Following Your Bliss
A Career Advice Column
by Sarah E. Murphy
writer, photoartist, entrepreneur and seasoned job-seeker
Part 2 The Interview: They’re Called Red Flags For a Reason
So there I was, taking the Commuter Rail into Boston every day to my new job at a quirky radio production company in Back Bay, working on Celtics and Cider Jack commercials. Finally I had a respectable answer to the predictable question “So what do you do?” I hadn’t become one of those Liberal Arts Major Casualties. I actually had a job remotely relating to my degree. I could hold my head high.
It’s hard to believe it was seven years ago, and when I reflect now, I realize what a valuable learning experience it was for me. As early as my first day it became a place a I dreaded to venture to.
Ali, the girl I was replacing, was going to train me for the first two weeks, and her last day was scheduled for the end of the second week. She needed some time to pack up her apartment before moving to San Francisco to live with her boyfriend. I was kind of relieved she would be around for awhile, as I wasn’t relishing the idea of working one on one with my new boss, Andy, which should have been the only sign I needed that it wasn’t the place for me. He was a sarcastic, self-amused character who made it clear that no one could do Ali’s job as effectively as Ali herself. It was painfully obvious he didn’t want her to leave the position, or the East Coast, and he would remind her constantly that she didn’t even have a job lined up. “If it doesn’t work out, you know you can always come back,” he’d say warmly in front of me.
They were extremely close, and went off to lunch every day, usually heading to their favorite Thai place down the street. “Do you want to come with?” Ali asked one day as they were waiting for the elevator to come up to our office. I was at the computer trying to put my newly acquired skills to use. It was the kind of invitation where you know people are just asking because they have to, and they seemed relieved when I declined. After they left, I sat staring blankly at the screen, wondering how the hell I would ever be able to do the jazzy cassette covers and labels with the company logo that Ali created in seconds for clients. I was relieved to have the office to myself and my self-defeating thoughts, as the new Sound Engineer, the only other employee, was also at lunch. Suddenly being unemployed and on the verge of poverty didn’t seem as depressing as it had before.
Ali soon showed me how to maintain the petty cash fund in QuickBooks. “This is something that Andy is really particular about, so it has to be perfect. He doesn’t like mistakes.” Great, I thought. I’ve never even used this program and now I’m expected to master it, and alas, a program involving numbers.
“We need to keep track of how much we spend on a session, even down to how many bagels a client eats.” Therefore, the receipts from Bruegger’s were handled like classified documents.
A few weeks later, because I always second guess myself, I went back to compare all of my electronic entries to paper receipts, just to make sure everything was accounted for. I found a receipt that hadn’t been entered, and I immediately panicked, assuming the mistake was mine, and pointed it out to Ali. It was then that we both noticed the receipt was dated October, long before had I started, at which point it was Perfect Ali’s turn to panic.
“Please don’t tell Andy. He’ll freak if he finds out. I’ve already gone over those figures with him and if we put it in now, he’ll be so mad.”
I couldn’t believe the kind of fear she was displaying, especially since they were such good friends, and that she was moving across the country in a matter of weeks. Who cares about an overlooked Kinko’s receipt? I thought. If she’s this scared and they’re best buddies, what will he do to me when I screw up?
I didn’t tell Andy that she crumpled up the receipt and threw it away, but I wanted to. Even though I actually liked Ali, the whole situation infuriated me. He thought I wasn’t even capable of handling the task, yet I was one who noticed her mistake.
One day Andy called me into his office and closed the door, a universal bad sign. “Yeah, we really need to talk about the computer,” he said sitting down and leaning back in his chair, hands folded behind his head. “You really have to get up to speed. It shouldn’t be taking you this long to catch on to everything, especially with Ali helping you.” I was doing the best that I could in the time I’d been given. I didn’t really know what more I could do, or how to respond to him, so I just nodded, a huge knot forming in my throat. “And I wanted to talk to you about the answering machine,” he said.
I’m thinking, my machine at home? Did Seton (my brother and roommate) put something inappropriate on it? Not altogether unlikely, as there was that weird Thanksgiving message he did with a Southern accent...
Oh, right, the office machine, he just had me record a new message on it last week.
“Not that it’s ornery or anything, but your voice could stand to be a little more cheery, a little more perky. Maybe more like Ali’s.”
Ornery? Who am I, Ebenezer Scrooge? Does he even know what that word means?
“Sure, okay,” I said, trying to appear unphased while screaming obscenities at him in my head, offering suggestions for what he ought to do with his answering machine. “I’ll redo it, and try to be faster on the computer.” I slinked out of his office ashamed and dispirited, feeling completely incapable of even the simplest task.
By the end of the fourth week, it was pretty evident that Ali wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. She kept extending her last day, at Andy’s suggestion, agreeing with him that she really could stand to make a little more money before relocating. I was part relieved and part resentful. How am I going to learn if I’m never given a chance? Why am I even here? I thought, while watching her handle everything with her signature efficiency. It was like being hired to babysit, but the parents don’t go anywhere and decide to stay home and watch t.v. with you all night. Meanwhile, Andy seemed resentful toward me for being “Ali’s Replacement”, as if my taking the job was the reason for her leaving.
I wanted to quit so desperately. Every day I entertained fantasies of going into Andy’s office and telling him it wasn’t the job for me, that I had been offered a better opportunity, or better yet, just going in and showering him with profanities. Ignorant, yes, but also gratifying.
But I don’t think of myself as a quitter. I’ve only quit one job in my life and I was fifteen at the time. I worked two days at a restaurant down the street and when the owner threw a fit because they ran out of orange juice and started screaming at me and anyone within earshot, I was terrified, and quit at the end of the day, practically running back to my house.
It used to bother me that I had quit, that I had that one little blemish on my working record. I thought it made me immature and impetuous, a baby. I was so ashamed to tell my parents when I went home that day. Now when I look back I realize I did the right thing. I listened to the voice in my head that said “Get out. You deserve better than this.” Hard work was something I expected from a summer job. Verbal abuse, however, was not. The only downside was I couldn’t go back there for ice cream until he sold the place, but it was worth the wait.
So each day I made the trek into Boston with an incredibly heavy heart, wishing I was still working as a nanny for the Lyons clan, missing feeding the twins on the counter in their bouncy seats. Or the way Shane, dressed in his uniform, brown tie and matching little man slacks, would stick his tongue out at me when I picked him up from school. Or when Allegra brought me into kindergarten on Valentine’s Day as her “Special Guest.” Or hanging out with Antoinette while she nursed Athena and I rocked Demetria while listening to Everything But The Girl. There I was needed. There I was validated. Now I just felt as though all I did was make apologies for my very existence.
A slight rainbow broke through the clouds when Andy announced he was going to LA on business for a few days. Celebration time reminiscent of school days and substitute teachers. A brief respite from the evil tsar.
While he was away, Ali and I bonded. One day we had a grand old time doing our own commercials in the control room, using copy from old radio spots, she being a frustrated housewife, me being a cheesy radio announcer. Later, we started talking and I forget what I said that opened Pandora’s Box, but it was as if she had just been waiting for me to bring it up. It turned out one of the main reasons she was moving to San Francisco was to get away from Andy and his overbearing “friendship.”
“He always wants to do stuff together and I don’t know how to say no. He’s always making me go to these awards shows with him or out to dinner and it’s like, don’t you have any other friends?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“He gets almost possessive of me. I mean, I already have a boyfriend, he knows that. It’s not like there’s any remote possibility of anything happening.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I thought he was gay.”
“Are you serious?” She was incredulous. “What made you think that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, suddenly realizing I really didn’t know. It was just a feeling I had in the first interview. Although much older, he kind of reminded me of one of my friends who happened to be gay. Other than that, there was really no basis for my opinion. Man, does my gadar need some tuning.
“It kind of creeps me out. And my boyfriend is not at all thrilled. I mean, the guy’s in his forties for God’s sake. You’d think he could find someone his own age.”
All of a sudden I looked at Ali and started to compare the two of us. We were both around the same age, she about a year or two older. Both with auburn hair, glasses, and a taste for alternative style clothes and music. Both English majors and writers.
It was like coming to the end of “The Sixth Sense” when you find out Bruce Willis has in fact been dead the whole time.
Why didn’t I see it coming???
The signs were all there!!!
I didn’t get it. If the guy freaked her out so much, then why did she go to lunch with him all the time? Why didn’t she run out the door weeks ago on what was supposed to be her last day? Why wasn’t she hanging out at Fisherman’s Wharf right now watching the seals with her boyfriend? Why was she still here???
When Andy returned from his trip I felt even more uncomfortable around him, and had trouble looking him in the eye, yet Ali acted the same, the good buddy who missed having lunch with him while he was gone.
I walked into the office on Valentine’s Day, six weeks after I had started, thinking about the year before, going in to Allegra’s school and sitting in the little plastic chairs and meeting each of her friends and their “Special Guest.” We had a session that morning, so I picked up coffee at the train station on my way in. Andy, who never usually came in before ten, was already in his office, and it wasn’t yet nine. I handed Ali the receipt from Dunkin Donuts.
“He wants to see you,” she said in a weird voice.
I just got here, what could I have done wrong already?
He closed the door and assumed his signature pose, leaning back in his expensive desk chair, hands folded behind his bald head. “This just isn’t going to work. You and I, we’re not bonding, we’re just not meshing.”
I didn’t say anything. I was so shocked, but at the same time, I wasn’t at all. It seemed perfectly in keeping with the whole experience. Part of me was devastated. I was being fired. I had never been fired in my life. But part of me was overjoyed.
“You’re fine with Ali, you two seem like you’re becoming big buddies. But you’re not really opening up to me. And you’re just not picking things up as fast as I had hoped.”
I didn’t really say anything; I just kind of sat there and nodded slowly as if I basically agreed. I think he was surprised at my apathy; perhaps he expected or even wanted me to cry. But I walked out of his office completely composed, for I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. Although my pride was definitely hurt, I was so glad to go, I felt like I was being let out of a cage.
Ali and I had talked about seeing a band we both liked later that week, so just to annoy him, I said to her loud enough for him to hear “Call me about Bim Skala Bim.”
“Yeah, definitely,” she said, unconvincingly, while he stood in his office doorway and watched. It didn’t surprise me when she didn’t call.
I had some time to kill before the next train back to Newton, so I walked down to the Boston Public Library, where I used to spend my lunch hour engrossed in a book in a desperate attempt to escape reality. A serenity always came over me when I walked through those marble halls. I sat and entertained my conflicting feelings of shame and anger. Forget about firing me, the man had absolutely no business even hiring me over what he described to be numerous applicants, knowing full well I didn’t have the qualifications he was looking for, punishing me for my lack of experience and never once encouraging me for taking the initiative to learn.
For six weeks he was critical and condescending, all because he knew I’d never “fill Ali’s shoes” the way he really intended. And now I could no longer say I’d never been fired. I had another blemish on my permanent record.
It was a lesson I’ll never forget. It taught me the importance of listening to your gut when it might seem safer or easier not to, and doing what you know is right for you when others may not agree. At fifteen I had the courage to stand up for myself and walk out the door, but at twenty five I was so concerned with making a good impression on the outside world that I ignored myself, the person I trust most. It’s a mistake I hope I won’t make twice.
My sister Joanna and I “celebrated” over Chinese food that night as we rehashed the whole saga, and at her suggestion, I promptly applied for unemployment the following morning, providing another expense to be added to QuickBooks. It turned out to be a happy Valentine’s Day after all.
- Sarah E. Murphy