"Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune."
"Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex, you thought of nothing else if you didn't have it and thought of other things if you did."
James A. Baldwin
I used to draw cartoons all the time, even when I drove a cab at night. But this job as production manager was so stressful, I had no energy left when I came home at night. There was no way I could be creative after work and come up with new cartoons.
For the first five years I had lived in the States, I did not even have a computer at home. Hacking is addicting, and now that I was over the age of 18, and I would be tried as an adult if I got caught, and law enforcement had finally caught up with hackers, I was scared to get in trouble again, because I knew this time I would really go to jail.
The best way to avoid the temptation of doing something with a computer that I shouldn't be doing, was not to have one. But after five years of living in the States, and not having had any contact whatsoever with the hacking scene for that whole time, I figured I was ready to own a computer again. So while I was the production manager at the newspaper in Brooklyn, I finally bought a PC.
This was during the early days of the Internet revolution. My hacker friends and I had grown up on the Internet. To us it was an old hat. It was our home. But now finally the rest of the world realized that there was a virtual online world. All these huge corporations wanted a piece of the pie and they all tried to figure out how to make money on the Internet. They knew there was money to be made, they just couldn't figure out how. They spent billions of dollars on Internet start-ups that really had no business plan, and who were bleeding cash like crazy, instead of making a profit, until they all ended up crashing and burning. All these huge companies lost billions of dollars during the days of the Internet bubble.
Meanwhile I had been playing around with my new computer at home, and I figured out how to put my cartoons online, by building a very primitive little website. I hadn't drawn any new cartoons in months, but I put my old cartoons on the web.
Up until then I had relied on sending my cartoons to publishing houses, hoping that an editor would pick some of my cartoons for a new book or the next issue of some tabloid. And many did. I had a whole bunch of cartoons published in all kinds of magazines, and in over a dozen different books. Some of my cartoons were even hanging in museums for cartoon art or modern art. I was making a name for myself as a cartoonist, just like I had made a name for myself as a hacker a few years earlier.
But as a freelance cartoonist, you never know how much money you are going to make next week or next month. Some magazines, like the New Yorker, were paying $500 for a cartoon back then. Other papers, like the SUN supermarket tabloid with all the crazy headlines, only paid $5.
So if a couple of editors at well-paying magazines bought a bunch of your cartoons, you could make a lot of money that week. But if nobody bought anything, or you just made a sale to a paper that paid next to nothing, you'd go hungry. Being a starving artist was not exactly a glorious lifestyle. That's why I had to take that day job at the newspaper.
I discovered that there was a webmaster scene online, similar to the hacking scene I used to be a part of. A bunch of guys like me had their own websites and were trying to figure out ways to make money online. I picked up on what they were doing pretty quickly and surpassed them not much later, blazing my own path into unknown territory, and learning more and more about the ways of the web as I went along. I was now an online entrepreneur! A guerilla marketer! An Internet ninja! A lot of the ideas I came up with had never been done by anyone else before me.
Suddenly my cartoon website was making money. Not much at first, but then the next month my site earned about $1000. Simply by being there. I wasn't even doing anything. I had just uploaded a bunch of my old cartoons, and now people were finding my cartoons in Google, came to my site, saw the banner ads on my site, and I was earning money.
I literally didn't have to do anything at all. The way my website made money was similar to a TV station. When you watch CBS or NBC, you don't buy anything from them. But big corporations pay TV stations a lot of money to show you ads during the commercial breaks. Whether you actually get your ass off the couch after seeing that commercial and going out to buy a new car from Ford or the latest hamburger at McDonald's doesn't matter. NBC gets money from their advertisers, simply for showing you an ad for those products.
Online ad agencies, who manage and distribute online advertising for their clients, call that kind of banner a CPM ad, or Cost Per 1000 impressions. If one thousand people visited my site and saw a CPM banner advertisement on my website, I earned $4, or whatever the current rate was for that particular ad campaign. My visitors didn't even have to click on the banner ad. Just the fact that they were looking at it was enough for me to get paid.
Then there were CPC banners, or Cost Per Click. Those ads only paid money, if one of my visitors clicked on the banner. And then there were CPA banners, or Cost Per Action. Those only paid something, if one of my visitors clicked on the ad, went to the advertiser's website, and bought something there. Then I got a sales commission. My favorite were the CPM banners.
The next month my cartoon site earned $3000. Without me lifting a finger! $3000 was the same amount I made as production manager at the newspaper, being totally stressed out, overworked, and miserable.
I decided to build a few more websites, about embarrassing true stories, the secrets behind magic tricks, funny video clips, weird news, celebrity gossip, optical illusions, and a few other popular topics, using the same basic recipe for make-money-in-your-sleep riches.
The next month my sites earned $5000. The month after that $7000. Then $15,000. And I still wasn't doing anything to maintain my websites on a daily basis. I just built them and then basically forgot about them, while they took on a life of their own.
Thanks to my hacking background and my intimate knowledge of computers and the Internet, and my knack for cocky self promotion, and the things I had learned about advertising and catchy writing through my two newspaper jobs and my scene mag, and having learned how to get publicity by provoking people with my incendiary rants, I intuitively did everything just right, to make my websites a success.
Back then there was no word for what I was doing yet. But a few years later, after the Internet bubble had burst and the dust had settled (What a horrible mixed metaphor. I probably just made an English lit major turn in his grave.) colleges started to teach classes on how to make money online. Today that is called "affiliate marketing."
The funny thing is, when I started thinking about ever new ways to make money with CPM, CPC or CPA ads, I figured that I could make a lot more money with CPA ads, if I posted my advertiser's links directly into search engines, instead of on my own sites. Think about it: How many people who came to my cartoon site were actually looking to buy a new car at that moment? Not too many. They were just there to look at my funny pictures.
So if I placed ads for a new car next to my cartoons, the chances of actually making a sale were next to zero. But when someone googles the nearest car dealership, he's obviously thinking about buying a new car. So I placed CPA ads directly into a bunch of search engines. The advertising companies I was working with told me I couldn't do that. They had never seen anyone do that before, and they felt it wasn't kosher. They felt that somehow I was cheating the system and they told me to stop.
I had been ahead of my time again when I did that back then. But nowadays, placing CPA ads in search engines is the backbone of affiliate marketing. Nowadays everyone does it. Go figure.
Ironically, a lot of hackers make money with affiliate marketing these days. Why bother hacking into a bank or credit card company, and risk going to prison, if you can hack into a search engine instead, and put a bunch of your own websites at the top of the search results, and make money with the banner ads on your sites? That way it's perfectly legal to make millions of dollars with your hacking skills.
Anyway, my Embarrassing Moments website became so popular back then, that a Canadian TV production company took notice. They were going to produce a new show about awkward true stories, for The Learning Channel in America, and they contacted me to ask for my permission to reenact some of the stories on my website for their show. The show was going to have a few regular commentators who would introduce the next clip and put their two cents in afterwards. A little bit like the judges on Americal Idol, I guess. So I coulda been the next Simon Cowell! I coulda been somebody! But I declined. I was too shy to be on TV.
I did give them permission to use some of the stories on my site though and helped them get in touch with the actual people those embarrassing true stories happened to. A few of those awkward moments really did end up on the new TV show.
That Canadian production crew wasn't the only media company who took notice to my sites. A Japanese entertainment news show featured a segment about my Embarrassing Moments site and suddenly I had hundreds of new users from Japan on my forum, sharing their most intimate sushi-regurgitating mishaps and sake-soaked blunders.
A lot of newspapers and news websites liked my site about magic tricks. There was really no other site like it at the time.
I was in the right place at the right time and knew exactly the right thing to do to take advantage of a unique opportunity with these websites during the early days of the Internet. I felt like I was winning the lottery every day. It was crazy. My sites ended up making $1000 a day, $30,000 a month. I was making all this money without even really trying all that hard.
I think Bill Gates said something along the lines of: "Always choose the laziest person in the office to do a difficult job, because he will find the easiest way to do it." That was me. I always figured out the simplest, shortest route to my goal.
I designed and programmed all my websites myself. But I was by no means a good HTML programmer. I had taught myself the bare basics. Just enough to scrape by by the seat of my pants and get to my destination on the path of least resistance.
So when the lawyer was trying to replace me at the newspaper, I really didn't give a shit. I didn't need that job anymore at this point, because I was making more money than the lawyer and all the other people in that office put together. But the cautious German in me didn't just want to quit a steady job and rely on free online money. I figured it was a fluke and it couldn't be like that forever, so it was probably a good idea to hold on to my day job.
But I was miserable, and when that lawyer schemed behind my back to replace me, I knew it was time to go and take my chances with the Internet. I planned a grand exit. On the Monday when Kenny, my buddy in the graphic department, was going to start his new job somewhere else, I was going to go right up the lawyer and tell him that I quit and that he can go shove his stupid newspaper up his ass.
Monday finally came, but as luck would have it, the lawyer didn't come in that day. I sat at my desk, waiting two hours for him to show up, while I was playing games online. Around 11 am his wife came into the office to check the mail. I was getting sick of sitting there for no reason, so I decided to make my grand exit with her instead.
I took a copy of the classified ads. I had circled the ad for my job. Then I walked up to her, held the page in front of her face and asked: "What is that? Huh? What is that?? Are you trying to replace me?" I sounded like I was disciplining a dog who had just piddled on the carpet.
She was startled and didn't know what to say. Then I told her that I knew she and her husband had put that ad in the paper to find someone to do my job for less money, and they didn't even have the courtesy to give me any notice. And now I was going to quit without notice.
By now she had composed herself, and she was quick-witted enough to demand that I give her the keys to the office. I had already cleared out my desk earlier and prepared everything so I could storm right out the door after telling them off. But I had completely forgotten about the keys. Fuck! So instead of making a grand exit, now I stood there like a moron, fumbling around with my key chain, trying to get the damn keys off. Not cool. Not cool at all.
I went home and felt like an idiot, because that did not go as planned. But, oh well, finally I was freeeee!
When I didn't go to college in Germany and moved to New York instead, I had nightmares about it for weeks. I felt like I was being totally irresponsible and that I was ruining my life. Leaving everything you know behind and moving to another continent, and facing the great unknown, is scary. It takes a lot of courage. Don't ever look down at an immigrant who came to America to make a better life for himself and his family. You have no idea how much courage that took, until you have walked a mile in his shoes.
Now, after I quit my newspaper job, I had the same type of nightmares again. Staying home all day and doing whatever the hell I wanted seemed so wrong, so irresponsible. A good German just doesn't do that.
I did learn one thing from all that though: I never look down on poor people now. I've been there. I've probably been poorer than most people will ever be. I don't think a lot of people have stooped so low that they had to eat dog food.
Capitalism has a dirty little secret: the system only works, as long as most people are poor, and only a few people at the top of the pyramid are rich. Think about it: if everyone was a millionaire, nobody would want to scrub toilets or flip burgers for minimum wage at McDonald's anymore. Having a lot of money is like having a big dick. It's only big as long as everyone else's dick is smaller than yours. If everyone else has a big dick too, then your dick is just average. The same goes for money. Rich people are only rich as long as everyone else is poor. Money is only valuable, if it's rare. If everyone has lots of money, it becomes worthless. But as long as most people don't have any money, there are always plenty of people who are willing to degrade themselves for a few bucks.
Self-righteous Republicans like to pretend that if someone is poor, it's their own fault, because they are lazy. But the truth is, the system can only survive as long as most people are poor. And I know from experience that poor people are not poor because they're lazy. I worked really really hard when I drove a cab, and made almost no money. And I worked even harder at the newspaper, but they didn't pay me all that much either. Now I was a lazy bum, doing nothing at all, and I was making more money than I had ever made in my life. That just didn't seem right. I felt like I didn't deserve it.
It took me a few weeks to get used to my new life of luxurious leisure. I started to enjoy the fact that I could sleep as long as I want, and do whatever I want all day long. I enjoyed the little perks, like being able to go to the mall during the week, when the stores were less crowded than during the weekend. And I enjoyed the fact that I didn't have to impress anyone.
I didn't have to dress for success. I could literally run around the mall in my pajamas if I wanted to, and not worry that I may lose my job if a co-worker or my boss saw me like that. I didn't have to put on a suit and tie to look like a trained monkey. Suddenly I was no longer worried about what anyone thought of me. The fact that I had all the money in the world and I didn't need anybody for anything made me a lot more self-confident. I used to walk into a room of people and wonder if they liked me. Now I looked around and wondered if I liked them.
I bought my first brand new car, a Dodge Durango, all cash. It was my dream car, because when you fold down the backseat, the back of the car was big enough for me to lie flat, like in a bed. I figured I'd go car camping at some point and sleep in the back of the car. I only did that one time though. I went on a road trip to California. When I got to San Francisco, I parked the car at the Golden Gate Bridge and watched the sunset, and the sunrise the next morning. It was beautiful. Other than that I always stayed in hotels when I traveled. I never did go car camping.
Having so much money opened up a whole new world of opportunities. Americans think that drinking beer or soccer are Germans' favorite past time. But the one thing Germans love to do more than anything else, is to travel. It's no coincidence that "Wanderlust" is a German word. That word describes a strong desire to travel and explore the world. It's something almost all Germans have in common. It doesn't matter where you go, whether you visit the Great Wall of China or the Statue of Liberty or The Eiffel Tower or Fort Myers Beach, you will find German tourists there.
At first the fact that Donna was an agoraphobic shut in didn't bother me all that much. During the first few years we didn't have any money, so we couldn't really go anywhere anyway. But now that we had all this money, I wanted to travel with her. I wanted to show her Europe, take her to the places where I grew up, and go explore new places with her where I had never been before. But none of that was ever going to happen, as long as she didn't want to leave the house.
Every time I tried to talk her into going somewhere, even just to the movies or out to dinner, she got very defensive and hostile. Just like a drug addict, if you criticize their drug. She would instantly go to her nuclear option: Divorce. That was her kill-all argument: "If you have a problem with me not going to the movies with you, why don't you get a divorce and find someone better than me?"
She had always been very insecure about herself. She constantly accused me of cheating on her, even though I never did. Years later, whenever I met someone new after my divorce from Donna, and I told them I never cheated on her, they often acted like that was adorable. Quaint. As if cheating is the new normal and the fact that I didn't cheat on her was weird. Well, it's not to me. Loyalty is very important to me.
When I had worked at one of my two newspaper jobs, Donna often asked me, if I talked to any of the girls in the office. Well, yeah, of course I did. They were my co-workers. I had to talk to them as part of my job. But if I said that, she accused me of having an affair with one of them: "Oh yeah, you talk to your little girlfriend at work? Why don't you go fuck your little whore girlfriend?"
And if I said that I didn't talk to any of the girls in the office, she would continue her probing interrogation, because she knew I was lying: "Oh yeah, so you're gonna tell me you are in the office with these girls all day and you don't say one word to them? Not even good morning? Not even when you pass them in the hallway, or you have to hand them a paper? You're lying! You're cheating on me! Why don't you go fuck your little whore girlfriend?"
There was just no right answer to her accusatory questions, just like those trick questions they asked conscientious objectors who refused to join the army in Germany.
When I drove a cab, and I got home a few minutes late, she accused me of having picked up and fucked some streetwalker. She would go on and on and on about it. When I got home at 2 am in the morning, I was exhausted. The last thing I wanted to do was argue with Donna all night. So I went to bed. She'd sit in the living room and wait until I'm asleep. Then she would storm into the bedroom, slam the door wide open so that it crashed into the wall, turn on the lights and start screaming at me.
My heart pounded like crazy when she did that. It causes so much anxiety when you are ripped out of your sleep with so much hostility. When she knew I was awake, she would turn off the light, leave the room and close the door. Then she would wait a few minutes, and then storm into the bedroom all over again. It was psychological torture and sleep deprivation.
She knew that I wanted to be nothing like my abusive alcoholic father, and that I would never hit her, no matter what. She perceived that as a weakness and exploited it to the fullest.
Finally, after she had stormed into the bedroom three or four times in a row to terrorize me awake, I told her if she did that one more time, I would call the cops. Of course she did it again, and I really did call the cops. They filed a domestic dispute report and told her she had to stop doing that or they were going to take her in.
A few years later, when I didn't have to work anymore, and I was able to go on little road trips to Boston or Washington, or longer ones to Canada, California or Texas, Donna never wanted to come with me, because of her agoraphobia. So I went on road trips alone, again, but she and I were connected on the phone 24/7. By now we were using cell phones and we had unlimited plans. But other than that the 24/7 phone connection was just like it used to be when I still lived in Germany. It started to drive me crazy. It was like she was trying to keep me on a leash through the phone at all times.
One day I drove through a dead spot where my phone had no signal, in the mountainous forests of the Poconos. She redialed my phone over and over and over, and left a bunch of messages.
The first one was friendly: "Hey, sweetie, we lost connection. Call me back!"
But each subsequent voicemail got more impatient and belligerent: "Why aren't you answering the phone? What's going on?"
"Are you ignoring my calls on purpose? Are you with some girl?"
"Who are you with? Are you fucking her? What's her name? I hope you DIE!"
Her voicemails escalated from a loving "Hello sweetie!" to a hostile "I hope you die!" within about 15 to 20 minutes.
And then, when I finally had a signal again and I called her back, she acted like the biggest bitch for the rest of the day, for absolutely no reason.
Deep down of course she knew that I really didn't cheat on her, and I really just lost the signal for a few minutes. I was in the Poconos a lot, because I didn't think the Internet fountain of money was going to last forever. It was just too good to be true. I was sure that sooner or later the money would dry up. So I wanted to have a back up source of income. I decided to invest in real estate and started buying lakefront lots in the Poconos.
The Poconos are a mountain range in Pennsylvania, about 90 car minutes from Manhattan. It's beautiful. Donna and I decided to build a house there. At first I was looking for a modest log cabin. But every builder I talked to tried to sell me a bigger and better house. The house we actually ended up building was a 5000 square foot mansion on a five acre property next to a beautiful lake.
During the construction of that house, everything went wrong. It almost felt like the property was an old Indian burial ground and there was a curse on the house. The builder went bankrupt. So I hired a second builder, and he went bankrupt, too. I ended up suing the first one in court, and threatened to do the same to the second one, if he didn't finish the house. Altogether that whole ordeal took about four years, and I had to drive to the Poconos many times to monitor the progress, or lack thereof.
So Donna already knew that the phone signal in the Poconos was very bad. But that didn't matter. It seemed like she was making my life miserable on purpose, simply because she was bored, and conflict was her only source of entertainment while she sat home alone.
I was under constant stress while living with her, because she went from being nice to being a totally psycho hostile bitch from one minute to the next. I never knew what would set off her next tantrum. Looking back at it later, I realized how abusive her behavior was. But at the time, while I was going through it, it just seemed like normal life to me.
Early on in our relationship, when I just moved to New York, I was writing a letter to my parents. I was answering one of their letters. They had written that the girl who cleaned their house, an architecture student from Bulgaria, asked them to tell me she said hello. Donna didn't like that, so she told me to ask my parents not to ever mention that Bulgarian whore in their letters to me ever again.
So in my reply to them, I asked them not to mention the Bulgarian girl anymore, because Donna was kinda sensitive about things like that. Donna decided to proof-read my German letter, even though she couldn't read German. She asked me to translate word for word what exactly I wrote about the Bulgarian whore, while she stared at my letter.
When I got to the part where I had written that Donna was a little sensitive when it came to other girls, she asked me if that word she saw in my letter meant sensible. I said, no, it means sensitive.
She completely lost it and went on a rampage. She started screaming at me that I was making a fool out of her and she smashed plates in the kitchen. She grabbed my six page hand-written letter and ripped it up. I tried to stop her, and she screamed for help, as if I was raping her. Her younger brother still lived with his parents upstairs at that time. He heard Donna's screams, ran down the stairs, broke down the front door, and threatened me with a baseball bat, while I calmy tried to explain to him that I hadn't even touched her, and she was the one attacking me, not the other way around.
All that drama, because she felt that I should have used the word sensible in my letter, and that calling her a little sensitive when it comes to other girls was making a fool out of her. So it rrreally didn't take much to set off one of her over-the-top tantrums.
I read an article on domestic violence and abusive relationships that said that people who grow up in an abusive home, tend to end up in abusive relationships, because that hostile dynamic seems normal to them. Without even realizing it, they are attracted to people who will abuse them in some form or another.
Back then I didn't even realize that the tension I always felt around Donna was very similar to the anxiety I had when my biological father was still alive and he would always start arguments with my mother for no reason, just so that he would have an excuse to storm out of the house and go on his next drinking binge.
The constant anticipation of Donna's next tantrum was not unlike the feeling my mother and I had while sitting on the living room couch, watching a movie, but always alert, and with our hearts pounding if we heard the front gate creak in the wind, always anticipating that my father was about to come and kill us.
One time Donna and I were arguing about some trivial bullshit. The next day, neither one of us could remember what we had even been arguing about the night before. It really was a non-issue that nobody in their right mind would ever argue about.
During the argument, she became completely unhinged again, as usual. She always figured that if she got crazy enough, I would give in at some point and do what she says. I had learned to just walk away from her when she got totally mental like that.
So I was trying to walk out of the house and go see a movie. She blocked my way by standing in the bedroom doorway. I shoved her aside and walked out. She started smashing the bedroom door with her fist, and punched a large hole in it. Almost like the hole my dad had put in the bedroom door when he tried to kill my mother and me.