I used to be a pawnbroker. I worked during the afternoons, and in the mornings and evenings I took classes before my second job started. For a while I was the only woman working at the shop, so I handled the jewelry and left the men to handle the electronics. This was a few years ago, when the US economy just started to falter and panic was looming. The price of gold skyrocketed and every day I painstakingly counted each ring, over a thousand of them.
We had a whole case filled with tiny rings set with delicate, sad little diamonds. My boss never let me refer to it as the child bride ring case, but that’s what it was. We had another case filled with “turtles,” rings so heavy and set with murky, speckled diamonds that they looked like small turtles glaring from an outmatched gift box. We had a few treasures, though. Stolen from a house across town, or ditched by relatives looking to cash in on their grandmother’s estate. Or once, an entire gold set traded in by a battered woman who drove immediately to the gas station, then headed to the expressway. I was proud of her.
I made seven dollars an hour, part time. I learned to bargain there. “I can give you one third of the resell value. That’s standard pawnshop operation. If that amount won’t help you, there are other shops. The offer won’t change.” I think I saw more people lie every day than I had in my whole life, but I didn’t begrudge them that. I would lie too, to get the ipod, the earrings, the movies. Some things I just stole from the shop. I never had to pawn my child’s game system to put gas in my car. I don’t have kids. My mother never kicked me out of the house because her new boyfriend could tell that I didn’t like him. My parents aren’t even divorced; they are happily married and carpool to their jobs at the university.
I had hardships like not being able to get out from under. I imagined working there for decades, like my manager. I once quit a job because they scheduled me months in advance. I wanted time off from two and three jobs. I wanted a social life. I wanted a ring, 18 karat white gold with a rhodium finish, 2 carat diamonds nestled in an ornate setting. It was elegant and modern and ageless and on my income I could never pay what it was worth. So I didn’t.
Eight months of pleading and pouting to my boss and he finally caved. We agreed at a price a little above cost– then I turned around and called my mom. It was an early birthday present, bought with crisp bills from the ATM that afternoon. She said my hair looked pretty as I slipped the little thing into an envelope to be sized down for my finger.
That December, I finally graduated, eked out with an undergraduate degree that wouldn’t get me anything, but might cover an unsightly hole in a wall. I know this now, but at the time I was proud of myself, and the world glinted with possibility the way mica looks on a shore, coveted and uncertain and thin. I had quit my jobs to study for my finals, called in one day to tell them that after two years, I would not be coming in ever again. I had oceans of time on my hands, so I annotated textbooks to entertain myself. My marginalia was dense and well researched. I think I liked one particular textbook most, “A History of Terrorism.” It spoke of revolution and passion. Czar Alexander II survived six assassination attempts before a twenty-year old member of the Narodnaya Volya blew him up in the street.
A little terrorist against myself, at night while my family watched holiday programming, I stayed awake drinking cheap whiskey and planning. My best friend and I mailed each other back and forth feverishly. I bought a ticket to New Orleans well in advance, to depart the day after Christmas. That year I asked for a sleeping bag and camping gear. Having never been camping, or on an extended trip, I didn’t know what to ask for. My family was aghast when I asked for a ride to the bus station, but found me a suitable backpack and pushed cash into my hand. I stashed it in my boots. My brother laughed at me while we waited for my bus, the station packed with grumpy travelers, heading home after the holidays. Do you know how hard it is to get on a Greyhound bus in army fatigues, carrying a knife and a dog-eared copy of a book on terrorism? Not hard at all.
Before I left I took off my favorite ring, its indent a well-worn groove on my ring finger. I left all my jewelry behind, anything that would be worth too much to lose, or make me a target. I had gone from safe new graduate, wearing an emblem of security and indulgence on her finger, to something very different. My friend and I slept in the snow in a thin Walmart tent, setting up camp after dark and dozing on the frozen ground until we could get up and march back to the expressway and unfold our sign marked, “West.” We slept in a church abandoned after Hurricane Katrina and slowly made our way to the coast, telling drivers dirty jokes and listened to their stories so they would drive us farther. A truck driver drove us through the night and we saw a wildfire on the horizon that stretched for miles. I started paying attention to the clouds and geography. We got drunk in the Mojave and watched the sun go down and I didn’t even notice that for the first time in years, I didn’t feel bad about my lack of long-term goals. A month later, clearheaded and glittering with excitement, I returned sharper and happy and new.