II

Group Interview

When I got the call next week, I was in my room, sitting on my bed. In the meantime I had become a nervous wreck, gotten over myself, and filed away the position in the back of my mind with a relative sense of relief that I must not have gotten it.

The TV was on, but I wasn’t watching it. I happened to be holding my cell phone in my hand. When I recognized the UC Berkeley exchange I bolted to my feet and put the TV on mute. I willfully closed my mind to the sounds of my neighbors’ conversations.

I opened the phone and brought it to my ear.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello Johnathon, this is ‘Berto from the Bears’ Lair.”

Time for cool-headed surprise and gratefulness: “Dagoberto! How is everything?”

“Everything’s fine. Listen, are you still interested in the floor position?”

“Yes I am, very much so.”

“Fantastic. I wanted to invite you in this Sunday for a group interview. How does that sound?”

It sounded awful.

“It sounds great.”

“Good. You got a pen and pad?”

I was back at my desk and scrambling for the pens and pencils I knew I had somewhere.

“One second, one second. Okay, I’m ready.”

“Be here at 8:00 AM on Sunday. We won’t be open, but you’ll see us. We’ll be at the entrance at the bottom of the stairwell. Dress casual. If you get the job you’ll be in uniform, but keep in mind that appearances and impressions count.”

“Okay, okay, got it.”

“We’re gonna take you through the basics of the position and give you a few skills and aptitudes tests, and one of my supervisors will give you a little face to face conversation time.”

Conversation time?

“I’ll see you then, Jonathon.”

“Yes you will,” I hastened to reply. “With bells on.”

“Very good. Have a good day.”

“Okay ‘Berto.”

Dagoberto hung up. I put my phone down on my desk. I could already feel it, that burning inside when you know you’re about to do something that shouldn’t matter as much as it does. By the time Sunday came around I would be a nervous wreck all over again.

But no. Not to get ahead of myself. Not to worry about how I might worry. For now, relax. For now, breathe. Draw confidence from the success so far for what it is. Tell yourself that you’re just fine the way you are, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

For now, back to the TV, and the neighbors in the walls who may or may not be listening in.

7:15 AM, Sunday. I’d arrived about forty-five minutes early. I took my time, and I took a walk. I pulled a figure eight around the blocks of academic, residential, business units, tall buildings and student housing. I breathed deeply the Eucalyptus-scented air of the place I knew, the place where I had grown, the place where I would come back to life. I circled back to campus. I arrived at the Bears’ Lair exactly at 8:00. There’s nothing worse than a lazy, tardy hippy. But a wild-eyed, over-eager tweaker-looking kid half an hour early wasn’t much better. You never want to be first or last to a party. I’ve heard the saying said both ways, though never conjoined together. I wonder why that is. I suppose, depending on the circumstances, they can both be equally true.

Trevor and Dagoberto smiled at me as I came down the stairs. The doors were open behind them, but the lights in the store weren’t on.

“Hello, John,” ‘Berto said with a wave of his hand and cursory brush of his eyes.

“Morning,” I said, reaching the bottom of the stairs.

“Go ahead on in, we’re still waiting for a few people to show.”

“Okay, ‘Berto. Thanks.”

He nodded. I proceeded past them. Trevor did not acknowledge me, though I tried to make eye contact with him.

There was a small group of kids about my age, both sexes, engaging in abrupt and fitful conversation on just the other side of the door. An Asian girl in the blue Cal Bears employee uniform shirt stood off to the side, keeping watch over the applicants. They were young, they were clean, and they looked like college students. They were awkward, and clearly less than familiar with situations such as these. In this regard, I might have had the advantage. Perhaps unlike some of them, I’d actually had a job before. I knew what it was like to support yourself by your own power alone.

There was also an older black man who stood a little off to the side. He seemed sorrily out of place.

Me, I’d had a hair cut. Me, I’d showered. I knew, at least until I opened my mouth, that I could probably pull off a ‘belonging’ attitude of sorts. I was confident, really I was.

I came forward and I joined them. A few of them smiled uneasily at me.

“How’s it going?” a crew-cut wearing blond kid asked. His eyes didn’t know if they should be hard or accommodating.

“Morning,” I said.

I didn’t say any more. Neither did he. I assured myself that I was blending in perfectly.

‘Berto, Trevor and the Asian girl were speaking to each other on the other side of the glass doors, but we couldn’t hear them. The smell of competition was thick in the air. One of the male applicants struck up a conversation with one of the females. They made it look so easy. She, over-excited, almost forceful in her acceptance of his advances, he, apparently unsurprised by her calling his bluff. They laughed easily at a joke I didn’t hear, but which I was sure wasn’t funny. I made a mental note to steer clear of them.

The analog clock above the door reached 8:07 when ‘Berto, Trevor and the Asian girl came in and shut and locked the door behind them.

“Okay,” ‘Berto said, walking through us, disrupting our circle. “Let’s get to it.”

Scattered murmurs of friendly assent and “sure thing’s” followed him. He and his flunkies led us into the store. Trevor flicked a switch built into an alabaster column, and a grid of soft white fluorescent lights buzzed into life overhead. We reached a hallway on the other side of the store.

I found myself walking next to one of the girls. She was very pretty. Long black hair, blue eyes and creamy white skin that perhaps rarely saw the sun except for controlled periods of time.

She looked at me briefly and smiled.

No, no, no thank you. That was a bit too tall an order for this particular situation.

I blinked and stepped away from her.

Relax. Relax. RELAX.

‘Berto brought us to a stop at one of the doors with glass walls on either side. He produced a fistful of keys from his pocket, fingered one of them out, unlocked and opened the door and charged in. Trevor and the Asian girl followed him, turned on the lights, then stood against the walls, so that we applicants could choose our places amongst a grid of combination chair/desks.

“Have a seat, have a seat,” ‘Berto said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm. He walked to the front of the room and stood at the white board. He dropped an armful of manila envelopes on the desk in front of him and smiled out at all of us and none of us.

I’d been lucky. I had been one of the first through the door.

I must always recall, it is only Dagoberto’s opinion that I should care about. But would he care about other people’s opinion of me? Oh God!

As chance would have it, I ended up next to the pretty black-haired girl who had smiled at me, and a sub-continental Indian-looking kid took the seat on my free side. Blond crew cut took the desk in front of me.

I wondered if I could relax and maintain a careful stoicism at the same time. I did not acknowledge neither the Indian kid, nor the pretty girl (though I couldn’t help but sneak a peak at her, and I was horrified to find that she wasn’t fooled by my charade).

I remembered Dagoberto, who, standing now at a professorial lecture podium at the front of the classroom, clapped his hands once to gain our attention, and smiled out as he addressed us:

“Thank you all, so much, for being here. Let me begin by saying that you here today are the few from the many. The many many many. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel that you would bring something special to the position. That being said, we only have two positions to fill. So, first of all, if you aren’t chosen, don’t take it personally. We’re looking for a very specific kind of person with a very specific temperament. You’ve most definitely got something good about you already to have gotten this far, so take comfort in that, at least.”

Don’t worry, ‘Berto, I already have.

I leaned forward and set my elbows on the table and tried to contort my expression and body language to communicate interest and accommodation.

“Okay,” he went on, clasping his hands together. “So I take it you all want very much to work here at the Bears’ Lair.”

“Yeah!” somebody said.

“Good,” he smiled and pointed at the somebody. “We like to hear that. It’s important, first and foremost, that you actually want to be here. That’s sometimes the hardest thing about any job. This is not an easy job, but it’s not the hardest job in the world either. Your responsibilities will include stocking shelves, managing inventory, and manning cash registers. You have to interact with customers, and you have to move quickly with grace under pressure. You have to be good with math, and you have to be good with your hands. So. Show of hands. Who here is absolutely sure that they want to work the floor at the UC Berkeley Bears’ Lair. Come on. Hands.”

All of our hands shot up. Mine had been one of the first.

“Okay, great. So who here has prior retail experience?”

Except for one of the male applicants, all our hands stayed in the air.

“Who here has retail experience in a bookstore?”

I raised my hand, as did the pretty girl and the older black man.

“Who here has customer service experience?”

This time we all raised our hands. We’d learned quickly.

“You see? What a well-qualified group.”

Nervous laughter greeted his joke, a short rattle of collective hiccups. My own laughter embarrassed me, but it seemed that everybody else was embarrassed too. I was still doing okay. I was trying. That in itself was something, right? I wanted to be here, that was for sure. Or did I? Did I not just want to be any where? I didn’t want to think about that. Because when I think about it, no, I did not like working at Borders’, and I had liked Target even less. ‘Berto had said something pretty deep and he hadn’t given us any time to process it, and now, absurdly, I found myself becoming irritated with him.

“So, why are we all here today? Because it’s faster to have one group interview than twelve individual interviews. And because we want you all to get a feel for the skills the position requires. So, we’re going to give you a short written skills and aptitude test. Trevor, would you do the honors?”

“By all means,” Trevor said, opening one of the manilla envelopes and producing a stack of papers. He criss-crossed the room, laying the tests face down on our desks. Clarissa followed him with a box of brand new blue Bic pens, dropping them in front of us with ceremony and sweetness.

‘Berto went on in the meantime: “You have fifteen minutes to complete the test. Don’t be nervous. When you are finished, turn your test over and raise your hand. We’ll come by and pick them up, then you can wait for the next stage in the interview process. Okay. Any questions? No? Everybody ready?”

We looked back at him, poised and expectant and eager to please.

It could have just been me. But didn’t all of this seem a bit excessive for a basic clerks job?

“Okay, turn your tests over and begin.”

A collective shuffling of papers. Indeed, the test was as ‘Berto had described: a basic arithmetic, filing, and short answer customer service aptitude quiz. It would pose no problem at all.

Do not worry. Do not worry.

I hunched forward, put pen to paper, and my motor skills and eye-mind reflexes took it from there. I hardly even had to think.

I was the first one to finish the test. I knew that this was important. Time was most probably a factor. For a moment I considered looking back over my answers, but I quickly checked myself at all the frightening potential for second guessing — if I found one wrong answer, than all of them were suspect. I decided to go with what I had.

I sat back and shot my hand into the air. Trevor, ‘Berto, and the Asian Girl all looked at me at the same time, and, unless I’m wrong, they looked impressed. When ‘Berto came forward and took it from me, my neighbors, blond crew cut and pretty brunette, eyed me with naked envy. Them. Envy me. How about that?

I leaned back in my chair, clasped my hands together on my desk, and began to tabulate my future earnings, and all the nice things I could buy. A Notebook Laptop, for one. I’d wanted one of those for a while.

But, of course, it was no good getting ahead of myself. Then, of course, came the hard part. After Trevor and Clarissa had collected all of the tests, and called time at fifteen minutes, ‘Berto re-claimed his space at the front of the room. He announnced that we would now split into groups. He divided us, quite unscientifically, with several chopping gestures of his arm.

Well. Here we go. Time to earn my pay.

I wiped my brow quickly with the sleeve of my shirt.

I stood up. My group was composed of crewcut, brunette, Indian kid, and another kid with brown hair. Through mostly non-verbal communication, we agreed to clear a space amongst the chair/desks within which our group could stand.

Clarissa approached us in our little clearing, and we all, each one of us, visibly stiffened. This heartened me. I wasn’t the only one.

“Hi everybody,” Clarissa chirped.

I tried to grow a smile, and the difficulty therein horrified me.

“So, how’s everyone doing today?” she asked.

Heads bobbed in unison, and there were murmurs of “Well!” and “Great!” and one “Not too bad.” I tried to say something but all that came out when I opened my mouth was a (hopefully) inaudible “Meh.”

After taking our names, Clarissa went around the circle with her questions, beginning with crew cut, proceeding to brunette, on to kid with brown hair and finishing with me. She jotted notes on her clipboard as we spoke. 

She asked what we expected from this job. She asked us to tell her what we had learned at our previous positions that would be of us for the one in question. She asked us to tell her how we approached customer service. She asked us to tell her our favorite ice-breaking joke.

I tried to follow closely as she asked us each in our turns, and I didn’t try to push myself when it was not my turn, because this was not my style, no it wasn’t.

But still, I couldn’t help but begin to think, wasn’t all of this a bit excessive for a basic clerks job?

But oh my God, here we go. Now she had reached the end of the circle again, and now she was speaking to me.

And sure enough, with the opening of my mouth, there came the sound of my Achilles’ Heel snapping. Yep. There it was. You could probably hear it across the room: When I told her that my ideal job was “working in a bookstore,” that I approached customer service as a way “to serve the customers” and that I expected to get “job satisfaction and employment references” from my time at the Bear’s Lair. When she asked me to tell her a story from a prior relatable position, I chose to tell her about Borders, and how I would always give my utmost to please the customers and follow the dictates of management. When she asked me to tell her a joke, I smiled sweatily, and tried as hard as I could to look bashfully, magnetically guilty: Make you laugh? Who? Me? You must be joking, I would never even presume to make a person like you laugh.

Mercifully, the questions ended there, and my hands, which had been clutching at some area on my sides close to my belt, fell down to my sides like they were weighted down with bricks.

The group gave me weird, disdainful looks, as if my responses hadn’t been fit to lick their responses’ boots. Clarissa scribbled on her clipboard. I sweated and I stared and I held on to my composure for dear life. Somehow, and I realized this now with something like relief, humiliation had come to seem a fate worse than death, but it had struck nonetheless, harder than I’d ever felt it before. Yet here I was, still standing.

I did not. Move. A muscle. Whether victory or no, I would not risk further upset to the balance.

And then, Clarissa thanked us for our time. She told us we were done. She’d finished her questions, and we could leave. So we left. None of us spoke to each other in the hall. The pretty girl who had smiled at me did not even glance in my direction when I took up a position slightly behind her in the hallway, just in front of Crewcut. She had abolished my existence from her consciousness. I walked home on legs stiff and precarious like undersized circus stilts. It was about a forty minute walk, but it went by in no time at all, my mind stuffed full with stress and worry

I made it back to my room, to my familiar little cave, with its dirty walls and dirty traffic just out the window. I crawled into bed and waited for the sun to go down. I breathed in and out through my dispirit.

I stayed in bed for a long time, half asleep. Some time later, I got up and went to the bathroom. In passing, I saw that I had missed a call on my cell phone.

The lights were on under several of my neighbors’ doors, but the bathroom was empty. I peed and washed my hands, then I returned to my room. I checked the voicemail on my phone.

It was Clarissa.

She told me in that same sweet, probing voice, that I had gotten the job.

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