I sat outside of Pixar’s main building in late April 2009, tears welling in my eyes. I had just learned that my internship would not be turning into a full-time position—the only intern of the bunch set free. I was being consoled by one of my in-house mentors, Sally (@garbidoll), who assured me that exciting things were ahead, despite my not getting the job I so desperately wanted. “You might be the luckiest intern here,” she told me. “You don’t need to get what you want the first thing out of school. And besides, how do you even know this is what you want? You convinced yourself of it, but now you can try other things, and then decide with a little more experience.” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear; I had spent five years of my life plotting how to get that internship, and even graduated early so that I could work in the Story Department of Toy Story 3, under the studio’s brightest minds, under Oscar-winning screenwriters, and with the idea that I would never in my life have to leave the company. Everything was planned on getting that internship—every extracurricular, every screenwriting class—on staying put, on concepting and producing films with the best of the best. As a bumbling idiot kid from South Dakota, I had already come so far, and this felt like I was the first person voted out in some cruel reality show competition. “I don’t know what the hell to do now,” I said between sobs. “I was supposed to get a job. I was supposed to be here forever.” Bless Sally for being so patient with me then, because I’m embarrassed at how entitled I felt, at how naive I was to think things would pan out so simply at 22. If I were her, I’d have said “Get over your fucking self and grow up, kid.” I was such an idiot.
During that internship, I was secretly seeking out men for hookups on Craigslist. This was all pre-Grindr, pre-Scruff. I drove into San Francisco’s Marina one night. I met a man named Joe—that’s what he called himself, while sounding unsure of it—and told him my name was Leonard (my actual middle name). It’s funny two closeted men felt comfortable having sex but not sharing real names. And of the sex: this was my first time going so far. How romantic that he was a stranger, and that I let him do it without a condom. I left feeling stupid, but mostly just glad I knew what sex felt like, even if it lacked intimacy. When the Pixar internship ended—six weeks after this encounter—my lymph nodes swelled to the size of chickpeas, and I woke each morning in a sweat-soaked bed. I had pink eye twice in a week, and my tongue was furry with candida. I knew what was wrong, and recorded a video on my laptop saying goodbye to my family, sniffling through my apologies for any hurt I would cause them. I planned to disappear; to what degree I did not yet know. It would be the easiest way to escape my own shame, because I hadn’t even convinced myself that I was gay yet (despite the hookups) and now I would have to tell people I was HIV-positive, too. First, though, I needed an official diagnosis. I made an appointment with a testing clinic five days out—unaware that San Francisco is filled with walk-in clinics—and suffered through the week. At the appointment, I showed the counselor my symptoms, and saw great concern wash over his face. We did a rapid test, and he came back with my results: HIV-negative. “Are you having a nervous breakdown, a panic attack? Is everything ok with work?” he asked. I sobbed in his arms for 20 minutes. He was patient. Understanding. He held my hand the entire time, and urged me to please take time off, to grow into myself, to love myself, to be well. To talk to my parents soon. I walked three miles home, with a second chance to do things properly, to not be ashamed. I deleted the pathetic 10-minute video without rewatching it, then vowed to never be so miserable—or so secretive—ever again. I didn’t want to be that version of myself anymore.
To center myself, I drove alone 4,200 miles to Maine. I applied for a summer camp job—as staff photographer—and spent the next two months teaching 11-year-old boys how to not wet the bed and how to use a point-and-shoot camera. (“OK, use auto-focus. Just aim it at whatever. Click the button. Nice. Great pic, kiddo.”) I made out with a few female counselors, still coming to terms with my accepted sexuality. I turned my cell phone off for weeks at a time, and checked my email and Facebook just once a day, shutting out all my friends’ updates of new jobs and good fortune. I needed to not compare myself to them. Instead, I helped kids muster up the courage to ask their crushes to the dance, wrote campfire songs, survived two bouts of bed lice, and hiked the backwoods of New Hampshire. Sometime mid-summer, I realized my lymph nodes had shrunk to their normal size, and that I felt an intoxicating wave of content from having no expectations or saturated plans. How foreign, to feel settled and free of ambition. That calm was short-lived, though, because next came New York, on the $500 I had in savings. I moved in with my college pal Abbey (@afaris24) for a month, rent-free, and a temp agency promised that I would have a job in the entertainment industry in no time. The next day, they offered me a crossing guard position at the Friends Seminary School for $12/hour, helping the children of many famous actors cross safely from the main building to the high school annex. The worst days were when it would downpour, though it at least complemented my mood and the renewed sense of failure. After learning about my writing ambitions, I got an unofficial offer to help teach drama classes to kindergartners. I was offended they would assume it was what I wanted, that teaching drama to privileged children was at all related to screenwriting. I declined, and they didn’t beg me to reconsider. I quit the crossing guard gig after a few weeks, realizing I had approached this move entirely wrong: with no plans or realistic expectations. So I pointed my car home to South Dakota, a terrific place for a closeted man and aspiring screenwriter. I was such an idiot.
When I left Sioux Falls for college in 2005, I vowed to never move back again. I had no plans for such a static, homogenous place in my future. I spent summers at school in hip Lawrence, KS, or interning in San Francisco. So, asking my parents for help and haven at age 23 was a bit humiliating, but they were happy to have me back. And luckily, I had numerous childhood friends who were in the same boat; that’s the Class of 2008 and 2009 for you. I took a job bartending for a restauranteur who had employed me throughout high school. Then one Friday, I got a call from a Vice Principal of a middle school across the street, asking if I wanted to teach seventh grade social studies for the remainder of the year (the current teacher was gravely ill, and they needed a replacement who wouldn’t have to get hired full time the next year. In South Dakota, long-term public substitutes only need a bachelor’s degree, in anything. Seriously.) The following Monday—three days later—I was in the classroom, writing lessons, grading tests, disciplining punk teenagers, and still bartending nights and weekends. Meanwhile, I started exchanging sexual emails with the father of a former classmate. (Thanks, Craigslist.) I nearly met up with him, but backed out when he said “I just need a man to cuddle with sometimes, you know? That’s hard to find here.” It validated why I couldn’t stay in Sioux Falls, why I could never be happy there. Then, I started hanging out with another former classmate—one I had a secret crush on all through middle and high school. He was living at home too, also teaching, also closeted, also wanting out. Seven consecutive days of sexual tension turned into five months of sneak-out-of-the-house-at-2am-and-back-in-at-6am sex, plus cuddling, late night dinners, and validation for having moved home. It was the high school romance I never got; he was my first boyfriend, my impetus for finally coming out to my friends. We broke up after the school year ended, when I had saved enough money to return to the Bay. I knew that breakup was coming, because I was nearly 24 and needed to get the hell out of my dead-end South Dakota. I vowed to never move back again…again.
I drove with my likeminded North Dakotan cousin Jenny (@approximately) across Canada, then south to the Bay. She would spend her collegiate summer living with our aunt Amy (@amycleonard) in her vacant Russian Hill in-law unit (as I had twice done). Amy was the youngest sister of both of our mothers, and had herself fled Dakota for blue oceans, blue politics, and blue jeans; at the time she was heading Levi’s product development. She was proof that we could make a sound and unprescribed living for ourselves. I moved to Berkeley for the summer with childhood friend Britta (@runbmcee), who had also flown the South Dakota coop after a year at home. We house sat for Amy’s colleague, where he and his husband lived with their two biological sons—very Berkeleyan, too: one boy from each father, but from the same mother, who was also present in their lives. We looked after their 13 chickens for the summer. One of them was crippled, which is worth mentioning only because it felt just as Berkeleyan for them to spare her life. She—Clarice—died while I was watching her, of course, because I was still a fuck-up. I spent the summer months holding a production internship with the Telluride Film Festival (based in Berkeley), and my reticent aunt connected me with a modeling agency because I wanted to try fit modeling at Levi’s. With fit modeling, you just try on clothes for the designers, to see how they fit; it seemed so easy and lucrative. The agency said no, since a bunch of firefighters already held the post and weren’t giving it up any time soon. But, they wanted to send me on other calls. So I wasted lots of time in waiting rooms, for no ambitious reason whatsoever. At one call, I heard a group of wannabe models congratulating one guy: “Thad, congrats on the Colgate ad!” Replied Thad: “Thanks. Seven years of waiting tables and going on calls, finally validated. Feels good.” I shook my head subtly and held back my laughter; that was my last waiting room. After summer, I swapped cousin Jenny for the no-rent studio, and took a video-rental-clerk job in North Beach for $7/hour, 12 hours/week. For four months. Because I was still a fuck-up.
Things turned around in December 2010: My aunt convinced me to take a government-run Americorps job with the Bay Area Red Cross. (“You’ve got free rent, they’ll hold your loans, and above all, it’s applicable job experience.”) So, I started managing projects and developing youth programs across six counties, working 40+ hours each week for a $9,000 salary. I count that year a major victory, mostly because I didn’t switch jobs or move. Another win: I was coming into my life as an out gay man. I told my entire family back home, knowing I had the spirited support of my aunt and her family in San Francisco. Luckily, nobody in South Dakota melted into a puddle like I had predicted. I still didn’t talk about my gay life with any of them, though, because I didn’t see how they could possibly relate. There wasn’t exactly a parade held in my honor, either, so you can understand why I shut that part of my life off to anyone less than enthusiastic. In a way I created a whole new version of myself that they didn’t get to meet. I was happy. I had a terrific boyfriend who made me happy—God, that’s not the ticket to happiness, don’t get me wrong, but it played a big part here. He was four years older and, like my aunt, showed me the life I could have, the blissful reality I deserved. He took me to restaurants, to hidden corners of the city, to parties with his friends. He helped me pick out nice clothes, introduced me to his family, and gave me this mold of a life that I knew I wanted. Suddenly, my entire existence in SF was framed by the parameters he and my aunt had built for me. Our boyfriendship lasted six months, and although we sustained it on and off for the next couple seasons, we never were fully on again. That’s because, as my Americorps year ended, my sights were set back on New York City, on properly and permanently landing a film job this time. On being totally independent, on making my own friends and my own life instead of having it handed to me. So, I flew away from free rent, from my Bay Area family, from another relationship, and from the city that gave me enlightenment—to put an end to my bumbling about.