My road to Frog Holler, by Paul Burger
I graduated from Michigan State in 2010 with strong passions for local organic food, community development, and a healthy (or maybe unhealthy) fear of not making enough money in the career path that I would eventually be forced to choose. The looming decision often weighed on me heavily as my inner self struggled to put a value on working with my passions vs. working for a salary.
Towards the end of my college career, I spent weeks toiling over the situation. After contracting shingles and likely straining many of my interpersonal relationships, I still felt as if I had not made any progress in terms of knowing what was right. I eventually decided that I would “sacrifice” a year in order to pursue work that I really loved before zeroing in on a more lucrative desk job.
I was lucky enough to find a dream job in my hometown of Ann Arbor working for Avalon Housing in coordination with Growing Hope on gardening and nutrition education for low-income Ann Arbor residents. I loved my work, but at the end of my first year I decided to pursue a career in Investing.
I studied hard for a certification test that helped me to gain credibility in the industry, and eventually landed a job working for a small, family owned wealth management firm in Bloomfield Hills. After buying fancy clothes and trying out a new hairdo that I copied from my dad, I began commuting again, this time an hour by car instead of bike. In many ways I felt like I had taken a 180 degree turn, from socialist to capitalist. I still managed, however, to hold on to some parts of my past life that I held dear. Every week I would bring in my CSA share or maybe some wild black raspberries to pass around the office, though many of my colleagues were afraid that I was poisoning them. I would talk about how you could eat weeds, and how much I enjoyed the trees in the office yard.
It was about five months into the job when everything took a turn for me. My boss offered me and my coworker tickets to the suite at the Tigers baseball game. We happily accepted and spent the evening enjoying food and drinks while we watched pitches from padded chairs, and talked to industry veterans. Towards the end of the game, we decided to take a walk around the park for the last few innings. As I finished a conversation with a sailor and his family that had started after I complimented his extraordinary beard, I turned around to see that my friend was gone. I had left my cellphone in the car, and so had no choice to make my way back to the parking lot.
The game hadn’t finished, so I decided to take my time. I strolled along the concourse and out through the tall green gates that protect the stadium from dangerous outsiders. I made my way down the sidewalk outside and approached a man sitting on the ground, leaning against a streetlight. He was not far from my age, and as I moved closer I could hear the jingle of a few coins coming from the bottom of the foam cup that he clutched in his hand. Suddenly my mind was consumed by the fact that I had never really tried to understand or get to know someone who was in a position comparable to this man.
I sat down next to him and found that he was rather eager to talk. I carefully probed into his life, wondering about his likes, dislikes, family, and more. He told me he was homeless, and was a native Detroiter. To me it seemed that he was a fully capable individual; able bodied, sharp mind, and good communication skills. I decided to ask him why he was begging for money instead of working a job that would allow him to provide a little more for himself and live what to me would be a more comfortable life.
“Well, for one, I’m addicted to crack” he said. I recoiled a bit, never really having been exposed to this type addiction in such a firsthand way. He continued “But don’t feel bad for me. I am happier than I have ever been! I don’t need money to be happy, or a job. I have my friends and family, my community, and since I started smoking crack, I have become closer to Jesus Christ than I have ever been in my life. I have faith that it will all work out…and it always does, brother. I might not always be comfortable…sometimes I am hungry or cold, but life isn’t easy for anyone, right? I really wouldn’t want my life any different.”
I was completely taken aback by his statement. I sat dumbfounded as he went into detail about his Christian beliefs and how a strong faith had been so important to him. I eventually thanked him and walked away as the idea of a happy crack-addicted homeless man sunk into my naïve consciousness.
A ways down the walkway, another man was sitting on the curb of a blocked off street and played a trumpet as waves of people in Tigers paraphernalia passed him uncaringly. I sat down beside him and as I focused my gaze upon him, his note seemed to waver a bit and I felt that he had maybe noticed me paying attention to him. He was an older man than I, and as he wove his way through the beautiful, slow, sappy notes of the ballad, I couldn’t help but to let my imagination run wild with images of his extravagant younger days as a professional musician. He held onto the last beautiful note as dozens of people passed by without seeming to notice. I began to clap as I smiled, almost speechless, and before I could say anything he threw his hands towards the sky and yelped with joy: “WOOOOOO!! That was AMAZING!”
“That was amazing!” I said. I don’t know if I could have described the experience any better. And just before I could say anything, a young girl, maybe six years old, ran up and put a dollar in the man’s cup.
“I don’t even care about the money! Nobody ever listens to me! Thank you so much for listening to me!” The man exclaimed. I looked at him and saw him wiping away tears that were streaming down his cheeks. I couldn’t believe what I had heard, or what I was seeing. I looked at him and thanked him from the bottom of my heart. He told me that the song was from West Side Story, and we exchanged exclamations about how amazing life can be.
I left him with a huge smile on my face, knowing that something special was happening within me. As I looked at all of the people around me, I began to truly see the fallacy in the belief that material goods would lead to happiness and comfort. The men I had talked to had not only been more or less penniless, but they were surrounded by people with money and privilege. Yet, they were both so happy. I could almost feel my money-related fears exiting my body as I walked out of the shadow of the stadium lights.
I continued along with the herd of other Tigers fans, but was in no rush to get back to my car. My pace was slow as I tried to figure out what was happening to me. The powerful interactions had seemed almost surreal in and of themselves, and to have two in a row seemed dreamlike. Then I decided to stop and talk to another man sitting in the street in his wheelchair. The man looked content, his long black dreadlocks flowed out from a stocking cap, his beard graying. I stopped and greeted him, making sure to look right at him and not at his legs that ended at the knees. We began the conversation as any two people might. As we became comfortable with each other, I asked him how he had come to the place he was currently. “Alcohol” He answered plainly. A wave of sadness flowed through me. I had had exposure to addiction like his, as I am sure we all have in some way. He must have read the expression on my face, because he continued on; “But don’t worry about me. I got my community, I got my church...I got my life. I don’t need no more than that. Years ago I fell out a window and had to start sitting’ in a wheelchair. I got through that. One night in the winter I got drunk and my legs froze so bad that they had to chop them off. I got through that. Life ain’t always easy, but that don’t mean you aren’t happy.”
I thanked him for talking to me and wished him luck. I was completely humbled.
I went to work the next day just like any other day, except that I couldn’t help but continue to replay the conversations that I had had the night before in my head. Over and over I thought about these men who I would have looked at before as having nothing, and thinking about how fulfilled and happy they were. I finished out the week in normal fashion, but something in me had changed. By the end of the weekend, the seeds that had been planted in my head had begun to grow. I got both of my parents and my sister together and explained what had happened and how it had changed my view about money and what I now believed lead people to happy lives. I told them that I had been afraid of so many things, and that I somehow wasn’t anymore. While I think they all had been happy, proud, and comfortable in my career choice up to that point, I think they all knew that my true passions may have lain outside the world of finance. I told them that I was going to think a little more about the situation, but that I thought that my heart might not be in investing, and that maybe food and community development were my calling.
I went to work Monday morning and began looking through my emails as I normally would. Within 5 minutes of being there, the two young brothers who owned the firm said that they wanted to meet with me in the conference room. The younger brother began “Paul, you’ve been here for about 5 months now. You have gotten a good feel for what we do, and we have learned a lot about you too. First off, we wanted to both say that you have done a wonderful job here, and that we wouldn’t be the only ones to say that we enjoy having you work here. But, we have also noticed how passionate you are about food, farms, and the environment. Any free time you have, it seems like those things are on your mind, and you are excited about them!” The corners of my lips began to creep up ever so slightly as I tried not to smile too much.
The second brother continued “Now, don’t feel like we aren’t appreciative of the work you have done here. You’ve been great, and we would be happy to keep things going just the way they have been. But we just want to stress the importance of doing something you love.” I nodded as he continued on. “Now, we have talked about the situation and all of the partners are happy to have you on board indefinitely, but we also want you to have an open door if you decide that you want to leave.”
My body was tingling all over as I smiled in my seat. If I had not believed in “meant to be” before that day, I can assure you that I did afterword. I answered them emphatically, “I have actually been thinking the exact same things. I was telling my parents last night that I was thinking about my passions and the path I am on…I think I would actually like to leave…today.”
I exited the meeting feeling so amazed about life in general. I packed up my stuff and sadly said bye to the many friends that I had there, though more than excited about my fresh, fearless new life path.