This past spring, I found myself mixed up in a series of hiring and job application ordeals. My wife went through a rigorous string of interviews for a new position. I wrote half a dozen recommendation letters for friends. As a member of a departmental search committee, I read CVs from hundreds of potential professors, attended live teaching workshops, had drinks with candidates.
We’ve all been subject to relentless news and opinion stories about the unemployment rate. The issue of jobs has been elevated—mostly by us, the people—above all other problems social, cultural, or economic. Oddly, whenever I think of the jobs crisis, it’s not a shortness of cash or health insurance that comes to mind. Instead, it’s the interviews. The thought of selling myself to strangers again makes me cringe. In a sense, it seems like my best interviews have been motivated not so much by the lure of lucrative employment but by the possibility of not-having-to-do-this anymore. Sitting on the other side of the process this spring jostled loose a memory that might explain why.
As one academic year at University ended, I decided to stay in Charlottesville, Virginia where I was studying, and look for work. My father was a general contractor for much of my youth, and he’d often get me good summer jobs in construction. I figured I had the experience to find something along those lines in my college town.
I failed to anticipate how difficult it might be to pin down unskilled work at the last minute in a community flooded with unemployed students. These were still the days of classified newspaper ads; I desperately called every one I could get my hands on. (Meanwhile, the students who could tell which way the wind blew were off doing internships and learning html.) After a lot of dead ends, I managed to find somebody willing to interview me.
The man on the phone sounded as though he’d just woken up. I looked the ad over while he spoke. It’s been thirteen years or so, but I recall it making a vague description of construction work, and specifying that they were looking for a college age male. I didn’t think much of it, but he asked if I was “in shape,” citing the demanding nature of the work. That seemed odd to me, as most job sites I’d been around were galleries of obesity and unhealthy living. He gave me an office address and a time later that afternoon for a face-to-face interview.
Hours later, I drove around Charlottesville with the yellow pages spread across the passenger seat. I’d never learned my way around town outside of the campus area, but managed to mark the address on the phone book map.
The street number led me to a run-down residential neighborhood. The place itself looked more like an older single-family home than a business. I double-checked the address, and searched the map for another street with the same name.
At the front door I realized that the unit I was after was around the side, a basement apartment. In my memory, there’s a fairly vivid image of the ‘WELCOME’ doormat at the bottom of an outdoor staircase. A large pair of white sneakers lay beside it. I remember wondering whether or not I should remove my own shoes. I rapped on the door.
“Are you Tyler?” a voice called from inside. “Come on in.”
I opened the door and entered. This place was in no sense an office. The hallway was done in fake wood paneling, and barely lit. A couple of closed doors lined the wall. I could hardly see the carpet, but felt its thick clumps through my shoes. The interior reminded me of the set from the music video for Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (which was in heavy television rotation at the time), only this place was dirtier and without all the girls in their underwear.
“Thanks for coming over here.” The man who met me was a tall white guy with faintly red hair and a goatee. He resembled a taller, more oafish Morgan Spurlock. In bare feet, sweatpants, and an undershirt, speaking with nervous hesitation, he was the opposite of professional.
He led me further down the hall to a living room lit only be a muted television. The screen showed tanned bodies in bathing suits running around a beach giggling and causing mischief. I wondered if it was an early incarnation of an MTV reality show, or a late-model Porky’s-style feature.
My host—whose name I never caught—offered me a seat on a low sofa. He sat on a stool beside a large cube made of cloth. Almost as soon as we were seated, the cube emitted a squawk followed by a gurgle. I flinched. It took a second to realize that the cube was a birdcage—almost as tall as I was—with a sheet draped over it.
The man took out a spiral notebook and a pencil and immediately asked for my name, address, and phone number. By this stage, I was mostly perplexed, maybe even a little amused, by the whole thing. A fairly naïve twenty-year-old, I didn’t hesitate to give him accurate information.
He flipped pages in his notebook and read questions. They started with “What jobs have you had before?” and “What sort of work do you enjoy?” He held the notebook up almost to his own eye-level—as if he didn’t want me to see the other side.
Within seconds, it became obvious that he was making these questions up as he went along. Apart from my name and contact details, his notebook was empty. This man knew absolutely nothing about any form of construction. Whatever this thing was, it was not at all what it claimed to be.
His voice grew more flustered, his questions more basic.
“Have you ever worked with concrete?”
“Do you know very much about wood?”
“How are your hammer skills?”
I started saying ‘no’ to all of his questions; he dumbed them down to a laughably basic level: “Can you use a shovel?”
I shrugged, and looked back to see the distance between myself and the door.
“But, you’re willing to learn, right?” He repeated this phrase several times—in response to each of my ‘no’s.
I didn’t give an answer. My heart fluttered like a headless chicken inside my chest.
He flipped through the blank pages of his notebook. “I don’t know what else to say.” His sentences now ended with a self-loathing half-giggle, like Chris Farley used to do on his fake talk show, just before calling himself stupid.
My interviewer shifted atop his stool. A full-blown erection poked up out of his sweatpants. The bird squawked loud from under the sheet. I thought I heard a sound from one of the bedrooms. It became clear that this situation could be about more than awkwardness. It had the potential to turn tragic.
“You know what I don’t think this is going to work out!” I shouted that sentence and bolted for the door. My biggest fear, at that point, was that a third person waited in one of the other rooms. From behind, the interviewer shouted, “wait!”
I jumped the welcome mat and took the stairs two at once. By the time I started my car, he was standing atop the staircase. I didn’t look at him. A part of me wished he’d come after me, to confirm that this experience was as fucked up as I’d suspected. I drove straight home, thinking myself stupid for showing up at a stranger’s house like that, reconsidering some of the service jobs I’d considered beneath me. By the time I’d parked and made my way to the front door, I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t blown the whole thing out of proportion.
The phone was already ringing when I entered my house.
“Hello?” I was still breathless.
“Is Tyler there?” It was the interviewer.
“This is Tyler.” I couldn’t believe this part was actually happening.
“Hey, it’s me, from the interview. Listen I need to get a copy of your Social Security card.”
“Yes. Is there any chance you could bring that over right now?”
“Absolutely no chance.”
“I could come by and pick it up.” He read my address back to me. “Would that be alright?”
“No,” I said. “I lost my Social Security card, and I forgot the number. I have a whole bunch of roommates, and they don’t like to be bothered.” I slammed down the phone.
It was true that I had some roommates, but not many. And none were home at the moment. Some rarely spent a night here. Others were capable of disappearing for days, especially around the time of a freshly ended semester. We usually kept our doors unlocked. I spent the rest of that evening staring out my upstairs window, holding onto a hammer (A tool I’d claimed to have no skills with a few hours prior).
Several months afterward, I saw that interviewer in a bar in downtown Charlottesville. We made eye contact; he recognized me then immediately looked away. I had a good friend walk me out to my car, but didn’t explain why. In a sense, I’ve never understood the experience myself. It’s not a story I tell often, and still find anticlimactic. When I have told it, some people laugh; others cringe. One close friend wondered if I’d considered calling the police. What for? I asked. There wasn’t a crime. With the Internet still in its infancy, there was no easy way to research the matter. There’s only one thing I’m absolutely sure of: whatever was going on, it was not an interview, and there was no job.
I’ve done my best to shrug it off, but the circumstances still come back to haunt me every so often: sitting too far down inside the low sofa, judging the distance to the door, wondering about the view from the other side of the birdcage sheet. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe I narrowly avoided selling myself short.