An embarrassing story about debt, cutlery, and costumes

Last updated
November 10, 2020

In twenty minutes, I‘ll be in my rusted car speeding towards the hockey arena of the Minnesota Wild. 

But right now, I’m staring at the mirror embarrassed by what I see. I am not suited up for a game of hockey, but instead, a costume sent by a marketing agency on behalf of their client, Red Baron Pizza. I signed up for this small gig to fend off the debt collectors for another day.

The vacant box sitting in my room once contained the loose attire of a WWI fighter, known as the Red Baron. This character graces millions of pizza boxes across the U.S., and somehow, these pilot parts have found their way onto my body. 

Head-to-toe, I’m donning the full flight apparatus. The leather aviator helmet with glasses, long leather coat, riding-style breeches, boots, fake mustache, and of course the famous blood-red silk scarf. Incidentally, the scarf was used to protect a pilot’s neck from chaffing as they scanned the skies in search of enemy planes. 

Now, my own neck is sweaty and flush red with shame. I’m embarrassed by the thought that this could likely be my future. Is this the first of many fake mustaches I’ll be applying to my face?

I'm twenty years old, and thousands of dollars in debt stemming from defaulting school loans. My credit score has flatlined, and the phone rings endlessly in what becomes my new white noise. Picking up the phone and hoping the caller isn’t a debt collector is like playing a game of Russian roulette.

“Sir, I’m just trying to do my job,” they repeat as I lose my temper each time. 

Looking at myself in the mirror amidst the white noise, there’s one last thing I need to remove before I can leave.

Curiosity takes a left turn

Eighteen months before my costumed debut, I studied graphic design in college.  I was simultaneously captivated by the creative sandbox the internet had to offer. The Web felt like a gazelle sprinting through a wide-open African desert, and the only way to catch it was to mimic the swift reflexes of a cheetah.

Inside the school’s walls, I felt stuck. The design program ignored what was happening online, while the Web was a blank canvas waiting to be painted on by students like me. Imagine what Leondardo Da Vinci—an artist and engineer—would do with this new technology?

Outside the school walls, I spent my nights connecting with others online around the world. I saw how design was being applied to the web and I wanted to explore this more. The world was spending more time online, dot com’s were rising from the recent crash, and it seemed no one knew what the hell to do.

I sensed an urgency to lunge like a cheetah and gamble on my future. It was my name on the school loans and my debt had been piling up. My mind was filled with the possibility of claiming a small piece of the internet pie and didn’t consider the side-effects of this decision. 

Never could I have imagined that in eighteen months, I would be dressed up as an aviator of the skies, forced to hand out hockey pucks to small children to fend off debt collectors.

The obstacle is the way

Back in front of the mirror, I’d love to leave for the arena, but the costumed pilot staring back at me has a steel barbell protruding from the bottom lip. Piercings were not traditionally needed to fly WWI aircraft in the early 20th century—and if that wasn’t enough—I had strict instructions not to have any piercings. 

Two weeks prior—on a whim—I had walked straight into a tattoo parlor and left twenty minutes later with a pierced labret. Like many creative and artistic kids, I had many insecurities growing up. This piercing was a grasp for conquering self-doubt; doubting that I quit college too early. Doubt that I wasn’t good enough. Doubt being picked on as a kid didn’t affect my self-confidence.

The piercing was an obvious mask, but it barely covered all of the self-doubt I felt. And in a strange twist of fate, I had to remove this mask to put on another.

As I try to unscrew the piercing while watching myself in the mirror, it’s not loosening. I call the parlor to see if I’m doing something wrong. 

"Just twist the end the opposite way you think you should."

In the midst of shame, anxiety and desperation, I've been tightening the barbell this entire time! Exhausted, my lip starts to swell from the irritation I caused while trying to unscrew this steel rod. 

I look ridiculous and exasperated having run out of options.

Closing deals with cutlery

My first summer out of high school, I sold Cutco knives door to door

Armed with only knives and charm, I spent the summer selling the idea to homeowners that these knives could transform your cooking life. Many refused, but I began to learn a new life skill; how to connect to people just through the act of listening to their stories.

During each 45 minute presentation, I slowly walked through the purpose of each knife in the set. The momentum and energy of the presentation was methodical, leading up to one final demonstration. The last accessory in the set was a pair of Cutco scissors. The workhorse of kitchen accessories. 

These scissors are what gave this 17 yr old the courage to sell in the first place. On the very first day of learning to sell, I sat in a room with twenty others while I watched the lead salesman cut rope, rubber, and ultimately a copper penny, with just a pair of these scissors. I was amazed, and thought to myself only a moron would refuse these scissors.

It may be a felony to destroy coins, but for each presentation I carried a handful of pennies, hoping that a crime committed might lead to a sale. After the summer came to an end, I carried with me the penny-cutting scissors and beaten up charm.

Cutting a path forward

Fast forward to the present, I realize my time is up. If I can’t remove this lip piercing, I can’t make a few dollars to stave off the collectors for a couple more weeks. 

As I consider what I’m about to do, I think about my bank account being in the red. I’m lying to my landlord about how my rent check must have been lost in the mail. My close friend lent me rent money for the previous month, and freelancing hasn’t picked up yet. 

I am drowning in debt, and I'm flailing, unable to breathe. The small amount of money I’ll make from this job isn't going to change my life, but it does give me a quick hit of oxygen that lets me relax, if only for a moment. 

There’s an unknown future waiting for me, and the steps to take starts with one foot in front of the other. Right now, it’s in the direction of the kitchen to the kitchen drawer. The scissors I once used to close a sale, are the same scissors that I’ll need to close this deal. 

I reach for my pair of Cutco penny-cutting scissors and pull my bottom lip forward revealing the bar of the piercing. 

Snap.

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