Essays & Journalism—
“Betwixt Jobs” on Powells.com
In August of 1992, just after college, I moved to Portland, Oregon, lured by a single Nike ad created by Wieden+Kennedy. (That plus seemed so cool.) I never actually applied to work at Wieden+Kennedy — too lofty a realm for me, and anyway, the boyfriend with whom I’d moved had made fun of my advertising aspirations. »
For corporate recruiting the previous spring, I’d bought a Lucky Charms-green suit at Filene’s. The sleeves were too long and so I just taped them. Very Sarah Palin of me. The boyfriend — let’s call him Todd — intimated that I was a striver. To prove him wrong, I slept through my second interview (India print bedspread on the ceiling, Grateful Dead bootlegs next to the stereo). No one spoke to me at the college employment office after that, so it was Portland at the end of the summer. I was grateful that Todd went along.
Across the U.S. on I-90, somewhere outside of Twin Falls, the grade of the Big Horn Mountains required a brake replacement, depriving us of $350, so when we showed up in Portland, we both needed a job. It was, as it is now, a recession, and stories were told in the brand-new rustic microbreweries that they were turning away PhDs from Kinko’s, and sure, why not, I’ll have another raspberry wheat. I wanted to get my PhD, and, in fact, applied that fall. I was desperate to get back into school. The moonlight in Vermont! In the meantime, there were novel espresso drinks to be sampled at Coffee People, and — not yet ominously — the first Starbucks had opened around NW 23rd.
It’s a fault of mine that I both do and don’t know my place. After dutifully copying out of the Oregonian various jobs I had no chance of getting (bead store, vegetarian restaurant, radio station receptionist), my boyfriend and I were offered “researcher” positions at Griggs Anderson, a mystifying organization with offices in a new building along the river. It was not telemarketing. We were taking surveys, on what, I don’t remember, but the accessories were the same: the ergonomic upholstered chair, the yurt-like cubicle, the headset — even the small square Tupperware containers we brought our couscous salads in for lunch. The boyfriend, with diesel Rabbit, soon got a job at a crafts-book publisher near Tigard, to which he commuted, 7-7 every day, returning home with enviable stories about androgynous nymphomaniac coworkers while I shared yet another tahini wrap with my fellow researcher, Fred, an Aussie whose devotion to the Grateful Dead scared even Todd. (I still own an illustrated Post-it note with a sunrise, a skeleton fist holding a rose, and “Sugar Magnolia” carefully sketched in pencil and colored in with yellow highlighter and red, green, and blue Rollerball ink.) The job was dismal: Lynn S. (male) and Lynn D. (female), my managers, though also ambiguously named, were wholly asexual. I had to wear pantyhose, and the act of dialing was the single enjoyable aspect of the job, since you got to press buttons. Minimum wage was $4.75 an hour in 1992. I made $6.
The bills came in: $30 a month for electricity and heat, $380 for rent. I know I owed Planned Parenthood six dollars at one point because I wrote it down. Todd took a weekend job as an ice cream truck driver to earn extra cash; I, no doubt identified by the Lynns as not just a team player, but a true leader — a pantyhose wearing, Tupperware-toting opportunity lost — was promoted to setting up focus groups. I filled coffee jugs and organized the cookie and fruit trays. I’d call Mint Milanos a perk.
By mid-October… time went faster then… I’d gotten a new job. Ever restless, I wanted to move up in the (Pacific Northwest part of) the world, so the next logical step was the copy shop. Not Kinko’s, with its color copiers and 11” x 17” paper, but a respectable outfit nonetheless: wood-paneled, homegrown. Kleen Copy (or at least that’s how I spelled it) was situated in the confusing part of downtown as it bleached out into Lake Oswego. I was a typesetter. My boss was a cheery, pretty, frizzy-haired native Oregonian with a space between her teeth. Her name was Zale, which added to her general sparkliness in my memory, if also ambient proximity to Orange Julius and the Cracker Barrel. Todd plugged away at his craft books, learning such marketable skills as Quark XPress and polymer-clay modeling for fun and profit — becoming ever more entangled in the craft-sex world of north central Oregon — while I clicked around in Pagemaker and regularly failed to proofread, causing Zale to once have to repeat a whole offset job. I was not reaching my potential. One night, stoned, I calculated by hand how long it would take, given compounding interest of 8% (it seemed like a reasonable figure) for $1,000 I didn’t have to become $10,000. Thirty-three years. This was how rich people did it.
November: “I am starting to feel defeated. Like there isn’t anything special to look forward to in life. Like things aren’t going to go specially for me just because I’m me.”
I had $500 in the bank and spent a lot of time on buses, looking at the sky. The pinky rust-red of fall dissolved into the mist of December, when the Sellwood bridge floats off over the river and disappears. I knew there were people worse off. On the way to Tacoma to take my GREs, I met a boy whose six-year-old brother had burned his family’s house down. That was the sole train ride I took the entire time I was in the Northwest, and we were delayed for four hours because someone had stepped out in front of us.
I sent out 80 resumes, not one to Wieden+Kennedy. Kleen Copy was replaced by another “real job” — ambition is a rough master — this one as a marketing assistant, meaning that I had to know how to de-jam the photocopier. Of course there were moments of luxury and relative concentration: a three-day Franklin Organizer seminar at the Hilton where I ran into Harold R., general manager, an old heartthrob from high school. And one night, dinner through a friend at the house of an eminent Portland family, the McCalls. A son of theirs was in Africa. The next day I changed toner cartridges and wondered why rich people always got the good volunteer jobs.
In the blue-green spring, the worst earthquake since the 1960s. I didn’t get into grad school. By the time the white-and-pink trees were in bloom in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, I had miraculously gotten a job offer from a prep school outside of Chicago, a connection through one of Todd’s friends. I had wanted to be back in school. Before I left Portland, I got my nose pierced. I would have gotten a tattoo (on my lower back? maybe at the bottom of my neck, between my shoulder blades?), but I didn’t know what to write.
The whole year in Portland was freakishly memorable (maybe it was the light?) but the one picture that stays with me isn’t really an event, it’s a parking lot, somewhere in Lake Oswego where I worked for a week or two at a coupon insert company. I don’t know what I was doing there, I guess waiting for the bus. There are pine trees in the median and rhododendrons. Some projection of loneliness + freedom. Potential + emptiness. I had just done it. I had just done it and there I was in the over-large empty parking lot, in the semi-industrial part of Lake Oswego, where the trees are too big for their medians and everything’s wet, and there’s nothing to do but be there and wait for the bus and consider the promise and the lie that is the future.
It’s been 16 years. Federal minimum wage is now $6.55. On July 24, 2009 it will go up to $7.25, though of course certain states set their own minimums. Oregon’s is now $8.40 — one of the highest in the country. To me it seems like a fair wage, but I’m old now. I’m writing this for nothing.