The author, on the day he was hired for his first mortgage job
I am sitting in my office right now. My desk is bare, only my laptop, my monitors, my phone, and a pineapple coffee mug full of ink pens left. I’ve taken most of my decorations down. Pictures of friends and family have been taken home. The mug my best friend’s daughter bought me for Christmas is packed away. Posters and prints and a Charlie Brown Christmas tree lean against a wall—the last remaining indication that this corner office in this old bank-cum-office-building was once occupied by Skylar Baker-Jordan.
I only worked here for just over a year. I started in June 2018. I will leave in September 2019. It’s the first time I’ve had my own office since I was Student Body Vice President in college. When I had that office—a small, cinderblock cell with fluorescent lights and cheap tile on top of concrete, I thought having an office like I have now—spacious, possibly the biggest in the building—would be a sure sign that I had made it. That I was successful.
I never imagined having an office like this would make me feel trapped.
As most of you know already, I am leaving North Carolina, a state I’ve only called home for 18 months. I put in my resignation at work two days ago after calling my grandparents and confirming that yes, as we discussed, I can move in with them in Tennessee. I’m going to apply for graduate school, try to make some money writing, and cross my fingers that I can figure out a way to find a career that brings me more joy than grief, which is a lot more than I can say for the mortgage industry.
I was never meant to be in mortgages. I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2011 and started applying for any and every job I could find. Six weeks later, I had an interview at Guaranteed Rate, at the time billed as America’s fastest growing mortgage company. I thought it was for a position as a receptionist. I was 25, though probably as naïve as a 20-year-old, fresh from Kentucky and a very dark period in my life. I put on a tan suit jacket, pastel pink dress shirt, and teal tie—all of which I had picked up at a thrift store the week before the interview. I went over to my friend Sara’s apartment to print off my resume, which took longer than expected. Her then-boyfriend sped through the North Side so that I wouldn’t have to take the train (I couldn’t afford a cab). He dropped me off outside this giant brick warehouse which had been reclaimed as a loft-style office space.
It was cold inside, both in temperature and décor. I waited for a nice young woman—no older than me—from human resources to interview me. She explained that it wasn’t a receptionist position, but an interview to be either a sales assistant or an underwriting assistant. Which would I prefer? I had no idea what either of those things meant, but I knew I didn’t want to do anything with sales, and underwriting at least had the word writing in it, so I picked that. Later, a matronly middle-aged woman with a nasally Chicago accent interviewed me. She would later tell me she knew she would hire me the moment she saw me because of my outfit. I stood out, I was bold, and I was charming. I got the job.
That was eight years ago. This was all supposed to be temporary. But over the past eight years I have, but for one nine month exception when I actually launched my writing career, been employed in mortgages. I have risen from an underwriting assistant to a senior, seasoned processor. My loan-level knowledge is, if I do say so myself, profound. Ask me about FHA guidelines, or what Fannie will allow but Freddie won’t. I’m good.
I’m also desperately unhappy.
The only reason I stayed in mortgages as long as I did was because I lived in Chicago and didn’t want to leave. Even though Chicago itself brought me a lot of misery, I relished being in such a cultured and exciting place, and I loved my friends. But there was something else keeping me there, too—the fear of flunking out of the big city. I am a small-town boy from the hills of eastern Kentucky. There’s literally a song about how you never leave there alive. But I did. And my biggest fear was having to go back.
So I stayed in the mortgage industry so I could stay in Chicago. I didn’t want to leave. Leaving meant failure. I didn’t want to be a failure. Finding a writing job was hard, and I could never manage to save enough money to step out on faith and freelance full time. So I kept doing mortgages.
By the end of 2017, though, it became clear to me that I was not going to be happy staying in mortgages and that, at 31, the time had come to shit or get off the pot. I had a choice—try to make it as a writer, or embrace this career I had tripped into quite by accident which I loathed but which I was good and pays pretty well. It’s a choice a lot of us face: excitement or stability.
In 2011 I chose stability. I had been in college on and off for six years, finally graduating in 2010. I was working at a café, living with roommates in an apartment two doors down from my college campus, and dating a closeted fraternity boy. I was stunted. So when I left Chicago, I wanted to make it as a writer, but I also wanted to have a fucking income. My own apartment. A trip to London. A dog.
I got all but the dog. I have two cats instead. Don’t ask.
By 2017, I began to realize I had made the wrong choice. What I should have done when I left Kentucky is go to grad school, get my MFA, and figure out a plan from there. I didn’t do that. Instead I helped rich people buy their third house. For a socialist who believes property is theft, that felt like shit. For a Millennial who thinks healthcare is nice to have, it felt good.
For professional reasons I won’t go into here, by December 2017 it became clear that my job would no longer exist in six months. My boss and I sat down at an Irish pub across from our office that Christmastime and began discussing what we would both do next. He wanted to go to Guaranteed Rate, the company that had first hired but which had laid me off years before and from which I came to work for him. I wanted to be a writer. And so, we decided, that was what we would do.
And then my 16-year-old brother got hit by a bus. And he almost died. Moving to North Carolina was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. He needed me. Our mom needed me. Suddenly, leaving Chicago didn’t feel like failure. It felt like the only right choice. And so, I moved.
I stayed first at the Ronald McDonald House while my brother was still in hospital. When he was released, I stayed with my maternal grandmother. 1 June 2018 I moved into my loft apartment in downtown Jacksonville—a drab military town a few miles inland from the Atlantic. On 4 June of that year I started at my current job, deciding to stay in mortgages because the upheaval of moving and my brother’s accident was enough change for one year. Switching careers at that time seemed not only overwhelming, but also impractical. I was living life in a new town, and I needed to make money and connections quickly. So, here I am.
But over the past year or so, I have also found myself more unhappy and, frankly, more lonely than I have ever been. Processing mortgages in Jacksonville, North Carolina is not the life I want. It is not enough for me. It is not fulfilling. This is not a criticism of anybody for whom it is enough, or who likes this town, or who likes this industry. For some people, this is exciting stuff. For others, the money makes it worth the sacrifices and stress. But not for me.
Shortly after I moved here, I began rereading my high school journal. How hopeful I was. How eager. How I thought everything would be so easy. Seeing how 17-year-old Skylar though this life would turn out compared to how it actually had made me sad, but also angry. How had I wasted so much time? What did I have to show for my twenties except debt and a string of loser ex-boyfriends?
I started to think about what I want my life to be. I’m 33. I’m unmarried. I don’t have kids. The things people usually take comfort in when they realize their childhood dreams haven’t come true are not things I have. I come home to two ungrateful cats and a bottle of Jack Daniels. That’s it.
So I knew I had to make a change, and it was at that point I decided to go to graduate school. I wasn’t ready for the fall of 2019—I didn’t know how much my brother might still need, and I wasn’t sure I had enough money in the bank. So I decided to apply for fall 2020.
My brother has made almost a full recovery. He starts college himself this fall. In talking with my friends and family, I came to the conclusion that since he’s leaving, there is no reason for me to stay here in a town I don’t like and a career I don’t want. This job is stressful—more stressful than I can articulate. And frankly, it paid well enough in Chicago, but the pay here is shit. So, the decision was made to leave.
(I’ll talk more about how that decision was made at a later date, because it’s an interesting story. But it’s not one for now.)
I’ve spent eight years in an industry I hate because I was concerned about giving up the trappings of middle-class life, about being seen as a failure, and frankly, about failing. I’m terrified I won’t get into graduate school. I’m petrified I’ll never make it as a writer. I’m nervous about giving up my immediate financial independence and moving in with my grandparents, because as generous as their offer to support me during this transition period is, it’s still a massive sacrifice for me as much as them. (Okay, maybe not as much as them, as they’re footing the bill here.) To be completely honest, I’m absolutely shitting myself right now.
My decision to resign wasn’t spur-of-the-moment, but my decision to do it when I did was. Again, a story for another time. But despite my fears and insecurities and absolute utter fucking terror, it feels right. I’m more hopeful about my future now than I have been since I was 25. That’s something, at least.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer currently based in Eastern North Carolina. His work has appeared at Salon, HuffPost UK, The Independent, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @skylarjordan