Friday, October 2, 2015

Meeting Strangers

“Shit,” she said a little louder than under her breath as she stubbed her toe on a box near the subway doors. “What the hell is that guy bringing boxes onto the subway? Where’s he think he is? Asshole.” she thought to herself as her face got hot and she pushed through the morning commuters to get to the top of the stairs. Getting off one stop early was meant to take up extra time as she was going to arrive at her interview too early, but giving herself a bruise on her toe on the way was not the plan.

Arriving early was never Samantha’s problem. Being on time is something she has always excelled at. Doing her homework, showing up on time, being responsible -- these are things that she lived for. They not only defined her against her unreliable and passive-aggressive older brother, but aligned her with her mother. Her staunch and strict mother whose approval she was always looking for. If she could organize herself into a straight line to get her mother to notice, she’d stretch herself as straight and narrow as possible. Of course this didn’t always garner the attention she wanted. Mostly disregard from her mother and mockery from her brother. But she kept at it. Knowing that her tidy room would get her silent brownie points with the woman in charge. Because if she wasn’t being lauded, at least she wasn’t being yelled at. The way her mother dressed down her brother in the most concise way possible was not only terrifying but impressive.

But that’s neither here nor there at this point, what is important is that she was, again, early. After showing up 30 minutes early for her last interview at the legal aid agency, she learned that being too early was not a good thing. She also learned, very quickly, that a legal aid agency was not the best place for an English major fresh out of undergrad. Helping people at what is likely their lowest moment is not where strong writing and editing skills come to shine. At least today she was called in to a hot, downtown magazine. The internship wasn’t to support the editing staff as she has hoped, it was for marketing and promotion, which basically meant being a go-for for anything the top brass, and any department head, needed done. She wasn’t even sure if anyone she knew had even ever seen the magazine, let alone read it. But, honestly, she didn’t care. An interview was an interview and an unpaid internship was better than nothing.

All her friends were doing the same. No paying jobs and lots of competition. Unpaid sucked but experience was what got you in the door to something better. “Keep reaching up” -- isn’t that what Mr. Marcos her senior seminar prof always said? Reaching up to what, she wasn’t sure, but she was reaching out to anything that even half-way seemed to make sense.

“Where is this place? Prince and what?” she mumbled looking for the address on a slip of paper she shoved into her wallet before she left home. “Broadway, but I’m… here?” she thought to herself, looking up at the imposing, brick building that was so indescript she almost didn’t see it. “163, here we go,” she said to herself as she took a deep breath and stepped into the building’s front door. Squeezing herself into the undersized elevator, she noticed she was holding her breath as the doors closed. She wasn’t sure if she was trying to make herself smaller, lighter or less obvious in the easily overcrowded elevator or if she was really just nervous.

When the elevator opened up on the third floor, she knew it was her stop but it just opened up into a huge loft. She wasn’t sure if it was the right place but it really couldn’t be anything else. Stepping off timidly, she looked around for someone who appeared to know what they were doing. She caught the eye of someone and smiled broadly, saying, “Hi, is this the Fast Pop Magazine office?”

“Yeah, you lookin’ for someone?” replied a half-interested, 20-something white guy with long hair and clearly slept-in clothes.
“Actually, I am.” Samantha replied, straightening herself. “Dotty Phalen. I think she works in HR?” she said while simultaneously thinking to herself how similar this guy was to her brother. She wondered how many more disheveled guys there were with jobs while she was still trudging about looking for even unpaid work?
“Ha. Yeah, she’s at lunch, she should be back in a sec. Why doncha have a seat over there?”
“Okay, thanks.”

Looking in the direction she was pointed to, Samantha looked for a clean space to sit down. It wasn’t that the place was dirty so much as it was excessively modern and unwelcoming. Everything about the place was discord. The space was clearly an early 20th century factory building that was converted into open space in the 70s when the artists moved in. And now, twenty years later, being used as uber-cool office space for a better-than-you cool magazine. Every magazine cover was framed on the wall. All thirty two of them. She didn’t recognize half the famous people on some of the covers. She really figured she was in the wrong place and was never going to be deemed cool enough to even intern here. Although, looking around, it didn’t seem like there was much order to the place. So, maybe anything is possible.

“Hi, uh, Samantha?” said a woman’s voice so grating it made Samantha spin around to see her.
“Yes, hi. I’m Samantha. Are you Dotty?”
“Yes. Come with me, we’ll get you started.”

Walking briskly to a desk about six feet away, her hair bounced with each high-heeled step, and then Dotty motioned to a clear chair next to her desk; Samantha sat down.

“So, Samantha, did you find us okay?”
“Yes, no problem.” she said as she settled against the hard backside.
“So, says here you’ve got some experience with editing, and a degree in English, but you’re looking to work in marketing? Tell me about that.”
“Well, I’d love to work in writing but there really isn’t much available, so I thought branching out into Marketing would be helpful.”
“So there’s nothing better and you’d like to just get your foot in the door?”
“I don’t mean…”
“Ha ha, that’s fine. I completely understand. It’s hard to get experience when you first graduate. We’re overrun with English majors but having a hard time filling the Marketing and Promotions position. I’ll be honest, no one stays long. It’s not easy, but if you impress them,” motioning to the closed double doors across the room, “then you’re in like Flynn. They make everything happen.”
“Who works in there?”
“Those are the founders. They are brother and sister team, and they’re geniuses. Really amazing. They expect a lot and if you impress, they will make it their business to keep you around. So, do you have any questions?”
“Could you tell me a little about the position?”
“Oh, Tom didn’t tell you? I thought he would have had a chat before I got back.”
Samantha looked confused, to which Dotty replied, “He’s the one who told me that you were here. I assumed he ran down the job with you. He’s the one you’d report to.”
“Oh, no, then. He didn’t tell me anything.”
“Heh. No surprise there,” Dotty muttered under her breath, continuing, “Right well, basically it works like this: There’s no salary, you get two college credits a semester, hours are 8.30 to 6, and all transportation is taken care of.”
“So, still, what would I actually do?”
“Do? You’d do anything Tom tells you. He needs you to deliver a box of chocolates to a studio uptown, you grab some subway tokens from the bag and get to it. You have to pick up a costume from the seamstress and deliver to the photo shoot? Take a token and go. Quick as you can. Anything that needs to happen so that the magazine keeps running, you do it. The bag of tokens is by Tom’s desk in the Marketing and Promotions area over there.”
“And that’s it? I’m a delivery girl?”
“Well, there are events you will work and special promotions, but basically, if it needs to get done -- you do it. Oh, and you get your name on the credits page of each issue that you work. So, what do you say?”
“I… I don’t know. It wasn’t what I was expecting.”
“Then think quickly, because we need someone to start immediately.”
“You mean today?”
“I mean as fast as humanly possible.”
“I suppose I can start tomorrow. But… Well, you know I’m already graduated, so I can’t use the credits.”
“Well, technically, we can give you the internship as long as you’ve been out of college less than three months. And since it’s summer break, you could just tell me you’re thinking of returning in the fall to take some additional classes but haven’t decided yet.”
“I… I’ll think about it. Can I let you know later today?”
“Sure. I have a few others to interview. But just so you know, if one of them takes it, that’s it. I only need one intern.”
“Right. I got it.”

Wondering to herself who on earth is going to even want this job, let alone take it when the HR woman is selling it this way, Samantha wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. She didn’t really care for the magazine, it wasn’t going to pay her anything, she was going to be spending most of her time on the subway -- during the summer -- why bother? But getting to say she worked at a magazine was maybe enough to get the next job. Besides, she would have her name in print and she had only had her byline in the college newspaper a few times. But, man, that did feel good. A kind of validation of her accomplishment that even her mother couldn’t trump.

Walking around TriBeCa she realized she was mulling this over so much she hadn’t had lunch herself, and it was blisteringly hot. Sweat was running down her back and her polyester dress blouse was sticking to her back. She checked her wallet and found only $2.70 in there. Where was she going to have lunch for $2.70? And then she noticed that a hot dog vendor was across the street, $1.50 for a hot dog and a dollar for water? Well, at least she’d have 20 cents left over to make a call home.

“Ketchup? Mustard?” asked the vendor when it was Samantha’s turn.
“Uh, ketchup. Yeah, please. Oh, and a water.”
“You got it. Two fifty.” he says as he smoothly laid on the ketchup and handed her the dog.
Taking the hot dog into her hands, she used one hand to stick her hand into her purse and pull out her wallet. As she tried to unzip it, the hog dog slipped out of her hands and on to her blouse then straight down her skirt and finally landed on her right foot. The foot with the stubbed toe.

“Shit!” she exclaimed to no one in particular.
“Are you alright?” asked a soft voice from just behind her. Samantha turned half around to see who spoke and found herself eye-to-eye with a stooped-over elderly man. The man had on a brown suit and brown striped tie, a faded fedora over soft, white hair with kind eyes and a warm smile.
Taking a breath, Samantha replied, “Not really, no. I’m covered with ketchup, I just dropped my lunch, I’ve got twenty cents left, no job and my prospects are worse than I thought, it is hot as hell out here… I honestly can’t make this day get better and it keeps getting worse.”
The vendor reached out with some napkins for Samantha and the old man took them and handed them to her.
“You look like you could use some help. Can I help you?”
“No, really. Thank you,” taking the napkins from the man and started to wipe the ketchup from her blouse. “Really, I’ll be fine. I just need a break. But thank you. Really.”
“It’s no problem. You know, my mother would say, When it gets too hard to breathe, take a look up and close your eyes. Take a deep breath and God is on your side.”
“Well, that’s really lovely, but I don’t believe in God. But that’s nice.”
“Well, even if you don’t believe in God, he believes in you. And even if you don’t believe that, you can still look up and take a deep breath. Nothing ever got worse by giving yourself a moment.”
She sighed in exasperation, “I suppose you are right.”
“Here, let me get you another hot dog.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t. Really. It’s alright.”
“No, please. We don’t want you losing all faith in humanity in one hot afternoon… Two dogs please, one with ketchup.”

As the man hands the hot dog with ketchup to Samantha, he tips his hat and smiles and says, “Keep looking up, dear. No matter what you believe, just keep looking up.”

After thanking the man again, and wiping off the rest of the ketchup from her clothes, she started looking for somewhere to sit in the shade. At least getting out of the direct sun would be an improvement. Noticing a bus stop across the way that was in the shade of a building, she headed straight toward it. The bus stop was overrun with chatty kids after school and grownups sweating in the summer heat.

She took her hot dog and water and went to lean against the building just behind the bus stop. Eating her dog, surrounded by swirls of people walking uptown and downtown, waiting, yelling, sweating, complaining, it was all like an unending tide of everything. Everything she could think or feel was happening all around her. While the sweat snuck down the back of her neck and her temples, she realized she loved this. Loved the bustling of it all. She was absolutely surprised at herself. There was nothing tidy or neat or organized about any of it. It was all out there, messy, and still, still there was a dance to it. People coming and going, and somehow staying out of each other’s way even as they bumped into each other. There was a beauty in the unspoken choreography of it all, and she wanted in. She wanted to dance with them, even if it meant she had to race uptown to deliver a hat to a photo shoot in a place she’d never been to, or hail a cab in the rain to get a delivery of flowers to her boss’ stylist.

There were stories to hear and tell, and maybe that could be the next move up. The next step up the ladder. Observe people around her and create their stories, or maybe find out their stories and tell them. She had to be able to turn this into something. If no one was going to pay her to do what she was trained to do, she was going to have to find a way to get paid to do what she could do -- to keep reaching.

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