Author: thenerdempire

He’s a Light Gun Wizard

House of the Dead
Your low-resolution textures and Ninja Turtle fingers will do you no good, Magician. I’m packing heat.

I know what everyone is thinking. “I really like the stories lately. But I feel like the title puns aren’t as obscure as they could be. Don’t be afraid to throw in some references from British rock groups from a decade or two before you were born.”

You. Are. Welcome.

I imagine you’re also wondering, “How does one go about spending an unexpected $1600 in college?” For the most part, one doesn’t. At least if it was me, which is the perspective you’ll be locked into for most of this story.

This probably comes as a bit of surprise to people. After all, even those who didn’t have bad spending habits as a young adult at least knew a few friends who did. I was personally shocked to see the way some of my friends spent money in college, especially when it belonged to other people.

Alas, I grew up very poor. While some people view financial security like a dip in a warm pool – a comfortable, relaxing experience that lasts as long as you like – I didn’t have that luxury. (Pun mildly intended.) To me, financial security has always been more like wading into a warm spot in a pool – mysterious, fleeting and less and less pleasant the more you think about it.

But every night I did dig into the bag of loose change I’d been picking off the ground since I was five years old, grab four quarters and went to the local arcade.

Let me go back over that last sentence, because I understand there’s a lot to unpack there. An “arcade” is a place where they used to have a bunch of video games in a single building. They slowly lost their following over the late 20th century and were slowly replaced by every imaginable form of media ever. So far as I know, there’s only one left in Japan and a single hunting game from 1996 at every bowling alley in America.

As to why I only brought enough to play four games, well, that part’s easier. I am, in fact, amazingly good at arcade light gun games.

If you were waiting for the punchline to that joke, there’s not one coming.

I’m not sure where that all started. But it likely had to do something with my not having a decent video game system most of my childhood. Combined with my habit of picking coins off the ground since I was five and having plenty to spare, things just kind of worked out that way. It certainly didn’t help that my mother’s shopping trips tended to last several hours at a time. Very likely, it was on one such trip, just after I’d recited the final digit of pi, that I saw a video game cabinet in the store lobby, shrugged and decided to go for it.

Still, coins weren’t an infinite resource. And even if people had dropped an unlimited supply of them for me to pick up it was only a matter of time before I found the dirty coin that would make me patient zero for the plague that wiped out humanity. So I took advice that wouldn’t become commonplace in gaming for at least a decade: I got good.

Am I telling you this to brag? Yes. And I demand all the respect that one might earn for being able to beat “Area 51” or “The House of the Dead” with a single quarter.

But in another way, this is all just part of my comedic balancing act. People can only handle hearing about how poor or sad or friendless I was for so long before screaming out any confidential information they might know, just to make it stop. In small doses, self-deprecation is funny. In large doses, a form of torture.

This was my upswing. For the space of four quarters almost every night, I wasn’t worrying about grades or a rocky home life or where my next meal would come from. I was happy. No matter what else was going on in my life, I worked through it six imaginary bullets at a time, pointed offscreen and did it all over again.

I won’t lie and pretend that I was ever surrounded by crowds of chanting fans. In fact, I don’t think I ever spoke to anyone in the arcade I hadn’t arrived with. If not an official rule, there was always at least an understanding that people hadn’t paid their hard-earned money to stare at a screen in an attempt to talk to distracting random strangers. It’s essentially the same as putting on headphones and staring at your phone, except that people actually took the hint.

In any case, it was a thing in my life that happened and it made me happy. I remember each and every game I ever beat there with that odd sense of pride that would actually diminish by sharing it with another human being.

It was as close as I ever came to therapy in college. Unless you count the time I went to a few free session carried out by Pyschology Majors as part of their course requirements. And if I’m being fair, that was less like a therapy session than going to a session and speaking to someone who was, to some degree, aware of therapy.

To this day, I still think flashing lights on a screen and a plastic orange gun did a much better job.

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Loan of Irk

Joan
How confident am I of this title pun? So confident I’m including the image of the thing I’m referencing just to make it clearer. Oh, yeah.

Like most of the disappointments in my life, unemployment in college was painful, long-lasting and ultimately irrelevant because of a bunch of random stuff that happened concurrently.

You see, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned about myself. Despite being an otherwise intelligent person, I have the unusual habit of making enormous mathematical errors, almost exclusively when it comes to estimating my financial health. I don’t know how or why this keeps happening, though I defend that while I have no better explanation, it (somehow) has nothing to do with just being very, very bad at math.

The gist being that I consistently underestimate how much money I have by hundreds or thousands of dollars, on a nearly weekly basis. As to the details, well, I’ll let the following example do the heavy lifting of explaining what I mean.

It was after my fruitless attempts to find work that things got just a bit worse.

Still reeling from my recent failures, I marched angrily into the Bursar’s Office, slapped my bill on the counter and demanded, “I already paid my bill in full before I even set foot on campus. Why do I still have a $1600 balance!?”

“There are a lot of factors that go into bills and fund availability,” the person – who I can only assume was an expert at “bursing” and had discussed these matters many times – said. “In any case, we can only apply the money we’ve received.”

“But I already paid all at once,” I argued, trying to make the issue clearer.

“Maybe the check bounced,” they said, and folded their hands atop the bill. “It happens when you have insufficient funds.”

“I have…” I smoothly corrected, “I had sufficient funds. More importantly, how can half a check bounce?”

“Well, it depends on…” They stopped suddenly, perhaps realizing that “bouncing half a check” was not a real thing. They then began studying the bill, which, despite leading to them making me look like an idiot in about half a second, was probably what they should have done from the start. They tapped the number on the bottom line. “Oh, I see. Do you know what parentheses mean?”

“Of course I do,” I answered, and made the shape in the air. “They’re like little ‘aside’ parts of writing.”

“No. In math.”

I like to think they didn’t see me mouthing, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sue,” but I won’t pretend I was doing it very sneakily. “Um…you multiply the things inside by the things outside?” I ventured aloud.

The person at the counter (a “burse” or “bursarer,” I assume?) gave me a level look. “It means the amount is negative. A negative balance in other words, or a refund.”

I cleared my throat and stood up straighter, swallowing down several gallons of embarrassment. Despite the familiar taste I’d never quite gotten used to it. “Very good then. May I have my $1600, then?”

“You’ll receive a paper check by mail,” they answered. “I can look it up in the system if you’d care to give me your name.”

“I would not care to,” I said, snatching away the tuition statement that also contained that information. “I’ve taken up enough of your time,” I explained, though my real reasoning had more to do with not wanting a member of the school’s administration who knew I’d made such a boneheaded mistake to know my actual name.

It’s been quite a few years since then, and I can’t once remember leaving a room $1600 richer and feeling more horrible about it.

Now, I’m sure a few of you are more than a little confused at what’s going on here. After all, colleges aren’t renowned for handing over large checks to their students. If the rest of the college-going world had similar experiences to me, the flow of money is largely one-way, and often swift enough to create an undertow.

And yet refunds weren’t uncommon during my college years. One of the things people had neglected to explain to me was that some of the overflow from loans, grants and scholarships was intended to cover books, the things I’d practically bankrupted myself doing with my own funds. It wouldn’t be the last time someone neglected to tell me something so important, though it would be the single time the oversight involved me receiving an unexpected check.

Strictly speaking, I could have returned that money. And that was something I started doing in following years to keep my loans low(er)(ish). But at the time, I was young, stupid and too poor to afford even strip mall quality “Italian” takeout.

So that, in a nutshell, is how I went from an unemployed college student to…well, pretty much the same. Except by the end I had money again. Well, technically, the check didn’t arrive for another three days, so by the end I was alternating using the computer lab as the one place I could actually write anything and bothering the desk staff to see if mail had arrived for me at random points of the day.

My character arc really went full circle there, huh?

Apply Everywhere as Necessary

Empty Pockets

It’s bound to happen someday. If you keep spending your money like there’s no bottom to your pockets then one day you’re bound to find that bottom.

Sadly, this isn’t a commentary on out of control government spending but instead the obvious outcome of coming to college with only $736 to my name.

Of course, this wasn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. For one, careful spending was a financial lesson my younger self needed to learn – and sooner rather than later. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered this in line at a Sbarro. As places to not be able to afford an intended purchase go, it was probably one of the best.

I politely apologized to the cashier and went on my way, suddenly relieved the line had been too long at Panda Express, saving me the trouble of being embarrassed somewhere that served actual food.

Luckily, I still had a meal plan in the dining halls, so I was in no immediate danger of wasting away to nothing. Or at least, I was in no greater danger of wasting away than I previously had been due to my excessive metabolism. I feel it paints a fairly accurate picture both of what was at stake and the poor spending habits (including eating out when I could eat for free in the dining halls) that led me to that low point in my life.

I knew I had to do something. And short of some rich widow paying me to do work around her house while shirtless, the only way I knew to make money was to get a job. Having neither the knowledge nor the physique to pursue a fulfilling career as eye candy, I decided to buckle down, roll up my sleeves and…ultimately, reconsider and roll my sleeves back up, as even that was more of my upper body than anyone wanted to see.

It was then, in that sobering moment, that I realized I knew roughly the same amount about finding work as I did about seducing lonely older woman.

So how could I be so unprepared for the one thing I’d eventually be expected to do as an adult? Well, for that, we have to jump back a bit. Because if there’s one thing this story needs, it’s a fourth time period to keep track of.

Aside from the aforementioned failure of high school to prepare me in any way to join the workforce one day, I worked only a single job in high school, and it wasn’t pretty.

I want to be 100% clear here in explaining that I know how the game works. I’ve yet to meet anyone whose first job was much better than terrible. It’s for that reason, furthermore, that I’m not trying to make this a contest. I have no doubts that six or seven people in the world worked in worse places than I did. I mean, I’ve seen those crab fishing shows. Some of those people look like that might be their first job, right?

I spent a summer volunteering at an animal shelter. I cut the grass. I painted. I bathed and watered the dogs. I even once played with the cats, which was a lot less “play” and a lot more “horribly abused animals lashing out at me in terror.” The hours were long. The days were unbearably hot. The work was thankless. And, as it turned out, those would end up being my very best memories of working there.

What I never knew (and refuse to learn now) was that the owner ended up having a small (large) problem with animal cruelty. So far as bad qualities in owners of animal shelters go, that’s probably one of the worst. A jury later agreed.

Aside from that entire mess, applying to work as a volunteer is fundamentally different from applying to work a real job. I’d gotten the shelter position by walking in and saying I’d like to do whatever they told me in exchange for no pay. I was hired on the spot – no need for applications or interviews. Heck. I barely remember eye contact.

As a college student the system broke down a bit, not least of all because a number of those students competing for jobs were more than happy to work for nothing.

Allow me to explain. In a system with high competition, a job applicant has one of two options. They can either distinguish themselves from the pack or they can lower their standards so far the rest of the pack looks like greedy monsters for daring to ask for minimum wage.

As a pack consisting almost entirely of those who had worked only one job (or less) in their lives, it was far easier to do the latter than the former.

I still remember walking into a store that needed a cashier position filled. I was one of two college students applying and, as the job needed filling that day, we were told to expect to be put to work immediately. The first student went in to be interviewed. Five minutes passed. And when the student walked out again I was curtly told that the position had been filled. I wasn’t upset. But I did have some questions.

Assuming (incorrectly) that I’d simply been outshone by a person with at least one job as a cashier, thus dwarfing my own experience, I stopped to talk to them before I left.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said to the store’s newest member of the team, “how bad did you have me beat on experience behind the register?”

They gave me a blank stare before a look of realization dawned on their face. “Oh, it’s not like that. I just told them I’d work under the table for $3 an hour.”

I suddenly felt like I dodged a bullet. “I can’t believe they asked you to do that.”

“No, no, no,” they explained, the pride in their voice not matching the stupidity of what they were about to tell me. “It was my idea.”

“Why in the world would you do that?” I asked, dumbfounded.

They just shrugged. “Hey. Can’t argue the results, right?”

Afraid I might catch their bad judgment if I kept talking to them much longer, I asked just one more question. “Isn’t $3 way too little to get by on? You’d have to work two or three hours just to make as much as anyone flipping burgers.”

“Well, yeah,” they agreed. “But once I’ve worked here a few months they’re bound to bump me up to $4 or $5. I could be making minimum wage by junior year.”

I didn’t argue that they, as one of two people applying for a job, had a fifty percent chance of making that same amount immediately had they simply not offered to work for half that. I wished them well, being keenly aware that wishing was likely their only path to any level of “wellness.” And then, I went on to the next store window with a “Help Wanted” sign.

It was a sobering moment for me, but I’m not sorry it happened. In fact, I’m very happy it happened with the first three jobs I applied for. Otherwise I might have wondered at why I kept being called in for interviews only to be sent home as soon as I arrived. Often with strange explanations like, “After we interviewed the first candidate we realized they were a better fit for the job (than you, person we never spoke to and know literally nothing about).”

“But Matt,” you might suggest, “it sounds like these people were offering something you weren’t willing. It’s no different than someone willing to work extra hours under the table and not be paid for overtime.”

And I would absolutely agree, because both those things are illegal and stupid.

Honestly, I didn’t much care that students were offering their services for next to nothing. Or, in the one case I can confirm, literally nothing. Whatever misguided notions someone held about ingratiating themselves to an employer by engaging in actual slavery, it wasn’t my problem. Where it became my problem was the point it became so commonplace that a few of my potential employers had expressed open disappointment in my request for “minimum wage” on my application.

I won’t claim this was responsible for every job I didn’t get. And to some degree I was even happy to be turned down for more traditional reasons. But the outcome was largely the same in terms of my aforementioned empty pockets.

Even knowing what I did, I kept up the search for a full week, stopping only when I’d been up and down the town’s main streets three times with nothing to show for it. In some ways, I’m proud of myself for trying so hard for so long. In other, more accurate ways, I’m disappointed my younger self had wasted so much time on something so obviously pointless.

And so, I walked home utterly defeated, while my peers were making literally dozens of dollars all around me.

Snap, Crackle, Pop.

explosion

The story of how I ended up with my very own college computer after years of sharing one at home is a long one that begins with my brother winning an athletic prize and buying a computer. It then immediately ends with him joining the Air Force. Exactly one twist and turn later, it passed on to me.

Hey. I didn’t say it was a very interesting story.

The story of how that same computer ended up exploding, if nothing else, is more interesting by virtue of it having at least one more explosion than the one just before it.

I’d like to begin that story by saying that the events that transpired were in large part not due to my actions and ineptitude. Any rational person who was very impatient and not all that aware of how to fix computers would have very likely probably made similar decisions to the one I had. I really can’t stress that enough, especially given that this is a super weak defense in the first place.

Allow me to set the scene…

The first thing you have to know, aside from the fact that this definitely wasn’t my fault, is that this was back in a time when people used to turn their computers off when they weren’t using them. The current system of just leaving them on indefinitely so we could hop on and off the Internet hadn’t yet been invented, mostly due to neither Facebook nor YouTube having existed yet.

I came home from a day of classes eager to peruse one of the seven or eight decent websites that existed at the time. So, as I had hundreds of times before, I pressed the big green button on the front of the computer. And like exactly zero times before, literally nothing happened.

(Note: I realize you were probably expecting an explosion there, but trust me. As much as you think you see it coming now, you’ll know when it’s coming later.)

I was flabbergasted. In fact, my state of mind was so intense that I was forced to run downstairs, find a computer in the library and look up a word that summed up how I felt. The word, if it wasn’t entirely clear, was flabbergasted.

(Though “flummoxed” came in a close second.)

From there, I went through my mental checklist of potential solutions. I don’t claim that it’s a great list, but it’s probably more than 90% of people would have done before calling the IT help desk. Then again, it loses some points for being the same checklist I use for cars that won’t start, printers that won’t print and boring conversations.

  1. Try turning it off and on again, on the off chance that you missed the button with your first attempt.
  2. Try turning the power strip off and on again.
  3. Plug something else into the power strip and turn it off and on again after forgetting which way is the “off” position.
  4. Remove all cords from your computer. Reattach all cords. Try turning the computer off and on again.
  5. Remove all cords from your computer again. This time, take each cord aside and offer it immunity from prosecution if it reveals the identity of the faulty connection.
  6. Give the computer a hard smack. Repeat several times. Begin saying, “Whatsamatteryou!?” every time you smack it. Lament that casual racism has become a part of your everyday life.
  7. Try turning it off and on again, seeing as this is the last possible thing you can do that won’t involve talking to a human being about how inept you are with technology.

Snap. It was on this, the ninth or tenth time I’d tried pressing the power button that I heard the telltale sound of rigid plastic breaking. Naturally curious, I went to work removing the front face of my computer using the saddest collection of tools any human being has ever assembled for the purpose of computer repair.

I made surprisingly quick work of the front face, exposing it – likely permanently, as I’d broken quite a few more pieces of plastic in the process – for a better look at the inner workings of the power button.

I can’t adequately describe what I saw there in any sort of useful detail. It wasn’t complicated, but I should be clear that my knowledge of computers at the time was leaps and bounds beyond my understanding of electrical circuits. And that wasn’t a good thing.

The short version, however, is that the power button used a tiny sliver of metal to connect two other pieces of metal together. Unfortunately, the power button had broken in such a way that it could no longer achieve said function. And, with the day quickly passing me by and nothing even resembling foresight entering my mind, I pressed a metal coin against both bits.

Crackle. I was, to the surprise of no electrical engineer anywhere, given quite a nasty shock for my efforts. This is probably why circuits are rarely connected with a coin clutched between one’s bare fingers. In fact, I’m sure this is exactly why circuits are never connected with a coin clutched between one’s bare fingers.

On the other hand (the one I hadn’t used to complete a live electrical circuit), my computer had actually started.

I went about my business for some time after this rather blissfully unaware of the small doom cloud hovering just slightly above my computer from then on. The second worst thing that can happen to someone is for their bad idea to actually work, since it gives them ample incentive to try it again. The first is the constant wave of movie reboots. That’s not related to this story. I’m just sayin’…

That said, my life went on surprisingly normally for the next seven days or so.

Sure, my computer had been running a week straight without rest. Sure, its front panel was so broken that it was impossible to reattach. And sure, it’s private parts were on display for the whole world to see, like some two-bit hussy.

(Or thirty-two-bit hussy. I’ll…see myself out.)

But, aside from the fact that I’d been completely unwilling to risk shutting down my system, things were going smoothly. Of course, even I was aware that leaving the computer on indefinitely was a problem that was going to need to be addressed at some point. Then again, I figured that by the time it became a real issue, I’d need to buy a new computer anyway.

I mean, in my defense, I was technically right about needing to buy a new one.

For whatever reason, my computer had gone off while I was at class. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it was part of the existing problem. Maybe it had just gotten overworked and overheated. For whatever reason, though, I found myself once again clutching a coin in a questionable attempt to “hot-wire” my personal computer.

“This is a really good idea,” I noted, mere inches from duplicating my previous electrocution. “When I turn on the computer I’m going to write a list of all the things I don’t regret about doing this.”

The computer hummed to life. And, in a moment of surprise that would almost immediately be topped, the coin wedged into place. As a stream of sparks discouraged me from pulling it out of place (which was a brief moment of intelligent thought in a veritable stormy sea of stupidity), I absentmindedly noticed the hum grow louder and louder until it closely resembled a circular saw. To the surprise of absolutely no one, this turned out not to be a good sign.

Then…

Pop. To this day, I have no better word to describe it. There was a sound like stepping on a full bag of cooked microwave popcorn. Then my computer case deformed into a piece of outsider art.

I watched a cloud of dense black smoke rise lazily to the ceiling where it (mercifully) never found a smoke detector. Small mercies, I suppose.

After the initial shock wore off, I surveyed the damage without much optimism. As it turned out, I’d managed to turn my computer’s power supply into a small bomb. The only saving grace was that I was as good at accidentally making bombs as I was at fixing computers, meaning that there was surprisingly minimal damage to the area immediately surrounding the computer. It was, for lack of a better description, a 100% unintended precision strike.

The computer itself, of course, had been reduced to a paperweight. Its outer casing had stretched into odd shapes while its innards became a mixture of blackened confetti. It was more or less the computer equivalent of eating at Arby’s.

I still remember spending the rest of that day gaping at the destruction. I’d never seen a piece of technology fail so badly. And it brought back the bitter taste of every time I’d insulted an older relative for not being able to find the proper input on their television or set the clock on their microwave. At least they hadn’t turned their television or microwave into something that might land them on a government watch list.

When it was all said and done, I simply replaced the front plate as best as I could, sighed and turned off the power button.

Better safe than sorry.

We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This

crooked
See? Because the framing device is crooked. That’s the joke.

“You’re back in the story’s framing device,” the radiologist said, poking his head out from behind the monitor. “What happened this time?”

I sighed.

“And stop sighing,” he chided. “It messes with the image.”

I waited until I heard the telltale whir and several almost eerie moaning sounds from the large radioactive camera above me to indicate the technician had a picture of my insides he was happy with. As he approached the table I explained, “It’s not my fault this time.” I hedged slightly. “It’s not entirely my fault this time.”

The other man helped me sit up on the scanning table. “So who else was at fault?”

“It was my computer.”

He blinked at me. “I’m…not sure I follow.” Then, considering, he nodded. “Actually, I’m entirely sure I don’t follow. What does your computer have to do with the long gap between you telling the whole college story thing?”

After rearranging my hospital gown to about half of my satisfaction – in that it only showed about half of my rear end to anyone standing behind me – I faced him. “My computer sort of…exploded.”

The radiologist went through a series of expressions that, despite their nuanced differences, all seem confused to one degree or another. “Let me be entirely clear here. You’re literally writing my character’s responses right now, and I have no idea what that’s got to do with any of this,” he admitted.

For that matter, I realized, anyone who just started reading right here would have no idea why this college story has a portion happening in the hospital a decade in the future. I cleared my throat again to cover the sound of me breaking the fourth wall.

“Okay,” I said. “It didn’t actually explode.”

“Then why say it did?”

“It sounds a lot more interesting than saying my operating system disappeared and all I could do was stare at a black screen,” I offered. I was well aware of what a computer looked like when it actually exploded, given what was about to happen in the main story. “Suffice to say, it stopped working as anything other than a very large, very hot paperweight.”

Despite my explanation, the technician looked just as confused. “So…what’s that got to do with telling me a story? And how do you know your computer at home…exploded?”

“No, no, no,” I waved it away. “I mean, my computer exploded in the future, preventing me from typing new segments of the story and publishing them.” It was only after I’d said the words that I realized how ridiculous they sounded.

“I think what I like most about your story is how easy it is to follow,” the other man said, mockingly sincere.

“Shut it.”

“Okay. So let me try to summarize here,” the radiologist said, tapping his fingers on his clipboard thoughtfully. “You’re here now, telling me a story. The story is about your college days ten years or so ago. And it’s being written down as a blog sometime…after this doctor’s visit?”

I nodded slowly. “Actually, that’s a pretty good summary.”

The man gave me a weighing look, as if he wanted to say something more, but he just nodded as well. “Well, in that case, in that very oversimplified form, it’s not as complicated as I thought it was.”

I hopped off the table. “For a story with multiple timelines running in unison at different rates of speed with only one character in common, it’s actually fairly straightforward…” I hesitated. Then, being a realist, I added, “Straightforward…ish.”

“In any case,” the technician said, looking at the chart disinterestedly, “Something something doctor babble. You can go sit in the waiting room for another fifteen minutes.” His brow suddenly furrowed. “Did you actually write ‘something something doctor babble’ as my dialogue?”

“Sorry. I wasn’t really listening to what you were saying when it happened. So I’m losing some details as I’m writing it down later,” I admitted sheepishly. “I probably could have taken a more dignified guess than that, though.”

“Probably,” the man said, and led me back to the tiny third world country just outside the radiology department that had been very generously labeled as a “waiting room.” He watched me sit down and readjust my nudity to my liking before asking, “So refresh my memory. Where were you in the college story?”

I opened my mouth and then snapped it shut. “Honestly, I think it was my first job hunt, but I don’t really remember. But then I remembered something else happened before I went out looking for work anyway.”

“Which was?”

“My computer exploded.”

The radiologist gave me an uneven look. “I feel like we’ve covered that bit.”

“No,” I said with a sigh. “In the past. That computer exploded.”

He gave the television a wary look. “That wasn’t working when you came in, right? Because if you somehow destroy technology just by being around it there are actually some expensive imaging machines you should stay away from…”

“Shut it.”

Fortune Favors the Old

credit

I mostly take it for granted now that I’m a bitter, bitter old man, but being younger wasn’t easy. For those of you who’ve never been young, in fact, I can tell you that it made almost everything harder. And…wait. What?

How is that even possible? How were some of you not young? I feel like this is a far more interesting story than the one I’m about to tell.

Anyway…

All that aside, it’s only in hindsight that I sort of see the benefits of going to college later on in life. Of course, it wouldn’t be all that useful since it wouldn’t help you get a good job. And if you go late enough you’re the old person in class that people whisper about finishing a degree as part of your bucket list. Not to mention that waiting fifty years to go to college probably means paying about four to five thousand percent of what you would have right out of high school…

You know what? I take it back. College isn’t easy for anyone of any age.

But I’ve never been an old person at college. (Though I was starting to get close by the time my fifth year rolled around.) So let’s focus on what I’m familiar with – how hard it was for young people to do almost anything.

Everything from setting up a back account to getting a first job to avoiding credit card scams is a learning process. Luckily, I’m sure you learned all about that in hypothetical fantasy senior year in high school. You know, the one where you actually learned how to find work or do taxes instead of learning the math where they ran out of numbers and letters so they just started using made-up symbols.

“Couldn’t you just look online?” you ask, about ten years too late to be helpful. “Wasn’t there a YouTube video on it or something? Maybe a Facebook discussion group to ask for advice?”

It would be about there that I’d cut you off in the middle of your list of things that didn’t exist in 2002 by saying that, well, those things didn’t exist in 2002. The Internet in general wasn’t nearly as helpful as it is today. (Though there were a lot fewer advertisements.) For the most part it was just random blogs and personal pages where people complained about not having a unified social media platform where their complaints could reach all their family and friends at once.

But, as I do so often it may as well be the title of this story, I digress…

I at least had the foresight to have a bank account set up in advance. Unfortunately, the bank I’d been using since I was a teenager was located about a mile and a half off campus. Since walking that far even to be handed money was out of the question, this meant finding one on the main street where – and I wish there were more context to this story – a man in a clown costume ushered me into a PNC Bank.

Say what you will about their pitch, but that account had no fees and no minimum balance. Plus it came with a free savings account. I’m still using that account to this day. And in the case of the savings account, I even have money to put in it now.

A lot of other students weren’t so lucky.

I want to give people a little more credit. I really do. But far too many conversations began by someone pointing out they’d just gotten a free shirt. This was generally followed by a sly grin and a comment along the lines of, “All I had to do was sign up for a credit card for three years!”

Yeah. Score.

The talk would generally trend downhill from there when they explained the terms of the agreement. “Well, all I have to do is make purchases with it once a month. The rate is 11.97%. APB? APR? I think they said something about APR. Is that bad?”

I didn’t fall for the college credit card scam. In fact, I’ve never had one. Why? Because they somehow prey on the assumption that your poverty is a situation temporary enough that it’ll probably end in the next 30 days so you can pay off the balance interest-free. But not so temporary that you shouldn’t just wait to make the purchase with real, actual money that belongs to you.

I only learned sometime later that, yes, “APR” is bad. APR is the financial equivalent of writing “jk” after a text. “Your interest rate is 0%! Just kidding. It’s actually 17.99%.”

Or, in the case of “variable APR,” “Jk and sometimes I’m jk-ing more than others.”

And sure, it’s easy to judge those students. (I certainly did.) But how were they to know any better? Like your older relative who just can’t grasp that they need to stop opening e-mails from senders they don’t know to avoid viruses, this was entirely new information to them.

You could argue that anyone should have the common sense to stay away from questionable people giving away free shirts in exchange for signing financial agreements. Then again, if I hadn’t taken financial advice from an actual clown – who I can only assume worked for the bank in some capacity – I’d have been walking a mile and a half every time I wanted to deposit a check.

Okay. I’m rereading it again now. And part of me thinks that maybe there is something more to that clown story.

But it’ll have to wait, since my last point segues nicely into the last hard part of being young. Well, not the last point. The last non-clown point…you know what I mean. I speak, of course, of getting your first job.

Which, now that I think about it, is a topic so large I couldn’t possibly cover it in a separate section about being young only tangentially related to it.

The Devil’s in the Resales

hamburglar
Note: The burger in this picture represents your money and me being too tired to Photoshop this picture. The Hamburglar represents the Hamburglar. But for some reason he’s a hipster now? Yeah. I don’t really get it either…

“Well,” I hear you say with a weary sigh, “at least you can sell your books back for money when you’re all done with them.”

Then, apparently not understanding how cliches work, you add, “I mean, at least it can’t get any worse, right?”

At which point, it starts raining.

But to answer your question: Yes, selling your books back is something you have the option of doing, in the same way that you could spend the day before a trip looking for loose change on the ground at the airport to pay for your ticket. You certainly could. It just wouldn’t be all that helpful.

The entire book-buying experience concludes at the end of each semester in something called “buyback.” Or as it’s more properly known, “Would you rather cling to the last shred of a moral victory, or have $6?”

So how does it work? Let me walk you through the process.

Buyback begins by handing a textbook to a salesperson who then tries to come up with the smallest number they can think of. They will then look at the book from various angles and, regardless of its condition, cut the number they were thinking of in half. While all this is going on they continually shake their head and “tsk” as your plans for your refund devolve from “dinner, movie and drinks” to “dinner and a movie” to “a movie” before finally settling on “reading movie summaries on Wikipedia.”

This concludes with one of two monetary outcomes that are, for all intents and purposes, identical.

In the first, you either bought a used copy of the book or some oil from your fingers touched the cover – either rendering it worthless at a tool for future education. The salesperson will reveal the number they thought up. And before you get halfway through your well-reasoned argument that you paid several hundred dollars more just two months ago, they say, “Take it or leave. There’s a line of sad people forming behind you.”

If you take the pittance, you’ll enjoy the realization that the book you bought for $100 used and sold for just $6 will likely be on the shelf against next semester with the same $100 price tag. Alternatively, you could walk out with your head held high(ish) and a bag full of books no human would ever want to read.

And for the record, no, even after going through that about a dozen times I’m still not sure which of those is the moral victory.

In the second scenario, the salesperson will look at a master list, sigh and say, “Looks like there’s a new edition coming out.” They then may or may not mutter something about having thought up a really good low number for nothing.

They’ll then point to the line of sad people forming behind you without offering you either a choice or pittance.

Why? Because as a I hinted at earlier, slightly different editions are effectively worthless to students. Although student bookstores can – and as I’ve seen, will – sell outdated editions, they won’t buy them back from you.

At which point you’re essentially left with a choice of tossing the books in the nearest garbage or giving it to the salesperson to do it for you.

The bad news, though, is that neither option is the moral victory in this case. If you hand over the book for “disposal,” there’s an above average chance it will still end up for sale next semester. And that’s why I probably never went this route. Giving the school the book I bought for $100 just so they could sell it again feels oddly like handing someone back their knife after they stabbed you.

Even if you think you’re sticking it to the bookstore by throwing your book in the trash outside, I’ve seen their employees root through the garbage for sellable books after closing. Seeing this didn’t make me very happy about the entire process. Though it did go a long way toward explaining why my used astronomy book smelled like an odd mixture of shame, human tears and pasta sauce when I bought it.

At least two of those three odors, I can only assume, were directly related to the buyback process in the first place.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? What’s the moral of this story? What can future students do to make things better? Honestly, I’ve got no clue. Lord knows I was in college long enough that if there was a solution I would have figured it out and tried it myself.

For the most part I was just picking used copies based on the smells I liked most.