Becoming an Associate
It's Sunday morning and I am scanning the classifieds. There are two types of jobs in here–jobs I’m not qualified for and jobs I don't want. I'm considering both.
There are pages and pages of the first type–jobs I will never get. Must know this, must know that. Must be experienced in this and that, for at least six years, and be fluent in Chinese, and be able to fly a jet through antiaircraft fire, and have SIX YEAS experience in open-heart surgery. Starting salary $32,000. Fax your resume to Beverly.
Who is Beverly, I wonder, and what does she know that I don't? She knows she's getting a paycheck, for starters. She can't do any of the things required for the job, I’m sure, or she would be doing them, instead of fielding phone calls. If I knew Beverly on a personal level, could I get a job doing something at her company? Is that why they don't put Beverly's last name in there, to discourage would-be stalker like me from schmoozing up to her in a bar? From finding out details of her personal life and bumping into her on the subway, after waiting or four hours, then asking her out for a drink; then, after a night of passionate sex, offhandedly wonder if they were hiring for anything down at her firm? I continue on down the column, earning more and more about skills I don't have, about training I will never get, about jobs needed in fields I never even knew existed.
Sometimes the Jobs-I-Can't-Do sections contain a hidden morsel, thought. The words "WILL TRAIN" always trigger a Pavlovian slobbering in any qualified bullshit artist. If they're going to train you, what difference does it make what you used to do? "COMPUTER PROGRAMMER, WILL TRAIN." I know what a computer is. It's one of those TV things with a typewriter attached by a cord. If they want to train me to program it, fine. Then I keep reading. This is an ad for a computer school, where they teach you all about computers for $2,500, then get you a job data processing, also known as typing, for nine dollars an hour. I keep looking.
Today, all the WILL TRAINS are for jobs I don’t want. "MOVERS NEEDED, $8/hr. to start. WILL TRAIN. Guaranteed overtime." This ad is of the second type. Moving furniture isn't so bad. It's hard work but it has its perks, one of which is you never need to work out when you're doing it because your muscles are torn to shit at the end of everyday. Eight dollars an hour is low for New York. After taxes that'll leave about six. Still, I can deal with that. The problem is the guaranteed overtime. They are obviously understaffed and are trying to make it look like keeping me at work for fourteen hours a day will be doing me a favor. They'll think because I answered this ad that I’m going to be enthusiastic about showing up on Sundays and holidays. "You wanted overtime," they'll crow, "Isn't that why you answered the ad?" I move on down the page.
"FISH CUTTERS NEEDED, $12/hr. to start." This is a combination of both types of jobs–a job I don't want and a job I can't do-all wrapped up in one neat little package. I worked for two years as a fish processor in Alaska, so I know a thing or two about fish, but I can't cut them and I don't want to. But I can talk fish with anybody. I can bullshit my way through an interview no problem, and by the time they realize I can't cut, I'm already on the payroll. Then they'll either have to teach me or fire me, and firing me will involved admitting a mistake, so teaching me it will be. Twelve dollars an hour? I'm set. Rent will be paid.
There's a definite trick to applying for jobs for which you are not qualified. Knowing something is key, even if it is just one little fact that you can throw out. You can usually get these facts by listening to boring people. I once spent five hours on a train down to Florida listening to the guy in the next seat ramble on about the woes of house painting, and two days later I was painting houses in Miami after wowing the interviewer with a verbatim rendition of the speech I had just heard. So, with fish, I'm set. Just a few mentions of salmon fishing in Alaska, and I’m in.
Another fact about interviewers is that most interviewers just want to hear themselves talk. In the average job interview, I'm usually lucky if I can get a word in edgewise. Interviewers have a captive audience who want something from them, so they can babble away uninterrupted about their restaurant, their business, their life, their opinion of the president, or any subject on their mind. Who's going to disagree with them? It's the perfect dictator's forum. "No, sir, actually I think the President's doing a fine job," and my application is ripped to shreds the minute I'm gone. I've sat quietly while interviewers tell me facts about their wives, their careers, their golf handicaps, even their first sexual experiences. And they rarely ask anything about me.
I go down to the fish stores and we talk fish. This is a high-end fish store, catering to the eclectic needs of housewives from the best areas of New York, I am told. The manager, John, needs someone with a "good attitude," who is "presentable." An ass-kisser with a good haircut. It's the same thing everyone wants, every business from IBM to the local transmission shop. I happen to have a good haircut, and I am relentlessly polite, at least for the first five minutes I meet someone. He tells me to come back tomorrow for orientation, wearing khaki pants and a blue shirt. No questions about fish cutting ability are ever asked.
I have a job. Here we go again.
Excerpted from A Working Stiff's Manifesto by Iain Levison. Copyright © 2003 by Iain Levison. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.