My whole life I’ve worried about the future. Just a lingering sense, long before I became an outlaw, that somehow the tracks had been laid, the wheels set in motion. That something was amiss, that things were going to go awry. Terribly, terribly awry. The first real rumblings of it, I think, can be traced back to 1995, the year I graduated college.
The general attitude among my peers was that the four-year degree had lost its relevance. The only one who seemed optimistic was Geoff, one of my roommates that final semester. He had one of those bulletproof jaw-lines and he made no apologies for his ancestors having arrived via the Mayflower. Shortly before we went our separate ways, he cornered me drunkenly in our kitchen. “Listen to me,” he said, “you know my deck is stacked. All I have to do is show up. It won’t be so easy for you. It’s a rat race out there.” An ice cube popped in his Dewars. He polished it off, dumped the glass in the sink. Then he gripped me by the lapels of the blazer I was wearing—the one I was borrowing from him—and drew me close. “You have to know people,” he said.
I winced. His boozy breath was one thing, but I was tiring of the news. By senior year this was requisite keg party conversation: the necessity of knowing people. If, like Geoff, you were fortunate enough to have been born into royalty, then you were set. Otherwise you’d better be out there making “contacts.” It seemed a bit crass to me: sidling up to people on the off chance that they may be of use at some point. I was content to wing it. Something was bound to happen.
I’d always been neurotic when it came to unknowns. Now my existence was open-ended, and I went into a state of unobservable panic. I began to hear strange murmurings. Something about a “station in life” and then something more particular-sounding called a “skill set.” These concepts barely resonated with me. I was raised to believe I’d go to college; there was never any doubt about that. But now that I could no longer call myself a student, I realized something worrisome: I’d reached a point where I was expected to know things. Not just people, but intangibles, like the direction of my future.
I didn’t really want to work, but not working wasn’t an option. Money was one thing, but I was concerned about perception; women in bars had begun making job-related inquiries. Having white-knuckled my way through various summer gigs—warehouse temp, parking lot attendant, dishwasher—I was conditioned to believe that employment was at best a necessary nuisance. Those who claimed to enjoy their jobs were posing, I decided, unwilling to acknowledge that they were settling.
I bought the Globe on a Sunday and pulled the classifieds. Part of me wanted to find a match, but mainly I just wanted to feel as though I’d tried—and here the ads helped. They all required experience in one capacity or another. And skills. Organizational. Analytical. Interpersonal. One wanted a strong command of something called the SCRUM process. I looked it up. It’s not even an acronym, proving I knew even less than I thought I did. Still, I felt I should keep trying. One caption read FOUR POSITIONS LEFT and I skipped over it because I figured (hoped) I was too late. Only four positions, why bother reaching for the phone? But there it was again, the following Sunday. The body was terse: Looking for honest, hardworking, positive, upbeat, and energized individuals to join our team. People skills a must. I didn’t exactly fit the profile. But below that, in bold, were the buzz words: no exp nec, we will train. I dialed, a peppy-sounding girl answered. Within moments I was booked for an interview with this company, FJ Associates.
I arrived on time and submitted my full name to the girl at the front. She smiled toothily and motioned to the waiting area, where I took a seat among several other hopefuls. The guys were all wearing suits, two of which included vests. The girls: some variation on the pantsuit. My pastiche—polka dotted tie, blue blazer with gold buttons, tan khakis—diminished me immediately. Pearl Jam was pumping from a nearby boom box. ONCE upon a time I could CONTROL myself. Overlapping, muted conversations could be heard from behind drywall partitions.
I settled into a vacant seat. The guy across from me made eye contact, so I raised my eyebrows to acknowledge him. He looked away immediately, so I pretended to have been looking at a poster above his head: a surfer on his board, squatting inside the barrel of a perilous-looking wave. RISK it said. Below that: Fate loves the fearless. Next to that, there was an Ansel Adams print: a single rose sitting on driftwood. It was a black and white shot and the petals were gaping, unfurling. I began thinking of a vagina, and the probability that I wouldn’t be seeing one for a while.
The door on the far wall flung open and a spindly-looking guy scurried out like a rodent set free. A man appeared at the threshold. “JAMES FERRY?” he shouted, some kind of European accent easily detectable from those three syllables. I raised an arm, my voice cracked on “here.” I cleared my throat while this man approached me. “Mark,” he said, jutting out his hand. He was beady-eyed and pointy-nosed with a close shave and a neat haircut clipped over protruding ears. I shook his hand, followed him.
Mark’s office was stark and lifeless. I took a seat across form him and he presented me with a laminated brochure that had the Yankees logo on it. I got distracted by the price tag: $19.99; it made me think of an infomercial. Then he began talking and his accent was so thick that I could only make out bits and pieces: Yankee Stadium, tickets, certificate, twenty bucks. And he punctuated everything by saying MAKE SENSE? I’d nod.
He produced another brochure, this one bearing the logo for TGI Friday’s. I caught what I could: twenty bucks as well…restaurants…buy-one-get-one…MAKE SENSE?
He asked if I had any questions. I didn’t but I knew that to be the death knell of the interview process, so I said, “Do you have a web-site?” I was vaguely aware of these and that companies were now using them, whatever they were.
Mark stared at me vacantly. “It’s under construction.”
The meeting ended abruptly. Mark ushered me toward the door. “Thank you James, we’ll call you if we need you.”
As I approached my mother’s Volvo, I caught my reflection in the window. My hair was unruly in the wind and my stubble was more pronounced than I’d originally thought. My tie was sloppily knotted, my shirt crinkled at the waist. I looked down at the jacket I was wearing, the gaudy buttons, and thought of Mark. Clean shaven, crisp-shirted. He wasn’t handsome, but he owned that room.
I got home and cracked a beer, hit the couch. I must have dozed off. The next thing I knew, my mother was standing over me with the cordless. “There’s a girl on the line for you, it sounds important.” I took the receiver, said hello. She asked if this was “James.” I said yes.
“This is Katrina from FJ Associates. Congratulations. We’d like to have you back for a second-round interview.”
I had two days. I went straight to the Men’s Wearhouse and got fitted for a suit. The guy assured me it’d be ready the next day, but I made him promise anyway. From there I went to Supercuts. The barber, Bruno, asked me what I wanted. “Boy’s regular,” I told him.