…)
Two weeks after we moved in, I got a letter from UC Berkeley telling me they’d moved me off their waitlist and were offering me a place. This, friends, was completely bonkers. A six week holiday had turned into a 6 month gambit; which was to transform into a four year degree? Madness!
I’m certainly shocked at how much of American society is based on money; but I hope never again to experience the crushing feeling of knowing you’ve worked your tits off to achieve admittance to your perfect school, only to be told that you have essentially no financial aid, and that your parents can’t afford to send you there. Even the student orientation costs $300. To avoid paying ridiculous out of state tuition, and to help me transfer more credits from both international high schools I attended, my parents decided to send me to community college for a semester. I will be starting Berkeley in January.
I keep getting invited to parties and events to welcome incoming freshmen – it’s isolating to know that I’m not a part of those festivities. Yet I hope that attending community college will give me the same insight to social inequality as working in coffee shops. I have a colleague right now who lied about graduating high school so he could find work – this job I take for granted is how he feeds himself. This job I take for granted is how many feed their children. Arguably, more people live on this kind of work than go to university. In the same vein, the community college education handed to me from on high may be me my future classmate’s only insight to the beautiful, intricate world of academia I was born into.
So my task is to enter this semester with gratitude. I promise I’ll be home for Christmas.
P.S. This is a very very very abridged version of what’s been going on this year, and it wouldn’t have happened without a great many players who I could have discussed in much more detail but haven’t. These people are including but not limited to; Aisha Fukushima who subleted me her apartment when I first moved here, one of my best pals Jonathan who let me sleep on his floor for a very long time, his Minerva crew (esp Natalie, Margot, Lishu, Eleanor, Alberto, Zach, Alex, and many many others who welcomed me as one of their own), Lauren Green who kept me sane when I first moved here, Darrell Lim who did likewise, Mimi Xia who I firmly believe is one of the bestest humans on earth, Maya Berry,who is, like, totes bomb (and knows it), literally everyone at Matching Half Cafe (they are now my surrogate family, even letting me spend Fourth of July with them), nearly all the SF dancer people who have welcomed me as one of their own, and especially this giant stuffed squid (kindly gifted me by Shaj)
Also, of course, none of this could have been possible without my folks. I’ve taken no money from them this entire year, but I couldn’t have done anything without their encouragement and emotional support. Waking up at 7am on a Saturday to respond to x or y life crisis is less than easy. I miss them every day.