Five years of early mornings, long days, and late nights. I am quite possibly the epitome of what defines the concept of the 99%. A struggling american citizen with no reprieve in sight, but trudging forth steadfast despite the constant adversity. That’s what I enrolled in college for, to get away from the aimless state that dominated my mundane life. I wanted more than what I had, and I felt like I was lacking the tools and skills to build what suited me.
I remember the day that I made the decision, because earlier that day I had been fighting to maintain my composure at one of my three restaurant jobs and I felt the same tugging of desperation that drove me to quit drinking and doing drugs. It was one of those rare honest omissions we sometimes have. Mine went something like this: Something has got to change, because the most terrifying prospect of my life is that it is comfortable and I could very easily slip into a lackadaisical state while the years pass and my life slips away.
When I got home from work that night I opened up my laptop and started searching the government registry for Wild-land Firefighter positions. I figured that a hotshot career would be filled with fun, and I loved to hike and be outdoors, so it seemed like a good idea, but the execution was starting to seem more and more improbable. Fed up and without any other ideas I opened up the San Diego Community College District website and enrolled for pre-registration. I felt like such a hypocrite, because I’d talked so much trash on the university system and accused it of being an educational complex with the sole purpose of brainwashing the youth to serve.
I started classes that Fall, I think it was 2013, and not a single class was worth any college credit. They were all remedial. But with some emotional support from my family I decided to put my ego aside and go into it with an open mind. I’m glad I did, because those first two semesters were integral to my getting to where I am today. I feel like I learned some of the most important things in those remedial classes. For instance, I found the potential for expression of thought through writing. Instead of just spouting out some ill-formed and rushed opinion about something, I was asked to think critically about the situation, and form a well-rounded argument. Empowerment.
I pushed through community college working weekdays, weekend nights, and going to class Monday-Thursday from 6pm-10pm. So a typical day would usually be to start at the Big Kitchen at 7am, and then go to the City Deli at 10:30am and work until 5pm, and then I’d bust my ass up to Mesa or City College for class from 6pm-10pm. After I would decompress by hiking Cowles Mountain, and finish off my night at the Midnight Howlers AA meeting. I’d go to bed around 2am most nights, and I did that routine pretty consistently for my first two semesters.
I had been established at the City Deli for a few years, and was able to drop my other jobs. But the owners sold, and before I knew it I was fired by the new owners, as with most of my co-workers. I walked out of the restaurant and onto 6th avenue feeling hopeless and scared. How was I going to find another job that accommodated my schedule like they did? Well… I didn’t try, but instead I made my own.
If there is anything I could say is the most profound lesson passed onto me from my grandfather, it is a sense of self-efficacy. The man is so remarkable in his willingness and courage to try things that most people just assume they can’t do because they aren’t a tradesman or an expert. Not him though, he picks up a book and he reads up on how to do it. When he wanted to build a bathroom, he learned how to run copper and ABS pipe, and he plumbed it himself. When he needed something welded, he bought a welder and a mask and taught himself, and he’s a damn good welder now. So I walked out with that in mind, and I started marketing myself as a landscaper and handyman. It worked, even if I was a hack, and it paid the rent and put food on the table while I continued my night classes.
One night at Midnight Howlers I met the anonymous electrician. He heard me talking about some kind of construction contract I’d managed to land, and before I knew it he asked me if I wanted to help him out on a job the following day. Sure. What time? He said 7am. It was 1:30am.
It was Summer, and I was enrolled in a 6 week Biology course from hell, and I was just getting over the most heinous poison oak exposure I’d ever had (like 60% of my body was covered). I showed up at 7am with the most pathetic tools you can imagine and itchy as hell from the poison oak rash. He started barking out orders to grab this, and grab that, and half the time I didn’t know what the fuck that was. I was in over my head, and this dude was surely going to call my bluff. But he didn’t. We finished the panel upgrade, he paid me good money for a days work, and I drove up to Miramar Community College for my 2 hour lecture followed immediately by a 4 hour lab. From hell.
That night I saw him at the meeting again; he said I did a good job, and asked me if I wanted to come help him out on another job the following day. Sure. I went out the next day and once again was overwhelmed. I got there and he handed me a pair of bags, told me to put them on and look like I knew what I was doing. He mounted a stick of 3/4″ conduit on the wall, showed me how to level it and set the anchors, showed me where it needed to go, said I’ll be back, and walked outside got in his van and drove off. Within 15 minutes I was drenched in anxious sweat feeling like I had just made a big mistake. He came back, bent some 90 degree bends, did some magic, handed me a fish tape and told me to send it through the conduit and left again. I couldn’t figure it out. At the end of the day he paid me good, and I drove off to Miramar for the Biology class.
I started working full time learning the electrical trade with the anonymous electrician for the rest of that year through the Fall semester. and in my 5th and final semester at community college I started a Hepatitis C treatment. We were wiring these big custom homes in Oceanside, and everyday I’d show up at 7am with gray tinged skin; I’d walk to the side of the house and vomit–if I was lucky I’d only dry heave. I became weaker and weaker as the treatment progressed, working 6-7 days a week and still going to school Mon-Thurs from 6pm-10pm. I started smoking cigarettes again at that time, and it took the edge away from the nausea and helped me feel less hopeless. I finished the treatment right before the Spring semester ended, and we finished the houses around the same time. I was broken, not at all the same person I was before, my life was spiraling out of control, and my relationship was starting to buckle under the pressure. That was when I the admittance letter to San Diego State University.
I was never really able to recover from that Spring semester. It took a lot out of me and, while I did return to work, I was not happy anymore. It was just one of those hideous experiences that required reinvention. So I burned my life down and started over. I chose rock climbing as my new mission in life.
It was suiting, because SDSU didn’t offer the same late night schedule classes that had been my lifeline through community college, so I went back to my freelance career using all the skills I’d learned in life to do independent contract work when I needed and was able to make big chunks of money it little amounts of time so I could attend school midday and travel off to climbing destinations all over the country with the free time I had. My fire was stoked.
I gave up a lot of things, and I started living simply, putting passion before anything else, and finally getting to live a life I’d always dreamed of. My time at SDSU was a blur, but it was the place where I finally came into who I am, and became comfortable with myself on my terms. No more trying to fit somebody else’s role, or play a part I felt obligated to. I would hold no punches–just 100% unadulterated Josh Motha Fuckin Clift.
For those who don’t know, I skipped my teenage years, and instead opted for a life of delinquency leading to early adulthood. That’s how this whole situation started. My time at SDSU made up for that missing experience. I learned to kick back and relax, and have a little fun. But by the end it was all catching up. I’d taken out a $15,000 loan to live on, which I pretty much used exclusively to live on the road climbing in the American Southwest for a year and a half, and every time I got back it seemed like I was falling further and further behind. And then one day, back home after months in Wyoming and Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra, I was running around locally and got hit in the head with a rock and took a tumble off a cliff, breaking my femur, tailbone, ribs, foot, and hand. I was broke, desperate, and school was starting in a week, so I took advantage of the only rational option available: walk back to my car, drive past three hospitals straight to the Rite Aid down the street from my house to buy some Ibuprofen and ice packs and self-treat my injuries. Terrible idea, but the poor mans struggle is not pretty.
And that was how I started my last semester of college. I went back to work 8 days after the incident, and signed on with my buddies landscaping business. I hobbled around on that stupid lame leg for 5 months, and I hobbled to classes, and I wallowed in self-pity, but I just continued to persist. It was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve undergone, and I’ve undergone quite a bit in my life. It sucked. It was like the ultimate test of tenacity.
I finished my last final on December 21st, 2017, and if you’ve ever aced a final then you’ll understand what it’s like to walk away knowing you just aced a final. I aced that final. But this wasn’t just any final, it was the final that earned my college degree. I walked across campus and I could feel so many emotions coursing through me. There is a little Thai joint across the College Ave. bridge, and I love Thai food so I figured it was fitting to celebrate. I hadn’t talked to anyone; I just took it all in. And while the college students, my peers, were around in their booths with the beers and the shots and the hoots and hollers, I just sat in my little booth waiting for my food to arrive with my head buried in my palms crying.
It wasn’t the 5 years, or the 10 before that, or the 15 before that. It was the lifetime of accepting failure, and enduring insecurity. I saw it through, no matter the cost. Had things gone just a little bit differently, I’d still be serving my sentence, and none of this would have come to pass, but it didn’t. It was just a lot to take in. I never really thought about what I would do when I finished, but instead just kept my head down and charged forward and did what had to be done.
And was it worth it?
Every damn minute.
Did I get what I had expected?
No, I got so much more.
To be continued…