Thursday, October 9, 2008


In a high school English class, we took a little trip to the computer room in the library. Our school didn't have a guidance counselor, but they did have a new computer-based aptitude test they were dying to try out on us. I sat between my friend Yava, a black gothic girl who would sometimes cut her palms and write the word "freak" on her paper in blood in class, and my friend Raj, a girl who was Indian or some sort of -Stani and who mostly just sat in class and didn't say anything.

When the results came back on the test, Raj was to be a butcher. Yava was to be an undertaker. And I was to be a librarian or 4h club counselor. Had the girls' predictions not seemed so eerily accurate, I might have spent more time wondering about the validity of this test, which had asked question like "Do you like books?" (love them!) and "Do you like school?" (hate it!) but never, "Are you okay working in an environment where no one talks?" or "Are you willing to go to college if it means a better job?"

The point is, years later when I needed a job, I found myself hearkening back to that test, and applying for a job at the local library. The application process was rigorous. Thirty of us were seated in a room and given a list of books to alphabetize or place in the Dewy Decimal system, and the first two to finish would be the ones hired. I have since learned that I should never, ever apply for a job where personality is not taken into account.

The job was fine, at first. I was a "page," and would come in in the morning, grab a cart loaded up with alphabetized books, and wheel it out to the shelves, where I would "shelve" them. It was quiet in there. Nobody asked me questions. I would go entire shifts without speaking to another human being. I would go entire shifts sleeping in my bed at home, and nobody noticed. How could they? Eventually I went about two weeks without going in at all, and that's when I decided to find a new job. I'd made it almost two months. 4H isn't very big in Utah, so I had to get creative. I did return to work at the library for a few more shifts, and one day as I was leaving, thinking about where else I might work, I saw a huge sign exactly across the street from the library that read "Looking for a job? Come inside!" So I did.

It was a phone survey place called BRG, an important cog in the great mechanism of consumerism. Employees there would call people randomly and get them to consent to taking a survey that would ask them important questions such as, "On a scale from one to ten, how much red would you say is at your local KFC, with one being no red at all, and ten being everything is red?" "How likely would you be to spend an extra five dollars to be able to get your personalized photo as the background of your Citibank credit card? Would you say completely unlikely, very unlikely, somewhat unlikely, neutral, somewhat likely, very likely, or completely likely?" If you say "likely" a bunch of times in a sentence it starts to sound really dumb.

Anyway, I picked up the application right then, and was instructed to return the next day to turn it in and schedule an interview.

The prospect of soon leaving the library for good made it easier to return there the next day. Still, there is a reason that librarians are sad, dusty women who die of old age around 45. Shelving books makes you go a little bit out of your mind, which you allow, because staying IN your mind while you do it is torture. So you start to play little games with yourself, like imagining the titles of the last two books you shelved combined into one, or if the author of each book had a superpower based on his name alone, what would it be? I'm sharing too much. Anyway, all those years ago when I had marked that I like books, I think I had misunderstood the question. To read books, I loved; to merely be around them, inundated in covers and bar codes and decimals, the bulk of responsibility to put them in their proper place stifling my every thought? That is my own personal hell. Well, throw in a mad press of pregnant midgets and spiders, and then THAT is my own personal hell. The point is, I had to at least imagine what was in those books, pretend to have some sort of a relationship with them. Not a book went by whose title I didn't examine. And on that last day, I found a book, a small one, that had the potential to change every aspect of my life, or at the very least land me that new job. It was called "How to Get People to Like You in the First 90 Seconds." I skimmed through one chapter right there in the aisle, and it seemed promising. I had about an hour left of my shift before I had to be at that interview, so I put the book-laden cart back in the back room, and sat down on a comfy chair out of site to read my new treasure. The principle was a simple one. Be like people. Do whatever it is they do. Match mannerisms, touch on the topics they talk about, etc. People like people they're like, according to this author.

I decided to try that out when I went to turn in my application, because what the hey? If it worked, great, and if not, there were other jobs.

The secretary at the front desk at BRG that day was a demure girl with an apologetic smile. I matched it, stating who I was and saying that I was "just" there to turn in my application, and I didn't want to be a bother, but how soon did she think it would be possible to get an interview?

She smiled slightly warmlier (warmerly?) and said to wait one second, then went in search of whoever it was that was going to give the interview.

Barbara emerged a moment later. Or maybe I should say she erupted. She was wearing a muumuu that was louder and more floral than an ibex stampede through an Alpine meadow. And her neck! Her neck bounced her head around flaccidly like one of those dashboard bulldogs. I suppose she thought she was nodding enthusiastically, but it looked more like some sort of disorder. Slinkineckitis. Now, I had already resolved to be like her, no matter what, so I started in.

I moved my head up and down and up and down and around and around like I was trying to get water out of my ears or something. Her own bobble head kept moving even more sporadically than mine. After a little bit I noticed that her head didn't merely go up and down, but in a bit of an orbit, like the way the north pole goes in little circles on its way around the sun. So I threw that in, too. I also matched her Jewish-talkshow-hostess breeziness, and smiled confidently after everything I said, like I just knew she was going to love it and might even be considering writing me a little "thank-you" note for saying such wonderful things. After all, that seemed to be the reaction she expected from me.

The thought did fleetly flitter through my mind that maybe she really did have some sort of disease, and what if she thought I was mocking her. Then I realized that if it were a disease, she'd have no way of knowing that I didn't have the same one. If she couldn't control how she moved her head, then she'd have to assume that neither could I. Besides, maybe my head during that interview was the only thing in her world that wasn't moving up and down all the time. Maybe it was a relief to her to see such a level-headed young man when all the world around her seemed to be moving up and down like a storm-tossed ship at sea. Okay, probably not. But SOMETHING worked.

At the end of the interview she offered me two dollars per hour more than they pay the other employees, because, as she said, she had "a good feeling about" me. Then she handed me a blank piece of paper and a pencil and instructed me to write my own schedule. It was great!

Well, the job was great. For about a week. Then I had about two weeks of somewhat great to somewhat not great, and by the time I'd been there a month, the job was not great at all. Eventually I got sick of people yelling at me that they didn't accept sales calls (This isn't a sales call, ma'am, it's a marketing call) and that I had said I would take only five minutes and it had already been 25 (I'm sorry ma'am, we're almost done here. It'll just be another five minutes). Then one day my friends called to see if I would go on a road trip to Seattle and San Francisco with them. We'd be gone for a week and a half, and we'd be leaving the next morning. So I went.

It wasn't the best road trip ever (I think if an mp3 player accident forces you to listen to nothing but Abba and German lessons for an entire 40-hour car ride, it could even be described as the WORST road trip ever), but it sure beat going to work at that awful job. I went in to pick up my last check the day I went back, and the shy secretary asked me if I'd like to pick up a shift that evening. I pointed out that I hadn't come to work for over a week, but I was informed that Barbara was going to dismiss that. I told her thanks, but I had plans. Which included looking for a new job. (Anyone need someone to teach their kids how to raise rabbits and poultry? Anyone?)

For months after that, I continued to get exuberant phone calls and messages from Barbara: "Hi Robbie! I'm not sure if you were planning to come in to work today, but just remember that we're on holiday schedule, so you get an extra two hours to sleep in or do whatever it is you do in the mornings! Okay, buhbye!" The calls only stopped when I finally moved out of that house. For all I know, I still work there to this day.