A call from an unknown cousin
“You don’t know me, but we’re cousins.”
That’s what he said when I picked up the phone, as soon as I said hello. My dog, King, was jumping on me as I walked through the door, two bags of groceries from the discount store were in both my arms, and my left fist was clutching a magazine my ex girlfriend had subscribed to and a handful of bills I couldn’t afford to pay. I could barely hear the phone.
“Cousins?” I asked, setting my things down.
“Yeah – you have a grandmother named Anne, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Did she ever tell you about her cousin Cheryl?”
I thought – the name didn’t sound familiar. But I said “that name sounds familiar” anyway.
“Well Cheryl is my grandmother.”
“OK. Well, hi cousin.” I petted King while I walked to the couch and sat down, phone to my ear. I wasn’t very close to my family and only talked to Grandma Anne a few times a year, if that. I was curious what this cousin wanted, and I was pretty sure it would be some sort of offer I was going to have to tactfully decline, like he was in town and wanted to get brunch or something like that.
“Well, look, the reason I’m calling you is that my grandmother, Cheryl, she told me that she thought you know something about LEPA, is that right?”
“LEPA?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “lifetime earnings potential assessments. I’m working at WHA now and we’re hiring like crazy. I’m not a recruiter, but we have this referral bonus, and so I’m just reaching out to anyone with LEPA experience. I hope this isn’t inappropriate.”
I stood up from the couch. A job? He had my attention now.
“Oh, lifetime earnings potential assessments!” I said, trying to sound like I’d heard of it, which I hadn’t, “yeah of course. We just called them LEP assessments at my old job.” Sounds plausible, right?
“Oh great. Well, to be honest, I don’t know much about what the job entails, I actually work in the IT department. Our growth is just exploding and they doubled the bonus for LEPA specialists. I can send you a link to the job posting. There’s a line for how you heard about the job, make sure to mention my name – Otis Penn. Actually, no, just reply to me and I’ll set it up with the HR manager, that way I can make sure you don’t get lost in the mix. Sound good?”
I gave him my email address, said goodbye, got off the phone, and sat back down on the couch. King came over and sat his head on my lap and I scratched behind his ears. It was too soon to tell at this point, but I had a feeling things were about to get better.
I had made a big mistake when I turned 18. This was right around the time when people were starting to finance college with a Personal Initial Public Offering, and it sounded like a good idea to me. I could sell, I figured, about 15% of my future earnings and pay for my whole education with the proceeds of the sale. After a couple years I should be able to make enough money to buy back all my shares. That’s what the commercials said anyway. I contacted a PIPO agent and went public. My family bought 3% and outside investors bought 12%. I didn’t raise as much money as I hoped, but I raised enough to pay for 7 semesters of tuition, fees, dorm room, and meal plan.
I studied business, at first. I didn’t take to it, I just couldn’t understand it and it bored the hell out of me. So much emphasis on the minutiae of life. I thought maybe economics, which is sort of like the same thing but more abstract. That didn’t take either. I had enjoyed a philosophy class I took to meet my general education requirement, so I took a few more of them, and turned out to be good at writing bullshit papers. One of my professors recruited me into the department, and then I was a philosophy major. I did think about income, but I figured that even though some degrees are worth more than others, a degree in anything is worth more than not having a degree.
I’m not sure if I was right about that. There’s so much emphasis now on very specialized certificates, I could have just spent six months studying and taken a few exams and ended up with a much more lucrative piece of paper. There’s the old joke that the second cheapest department in any university is the history department because all they need are pencils, paper, and waste paper baskets. The very cheapest department though, is philosophy, because they don’t need the waste paper baskets. I was discovering that was true in more ways than one. Not being able to afford a waste paper basket, I had to hang my useless philosophy degree on my wall.
Needless to say, my earnings after college did not grow as fast as I had hoped. I worked retail a bit, tended bar, mowed lawns, walked dogs. I was perpetually in debt. Not only could I not afford to buy back my shares, but just to survive, I had to sell more of my shares, meaning I had to pay investors a bigger cut of each paycheck. So it reduced my take home income with each share of myself I sold. I did a bit of work under the table work here and there, which I hoped to hide from my shareholders, but stopped when someone I was working with went to jail for doing the same thing.
It was getting common around this time to sell personal decision making authority to your shareholders. This would give my shareholders the right to vote on things like where I live, whether I accept a job offer or not, how much vacation I take per year, and in some contracts, even personal decisions like how much alcohol I’m allowed to consume per week, whether I get married, and whether I have children. It would have fetched a much higher price for my shares if I sold decision making rights, and every PIPO agent I talked to had used high pressure sales pitches to try to get me in on it, but I kept saying no. I needed the money, but this was just too much control.
One of the jobs I worked for was at a crooked drug and alcohol rehab. This must be what Grandma Anne was talking about when she told her cousin I had LEPA experience. The rehab was a front for an investment firm. What they would do is buy up the public shares of drug addicts and alcoholics on the open market, people who hadn’t worked for years, people who had been in and out of jail. They’d get these shares at rock bottom prices, because most people expected them to be dead within a year. Then, after they had all this person’s shares, they’d get them into rehab, clean them up, sometimes using unethical techniques like coercing them to take an anti-opiate vaccine, then after a stint in the rehab they’d set them up with jobs. Once they had jobs, their share prices would start to increase, then the rehab would sell the shares for ten times what they paid for them. I heard they’d even use information gathered in group therapy to assess whether the addict might relapse again and use that information in deciding how long to hold the shares before cashing out.
My job at the rehab was to work on the street, recruiting the addicts into rehab. I had to do some shit I didn’t really like. Sometimes I’d just pitch it and they’d say yes, but usually I had to do something sneaky. Like I’d follow someone around until they committed a crime then call the police on them. The rehab would pay for their lawyer, who would negotiate with the prosecutor to get charges dropped if the suspect entered rehab. Other times I’d find someone who was really craving something and I’d buy them a fix or a bottle in exchange for them signing a contract to go into rehab the next day. I hated this work and wanted to quit, but it’s really hard to quit a job voluntarily when other people own your shares (exposes me to lawsuits and shit), so I just started doing really poorly on purpose until they fired me. I worked there about 9 months and was on my way to forgetting about it, if not for this phone call from my cousin Otis.
A few months after I was terminated, things got bad for me. First, my shareholders found out about some of the underground work I’d done. They said they knew about even more and asked me for a list of all my earnings. If I lied, they might press charges and I could end up in jail. Then I’d have to pay them back with the money I earned at prison wages, which was below minimum wage. I tried to win back their trust by telling the truth. I apologized and pointed out that it was years ago, and they voted not to press charges, but I had to pay them their back dividends, reducing my earnings further. I was in trouble.
Then Emma and I broke up. We’d been splitting the rent, so when she moved out my rent effectively doubled – then my landlord raised it by another 10%. I could move, but I was already living in just about the cheapest place I could find that allows dogs. There was nothing for me to do, so I had to sell more of my shares to pay rent, credit card interest, and simply buy food. My share price was low enough already, then the country entered a recession and it started to really dive along with the rest of the market. I was pretty sure I would end up homeless, and every time I took King out for a walk I would keep my eyes open for places in the neighborhood where I could comfortably sleep outside if I had to. If only I could get some money, I could be deliberately homeless for a while, which would cause my prices to dive even further. Then I could buy them back, get a job, and not have to pay so many dividends out of my paycheck. I really didn’t want to have to do it though.
So by the time I opened the email from my cousin, I was determined – no matter what it took, I was going to get this job.
When I started reading the email, I could tell right away that it was going to be quite a challenge. I can lie up my resume a bit if I need to. I have, at times, lied about my college major, put later departure dates and earlier start dates than reality in order to reduce time gaps between jobs, left certain things out altogether, claimed various skills that I didn’t actually have – but this job was just way above my head, way beyond my experience level.
What they wanted, basically, was an actuary – or someone who was working on becoming an actuary – with extensive experience in Lifetime Earning Potential Assessment. I’m a quick study and I could probably read a book on actuary science and get the general idea, but when I started looking up more details, I saw that this just wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter if I started working now, I was years behind what they wanted. I skimmed my eyes down the list of skills they wanted – intuitive probability theory, economics, law, calculus, programming in DISQ*, Python, Glial, Java, and multiple V-plus-V constructible languages. I only knew what half those things even were.
I hit reply, started to type a thanks but no thanks note, then closed the browser without sending. I got up and picked up King’s leash, which prompted him to run towards me, and I latched it onto his collar. We went out for a brief walk around the neighborhood and I thought about what I was going to do. My cousin said they were hiring like crazy, so maybe they had other positions open too. The company was called WHA – Wamma Holdings and Acquisitions – so I took out my phone and looked them up. They had a careers page, but the only job postings were for LEPA specialists.
The walk was especially long because I didn’t want to go home. We walked past a building that used to be a shoe repair shop, until recently, and I saw that it had been newly boarded up. I can probably sleep there few a little while if I have to become homeless, I thought. Then we passed a parking lot full of junk, including an old refrigerator. I could probably tip it on its side, pull out the shelves and break the door off, and sleep there if I needed to. I’d need blankets of course. It looked like it might be a little tight and uncomfortable, but it would keep the rain out. I could keep King nearby to chase rats away, which might also save money on dog food.
After the walk back home I started to open my mailbox, but then realized I had already checked the mail. I opened it anyway and saw there were now more bills in it. I didn’t understand how this was possible – I’d just checked it and found a bunch of bills I couldn’t pay. Now more? I looked through them – more credit card bills, an old veterinarian bill from 4 months ago I still hadn’t paid, second shutoff notice for electricity, an old debt from a collection agency. Also, an ad for a dentist.
I opened the email from cousin Otis again and reread the job description. I did a little more research, some quick back of the hand calculations, and figured it would take me about two years to learn what I needed to learn for this job. There was just no way I could do it, but also no way I couldn’t. I made some tea and sat for a while, looking at job sites, resume tip sites, and just looking for ideas. There was nothing. I checked the news for the latest unemployment rate – it was about 13% now – up another percentage point from the last time I checked. Things were getting worse, not better.
I replied to the email – “Otis – thank you so much for contacting me with this opportunity. This is exactly what I was looking for. I’m tying up some loose ends right now and won’t be able to come in for an interview right away, but do you think we could schedule an interview in about two weeks? I’ll update my resume and get you a copy tomorrow.”
I had two weeks to learn two years worth of material, and learn it well enough that I could lie my way through an interview. I knew what I had to do. I didn’t want to admit it, I didn’t want to consider it even, but I was out of options. There was only one way to learn that much material so fast.