Interview Techniques (As of Yet Unsuccessful)

After months of blasting emails into the ether, I landed an interview with a creative staffing firm. It was unlikely to result in anything long-term or particularly lucrative, and in fact it was almost definitely a waste of time and other precious resources, but who needed to know all that? I spent the intervening days casually steering conversations towards any opportunity to mention my “interview downtown.” I found matching socks and a shirt I used to think was lucky. I flossed and divided my eyebrows.

The last time I’d gone to an interview for a “creative” position, I’d worn a jacket and tie. My prospective boss was wearing a hockey jersey. I didn’t want to make the same mistake. This time my cheeks were rough with a strategic (and slimming) three-day stubble.

The interview landed on the first really hot day of the year. It was mid-afternoon, but there were still lunch hour stragglers all over the place, fanning their faces with wads of napkins in the triangles of sticky shade between skyscrapers. I found the address with twenty minutes to burn. A dangerous amount of time: just enough to get into trouble with none leftover to wiggle out. I looked for a place to lie low and cool off. Across the street there was a local coffee chain and a McDonald’s.

The coffee shop’s decor was pleasingly homey and the sofas were unoccupied, but the drink names were cutesy and the barista was terrifyingly beautiful, pierced and pink-haired. I needed to sail into this interview projecting an innate and unshakeable confidence. I needed to hoard my daily quota of dignity. I feigned a phone call and went across the street to McDonald’s.

I gasped upon entry, assaulted by the room’s greasy heat. The AC was clearly busted. Nevertheless I joined the many others in line. My plan was to order a small soda and crush icy fountain Diet Cokes for thirteen minutes, leaving me chilled and chatty. We inched forward. You could taste the salt in the air. The temperature rose even higher as I approached the counter and the grills and fryers behind it.

My thoughts drifted to past interviews. The time I made a joke about hair plugs to a man with hair plugs. My brief chat with the grisly manager of a motorcycle bar. The putty grin of a Cutco representative. A forklift tutorial from a one-armed man in a pool supply warehouse. An awkward and unproductive coffee with a frenemy’s father. The time some shithead asked if I was drunk. The time a nice old lady asked if I was high. (Did I mention my mild speech impediment?)

And some of these experiences were not inexpensive: parking, train tickets, tolls, dry cleaning. We hear much about intern culture and the insultingly low wages typical of “glamour” industries, industries that require employees to live in expensive hubs and operate with the knowledge and resources of a much better compensated individual. We hear about the staggering sums young people pay to enter these fields, often subsidized by private income or indulgent parents. But we hear much less frequently about those attempting to crawl out of poverty, scraping together gas money to get to a job site or scouring Goodwill for a pair of required black pants. It takes money to make money, as they say, even if it’s only a lousy five bucks.

The cashier’s face was melting.

“One ten piece nuggets,” I said.

Sometime around last Christmas I went pheasant hunting with family friends. Our guide was a ruggedly handsome, volatile guy named Charlie. We performed a quick safety check before setting out across the field and into the woods. “Shoot my dog,” he said, “and I’ll shoot you. Tell everyone it was suicide.”

Still, he was mostly pleasant. He said “wind washed” a lot. The dogs wouldn’t be able to smell the birds once they were wind washed. It sounded beautiful to me. I wanted to be wind washed, failures and false starts swept away with a few cold gusts.

Later we ate venison chili in the lodge. Talk turned to politics and the nation’s high rate of unemployment. Charlie was unmoved. “I’ll vote for anyone who’ll quit it with the handouts,” he said. “I made a bet with my sister: I’ll get a job in one day. It could be any job. I don’t care. I’ll greet and bag with the waterheads over at Wal-Mart.”

I cringed and stuffed another corn muffin in my mouth. Each member of my hunting party had a relative with developmental disabilities.

“I bet her one thousand dollars I’d have a job by the end of the day,” he continued. “She wouldn’t take it.”

On the car ride home we discussed Charlie’s wager. I said that he hadn’t taken into account his many advantages, social and otherwise. He was a tall, imposingly handsome white male. He was basically Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

“But still,” said my friend, “he has a point.”

“He has a job,” I said.

I felt surprisingly fresh and spry as I entered the empty, non-descript lobby. The restaurant’s salty air lent my skin and hair an almost nautical effect. My tongue was numb from the sweet and sour. I practiced composed expressions in the elevator’s reflective panels, hoping to emulate Charlie’s brusque charm.

The staffing firm’s intimate office contained three fashionable ladies clicking away at huge computers on otherwise empty desks. The closed windows were white with sunlight. My interview took place in two chairs nudged into a humid corner.

Holly and I reviewed my resume together. Early in the proceedings I felt an ominous trickle down the back of my neck. By the time we reached the “Additional Interests” portion of my CV (George Dickel, outdoor showers), my shirt was sticking to large swaths of my chassis and my bangs were dripping. Holly maintained professionally appropriate eye contact but there was no mistaking her relief when it came time to Xerox my passport on the other side of the room. While she was gone I dabbed my forehead with damp sleeves. The receptionist peered over her Mac, transfixed by my distress.

To Holly’s everlasting credit, she still shook my hand to mark the end of the debacle. I doubt those ladies talked about much else besides the profusely sweating applicant for the remainder of their workday. They wore the severely constricted smiles of the near combustible.

I slunk out with humiliation ringing in my ears and joined the sidewalk’s shuffling throng. The Arches loomed. Charlie would march right in and demand to see the manager. He would go home to his sister that night and slide his new nametag triumphantly across the kitchen table. Instead I cast myself back to the cool of my subterranean residence, where I sipped boxed wine while pasting cover letters into a fresh batch of emails primed for the ether.


Michael McGrath tweets as @marcomcgrath.



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