It doesn’t take long looking for a job to begin to question your reason for breathing. Especially in a country that seems by and large to define who you are by what you do. I’m not saying everyone does this, or does this consciously, but you feel it when you’re on the receiving end. Think about some of the first questions you ask someone upon meeting them. I guarantee in that list, particularly as you get older, is “What do you do?” This question is almost a proxy for asking someone, “Who are you?” I know; it’s small talk. It’s something to fill the space as you find other things to talk about. Or a line you use to seem interested until something with more substance comes up. With enough experience in other countries I know this is not uniquely American, but it is certainly a part of who we are. The work ethic permeates our culture and out of this stems a sense of identity and place. I’m not throwing stones. I do it too. It’s second nature, almost. But this correlation is also, often, false. Of course, as with many things, knowing that it’s false doesn’t curb the feeling you have when someone asks what you do and you don’t have an answer.
But pride is tricky business. It ebbs and flows and trying to hang onto it when you’re not permanently employed doing anything particular is a real trick. As this has happened so many times I’ve lost count, I’ve found myself tired of what used to be my standard lines. “I was teacher at international schools overseas” (trying to establish some credibility and a previous sense of purpose). “I moved to New York to pursue work in publishing” (trying to establish a sense of direction). “So now I’m starting over from scratch” (trying to excuse what comes next, which is the fact that I’m not in fact doing anything at this particular point). This was fine for a while, but when I started stretching into months of unemployment, of informational meetings and days filled with emails and questions, I found I could no longer linger with this answer. I hadn’t worked for months and what I used to do is about as interesting as talking about what happened to Jessie Spano after she had all that caffeine. Actually, it’s far less interesting because at least she got “so excited.” So I had to come up with a new shtick because the question wasn’t going anywhere.
So I started doing “the resume,” where you fluff your current work to make it sound far more important than it ever actually was. For example, when I worked Fashion Week (the result of a generous offer by a friend who knew I needed money and was willing to work crazy odd hours) I was the “Inventory Flow Manager for Sponsor Relations.” Oh yeah. Throw that title out there with an all access pass to the venue’s vacant-eyed models and hopped up fashionistas and it sounds like I’ve made it in the big city. The reality? I was out back in a storage container that was too small for all the crap inside, sweating like a POW in a tin hotbox during a sweltering NYC heat spell, arranging, rearranging, losing, finding, distributing, picking up, and generally learning more about cosmetics than I ever really cared to know. Not so sexy. Another example? “Culinary Promotions for Arancini Bros.” The reality? Serving fried risotto balls and getting drunk on craft beer. Okay, that one sounds pretty good however you slice the balls, but it’s not exactly impressing anyone other than people who like food and free beer (so it worked pretty well on all my friends). The point being, you start trying to find ways to boost your sinking pride because no one is paying you to do anything permanent. And you think you see the judgment in the eyes of the people who ask you what you do.
(A quick side note: If you’re in Bushwick, go to Arancini Bros. They are ridiculously addictive, like crack that satisfies. You can even stop into a fantastically rough dive bar called the Wreck Room and get a Miller High Life tall boy and a shot to wash down your balls. Dave, the owner of Arancini Bros, is a mad genius. See Dave? Still working. But I digress…)
This madness over job identity, regardless of what it is, becomes so insidious you start considering taking any permanent job just to be able to say you’ve got one. It’s like high school and a car. Sure, everyone wants a sick ride, but in reality even if you drive a beat up Bonneville station wagon or a permanently overheating clunker, you’ve still got a car and people still want a ride, which is better than bumming rides off people. Just ask Ferris Bueller. At least there’s a sense of purpose. It got to the point that I found myself walking by Help Wanted signs and wondering if I could get hired. Peanut Butter Company? I wonder if I’d get a discount? The coffee shop? I can foam milk. The liquor store? Could be an interesting foray back into my employment history. (Then I recall how that job came to an end and quickly move on.) Desperation and a dwindling bank account does damaging things to your pride.
It came to a head when I found myself applying for a volunteer job. Yep. Wrap your head around that little tidbit. Applying for a volunteer job. I probably took it further than necessary, but when you’re firing off resumes and cover letters like Rambo stalking the Soviets it becomes second nature. So there I was, sending a resume and a crafted cover letter expressing my interest in the philanthropic nature of Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, my belief in what they do, my prior education and work history (including my restaurant experience, should they feel they need a sandwich maker or rice crispy cook), and my hope that they can use me. Yes, I actually believe in what the bookstore does, and it’s filled with amazing volunteers that make it an impressive place to hang out, but that’s not the point. I was so desperate to be doing something, to say I had a permanence that took up some of my copious free time, I applied to Housing Works like I applied to Penguin Publishing. It was a real moment of humility. And a moment where I realized I just might be losing it a little. And by a little I mean a lot.
But it was an important moment too. Because from this I had to step back from the brink of Peanut Butter Product Professionalism or Caffeine Infusion Specialization or Liquor Lair Lordship, and just laugh.
Two things became clear, again (because these moments of clarity come and go and I’m sure I’ll have to learn this lesson again and again and again). One, it doesn’t matter what I do as long as I like it. And I liked fermenting in the Fashion Week tin container. I liked selling hot balls in the Meatpacking, risotto that is. I enjoyed each experience, and I was going to enjoy the others to come. Two, I don’t judge people by what they do (though I do ask the question), so I better stop thinking people were judging me for it. It’s my insecurity I see in their looks, not their judgment.
There’s a lot to learn in going back to the basics.
And I did get the volunteer job. It must have been the cover letter.