Yesterday I helped interview candidates for my position at work. I'm not leaving, this is just something we do from time to time when the main office sends us a stack of applications deemed interview worthy. Colleagues move up and on or out and need to be replaced. Turnover. Sounds like someone agitating a compost pile. So there I sat, on the other side of a conference table helping to interview potential employees and doing my dead level best to look like I had the authority and experience to sit where I was sitting, despite not really believing I yet had either.
It was a disquieting experience mostly because I was amazed and worried by the candidates and their "best selves". The very first guy was a no show. This was not an interview for a summer job at the Dairy Queen. This was an interview for a career. A sought after, prestigious, well-paying career. My boss called just to make sure there was no misunderstanding. No Show's response? "Oh......sorry."
No explanation. No apology. No misunderstanding. I imagined him sitting on his mother's couch in his underwear playing X-box. There was a bowl of cereal next to him. It was from yesterday. I tried to put a face with his name and the only face I could find was the face of a 19 year old kid I met when I was 24. His name was Jeremy, and he was helping to interview me for a job I had no intention of taking. I use the word "helping" loosely. He really did little more than follow my main interviewer around with the hopeful, dopey grin and air of forced seriousness that only the hopelessly disillusioned can affect for any substantial amount of time.
Recent college graduates may recall a letter they received every summer that promised an exciting and challenging job in a field like "Sports Marketing." The letters were from companies with names like Horizon Promotions or Vortex, although I suspect they are all the same company. No experience is necessary. $20.00/hour is on the low end of what you can expect to make. You have to call right now to schedule your interview before all the positions are taken! Clearly, this is bullshit. As a 24 year old, I honestly knew better, but I was desperate. I had left grad school (I say "left" because I didn't finish my degree plan and it sounds better than "quit" or "dropped out"), moved in with my parents, and was flailing violently to salvage a decaying engagement in which a central issue was my inability to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. When I opened that letter, ashamed to still be receiving mail at my parents' house, my exact thoughts were, "It's come to this." I did not, I thought, have the luxury of being picky, much less patient.
So I called. My first interview lasted maybe three minutes and was held in an office in a half empty building that had the feel of something just thrown together the night before. I would be surprised if the secretary's phone actually worked. The magazines in the waiting room had been gathered from somebody's house, the carpet had not been replaced or even cleaned since the previous tenants' occupancy, and there was a whole room devoted to broken ceiling tiles, light fixtures, exposed wiring, and dusty chunks of dry-wall. The note on the door to this room said, "Pardon our mess. We're remodeling!" Right. It was a boiler room. A pyramid scheme. Am-Way. I had a resume no one looked at. The interviewer was a nervous fast-talker with cheap clothes. Mostly, I got the sense he was trying to decide whether or not I was naive enough to be taken advantage of. He asked lots of yes/no questions no one trying to get a job would say no to. "Do you like to work hard? Are you a team player?" No sir, I am allergic to work and I try my best to hang my teammates out to dry whenever the opportunity arises.
At the end of the interview I was still no closer to knowing what, exactly, I was being interviewed for despite asking, "What, exactly, am I interviewing for?" When the interviewer hedged on the question, I told him I thought it was a little suspicious and inconsiderate to schedule an interview with someone, take only three minutes of their time, and then try to schedule a second interview without even telling them what they would be doing. This was met with more nervous laughter and more vague descriptions of the "street level marketing promotions" through which I would be making obscene amounts of money. I would be able to buy a boat! Could I come back tomorrow? I could. What else was I going to do? Starbucks was my next viable option, which is great for college STUDENTS, but not so much for college GRADUATES. Coincidentally, that's where I wound up working for the next year, and no, the fiancee did not stick around. Thanks for asking, Ass.
I showed up the next day at 8:00AM with the life philosophy of my friend Barrett echoing in my skull. When making any important decision, Barrett believes one has to ask one's self two questions: 1.) Is this decision in keeping with my life goals and aspirations? If the answer to question #1 is "no," then: 2.) Is story value for the opposite course of action high? If the answer to question #2 is "yes," one must immediately abandon one's initial decision and proceed boldly with the opposite course of action. This is how I once found myself with Barrett in Shreveport, LA playing balckjack at 8:00AM, drunk, and after a six hour drive. Barrett is a poor man's Confucius, but I digress. I entered the office with several other sheepish and unconvinced applicants. We made small talk about how odd/sketchy we thought the whole situation to be, but when it came down to it, we were all sitting in the same office unable to find the work we thought our college degrees had promised us.
It was at about this moment, in the middle of an awkward and coldly sobering silent group realization, that the doors to the "team room" opened and a cacophony of whoops and shouts and the fleshy slaps of high fives poured out. We were invited in and assigned mentors for the day. It was explained to us that we were about to experience the privilege of participating in one of the "street level promotions" that had been un-described to me the previous day. This was all done very hurriedly and before I knew it, I was following Jeremy, the dopey faced 19 year old who claimed to be Dillard's number one salesman from the year before (Do they even keep track of that?), and Johnny, my boss for the day, out to a white Pontiac Sunfire.
Johnny was a piece of work. He was probably thirty five, well over six feet, and had the manner and machine gun pattern of speech most usually associated with meth heads. He had short red hair and a floppy walk that accentuated his comically large shoes and ill-fitted clothing. Every time he lit a cigarette I got the feeling that if he could have any wish in the world it would be to become Don Johnson from Miami Vice. And his name wasn't Johnny, it was Johnny Recon. Johnny Recon explained to me that he had, previous to his career as a marketer, been a proud member of Marine Force Recon. He told me he didn't like to talk about it and then proceeded to talk about it for the next thirty minutes. I had twice previously met ex-members of our nation's special forces and on both occasions information regarding their previous employment was not volunteered, much less bragged about. They had the steely confidence that must come from operating at a highly polished, unblinking level of proficiency in a world where failures are measured in deaths. If Johnny Recon was ever more than Johnny Who Cleans the Head, then I'm a monkey's uncle.
The next thirty minutes of our commute to the other side of the city (For those keeping score, that's the thirty minutes after Johnny Recon described to me what a badass he was) was comprised of Johnny Recon trying to pump me up by describing the day's "promotion."
"You look like a hard worker. You're a hard worker, right?"
"That's good, but you can either do this job or you can't. I seen a lot of college boys not up to it. You're up to it, right?"
"Cause if you're not up to it, I can turn this car around right now and no one loses anything."
"I'm up to it."
This caught me off guard. I even jumped a little. "Juice," was the least logical word with which to continue our conversation, but Johnny Recon had said it. Actually, he had yelled it and now he had his hand up in the air as if to give me a high five. I just sat there a little confused. If he had yelled, "Fuckin' A right!" I might have known how to proceed, but "Juice?!" Before I could say, "Excuse me?", one of Jeremy's pudgy hands snapped up from the cramped back seat of the Sunfire and tagged Johnny Recon's still raised palm with a resounding high five and a "JUICE!" of his own.
"That's what I'm talking about! Juice, man. It's what we say to pump ourselves up!"
"Join Us In Creating Enthusiasm. J.U.I.C.E. Get it?"
"Oh. That's clever." [This is NOT clever.]
I knew I was in for it. Then Johnny explained what we would be doing.
"So we are going to saturate a neighborhood with a marketing promotion today."
"For one of the area sports teams?"
"No, man. Better. Papa John's."
"I was told this was a sports marketing position."
"Well, it can be, but not today. That's not the point, man. We're doing a high quality saturation for a major corporation. There's a lot of money to be made today! JUICE!"
[Another "JUICE!" from the back seat and a series of high fives that I now hesitantly and self-consciously participated in]
"So, what do you mean by 'saturate a neighborhood'?"
"Well, were going to go into this neighborhood and sell this awesome promotion to the residents. Check out these coupons!"
[A stack of coupons is thrust into my hands from the back seat]
"So, we're going to go door-to-door to sell coupons?"
"We're going to go door-to-door in a high quality market saturation! JUICE!"
[The JUICE! ritual is repeated]
"But we're going to sell these?"
"How is that not door-to-door sales?"
"It's...well...because it's a marketing saturation. It's just- it's not-....JUICE!"
[Again with the JUICE! and the high fives]
When I said before I knew I was in for it? That may have been an understatement. We parked the car, divided the coupons, and set out on foot in business clothes through a hilly Central Texas neighborhood in the middle of June. Johnny Recon asked Jeremy if he was up to the challenge and told him he thought he was ready to spread his wings. Jeremy responded with gleaming eyes and took off on his own, his shirt already sticking to his love handles and his pants losing their continual struggle to stay at waist level. It was just Johnny Recon and me for the next 15 hours.
No one answered at the first five or six doors we knocked on (It was a Wednesday) and this gave Johnny Recon a chance to talk about the job and how much money he would soon be making and the boat/car/house/TV he would be buying. I was reminded of Louis Anderson's monologue in Coming To America. "I started out where you guys are, mopping floors. Now, I'm washing lettuce, soon I'll be on fries. Then, the grill. A year or two and I make assistant manager. That's when the big bucks start rolling in."
We finally came to a house with cars in the driveway, but there was a "No Soliciting" sign on the door. Johnny Recon showed no intention of moving to the next house. I thought maybe he hadn't seen the sign.
"Johnny, this one says 'No Soliciting'.
"We're not soliciting. This is a market saturation."
An middle-aged woman answered the door and Johnny Recon launched into his Papa John's pitch. Before he was two sentences in the woman interrupted him.
"Are you trying to sell me Papa John's coupons?"
"No ma'am. We're doing a market saturation and-", she interrupted him again.
"Do you want me to buy something?"
"Yes, ma'am. These Papa John's coupons are-", she interrupted him again.
"Did you see the 'No Soliciting' sign?"
"Yes ma'am, but-"
The door slammed. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
"Bitch," said Johnny Recon.
Four hours in we sold our first sheet of coupons for $16.00. At $2.00/hour for the two of us I couldn't see how a grown man had fooled himself into thinking he would soon be making "the big bucks." Johnny Recon's reaction to our successful market saturation?
The day was a continuous string of rejections and disgusted looks from housewives trying to go about their daily business. At one house we woke up the baby. Another house swore never to eat Papa John's again. The worst interaction of the day involved a man playing with his daughter in the sprinklers of his front lawn. There was a Volvo station wagon in the driveway with an "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker on it. The man was wearing hemp sandals and had the disheveled look of an activist with enough money to spend his days at home thinking about the issues. I knew, more than I've known anything in my life, that this was not the type of man who would buy Papa John's coupons from Johnny Recon, much less let us slither off after a polite, "No, thank you." Johnny Recon pressed on. The warrior spirit I suppose.
"Excuse me, sir. We're with Vortex Promotions and we are doing a market saturation for Papa John's-", the man interrupted him.
"I know you. You were here a month ago trying to sell me passes to a minor league hockey game."
"Yes sir! That was one of our most successful promotions."
Here it came.
"Don't you know sports are just a way for hard working people to care deeply and passionately about something that means absolutely nothing?"
Johnny looked at me for support in disagreeing with the man, but I had to admit, he had a point. I just shrugged my shoulders and stared back.
"Well, sir, you may not like hockey, but everyone loves pizza!"
"I'm not going to buy anything from you. You're part of the problem. And you," he said turning to me. "You're along with him for an interview aren't you?"
"Yes sir," I said.
"They didn't tell you what you'd be doing did they? You've got a college degree?"
"What are you doing here? This is not where you need to be. You have a responsibility to do something else. Don't buy into this snake's BS. Don't waste yourself selling crap people don't need so some other guy can get rich, sit in an office, and play nine holes at lunch. Do more."
I wanted to hug the guy. I wanted to ask to play in his sprinklers and sit in his lawn chair. I wanted him to call my fiancee and tell her the ridiculous situation I had found myself in. I wanted him to tell her how hard I was trying to become an adult and how I was really a good kid who would eventually be a good man. I wanted to yell, "JUICE!", and give the guy a high five. Mostly, I wanted to ask him for a job. Instead I forced a smile and didn't say anything as Johnny Recon and I continued to the next house.
"Asshole," said Johnny Recon.
As the sun started to set, Johnny Recon put the hard sell on me. He told me he could tell I had talent and that we would make a good team. He told me he could use a guy like me to get to the next level and that once he was there he would pull me up immediately. He told me that Jeremy was a good kid but that he didn't have my natural ability. I listened politely but I was screaming inside. That, and my feet were bleeding from blisters cut by the shoes I had bought for the interview the day before. I felt like I was at the end of a bad date, a date that had somehow caused me to sweat profusely and bleed from both feet, and was floundering to extract myself gracefully from the situation without suddenly finding myself on another date. Let me check my schedule. I'll call you.
We met up with Jeremy, still full of misguided enthusiasm. Johnny Recon asked him how many coupon sheets he had sold.
They exchanged high fives, but Johnny Recon was considerably less emotive than he had been that morning. Maybe it was his three daughters and wife at home. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of hearing "no" and what a sleaze he was for 16 hours. Maybe it was his commute to and from work; lonely, quiet, and bursting with panic and doubt. He had sold $96.00 dollars in coupons and half of that went to the top of the pyramid when we got back to the office. $46.00 for 16 hours of work. There was no boat in Johnny Recon's future. At the office I told them I would think about coming back. I would not think about coming back and really just wanted to avoid telling them so face-to-face.
On my drive home that night I was not reflective. In fact, I'm pretty sure I beat the steering wheel on multiple occasions and yelled in an incredulous tone, "Are you fucking kidding me!" I felt like I had been kidnapped by a cult of door-to-door salesmen. How was I going to answer the "How'd it go" questions from my fiancee and parents? I felt lost. I felt more adrift from any sort of professional direction than I had ever felt. I wanted to cry and laugh and break something and pray and drink myself into oblivion all at the same time. I wanted out. Right now.
Eventually, I did get out - not gracefully, or painlessly, or without leaving a part of myself behind, but out. I'm now three years removed from my experience in market saturation and I have a steady and rewarding job. I think about Johnny Recon, Jeremy, and the guy in his front yard often. That June day was a comedy of desperation with a cast of three players. Jeremy was too young and ignorant to have tasted real failure and I wonder if he still attacks his job with the same delusional glee he did on that day. They used to advertise for working hover craft in the back of Boy's Life magazine, something made of plywood, a car seat, and a vacuum cleaner motor. Clearly, this was a scam, but I guess an 11 year old boy, full of GI Joe fantasies and imagination, would have a tough time figuring that out. I wonder if Jeremy ever got his hover craft? Does he still believe he'll hover off into the world of the super rich? Johnny Recon was old enough to know better and the collapse he feared was just below the surface, peeking out around the edges. I imagine him hanging out in Miami wearing a pastel suit, zipping around the coast in a luxury speed boat, and regaling buxom women with stories of his self-made life; the Good Life. But I know better and I can't help but wonder when the fall came.
As for the guy in his front yard? If I could go back to his house today, I would say, "Thank you and Johnny Recon was right, you were a little bit of an asshole, but sometimes an asshole is just what you need."