“What are you struggling with right now?”, I asked. I was sitting in a plush, red vinyl booth in the middle of a colorful corporate dining room marketed to consumers of American food and culture. Mark, the General Manager, was sitting to my right, fidgeting and obviously fighting something in his mind. He took a moment to gather his thoughts and articulate his words. Then his blunt hazel brown eyes looked squarely into mine. “What I’m struggling with is that, on the phone this morning, you had a certain energy that made me think you had something and that’s why you got this interview today. When I met you, I expected to be blown away but it just wasn’t there until I asked for it and then I got it. So now I’m worried that you won’t always be bubbly when I need you to be.” I knew myself too well to promise anything more and I hadn’t had much fight left in me anyway. I agreed with him.
That morning I had called on a job opening I heard about. I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of working there for various reasons, the biggest one being that it was such a chaotic, high energy place on weekend nights that the thought of fighting to walk through the crowd that occasionally gathered around the bar and yelling over the loud music just to take an order exhausted me. But it was the best chance at a job I’d had since moving to Australia so I gave it a go. Mark explained to me over the phone that unless I had worked for their company before, they didn’t hire people with my visa because of the lengthy training period. I couldn’t stand to face another solid day of job searching and rejections so in a last-ditch attempt at gaining an interview short of begging for it, I did make the promise that he would like me in person. At 4 pm that afternoon I was ushered in to the strangest and longest restaurant interview of my life.
I first met with Collette, the self-proclaimed filter for potential new hirees. Her young, lightly worn face and genuine expressions were a stark contrast to the array of silver achievement badges pinned to her collar, which were not unlike the “pieces of flare” Jennifer Aniston despised wearing in the movie “Office Space”. Our conversation on job-related subjects and interview questions designed to indicate if the interviewee has more self-awareness than sloths who accidentally fall from trees by mistaking their own limbs for branches, was interjected with her side comments that made me believe not every corporate employee was a zombie. I jumped at the chance to explain that Laura Marling was my all-time favorite singer, providing Mumford and Sons as a mainstream example of “folk” music. When Collette replied that she’d heard of Mumford and Sons it was as if reality had grabbed me out of my fantasy world that valued emotional depth and slammed me back into that red vinyl chair with marketing and branding being shoved in my face faster than food was. Let the corporate conditioning begin, I thought.
I began to have some serious doubts about my motivation for being there when Collette left to get Mark. I focused on my breathing as a test-group-approved song wove its way through the dining room, around the wooden beams and bouncing off the walls plastered with the newest trend in graphic design, meant to appeal to the masses. I recalled the pep talk I gave myself on the walk to the bus stop that afternoon. It will be good to make friends, I thought. You need to make some money so you can afford to move, or at the very least go home. It wont be as bad as you think. This is a long walk, maybe if you get this job you can afford to get a car. I looked up in time to see Mark walking to my table. We shook hands and somehow landed on his life story. I had a minor existential crisis as he told me about studying photography in Manchester, working for Condé Nast in the 90s before the digital revolution, and opening a bar in Spain by the sea because it was a childhood dream. I was hearing wisps of my dream life from a man with salt and pepper hair and an air of resiliency, who had burned out his dreams long ago, as we sat there in that corporate red vinyl booth, thousands of miles from either of our homes.
The talk of travel and photography led me to my usual vivid day dreams but soon dissolved into my time to shine. I had been through interviews for worse jobs, all of which I was less desperate for, and I fought my heart out for them. But I suspected I promised too much on this one. It was soon apparent that he was less than impressed with me, and I was feeling the same way. I stumbled over my words, resisting my temptation to tell him I didn’t want charity and thank him for his time and leave. But my ego wasn’t about to give up. There was no way I had sat there for an hour just to have a man, who gave up on dreams I have yet to realize, decide that I was not good enough for this glossed-over, corporate-fed, inoffensively trendy place. In some sort of wild resurgence I ran my finger down the list of my work history that was sitting in front of him, nearly screaming “Look what I’ve done! Look at how many different jobs I’ve had. I used to work road construction! And I’ve got serving experience. I can bullshit with anybody!”
Yes, I used the word “bullshit” in an interview.
This final attempt at making myself seem like more than just a girl, desperate enough for a job to say anything, sufficed for a few moments. But he still wasn’t convinced and after realizing that he was speaking my mind when he voiced his concerns about my bubbliness or lack thereof, I didn’t have any more drive to fight for a job that I wasn’t sure I’d even wanted in the first place; hour and a half and a $2 bus fare be damned. But instead of making his decision just then, he had me join a group of waitresses who were on their break to see what they thought. All seriousness turned into giggles within a few minutes and when Mark had me return to my original table so he could talk to the girls, I could overhear words like “American” and “accent” dotted between more generic crowd-pleasing music that seemed to be louder now that dinner was approaching.
When he came back to talk, he was still apprehensive and unbeknownst to him, so was I. He didn’t speak immediately and my feet were turned towards the door. It was like a really absurd game of chicken. He was risking wasting time and money on my training and I was risking my dignity. Following one last plead about his need for me to be bubbly, he said, “I can’t go against my team…” and with a pause, he held out his hand and said, “Welcome to the team.” I thanked him as I shook his hand, a partially feigned smile on my face, and walked out the door still wondering to myself, What the hell just happened?
Author’s note: Names have been changed to protect identity.