by Andrea Mandel

Todd Gershwin rubbed the stubble on his chin. No sense in shaving. His last real live job interview was eight weeks ago. Or maybe it was nine weeks, or ten. He wasn’t quite sure anymore, and had given up keeping good records at least six months ago.

After his halfhearted search on Monster and filling out another round of online applications for increasingly lower-level positions, he turned to Google for information on an even more pressing problem. He typed in “debt,” “owe,” and “mortgage” as a start. In a short while he noticed a little ad on the side of the page:

“Do you need money? Geocache contest in Princeton tomorrow! Register online. Free to enter!”

The marketing manager side of Todd’s brain thought the ad was incredibly tacky, complete with flashing dollar signs and an animated character with big teeth. The desperate side of his brain thought “What do I have to lose? Let me take advantage of my iPhone before they turn it off and try to hit me for the cancellation penalty.”

Todd clicked.

Peggy Star stopped at the kiosk on Nassau Street, notebook in hand, meticulously recording information about any job possibilities that were not too yellowed with age to read. Next month’s tuition was due for grad school at Rider, and things were getting very tight after her mom lost her job last month. As it was she was going to have to live at home. In a way she was thankful there was no public transport to the school, so she had an excuse not to give up her little Ford Fiesta. Although with the skyrocketing gasoline prices she couldn’t drive much anyway.

One clean, splashy pink paper caught her eye. “Geocache contest! Free entry online! Big money!” She sighed. Well, a girl can dream, can’t she? Why not?

Ryan Reynolds rummaged through the pipe connections at Home Depot. Lunch hour was almost up, and he would have to push through the traffic at Nassau Park Mall to get back to work on time. “Sixty hours of torture a week and I have to do my own plumbing,” he grumbled. He kept it quiet. Three people had been laid off last week and there were rumblings about the solvency of the company. He clicked his Droid phone camera on a QR code next to a part that looked like it would work with his bathroom sink, read the information, and put the package in his cart. “Hmm. What’s that?” he wondered. Someone had stuck up another QR code on a little sheet of pink paper nearby. He clicked again, and read the information. “Why not?” he thought. “I could sure use the money.”

Todd looked through the set of Geocache contest instructions. Locations were a combination of GPS coordinates, walking directions and hints. When you got to each station you would find the next set of instructions, given by QR code for your smartphone. Anyone caught tampering would be kicked out of the contest.

His first stop turned out to be the Starbucks on Nassau Street, where he used to casually drop $6 for a cup of coffee. When was the last time he had done that? From there he was directed to the Chamber of Commerce, where he ran into one of his old colleagues from the company. He was thankful he had finally shaved.

Peggy’s third stop was J. Crew. She stopped long enough to look at the skirt she had been practically stalking on the internet. They had it in her size and color. She thought of the tuition bill. “Someday,” she said. “But today is not that day.”

Ryan’s fourth stop was the ice cream shop on Palmer Square. He had worked there during college. It was fun, but he and the other scoopers always talked of the day they would be out of school at big jobs with money to burn. His fifth target was the cafe on the other side of the square, where they had lunch almost every payday. When was the last time he did that after he was married with a family?

The sixth stop was a medium-sized auditorium, where Ryan was ushered in and given a seat. Peggy sat in the front row, looking around and fidgeting. After about 30 people came in, the usher closed the doors.

A tall handsome man, with perfectly coiffed brown hair and a Regent Plaid Brooks Brothers suit, walked slowly across the stage to the podium. Todd couldn’t take it anymore. “So who won?” he shouted out. “You are all winners!” he said. You all showed how you could persevere and get what you want! Now let me tell you about how you can get financial freedom!”

Andrea Mandel has lived in West Windsor for over 22 years. An independent packaging consultant with a master’s from Rutgers, she lives with her husband, Richard, and daughter Lauren, and assorted pets.

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