About The Author: Matthew Steven
How This Starving Artist Went From Sleeping In Subway Trains To Living
Matthew Steven Beaulieu, my LA friends call me Matteo, my New York friends call me Matt B, my Maine friends call me Beaulieu pronounced “Bowl•yer”.
After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor in Fine Arts and a Minor in Communications, I was broke beyond belief, no savings, no job prospects, looming credit card debt, and had 6 months before my Student Loan payments kicked in.
Without any job prospects in Rochester, I moved back home to Maine with my parents. Maine having a small art scene and no work available in my area of expertise, I signed with a Temp Agency to get some work. It wasn’t long before I was working in a corporate office of a grocery store chain, wearing a tie, and sharing a cubicle, a far cry from my aspirations to become a famous artist. I was doing exactly what I was afraid of so I volunteered with a local art gallery to keep myself sane. I wanted a website for my artwork and had always been interested in the possibilities of the internet so I started teaching myself HTML but the boring-ness of learning coding lost my attention quickly. I was living with my parents, working a corporate job and saving all that I could by deferring my loan debt and paying the minimum on my credit cards.
After almost a year, I had had enough, with a little money saved up, I made a call to some friends, and hopped a bus to NYC to couch surf for a week. The next day I found a job and a place to stay working as an artist assistant. It was my ticket to move to NYC where I would surely become a famous artist but it was borderline homelessness. I lived in a 20×20 brick room with no windows, a leaky ceiling and flaking lead paint located off of the large warehouse/garage of the artists studio. The only sink and bathroom were on the other side of the building across a dusty dirty warehouse. I worked 2 days a week to pay for rent and the remaining 3 days I was paid a measly $7 dollars per hour, to put it in perspective I was making $15 per hour at the Temp Agency in Maine and I was now living in NYC the second most expensive place to live in the US. At $7 dollars an hour, 3 days a week, lets just say I could barely afford a subway card and enough food to keep myself fed, all the while going deeper and deeper into debt. I was the stereotypical “Starving Artist”.
After losing my parents van to parking tickets I couldn’t pay off, and about a year of this living situation, I found a new job with a fine art shipping company. As it came time for me to start my new job I told the artist he wasn’t paying me enough and I was leaving, which he didn’t take kindly to. Following the ensuing arguments I moved my belongings into a storage unit. With an FU and a middle finger I was off to start my new job as an art handler. The only problem I faced was I had no money, and no place to stay. My friends had a paying guest already on their couch and the only other people I knew were tenants of the guy I just told off. I would be in training for 2 months before I would go on the road as a long distance truck driver, staying in hotels, delivering and picking up art from the most exclusive museums, galleries, collector homes, and artist studios across the country. I heard the company had an apartment for the long distance drivers to stay at when they came into town called “The Crash Pad”. I didn’t want to ask right away so for the first 2 weeks I would work in the morning, then go to my storage space and sleep for a few hours before the storage place closed for the night. I’d go hang out in parks and wherever I could, then I’d hit the subway to spend the night sleeping on the benches while the train went from one end of the tracks to the other. It was a tough time, I wore an army shirt from the salvation army, I had on some worn out jeans, and a winter hat I’d pull over my eyes, to fit in with the other homeless and I of course carried nothing of value. I had a backpack with a pillow in it and I found a train that had flat benches so I didn’t have to sleep on the curved ones. It wasn’t easy, but I would eventually fall asleep to the automated voice, “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” that would go on at every single stop along with the cold air that came in at the above ground stops. I’d wake up in the morning to the masses of rush hour people going to work, then off I’d go to my job, and do it all over again.
Luckily, I was working and would soon get my first paycheck. I talked the guy who hired me into letting me stay at The Crash Pad until I was able to go on my first long distance trip. For the next 2 years I drove a truck across country 3 weeks at a time, with a week off before the next. All expenses were paid, hotel, food per diem, and a nice big check to come back to. I stayed at The Crash Pad between trips or would go back home to stay with my parents in Maine if I had a longer break. It was a good living but I eventually grew lonely and missed the fun of living in New York. The people in NY I met, when I was in town, I wouldn’t see again for weeks or months and they would hardly remember who I was or where they had met me when I bumped into them again. The people I met on the road, it was assumed they would never see me again, and for most of them that’s exactly what would happen. Once in a while I would end up back in their town and see them again but that was few and far between.
Being a part of the behind-the-scenes of the art industry gave me an insider look at how successful artists made their artwork, and how they were getting it seen. I new if I was going to be a successful artist my first step would be a website portfolio. While on the road I bought a laptop and internet connection through my cellphone via bluetooth, it was painfully slow but it worked wherever I had a cellular connection. That’s how I started teaching myself HTML and Flash. My loneliness would eventually force me back to living in New York, sharing an apartment with some friends, working on the trucks locally, and creating my art website in my spare time.
It was about this time that my life and my families life got turned upside down. While on the job I received a phone call from my mother, that would change my life forever. My older sister at the age of 29, 10 days before her 30th birthday had passed away. She had battled with Diabetes since the age of 4 and it had finally caught up to her.
I never thought about life the same again after that. Life was too short, if I was going to do something I was going to do it now!
Over the course of the following year I got my website up and running and had my portfolio all put together. I began looking at the possibility of creating websites for other people. I was reading books about quitting my job and starting my own business, with my new web design skills and outlook on life it would be a matter of time before I would create something that would allow me to be my own boss.
During this volatile time I was enjoying the local party scene and indulging in the drinking and drugs that went along with it. My partying caught up with me, one of the downfalls to art handling is you get surprise drug tests and, to my surprise, I came into work just before Christmas and it was my turn to be tested. A week later I would be in Florida on vacation with my family for Christmas relieving stress. A call came from the drug testing facility while I was in my hotel room that I had tested positive for marijuana, I knew what this meant. At the airport, on our way back, I received a phone call from my boss telling me he had to let me go, they can’t employ anyone who doesn’t pass the test for insurance reasons.
I had already made up my mind I knew what to do and came back to New York prepared to hit the streets as a self employed web designer. After a few months of unemployment I landed my first client, an art gallery that needed their website revamped. That became a full-time job, I worked from home, logged my work and time, and charged the gallery for all of it. The gallery owner also paid me to handle the artwork by hanging shows and packing the art when needed. The gallery owner also hooked me up with a furniture artist who needed a website. I created and managed the two websites for just over a year before they eventually dried up only needing the occasional update. Unable to find more web design work I scrambled and did odd jobs, from set designing assistant for photo shoots to a stint as a real estate apartment broker. I got to a point where I needed consistent work again and went back to the job world with my tail between my legs.
Over the next few years I would work as a fine art printer for an artist, and then as a print department manager for a decor manufacturer. Never making more than 37K per year. Paying bills was constant trouble and my debts were far from getting paid off.
It was during this time that I was dating a girl who worked for Google from home, as a content checker. She would get a list of websites and would check to make sure the keyword they were showing up for pertained to the content of the website, this gig was only good for they would drop their current content checkers and get a new batch of people to keep things fresh I guess. When I told her about my websites she told me about her brother who was creating what he called “content websites” and putting Google ads on them and making good money doing it. I thought this was brilliant so I set out to do the same. I went back to learning more HTML since Flash didn’t help your SEO rankings and created a basic site using Dreamweaver WSYWIG the site was about how to find an apartment in New York without paying a brokers fee, something that is not an easy task. It took me months to put it all together and get it up and running with AdSense. It slowly got traffic, and sure enough the ads were getting clicks. $0.25 her and there, with the occasional $1.00 click and the occasional $0.01 clicks too. After about 8 months from it’s inception I had made my first $10.00, an accomplishment none the less. I needed more traffic with little money to invest in all the Ninja Guru stuff out there. I began following podcasts and newsletters from Internet Business Mastery and some others. I tried all kinds of goofy tricks, which really didn’t help much with traffic but just made my website code a mess. It was another year before I cleared the $100 mark and collected my first check from Google. Success!
Soon came word that the company I was working for, which had been on a downward spiral for the last 5 years, was on it’s last leg. I decided I’ve had enough of New York, knowing the printing industry was thriving in LA, due to the movie industry, I decided I’d apply to a printer selling company I knew of out there, for a position as a printer tech. The guys who fix the printers make more than the guys who operate them and I had assisted many tech’s during my few years of operating printers and knew how to set one up and do most of the major fixes myself. Sure enough the company had changed owners and they were hiring. A webcam interview, and a flight for an in person interview and I was back to packing up my things for the big move.
My father and I drove my beat up old ’86 mercury cougar from NYC to Corona CA stopping at all the sites we could in the 3 days we had. He helped me get into an apartment and it was back to the 9-5 grind at my new job as a printer tech. The moving truck showed up 2 months later with my stuff, that’s how long it took me to pay them off, and I settled into my new apartment and job in March. Life was good, I was making the most money I had ever made and my websites and dreams of becoming a famous artist had been put on hold.
The way my life has gone I should know never to get comfortable. After just 7 months at my new job the economy dropped hard and heavy. And so did the printer business. Slowly the people I worked with were let go, one by one, and the company’s debt to it’s vendors grew and grew. It wasn’t long before I was let go too, and back on unemployment. The company needed to still offer my services to their customer base to keep them around so I was able to make the occasional burst of income by their referrals but it wasn’t enough. This went on for almost 2 years, during this tough time I moved into a house with a couple of friends for little rent and was able to survive while collecting unemployment and freelancing my printer fixing skills. I did what I could with my websites but couldn’t afford the time or cost of learning new techniques. I decided I’d try to get into a web design or graphic design job, since there were so many in the job listings, to do so I would have to create an online job portfolio website. I decided I wanted to show off what I could do with Flash and HTML so that I could impress, just to get an interview.
I had a friend from Rochester that lived in Hollywood and worked for a large printing company that created billboards and movie posters. Once the company had bounced back from the economic downturn I was able to get a job as a Project Manager for one of the departments. It was the most money I had made ever. The design portfolio website wasn’t even needed to get the job and had consumed much of my time. I made the move to Hollywood, got a 1 bedroom apartment, and learned my new position. Again I got comfortable but this time I was working for a company that wasn’t going downhill. I paid off my debts except for those never ending student loans and was saving money.
It wasn’t long after I had settled in before I realized that I had done a complete 360 from my goals and aspirations. There I was again working a corporate, 9 to 5 job, sitting in a cubicle, only this time it was disguised as a creative job but there was nothing creative about it, I didn’t have to wear a tie but there I was in a cubicle behind a computer day in and day out writing up design jobs. The only benefit is that I was making enough money to cover my bills and save some money.
It was time to use this as a jumping off point, now I could finally afford what I needed to learn, and get my business going. Nothing is stopping me from creating the online business of my dreams. And that was the inception of Punk The System.