Shaping a career out of my marketable skills post-college was like trying to build a castle out of mud and twigs. I applied for jobs because I was trying to be practical, and a job could put in me in the black, whereas my other option—an MFA program—would suspend me in the literary world of the red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens. After a phone interview, a preliminary interview, a grammar test, and a typing test, I sat at last across a desk from Pat, the head of HR at the New York office of the Very Important Talent Agency (VITA).
Pat was a pillar of a woman who wore candy-red glasses that matched her Dansko clogs. Though her accent placed her roots in the heartland, her manner made it clear that New York was her native soil. Under her scrutiny, despite my résumé and my new Longchamp purse, I felt like an immigrant at Ellis Island being checked for lice.
“I’ll be frank you with you,” said Pat. “I don’t think you want to be an agent.” One instinct urged me to jump to my feet and pledge allegiance, under the assumption that this was a test. A second instinct told me Pat would be able to see through any act. She was right: I didn’t want to be an agent; I wanted to be employed. I decided to sit quietly and wait for the “but.”
“But,” she said after a moment, “we do have another option: we can start you as a floater. You can work here, get to know the place, see if this is the right fit.” She paused, then straightened up and slammed her hand down on her desk, jostling her collection of Yankees memorabilia. “I’ve hired a lot of people who turned out to be stupid, and I’m tired of it. So I have to ask you: are you stupid?”
It was a fascinating question. I was planning to parachute into an overcrowded, overheated city, with my boyfriend Ben as my only companion. Ben was a skinny vegetarian as prepared to start law school as a bone is prepared to be thrown to wolves. Home would be the extra bedroom of a 30-year-old pothead who decorated her walk-up apartment with Phish posters and her own paintings of women turning into trees. We did not have trust funds or close friends to fall back on. The past year of college had put me through an emotional shredder. After my dog and then my grandfather died, I spent sleepless nights waiting for the third shoe to drop from misfortune’s dangling foot.
As Pat glared, I realized that “Are you stupid?” was intended to be a straightforward question. Though my emotional state was shaky and my confidence cheesecloth, one thing remained certain: I was smart enough to know when to tell someone powerful what she wanted to hear. Meeting Pat’s eye, I said, “No. I’m smart.” I hoped to God that much was still true.
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