I got the call late the next week. I was in my room, and I stood up from my notebook laptop, where I was losing a Yahoo! Chess game. I recognized the UC Berkeley exchange. I remained calm. I willfully closed my mind to the sounds of laughter and argument in the rooms down the hall.
I opened my phone and brought it to my ear.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello Johnathon, this is Dagoberto from the Bears’ Lair.”
Time for 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. We’ll take you and a few others through the introductions and the basics of the position. 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.”
“Take this down: We want you to wear slacks and a blue shirt. Tan slacks and a long-sleeved dark blue shirt. Put yourself up how you think you should look if you were coming in to do the job. Be here at 8:00 AM on Sunday. We won’t be open, but you’ll see us, we’ll be at the entrance.”
“Okay, okay, will do.”
“I’ll see you then, Jonathon.”
“Yes you will. With bells on.”
“Very good. Have a good day.”
Dagoberto hung up. I put my phone down on my desk. I could already feel it. I was already smiling, I was already feeling the rush, I was already becoming proud of myself for a job well done, and I was already anticipating what I would do to myself should I fall short. By the time Sunday came around I would be a nervous wreck.
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. For now, back to the chess game.
7:15 AM, Sunday. I arrived about forty-five minutes early. I wanted to have time to psyche myself up, and to make absolutely sure I was at the door at 8:00 on the dot. Not too early, nor too late. Perception was everything in these situations, that much I remembered. Nothing worse than a lazzy, tardy hippy, but an over-eager, wild-eyed early bird was only slightly better.
I pulled a figure eight around the blocks. I checked the time as I went, and I enjoyed the scenery. I breathed deeply the fresh air of the place I knew, and the place where I was now determined to grow. Already, even before the interview started, Berkeley seemed a smaller, less daunting place. I circled back to campus. I arrived at the Bears’ Lair exactly at 8:00.
Trevor, Dagoberto, and a short Asian girl were waiting in front. They smiled predatorily as I came down the stairs. The lights weren’t on in the store behind them.
“Hello, John,” ‘Berto said with a wave of his hand and cursory brush of his powerful eyes.
“Morning,” I said, reaching the bottom of the stairs.
“Go ahead on in, we’re still waiting for everybody to show up.”
“Okay, ‘Berto. Thanks.”
He nodded. The doors were open behind them. Trevor did not turn his head to acknowledge me as I passed by him.
There was a small group of applicants, five boys and three girls, standing uneasily in the dimness on the other side of the door, engaging in abrupt and fitful conversation. They were young, they were clean, and they looked like college students. They were awkward, and clearly unfamiliar with situations such as these. Some of them might never have had a job before. In this regard, I might have had the advantage.
There was also an older black man who stood a little off to the side. He looked 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 if I tried pull off a ‘belonging’ attitude of sorts.
“How’s it going?” one of them greeted me, a crew-cut wearing blonde kid. His eyes didn’t know if they should be hard or accommodating.
“Morning,” I said.
And I didn’t say any more. Neither did he. I fought the inclination to blame myself for the conversation’s premature abortion. 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, the pressure to hold our own, to show no weakness however it might manifest. One of the male applicants struck up a conversation with the prettiest one of the girls, perhaps in advertisement of his ready ability to do so. She accepted his advances much as she would had he approached her in the school cafeteria, with the careful calculation of the shrewd but intrigued female wondering how to turn the situation to her advantage. I made a mental note to avoid those two if I could.
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 and disrupting our circle. “Let’s get to the testing site.”
Scattered murmurs of friendly assent and “sure thing’s” followed him. He and his flunkies led us into the store. On the other side of the main room a hallway extended deeper into the building. Trevor flicked a switch as he passed it, and a line of soft white fluorescent lights buzzed into life overhead. Wooden office doors flanked by glass walls marched down the hallway into the distance.
I found myself walking next to one of the girls. She was very pretty. Long black hair, blue eyes and creamy white skin that probably rarely saw the sun for extended periods of time.
She looked at me briefly, and smiled.
I was taken aback.
I shook my head, and I pulled away from her.
I was her enemy here, didn’t she know that? Why should she smile at me? Didn’t she know how serious it was to get a job? But they were always like that, the kids my age. Somehow, to them, even in a battle field situation such as this, social interaction seemed as important to them as getting the job. Were they really so naive? Did they think we could be friends here? Or were they so many leagues ahead of me that they could actually engage this way even knowing all of the already? This was dangerous territory I was entering into. Pretty girls that smiled at me and reached into my pocket only half-aware that they were doing so.
Relax. Relax. RELAX.
‘Berto brought us to a stop at an unmarked door with glass walls on either side. He produced a jingling fistful of keys from his pocket, fingered one of them out, unlocked and opened the door, and charged in. He turned on the lights. Trevor and the Asian girl followed him, then stood against the walls, to allow we applicants to 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.
As chance would have it, I ended up next to the pretty black-haired girl who had smiled at me, and a dark-skinned boy who might have been Indian. Blond crew cut took the desk in front of me.
Trevor and the Asian girl walked up and stood at ‘Berto’s side, hands clasped behind their backs like Naval officers at ease. Smiling and cool, comfortable and distrustful. Trevor hadn’t made eye contact with me once yet.
“Okay!” ‘Berto called out and clapped his hands. “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, there is only one position to fill, so in the end only one of you is going to take it. So, first of all, 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 have I have, really I have.
I leaned forward and set my elbows on the table and tried to watch him with steady and open-minded interest.
“Okay,” he went on, clasping his hands together. “So I take it you all want very much to work for the Bears’ Lair.”
“Yeah!” somebody said.
“Good. Enthusiasm is good. It’s 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 has prior retail experience?”
Except for one of the male applicants, we all raised our hands. The guy who didn’t raise his hands looked about the room and flushed.
“Who here has retail experience in a bookstore?”
I raised my hand, as did the pretty brunette 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.”
We laughed with an unconvincing rattle of collective hiccups. My own laughter embarrassed me, but it seemed that everybody else was embarrassed too, so I was still doing okay. I was trying. That in itself was something, right? But would it be enough? I was here, sure, but didn’t I also need to enjoy myself? It sure seemed like the guy who’d talked to the pretty girl had been enjoying himself.
“So, why are we all here today? Because it’s faster to have a group interview than individual interviews. And because we want you all to get a feel for the skills you’ll have to have. So, we’re going to give you a short written skills and aptitude test. Trevor, would you do the honors?”
“By all means, boss,” 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 twenty 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 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 to me at all, but then, my skill with the pen and deductive mind had always been far superior to my skill with the spoken word. As I leaned forward and got started, I realized with a thrill that my spirits had gone high again. The people around me were no longer as intimidating, the world no longer as impenetrable. Here I was, becoming a part of it again. It was possible. I could do it.
I was the first one to finish the test. I knew that this was important. Because the test was so easy, time had to be a factor.
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 all 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 tabulating my future earnings. $12.50 an hour, thirty hours a week. Easily covering my rent, my food, my PG&E, and even leaving a little left over. And best of all, I’d be busy again. I’d be tired. I’d be accomplished. I’d be a member of society again.
But, of course, it was no good getting ahead of myself. Then, of course, came the hard part. Then, following the termination of the timed skills and aptitudes test, ‘Berto re-claimed his space at the front of the room: He announnced that we would now be splitting into groups.
I believe that I effectively masked my truly visceral internal reaction — that queer little feeling in your throat when your heart suddenly feels like it’s been soaked in ginger ale. Sweaty and sticky and nervy in my chair, I stood up noisily with the rest of the classroom. I stepped stiffly into the aisle and waited for my group to form, per ‘Berto’s instructions, around Clarissa, just to the left of me, clipboard in hand and smile on her face. Beautiful brunnette, and hostile crew-cut blond joined me, along with one further person who I hadn’t fully noticed before. Sure enough, I broke into a sweat. I waited to wonder how I was going to hold onto my air of ‘belonging’ once I opened my mouth.
I wiped my brow quickly with the sleeve of my shirt.
“Hi everybody,” Clarissa chirped.
I tried to grow a sweaty smile, and was horrified at the difficulty.
“So, how’s everyone doing today?” she asked.
Heads bobbed in unison, and there were collective 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.”
She jotted notes on her clipboard as we spoke. She went around the circle with her questions, beginning with crew cut, proceeding to brunette, to kid I hadn’t noticed and terminating with me.
She asked us what we expected from this job, what our ideal job was, how we approached customer service, and why we had left our last positions. Pretty much the typical questions you would expect an interviewer to ask a potential stock clerk. Still, I was caught off guard.
And sure enough, as soon as she asked me a question, there came the unmistakable 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 I informed her (falsely, quite falsely) that I had left my last position because I had graduated from high school, and “I hoped to pursue a career in a second level retail or educational environment.” The words had just come out of me, because every other muscle in my body had been so focused on keeping itself from embarrassing me. I spoke in a monotone, and I’m not even sure that I blinked.
Everybody gave me weird looks, even Clarissa, who scribbled opaquely on her clipboard. I sweated and I stared and I held onto that composure for dear life. Somehow, right then and there, humiliation seemed a fate worse than death, but I could feel it coming, nonetheless.
And then, before I knew it, the interview was over. Clarissa thanked us for our time, and said that we were done. She’d finished her questions, and we left in a disorganized clump that dispersed in the hall and headed for the exit of the now open Bears’ Lair. I walked home down University Ave. on legs stiff and jerky like undersized circus stilts. It was about a forty minute walk, but it went by in no time at all. I made it back to my room, to my familiar little cave, surrounded by dirty walls and dirty traffic. I took off my blue shirt and tan slacks, dropped them on the floor and kicked them under the bed, mopping up dust and debris from the floor along the way. Then I crawled into bed and waited for the sun to go down. I breathed through my dispirit, through fantastic effort so recently expended to fight down the ginger ale in my throat, to fight back the panic so close to hostility.
I stayed in bed for a long time, half asleep. Some time later, I got up to go to the bathroom. I saw that I had missed a call on my cell phone.
I walked out into the hallway. The lights were on under my neighbors’ doors, but the bathroom was empty. I peed and washed my hands, then I went back to my room, and I opened my laptop. I checked my e-mail. I’d received a message from the Bears’ Lair. I opened it.
I’d gotten the job.