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It Wasn’t The $14 Avocado Toast

It Wasn’t The $14 Avocado Toast

Author’s note: I lead marketing for the personal finance and budgeting app Piere, helping bring the product that thousands of users love to the market. For me, Piere has become a passion, influenced by my own challenges throughout life to find a manageable solution to my lifestyle goals.


The phone rang in the low walled cubicle next to me, “Bank of America Risk Services. Hey, Gurmez!” Terry answered in her trademark perky alto. “No, I haven’t heard anything about that. We don’t have a TV in here.”

It was a late-summer morning just like any other, warm and muggy, and I had just made my way from the trolley stop in Charlotte’s Gateway Village to my desk at the global headquarters of Bank of America’s banking risk division. My career had started only two months prior, baby faced and wide eyed, fresh out of my short risk management training, I was on my way to creating the life I’d always wanted. What I didn’t know on that particular morning was that with the next phone call, every dream and aspiration that I had, every wish and expectation for the future would change––forever.

Fate’s phone call was voiced by my colleague Vincent who worked in our offices in Manhattan. Every morning he’d give me a ring to brief me on high dollar transfers that I needed to be aware of, and which of my decisions from the day before would likely get me an earful from an angry suit up on the 27th floor. “Adam, you watching the news? That’s right across the plaza from me! Let’s keep this quick because I’m going to get out of here and try to work from the Secaucus office.” With no streaming video, no smartphones, no cable TV, I was completely in the dark about what Vincent was talking about. “This is giving me a real bad feeling.” While Vincent ran through his list with me and we said our quick good-byes, there was no way for me to know that it was the last time we would ever speak, hanging up just moments before he collected his belongings and set out to leave the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Vincent would never make it to New Jersey.

I was just a round-faced teenager when I began dreaming of the perfect life, and the job at the bank helped me get there before my 25th birthday. A downtown loft apartment, a car with an electric sunroof, and enough money and freedom to travel with my friends, usually my treat. These were all just stepping stones to the big leagues when I could afford to buy my own stone clad home in Giverny, complete with a secret room hidden behind a bookcase that was opened by pulling on a wall sconce. What I was told by my employer, the news, and even my parents is that this would last forever and I’d taken a fast track approach to getting ahead before most. I wanted the right things and I’d get there soon if I worked hard, just like my parents and school had promised.

Then, the call from Vincent.

In the days that followed September 11, 2001, I’d visit friends in suburban Charlotte and we’d sit stone faced below the televisions at Kristopher’s Bar & Grill, picking at our club sandwiches and holding back the tears as CNN replayed the events from earlier that week. The static buzz of talking heads predicted what we should expect next even though no one really knew for sure. We tried to make sense of what happened as best we could, but we were young and completely unprepared for how our world had changed forever and how our goals would be held for ransom by the years that lay ahead.

You’ll Get Two Weeks

On a brisk North Carolina morning in January of 2009, I made the short walk from the Uptown bus depot to the office tower where I worked on the edge of Charlotte’s Tryon Street financial district. In the 8 years that I had worked in the neighborhood nearly everything had flipped on its head. Construction cranes soared overhead on every block, new condominium towers and luxury apartments seemed to be opening every week and owning a place in any of the latest landmark residential towers took less than 10 minutes. The pitch was simple: get a mortgage with no down payment, no credit or employment check, and live only a few blocks from work––no commute!

While most of my friends had jumped on the adjustable rate $0 down mortgage bandwagon, I was still a lowly renter, pushed to live about 3 miles outside of the downtown ring by prices that skyrocketed after 9/11. A combination of high inflation rates, corporate consolidation, and endless wartime spending contributed to higher prices all around, but life was still good, and I was still working tirelessly to get to where I wanted.

Charlotte Banks Announce Layoffs Topping 30,000. The headline seemed impossible. I sat at my desk and stared blankly at the headline on The Charlotte Observer, unsure exactly how to react. Fate, it seemed, wasn’t one to keep people waiting. As I logged into my computer and checked my Outlook inbox, a new email was glaring at me with the subject “Confidential And Urgent.” Inside, HR laid clear instructions for joining a conference call later that afternoon, one where they would deliver news that me, my best friend, and 7,500 others just like us were out of a job. They assured us that our last day of work didn’t mean the last day of pay, and generously sent us out into the worst job market since 1931 with a two week severance check.

The Great Recession was a faceless but relentless monster in the days that followed. Grocery stores told me I was overqualified to bag bread and eggs, restaurants reported they’d have to close their doors for good and weren’t accepting applications. No matter where I searched the opportunities to work and earn the life I knew I deserved were vanishing by the minute. There were the days when I cried myself awake, and many more where I begged for any feeling at all until I passed out. I had done everything right, had shown up just like they asked, played the game by their rules over and over again, year after year. I hadn’t been taken fool by the free mortgage game and always spent less than I made. I was wrongly convicted and sentenced to a prison without walls, and I quickly lost sight of the dreams that once propelled me forward.

Tap Your Card And Then It’s Going To Ask About A Tip

It’s now 2021 and each day by 11 AM I found myself going stir crazy with isolation at home, sitting behind my webcam and staring into hours of endless Zooms, but the thought of masking up and going out to mingle with other humans sometimes felt impossible. After a year living in a world battered by an invisible virus, I barely recognized my own life. Staring out of my window through the swaying palm trees and out at the Condado Lagoon, it was a picture perfect day in Puerto Rico, my home for the past 5 years.

From my front row seat to paradise I had become a master of creating a dreamland for my Instagram followers, but there was the reality that existed outside the app. When Charlotte’s economy rebounded after the Great Recession, there wasn’t a dream left on my list that I could afford. I had opened my own marketing agency a few years earlier, and by all accounts I was providing for myself. Even so, prices in the city had just about doubled and I was missing the life I dreamt of nearly 20 years earlier. There was no way I could afford to travel, buy a home, save for retirement and have working freedom in the economy that followed the big bust of ’08. Not just me, but all of my friends were feeling the bite of a cold financial reality that settled in over an entire generation.

My fix was to find a place to live that delivered the lifestyle I wanted, with a price tag I could afford, and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico delivered on both. Living in San Juan I was able to save around a third of my total income for the first time since 2001. The lower cost of living and laidback urban lifestyle more than made up for the difficulty I had learning Spanish, and finally, I thought, my dream of owning a house with an office hidden behind my Harry Potter novels was just a few years away.

Corona. Virus. By the time Puerto Rico was hit with the third wave, I had made peace with the fact that this would be my home, my rented home for a few years more. Sun seekers from the mainland with new remote working freedom descended upon the island like a second viral plague in 2021, buying up every available condo and bungalow they could for one-third of what they’d pay in Northern California. It was obvious to me that I’d waited too long to fulfill my dream of buying as I watched the cost of yogurt rise to $9 a quart and my rent triple within six months. The swaying coconut palms outside my window, the crystal teal waters of the lagoon, the sight of them began to dig under my skin, reminding me of yet another failure to secure my future while I could.

Having had enough of the spin cycle in my head, I pushed back from my desk, grabbed an N95 from the table by the door, and left the house to clear my head. Heading downstairs to the cafe in the lobby of my building I ordered my usual – a can of Perrier sparkling water and avocado toast with a wedge of lime. “That’s $14 guapo,” Paola told me from behind the bar. Placing an iPad on the counter, she spun it around to face me like she had a few times a week for months, always with a reminder, “Tap your card when it says and then it’s going to ask you about a tip.” I tapped the box for 25%, picked up my lunch, and walked to a table on the terrace facing Ashford Avenue. Sitting in that uneven green aluminum chair, the warm and damp ocean breeze in my face, I exhaled deeply.

My friend Kerry always told me the answers to all of our questions are there when we’re fully ready to hear them. I remember her repeating that to me over and over during a particular rough patch in 2011 when I was having trouble getting my business off the ground.

The answer to why this world would never let me catch up to it finally made itself clear through the rustle of the palm trees overhead. What I heard is that all along I had been asking the wrong question.

At age 12 my parents sent me out into the Nebraska cornfields to work the crops, promising me that it would build character, teach me the value of money, and take me a step closer to building a life with a big nest egg, 3-bedroom home, and a new car in the driveway. Again at age 16 they told me the same when I wanted to quit my job at Chick-fil-A after shift supervisor Gabe stuck me with dining room cleaning duty when I wanted the drive thru register. Every guidance counselor, teacher, news anchor, economics book, employee manual that I would encounter in life promised something similar: work hard and you’ll live the dream. Missing from all of these pep talks and lessons at life was any ounce of alternating perspective, any mention of how to set and meet goals that would meet me where I was in life.

Maybe I couldn’t buy that big house in Giverny now. But the fact that I’m not there at this exact moment doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong, just like it doesn’t mean that it was or wasn’t destined to be in the first place. Harsh judgment has no place when evaluating a dream. Rather than looking at things in terms of what I had done right or wrong, there was another option to change my perspective. What happens beyond this moment that’s in front of me now is fully within my control, and there are certainly things I can do that put me in the best possible position to get there.

The life I had been living for so many years was the dream that others had sold to me early on. From my spot below the palm trees, looking out over the breaking waves of the Atlantic, steps from the apartment I didn’t own, I took a bite of my $14 avocado toast and smiled. In spite of all the uncertainty and chaos the world had churned up throughout my life, I had found ways to be safe, fulfilled, and happy, and there was still plenty more opportunity out there. Maybe I would never be able to buy that perfect life, but one moment at a time at least I can rent it.