Proud to Be Freelance


Illustration: Owen Smith

THERE’S A FINE LINE between self-employed and out of work, and there have been times I wasn’t sure which side of the line I was on. My career — as a freelance design writer, mostly — has had its ups and downs. I’ve had few day jobs, most recently from 2000 to 2003 as editor-in-chief of Modernism Magazine, a quarterly about 20th century design. For the most part, I’ve been freelance, a word I always thought had exhilarating connotations, but which many people seem to regard as a half-step up from the gutter.

I’ve had long-running regular columns in The New York Times ‘Styles’ section (“Foraging,” about off-beat shopping), Metropolitan Home magazine (“America the Collectible”), and hundreds upon hundreds of articles published in shelter and travel magazines and various national newspapers. Still, I occasionally get, “Are you on staff somewhere these days, or are you still…<sniff>… freelance?

Kristin Cardinale, the author of a new book, The 9 to 5 Cure, wants to scotch the word freelance altogether and replace it with “patchworking.” It means the same as freelancing — working for a variety of different clients — while conjuring up a bunch of old ladies sitting around making ugly quilts. I was so riled by this latest attempt to stigmatize a great word that I commented on a media website post about the new book:

I say, be PROUD to be freelance! It’s a great, swashbuckling word, originally used for knights who owed their fealty to no one lord (hence, the free lance). Let’s turn the ‘negative stigma’ into a positive, for godssakes. The picture you paint of cafe-sitting, game-playing, and desperate phone calls is not an accurate one. Freelancing is about freedom, and taking charge of your own career, not being chained to aggravation and office politics.

Lately, thanks to my income-producing property, I hustle less for writing work, and live at a more relaxed pace. I do enough writing to keep the brain from atrophying, and have plenty of time for leisurely walks and swims and lunches, and puttering in the garden (soon!) — a life more or less indistinguishable from a vacation.

And now I have a new word to describe my present career stage, and I’m growing to like the sound of it: semi-retirement.

Bohemian Splendor in Cobble Hill


ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS ABOUT BLOGGING is making new friends. Lula and I met only a few months ago, when she stumbled upon my blog and contacted me. We soon discovered we are neighbors in two places. She has an adorable cottage a few blocks from mine in Springs (East Hampton), N.Y., as well as a parlor floor she’s owned for 16 years in a classic 1850s Italianate brownstone in Brooklyn, top and below, virtually around the corner from where I lived for two decades (though we had never run into each other).


She lives in a state of Bohemian splendor, presently suspended in mid-renovation. Having peeled off old wallpaper, the walls have a Venetian plaster look but await further plaster and paint. The ceiling has been stabilized in parts where it was falling down. There are nearly intact plaster cornice moldings all the way around, with what Lula calls her ‘Shakespearen troupe’ of faces. A new kitchen is in the cards, and there’s a potential terrace at the back which is just tar paper, no railings, at the moment.


Most of the elaborate plaster cornice is in great shape, above. Other parts, below, not so much.


Lula is grappling with the questions endemic to living on the parlor floor of a brownstone.


  • Where to put the kitchen so it’s functional but unobtrusive? Right now it’s in the middle and will probably remain there for plumbing reasons, but in what configuration?
  • How to create a bedroom with privacy? She’s got a small one in the former hall space at the back, and uses the back parlor as a sort of den/guest room, above — but could it be better used as a master bedroom or dining room (currently in the kitchen area)?
  • And what about those magnificent original wood doors and moldings? Were they painted back in the day (she thinks so) and should they be painted again, or refinished and stained? Should perhaps the doors be left wood and just the moldings painted?


All that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the place has great cozy charm. With all that original detail, antiques acquired piecemeal over the years, an overstuffed sofa, plants on the window sills, and faded Oriental rugs, it feels much like being back in the Victorian era, for real.


After my first-ever visit to Lula’s apartment, we went and checked out the new Fork & Pencil warehouse on Bergen Street, above, a few-months-old, crammed-full, well-vetted consignment store — a spin-off of the smaller storefront on Court Street — whose proceeds go to non-profit conservation, arts, and other organizations. It’s more Lula’s kind of place than mine, filled with traditional antiques, but more to the point, I don’t need anything at the moment. Browsing there is purely a theoretical exercise for me. I admire, appreciate, and move on. Don’t need anything, thanks!


We had a civilized late lunch nearby at Broken English, the sort of self-conscious industrial chic space one used to expect only in Manhattan. I’m glad it’s come to Brooklyn, because my rigatoni with marinara and basil was scrumptious, and the salad, bread, and olive oil were tops. You can tell the quality of a restaurant by its bread and salad, I once read, and I think that’s on the mark. Broken English is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ignore the snarky online reviews from amateur critics and give it a try. It’s a welcome addition to the nabe, in my book.