Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Hamster Wheel

“Please make sure you arrive at least ten minutes early” said the voice on the phone. “We’ll send a confirmation e-mail that’ll list all the stuff you need to bring.”

I hung-up. When it comes to mounting productions that ooze ego and self-importance, only Broadway can compete with corporate America. There are screenings and pre-screenings and online tests and personality profiles, and you still aren’t anywhere near an interview.

As directed, I arrived ten minutes early for the 9:30 screening, bringing a sheaf of papers that contained the vital information requested by my would-be employer. Copies of my high school and college diplomas. My W2s. Lists of previous addresses, employers, schools, and references. My driver’s license and of course, my social security card.

I brazenly left last week’s grocery store receipt at home.

Upon entering the lobby of the hotel hosting the job fair, I saw a sign mounted on an easel. It read ‘Peapod’, with a big, green arrow underneath. Things were going swimmingly.

As directed by the big, green arrow, I turned right. I found myself in a corridor lined with hotel rooms. Ahead lay only an emergency exit and a vending machine room. It was difficult to imagine how either was connected to the job fair.

I turned back, and found myself being followed by half a dozen people, also attired in business casual.

“The arrow is wrong” I said. “There’s nothing down here.”

This was met by the tepid smiles of those reluctant to socialize. We trudged back to the lobby.

Only it wasn’t really a lobby—it was a hallway with pretensions. Architectural criticisms notwithstanding, I approached the teenager behind the desk. He politely looked up from his cell phone as I approached.

“Can I help you, Sir?”

“Yes” I said. “Where is the job fair being held? And while you’re at it, where are they hiding the Ferris wheel and cotton candy?”

A look of concern clouded his young face. He did not know. His eyes darted left, then right. His head extended just a bit beyond the confines of the desk as he scanned the hallway, er lobby.

“Just a minute.”

At least I wasn’t the only one to whom the location of the job fair was a mystery. I listened for the sound of calliope music. Nothing.

“Sir?” The clerk had reappeared.

“Um, Peapod isn’t ready yet. But when they are, it will be in there.”

He gestured to an area beyond the sign with the big, green arrow. Behind frosted glass windows, figures could be glimpsed.

“I see” I said. “Thank you.”

The clock read 9:35. I faced the others and shrugged. As the de facto head of the job fair search committee, it was my job to communicate.

“They can be late. They already have jobs.” one of my committee members noted bitterly. I didn’t argue.

I found an empty stretch of wall and attempted to lean against it inconspicuously. I took great care not to appear shiftless or lazy. First impressions, you know.

About 9:45 a joyless young woman emerged from behind the frosted glass and made an announcement. Her voice cleaved the silence like a hatchet.

“People—if you’re here for the job fair you need to cross your name off the list and come in the conference room and fill out an application.”

By now there were over a dozen of us waiting, and we moved en masse to a clipboard on a small table and scanned the list for our names. Free pens were available for those who did not have them.

I noticed a woman dressed in dark green pants with a light green top. I wanted to ask her if this was on purpose or just a happy accident. I refrained.

In the conference room, a large screen TV had been turned on, presumably for the entertainment of the woman who had barked at us in the lobby. I was relieved that my selfish search for financial sustenance wouldn’t interfere with her need for noisy, mindless entertainment.

“Hello and welcome to You Choose, the game show where you’re the boss! And how is everybody doing? Great! I’m your host Darrell Woodson, and today we’re going to be looking for two special contestants to compete for cash and fabulous prizes! Is everybody ready?”

I thought of asking her to turn it down, but realized my future lay in her hands. And if prolonged unemployment teaches you anything, it’s to be fearful. It would not be a good idea to provoke her.

If she wanted to watch a game show while I listed my previous employers and the extent of my education for the 1,422,309th time, so be it.

“Is there anyone here from Connecticut? I’ll give two-hundred dollars and a chance at today’s grand prize to anyone who can prove they’re from Connecticut! Who’s from Connecticut? Oh come on! There must be someone in our wonderful audience from the great state of Connecticut!”

I began to supply the names and locations of my elementary, junior high and high school, and of the two colleges I attended and the degrees received from each, and the names, addresses, phone numbers and descriptions of employment at the previous decade’s employers.

When I was done I reviewed my application. I wanted to ensure that my ‘t’s were crossed, my ‘i’s dotted and that my p’s and q’s were minded. I stood up and approached the table where Barking Woman sat.

“Hi!” I said, attempting to simultaneously convey warmth and enthusiasm.

“Have a seat” she said, without looking up.

She took the sheaf of papers and looked them over wordlessly. She pulled out the fresh copy of my resume I had been instructed to bring and inspected it.

“Why did you leave New Mexico?” she asked.

I told her it was a tough place to earn a living.

“What is Rio Grande?”

“A jewelry supplier”.

She fell silent. The game show seemed incapable of doing so.

“That’s right Gloria! You have your choice of a year’s supply of Captain Bob’s barbecued shrimp and an all-expense-paid trip for two to Las Vegas or whatever’s behind the curtain Monique is standing in front of! What do you choose?”

Satisfied she had extracted whatever was worth extracting, Barking Woman dismissed me.

“If the hiring manager feels your experience is a good match with the opening they’ll call and schedule an interview. Otherwise, you’ll get an e-mail. Okay?” She turned the papers over and placed them on the left edge of the table.

“I’d love the opportunity to meet with Peapod again” I said. “Thank you for your time.”

Barking Woman leaned to her right to make eye contact with the applicant behind me. “All set?”

I got up to leave.

On the big screen TV, Gloria chose the curtain. Behind it was a box of dog treats.


  1. How frustrating! To say the very least.

  2. Oh wow. I cringed as I read this (although it was extremely well-written and entertaining). I kept hoping the white knight would slam through the wall at the last minute and rescue you.

    I had a similar experience in an interview a long time ago. As I waited outside the room for an interview that was running late to end, I could hear the interviewer offering the subject a job because they'd attended the same college. When it was my turn the interviewer failed to make eye contact with me because he was so absorbed in watching a football game on the TV behind me. I briefly considered slamming an ashtray into the television but decided that was not the kind of attention I wanted to attract.

  3. @ Laurie Yes it was. It's been too long--how are you?

    @ Sharyn Thank you for telling me your story. It helps.

  4. Speaking of too long... Long time no read. That sounds terrible. But well-written as usual.

  5. Marcus! Good to hear from you!

    And speaking of hearing from you, when are we going to, you know, hear from you? : )