I had never been to Connecticut before. I find the entire East Coast unsettling; everything about it is just a little bit wrong, like the landscape in a nightmare. I had to be periodically reminded of the location of (what seemed to me like) perpetually shifting city-states that continually switched positions on the map as soon as I glanced away (“Boston is north of New York City?”). The ocean was on the wrong side. How could I be heading south with the ocean on my left?
Without looking at a map, I cannot tell you with any certainty if Connecticut (whence that hidden c? What is its dark purpose?) is in fact south of New York City; maybe I was heading north. But I believe it was south. South I went from New York City; south I rode the train.
I was going on a lot of informational interviews in those days. I didn’t know exactly what an informational interview was, and I still don’t. Probably more than anything else, it is the professional equivalent of that “Sanctuary!” scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s an attempt at sympathetic magic; the hope that having coffee near enough successful people will somehow turn into success for yourself. You seem like you have a home and a place to go all day. Tell me how. Tell me the incantations. Midway through the journey of our life, I have found myself within a dark wood, for the right way had been lost. Rub your employment all over me.
I’d lost my first job right out of college on the same day my girlfriend lost hers. We compared notes and concluded it was almost certainly because one of my coworkers had found out we were dating, but that it was impossible to prove and anyhow there wasn’t anything we could do about it now.
I was conscious for the first time of a rising sense of panic over an irreversible decision. I’ve made the wrong choice, and I can’t take it back. I had always been able to take things back before. I shouldn’t have gone to an evangelical Christian college. I shouldn’t have gone to an evangelical Christian college with a five-times-a-week chapel requirement and strict rules against homosexual conduct. I shouldn’t have gotten a job and a girlfriend from that Christian college at the same time. It wasn’t a good school. I hadn’t learned anything. I’d made a bad decision, and now it was over, and all of my prospects had vanished. The only job leads I knew of were for youth pastors and graduate school.
In the face of adversity, I did not acquit myself becomingly. I panicked in slow motion and without a plan. I was so used to things happening to me that the possibility that I was going to have to make something happen by myself was paralyzing. I sold my stuff on Craigslist. I applied to every job in the world. I went to In-N-Out and hid the garbage in the Dumpster so my roommate would still ask me to go to In-N-Out with her for dinner, which she wouldn’t if she knew I’d already had it for breakfast. It was 2009, and the world was not interested in a theology minor with some waitressing experience. I was not interested in her either, to be perfectly honest.
The money ran out, and the jobs never came, so I broke the lease and broke up with the girlfriend and rode up Big Sur in a U-Haul with my mother.
“You can live at home for up to a year after college,” my parents had always told us. “To save money for a house or for grad school or whatever else you want, but after a year you have to leave.”
So I lived at home for a year after college, and I waited tables, and I recapped The Vampire Diaries for a website based in Washington D.C., and I worked at a hyper-conservative think tank in Palo Alto four days a week, to save money for what I wanted (which was “to have money”) and after a year I decamped for a studio under the freeway in San Jose and an editorial assistant’s position for a college textbook publisher forty-five minutes up the 280.
There were many nights when I would worry myself out of a dead sleep and think Christ, I’m not doing it yet, and I’d think, doing what, and I’d think back, the thing I’m supposed to be doing, the special thing, I’m not special yet, and I’m going to die if I don’t do it, and I’d think well what is it but I refused to elaborate.
So I went on a lot of informational interviews. Anything not to be paralyzed, anything to not go to In-N-Out, anything that would help me find the thing that would help me not feel like I was dying if I did it. I wanted to work every minute I was awake, or at least go through the motions of working — getting dressed and making phone calls and returning emails.
This is what we in the business call setting the scene. It feels pretty set now, so I’m going to take us back to Connecticut. I was in New York with a backpack full of honey-peanut Power Bars I’d stolen from my dad’s office (he always keeps a Trader Joe’s bag full of them in his closet) and little else, and I’d asked around in the vaguest of ways for informational interview leads. (“Does anyone know anyone who’s good at their job?”)
Someone knew someone who did, and sent me the name of a man. The man in question was presented to me as a sort of career counselor; I later found out he was more of a CEO headhunter for high finance. I received a hastily-tossed-off email forwarded from the woman I sort-of-knew in common.
Have you ever received an email from an important man over the age of forty? They’re tremendous. It’s the least professional thing in the world. They spell your name wrong, they spell at least four other things wrong, one of the sentences just ends without finishing itself. It’s a mess. But he said, “Oh, you’ll be in New York, come down to Greenwich, it’s very close, [Common Acquaintance] will meet you at the train station.”
Greenwich did not seem very close to New York to me, but then I also didn’t expect it to be pronounced “Grehnitch,” so the day was full of surprises.
The first thing I noticed, when she brought me to the office, was that the walls were covered in oil paintings of yachts. The second thing I noticed is that every man in the building was at least 45 and had an office overlooking the bay (or the sea, or the river, or the inlet, or whatever it is that’s in Connecticut), while every single woman was under 25 and penned into an open-plan set of cubicles. Just like in the past, I thought. Then: But I’m a woman under 25. This does not bode well.
The Important Man was not ready just yet. I was led to an inner room with more oil paintings of boats on the walls, and also a photograph of the Important Man with Ronald Reagan. I was offered a soda, and I demurred, which is the one mistake I will admit to having made. I should have taken the soda. Do you know how often in life you are offered a free soda? Elderly financiers do not regularly proffer free sodas to pleasant-faced bloggers; this offer has never been repeated and I have regretted my choice ever since.
The Important Man entered the room; the Important Man shook my hand; the Important Man sat down. A woman brought him a Diet Coke in a glass, with ice and a red-and-white striped straw, just like in Diet Coke commercials. He never once touched it. Perhaps it was a power play. She seemed only to exist to bring him Diet Cokes. It made me wish I had a Diet Coke of my own, but I dared not ask now.
“The best piece of advice I can give you,” he said in a broad and cheerful tone, “is to find a rich husband.”
“Oh,” I said, in absolutely no tone at all.
“Yes, that is the best advice I could give you,” he said again. “Find a rich husband, and then you can work at whatever you like on the side, and it doesn’t matter, because you already have money.”
The goal of the informational interview was no longer to glean what wisdom I could from someone with a different life experience from mine. The goal now became to agree with him so readily and so blandly on all points that he would release me from this boat-festooned room and I could return to California, where people behaved normally and women were allowed to have offices and Diet Coke handmaidens were allowed to run free. I could not argue with him. I could not laugh, no matter how outrageous his advice became. I could not betray a moment of independent thought; this was the most serious improv exercise of my life and I was going to “Yes, and…” my way out of this windowless prison.
I was going to live through this.
“The first thing I noticed about your resume,” he said, “was that it needs to be longer. Four or five pages longer.”
“Of course,” I said. “Four or five pages.”
“You should put your height and weight on it, and mention that you never get sick.”
“Never…get…sick…” I wrote it down.
“You look healthy. They should know you’re a healthy person.”
“Height and weight…resume…” I wrote that down too. I focused all of my energy on becoming, if only temporarily, the exact kind of person who would agree with this. If I smiled even a little, the act would crumble, and I would laugh until I died, and in his anger he would leave me to rot here in his dungeon, and I would never be set free.
“You should put down your father’s job. What your father does is very important. People will have heard of him. You should put down his occupation.”
“Should I put that with my height and weight, or…?”
“Put it at the beginning. But again, I really think your best option is take an internship at a firm in the city for a year or two and find a husband there.”
“That would be ideal,” I said.
“That’s what my daughter did. She’s married to a man who handles other people’s money for a living. They live in Northern California and she writes books about horses that no one reads. It’s a perfect situation. He makes all the money and she gets up at five in the morning to write for a few hours before she takes care of the children.”
“Maybe I should ask her for an informational interview too,” the person I had become said to him.
“Yes, that’s a good idea. Here’s her card. No one reads her books. It’s ideal.”
I learned a great many things that day; I learned that the Important Man and his wife were married for many years very happily, which was genuinely sweet. He apologized for implying that I had had premarital sex when he went on a bit of a tangent about how people today cohabit before getting married (“I don’t mean you, of course; I know your family”), which was still sweet, if enormously misguided. I learned which of his sons he liked more than the others (although his daughter, who wrote the unpopular horse books, remained his favorite). He never touched that Diet Coke, even once.
“Don’t forget about that rich husband,” he said again, smiling, before I left.
“I won’t,” I said, smiling with my mouth. He was only trying to be helpful. He was a war veteran, and a real person, and it was genuinely kind of him to take the time to meet with me. I wrote him a thank-you note on the train.
I learned that nothing was going to happen to me. I went back to New York; I went west on a plane. Eventually I quit my job, then another, then another, until I had a job I’d invented for myself and I didn’t want to quit anymore.
I now live and work in such a way that I have little to no professional contact with men; I can go entire days without having to consider what a man — any man — thinks of my work.
I am drinking my own Diet Coke as I write this.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.