There’s only one way to find out what’s going on in America. Go there. Starting this weekend, that’s what I’m doing. Want to call shotgun? (You’ll have to share the seat with Rusty)
I’m not talking about the America of the coasts, where the money is printed or the movies are made. I’m talking about everything in between, where life’s math is just different. You won’t find plentiful 6-figure jobs in Columbus, Ohio. Or Missoula, Montana. Or Iowa City. But you won’t find $2,000 studio apartments, either.
If life is increasingly a popularity contest orchestrated by social media, places like Columbus haven’t got a chance, right? Maybe. Or maybe they have a secret they’re not telling the rest of us. I’ll try to find out and let you know.
I also want to find out how the country is feeling, six years out from the Great Recession. One thing I know: The stock market is up and unemployment is down, but Main Street isn’t being renamed Easy Street in many towns.
This year, along with Credit.com, I will be asking a simple question of people I see: What’s your money story? There will be plenty of ways to answer. Maybe you’ll talk about your biggest money mistake (Student loans? That pricey new car?), or that big raise you just got, or why you took a second job waitressing at Denny’s. I’d love to give voice to people like you, so we can all better understand what’s going on in America. There might be a free water bottle in it for you.
If you are along my route….Pittsburg, Chicago, Iowa City, Omaha, Denver, and then on up to Seattle…please let me know. Even if there’s not time for coffee, we can chat here. As always, I want to hear about your frustrations, your Red Tape, the ripoffs you face, and the dreams you have. Well be using the hashtag #AmericanMoneyStories to collect these stories.
As a reporter, I know hiding on the coasts gives me a skewed version of life. These trips fill my head and heart with stories for the whole year. Even if we don’t meet face to face, it’s worth it for me to pull through your neighborhood and get a feel for the place. I thank you in advance…and I plan to leave books in random places around the country as a token of my appreciation.
I’ve done three of these trips in recent years. There are always surprises, things never go according to plan, and some kind of magic always happens.
Trip 1 was Bob and Lucky’s Hidden fee Tour of America, planned to support my new book at the time, Stop Getting Ripped Off. With help from folks like Rich Cordray, then attorney general of Ohio, I did stories about people struggling after being duped by gotcha artists.
Here I am in 2010 talking on MSNBC to old pal Contessa Brewer about Gary Kopycinski, a high school teacher who made a mess of his life by falling for a debt settlement scam. Gary got his money back! And apparently, I got some gray hair.
In Chicago on that trip, I even got to be on live radio with Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon singing “Keep on Loving You.” Really.
But the trip succeeded beyond my wildest dreams because Lucky became an overnight sensation. He was even on live TV in a couple of NBC stations around the country.
Trip No. 2, one year later, Lucky and I were practically loading up the car to leave for a repeat, when he died very suddenly of heart failure. He had gotten old, obvious now from his pictures, but at the time I never noticed a gray hair on his face. He was still a puppy to me. I was devastated, and to this day still get chills thinking that awful, very long night at the vet’s office.
I had to press on with the trip for work, which was very hard. The story I wrote about dealing with the hole in my heart, “A Grief Observed on Social Media,” is probably my most popular essay ever. I was so overwhelmed with other people sharing their tales of grief that I created a page called the So Lucky Memorial to collect these stories. Three years later, hundreds of people still go there to share tales of their lost loved ones with me.
I did ripoff and ID theft stories, too. I met Jaimee Napp in a courtroom in Omaha, where she tried, unsuccessfully, to sue her ID theft imposter for damages. You can still watch her emotional reaction to the judge’s rude dismissal of her claim (“It’s not like someone took her soul.”)
I took a hiatus, but last summer with my new Rusty now road-ready, we piled into the car again for Trip 3. This time, I had a lot more thinking to do. I was mulling over leaving msnbc.com/NBC and setting out on my own. So I did what any person facing a big life choice does: I avoided it and took pretty pictures. In the end, I decided to leave in August, and I haven’t looked back yet. I still write for NBC and appear on NBC stations, but I’m also able to experiment more freely at BobSullivan.net. In fact, this trip will end with a celebration of the site’s First Anniversary. More on that as the date grows closer.
I hope to see you on the road!