My first job in New York was selling group tickets to Broadway shows, mostly The Color Purple, for church groups coming up from Baltimore. I accepted the job while living in Boston, during a shitty month, a really rainy June, when I was out of work and back living at my parents’ house. I slept until 3 in the afternoon most days. I was depressed, about being home and being out of work, but in a bigger sense depressed about the infinity of being part of the working world, the dreary sense that a job was always going to be something I needed to have, that what we do is work, because it’s just what we do. I guess college, cushy as it is, sort of prepares some of us for that, lets us rattle around in an ante chamber, getting anxious and excited about Careers, until it sends us out into the world, running off of that adrenalin for as long as we can. But that preparation only takes us so far.
I suppose that June, in 2006, was when that initial burst of post-college energy dried up for me. Here was the grim procedural fact of, well, the rest of my life: The need for a job, the induction into the anonymous horde of What We All Do. Here I was, depressed about not having something that, well, if I had my druthers, I really didn’t want to have.
But I applied for jobs anyway, mostly in New York, because at the very least I saw a job as a vehicle to get me to a city that was big and scary and as electrifying as a first kiss, teasing and tempting and so mysterious in all its history and motion, its dark and elegant confidence in itself. A job in New York offered some small measure of proof that I too could belong in that flow, could become a tiny part of a story that I’d always found so thrilling.
And so it did bring me here, this safe-ish job in a familiar field, riding down from Boston on a bus on the Fourth of July, everything about the future uncertain, except for the office I’d be showing up to the next morning. The next day it was pouring rain and I received something of a rude awakening when I realized that I would not be managing group sales or anything so lofty as I’d naively assumed, but that I’d just be on a headset all day, processing order after order, staring out the window from the 22nd floor of a building on 42nd Street, toward downtown and the quiet, wistful glimmer of the Hudson River. But it was a job! And I made two great friends, and I lived in the city, unsure and unsteady but at least stumbling around a place I knew I wanted to be.
I quit that job seven months later, my friend Angela and I leaving on the same day. I’d gotten a job working as an admin assistant in the Gawker ad sales department and was mostly excited to be out of customer service and doing something “cool” and “downtown,” in an open office that I could walk to from my apartment. On our last day, there was a little cake reception, some kind, if halfhearted, toasts goodbye, and then, at about 4:30 or so, Angela and I decided it was time to go. We were meeting some of the staff at a bar for drinks a bit later, but there was no sense in waiting around. What’s done was done.
We walked out of the office, and as the elevator doors shut, we had a moment that I’d like to think I’ll remember forever. We turned to each other and shrugged our shoulders and burst into happy, nervous laughter, mixed with a few tears. “What did we just *do*???” Angela asked, and I shook my head and said, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” We were both young, me 23 and she about 26, and we were stepping off into what seemed like the unknown. It was such a giddy, thrilling, sad, scary little moment there in the elevator, me amazed and awed with the bittersweet recognition that I was leaving behind the role, the accepted obligation, that had brought me here. That I was saying to it, and myself, that I existed for more than one reason, that I could make choices, could be independent, sovereign in the life I’d decided to start living.
Work is important in that way, I guess. It can be, on its best and oddest days, a reminder that, if we’re lucky, we can have some control over our lives, our own little stories, that we can be willful and brave and self-possessed. I still wish, of course, that I could be lazy and shiftless, independently wealthy and obliged to no one’s clock but my own. But as a way of measuring time and experience, work is useful, alternately heartening and frustrating.
I’m starting a new job tomorrow, on another 22nd floor on 42nd Street as fate would have it. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll have another elevator moment, but it is at least nice to feel like I’m pulling myself along, that I have been here and there, that I’ve supported myself, and been supported, all this time. And that, because it’s just what we do I suppose, I’ve kept on saying “yes” every morning. (Well, most mornings.)
I know it’s an annoying introductory party question, “What do you do?” But really, what else could we possibly ask?