The Billfold

The Woman We Hired to Help Us Communicate With Our Cat

About six years ago when my boyfriend and I returned from vacation, his cat, Zane, decided to stop using the litter box. He preferred the kitchen floor. Every day, sometimes twice a day, a tiny pile of offensive matter, piled perfectly in the center of the kitchen. The toilet paper and disinfectant spray were always close at hand. We took the disagreeable substance to the vet; there was nothing therein that indicated alarm. We took Zane himself to the vet; they said he was fine. Sometimes when cats get older, they told us—he was nine years old at the time—they just make up their minds. Hundreds of dollars later, they [...]


Aim Low

Emily Layden’s excellent exploration of when a person can call herself a writer (or a painter, or a musician), given that many writers must also call themselves waiters, teachers, or lawyers, raises an interesting question about job satisfaction and how we measure success. I do write, make art, and make music, and have been paid actual US currency for each of those endeavors within the last year. But if someone asks me if I am a writer or a musician or an artist, I shrug and say, “I’m a lawyer.” That’s easy because it’s true, and eminently defensible: I make a lot more money from being a lawyer than [...]


'Should I Go To Grad School?' vs 'MFA vs NYC'

Jessica Gross: Hi, Merve!

Merve Emre: Hi, Jess! I'm very excited to talk to you about Should I Go to Grad School?, a collection of essays out this week from Bloomsbury on … well, whether or not people should go to graduate school.

Jessica: Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's give a little background: I'm a freelance writer, and in 2011 I graduated from NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, a year-and-a-half-long MA program within the journalism school. And you?

Merve: I'm finishing a PhD in English Literature at Yale; I'm also the film editor for the L.A. Review of Books and a freelance writer. But in [...]


Some Costs Of A Career Change

The summer of 2005 was a fine time to be 26 and an even finer time to have a dream. All around me, people were going big by purchasing homes or committing as heavily as they could to can’t-miss ventures or, in a lot of cases, reinventing themselves entirely: friends and colleagues were moving into two-, three- and four-bedroom "smart investments" all across Chicagoland while locked in an arms race with people "chasing the dream" in oddball lines of work to see who could "live more fully." I, wise young man that I was, set my heart on joining the ranks of the latter.

My university mandated that [...]


'Gold Diggers' 2005/1933

In the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and Kanye West's "Gold Digger" hit the radio waves. I was 14 and didn't know how to help, but I had some money saved so I sent it along. There was a collection box in the school cafeteria the week I started ninth grade, and a big poster board chart on the wall tracked how much the school had raised using columns made of crepe paper. Soon I learned on the national news that the Red Cross wasn't doing much with the money. Nobody had planned for that kind of disaster.

"Gold Digger" was a chart-topper, spending 10 [...]


Let's Talk About Money And Death

Like money, death is something most people know is there and unavoidable but would prefer to spend as little time thinking about as possible. I get it. And I get that, like money, it can be painful when you first start reckoning with death in any real way. And mostly it stays painful. But it’s good pain, useful pain, maybe even pain in service of something greater, even if you won’t be around to see it.

Sarah Wambold was more than willing to be my inaugural subject for this column—which, having now talked to Sarah Wambold, isn’t surprising at all. She is not a squeamish person. She was just a [...]


How We Think About Class

In his memoir, the late Christopher Hitchens offered the following pithy summation of class in the United States:

An old joke has an Oxford professor meeting an American former graduate student and asking him what he's working on these days. 'My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.' 'Oh really, that's interesting: one didn't think there was a class system in the United States.' 'Nobody does. That's how it survives.

This should come as no surprise in the country where everyone, rich or poor, sees herself as middle class. But a recent experience reminded me that class is real, we can [...]


Are You My Landlord?

When I asked my lawyer, “where do you see us on the timeline of getting our money back,” I assumed that, after almost a year of forms, fees and exhaustive Google searches for my ex-landlord’s property records, we were near the end. She paused, and I could hear a whirl of traffic through the phone. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “This is why so many people resort to bats and bricks.”

Okay, I thought. Okay, okay, okay, just be patient. You’re going about this by the books and you’re bound to win this thing. Right?

After Hurricane Sandy hit, when homes darkened, flooded [...]


Places I’ve Lived: A Dormitory for the Arts, Urban Hilltops, and a Former Department Store

We had a roof deck on which Mike Myers performed beat poetry in So I Married an Axe Murderer­.September 2002 – June 2013, Prado Hall, Mesa Court Housing at the University of California, Irvine, a chunk of my freshman year tuition. Prado happened to be the dorm I got to check out on a campus tour during college decision time. It was the arts themed hall; downstairs, there was a piano in the shared living room so the musical theatre and composition majors could rehearse, and upstairs in the communal kitchen was one long, mirrored wall for the dance majors to use for practice. I knew I had to [...]


My Time on the Assembly Line Working Alongside the Robots That Would Replace Us

The small town I grew up in was surrounded by factories and existed for the sole reason of supporting the local paper mill, which employed most of our residents and brought people in from outside cities. In the surrounding areas there were numerous paper mills and medical supply factories. Everyone in my immediate family worked in a factory at one time or another; some still do.

Factory jobs—when available—are relatively stable, and provide good wages and benefits. Some are in clean environments and don't require much manual labor. As far as jobs that don’t require higher education go, working in a factory can be quite a good option.

One summer [...]


The Cost of Spring Break With School-Age Children, Illustrated And Annotated

Of all the coming sacrifices that you fail to consider when you have kids (so many!), the most insidious is how all the vacation time you accumulate will be divided in equal measure between staying home with them when they are sick and taking them places when they are on school vacation. This is not to say that raising kids isn’t wonderful and enriching and etc. etc., but for much of their lives, they are whiny travelers who insist on doing boring stuff. Important pleasures that they generally fail to appreciate include ocean sunsets, after-rain forest smell, and weekends walking around Philadelphia and getting drunk. Also, entertaining them costs [...]


Aging Out of the Foster Care System

Kyo, not his real name, is a young black man in his mid-20s currently living in transitional housing for the homeless in Northern New Jersey. I have known him since he was 18. I had met Kyo during my former job as a reporter with The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

Kyo was placed in the foster care system as a toddler. His mother was dead of a drug overdose, and his father was a long-time drug addict until he became clean several years ago. Kyo does not have a close relationship with his father, but has kept regular contact with his siblings, one younger brother and two older [...]


The Torture Of Giving Critical Feedback at Work

[byline] Hands down, my worst work experience to date was trying to tell someone they have a bad attitude. This someone was my coworker, Ruth, and technically, I was her supervisor even though we were the same age. My boss directed me to give her this feedback during her annual review. Ruth was actually terrific at many parts of her job, but according to my boss she had a "negative attitude." It was a combination of an unfriendly and unhelpful demeanor (that I think was accidental, e.g. that she frowned when her face was at rest), and a tendency to avoid taking on additional work (mostly pretty boring stuff [...]


Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

Like probably everyone else, I came across Drew Philp's essay, "Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500," when someone I know posted it on Facebook. "Ugh," I thought, clicking, "Buzzfeed."

But I shouldn't have! Philp's essay, once I got past my URL prejudice, was complex, mature and open-hearted, the kind of inside-looking-out journalism everyone says they want more of but doesn't always have a place in traditional media.

I've lived in the house for more than three years now. The neighbors don't think I'm so crazy. They've brought me lemonade while I was working on my house, or they've cut my lawn when my mower was [...]


You Never Leave Houston

Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, has a self-esteem problem. Our local boosters are continuously looking for new branding approaches, commissioning expensive ads and websites extolling our municipal virtues. There was "Houston, It’s worth it;" "Houston is hip/tasty/inspired," and the latest "Houston, the city without limits." The city’s younger residents are partial to the more profane "Fuck You, Houston’s Awesome," in response to criticisms of the city. There are many reasons for this insecurity. For Houstonians, who know of our parks, our museums, our bars, our restaurants, our people, it can feel like the rest of the country has settled on an idea of the city [...]


Times I Thought I'd Go Broke: 2012-2014

My post-college financial life hasn’t been the overflowing pot of gold that the admissions marketing told when I was a wide-eyed high school student applying to lockdown my destiny. Most of my academic advisors and department chairs were the same, full of positive energy and congratulating me on making it through those "tough four years." Interestingly enough, out of the professors from the four departments that were my academic home, the only honest and useful words about my future came from Classical Studies. Forever academics, they told us to give them a call when we needed advice on deferring our loans for graduate school. It turns out that deferment has [...]


Chatting With Artist Darren Bader About His Donation Boxes at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Cats and Money

Darren Bader is a New York City artist whose work is characterized by his use of seemingly mundane objects and unconventional mediums like burritos, readymades like furniture, and cats. Yes, cats. He had a show back in 2012 at MoMA PS1 where he corralled living cats into a white gallery space. They lounged on a couch. They soaked up the sun as cats are wont to do. Presumably, they submitted themselves to the heavy petting and affection of lonely gallery visitors. They were up for adoption. But this article is not about cats. (Though I can talk about cats for hours; Bader and I are both admitted cat lovers.)

Bader’s [...]


Bathroomless Basements, Vegan Lunches, And Other Places I've Worked

ESL Teacher, 2010:

Midway through my senior year of college it dawned on me that I was months away from graduating into a terrible economy with a liberal arts degree and no job prospects. I wanted to go abroad desperately but didn’t have any money. After I was rejected from my *dream* international fellowship (still bitter about it) I started googling “Teach English no TEFL free” and eventually found one program that didn’t require any certifications and was completely free. The assignment was in Thailand. Though any country that boasts a monsoon season isn’t my first choice, I figured that learning more about Thai culture other than the obvious [...]


Sailing Around the World And Getting By Without Cash

Sixty-five mangos, 12 coconuts, and three rubber-banded baggies of coffee slide across the deck in two large plastic bins. There’s a broad-built man in a little boat called COUNTRY staring at me. I have no money and it’s 600 miles to the nearest ATM.

For four years, I've been traveling the high seas, alone aboard my sailboat BOBBIE long enough to know that being cashless doesn’t have to be a problem. For centuries, explorers have ploughed all corners of our watery world, armed with little more than improvised currencies. From the Portuguese pursuits of exotic spices in the Moluccas, to the movement of molasses across the West Indies, the [...]


The Cost of (Almost) Getting Bed Bugs in Los Angeles

Three months ago, my boyfriend and I made the decision to move in together. We serendipitously found a perfect, large two-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms in trendy Los Feliz. For this area in Los Angeles, $1,600 for rent is an absolute steal for a place this size. We had to take it; even after the landlord raised the monthly rent a paltry $60 in exchange for some much needed kitchen updates. The building left its heyday 50 years ago but, despite the cracks and cheap repairs, it still has charm.

We couldn't believe our good fortune. How was this gem so unbelievably affordable?

Well, two months later, my boyfriend [...]