While there are few jobs available to graduates of MFA programs, there are even fewer available to MFA dropouts, so I found limited employment opportunities when I returned home after one semester of graduate school. I could have gone back to my old job at a weekly newspaper, covering township and borough meetings where passing gas was as newsworthy as passing an ordinance, but my pride wouldn’t let me.
Initially I scanned the classifieds with amusement, considering jobs as a denture maker or farmhand. As a writer, I wanted employment that might make for interesting stories. Several weeks into unemployment, I realized that a graduate school dropout was more suspect than a high school dropout and I was considered overqualified and with suspicion when I applied for most jobs.
“If you were in graduate school, why do you want to work for Subway?” asked a stout man with a large mole on his chin.
Employers would send me on my way, promising a phone call, but nobody ever called.
Three months into a dwindling stash of captain’s wafers and spaghetti-o meals I went crawling to a local chain restaurant that was hiring. My friend’s pastor was a regular and recommended me to one of the managers who wore a sorority baseball hat during our interview. Her name was Amanda and as she scanned my application she happily pointed out that she had graduated high school the same year I left college.
I hated her for having perky breasts and a career path. The prospect of working at a chain restaurant for someone who was younger than me was depressing, but I was just short of begging for a job as a salad bar attendant.
“You can start tomorrow night,” she said. “Nate will be here to train you.”
I went out to buy my required uniform of black pants, shirts, and shoes and tried to mine my ego out of the gutter. Five months earlier I was flashing a student ID for my Starbucks discount and taking part in intellectual discussions about society’s version of “the other.” Now I was dressed in business casual black, learning the serving temperature for beats and thousand island dressing.
Adding to my misery was the fact that my trainer, Nate, was 16 years old with holes in his ear lobes through which he could fit his fists, and proudly did every so often. His eyes were glazed, his speech moderately slurred and while he didn’t specify his drug of choice, after a few minutes on the job, it was clear why someone might choose a mind altering substance during the salad bar shift.
“You have to watch when you pile the pineapple,” he said with all seriousness. “Because you don’t want it to get too high.”
He laughed through his nose, the way you do when you’re high and everything is very funny. I looked around for something to stab myself with, but found only spoons for the pudding.
Throughout the night I was trained in restroom cleaning, floor washing, opening a can of pears, taking out the garbage and sitting around on my ass. Of all the job requirements, this last one was probably the most difficult. Nate was kind though, and tried to teach me the ways of lounging. We sat down in a booth at the bar area and he pulled out a crumpled soft pack of Marlboro lights.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asked.
I said that I did mind, and with that banished myself permanently from whatever social interaction I may have had with my fellow co-workers. It turned out that this particular restaurant was rampant with chain smokers who couldn’t last more than ten minutes without a fix. My desire to maintain pink lungs was both righteous and offensive as far as they were concerned. Because I was not a smoker, and could tell the difference between spinach and romaine lettuce, I became the resident health nut.
fter a few weeks on the job, the perky breasted manager asked if I was ready for my test.
“You have to take a test in order to be certified as a salad bar attendant.” She said this matter of factly, without humor or sarcasm.
Teachers, lawyers, doctors; these people take tests. And that makes sense to me, given the number of laws and small bones and muscles there are out there. A professional needs to know the difference between a bone and cartilage. But I wasn’t striving to become a professional salad bar attendant, and there were only a handful of items on the salad bar to deal with anyway.
“If you just want to tie me up naked on the roof of your BMW and ride me in the Christmas parade that would probably be less humiliating,” I offered.
“If you want to continue working here and if you want to be considered for a raise, you’ll take the test.”
There are certain moments in life when you come face to face with your arrival at the bottom of the barrel. Sitting in a booth amongst my chain-smoking coworkers, I answered questions about the temperature of hard boiled eggs, the shelf life of lettuce and landed head first into the bottom of the restaurant garbage barrel that had become my life.
The good news I guess, is that I passed the test and was awarded a gold Achilles pin and a .25 cent per hour raise.
I don’t flatter myself to say that I was a mystery to those who worked there, as most of the servers were in high school and college and had plans for their futures. I may have stayed away from them because they smoked, but they stayed clear of me as a nightmare of what could happen, even with a college degree. Occasionally though, their gross fascination brought them to me, like spectators at a zoo.
“So you graduated from college?” a pug nosed girl named Roseanna asked one day. “And now you work here?”
I tried to joke my way through a response, telling them they shouldn’t be English or History, or Philosophy majors.
“But couldn’t you be doing something else?” Roy asked. He was 21 and about to graduate a semester early with a degree in nursing.
“Couldn’t you be in graduate school or teaching English over in Japan or in the Peace Corps or something?”
I said that the great American novel had already been penned, that I was afraid to fly, couldn’t get into the Peace Corps and didn’t like graduate school. Nate took a long drag from his cigarette and squinted through the smoke.
“Maybe you ought to fix cars or something,” he said.
I began telling them that I was writing, working really hard on a screenplay when I was at home and freelancing for the local paper. While some of those things were true, I really had no direction and they saw my defeat in the shadows of the baseball hat I wore to work and the chip that ran six feet deep into my shoulder.
For me the most important part of my job was avoiding contact with anybody who came into the restaurant that might know me. The idea that one of my former high school teachers or worse, an old high school classmate might walk into the restaurant on any given day was paralyzing to me. I tried to convince myself that I was only working this job until I was discovered as the next great writer.
At home I could hide under the covers and pretend that the New Yorker was going to call me, even though that’s not what magazines do.
When I went to work, it was harder to pretend those things. Every night, on bathroom patrol, it was impossible not to look myself in the face. In the men’s and women’s bathroom I saw my reflection everywhere. I was in the handles on the urinals and the shiny silver faucets in the sinks.
And every night, I was there in the mirror, a 26 year old college educated woman in a dollar general black polo shirt and faded Red Sox hat, wiping harder and harder with the paper towels, trying to make the image disappear.