Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Trip Down Amnesia Lane

There is a woman I work with, a part-time temp who is in college and has an internship in Providence. She’s in her early 20s and can only be described as vivacious and spectacular. She came into work wearing a suit and learned that she had a job interview that day. I asked her where she interviewed, and I was brought back to a job interview I had gone on when I was in my early 20s.

I was fresh out of college and trying to start up my career. I was trying like hell to move to the Boston area, and several times per week I drove to Boston from my home state of Connecticut for interviews. Talking to this woman at work about her interview yesterday brought me back to the summer of 1996 when I went on an interview that sounded exactly like what she had described.

I was 22. I drove to Woburn, MA, just north of Boston, to meet with a prospective employer about a marketing position. I must have struck a chord with the hiring manager, because I was invited back that Friday for an “Observation Day.” On Friday morning I donned my periwinkle blue silk suit, purchased on the cheap from the Chadwick’s catalog. I put on an off-white shirt underneath it, and threw on a pair of off-white heels that matched the shirt perfectly. I examined my reflection, ran my hands through my hair, removed the small silver hoop I still wear near the top of my left ear that my mother warned me about. “They’re going to think you’re weird if you show up there with that thing. They’ll never hire you with that on. Take it out, please.” I pulled the car out of the driveway and headed east until I arrived in Woburn.

I looked around the reception area at all the eager faces attached to bodies in suits. I assessed the competition as I sat down. I was called into an office and introduced to Manny. Manny had been with the company for several months, and was promoted to a training supervisor position. Also in the room was a shy looking girl named Jen who wore a long, floral print skirt and sensible shoes. Jen was already hired to work for the company and would spend the day getting trained by Manny while I would observe.

We piled into Manny’s car and rode to Lowell, Massachusetts, about 20 miles northwest of Woburn. On the way to Lowell, Manny briefly explained how the company conducts its “grassroots marketing” campaigns. He was careful not to divulge any details as we drove to Lowell.

He parked the car on a street, and pulled a stack of brochures out of his trunk. Jen and I walked behind him; at that point I don’t think I’d yet heard her utter a syllable. We followed as Manny walked to the front door of a house and knocked. A woman answered the door wearing a loose fitting tube top, a faded tattoo on her arm that may have been a picture of an anchor, fried hair that had been bleached several months before, and a silver tooth in her mouth. It was then that I learned precisely what “grassroots marketing” was. Apparently grassroots marketing is a fancy way of saying “door-to-door” sales. Manny finished his pitch for the pager service he was selling. The customer at the door raised her eyebrows, and then reached down the front of her tube top to retrieve her own pager. They compared pager plans, and she signed up for the one that Manny was selling.

We went on to the next house. Then the next. The sun began to climb in the sky, and the August heat began to settle in. I felt the sweat drip down my back, and down my legs. My feet began to swell in my high heels that I’d begun to regret wearing. After half an eternity we ended up at Subway for lunch. Jen still barely spoke, and I began to seethe at the idea that I had been duped into following Manny around as he sold beepers door to door. I decided that I would just keep my mouth shut and blow off the company at the end of the day as Manny was my only escape at that point.

We walked up and down the streets of Lowell. Lowell has some scary looking streets with a variety of riff raff lounging on the porches, staring uninterested at Manny as he recited his pitch over and over. Finally we made it back to the car, Manny had managed to sell a half dozen pagers. Jen tried her hand at a sale or two, but her pitch was barely audible as she uncomfortably mumbled it to her prospective customers. We piled into Manny’s car, and headed back toward Woburn.

“So, what do you think of what you saw today? Are you ready to hop aboard?” Manny asked, eagerly.

“Um, no,” I said politely.

“Are you sure? Once you pay your dues you’ll get promoted to management and you’ll make six figures in about a year,” he pressed.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Beej, with every job you have to pay your dues. You might as well pay your dues at one where you’ll get something out of it. You will get promoted to management after a year,” his eyes glazed as I wondered how much Koolaid he’d been drinking.

“And what will you do when you’re a manager? Send other people to Lowell to sell pagers? And while you are waiting to be made a manager, what are you doing for money? How much could you possibly be making doing this?” I asked.

“Hey, do you mind if we pull over. I know that Jen wanted to run an errand on the way back,” he pulled the car off the street. Jen got out of the car and stood at the side of the road as we pulled away. “I’ll come back and get her. No sense in keeping you when you know that you don’t want the job.” I looked back at Jen, who stood on the side of the road and watched Manny’s car pull away.

We didn’t speak as we drove back to Woburn. He left me in the parking lot, smugly wished me luck in my job search, and then pulled out of the parking lot on his way back to where he’d left Jen.

Today the woman at work had her “shadowing day” for the company she interviewed. I am 99% sure that it’s the same sort of scenario that I had encountered back when I was 22. Since then I’ve honed my crap filter and learned what questions to ask when seeking a job. Yes, I did once end up in the back row at a hotel ball room listening to some clown convince me and a room full of people to sell water filters—but I stood up and walked out after listening for five minutes.

I imagine that the girl at work is honing her crap filter tonight as I write. And I imagine that Manny is probably living off the grid with a group of “brothers and sisters” that have re-named him “Moon Shadow.”

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