FEBRUARY 2007 – NO. 12
How to mourn a job that you hated
Cleave: 1. to adhere firmly and loyally 2. to divide into distinct parts
The mandatory unemployment orientation did not get off to a promising start when the coordinator, Ms. Valentine, passed out informational packets with cover pages reading "Step Up to a Beater [sic] Future!" We had received letters telling us to dress as if we were going to a job interview ("Be prepared to start work that day!") but the room more closely resembled a slumber party of hungover adults, vulnerable without our television remotes and uncomfortable in shoes instead of slippers. The woman to my right wore pants covered in miniature Bart Simpsons. Her T-shirt claimed "I'm With Stupid" above an arrow that pointed to where I sat, stiffly, in a suit.
I'd been fired in November. I'd left the office carrying a box filled with contraband Sharpie felt pens and all the high-heeled shoes that I'd kicked off under my desk in the previous year. It was a Monday night and the rain started as soon as I stepped outside, trying not to cry. The depression hadn't hit me yet; I felt only rage at the indignity of having been discarded after months of waking up to go to work and arriving home exhausted, a juiced orange, just in time to collapse. It took 15 minutes to hail a taxi while I stood, shifting the box from one hip to the other, beneath a sign on Broadway and Houston that said "Only 53 Shopping Days Until Xmas!!!"
When I was 17, my father found my Physics book in the poultry drawer of the basement freezer and came upstairs to say incredulously, "Aren't you in this class now? This book must have been frozen for months!" I'd already made a choice to hold out as long as possible, forever if it came to that, for work that I loved. My resolve came back to me that Monday night, speeding towards Brooklyn, my non-profit career disappearing behind me. Never again would I subject myself to work in an office where people showed up in the morning and immediately began discussing where to order lunch.
For the next month, I barricaded myself in my bedroom and watched every Law and Order episode ever made. I rode the subway back and forth under the East River, reading New York Post articles like, "What You Don't Know About Your Mailman Could Kill You." I walked up Flatbush Avenue eating fistfuls of macadamia nuts and fish tacos and getting manicures at the cheapest Korean place I could find. I got silk tips and then came home to accidentally set them on fire while lighting a cigarette. Despondent, I stood still for a full minute and watched my fake fingernails burn.
At the New York State Department of Labor on Schermerhorn Street, Ms. Valentine kicked off the session with a question: What color pen should you use when filling out a job application? A guy in the front called out "Black?" to which Ms. Valentine responded, "Raise your hand." The guy raised his hand and said, "Black?" Ms. Valentine began to lose patience. "Raise your hand and wait until I call on you." She sighed audibly. "When you people fill out applications, you should use a black pen. If you do not have a black pen, you can use a blue pen." She suddenly raised her voice. "However, if all you have in your purse is a pink pen, you should ask to take the application home with you."
Wearily, she flipped on an overhead projector. A list of current job openings lit up the wall, a selection that appeared to have been sponsored by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Subway operators, night shift supervisor, train construction workers, the odd security job (requiring a "minimum of two years of high school"). Ms. Valentine's assistant, a man named Feng, asked us to flip though our packets until we reached the page filled with qualifications. We were asked to check the appropriate boxes and pass the pages along to Feng, who would then try to match up our abilities to available jobs.
Ms. Valentine gave us pointers on how best to sell ourselves. "Stick to what you know!" she said. "If I look at your resume and see that you've spent the past ten years working as a busboy and then I look at your objective and it says that you now want to be the head zookeeper… ." Her voice trailed off as she shook her head. "When you all leave this room, don't ever say that Ms. Valentine didn't do anything for you. Cause I'm telling you right now exactly what you have to do in order to get a job — keep trying."
As we shuffled out of the room, she called after us. "And be smart!"
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