I’m back in New York now and have to do something with my life, or at least, to find a job and stall. After a cocky start with the New York Times journalism and education job market, by the end of the first week I was fashioning ways to pad out my resume so I could more confidently answer the craigslist fetish ads. This all induced the sort of motivational narcolepsy that makes sighing myself to death seem the lesser of two evils, the other evil being something I can’t bother myself to come up with. So the next week I spent flopping from one supine attitude of self pity to another, unwashed and awash in drowsy consideration of the difficulties of my life. Finally I decided there had to be more to life than stoned iphone tetris and facebook snooping, and that I should perhaps take a shower and go into the city.
The level of purpose one needs just to walk down the street here is preternatural. The ambition, the exuberance, the if-I-can-make-it-there, I’ll-make-it-anywhere self-belief is only uplifting if you share it yourself, and you can only share it to the same degree if you haven’t already gone through the slogging, the day-to-day smackdowns, the landslides of rejections, and the regular revelations of your own minuteness that comprise New York’s hazing ritual for the newly arrived. The benchmarks of adulthood, like finding employment that justifies your education, accommodation better than your college dorm, financial independence from your parents, are at their most elusive here. It’s not that you lose your hope, it’s that you go from having huge, king-of-the-hill dreams, to weeping with self-pride over landing a job in something other than catering. Looming larger is the spectre of what you might become if you don’t save yourself from failure. You know you have to succeed at something—who cares what—or turn into one of those people barricaded in their studio apartments by piles of dried catshit and unsent letters to Mayor Koch, who pass their time in picking skintags and talking to cockroaches. You become an American English eccentric, except unlike actual English eccentrics, other Americans don’t regard you in your sphincter-cringing social inappropriateness as a quaint national personage. New Yorkers can achieve orgasm through schadenfreude alone, and there’s only one side of that word you want to be on.
It occurred to me that now that I’m in America, I could put my networking skills back to use. I’ll say this for New York—it doesn’t pretend not to function in significant part by nepotism. One of the less admirable aspects of London is that it, too, is ruled by nepotism, but pretends not to be. You’re not supposed to mention it, or admit it’s there, or suggest to anyone who has achieved anything that nepotism had anything at all to do with it, or, worst of all, attempt to make it work for you. English nepotism works in such a way that, hustle all you like, you’re not cooking with gas unless your name and alma mater are doing their part. Most helpful is sharing a surname with other people who have already achieved renown in your field, and barring that, go to Oxford for politics, or Cambridge for the arts. Of course it helps you get into either if someone else of your surname also went there, particularly if they went on to achieve renown in their field. So the English have developed a system that allows them not to have to sully themselves with gauche American-style “pushiness”–that so-undignified compulsion to make colleagues out of friends and friends out of colleagues. They’ve made a virtue of showing they don’t have to stoop to self-promotion–that’s all the famous English self-deprecation is about–and they’ll put their smugface on if you so much as ask them to pass along your resume. New Yorkers are more honest. They accept that connections are how it’s done and expect you—in fact, don’t respect you unless you sniff out opportunities everywhere you go and do your damnedest to exploit them, whether you came from the right family or went to the right schools or not.
I still have a few acquaintances and ex-colleagues here from the first go-around. First I contacted the ones who hadn’t already fired me. Most had changed careers in the three years I’d been gone. Sometimes I think taking a Notes From Underground approach to life is good for a laugh, and choose my next move based on what could make the most hilariously terrible story. So I called Richard, my old editor at New York Moves. People who pretend they’re above eating shit miss out on all the fun, I say. Alas, he never responded to the message I left on his voicemail. Other colleagues were from jobs regrettable except for their blogability, and I’ve already written that story; I’m too old to find amusement in sacrificing myself to someone else’s robber baron dreams. And so I’m left with the less entertaining, last resort, which is to start over clean—back to those grim job market pages.
Most positions listed have names I don’t even understand, names with words in them like development, support, coordinator, IP Telephony, unpaid. And most have descriptions that would make Bartleby consider retraining. The unbelievable thing is how the employers don’t even bother to mask the disparity between what they expect of applicants and what they’re offering. A benefitless part-time position writing ad copy for a manufacturer of beige thread in a Hoboken basement requires a post-graduate degree in journalism, a working knowledge of Quark, whatever that is, and preferably a previous internship at the White House. On their applications they ask you to describe your leadership skills and an event wherein you showed yourself to be a “team player.” The worst, though, was when I applied to work at the famous Strand bookstore. Along with all the usual fill-in fields on its application there’s a ten-question author-to-title match test. I could only answer six of them. I saw that there was an inaccurate match-up, where it listed Master and Margarita, but not Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky, but nothing by him. I considered scribbling ”Fuck your trick questions” in the margin and flouncing off but realized that wouldn’t make it any less humiliating not to be able to complete the quiz. To be fair, the only qualifications one should ever have to cite on The Strand’s job application form are whether one can look bored and be unhelpful, but I thought pointing this out to the human resources manager wouldn’t help my case. The only thing I had on my resume that might have put me ahead of the emo throngs who apply there every day is that I studied the “great books” program at college, and now I proved, to them and to myself, that not only do I not know the stuff I didn’t study, I don’t even know the stuff I studied instead of the stuff I didn’t study. And then it asked me whether I knew how to use a cash register. I staggered down the stairs and out onto Union square with crinkled chin, pretending that I’d got something stuck in both contacts.
I’m still looking. I’ll let you all know whether I find anything newsworthy.