So, it’s come to this: I’m preparing to interview for a temp job.
My contact at the agency sends me a humiliating email telling me what to do: Please wear a suit, it says, as if I’m new to this, as if I’m a high school senior going on her first interview, as if I’ve never seen the inside of an office before.
The definition of insanity, in a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I’ve been doing the same thing since June of 2009; I look at job postings, send a cover letter and resume to ones that look promising, go on interviews, sometimes get called back for a second interview, and sometimes make it to the final two candidates.
I live in Albany Park, and go downtown rarely these days. When I do it’s usually for some humiliating interview, so I make sure to build in other, more practical reasons to be there so it doesn’t feel like a total waste of train fare and effort when I ultimately get rejected. I’d noticed that one of the rhinestones in my eyeglasses had fallen out. They’re LaFont frames; an extravagant purchase, they are by far the most expensive thing that I wear, excluding my engagement ring. It took me a year to convince myself to buy them; I tried them on as a lark at a LaFont trunk show at a boutique called Eye Spy Optical on Lincoln. I already had a pair of glasses, several, in fact, I’m something of an eyewear maven. Most of the frames I’ve bought are vintage, and cost no more than $35. I had just gotten a prescription filled in a pair of reduced price Francis Klein frames when I saw the LaFont frames, so I held off. The next time I was due for an eye exam and new prescription, covered by insurance, I took the plunge. They sit perfectly on the bridge of my nose, making my face appear neither too large nor too small, they are feather light, and I’ve owned them for about four years.
My last trip downtown was for a farewell lunch for a former coworker who’s relocating to San Francisco, and I sat silent as my former colleagues caught up on their work lives. Dan talked about his upcoming job change, and spoke in disparaging terms about his current supervisor, who didn’t make a counteroffer when he told her that he’d been offered a job elsewhere, securing his opinion of her and of his current workplace. It was like listening to people speaking another language; I had nothing to add to the conversation. My built-in practical reason for being downtown that day was to visit the optician who’d filled the prescription for me. He couldn’t help with my missing rhinestone, but gave me the business card of someone who works in the Jewelers Building at 5 South Wabash, and recommended that I try there.
I sleep poorly the night before my interview for the temp job; I wake up tired, bleary, and depressed. I go through the morning ablutions of any regular working woman, and make my way to the brown line at 7:30am. As the train makes its way toward the loop, it gets crowded. It’s been so long since I’ve had a regular commute that it’s strange to see all the working stiffs on the train engaged in behavior that has become alien to me: people from around the city have gotten up early, showered, fixed their hair, put on a suit – maybe a tie, and gotten on the train where they sit or stand in a mute, deadened state, interacting only with their iPhones, iPads, and the odd newspaper. They get off downtown, walk into air-conditioned buildings and spend the day pretending that they don’t know any curse words. I get off at Adams and Wabash and join the streams of people walking down the stairs, moving urgently towards their destination. It looks like a carefully choreographed piece of performance art.
I find the address, and make my way to the security desk, where I get a temporary ID and pass through a turnstile corral that separates the public from a bank of elevators, and make my way to the 14th floor. Halfway through the second interview (there will be three in total) I’ve heard enough to I know I won’t get this job. As it turns out, I’ve been interviewing for a personal assistant position, but the description was for a development assistant position, and in retrospect it’s clear that I’ve answered some key questions incorrectly. I make my descent to the first floor and call the agency, as per my emailed instructions. “Do you think you’d accept if they offered you the job?” they ask. “Yes, I would,” I say.
I go to Einstein’s Bagels to get coffee and something to eat, and as I walk in the door the theme to “Sanford and Son” plays on the audio system, like some kind of cosmic commentary on my life. I order a bagel and a small coffee, and the woman at the register recommends that I get the bagel and medium coffee combo because it’s cheaper. She’s wearing an apron and a baseball hat with the Einstein’s logo on it; I’m wearing a suit – the uniform of the perpetual job seeker. I wonder what it is about our interaction that moves her to make this suggestion; is it something in the way I walk, or the way I stare at the menu on the wall behind her that gives away my employment status? The bagel and medium coffee combo saves me about a dollar and a half, and it makes me feel protected somehow that this woman I’ve never met is looking after my financial well-being.
I sit at a table and pull out my Hallmark thank you notes from my purse, the cheapest kind available, $4 for a pack of 10, and my book of stamps. I’ve been on roughly 40 in-person interviews and 15 phone interviews since I was laid off in 2009: I’ve interviewed for six different positions at Rotary International; four at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and two at the University of Chicago; just to name a few, and I like to think that my contribution to the greeting card industry and the US Postal Service has supported the economic viability of both entities. I used to pore over every word in a thank you note and keep a copy of the text for future reference; now it comes out like so many prepackaged Hallmark messages: “Dear [name], thank you for taking the time to meet with me today regarding the open
[job title] position. I enjoyed our conversation, and hope to have the chance to discuss this opportunity further. Sincerely…”
Thank you notes written, coffee and bagel consumed, I left Einstein’s and made my way to South Wabash. I rode the ancient, creaking elevator in the Jewelers Building to the eleventh floor and walked into the wrong studio – an expensive looking, brightly lit establishment that specialized in watches. They weren’t sure they could help me, and I’d have to leave the eyeglasses with them if I wanted their expertise. I thanked them and left with my eyeglasses in hand. As I approached the elevator again I saw the place listed on the business card my optician had given me – Danny & Debbie Jewelers, tucked behind the elevator bank in a moldering two room studio with a view of an alley. In the back room, a man in his late 50s or early 60s who must have been Danny worked on a piece of jewelry, in the front room dusty display cases that were mostly empty housed a few pairs of silver earrings, and a plate with the Aztec sun calendar hung on one wall. I explained to a dark-haired woman who must have been Debbie what I needed, and she approached a shelf stacked with boxes of rhinestones. She pulled one down and Danny joined her in poring over them. They spoke to each other in Spanish, and I tried to understand them. Debbie referred to Danny as “Papa,” and I heard him use the word “chiquita,” which I’ve only heard in reference to bananas. “Esta, papa,” she said, holding a tiny purple rhinestone in a pair of tweezers. Danny affixed the rhinestone into my eyeglass frames, told me not to wear them for a few hours, and retreated into the back room. I packed the eyeglasses into my bag, and pulled my wallet out, but Debbie made no move to write up an invoice or ask for payment. “What do I owe you?” I asked. “Oh, like, a dollar,” she said, almost an afterthought.
On the train ride home I reflected on the events of the morning: for less than half of what it cost for me to ride the train downtown for my useless interview, two people worked earnestly to replace a tiny rhinestone that only I knew was missing. A few days later I would get a phone call from the temp agency, which I would let go to voicemail. I played it back, and missed the first few seconds because I was fumbling for the speakerphone button. “…great news” the voice on the message said, but the intonation was flat. I rewound to the beginning and heard the phrase in its entirety: “Unfortunately I’m not calling with great news…”
I’ve been trying to find a job to replace one that I lost for over three years, but it only took a minute for Danny and Debbie to find a replacement rhinestone for me. The color isn’t an exact match, but only I know which one it is. I like the fact that it doesn’t match perfectly; it reminds me of the small dignities that still exist in the world, of the possibility of finding what has been lost, of the inevitability of time moving forward regardless of what I have or don’t have in the moment.