It can sometimes be a comforting thought to know that others experience a version of my struggles. For example, Sam Biddle of The Awl has a four part series “Diary of an Unemployed Class of ’10 Philosophy Major in New York City.” And there’s Alexandra Sharry’s piece “How to be a Successful Post-Grad Failure” published on Thought Catalog. We’re not in this alone, these pieces attest.
But I cannot help but find these stories sobering at times. A part of me wants to be in it alone – not so that I can pity myself all the more. But so that one day I can join the ranks of those who are well-adjusted to post-graduation life and don’t feel like crying every time they think of their commencement ceremony.
At first I was skeptical of Biddle’s piece. Being unemployed and living in the super-gentrified East Village seems like a contradiction, but I guess he’s funded by his parents. If he lived in Bethlehem and received the same amount of money, he could go on being unemployed indefinitely and write all day. Once I got past that, though, I found I could relate to his amusing confusion and indignation over real-world terms like “networking.” More than that, he makes a valuable insight about what kind of community college offers us, where we may be around lots of idiots, but at least we can define ourselves in relation to them. The real world has plenty of idiots, sure, but they don’t really know who we are, we don’t really know who they are, and feeling smarter or superior to them affords us little comfort as far as our own identities are concerned. Bethlehem, for example, is teeming with dullards, but this hardly makes me feel any better about myself. Actually, it just makes me want to stay inside.
These tales, finally, lower my spirits. They do not inspire much pity – I think my struggles win out on that account. Nor do they necessarily make me feel worse about my situation. Well, yes, they do, but I won’t dwell. What they do is highlight the fact that shit kind of sucks even in bigger, better places, and we’re still faced with the same questions. Ah, the Big questions! Eventually, I hope, I’ll be in NYC. I’ll probably write something called, “Dan Hoffman, College Graduate – NYC.” Maybe I’ll meet up with Sam and Alexandra, and we can all commiserate.
Being unemployed is an experience that Biddle humorously addresses. The absurdity and senselessness of the job search. But there is a difference between searching for a job that one actually wants and searching for jobs the one can tolerate. The latter is easier, of course, but invokes a range of undesirable feelings.
For example, the other day I drive out to this restaurant to speak to the manager and fill out an application. Before I leave I notice a thirty-something woman who is also applying. She seems to have a sad expression on her face, though I might be projecting my own malaise onto her. Something about her makes me feel bad about my educated self, as if I might be stealing her job, and she needs it more than I do.
I experienced a similar feeling when I go to a staffing place the next day. I replied to an ad on craigslist about a retail position. They tell me the position is for a cigar store in Easton, and set up an interview for the following morning. I think it’s going to be a legitimate interview, but I get there, looking dapper in a vintage sport coat and a skinny tie, and realize that it’s a normal temp agency. There are a handful of people in the waiting room, the unemployed of Bethlehem. I feel especially bad about myself this time, since I’m over dressed. There is a plasma TV playing an informative video about the agency’s policies. The people in the video look sharp and professional, not like the people in the waiting room. I’m requested to fill out an application, which includes basic addition and subtraction problems. I leave feeling tired out and ready to call it a day.
But my feelings of guilt are misplaced! I’m not an irritating college student taking their jobs anymore. I’m just like them, really – unemployed and in debt. The odd mixture of shame and superiority I feel is no longer appropriate. When I was still in school, I found jobs through temp agencies during my time off. I certainly understood why the people I worked with took their jobs seriously, but I would never deign to over exert myself and work as hard as them. Why would I, after all, since I knew it was only temporary and I’d be back to writing papers in no time?
I still work at Déjà Brew, where I continually find new things that irritate me. I find that I have little inclination to engage my coworkers, but every once in a while I’ll exchange a few pleasantries, to keep up appearances. The other day I ask this guy John how’s it going. It’s not going, he tells me, in a frank manner. I’m rather put off by his blunt response, because I could say plenty of things about how it’s not going, but I at least make some effort to be pleasant. I was already suspicious of his character, since he often comes in when he’s off duty to hang out, so this only confirms my reservations. Later on I make a whole sandwich instead of a half sandwich for a customer by mistake, so I get to eat the extra half. I’m unable to finish it, however, because it tastes disgusting, and this only adds to my general indignation.
The place is busy during the lunch hour, I guess because some people find it charming. There happens to be a German couple who I find out merely stumbled across Bethlehem, and came to Déjà Brew by chance. The man is rather taken with the place, and asks me various questions about the establishment. I struggle to match his enthusiasm. Later, a middle-aged woman comes in and tells me she recently moved back to the area from New York City, and when she cheerfully explains to me how nice she finds it here, I can hardly bare it. Sometime after that, a man comes in and speaks to John about a knife sharpening service he offers. Something about the way his speech is slightly agitated and the way he unceremoniously introduces his services make me suspect that he might be mentally unstable.
The thought of someone whose job is sharpening knives lowers my spirits. Sharpening knives! This man not only labors, but also has to convince people that his service is important, not unlike a door-to-door salesman. He needs to appear earnest, sincere, and above all convey the sense that he really cares. But how can one care about sharpening knives?
But I found a new job, and it’s decidedly better than Déjà Brew, and can even be enjoyable at times. My last shift was particularly interesting, for example. The fun begins the night before. I have a new sleeping pill that’s supposed to work more naturally and not leave me feeling crappy during the day, so, feeling optimistic, I pop one of these and head to bed.
Thoughts circulate. I try to keep up a positive attidue…sleep will come, assuredly…pretty soon I’ll drift off, wake up refreshed…ready for a new day… new non-generic pills ought to work…$15 dollar co-pay…forgot to brush my teeth…ex-girlfried…upsetting memories…panic coming on…a change of scenery should help…a bit of reading will do the trick…there’s ativan over in the kitchen…nothing to read…panic coming on…total insomnia…
Finally I get up and get ready for work in a foul mood, thinking I’ll never a get a true night’s sleep again.
But once at work, my night of total insomnia induces a state of disinhibition; I feel gregarious and facetious, and my remarks take on an ironically self-effacing tone. I’m training to be a busser with Mike, an unintentionally endearing guy with a slightly devious look on his face. He indulges my constant stream of banter, and seems to find me amusing. We periodically take cigarette breaks. When my manager asks me if I can work that night, I have to tell him no because I have plans to leave town. I wonder aloud to the hostess if I’m on the manager’s bad side now, having turned down the shift. I launch into a discourse about how he’s abusing the employer-employee relationship by promoting and favoring those who work when they’re otherwise not supposed to work. And what’s with this business about not sitting! There aren’t any customers around; and besides, many great things have been accomplished while sitting. The host, Joselyn, makes a remark about one of the servers saying “how are you’s” to some customers. I launch into another discourse about the lack of a 2nd person plural in the English language, and I talk about “vosotros” and “vous” in Spanish and French. Another server, Bill, comes up to the host stand and somehow we get to talking about relationships. Bill mentions another busser who is still a virgin. He does indeed look like he’s not one who gets along well with the ladies, I remark. They ask me if I’m a virgin. “I’ve been around,” I say, but since I’ve been speaking in a half-joking, half-ironic tone this whole time, I’m not sure if they believe me or not. I start to divulge my sexual exploits. I’m on a roll. I impose my personality aggressively but with sombre wit onto my co-workers and show them what Dan Hoffman, College Graduate, is all about.
I feel inspired as I drive back home. Inspired that work can be fun, a place where I can be eccentric and ironic and have my ego reinflated a little. But, I realize, coming to every shift totally sleep-deprived in a state of delirium is unrealistic.
Back at home, my foul mood returns, and I smoke several cigarettes on the porch, calling people so I can complain. I happen to receive a call from the alumni office at Hampshire College, and a current student named Paul asks me what I’m up to and how’s it going. I tell him it’s not going, and end the conversation at that.