The Month of George Bailey

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t something I usually mention, let alone ponder, in early August. (At least wait ’til the department stores start putting up their Christmas stuff, in late August.)

My view of Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart’s 1946 masterpiece (and you have to give Stewart co-billing here, because, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it wouldn’t have have resonated this long and loudly without him) is colored by how I’m feeling about life that particular holiday season. If I’m happy and perhaps prosperous — and maybe, on those rare occasions, even in love — then I sit there and soak in the glow of a tale of a man who has done great deeds, none of which have seemed to have gone unpunished, pushed to the brink of suicide on Christmas Eve, dragged back by a bedraggled guardian angel second-class who died in the 18th century, shown what the world would be like had he never been born, and ultimately rewarded in a most wonderful way.

But as often as not — and especially last Christmas, living in a miserable, passive-aggressively hostile rental situation, the hours of my on-call copy-editing about to be slashed to nothing just 3 1/2 months after I returned to the work world after 2 1/2 years out of work — I felt more like this:

Years like last, I avoid the film, grumbling about how much of a crock of shit it is — how George Bailey is only a fictitious character, and that this shit doesn’t happen in real life.

(In fact, last year, I watched not one Christmas special, and Jeff Day and I didn’t even do our annual radio run-through of Rudolph on WPKN. And my back was turned to the TVs in the newsroom as I worked the copy desk Christmas Eve night, as one showed It’s a Wonderful Life and the other showed A Christmas Story. And on Christmas Day proper, I sat in my miserable room at the Happy House watching a documentary on a renowned and brilliant atheist — American: The Bill Hicks Story.)

It’s been a month now since I discovered that my work hours at The Fresno Bee were going bye-bye — and unlike the previous two occurrences this year (after Christmas and Easter), when I regained some hours eventually, this felt permanent. (And that was hammered home two evenings ago, Aug. 7, when I learned two more of my ex-colleagues, one on the copy desk, were laid off.).

When Kris, my boss, told me the news, I just knew it was time. A brief moment of “Not yet — I can’t afford this!” followed by a huge sense of calm. I had reached the end. It was time to go home. This time, the voice of reason wasn’t the loud whisper that told me, “Okay — it’s Fresno” the day the Bee’s then-features editor emailed me in October 2003, asking if I’d be interested in the assistant features editor position. Or the out-of-body experience I felt at the moment of my gender epiphany in  January 2008, the voice asking me quite clearly from someplace to my left, “Can you do this?” This was a slight sag of the shoulders, the slow letting-out of air, and me saying, out loud to Kris, “It’s time.”

But how was I gonna do this?

I wasn’t ready for what followed. It’s been one part It’s a Wonderful Life, one part learning experience. Kind of having to learn to redefine the concepts of success and failure.

*****

I so wanted to return home the conquering heroine.

I’ve harbored fantasies the past two or three years or so of landing that great new job in the Bay Area or back home in Connecticut — okay, anywhere on the Metro-North New Haven Line between NYC and New Haven — and gliding or strutting, in stylish heels, back into the work world as Frannie 2.0 for the first time and dazzling everyone with my talents and my newfound confidence and personality. It would be a triumph after successfully navigating two giant, unplanned and extremely stressful life changes, one alone which could’ve stopped a horse.

Well, the last 3 1/2 years have been a huge cosmic beatdown. The Yin that was the confidence and wonderful feelings and the love and the warm wishes I amassed through my transition has been at least offset, if not more, by the Yang that’s been the job world.

It’s the worthlessness and uselessness one can’t help but feel when she sends out more than 300 resumes for jobs for which she’s totally qualified — I have a dazzling resume; I wasn’t asking if you want fries with that for 28 years — and 99 percent of the time I haven’t even gotten a “Fran, you suck” in response. Three bloody interviews.

(And, as I’ve come to find out, I would’ve been hired in the spring of last year for the copy editor position at that magazine in Santa Barbara had there not been a change of editor-in-chief three weeks after the interview. It was a fantastic interview — I’ve reconnected on Facebook with a now-former copy editor I befriended that afternoon, and she’s since told me that everyone at the office listed their top three choices on slips of paper after the five finalists were interviewed, and I was No. 1 on all of them. And they knew I was transgendered coming in — while she legally couldn’t say anything directly about it, the executive director of the foundation running the magazine let me know by telling me, “I really enjoyed your blog” — and it was a nonfactor. It was a nice glimmer of consolation and rearview encouragement, yet left me wondering what could have been.)

And along with the constant discouragement of the job beatdown came the realization that I really needed to go home, to focus my job search on the Northeast. My last interview, just over a year ago, soured me both on San Francisco as a place to work, and on ever belonging to any formal LGB and/or T organization for any reason.

I was a finalist for the communications director job at the Transgender Law Center; after a successful phoner with the second-in-command, I was a finalist for the job, and was brought in to talk with the top two in charge. I had the qualifications. I was thoroughly prepared — came in with six pages’ worth of feedback and suggestions they had requested — and we went over the allotted hour. I felt great — not overconfident, but great.

Well, they left me dangling, twisting, for eight weeks, then had the secretary send me a form rejection email one evening. (Technically, it was the operations manager, but on a staff that small, she was doing most, if not all, of the clerical work.)

I tell people all the time that, as a transwoman, I’ve been treated much, much better by people in the everyday world in supposedly right-wing Fresno than by any formal or informal LGB — and especially T — groups in so-called liberal San Francisco. Whether it be the shabby treatment I received from job counselors (both of them trans, by the way) at the SF LGBT Center; or the time a higher-up at Out & Equal, the job-advocacy center up there, told me how great my resume was, pumped me up and strongly encouraged me to apply for a job there, only to have it summarily rejected; or the cliquishness and standoffishness and self-absorption I’ve encountered from most of the transpeople I’ve met at Trans Marches or other events up there, it was a revelation, and one for which I certainly wasn’t prepared.

And the way I was handled by the ironically acronymed TLC, an organization that supposedly exists to have our backs, was the last straw. I don’t know if I was more discouraged or livid. After all, they, of all people, should know how to treat us, should know how difficult it is to be hired, how transpeople are sometimes treated in the everyday work world. And I was a finalist. It turned me off from the Bay Area for good. I have great friends up there in the everyday world — as well as one trans friend, an older Chinese woman named Jasmine — but there’s no support there among supposed peers. None.

Luckily, about three weeks prior — at the start of September, as I was figuratively on the ledge again –  Kris at the Bee, dealing with a staff decimated the previous three years by buyouts, then layoffs and attrition, was finally able to finagle a couple of on-call copy editor positions from the heinous McClatchy beancounters. And so she called me — no benefits, the hours weren’t steady, but for the first 3 1/2 months, it indeed was a steady paycheck, enough to help me get another car two months later after my trusty ’93 Celica was rear-ended.

And two days shy of 2 1/2 years to the date after I was laid off, I did at least return to the Bee as a mini-version of the conquering heroine — I was back in the saddle, albeit a smaller one … and for the first time, I was in the work world as Frannie 2.0. And I was beaming as I was welcomed back as my better self with a lot of open arms, figuratively and literally, by my once-and-now-again colleagues. And I understand the executive editor remarked to someone along the line about how much more confidence I had as a woman.

*****

Well, it was a good start. But the yo-yo of the cuts in job hours — certainly not Kris’ doing; she’s been a champion to me — brought back the old feelings of worthlessness. January was a shitstorm of emotions, before the hours gradually started creeping back into my work schedule in early February. Am I really worth keeping around? Am I not?

And when I was working, it seemed at least two out of every three headlines I’d write for stories were being changed by the slot editors, the next step up the line. Sometimes I understood, and they were indeed improvements. But many times they seemed totally unnecessary. Apples to oranges. I walked out of there some nights feeling like one of the world’s biggest morons. Kris, for her part, explained to me that I was doing a great job, and there were reasons slot editors changed some seemingly good heds. I felt whatever good mojo I had gradually slipping away again.

And at the same time, I was sending some resumes homeward and dropping hints and notes to friends via social media to keep me in mind if job openings arose back East.

And there was another underlying reason I wanted to go home. I still have my parents for now. Albie turned 82 in late July; he successfully underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer two autumns ago, and while he’s always generally been in good health, hell, 82 is 82. And Mom is 76 and, well, she’s dealt with her share of the creakiness of old age the last two years.

There’s been this dread in the back of my head that something would happen to one or both of them, be it illness or death, and I would be stranded on this side of the country and unable to help — or maybe unable to afford to fly home for the funeral. I wanted to be around for their last years — and in case they needed me.

Last time I was home, for four weeks two Christmases ago, I offered several times to help them. Albie, in a firm voice, said they were okay. And I totally understood and respected his answer. This was a necessity — they were militantly holding onto their independence as long as they could, and as someone who’s been fiercely independent my whole life, I get it. But I’d feel a lot more comfortable knowing I was a lot closer to them.

And besides, I went through a lot of weirdness with them for 14 months after I came out, before we finally cleared the air and started settling in to my new normal. Now that the worst is over, I want to spend some quality time with them, whatever little we might have left.

And along the way, it did occur to me that it might improve my chances of getting a job back home if my resume’s address said CT instead of CA. It’s a different ballgame than when the Bee brought me out here from the other side of the country 8 1/2 years ago and paid $5,000 of my move. Very few companies are gonna pay for someone to move anymore — especially in an employer’s market, where they can choose from a vast talent pool and dictate terms. Even just seeing an out-of-state application can lead an employer to thinking, “Will this person want us to pay for their move?” and move on to someone else. Yet another reason to not get the decency of a response after giving up my life story.

So I’ve wanted to move home for some time now. But I was hoping I could work long enough to raise enough money to rent the big-ass rental truck I’d need to get all my stuff home.

Instead, I got pushed out of the airplane. Or pushed off the Bedford Falls bridge, since, after all, this post was front-loaded with It’s a Wonderful Life references.

*****

As mentioned up top, when Kris told me my work hours were going away, there was very little panic on my part — just a huge sigh, a letting out of air. The game was up here in Fresno. I had coped and fought long enough with my job situation, and now it was over. Endgame, checkmate, whatever metaphor you prefer. I lost. And now, I knew it for real. As Mr. Wizard used to tell Tooter the Turtle when he got in trouble, drizzle drazzle, drazzle dronetime for this one to come home.

After leaving the office that night, I stopped at the Landmark for a drink on the way back to my room at the Happy House (the dysfunctional house that I refused to call a “home”), and my friend Vince said, “Well, you’ve been wanting to go home for some time now, so I know this will be a good thing for you. this is gonna work out for you.”

But how was I gonna do this? And was it really time to go home? How was I gonna come up with the scratch to get the rental truck — plus the dolly to tow the car — that I needed to bring everything home? (And believe me, I’ve tried to lighten the load and sell some of my things on eBay, including one of my now-vintage guitars and my rare replica World Football League jerseys from the ’70s, but this is still a very depressed market. And I didn’t even bother trying to post my excess of Hot Wheels from a distant, pre-depression era; there’s an absolute glut on eBay these days.)

Deep down, I knew the answer, of course. And I spontaneously knew that night what I needed to do — call my mother, see if the folks will take me in for the time being, then see if I could borrow as much money as possible from as wide a circle as possible to pay for the truck and the fuel to get back to Connecticut. And deep down, I knew that if the universe was telling me it was time to go home, then all will turn out well and something wonderful will happen when I actually, physically, get home again.

But again, it wasn’t the way I planned, or wanted, to go home.

In short, I didn’t want to go home a failure. And this reeked of failure, in every sense of the word.

Despite doing every goddamn thing right — doing my jobs very well for a very long time, acquiring a truckload of intangible skills, building (so I thought) a great reputation — I had no full-time job, very few employers thought enough of me to even tell me how badly I sucked, I was struggling to keep my nostrils above water, and even the on-call job I managed to wrangle from the place that laid me off in the first place was going away.

And at a very young 51, I was forced to return home with my head tucked between my legs, probably going back to live with my parents in the house where I grew up, in the town that treated me like dogshit growing up — and that was long before the gender thang came to the surface. How fucking pathetic is that?

Failure. Total failure.

Or was it? I needed to bounce this, sounding board-style, off some people. Well, my mother, for one, as I was gonna swallow whatever was left of my pride and ask her to put me up for now and possibly disrupt my folks’ lives to some extent. And a couple of other close friends who’ve been through my sea of storms.

I was pretty calm, actually, as I told her. The more I heard myself talk to Mom, the more it sounded like a plan. It sounded like a confidence I haven’t had in a while. But I sensed some weirdness on the other end of the phone.

“You don’t sound too thrilled,” I told her.

“No, no,” she said. “I’m thinking. I’m thinking about where to put things.” The logistics of lodging me, in other words.

Joe told me what I had sensed for a while: “This will be good for you. A lot of places will probably be interested if you move home.”

And as Drew put it when I mentioned the f-word, “How many friends do you have? And you’re trying to tell me you’re a failure.”

In other words, since I keep going back to that movie, the inscription Clarence left for George in that Bible at the end of the film, as he won his first-class wings: “Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.”

Attaboy, Andrew.

*****

The one thing that depresses me about It’s a Wonderful Life at my worst moments in life — and has since I was a teenager — is the part where Clarence shows George what the world would be like without him.

I don’t dwell on it quite as much these days — whatever dark moods I have now are situational (e.g. the job despair) and not chemical (as they were pre-hormones) — but I still don’t think the world would be that much different had I not existed. I’m being realistic about this — after all, I’m one of 7 billion these days, and while some people might say nice things about me when I’m dead, whatever I’ve done will wash away with the first tide. Footprints on beach sand.

And I certainly didn’t dwell on it here, which is where my current life veers from the film. But desperate times do call for desperate actions, and I actually did this with a degree of blind faith and even some bravado.

You have to understand that I’ve been independent my entire adult life. Having been a bit of a mama’s boy as a kid, I swore I would do things my way as an adult. I’ve asked for very little from people except decency. I’ve pretty much worked for what I have, however little or much it might be, and paid or struggled with the bills on my own.

But one thing I’m thinking the universe is trying to drill into my skull,
especially as I get older, is to not be afraid to ask for help when I need it. Put aside whatever pride I have left and just put out feelers and see what happens.

And in this case, it felt right — it felt as if this was what I was supposed to do to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

So, in the spirit of Kickstarter, I wrote a blog post explaining that it was time to go home and to ask for help from the world at large — to borrow the money I need for this trip. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen — I mean, besides raging indifference and the loss of the rest of my self-esteem and me being on the streets?

Well, here’s kinda what happened:

I won’t betray any confidences or put anyone on any spots here. I’ll just say that the response I’ve received so far has been overwhelming. Some of the responses have driven me to tears. And while I’m viewing these as loans unless specified — and I know I will, indeed, pay everyone back — I’d say two-thirds of the people who’ve contributed have told me this was a gift, not a loan. One friend said she won’t hear of me paying her back — “Just pay it forward.”

That I will.

And it gives me the incentive to want to get on my feet quickly, pay off the people I need to repay ASAP, and then be in a position to help if someone else needs it.

And maybe I’ve been viewing this success/failure thing through twisted lenses all this time. It’s easy to do when you’re scraping to make a living, living on the brink of disaster in a horrendous living situation because that’s all you can afford, and facing one rejection after another after another in the job world. I’ve felt like an absolute failure the last couple years, even though it’s not my damn fault I lost my job.

It’s been easy for me to dwell — in this midst of an economic depression that only Paul Krugman seems to be calling a depression, and I agree with him — on the steady stream of nonresponses to my resume. But it’s been a lot harder to learn the lesson that’s been driven home pretty hard and loud the past month, one I’m still learning: That maybe people actually do like me for whatever reason. Maybe I’m not an object of shame or scorn or pity. That in a way, I have been some sort of success story all along. That maybe, in my weird way, I am George Bailey. The richest man in town. Well, ex-man. Whatever. You get the idea. But I can still do a decent Jimmy Stewart impersonation:

*****

Thanks to my friend Jennifer, who has a spare guest house, I was also able to leave my horrid living situation at the Happy House at the end of July and have two weeks of something resembling zen on the domestic front before I cut out of Fresno. Another bit of kindness.

And some friends back home have been feeding me job leads; a couple might be able to hook me up with freelance or part-time work to get me going when I return.

And I don’t know what I did to deserve this all, really.

A couple weekends ago, I went up to the Bay Area for a fantastic sendoff. Despite the sour taste I have, based on my experiences with the LGBT world up there, San Francisco is a beautiful place, and I do have some good friends in the everyday world there who have stood behind me.

That Saturday, three of my pals from the rock’n’roll scene up there, Dema, Todd and Shari, took me to the Giants-Dodgers game. (Which, I didn’t think about until I was there, was my first ballgame as Frannie 2.0.) It was Giants-Dodgers, the weather was beautiful and unusually warm, Willie Mays Plaza is the most beautiful park in all of baseball, the company was great, the garlic fries are the best in the world (screw the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which took place that weekend; go to a Giants game and order the garlic fries), and Barry Zito was pitching. (He gave up a two-run homer in the first before we were even seated, the Dodgers won 10-0, and we left in the eighth when it was still only 7-0.) Aw, hell, four out of five ain’t bad.

That night, Phoebe, one of my biggest champions this whole three-plus years, let me use her place in Marin County, and the next morning I met her and her boyfriend down in Alameda for an afternoon (another gorgeous and unnaturally warm one) on the bay in his boat.

And she said something before we shoved off that shocked me and resonated with me: “You have this incredible bank of good karma saved up. I always tell my friends that when I mention you.”

Well, besides the shock of learning I rate so highly in the mind and heart of an exceptional woman who walks in rarefied air, I never thought of myself having a karmic bank account. Seriously. I mean, I just live my life, and I don’t think it’s anything special or unusual. (Which does sound kinda odd coming from a transwoman who didn’t come out until late in life …) I treat people the way I want to be treated; all I ask — okay, demand — is decency. And don’t flake on me. And don’t fuck with the people I love.

That’s it. I mean, that doesn’t make me any different than many of the rest of you. But so many people have shown me so much love in the past month — spiritually, financially, whatever. So, for the first time in my life, I’ve found myself asking “Why me?” from a position of warmth and love and positivity, rather than from a position of relentless negativity. That’s a much-welcomed — and much-needed — switch.

But I don’t dwell on it. I don’t obsess. I just graciously accept it — and sometimes well up with emotion — and add people to the list of things to be grateful for at the end of each day.

It’s less than four days now until I load up the rental truck, then head back to Connecticut with another friend who’s doing me a solid I could never repay. (I’ve known Alexis since the mid-’90s, and she’s taken me under her wing to an extent since my transition. And when she and her husband were out visiting in Monterey in late May, she told me that if I ever decided to move home, call her and she’d fly out and take the drive back with me. And after loading the truck Monday morning, I’m driving up to Oakland to meet her at the airport.)

And I’m excited, I’m enthused, I’m energized — and I’m scared shitless. For the most part, I’ve been looking forward to going home, and I do think wonderful things are gonna happen. I think life’s gonna bust wide open in ways I don’t expect. But there have been a couple times this week, including today, where I start thinking, “What if this doesn’t work out?”

But for the most part, I fully realize that this has been the Month of George Bailey. And that, despite the shitstorms I’ve been through, maybe my inner Clarence is telling me, in his twisted little way, that I really have had a wonderful life. And that maybe Capra was on to something after all.

Or is it the end? Seems more like a beginning.

Attaboy, Clarence.

I think I have enough money to get home at this point, but just in case, as I’m a little worried about fuel money: If you care to loan me something, click on the button below. I’m keeping a list of what I owe to whom, and as soon as I get on my feet again, I’ll get it back to you. And thank you.

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