Our Struggle to Stay series continues as we follow actor and Iraqi war veteran Mark Combs and his good friend and artist, Cameron Elias Williams. These young men took off from West Virginia hoping to land on their feet in Los Angeles - the land of abundant creative jobs - far from their economically depressed homes in Appalachia. But the target life in L.A. was harder to hit than expected.
Mark and Cameron didn’t expect to have to spend so much money once they got to California. They didn’t expect to be headed to Denver a week later, and they didn’t expect Denver would push them to breaking points either. Life’s full of surprises.
Reflecting on California
“Surprise!” Mark said into a recorder while on the road, "We're in Denver!" California had long since dissolved from the reflection in his rearview mirror. “So, basically, Los Angeles didn’t work out.”
“Yeah, it didn’t work out this time around,” Cameron added. “We’re gonna reposition ourselves and come back stronger and better.”
Mark and Cameron got to California in September and left 7 days later, several thousand dollars poorer.
“Cameron and I weren't necessarily rolling in the money in West Virginia, but we weren't doing bad. But that still meant we were poor as [expletive] on L.A. standards.”
“A guy came into the store from L.A. talking about one of his friends that pays $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood,” Cameron said. “And I can guarantee you that house didn't come with a refrigerator, because L.A. is just weird like that. They don't provide fridges for their tenants. Ridiculous.”
Welcome to Lonely Colorado
Mark and Cameron basically pulled Denver out of a hat. They arrived there without much of a plan, much as they did in Los Angeles. But this time they chose a city where it’s not quite as expensive to live. Instead of $1600 - $2000 rent per month, they’re looking at $1200 - $1500. And unlike L.A., the rental market was far less competitive.
They were able to find an apartment and start working at a pizza place almost as soon as they arrived. That, and some loans from friends and relatives, got them started.
But they didn’t have any family in Denver, and not a lot of friends either. In the coming weeks and months, loneliness set in, weighed them down, and ate away at their motivation to follow their entertainment dreams.
Mark recorded an update again two months later in late November:
“It’s Saturday, I’m just doing some cleaning around the house. Thanksgiving was just a couple days ago. I don't think it really hit either of us as hard as it did in the days leading up to Thanksgiving just how alone and tired we are. It's been kinda fucking tough to be honest,” he said, his voice wavering. “I didn't think I would miss people back home this much. A little over two months ago we were on a collision course with becoming homeless. This Thanksgiving we were just really thankful to have a home and a couch.”
Building Something Out of Nothing
Mark and Cameron made plans to create a new theater company in Denver. They even talked to friends back home who were interested in coming to join them, which was encouraging. But it didn’t stick. The day-to-day scramble to stay afloat financially took its toll.
“By the time we got here we were so far behind, owed so many people money,” Mark reported, “we just had to constantly work. We couldn't take any jobs that allow us any time off to be able to go and explore those routes of auditioning for different shows or going and doing standup.”
“I'm an artist,” Cameron said, “if I'm not creating something, you know I get really on edge and anxious and irritable. I've got to have outlets to express myself. It’s like a form of therapy.”
Not getting to be creative lead to some depression. Depression made keeping a job a harder task. Cameron went from delivering pizza to selling phones. Mark went through several jobs over the course of a few months: pizza, UPS, a solar startup, a deli. None of it provided a living wage.
“I have $9 on a credit card. Cameron has a maxed out credit card, one debit card that’s in the red, and another that's got a zero balance," Mark reported a few months after he moved to Denver.
It would be nice to report that things got better or easier, that Mark and Cameron find their footing. But that’s not what happens next. Not yet. First, things had to get worse.
What happened to Mark Combs? That’s next time on The Struggle to Stay.
You can hear the final installment of Mark Combs’ Struggle to Stay story in two weeks on Inside Appalachia.