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Solutions for the Freshly Freelance

I was on vacation celebrating my 32nd birthday when I got the e-mail. The well-paid gig that had kept me in midrange designer clothes for more than a year was suddenly coming to an end. Two weeks’ notice later, I was freshly freelance.

I immediately noticed that assignments weren’t as easy to get as before. Favorite editors had been laid off. Even more writers had been fired, and the few remaining editors had cut their rates or were, quite simply, not responding.

Oh, shit.

I needed to come up with a plan.



My first instinct, borne of panic, was to downsize immediately. In Joshua Tree, a two-bedroom cabin on 2.5 acres with separate studio space, just a few miles from the spectacular national park, costs around $700 a month. Poised to commune with the cactus, I reconsidered the move after talking to Tommy Carmanico, the biker hairdresser who runs Sugar Salon in Silver Lake.

“Joshua Tree is really good if you want to take mushrooms and look at the stars,” he advised. Instead, he recommended Palm Springs, where he’s recently purchased property, and where rents are still more affordable than they are in Los Angeles. Carmanico likes Palm Springs’ surreal, Brat Pack graveyard atmosphere — where old gays and wise guys suit up for dinner each night and talk about the mai tais they used to throw back with Frank, Sammy and Dean.

(Visit craigslist.org for desert living opportunities.)



I wasn’t the only one thinking about skipping town. Annie Kehoe, 28, an actor and staffer at the Bourgeois Pig coffee shop in Hollywood, moved to Chicago a few weeks ago. Her boyfriend, who worked in finance, had been laid off, and the farther he got from Los Angeles, the more work there was, it seemed. For the first time in their relationship, they were going to live together. We spoke while she was in the middle of packing. “To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the effects of the recession myself,” she said. “Although my friends who work at the Grove say they have.”

Apparently, tourists have been taking out their recessionary woes on those waiting tables at the Grove. “Tourists never tip that well anyway, but since the recession started, it has gotten really bad, apparently,” Kehoe added.



Media Week reported that publishing is thriving in Brazil, of all places. I found out why when I went to a ritzy dinner celebrating the launch of a new $2,000 cell phone at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. As I stepped out of my rusty white 1989 Mercedes, the valet looked at my jalopy with confusion and asked, “Are you here for the event? Or are you working the event?”

The horror.

Inside, I talked to the phone’s well-traveled product manager, who explained that in Brazil, reading newspapers is still seen as a status symbol. “If you’re a businessman, you better be walking to work every day with a newspaper under your arm. Otherwise, you won’t be taken seriously.”

I pictured myself covering Rio Fashion Week and translating Brazilian love poems like deceased American poet laureate Elizabeth Bishop.

One problem? I don’t speak Portuguese.



I decided to stick close to home.

I heard that $550-a-month studios were available at the Rosslyn Hotel on Fifth and Main downtown, a neighborhood so hip it was profiled by The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. The artist Elizabeth McGrath came with me to look around. There are two Rosslyn Hotels, she said. The sexy building featured in the movie Million Dollar Hotel and where U2 filmed their “Where the Streets Have No Name” video, and the ghetto one across the street. I told Liz the address we were going to. “Oh, I think it’s the sexy one!” she said excitedly. She was wrong.

As we waited in the lobby, Liz told me about a young friend who had lived in the building for a short time. “She said it was really interesting design, because they had air holes in the windows.”

The air holes were bullet holes, and if you park your car on the street overnight, it is likely to get “broken into and pooped in,” said Liz, recalling her own misfortune. There are parking lots nearby — the L.A. Times structure charges $75 a month, and the patrolled lot next to the Rosslyn costs $175 a month.

LaFoe, the kindly building manager, looks like Rosey Grier. He showed us around, his cell phone ringing constantly. He is proud of the changes taking place in his building. “You’re the exact kind of girls we’d love to have here,” he said.

Security deposits are $175, and if you have at least $200 in your bank account, a room at the Rosslyn can be yours. He walked us to the model apartment, which was bright, and more spacious than I’d expected, with high ceilings and concrete floors. There were great views of the “nice” Rosslyn across the street. No kitchen. On the way back to the elevator, we passed an apartment whose front door was open. Two men in wife-beaters, watching daytime TV, drinking beer and shooting the shit. I imagined myself writing a great recessionary novel in the Rosslyn, typing my 21st-century Grapes of Wrath on my BlackBerry, and roaming the corridors, capturing urban Dorothea Lange portraits with my point-and-shoot set to “sepia.”



In the end, I decided not to save a boatload of money by moving into the Rosslyn. I instead chose to move into a giant studio in Silver Lake and pay 25 percent more than my current rent. I call it my MOCA strategy: Speculate to accumulate, spend in order to maintain an aura of fabulousness. I also went ahead and bought a new laptop — a teeny, tiny Acer Aspire from Radio Shack for $99. It connects to the Internet wherever you are, much like a phone does, and no DSL connection is necessary. (Which will be useful if I do, indeed, need to move into my car in a few months.)

I decided to start my own business, too, and I bought a domain name through GoDaddy.com for my new fashion Web site, called StyleStrategist.com. I bought a virtual office address through EarthClassMail.com, and signed up for e-mail marketing software through AWeber.com, so I can send our e-mail newsletters. My friend told me I have an (empty) Wikipedia entry in my name, which also made it all feel better.



I posted a Facebook status update that read: “Caroline is bored of her own unending optimism.” Hellin Kay, recently laid-off from her job as West Coast fashion editor of Women’s Wear Daily, has yet to tire of her own unshakable pragmatism. “Aren’t you worried?” I asked her. “Nope,” she said. “One door closes, another opens. Whatever is happening now is what the universe wants. I am just perpetually positive.”

Except when it comes to health insurance, which Condé Nast had been paying until the company kicked her to the curb. “It was shocking. I got my form for COBRA health insurance, and it is exorbitant. I can’t afford it.” She said she’d be laying off her personal trainer as a result.

(The Freelancers Union is offering low-cost health insurance: www.freelancersunion.org.)



I talked to Chris Hardwick, writer for Wired magazine and professional tech nerd (he runs Nerdist.com). Hardwick is a lifelong freelancer who has never had an office job. “I’ve been fortunate enough to freelance in the entertainment business for 15 years. It’s rare that people actually arrive at that place where the anxiety comes true, where everything falls apart and you’re living in your car.”

He recommended using Google to fight the recession. “Google ways to cut down expenses,” for example. He told me about a Web site called Mint.com, which securely accesses all of your bank- and credit-card records and offers suggestions on how to save money. Likewise, if you have a business idea, Google it. Then go to elance.com to find freelancers to help you build it. And then sign yourself as a freelancer looking for work.

Hardwick also supports himself by playing a talking cow for Nickleodeon’s Back at the Barnyard. To remain competitive, he’s perfected the art of the “sarcastic moo. It’s like you just say the moo, without actually mooing it,” he explained.

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