Priceonomics

Editor's note: The following is the personal story of David Raether, a former comedy writer for the sitcom Roseanne who later became homeless. It is adapted from his memoir, "Tell Me Something, She Said."

On Christmas Day, 2001, I sat down at my Yamaha G2 grand piano, set up my metronome, and opened up a book of Shostakovich’s “Preludes.” It was late afternoon, and the warm, orange light of the fading day poured into my five-bedroom house — paid for by my $300,000 a year income as a Hollywood comedy writer — in San Marino, California, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. My wife, Marina, was cooking dinner for me and our eight children, and it was as happy a Christmas afternoon as I would ever have.

****

On Christmas morning, 2008, I woke up on the floor of the 1997 Chrysler minivan I lived in, parked behind the Kinko’s just two miles from my old house in San Marino. It was raining, and I was cold, even though I had slept in three layers of clothes. It was one of those blustery storms that regularly whoosh down from the Gulf of Alaska and pummel Los Angeles during the winter. I climbed out of the van and walked to a Starbucks five blocks away. Although I didn’t have any money, I had scavenged the Sunday Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle from another coffeehouse a couple days before. The baristas didn’t mind me sitting quietly for several hours every day to warm up and kill time.

I was neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic, nor was I a criminal. But I had committed one of the more basic of American sins: I had failed. In eight years, my career had vanished, then my savings, and then our home. My family broke apart. I was alone, hungry, and defeated.

Between 2007 and 2011, some five million American families lost their homes to foreclosure. Some of them found alternative housing by renting an apartment or moving in with family members. But not all of them. Many American families broke apart during this time. Mine was one of them. And I was one of the people who ended up homeless. This, however, is not the story of five million American families. This is just my story.  

Our family faced the same economic forces that hurt many families, but I don’t blame the banks or politicians or anyone else for what happened to us. I made a thousand decisions, large and small, that seemed reasonable at the time but cumulatively led to our situation. It is tempting to blame external forces for the disasters that befall us, but as Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Ceasar,” the fault for what happens to us “is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

It was Christmas. I stared out the Starbucks window at the rain. God, help me. I had said this prayer a thousand times, and would say it a thousand more. I had to find a way back to my life.  

And over the course of the next four years, I would do just that. I would do it with the pure, unquenchable, unrelenting — some might say naïve — belief that things would work out. And I would do it through Craigslist, the omnifariously oddball website that has nearly destroyed the newspaper industry by taking over the classified advertising business. But it would be Craigslist that would help me find my way back.

People say you can find just about anything you need on Craigslist.

You might even find your life again.

***

My fall was all the harder because I had my dream job. You know, the job you dreamt of as a little kid: quarterback in the NFL, supermodel, astronaut… Something crazy and cool that hardly anybody is lucky or talented enough to land.

It all started like this: I was maybe six years old and watching “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ed Sullivan thanked the last performer and then turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Alan King!” A burly, handsome man walked alone onto the stage in a dark suit and tie and began talking. And he was funny!  And the audience was laughing. I was enthralled.  It seemed like magic. The next morning, I came downstairs for breakfast and told my mother I wanted to write jokes for a living.

“Oh, no, you’re not going to do that!” she said. “That’s just foolishness.”

This convinced me that this was something I absolutely wanted to do with my life.

A couple of decades later, I took time off from my budding career as a newspaper man to travel around Europe. While in Germany, I met a beautiful and mysterious Serbian poet named Marina. We met by accident, but we latched on to each other with a ferocious and unstoppable kind of love. We got married a year later.

Suddenly reality came crashing. I was married and needed a real job. I decided to launch a magazine in Minneapolis with a friend from college. We made two basic mistakes: First, the magazine wasn’t very good, and, second, we didn’t have any money. The second problem seemed solvable. I got a job as a bartender to pay the rent and keep the lights on.

The place I tended bar turned out to be crucial: William’s Pub, in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was a comedy club. I met dozens of young stand-up comics. I learned how to craft jokes and started writing some of my own. Among the people I befriended was a young comic, Tom Arnold, who also worked at William’s. We became fast friends, and wrote together and did comedy bits together and were having the time of our lives until Marina became pregnant.  

Okay, I thought, now it’s really time to get a real job. My experience launching the magazine helped me land a job with a trade magazine publishing company that specialized in computer magazines. I left Minneapolis and took a job in their Peterborough, NH, offices.  And that was apparently the end of my career in comedy. I spent the next eight years wearing a suit and being thoroughly respectable. I developed all sorts of useful skills such as how to do market research, how to create financial models on Excel, how to negotiate with vendors, and how to sell. I was so unhappy. And then one day in line at a supermarket I glanced at the tabloids and saw Tom Arnold on the cover with sitcom star Roseanne Barr!

I called him in Los Angeles. He immediately took my call and we talked and talked, and then he told me he wanted to hire me onto the “Roseanne” show but needed a writing sample. He sent me some scripts and asked me to write one of my own to see if I could do the job. Without a clue as to what I was doing, I wrote a script that must have been just good enough for him to justify hiring me. And so Marina, our five children, and I moved to Los Angeles. And voila! I had my dream job doing what I had dreamt of doing since I first saw Alan King telling jokes on the Ed Sullivan show nearly thirty years earlier.

But was it as good as I expected? Are you kidding me? Of course it was! I loved everything about writing for television. I loved sitting in the writing room with twelve other smart and funny people arguing all day about the script. I loved walking down to the stage and seeing our stuff in rehearsals, the taping nights in front of live studio audiences, and seeing great actors saying our jokes and getting laughs from the crowd. I loved the post-taping commiseration sessions at saloons near the studios and I loved the media acclaim.

In the writer's room of Roseanne during a break

And I was making great money. Writers/producers typically are paid on a per episode basis. At my level of experience and background in the late 90s, I made between $12,000 and $15,000 per episode for a 22 episode season. In addition, I had certain script guarantees. I received writing credit on at least three episodes per season, which paid another $20,000 per episode. A studio also paid me another $650,000 a year just to come up with ideas for television series. If one of my shows made it on the air and into syndication (endless reruns on afternoon local television), I could make tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

It was heaven. Except it wasn’t for Marina. Or my family. The working hours were hideous: Most days started at 10 a.m. and ended at 3 a.m. The easy nights were the nights we filmed, when we finished by 10 p.m. I barely saw Marina and the children, except on weekends. Our house was not a home but the place I checked into when I wasn’t working. Marina, meanwhile, struggled to deal with eight children. Both my family and my marriage started to fall apart. My comedy writer skillset  -- being a quick-witted wisenheimer who could debate endlessly -- didn’t transfer well to a home setting. Whereas I was well-compensated to have a dad in a sitcom make a joke out of his daughter’s emotional crisis, it wasn’t funny with real daughters and real sons and a real wife. It was irritating and provoked resentment.

So I had to make a change. I had to quit my dream job. (And honestly, I probably only had a few more working years left because comedy writers rarely work into their fifties.) I had carefully saved and we had lived well below our means, so I decided to take a couple of years off to devote time to my real job: husband and father.

For the next two years, I did that job full-time. We restored balance to our family life, and I was happy. I decided it was time to return to television.  

Television, however, had other ideas. In the interim, reality programming had boomed. It made perfect economic sense: It was cheap to produce and audiences were interested. The number of sitcoms plummeted and so did employment for comedy writers. The fall primetime network schedule in 2002-03 had 43 sitcoms. When I returned in 2004-2005, there were 32. My agent told me there were about half as many jobs available as there were when I left. By 2007-08, there were only 18 sitcoms on the air. I was now nearly 50 years old and had been out of the business for two years. Nobody was going to hire me anymore. My agent told me that I faced a common problem for writers my age: Producers could hire a team of first-time writers for less than the fee they would pay me for my services. But they won’t know what they’re doing, I countered. They don’t care, he responded. 

I had prudently saved and invested during my years in television, so I had a $500,000 nest egg between various mutual funds and an annuity I had invested in during my working years. But I was supporting a pretty large infrastructure. 

The expensive part of having eight children isn’t the present: feeding and clothing them. The expensive part of having eight children is their future. Good schooling was our priority. But there was no way we could send eight children to private schools, even with an enormous salary. We had to find a great public school system, and we did in San Marino, an old-money suburb near Los Angeles. In 1995, we bought a house there. It was a big one because, well, we needed a big one. And then there are all the other investments you make in their future: piano lessons, club sports fees, tutoring, and so on.  

After a year, when it became clear that I could not return to television, I realized that I would have to pursue my old career: magazine publishing. I sent out hundreds of resumes. Nothing. With our savings running down over the next two years, we did what everyone advised in the mid 2000s: take advantage of the soaring equity in our house. We refinanced and refinanced and refinanced again, taking out money for living expenses each time.  This was considered a smart move by many in those years.

But eventually we reached our limits. At one point, the water was shut off for several days when we failed to pay a bill. Under cover of darkness, we hooked up a hose to the outside spigot of our neighbor’s house and ran the hose into our kitchen. We filled pots to cook pasta with and to heat up for sponge baths. It’s amusing to think about now, but at the time it was mortifying. We were stealing water! From the nice old lady who lived next door! 

Finally, in 2006, unable to refinance any further, we lost our home to foreclosure. Actually, you don’t lose the house. The house loses you. The house isn’t going anywhere. You and your family are the ones who get lost. In our case, an investor bought the house with the intention of renovating it and flipping it. I hope she made money on it.

  

David's house in San Marino

The worst moment is the day the sheriff comes. Two armed members of the county sheriff’s department showed up with a locksmith as we were moving out. The investor stood on the opposite side of the street as we packed and loaded a moving van. She watched us load our furniture, which we put into storage because the two bedroom apartment we managed to lease with the help of a friend didn’t have room for 4,000 square feet worth of furniture. The deputies came and talked with us to make sure we really were moving out, and we felt like criminals for spending a final few hours in the house we owned for twelve years.  

Over the next couple of years, our economic situation worsened. I couldn’t find any kind of work. When I applied at Trader Joe’s, the manager saw four years of unemployment and twelve years spent writing television comedy. Sir, are you sure you want stack loaves of bread here at Trader Joe’s? Yes, I really do. Well, we’ve decided to hire the 24 year-old woman with purple hair and nose piercings instead.

The Writer’s Guild of America has a term for my situation: They call it “The Gap.” It’s the time period between when your years as a working writer end and your retirement begins. I actually have an excellent pension for when I finally retire. The Guild is a strong union and it has negotiated an excellent pension plan for writers who have more than seven consecutive years of service. When I finally hit 65, my WGA pension combined with Social Security means I should have a comfortable retirement. 

I was 46 when I had my last writing job in television. That meant I faced a 19 year Gap. As with other writers facing The Gap, my resume was a problem. I worked as a publishing executive before becoming a writer. I had a nice, solid resume that showed constant forward progress in my publishing career from financial analyst to business manager to circulation director. Which is great… except that progress ended in 1991 and I was applying in 2004.  

I sent off resumes and scored occasional interviews. But the interviewers mainly wanted to hear Hollywood stories and then said, “Thanks we’ll be in touch.” I don’t blame them. I’d hire the person currently working in the magazine business instead of the guy who had a lot of amusing stories about comedy writing but hadn’t worked in a publishing environment for more than a decade.  

By 2008, with the older children off at college or working and my job prospects bleak, Marina and I decided to separate. She moved to San Francisco with our two youngest daughters and settled in temporarily with two of our oldest daughters who worked there. I could no longer even afford to house myself. I found friends to take in my two remaining high schoolers.

And then I became homeless.

Yes, I, David Raether, the smart and funny guy who graduated with honors from college and read thousands of books and played the piano and went to church and won television awards, was homeless.    

What happens when you hit bottom? I can tell you one thing: you don’t bounce back. You crawl back, fighting every step of the way. It isn’t a straight arc back up either; there are dozens of setbacks every step of the way. And the place you land isn’t anywhere near where you were when you slipped off the cliff.

In the first days and weeks after I became homeless, I was in a daze, utterly and completely disoriented. I felt like a boxer staggering around the ring after a rapid series of blows I didn’t see coming. It took me several months to figure it all out.

When you become homeless, you face a number of practical issues. In fact, when you are homeless, all you face are practical issues.

Where am I going to sleep tonight?  

What supermarket has the best samples today with the most protein in them?   

How am I going to deal with rainstorms dumping water into my usual sleeping spot?  

I have a job interview; I have clean clothes, but how can I make sure I don’t smell?

These are the issues you deal with on a daily basis. Dreary, boring, painful issues that relate directly to your body. And that’s because homelessness is a dreary, boring, and often painful condition.  

Your days are very long. The rhythm of work followed by home is gone. It’s replaced by long stretches of empty time. No company, no conversation, no deadlines, nothing.  

Several years earlier, one of my sons played on a mainly Hispanic soccer team in Bell Gardens, a working class Hispanic suburb of Los Angeles. I got to know one of the fathers quite well. He was from Guatemala City.

“What’s Guatemala City like?” I asked him one day.

“The days are very long in Guatemala City,” he said.

That was all he said about his life there. And that would probably be the best description of life as a homeless person. The days are very long.

In my past life, I spent a typical autumn Saturday reading the paper and drinking several pots of coffee while working two or three crossword puzzles. Around 11 a.m., Marina and I would drive one or two or six of the kids to the farmers' market in the parking lot at Pasadena High School. Then we would return home and I would come up with an interesting set of reasons for not working in the yard while settling down on the couch to watch college football. Several hours later, I’d pour a glass or two of wine as the day turned into night, watch a movie, and settle into bed. Not much of a day, really. But when I think of those days now, they seem like some kind of lost paradise.  

A Saturday during my homelessness went like this.

I would wake up around 4 a.m., brush myself off, and wander around the streets for awhile until Starbucks opened. I'd spend what little money I had on coffee and hope someone left a copy of the Los Angeles Times so I could work the crossword puzzle. I'd wait. And wait. At 10 a.m., the Pasadena Central Library opens. I would walk up there and surf job websites and send off some resumes and read articles online during my allotted time until noon, or, if I was lucky, early afternoon.  

That was the hard part of the day. I’d be hungry. Really hungry. A week since I had a real meal hungry. I'd walk over to Whole Foods on the Arroyo Parkway, which has good food samples on Saturdays, grab a cart, and pretend to shop. (It always helps to put some items in the cart to look the part.) The fruits are by the door - I'd grab a bunch of orange slices and watermelon chunks. Next I go upstairs to where the muffin bits and cheese chunks are and gorge as subtly as possible. I'd return the unpurchased items to their places in the store and exit.

By then it would be mid-afternoon. I'd dream of lying on a couch in a warm living room, watching college football. Instead I would walk to another public library to access the Internet. As the sun sets, I'd head to a coffeehouse in South Pasadena called Kaldi where I could find someone to talk with. It wasn't the company of loved ones, but they were decent people who didn't ask too many questions about my circumstances.

Night. At 8 p.m. I'd return to the Starbucks. I would find discarded copies of the New York Times and start working the crossword puzzle. And that was Saturday.  

Sundays were the same, and so were Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. On public holidays, the libraries closed and I needed to find someplace else to spend my days. Only the rare job interview broke the monotony.

Gradually, however, I adjusted. I accepted that I was not going to have a career anytime soon, but I did need a job. I was not going to own a house, but I did need to find a place to live. I couldn’t cook or afford restaurants, but I did need to eat.   

After the first few disorienting weeks of homelessness, I got myself up off the canvas and begin to bob and weave and shake my head. I sniffed the ammonia capsule of reality and realized that I was in the biggest battle of my life.

During the nearly 18 months I spent homeless off and on, and during the ensuing years, I learned that I am more resourceful than I ever imagined, less respectable than I ever figured, and, ultimately, braver and more resilient than I ever dreamed. An important tool in my return to life has been Craigslist. It was through Craigslist that I found odd jobs -- gigs, they often are called -- doing everything from ghost-writing a memoir for a retired Caltech professor who had aphasia to web content writing jobs to actual real jobs with actual real startups.  

Real companies advertise career jobs on Craigslist, but gigs were a godsend because they didn’t require five years of similar professional work, recent recommendations, or even a permanent residence. Pay generally ran between $10 to $15 per hour.

The ghost-writing work was the perfect example of a Craigslist gig. I ghost-wrote for a professor in his eighties. He had lived a remarkable life: traveling all over the world, writing dozens of books, and becoming a respected figure in academia. In his late eighties, however, he suffered a stroke as he began to write his memoirs. The stroke afflicted him with aphasia, which basically is an inability to communicate. He couldn’t put together more than a few words at a time, couldn’t type, and couldn’t write. But his mind was still sharp and he could read and edit.

So I sat in his office and took notes as he haltingly described an incident or person he wanted to write about. I would guess at what he was trying to tell me and if I was right, he’d say yes. And then I’d try to renarrate the story back to him to verify it. It was painstaking work, but after two years of occasional afternoons in his office, we produced a book. He died not long after that, and the book was never published.

I worked a number of other gigs: I provided editorial content for a commercial real estate agent’s website, helped high school seniors write college essays, worked as an office equipment mover, and helped reorganize a small warehouse.  

I got my first Craigslist gig in early 2009. When I managed to string together a couple of these at the same time, I could save enough money to rent a room for around $500 a month. Craigslist advertises a nearly endless supply of rooms available for rent. The situation is always the same: Hey, we have a roommate who is traveling/away for the semester/in rehab or jail and we need to rent out a room in our apartment to help pay the rent. You don’t need a credit report, three references, and a deposit. All you need, usually, is to show up, look clean, and be willing to move out when the regular tenant returns from Europe/rehab/jail. I was able to rent a room by late winter of 2009 after seven months of homelessness. But I was homeless again by summer until I managed to save enough to rent a room once again in the fall.

These situations can be quite nice, and not too many questions are asked. I once lived in a house owned by a young Pasadena attorney who was on a two-month assignment in New York and needed someone to house sit. Some, however, can be dicey. I came home one day to a ramshackle house in northeast Pasadena and there was a gun on the kitchen counter. I moved out a couple days later, not because I have an intrinsic objection to handguns; I just didn’t want to live in a place where the other residents were better armed than I was.  

Losing my career and home changed my economic circumstances and day to day life. But it also upended my priorities. At the peak of my career, I ferociously pursued my goal of creating a hit TV show. It was my greatest ambition - and a lucrative one. But after years of homelessness and isolation, my single greatest desire became company. I wanted to spend more and more time with family and the people I loved. The goal of having a hit television show in syndication seemed so uninteresting compared to sitting across the table from my two daughters in a small apartment that we shared. Family and love became my top priorities. Everything else seemed insignificant. I had lost everything else, but these were still my children and I missed them and they missed me.  

This desire led me one of the most remarkable services on Craigslist: Rideshare. Rideshare is a refined form of hitchhiking. Let’s say you want to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit your daughters. On the Rideshare listings you can find someone making that drive who is looking for a rider to pitch in for gas and help with the driving. Or you can post your own ad: “I’m in Pasadena and want to go to Berkeley on Saturday. Flexible on time.”

I traveled between Los Angeles and San Francisco a hundred times and never had a problem. The car could be a bit crowded and the company a bit irritating, but most of the time I met interesting people: engineers, scientists, medical students, writers, artists, gallery owners, and guys like me -- traveling to see their families on a budget. Most Rideshares I took cost about $35, which allowed me to see my now separated family far more than I would have otherwise.

In the years since I became homeless, Marina and I split up permanently. As a child, her parents had emigrated from Serbia to Germany, so she holds German citizenship. All of our children do as well. Germany has a stronger social safety net, so she decided to return with our two youngest daughters. They spent their high school years there and received a great education. They are now fluent in German, but will return to the US for college. I managed to find friends to host my children already in high school so they could continue attending the same San Marino school. One of my daughters stayed mostly with one family, but one of my sons lived in fourteen different homes. Still, they graduated from one of the most elite public high schools in California, which prepared them for college. I remained active in their lives by visiting them after school each day, volunteering for school activities, and disguising my homelessness with my “San Marino disguise.” It is a community of professionals: doctors, lawyers, and bankers. So whenever I met my children in a public place, I wore dress slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie. Friends and parents didn’t need to know I was sleeping in parking garages.

David and his family the last time they were all together in 2008

The other children have finished college or are nearing completion. Two of them intend to go on to graduate school in the sciences. The rest have decent, solid careers in decent, solid professions such as business administration, nursing, and education. They are all funny and smart and not one of them has expressed an ounce of interest in becoming a television writer. Marina is happy and content in Germany, having fallen in love again there with a pleasant and quiet man.

I now live in Berkeley and have worked for several startups in the Bay Area as a content specialist. I currently blog for Degreed.com, a lifelong learning and self-education website in San Francisco. It keeps the wolf from the door, which is good because it means I actually have a door. I share a cozy house in Berkeley with two housemates.  

My economic situation is still unstable; occasionally, I’ll fall behind on rent. But it happens less frequently now and I’ve figured out enough about how to survive that I can recover from small setbacks like that. Since I moved to the Bay Area, I’ve worked on two startups. I had a substantial equity stake in one of them and was promised an equity stake in the other once the next round of financing came through. As I worked on them, I imagined having a full-time job, nice apartment, and good salary until retirement. But neither panned out. I could despair when the startups fail or I fall behind on rent once again, but I just don’t worry about stuff like that anymore. I already know what the worst possible outcome would be -- homelessness -- and I know I can survive that. So why ruin your day fretting about rent? I’ll figure something out. I know how to take a punch and still keep standing.  

So full-time, permanent employment in a real company with actual revenues is still an elusive prey. Life is still perilous for me and blogging is hardly a lucrative profession. But life is good. My emotional, psychological, and spiritual situation is considerably improved. I am close to my children, and I speak to most of them almost every day. I am healthy, strong, and full of hope and ambition again. I have survived failure. I lost my career, my home, all my savings -- just about everything that seemed important. But I have held onto what I value much more: my children and their enduring love and affection, my health, and my ambition and self-belief. And in the end, those were the only things worth keeping.

This essay is based on David Raether's recently published memoir, "Tell Me Something, She Said." To support David, we encourage you to order his book from Amazon and visit his website.


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