Wrong Direction

Fresh out of college, I remember the crisp optimism of each new day… The sun crept into the window of the little attic bedroom in our old Victorian home in Jersey City, NJ, always promising bright new things. I was a New York Metro transplant, fresh off the turnip truck from my small university in Michigan. Life was full of promise–I would change the world, one filed story at a time!

Arriving in NYC with a degree in Journalism, the world was my oyster–or so I thought. The problem was that the publishing industry was imploding. Newspapers were no longer hiring at a crazy pace, as web traffic was up and delivery readership was down. (Did I mention that the pay was abysmal?) Ah, but the optimism of youth and inexperience is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And so I set out to find employment, as the few stabs I’d taken from my newspaper office in Michigan hadn’t met with wild success.

Each morning I’d wake and make coffee in the small galley kitchen, hauling a large cup back up the narrow stairs and into the bedroom tucked under the sloped eaves of our rented home. With sunlight winking through the leaves of the trees lining our street, the air smelled fresh for the first hours of the day.

There were four of us in the four-bedroom space, the fourth bedroom serving as a tight little living room outfitted with a sofa and TV. The kitchen was narrow, with just enough room to accommodate a two-seater table. If you wanted more space you could open the sliding doors to the deck, hardly more than a Juliette balcony.

This was in the days of Monster.com, and each morning I’d review new job postings in publishing and public relations, determined that today would be my day. Then out went four or five faxes, a few follow-up e-mails, a phone call or two.

When a staffing agency called, I reconciled myself to the idea of letting them do the work for me. I’d had only one bite from the dozens of resumes I’d sent out and if the interview wasn’t a success, I’d determined it was time to take the first job I could get. After all, it was a paycheck. This way I could provide a stable paycheck and insurance while my fiance’ broke into the industry of commercial photography.

The interview with a boutique PR firm went swimmingly and I fully expected a callback for a second interview, though I’d already begun interviews organized by the staffing firm. It was grueling and I was ready to be done with it, as there were days I attended four or five interviews, followed only hours later by second interviews, as the staffing firm began presenting offers. This interviewing schedule was no small feat in Manhattan, in heels, in the days before Smartphones or reliable GPS. I asked strangers in the subway for directions. I stopped people in crosswalks. My ready Midwestern smile and long blonde hair startled people and they stopped, kindly responding with the best information they had. Most smiled, saying they remembered their first confused days in the city, rushing nervously from one interview to the next.

The PR firm called me back the same day an insurance broker offered me a job. Could I start next week, asked the staffing director at the PR firm? (I could.) Could they offer benefits to my fiance’? (They could.)

I called my rep at the staffing company to tell her I was accepting a job, and it wasn’t the one she was promoting. She begged and pleaded, touting a detailed offer from the insurance brokerage. I waivered. It was enough to keep body and soul together, however meager. It was a simpler commute. Realistically, it was only going to be six months, right?

At 5:30 on the morning of my first day on Wall Street, I was awake–wide awake. It was already blisteringly hot, and I was up early enough to guarantee I could hit the shower before the three guys in the house. I’d made coffee and packed a zippered tote with walking shoes, my Discman (yeah, remember those?) and the flip phone I’d gotten the week before. I was out the door just a few moments after seven. Work started at 8:45 and leaving just in time to catch a 7:30 train would put me there none too early.

Rushing through Journal Square (one of the roughest stations to be found at that time), I managed to squeeze into a train already packed to capacity. We would make several stops on the Jersey side before whooshing under the Hudson, and I fought to quell the panic brought on by a claustrophobic space as we barreled through the dark tunnels.

Finally out on the other side, we trundled our way to the 33rd Street stop. This was my transfer, and I rushed through the turnstile in the reeking humidity of the subway. I needed to catch my next train quickly, to the Wall Street stop. This train was crammed, my face wedged into the armpit of the nearest strap-hanging stranger. When the train screeched into the stop the cars vomited hundreds of people as we surged up the stairs and onto the sidewalk, clogging crosswalks, filling sidewalks and spilling over onto the streets, all on our way to our respective buildings.

Only a year earlier, this would have been a much simpler commute. I’d have taken a train into the World Trade Center and walked down Broadway, up nearly to where Broad and Wall Streets intersected, to find myself quickly at work. But as 9/11 occurred only months before my graduation and relocation, the inconvenience of a terrible commute was mine, and everyone else’s, to bear. I didn’t have much to complain about, I realized, as the steaming, smoking pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center was a daily reminder to those still alive to see it.

The dress code was strict and severe on Wall Street. (This was Manhattan in the early aughts, which I realize has not changed, perhaps with the exception of Goldman Sachs.) You did not wear open-toed shoes. You wore a suit to work every day, or VERY convincing separates if you wanted to climb the corporate ladder. You wore stockings, under pain of death, lest a bare knee lead your boss into temptation. And for the love of God, keep the camisoles in the bedroom, because you were clearly a fallen woman if you ventured into garments consisting of silk or satin.

Over the next few months, the pool of assistants were divided up, reassigned by some Almighty Unseen Power, each of us matched with a senior agent who could do with us as he or she saw fit. For some that made life a living hell, and the most common response to the early morning alarm was the descending feeling of dread.

What do you do when you hate your trade? I practiced avoidance. There were days I was consciously aware that I was trying NOT to absorb the information that would have made my professional life so much easier. Why did I need complete knowledge of personal insurance contracts? After all, I was going to be a foreign correspondent, or perhaps an award-winning writer of deep, thoughtful columns in one of the remaining newspapers. But wait…was I?

What do you do when life doesn’t go as planned? Can you survive the drudgery and keep the faith alive? Do you schedule Dream Job interviews into lunch breaks? Do you pursue your passion in every spare minute, praying it’s enough to fill your soul? Or do you become bitter and cynical? Do you allow yourself to sabotage the dreams of others, to foment trouble and dissent, to crush the confidence of the Bright Young Things?

Now I look back on the plans that disintegrated, the job interviews that didn’t work out, the stresses of financial struggle in one of the world’s most expensive cities, and the stresses of a job with numerous responsibilities and no position of power. I can see how each piece was part of a larger picture and purpose, and I’m thankful the story isn’t yet finished.

All work on this site is original and proprietary. Credit to other authors is given in recognition of their cited works. All rights reserved pertaining to copyright laws.

 


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