I’ve always noticed that when people use the phrase “the real world” they always say it with those imaginary quotation marks hanging in their voice. I’ve also noticed that people always equate the real world with a job of some sort. After all, that’s what you do after you graduate, right? A job is the very reason why we even go to school. Sure, our post-education plans might include other things: marriage, kids, summer vacations in the south of France, but always a job. Now that I live on my own and support myself, I’ve come to learn the punch line of the real world joke.

***

I’m sitting at my desk, hunched over the classifieds, smoking a cigarette and listening to jazz. I’m sitting at my desk, hunched over the classifieds, because I need a different job. I’ve been working at Macy’s selling men’s clothes for about a year now and I’ve measured enough inseams to last a life term in prison. I’m sitting at my desk, hunched over the classifieds, and if I had not done this countless times before, I would not be truly reading them. Over the years, I had become a professional job hunter – moving from odd job to odd job – well versed in the tricks and traps of the prospective employer. Without the proper experience, it is all too easy for the unwary seeker to fall through the palm fronds into the spiked pit beneath by responding to seemingly innocuous ads. For instance:

Recep. (Receptionist: if you’re a guy, don’t apply), Exp. (Experienced: we only want people who have been doing this for ten years and have no ambition to promote), Presentable (no fat women, also, depending on how presentable you are, we may waive the experience criterion), Multi-tasking (able to do your job and your boss’ job while getting him coffee and doing his laundry), Friendly (will take shit from people, but mostly from your boss), Self-motivated (forget about training), PC literate (not that you’ll be using a PC much as a receptionist, but this requirement will replace an education requirement nicely), Detail oriented (will be sure to punch in and out on the hour so that we don’t pay you more than we have to), Flexible (weekends), EOE (Equal Opportunity Employer: we put this here because our lawyer said we had to, not because we really do it). It honestly takes talent to write these things. Not only is the truth paraphrased into euphemism heaven, but it’s also done so in less than fifteen words.

Alas, nothing for me again so off to the salt mines I go.

While working the job, all I can think about is how shitty it is. By my estimation, while I bag some grouchy woman’s clothes, which are a poor attempt at a sense of style for her son, I’ve concluded that retail ranks near the bottom in the great hierarchy of customer-service jobs, second only to phone customer-service, which I’ve also worked, I might add. What makes these jobs so onerous is the sheer powerlessness in the face of customers. When I worked for directory assistance – a job I got myself fired from by coming to work in full drag regalia because I hated the bullshit dress code imposed upon me after being promoted to a trainer – there wasn’t much I could do if someone wanted to call and yell at me for no reason, considering the penalty for hanging up on a “customer” was to lose my job. Retail only offered marginally more opportunities for retaliation. If ever I had to deal with a rude customer who was paying with a credit card or, even better, applying for store credit, I would commit to memory useful information like credit card numbers and expiration dates or, in the case of store credit, social security numbers. Sure, I never went through with my identity theft schemes, but it was comforting to know that I could have.

This is the kind of secret comfort that waiters – another job I’ve worked – enjoy and that restaurant goers fear. In the back of every diner’s mind is the fear of food sabotage and they know that the only thing that is keeping their food safe during the journey from the kitchen to their table is the mood of their waiter. Sure, customers may delude themselves into thinking they have the power because they control the tip, but what is threatening a waiter’s tip when compared to the possibility of a certain amount of spit or mucous or urine or semen being passed into their clam chowder? Fantasies like this make jobs tolerable.

At long last, when I thought my mettle would give way to homicide, a Macy’s coworker who also worked at the Riverside Credit Union told me they were hiring tellers. Goodbye haggling customers who get angry at me over the price of our clothes, thinking I have some say over it. So long male customers twice my age who ask me to put outfits together for them, thinking that I have my finger on the pulse of fashion. Farewell idiotic customers who think that “50% off plus an additional 50%” equals 100% off and therefore think I should sell the designer brand leather coat “found” on that sales rack of ties for free.

Enjoy Christmas without me. I’m sure you’ll get by.

This was my opportunity to escape. My friend tells me to mention her during the interview process as having referred me. Referred applicants get extra consideration. So I call their job-line and go through the rigmarole of talking to the recorded voice as it asks me questions about availability and qualifications. I leave my name and number and wait for a call back. Some lady from human resources calls me a few days later and we follow up with more of the same. Apparently, I was applying for a “member service position,” not a teller position. Technically, they’re the same, but some corporate suit in charge of keeping turnover low renamed the teller position to make the peons feel better about their crappy job. Regardless of the job title, this lady wanted to scrutinize my qualifications by having me rate them on a scale from one to ten. Now, I had been a year out of the hiring game, so I was a bit rusty. My best bet was to play it safe. If she asked me about something I really couldn’t fake then I rated myself low, but I never said I had no experience in one particular field. That’s the kiss of death, let me tell you. Three was the lowest I gave myself on anything, even if I had only heard of it in passing conversation.

“How do you rate yourself in open heart surgery?”

“Three, baby!”

Seriously, it wasn’t that absurd, but she did ask me about things that I felt were very unrelated to the position, like the use of Word or PowerPoint or other software. I doubted very much that I’d be drafting memos or making spreadsheet presentations as a teller. In the end it seemed that all went well and I was confident in my interview. She said someone would be in touch, but in the business world, that phrase is used by employers more as a way of ending conversation – like the way people sign letters with “love” – and doesn’t quite have any real meaning. So, I expected little.

I was pleasantly surprised to be called back for a personal interview. A few days later I showed up to the credit union dressed to the nines. My hair could have used some cutting, but there was no time. I felt it didn’t matter, really. My personal interview skills are unmatched.

After filling out an application I was escorted into an office where I could speak to the human resources manager, Dana. She was a small Caucasian woman, early thirties, brown hair, professional. Dana had the careworn marks around her eyes and mouth that told me she was accustomed to smiling. Moreover, she was very friendly and a good listener. She made very good eye contact and made the appropriate listening sounds. I felt at ease talking with her. A few minutes into the conversation I mentioned to Dana that my friend had referred me. Dana said to me that what’s interesting is that referrals get priority over non-referred applicants, but in my case it was unnecessary because I was top pick regardless. I wanted to grin and pump my fist, but I kept my cool and nodded as if I expected no less and yet balanced it out with a humble, “Well that’s good to hear,” followed with a boyish smile.

Dana then took a moment to review my résumé. After which she says to me – get this – “Your résumé is perfect for us! Your year of customer-service fits perfectly with our branch needs and your year of call center experience is perfect for our call center. I wish I could duplicate you and hire you for both positions.” You can imagine the expectation that built up inside me. Dana continued, “And your year as a trainer is great for either position, because both require a lot of explaining to the customers.” I told Dana that I would be willing to help Riverside Credit Union in any capacity, but I would prefer the call center because it catered better to my school schedule. She jotted down some notes and we talked about my future and other irrelevant personal details. The conversation wandered casually here and there and I once again felt very at ease. Then Dana did something that I thought was very uncharacteristic of someone in charge of hiring. She started talking about a future trainer position that I would be well suited for and would be available to me after I graduated. I hadn’t even landed the entry-level position and she’s talking about management. Outlook was good so far. Keep talking.

After schmoozing a bit longer, Dana said to me, “You know, let me go get the other managers together. You have an impressive résumé and your entire presentation is great. I want to get you moving right along.” Then she stepped out of her office. Now my back was to the door, but I was on my game that day, let me tell you. I kept my eye on the window facing the door so that I would know when Dana came back in by her reflection in the window. The moment she opened the door I stood up. I thought this would earn me brownie points, but I had no idea it would have the effect it did. Dana was stunned and her mouth fell agape.

“No one has ever done that for me!” she gasped in orgasmic delight, “I want to hire you right now!” Then she caught herself and composed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be saying that. I’ll have to do some background checks and a credit check since you’ll be handling large amounts of money.” She asked me if I thought there were going to be any complications. My cross dressing stint flashed across my mind for a moment, but I planned to circumvent that problem by having my friend pose as my ex-manager from that business. Tricky devil, no? As far as my credit went, my report was pretty solid. So, with renewed confidence, I was escorted to talk to Bill, an older gentleman with curly salt and pepper hair neatly coiffed on his head, finely manicured on his lip, and unkempt on his chest as it came bursting through the unbuttoned V of his company polo shirt. Joining us would be some lady who I’ll call Alice, because I honestly can’t remember her name. Alice was held up so I engaged in small talk with Bill to pass the time.

In a situation like this, the best thing to do is to pull a Keyser Soze: draw upon all the shit in the interviewer’s office as stuff to talk about. You’d be surprised at how much personal shit with which a person will decorate his or her office. We talked about Bill’s family and rock climbing and other meaningless crap until Alice got there. Ah, but Bill was good. This man has a perpetual poker face. He showed polite interest in carrying a conversation, but he didn’t fall all over himself to talk to me. Very hard to read, this one. So when Alice got there, I found her a little more agreeable. Alice was a petite woman with very short hair; the bulk of it piled on the top of her head. She had a round face that went well with the chubbiness of her body, but which contrasted with the slender neck that separated the two. I made polite conversation with her. She was impressed that I had worked with the Public Defender’s Office straight out of high school as she had done the same. Already we had something to share. A mistake on her part. Never fall in love with a mark.

The questions these two asked were very similar to Dana’s. They did ask a few questions that I had to finagle, such as, “How many days of work did you miss in the last year?” This one is always tough because you can never tell what a person thinks is too high. I took a stab in the dark and said five. This was the only time I saw Bill crack. He looked at Alice and let out a controlled laugh while he spoke.

“You’re quite a dedicated employee then. If you get a job here we’ll actually force you to take a week off. It’s just company policy.” I suddenly felt that I was losing credibility so I had to make my story believable. I told them that my number was so low because I wasn’t scheduled very often. They bought it, nodding their heads in understanding. When it comes to a job interview, one must be flexible like the bamboo. They went on with cursory crap and stressed customer-service and what not, but then they got tricky with me and asked about what I thought was more needless personal shit.

“What are your long term goals and what are your short term goals?” I was stumped. There was an immediate traffic jam of thoughts in my head. What the hell was he getting at? Long term, I wanted to finish college, write a movie, and build a house. Short term was to go home and take a shit. What did this have to do with anything? So I just stared at him like an idiot and asked him to rephrase the question.

“What are you looking for in the next few months in regards to the credit union?”

Ah, a little clearer. This I could bullshit through. I told him how I wanted to learn the ins and outs of being in member service and other crap that managers like to hear. Then he cut me off.

“What I’m trying to get at without coming out and saying it is: if we offer the position to you, how long will you be with us?”

Finally, the truth. You see, this is exactly what I’m talking about! There is so much bullshit in the workplace it makes me want to vomit. I explained to Bill that should I get the position I would not actively look for another job. This seemed to allay any fears Alice or Bill had. They relaxed in their seats and gave each other approving looks.

“Well,” Bill said, “you definitely know how to carry yourself in a professional environment. We’ll be in touch.” I was then escorted back to Dana. She told me that I would hear from her in a few days. She called me back and I was to interview with the call center folks. That interview went just as well. They asked the same crap questions and I replied with the same well-rehearsed answers. I was told that I would receive a decision by the end of the week.

You know how they say, “good things come in small packages?” That isn’t true when it comes to mail. As if in reply to my standard answers during the interviews I received the standard impersonal rejection letter – thin, weightless; black letters printed severely on a stark white background. Even the rejection letters bullshit you. “While your skills were impressive, others scored higher than you in their interview.” What?! How is that possible? I can only imagine Dana’s reaction to that person if his or her interview was better than mine. I even called her in the vain hope that this was some kind of clerical mistake. Nope, they just found someone they liked better.

“Good luck, René.”

God, I hate it when interviewers say that. How about, “Sorry I got your hopes up?” That would have been more fitting. Here’s my favorite part: a couple of weeks later, they took out an ad in the paper, hiring for the exact same position. They supposedly keep résumés on file for two years, but did they call me? Of course not. “Top of the list?” “Wish I could duplicate you and hire both of you?” No, these words mean nothing. So just to see what would happen, I faxed in my résumé again. This time I didn’t even get a pre-screening call back. I just got a rejection letter. In the span of two weeks I was no longer impressive.

***

I’m sitting at my desk, hunched over the classifieds, smoking a cigarette and listening to jazz, realizing once again how limited my choices are and just why I keep getting stuck with jobs I hate. Staring at all these shades of black and grey trapped in little rectangles, I have to wonder why a college degree is so important for a lot of these positions. Don’t get me wrong; I see the logic in looking for someone who’s put in their time to learn how to be a lawyer or a CPA or whatever, but what about these crappy middle management positions? From experience, middle management is more about diplomacy than anything else. Why the hell do I need a college degree for that? Yeah, you can make the arguments that we live in a credential society and having a college degree means that you have a modicum of all the necessary skills to be a supervisor. Supposedly, you learned time allocation skill, conflict management, and gained maturity, but this only begs the question, “How deluded have employers become?” Have they forgotten what it was like in college? Time allocation? The only time allocation any college student really learns is how to eke out that much more sleep before heading to class after an all night drinking/blazing binge. Conflict management? Not even close, unless they mean asking for that thirteenth extension on your paper due last quarter. Maturity? Between classes and trying to get laid, is there really any time for maturity? I think your average McDonald’s order taker learns these skills much more fully than any college student ever will. It’s places like the food industry or retail jobs where you learn time allocation (jumping from customer to customer), conflict management (keeping managers’ egos intact while kissing up to customers without going insane), and maturity (you get a “real world” perspective on life).

***

It’s a sobering thought that in our adult lives we will be spending a third of almost every day in the workplace and it’s a tragedy that the job situation has come to this: working jobs made hellacious by humanity; pounding the pavement, looking for jobs and getting the bullshit run-around; or getting a non-service position and dealing with inter-office politics. One can only hope that things will improve with a college degree. As the salespeople on television say, “a college degree can make your life complete,” but in truth it’s working grunt jobs and the pursuit of grunt jobs that are the most necessary in anyone’s life. It’s working customer-service positions where you learn that there are great evils in the universe and you are powerless to stop them.