I-25. Northbound. Traffic was getting denser as I approach downtown Denver. The four-lane highway turned into stop-and-go as people merged on and off.
Suddenly, I saw a car plow into another just in front. Metal and glass sprayed everywhere. As I rubber-necked to view the damage, I felt fortunate it wasn’t me…
Then I turned back to look ahead, and saw the wall of stopped cars in front of me. Too close.
I slammed my foot on the brake and my car began to skid on the asphalt
It was too late.
A few days earlier, I emailed back and forth with the owner of the company I worked for, settling on a day and time for me to visit the head office and sit down with him.
To say that, since then, I’d been excited for the meeting… would indeed be an accurate statement.
Finally, the day arrived. I stood outside holding my sign for a few hours, and then came in a couple hours before I was scheduled to meet the owner, to begin my drive over. I wanted to make sure I was on time.
Then I headed out. Outwardly, I felt calm. But there must have been some serious churning going on, at a deeper level. Because on the highway, I ended up slamming into a stopped car ahead of me.
The front of my engine let out a dull crunch as my hood crumpled upwards
Much in the same way one fixates on the sight of a wound after cutting oneself, I stared with horror at the gnarled mess of my engine. It had just been totaled.
“SHIT!” I yelled.
I felt a little outside of myself, registering and yet not believing what had just happened. Both me and the other car pulled to the side of the highway. Another casualty of the heavy traffic.
I switched off my engine as I saw coolant spill everywhere, like the car’s blood.
There went my meeting with the owner.
I practiced, in as tiny a way as I could muster, assuring myself that this was perfect. Heck, I think I even muttered, “This must be perfect for me” when I pulled over.
Then I realized… what the heck was I supposed to do with my car?
Tow it? Where?
I dialed the mechanic’s number – the one who soaked my catalytic converter. Based on my dealings with him over the past few weeks, chances were he would not pick up the phone. And then I wouldn’t know what the heck to do.
If there was a time I wanted him to pick up… this was it.
The phone rang… and rang…
“Hey, what’s up, buddy?” he answered.
“Oh man, I’m glad you picked up!”
“Why, what’s going on?”
“Oh you know what happened!” (I don’t know why I said that.)
“No. What? Tell me, man.”
“I totaled it. I just got in an accident.”
“I’ve got to get my car towed off the highway – can I take it to your place to get it fixed?”
“Yeah, but I have to see how bad the damage is.”
“Okay, cool. I’ll get it over there.”
Would he have picked up, had I not affirmed… even a little bit… that this was perfect for me?
I talked to the other driver, who was cool about the whole thing. Although he admitted, looking at his own car, “Yeah that’s totaled, the frame is bent.”
Soon his friend arrived, inspected his car, shook his head, and waved it off. “It’s fine!”
“Really?” the driver asked him.
“Oh yeah, this is no problem at all!”
I interjected: “I like him!”
Soon the police arrived, took down our information, and I gave my insurance info to the other driver. I marveled about how nice he was about the crash, when he affirmed, “Hey, the important thing is we’re both fine.”
That was true – it wasn’t like I was doing 80 MPH down the freeway. Still, one wonders what would have happened, had I not slammed on the brakes.
I later learned that my airbag didn’t deploy only because of a glitch in the system. Because I hit the brakes, the nose of my car hunched down. As a result, I didn’t so much smack into the car ahead, as wedge underneath it – so the airbag signal wasn’t triggered. Either that, or it was just broken.
The tow-truck came, and I gave him the address for my mechanic. He was there waiting for us, as we arrived. Before the tow driver had a chance to lower my car onto the street, the mechanic hopped onto the bay to inspect the damage.
Overall, the news was good. I’d probably just need a new hood, radiator, lights, and a couple other odds and ends.
If it were a regular shop, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it
But this guy could get it done in his own garage for several hundred dollars and a trip to the junkyard for parts.
Considering my car was a requirement for my job, I was grateful.
He even gave me a lift to another of my company’s stores, so I could hitch a ride home with Ken, my friend and co-worker. Plus, it gave them a chance to say hi.
I marveled at how things could resolve themselves so smoothly. By the time my shift would have ended anyway, I was home. I just had to take the bus for a couple days.
So, it was just a matter of rescheduling the meeting with the owner, right?
As it turns out, it wouldn’t be that easy. And I began to wonder if the Universe was conspiring to keep me stuck…
“Well, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. I said I’d be cool whatever happened so I’ll be cool.”
I was standing inside one of our stores, talking to a co-worker before heading outside to wave around my sign all day.
A couple weeks before, I had had a meeting with my supervisor that went well (I showed up for work on time and actually went outside, which pretty much guaranteed a stellar review – heck even showing up high as a kite every day would have been fine… I was probably the only sign-spinner who didn’t smoke before work).
When the topic of open positions came up, I had mentioned my experience in marketing and he said he’d see if they needed anyone.
The vice president of sales emailed me and said there weren’t any current openings, but for me to send my resume
Which meant I actually had to write one. For the first time in my life.
I threw one together and sent it back. Around that time, I mentioned the promotion possibility to a co-worker, but said I was practicing being content no matter what the outcome.
The acid test arrived after a couple weeks without a response. So I mentally shrugged my shoulders and forgot about the possibility…
… until that year’s Christmas party rolled around. I realized it was my only chance to be in a room with the owner while he was relaxed and his guard was down. So I planned out what I would present to him, and how I’d say it. The whole idea felt so… right. And logical.
A funny feeling of knowing overcame me
Soon the night arrived. The owner rented out some floor space at a Dave & Busters. Much drinking ensued. I managed to break a novelty-sized candy cane.
As the night wore on, I waited for my opportunity… and then seized it.
I approached the owner, introduced myself, shook his hand, and thanked him for a great party. Then I brought up my experience with marketing, and how there was an opportunity for driving far more customers his way.
He asked me to send him a proposal and I said I would.[Side Note: Knowing what I know today, I would have angled for an in-person meeting as soon as he could possibly schedule one… but a minor detail in the grand scheme of manifestation]
The good news was, persuasion in writing was my strong-point. So, over the next couple days, I wrote and edited and re-edited until my proposal was ready – and then sent his way.
I also finally got in touch with the mechanic my fellow sign-spinner knew!
So I dropped my car off at his “shop” (his home garage) so he could soak my catalytic converter overnight. Thus fooling the emissions test.
As fate would have it, I got pulled over the day before the test. I explained to the cop all that I went through to fix my car (leaving out the crucial detail I just mentioned) and that I was just about to get my plates renewed. He gave me a ticket, but emphasized how, because it was my third offense, he was supposed to tow me. So, overall, a lucky break.
Anyway, I passed the test.
Yes, I cheated
Call it moral relativism, but I’m okay with the decisions I’ve made.
And a few days later, I ran into the owner on my way outside and followed-up about my email. He was busy and said he’d reply. Again, I practiced being content whatever the outcome… and it wasn’t a few moments later that I spotted a penny on the sidewalk. Nice.
A couple weeks later, when I had forgotten about the whole thing, the owner finally replied and asked when I could meet him in person at his office… and he wrote he didn’t think I’d be sign-spinning anymore! (A prediction that would come… half-true.)
However, my meeting with him would be delayed due to me almost dying. I’ll write about that next time…
“What the… ”
Just before opening my car door to drive to work, I noticed writing scrawled on my window. It was gibberish, but the paper notice stuck under my windshield wiper cleared away my confusion:
The police noted my expired tags, and gave me 48 hours to get them updated, or move my car from my condo complex’s parking lot. And they were nice enough to write on my window with some kind of gunky chalk. I called the number on the ticket to plead my case, explaining that I needed more than two days. They responded I’d have extra time… because of the Thanksgiving holiday. So maybe three days.
I sat in my driver’s seat, considering my options
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple as getting new tags. Cars in Colorado have to pass an emissions test first. Because of my busted catalytic converter, I would fail. Getting a new one would cost several hundred dollars. Which is why I had been spending many months driving around with expired plates, always watchful for police cruisers. Little did I know I had to worry about parking at home too!
As I drove to work, I reminded myself that this was perfect, and to stay calm about it. I’d figure something out. And when I pulled into the strip mall where I’d be sign-spinning that day, I saw a welcome sight:
Ken, my friend and co-worker, installing a new headlight on his car.
I greeted him and, after asking about the work he was doing on his car, gave him the bad news about mine.
He had a solution
“I know a mechanic who does jobs on the side really cheap. I can get you in touch with him. And in the meantime, there’s a grocery store open 24/7 a couple blocks from where you live. You could park your car there and nobody would notice! They’ll just think you’re an employee.”
Gotta love how the Universe works. I was grateful for the help, and wasn’t at all surprised. Since the first day Ken started – a few months after me – we enjoyed working together. And it wasn’t long before we realized we both studied and practiced Taoist meditation. He was a few years younger than me and, in many ways, the polar opposite. Ken was incredibly athletic, and turned sign-spinning into a literal art. He practically defied gravity with the way he combined sign spinning, flipping, and acrobatics.
He was also tough to pin down, and although he promised to get me the mechanic’s phone number, this lead to many missed connections.
But in the meantime, I began parking my car at the grocery store two blocks away. And these were no city blocks. In Aurora, a “block” means row after row of cookie-cutter housing and a strip mall or two. So my new morning and evening commute on foot was half a mile each way. In December. In Colorado.
Day after day, I’d put on my three pairs of pants, shirt and three jackets, grab my backpack… and trudge half a mile in below-freezing temperatures, wondering if that’d be the day I’d reach the parking lot and find my car gone
Then, always relieved to see my Nissan Altima faithfully waiting, I’d get in. (It didn’t help that my door-locks malfunctioned in such a way that necessitated keeping at least one door open so I could enter. Every time I approached my car, I’d pretend to unlock the doors with my key fob. Then I’d open the rear passenger door – the one that I kept unlocked all the time – and casually reach around to unlock my front door from the inside. I did this for a couple years.)
After a tense moment of cranking the engine and hoping it’d start… I’d drive to work, where I stood outside virtually all day, constantly moving. Then in the evening I’d drive back to the parking lot, and walk half a mile home in the dark.
(Sometimes I’d even do a special backwards-walking meditation… and freaked out at least one fellow pedestrian.)
This temporary solution, while trying to get the mechanic’s phone number from Ken, stretched into almost two months.
But, much like my years as a sign-spinner, it was oddly peaceful
I used my daily walks to meditate and calm my mind.
I wasn’t able to get the mechanic’s contact info out of Ken until the company’s Christmas party.
However, a much bigger breakthrough would occur that same night of celebration.
At the party, I approached the owner of the entire business, and planted the seed in his mind that I could do much more for the company than just wave around a sign…
“You, uh, about to head in soon?” the man in his mid-50s asked me.
It was past 5PM on a warm day, and I hadn’t realized how the time had flown by while I waved my sign on the sidewalk.
“Yeah, just about.”
“We’ve, uh, talked a lot so could I ask you a personal question?”
He was shifting about, looking this way and that.
“Uh, well we’ve only spoken once before, but sure go for it.”
He held up his hands to emphasize his question:
“…What do you think of sex?”
“Could you be more specific?”
“What do you think of homosexuality?”
“Um… I mean, I’m not gay, I don’t really think about it one way or the other.”
“Okay, okay. See, I’m exploring my own… possible homosexuality… and I don’t know what to do!”
“Have you tried online?”
“Yeah I tried some $2.99-per-minute thing, that didn’t work.”
After a little more back-and-forth, the man shuffled up the street. I watched as he stopped to talk to a couple of kids hanging out by the sidewalk, presumably to run through the same dialogue. Later as I told the story to a couple co-workers, I remarked at how he was going about his exploration in a very odd, inefficient way.
That was one of the more unusual encounters I had while sign-spinning outside. Although, not so unusual that it was surprising. Not anymore.
I’d dealt with many people who were friendly… curious… bored… drunk… crack addicts… mentally ill… or some interesting combination of the above
Like the time two women walked down the sidewalk and one of them shrieked, “HEY!” before she lunged at me like a praying mantis. Shouting “What’s this?!” she whipped her arm right near my crotch, clawing at me and grabbing. I stumbled back, letting out a disgusted grunt that sounded something like, “Ewwwuugh” as she walked on, cackling.
It would have been nice to think she eagerly wanted to grab my genitals, but I’m pretty sure she was just reacting to the bulge of my phone and wallet in my front pocket.
Afterwards I vividly imagined myself standing in cleansing rainfall, and playfully focused on how everything was cool.
Then there was the time I turned around to see a car idling in the middle of the road. Sensing something amiss, I focused on the front seats to see two shirtless men punching each other over and over. Then, the driver dove out of the car and sprinted to the side of the road. The passenger jumped into the driver’s seat, pulled the door shut, and sped off.
For the first time in my life, I dialed 911 and told the operator what happened
She barely asked me for any detail.
The remaining man walked up the sidewalk towards me. As he got closer, I saw the splattering of blood on his chest. He said “How’s it going?” as he passed by.
“What’s up,” I replied.
He kept walking for another couple blocks before the police arrived. Apparently, he called them too because they ended up giving him a lift.
Most encounters were far more mundane than this, but I realized I was given a unique window to the behavior of men and women living on the bottom rung of society. I wanted the exact opposite for myself. So I observed their behavior in contrast to those I knew who made plenty of money.
The lower income folks on the street talked and talked and talked
I don’t recall a single one who genuinely listened to a word I said.
They spent time and energy complaining about whatever ensnared their mind, instead of actively working out or implementing a solution.
I’m sure they were caught in a spiral of “learned helplessness.” Life actually trained them to behave hopeless and in need.
All their traits floated in a cloud of irrationality. That’s why I like Peter’s emphasis on developing your rational thinking. I wonder if people think that conflicts with meditation, spirituality, manifestation, and luck. I don’t think so at all.
The destitute people I put up with on the sidewalk willfully refused to face their challenges with razor-sharp, pinpoint rationality, which (I believe) would generate the vibration of knowingness and deservingness they required to finally launch them out of the pit they were in.
But they were too busy whining, sulking, or praying for divine intervention that would never come
They were either making very little money, broke, or living off the government… yet they were experts at scrounging together cash for booze, drugs, or mindless entertainment. I can count with one hand the number of times I was sincerely asked about getting a job as a sign-spinner… and every single time, I gave them the info they needed.
It affirmed something I’ve always pondered and am still attempting to put into words: Embrace rationality as much as you give in to a force greater than yourself which guides you. Because there is no dichotomy. If you think or feel there is, you’re either misjudging rationality or mistaking the pinball machine of your emotional barriers for a spiritual path. That’s the way I see it… for now…
Like I said before, these were folks on the bottom rung. None of them is around to hear my lecture. But whenever I think like this, I always turn things around and ask myself how I’m doing a version of what I’m decrying. Because I learned we’re all facing the same inner challenges – we’re all the same in that regard – just with differing extremes and subtleties.
So whenever something needles me, I treat it as a signal
As a result, I’ve nearly wiped complaints from my verbal communication. And I’m almost done doing so from my thoughts. There’s just one remaining category that I’m working on, and it’ll evaporate soon. I suspect there are many subconscious complaints looping like crazy – I’ll deal with them as well. During my time as a sign-spinner, I eliminated all unnecessary spending. But what defines unnecessary? I could have taken it further, like living out of my car, but didn’t.
I worked on my listening skills.
Before, during, and after my bankruptcy, I never stopped my entrepreneurial efforts. If anything, I sped them up. Heck, I even took steps to build my business credit while my personal credit was getting the ole heave-ho, which I found pretty funny. I also made attempts to upgrade my day job.
In fact, within months of moving to a new apartment, my career took a surprising turn
I’ll write about that soon.
My interactions outside, however, were minor compared to the relationships I’d develop with my co-workers. It was a shocking learning experience for me, to see how behavior and beliefs molded reality. Never before in my life did I possess so much awareness to see patterns of cause and effect. More so, never before in my life did I also have such an open heart, that the people around me would touch it in ways I’ll cherish forever…
“It’s called The Awesome Science of Luck. I highly recommend it.”
Roughly a year before I got a job as a sign-spinner, I sat at a restaurant in the Colorado mountains with my friend Jim, stuffing my face with brownies and ice cream as he watched in delight.
During our conversations, Jim recommended a book by a man named Peter Ragnar. I liked the title – harnessing the power of luck resonated with me. For years I’d taken action, attempting to achieve the things I wanted, and was seeing the wisdom in the saying from China:
“Better to be born lucky than smart”
Well, if I could have my cake and eat it too…
Within a couple days, I bought the book and began reading. Soon, I was reading it over and over again. It felt… right somehow, to do so. I mused that doing so made me luckier. Of course, I also practiced most of the techniques revealed in the book.
Shortly after I got my sign-spinning job, I bought the audio version of the book, so I could listen to Peter’s stories over and over again as I worked. Later, even though it was a stretch financially (actually it was pretty insane) I bought recordings of a seminar he’d done. I listened to the audios as I worked, and played the videos as I relaxed at home on my days off.
I did this for months, and added a couple more products to my collection. Every single day, I listened to one interview about money, during my first shift at work. In fact, I used it to time when to take my first break. I still viscerally remember walking outside with my sign in one hand, balancing a cup of black coffee in the other… and setting the latter down so I could fire up my MP3 player to the interview… taking my first few sips… and starting the day with Peter’s words resonating inside me.
I did this perhaps one hundred times
I mused how this job gave me the opportunity to spend literally hours per day absorbing the information and, perhaps, a beneficial vibration. At the very least, it felt right to do so. So I did.
On a practical level, the idea of taking a more relaxed and emotionally and mentally centered approach to business and building wealth made sense. I’d already experienced the haphazard results of compulsive action. And I’d also seen the other extreme, where men and women curled themselves in a safe blanket of “I’ll just visualize abundance,” not seeing how they were suffocating themselves from actual wealth.
I’d also experienced how Taoist meditation improved my disposition more than anything else I’d ever experienced. So I wanted more.
Because I understood the value of an ongoing, exponentially-increasing energy transmission, I jumped at the chance to sign up for Peter’s monthly coaching calls. My first was October 2012, and I made sure to ask a question right off the bat.
From there, I took action on what I asked and learned
One of the marvelous things about the monthly calls, was I added the recordings to my MP3 player line-up. I listened to them over and over.
Time seemed to slow down and even crawl to a virtual standstill. My days consisted of nothing but interacting with one person, and then standing outside alone, listening to call recordings. In the evenings, I’d focus on meditation, eating, working on my business, and resting my body.
I feel slightly frustrated writing this because I know there were so many bizarre experiences and insights I had, on a daily basis… and I’d like to communicate the most impactful ones. It makes me feel better to know that you can almost certainly relate to this experience (the insights and breakthroughs). We’re all going through a spiritual journey and the mind-boggling synchronicities we’re experiencing… well, they happen so much that, at least in my case, their boggling effect ceases… and simply become the norm.
Like when I was listening to a teleseminar recording while standing outside, and listened as the host spoke about the man who visualized white dogs eating his cancer. I imagined white dogs eating the negative energy in me… and within seconds a truck drove by with a white dog in the back, who barked at me.
“Whoa,” I thought. “Sure, I get dogs barking every couple of days… but a white dog within moments? Amazing.”
But not as amazing as having it happen four more times in just as many hours
Not all the dogs were white, but I’d never experienced anything like that before. Coincidence?
Or perhaps how, whenever I’d start dwelling on negative thoughts, a honking horn would rattle me to my senses. But, cars honk all the time, especially when you’re on the street corner. But honking almost every time you get stuck in negative thoughts? And happening so much that you get used to the friendly reminder, and say “thank you?”
I remember how feeling a universal love for everyone became more than something I’d just read about… but an experience. I’d see a beautiful woman in a car driving by, and I’d feel love for her. Then I’d turn my gaze to her pissed off-looking boyfriend in the driver’s seat, and I’d feel equal love for him.
That’s how I knew it was truly universal!
This experiential understanding flowed to many Taoist teachings. Like your eyes crossing and locking during meditation… experiencing the sensation of your microcosmic orbit… marveling at your body relaxing and aligning at a level deeper than you could consciously control or even imagine, and understanding why years of practice is required just to get started, and why the dedicated practitioners measure their practice in hours per day rather than minutes…
I also observed how the people I met were so significant and beautiful. For the next year or so of living in a cocoon, I’d bond with them like I never had with any human being before in this lifetime. I’ll write about them next…
“So I called up one of the landlords… she didn’t even speak English!” I said.
“Oh man… that’s not good,” replied the buyer.
I had just finished my lunchbreak at work, where I called four different apartment listings in the Denver area. I was scraping the bottom of the real estate barrel, trying to keep the monthly rent under $500 per month. It wasn’t yielding good results.
I got a cold, sick feeling in my stomach as I admitted to some of the landlords that I had terrible credit
It was closing a lot of doors. But I found a couple leads. Something had to work out. I’d already given notice at my current place, so I had to move somewhere.
I drove to one complex located next to a giant Uhaul storage facility. It was actually tough to tell the difference between the storage units and the apartments next door. These were month-to-month cubes. When I asked about bed bugs, the leasing agent replied, “Yeah, we spray whenever there’s a problem.”
I plunked down $25 for the leasing application. A day later they called to say I was rejected, based on credit.
As I tried to negotiate some sort of an upfront payment, they hung up on me
Back onto Craigslist. I figured I found the perfect job there, so the perfect home would show up too. I stalked the listings, scanning them every single day. I knew that a decent place with a low price would go fast. But how could I jump on one while working full time?
Then I had a day off. And that morning, after meditating, I found a listing describing itself like a one-bedroom “ski condo” complete with parking, a vaulted ceiling with skylight, balcony, and even a fireplace! For $525 a month. I called the owner and as we talked, I explained that my credit was bad but my rental history was perfect. “So don’t give me a credit card, but I can definitely pay the rent.”
“I totally understand,” he said. We made an appointment for 3:30 that afternoon. I scheduled another place to look at right before.
That one felt… and smelled… immediately wrong
I politely left and raced to the “ski condo” place.
It was on the eastern edge of Aurora, Colorado, a place my friend once jokingly called “Saudi Aurora.” For someone used to living near downtown Denver, the Kansas-esq rolling plains felt like falling off the edge of the earth.
Upon arriving and meeting the owner, he struck me as a high-strung sweetheart of a guy. He began showing me around, and there was indeed a vaulted ceiling with skylight, fireplace, and balcony. Within two minutes there was a knock on the door. A couple had just arrived to look at the place. He politely asked them to wait.
The place had an interesting history… and future. The owner evicted the previous tenant for drug use. Turns out the man and his girlfriend were doing fine when they moved in. Then he started doing drugs, lost his job, and crashed his BMW.
The owner said he “wasn’t happy at all” about being evicted
But the home’s future sounded much nicer. Years earlier, the owner had brought on board a mentally-challenged man as a temporary assistant, who eventually became a loved family member. This home was to be his, years in the future when he became ready.
My whole life, I’ve made snap decisions. This would be no exception.
I confessed to being in the middle of a bankruptcy and the owner had an admission of his own: He’d been through one too. I asked if I could put down a deposit right then and there and he affirmed it would put me “first in line” for the place. I cut the check.
Later that afternoon and the next day, he texted saying my rental history checked out and… so did my credit?! Odd, but I didn’t question it.
All that was required of me was another signature and the place was mine
The agreement was for a six-month lease, at $525 per month. My new landlord admitted that whenever he’d done a year-long or multi-year lease, something always went wrong and the relationship didn’t work out. But when he’d done short-term leases, the tenant usually stayed longer. That sounded like a universal law in action to me.
The move-in date was about a month later. It felt good knowing I had a home lined up. I marveled at my luck and that, for the first time in years, I’d have a steady income greater than my expenses. Actually it’d be for the first time in my adult life.
However, that became little solace as I packed my things and moved out of the apartment I once declared as my home, and claimed I’d stay in no matter what.
Before finally leaving, I stood in every room, saying my goodbyes…
And then cried as I finally shut the door
(Years later I would, in a way, return – a story for another day.)
After quickly settling into my new digs, I settled into a life that felt more and more on pause. It consisted of little more than working outside alone, meditation, testing business ideas, and recovering to start the day all over again. Mental stress was minimal.
I’d eventually stay in the place for almost two years. Most of that time felt oddly peaceful.
The final four months were painful chaos.
“Hey another quarter! And a dime! I’m so lucky…”
As I walked across downtown Denver to my 341 meeting, I found a total of sixty cents on the street.
A good omen, I figured.
Then I arrived at the building, took the elevator to the 14th floor, and found the classroom-sized office for my meeting. A couple dozen men and women sat in rows of chairs, facing the front of the room where, like a teacher, the trustee sat.
I checked in and took a seat. Near the front of the room, I realized, was my lawyer. Sitting next to him was someone else going through the bankruptcy process. In full view of everyone else waiting their turn.
We could listen to every word, as if it were a presentation
I couldn’t believe it!
The trustee flipped through a folder of documents, questioning the person about his most intimate financial details. After a few minutes, he’d finish and lead the person through an oath swearing, similar to what you see in courtroom dramas when someone swears to “Tell the whole truth…” In this case, you were swearing every detail you shared was accurate. Then your time was over.
So I waited to be called. Out of the more than couple dozen people in the room, it looked like only my lawyer and one other represented just about everyone. Doing some quick math in my head, I saw how lucrative their businesses were, depending on the expenses.
The trustee was just what you’d imagine:
An older, bald, white man with a regal, weary, subdued manner
As he flipped through some pages of a woman’s financial history, he questioned her: “So you and your husband divorced in 2010, is that correct?”
“And then in 2011 you co-signed a lease on a car?”
“…Wait. So you co-signed the lease after your divorce?”
He shot her a quizzical glance with hint of disapproval… and… with a sigh… flipped another page in the binder and kept going, never to address the car again. I contemplated just how many bizarre and irrational financial situations and decisions he looked at every day, week after week, month after month, year after year…
At no point did I observe any creditors show up for questioning, which confirmed what I’d read in my research: It’s a rarity.
After listening to a couple more swearings under penalty of perjury, my name was called
I sat down at the large desk next to my lawyer. The trustee began flipping through pages, reading.
“I see here you owe…” he ticked off amounts from three of my tax years.
“Yes,” I said.
“You don’t like paying your taxes?”
The room erupted in laughter.
“What the fuck?” I thought to myself. “Why are you all laughing, you’re all bankrupt too!”
Out loud, I merely said, “It’s not like that.”
“Well, why didn’t you pay?”
“Those years, after paying all my living expenses, food and rent, I didn’t have any money left over.”
My lawyer nodded with approval
Before, I’d gotten some coaching to say as little as possible. Often, people have a tendency to try to justify themselves, get nervous, and ramble, which can lead to trouble.
The trustee confirmed that I knew I couldn’t discharge my three most recent tax years. So even if my bankruptcy were granted, I’d still owe money to the IRS. Then he said, “Rifkin. You wouldn’t happen to be related to such-and-such Rifkin here in Denver, would you?”
“No, I’m the only one in my family here. I’ve never heard of them.”
“Too bad. They’ve got a lot of money.”
This sparked some banter between my lawyer in the trustee. Apparently, at one point my attorney represented them for something.
I couldn’t believe it!
It was like the two of them were actors suddenly breaking character in the middle of a play to chat about their personal lives. And I realized, that was essentially what was happening. In a flash, I realized that, unlike clients who come and go within minutes, the lawyer and the trustee hung out together for hours on end. Eerie.
But the trustee didn’t ask much more of consequence. He told me to raise my hand, lead me through the oath, and said I was done. As I pushed back my chair and stood up, my lawyer leaned over and whispered, “Good job. Hey, call me about those taxes. We could do a Chapter 13.”
I kept that in mind. Although I’d never see him again about the bankruptcy I was going through, it wouldn’t be the last time we would meet.
I walked home
It was over, and even though I’d have to wait about a month for the official notice, it was pretty clear I’d get my discharge.
In the meantime, it was time to shift my life from hemorrhaging wealth to building it. Step one was to move out of the apartment I loved. Little did I realize that would be more difficult than I thought…
We can help, the lawyer wrote to me on a Sunday afternoon.
For weeks, I had been obsessively researching bankruptcy, online. It fascinated me.
Although there’s room for abuse (and I suppose my opinion is understandably biased), I love the concept of bankruptcy. It encourages entrepreneurial risk, because as a business owner, you know you’re not facing debtor’s prison, should you fail. You can start virtually clean… although not entirely. At the time of this writing, student loans are not dischargeable, which I think is criminal. Taxes are, but only somewhat.
But you are able to discharge all credit card debt, all debt you owe through private arrangements, medical bills, etc.
Keep in mind, I’m not up to date on the rules and I’m not going to be a stickler for accuracy here.
It’s also amazing what you can keep.
It’s possible, even probable, that you’ll be able to retain your car, home, possessions, and savings
Although if you have a mortgage or car payments, that’s considered a loan from a “secured creditor” and you’ll still have to make an arrangement to pay somehow.
Some people even choose what state they live in, for strategic bankruptcy reasons. For instance, in Florida you’re always allowed to keep your primary residence. Even if it’s a $100,000,000 mansion, you can keep it. In Texas, you can keep all the land you own. Even if it’s 200 acres.
These are extreme examples, but all states are more lenient or strict in certain ways
Just like tax rates, school districts, weather, and crime, it’s a good idea to look into these things when choosing where to live.
It’s not all fun and games, though. If you go through a bankruptcy, your credit takes a major hit… although if you’re considering filing, it’s probably already lousy. A decade must go by, before it disappears from your credit report.
To be considered eligible for chapter 7 bankruptcy (there are others, like Chapter 11 which is more of a long-term repayment schedule on easier terms, and a Chapter 13 which is similar and has tax bill-reduction advantages, earning the moniker “Tax 13”) you first undergo a “means test.” It’s pretty casual, and is based on your income. I just looked up my zip code in Colorado and if your household consists of three people and you make under $76,458, Chapter 7 might be doable for you.
Surprised at how high the figure is?
So was I.
For a single-person household, the figure is $52,389. I recall it being lower in 2012, but I still passed with flying colors.
If you’re confident you’ll be granted a discharge, your next step is to file for bankruptcy and prepare to stand before an official called a trustee. He will look over your assets and decide how to distribute them amongst creditors. This in-person meeting is called the “meeting of the creditors” or a “341 hearing” because of its designated U.S. Code number. There, your creditors have the opportunity to show up and question you.
Most people opt to hire a lawyer to assist in this whole deal, because a mistake in the paperwork can understandably suck.
You could be denied a discharge and would have to start over
I searched around online and found an attorney with the last name Jude, who named his law firm Jude Law. That alone was enough for me to like him (and, yes, later when I showed up in the waiting area, there was a signed photo of the actor Jude Law framed and hanging on the wall. Awesome).
I filled out the online form on the website one Sunday and within 30 minutes I got an email response from an employee there, and even the attorney himself, saying they could help. “Now here’s a business that’s on the ball,” I thought.
I showed up at their offices. They outlined their services, fees, and I decided to retain them. They gave me a list of needed documents, like tax returns, credit card bills, debt collector information, and I showed up a second time to organize the official filing.
We listed every single creditor I had and every dollar I owed, as well as all my assets
There weren’t much of the latter.
I asked about a thousand bucks or so I had in a mutual fund. A lady there replied, “Hookers. And blow,” while ticking off two fingers. Then she clarified: “Spend it. Just keep the receipts.”
Then, they mentioned something to me, almost offhandedly, that I didn’t read about online:
“There’s a chance that, even if you get a discharge, you’ll still have a quarter of your savings taken from you, to pay your creditors.”
“Do you know what the odds are that’ll happen to me?”
She shrugged, “Depends on the trustee.”
When it came time to sign the papers, I asked the lady there to snap a few photos of me with my camera phone, and she obliged. I was wearing one of my favorite t-shirts which had the phrase “Future Millionaire” embossed on it, with some little dollar signs.
The shirt was created as a joke, but I wasn’t fooling around
They said they’d file in a few days, and they gave me a phone number to give all my creditors when they hit me up for payment. Reason being, as soon as you or your lawyer files for bankruptcy, you’re granted an “Automatic Stay” which means nobody can get their greedy paws on your money until your hearing, whether or not you’re actually discharged from your debt.
As I left, the lady repeated: “Hookers and blow.”
Thinking about how a fourth of my bank account savings could be taken away, I made a trip to Walmart. An expensive one. I took note of all the things I usually bought, and grabbed a whole cart-full. Pasta, socks, sauce, maple syrup, cheese, flour, shirts. Even some stuff I’d been meaning to purchase, like a can opener.
Looking back, I question the morality of my action (and, honestly, I could Monday-morning-quarterback all of this) and I don’t have an easy answer about whether or not I did the right thing.
As the debt collection companies called me one by one, I cheerfully answered and informed them of my filing
I took special pleasure in contacting the company acting on behalf of the State of Colorado, which was automatically drafting money from my bank account.
Funny thing: When you file, a date is set for your court appearance. Around the same time, I happened to get a notice for jury duty. So I asked the assistant at the law firm what would happen if both appointments fell on the same day (more and more, I was practicing “inspect what you expect”). She got the attorney on the conference line to ask, and he walked in.
Imagine a guy shrugging his shoulders and saying with a Texas accent, “Don’t even go! It’s not like they’re going to throw you in jail or anything.” Yeah… this was the guy I just retained to legally represent me.
Heh, the appointments never ended up conflicting. In fact, the court case I was summoned for, ended up not requiring a jury at all.
So I went to the movies that day instead
My Meeting of the Creditors, however, was still on. So a couple weeks later, I walked across downtown to my hearing. It would be… very different… than I expected.
Definitely much more strange.
“Your skin is BURNED. You face looks like a lobster! The ladies love that I’m sure…”
“…yeah…” I muttered.
I was walking back from the convenience store, fetching some snacks for the buyer in between rounds of sign-holding outside. It was dead in the middle of summer, and I had to admit what the kid on the bike shouted at me… was correct. My fair skin wasn’t taking kindly to 7 daily hours of Colorado sun exposure, especially considering my eschewing of toxic sunscreens.
Up until this point, things were going well with my job. I derived some perverse enjoyment out of standing outside all day, listening to audios, drinking coffee, letting my mind wander, thinking about business… it was tranquil…
Until this kid on a bike began zipping by
Because I almost always had my headphones on, it was difficult for me to hear, but I noticed him saying things and looking at me.
Something about it rattled me. It didn’t help that he looked eerily similar to my childhood best friend.
For an inexplicable reason, I dwelled on the encounters. Sure, people constantly gave me the finger or shouted as they drove by. But this felt different.
A couple days later, he mocked my burned skin while I was leaving the convenience store… like he was following me around or something! Great, just the thing to ruin my workday.
I hated feeling like a sitting duck out there, rooted to one corner, while this kid biked around all day, bored, harassing me
Some days, he’d zoom up the sidewalk from behind. One time, he just barely avoided hitting me, skidding on his bike then turning around to mouth, “Fuck you.” Other days he’d slowly go past and wave like we were friends. What was going on?
I thought about the situation while doing a meditation. My mind ran through many different scenarios of us fighting, and things continuing to be miserable… and then all of a sudden I imagined talking with him like we were friends, and asking if he played football. I smiled. That one felt the most real. For some reason.
Days went by. At first I felt silly telling anyone about it. Sure, he was a big kid, but I doubted I was in any physical danger. He was just a jerk. And maybe the company I worked for wouldn’t appreciate the drama and putting time and energy towards my situation.
But finally I called my boss and explained
He was surprisingly supportive, at one point saying, “Heck when people flip you off…flip ‘em off right back, I say!” It felt wonderful for someone to have my back. But still, that didn’t exactly resolve things. I knew something had to change.
Then the day came.
The morning began with a 45-minute standing meditation. At one point, I vividly… yet vaguely… imagined the kid biking straight towards me. I focused on relaxing and maintaining my form and smiling into the image. Which was tough to do. When it was over, I had this odd feeling that I wasn’t done with the meditation.
Later, as I drove to work, I mused with the idea that the confrontation between us had already taken place and was resolved.
But would he even show up that day? For a couple hours, I didn’t know the answer.
Then I turned… and saw him… biking straight towards me
“Good,” I thought. “Game on, let’s do this.”
He biked closer and closer, waved to me (huh?!)… and then veered into the parking lot, to pull up just outside the entrance to the store. He walked in. What was going on? Was he going to complain about me? Well, there were two sides to this story! I left the street to walk in, and watched as he went to the counter… and handed the buyer his necklace.
Jeez, he was looking to sell something. This was so weird.
I came inside, walked right up to him, and said, “Can we talk? After you’re done?”
Looking a little dazed, he said, “Yeah.”
I went over to the set of couches on the other side of the room, sat, and waited
As the buyer looked at his necklace, the kid stole a few quick glances at me.
I wondered how I should handle this. Then, the moment he shuffled over to the couches, I realized what was going on. His vibe gave him away. He was just a kid who got caught misbehaving, and he felt bad for getting in trouble.
“Should I sit down?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “sit down here.”
I paused, and regally began, “The harassment… has to stop.”
Barely before I could finish my last word, he nodded and said, “Yeah, I know, I know.”
I realized the “bad cop” treatment wasn’t needed anymore, so I shifted gears, “Look, there are some crazy people out there – I don’t know what to expect while I’m standing outside there, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, it’s just these kids on bikes, they hate you because you won’t move out of the way for them, so they made me do it.”
Now I understood the full picture
Maybe once, weeks ago, I was a little slow in stepping aside as a group of kids biked by… as if that were my responsibility, heh. But when you’ve got a group of teenage boys with nothing to do in the summer, it doesn’t take much to get them to cause trouble. This kid, though pretty darn big, was at the bottom of the social totem pole. So he did the dirty work of harassing me, for their amusement. Some friends. It also explained why his behavior switched so much. On the days he was nice and waved to me, his “friends” weren’t around to see it.
I just wanted my workday to be tranquil. And I wondered if him going back to his friends and saying I put my foot down, would cause more trouble. So I told him, “Hey – tell your friends that I’m sorry, okay? Sometimes I don’t see people in time when I’m out there, and that’s why I don’t move. But I’ll try to do so, if I see them.”
I imagined the kid going back to his friends victoriously, telling them how I apologized.
The whole exchange was so strange to me
At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… but then realized: I was the adult. For just about all of my life, I had been the kid. Now I was the adult in the room. Crazy.
We stood up and shook hands. Before he left, I asked him one last question: “You’re a big guy, you play football?”
“You must be a lineman or something. Offense or defense?”
I opened the door to see a deputy waiting for me.
“Are you Nathaniel Rifkin?”
“This is for you,” he said, handing me an envelope. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.”
I thanked him, closed the door, and immediately opened the letter.
A lawsuit had been filed against me
By the state of Colorado.
“This IS bad,” I thought to myself.
Their reason for suing? Failure to pay taxes, amounting to over $7,000. They made my options quite simple: I could fight… or I could call a number and pay or set up a payment plan. I chose the latter. It also involved signing a document of which I don’t remember the specifics, but I’m sure it involved signing away any shred of innocence.
Just another event in my saga of dealing with debt collectors. In this case, the state of Colorado had contracted with a private company that took the reins of cases involving deadbeats. At that point in my life, when it came to credit cards and taxes, I fell into that category.
Over the years, I’d gotten plenty of letters, thick with breakdowns of bills and return envelopes to send in payments. Mostly from credit card companies.
They’d grow in piles on my floor, usually unopened
Later, I began receiving letters from private debt collection companies. Here’s how that worked:
Let’s say I had a credit card with a limit of $3,000 and I maxed it out. In fact, did exactly this (it was from Wachovia, if you care to know). Wachovia would then send me regular bills… then overdue bills… and if enough time went by for them to cry uncle and decide I was a lost cause, they’d sell my account to a debt collection company. Probably for a few hundred bucks. The company would then “own” my debt and could legally attempt to collect on it.
As you can see, Wachovia loses money in this transaction. But they’ve figured out selling a debtor’s account for pennies on the dollar is better than collecting $0. I remember one credit card company sent me an overnight envelope via UPS. Inside was a simple letter, saying something to the effect of, “Why have we spend the money to send you a letter like this? Because we want your attention and we want to help you. Call us…” It was a fantastic strategy, and I’m sure worked well for them… but I didn’t call.
But the thing about debt collectors… is they’ll call you. I stopped answering my cell if I didn’t recognize the number (and, with certain companies that called often enough, I didn’t answer because I, in fact, did recognize their number).
Their game was simple
If they could just squeeze a couple payments out of me, they’d profit. And I’m sure both the credit card and collection companies have some precise and sophisticated algorithms to determine whether or not a deadbeat is too dead to pursue.
So how could I let myself spiral into a hole like this? It wasn’t because of some sudden disaster, or an insurmountable financial obligation. It was a dis-eased mindset. Actually, several of them:
What’s interesting about the first three reasons, is they’re all warped versions of genuinely healthy financial outlooks. The fact is, many businesses require borrowing in order to afford ignition and growth. Which literally requires taking on debt. And diverting cashflow away from a business does technically hinder its growth, if more cashflow is required. And we’ve all heard stories of business “hail marys” where the founder lobbed his last dollar into the fray, trying to make it work…and succeeding.
Today, I understand I distorted these mindsets with desperation, the stench of need, and lack of conscious awareness.
There’s a big difference between strategic debt… and convincing yourself you can simply make it up later
Plus, having the discipline to save rarely chokes off the growth of a business.
There was also my financial illiteracy, which is epidemic in this country (and the world). I remember the shock of doing my taxes after my first year in business. Every penny had been either reinvested, or spent on food and rent. Yet my tax bill was for several thousands of dollars.
“WTF?!” I thought. “How could I owe this when I’m broke now, and am barely making enough to get by?”
(Later I’d realize; business owners don’t have the luxurious illusion of automatic withholding.)
Another cause was, I believe, a serious screw-up in the root “wheel” of my energy body.* Most of my childhood was marred by fear because of financial instability and lack. Back then, I vowed to become rich so I wouldn’t suffer as an adult, but my drive was not supported by a knowingness of abundance. A good visual would be: I had the impetus and ability to leap forward towards riches, but my vibration was like black ice on a road.
I was stuck in place no matter how I writhed and wrenched my body
At worst, I slipped and slammed my knees against the hard, cold ground.
Getting a high four-figure tax bill I couldn’t pay was the first slam. There would be many more.
For years, I managed to make enough money to pay off the worst debt. More than once, I had to call my cable company, credit card in hand to finally pay, when my TV and internet switched off. Cards declining at the grocery store, post office, and restaurants were regular occurrences. So much so, that sometimes I’d duck out of sight to call the credit card company just to make sure I had enough available to pay. To this day, I occasionally feel some anxiety when my card’s being swiped.
In early 2012, things changed. Although I had a full-time job, my business income had dried up. And while I was paying $50 a month to a debt collector here, and $100 there, as well as the minimums on a couple cards that hadn’t given up on me… the mathematics guaranteed something had to give.
For a long time, I’d thought about bankruptcy.
I assumed my life would be ripped apart by the courts and my creditors
However, as I began to research, I realized there could be some strategic value in going through with it.
It’s been almost four years, and I still shake my head when I think of what a strange experience it was (actually, I shake my head when remembering just about anything involving that period of my life). Coming soon, I’ll give you the insider’s look of what actually happens when you go through a bankruptcy.
(*In some spiritual traditions, it is believed the human body has several energetic “wheels” located in specific parts of the body, all of which are associated with certain aspects of life. And, if you’re screwed up in one, that’ll lead to dysfunction. One wheel located in the perineum area – imagine sitting on a bicycle seat and that’d be it – has to do with financial security.)