I stare through wild green houseplants out my bedroom window. A robot voice over the phone guides me through my student loan servicer’s menu. “Lower my bill,” I say to the aloe. “Lower my bill,” I say to the cactus. “Lower my bill,” I say to the jade, and eventually I speak to Daisy.
Daisy is friendly and practiced. This comforts me. I haven’t had to make this call in a few years. I tell her I need my monthly payment lowered. “But just this month. I’m a freelancer, and the project I’m working on hasn’t paid yet,” I say.
That’s the short version. Anything I have the skill to get paid for, I will do. I sit at my desk, my laptop open to my Google calendar. This week is a rainbow bar graph of color-coded appointments, from small carpentry jobs to ongoing editing, writing and training gigs.
The (Many) Unpaid Hours of Work
I’m swamped right now, but probably won’t bill out even close to 40 hours. Scheduling, emailing, material runs and prep are unpaid. In this rural place, driving between gigs takes up hours of my day. I got sick last week and missed two house cleanings and a personal organizing gig, which would have covered my loan payment.
“Would you like to apply for forbearance of your monthly bill ongoing?” Daisy says, and I look back to the plants and the January sun glinting off the snow in my backyard. “No thanks, I think things will pick up next month,” I say. God, I hope so.
Winter is the worst. No more steady farm work. I love working outside. I go to the vegetable farm, hoe around the tiny green corn plants and listen to hawks scream in the broad slice of sky over the field. I sweat and my muscles churn, and then I’m done. Manual labor is familiar and satisfying and finite.
My winter gigs pay more than twice as much per hour [as summer farm work], but they’re rare and unpredictable.”
Well Paid but Unpredictable Gigs
My winter gigs pay more than twice as much per hour, but they’re rare and unpredictable. I’ve been trying to make my college degree worth something, and save my body, by doing this better-paid head-work. I can spend weeks of mental chewing and steady anxiety before I sit down for a few hours and type out an essay or some marketing copy. But I’m using my brain, and I choose which jobs to take.
I lean back into my wooden desk chair. Daisy tells me she can set up forbearance for this month. I’ll pay $75 instead of $300. I’ve been paying these loans steadily for three years and the total has gone down a grand. I’ll never pay off this debt. Maybe I need a real job.
“FYI, you can save 2.4% if you sign up for direct debit payment,” Daisy says, and I hear faint voices behind her. I imagine a huge room cut up by partitions like the dividers in a case of wine, a person on the phone where each bottle would be. I laugh, “That doesn’t seem like a great idea right now.”
Hustling It Up
Daisy laughs too. Her pitch changes when she says, “No, I know what that’s like.” I believe her. I did phone surveys for a while. I still have scribbled notes and drawings I made between calls, my only outlet for creative thought. Making and taking calls requires skill, like most jobs, but not the kind of skill for which you get much money or appreciation. I hope she’s hourly and not contract. I thank Daisy and turn to my laptop. Time to get creative. I gotta hustle up enough work to pay the rest of my bills.