back to the Black Table

 It is clear I am not cut out for the corporate world. I donít mean the corporate world of insider trading, guys screaming ďbuyĒ and ďsellĒ into their cell phones and foreclosing on family farms; that world is as foreign to me as Mars. I mean the grownup world, the place where you earn a salary, pay bills, put money in 401k plans and try to stay upwardly mobile. Iím perfectly content to sit here all day and tell you about Woody Allenís new film and whether or not my cat and I are getting along, but the world doesnít seem too crazy about that idea. Since the world, like the playground bully, is bigger than me, it tends to win.

Iíve told you a bit about my current job, but let me tell you a little more. According to the stack of unused business cards sitting next to my ashtray, Iím an Associate Editor/Online at The Sporting News in St. Louis, Missouri. What this means is that four days a week, I update The Sporting News Web site with fresh stories, snazzy headlines, compelling photos and various subterfuge I can throw up there without anyone noticing. On a fifth day, I come in and write a column about college football, called the Blitz, in which I try desperately to make games like Idaho vs. Eastern Washington sound at least remotely interesting. I also take a lot of smoke breaks and watch a bunch of NBA games.

My job is nice enough, I guess; I make a decent living, have many friends at work and am at least somewhat respected by my colleagues and my helpful and pleasant superiors. But, well, I dunno. Iím a snot-nosed kid, and Iím just inexperienced enough in this business to think there has to be more out there.

When I was an idealistic college student who planned on ruling the world, I never imagined Iíd be straining to come up with a headline for the Padres-Expos game at 1:30 in the morning, hoping to hurry home because my cat hasnít been fed yet. I guess I just didnít think I would ever use ďhelpful superiorsĒ as a justification for why I like my job. We all go through this painful realization that the real world isnít near what we thought it would be, I suppose, but understand, I was only in college two years ago and havenít quite come to terms with it yet.

As you may know, my true loves are movies and literature, and working in sports has never really felt all that comfortable. I covered Illinois basketball in college, and I pretty much had reached my ultimate opinion on sports reporting as a long-term career when Michigan basketball player Robert Traylor simply refused to wrap a damned towel around himself during an interview in the Wolverines locker room. When I came back to press row and found four bloated beat reporters whining about the chicken at the buffet table, I pretty much decided sports was to be watched with a beer in hand, not a pencil.

Still, after circumstances including the breakup with my fiancee, a film critic position that fell through and a general drunken malaise, I ended up at The Sporting News in June of 1998, and I was happy to be there. Everyone was extremely friendly, and my old friends were impressed I had an e-mail address that ended with .com rather than .edu. But by the time a daily column on baseball that I wrote was killed, in part because it was ďtoo writery,Ē I realized that if I was going to get to where I wanted to go - wherever that was - it would have to be elsewhere. Eventually, anyway.

That said, I liked where I was and didnít see any immediate need to get some boring city-council beat job just because I wanted to write. Then my deus ex machina came soaring in. My editor here at Ironminds informed me of a job opening at The New York Times on the Web, an arts/living producer position that involved, well, producing the arts/living section, I guess. It likely wouldnít increase my writing opportunities, but jeez, it was The New York Times, and given a choice of barely writing at The Sporting News or barely writing at The New York Times, Iíd go with the Times.

Plus, I figured what better place for a young, neurotic wannabe writer guy than New York City? At the very least, Iíd be hanging out with other artsy-fartsy writer people, and Iíd either have constant creative inspiration or realize that everyone was better than me and resign myself to middle management.

I sent my rťsumť and all the particulars to my editorís contact at the Times, an engaging woman named Meredith who spoke with me for a while, then suggested I head out to New York for an interview. I was dumbfounded; as excited as I was about the possibility of moving to New York and working for The New York Times, Iíd never really thought they would actually consider a kid two years out of college who could barely write his name in the ground with a stick. But they set up the flight reservations and everything, and after my mother made an emergency trip to St. Louis to prepare me - ďWill, you are not going to wear that fish tie into the offices of The New York Times - and next thing I knew, still stunned, I was on a plane to New York City.

I hope Meredith will forgive me for this, but I flat-out lied to her during our preflight phone conversation. Contrary to what I told her, Iíd never been to New York City before (a co-worker advised me not to look shell-shocked upon visiting the city for the first time, since ďthe main thing theyíre looking for is to see how youíll adjust to the cityĒ). There might be a more stressful way to visit New York City for the first time than interviewing for a job with The New York Times, but I canít think of one (there was actually another rather stressful element to this trip, but Iím afraid I canít get into it right now; someday, maybe).

Iím not a big fan of airplanes, not because Iím afraid of crashing, but just because you inevitably have to sit next to people who, if youíre lucky, only have a crying baby with which to annoy you. Fortunately, it was an underbooked flight, so I had my own pair of seats to stretch across, but I still found a way to be irritated.

In the seat in front of me, some guy about my age, maybe a little older, was reading a book called, Seven Ways to Peace and Happiness. Now, Iíve always been of the belief that if you need a self-help book to help you survive, the world would be better off without you anyway, so to torture myself and take my mind off the interview, I found myself looking over his shoulder. The book was by Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar or Zed Zappa or some other idiot, and the guy in front of me was currently on a chapter called ďEight words that can transform your life.Ē I donít know what those eight words were - itís not easy to read over someoneís shoulder in a plane, you know - but I have a few ideas:

Quit reading books and do something with yourself.

There is no peace and happiness; grow up.

Self-help books fill the voids in your brain.

Donít sit ahead of cynical assholes on planes.

By the time the guy in front of me was dutifully studying the wisdom of ďAt least once a day, tell yourself, ĎSelf, I will be happy today.í And you will be,Ē I retreated to my non-advisable world. I got to thinking about how much I hate the interview process. I spend most of my life thinking Iím constantly failing everyoneís internal test on how to live anyway, and job interviews simply amplify this process times 50. This time, the test is external, and itís someone you donít know doing the judging.

Every single flaw I merely dwell on in everyday life, I obsess about to the point of mania before a job interview. Letís see, on the ride to the airport, I interrogated my friend Matt about my: a) hair, b) tie, c) socks, d) complexion, e) suit jacket, f) hair, g) waistline, h) tie, i) armpit smell, j) breath, k) hair. After the third hair mention, Matt resisted every temptation to start smacking me, choosing instead to remind me, ďFor Christís sake Will, youíre a man. Try to be a man for once in your life, will you?Ē Too late, dude.

How much did I want this job? I caught myself, while making notes for the interview, doodling ďleitch@nytimes.comĒ in the margins, like some junior high girl writing ďMrs. Tammy DiCaprioĒ on her three-ring binder. In this dog-eat-dog real world - actually, Iíve never really liked the phrase ďdog-eat-dog.Ē It doesnít really make a lot of sense. From my experience, dog is about the only thing dogs wonít eat. But never mind - this could have been the break I needed. At least my small-town relatives would have an answer when they asked my parents, ďSeriously, why isnít Will married yet?Ē (ďOh, he lives in New York. You know how those people are.Ē) There would have been a definite direction in my life, or at least a vague one. It is not wise to hang your happiness on whether a group of strangers deem you worthy, but, well, itís all Iíve got.

Anyway, my plane finally landed and I picked up my luggage (the guy with the self-help book was greeted by a ridiculously beautiful woman, of course). I hailed the first cab of my life and headed to Manhattan, which for the first time I would recognize as something other than a great Woody Allen movie.

I checked into the hotel and went upstairs for my 20-minute break until I was supposed to arrive at the interview. I cleaned up a little, went over my notes for some last-minute cramming and smoked a dearly needed cigarette. And then I walked to The New York Times online offices for a job interview.

I knew I was in trouble when I walked in wearing my best suit and was greeted by some casually dressed friendly people who nevertheless looked at me like the new kid in class who just moved here from some snooty prep school. My nerves got the best of me for a while, and I wasnít my usual jovial self at first. But when I talked to a bunch of people formally, I said all the right things, made silly jokes and mentioned how much fun it appeared everyone was having. The next two days, they were going to show me how their system worked and I was actually going to participate in a night shift, so I jotted down copious notes, hoping to impress them with my Web expertise.

The second night I was there, Meredith invited me out for a few beers ďfor the real part of the interview.Ē I was heartened by this; in the offices of The New York Times, Iím a stranger in a strange land, but in a bar, well, weíre on my turf now.

We downed a few Newcastles, smoked a pack of Marlboro Lights, chatted about our lives and basically shot the proverbial shit. It was most enjoyable; Meredith seems like a fun person with a good head on her shoulders, as my dad might say, and she even laughed when I told her I wrote a column called Life As A Loser. Another good sign: the bartender knew Meredithís name. I inferred that the staff went out for drinks often, which is perfectly awesome in my book, since nothing beats hanging out with other drunks. The sports producer, a ludicrously nice guy named Naka who also happens to be Meredithís husband, dropped by later. He said he enjoyed The Sporting News site and had noticed some of my stuff there.

Everything was all hunky-dory, I guess, until, strangely, a fight broke out in the bar. Naka, being ludicrously nice, stepped in to separate the brawlers and escorted one outside. Meanwhile, I was cowering under a table, crying for mommy. Later, I mentioned to Meredith that I hoped my lack of valiance would not be a factor in the decision-making process. She laughed, but she didnít answer.

Regardless, everything went as well as could be reasonably expected, and, save for a few stray questions about why I wasnít eating when everyone else was - I eventually admitted my Dexatrim addiction - I think I had them thinking I was adequately normal and qualified for the job. When I left, I had a cigarette with Meredith, who seemed, not that I possess much knowledge about these things, as if she was optimistic about the possibility of hiring me. She told me they would let me know in ďone to three weeks,Ē which, given past experiences, I assumed would be about 10 days, tops. I bid her adieu and headed back to the hotel. Ten hours later, I was on a plane, heading back to St. Louis.

Of course, when I arrived, all my friends wanted to know how the interview went, and, when pressed, I had to admit, I felt it had gone pretty well, actually. You never know about such matters, I said, but if I had a chance in the first place, I didnít blow it, which for me is 95 percent of the battle. All I could do now was wait.

About a week and a half after I got back, around the time I was staying home all day desperately waiting for a phone call, I received an e-mail from a woman Iíd met at the Times named Inger. She was a fellow arts producer whom I would be primarily working with if I got the job. Her e-mail said that she was happy to meet me while I was out there, and that I had mentioned I had some ideas for the site. Could I please send those to her? Well, I thought Iíd spent the three days out there telling them all about my ideas for the site, but I was nevertheless happy to oblige, putting together a term-paper-like manifesto in about two hours, finishing at about midnight. I hoped that was adequate, and the Times called two of my four references later in the week - neither, for their own reasons, really wanted me to get the job, which canít be good, though Iím sure they were professional about it - and I prepared myself for the evidently impending call.

Well, as it turned out, I spent about as much time preparing as a high-school girl going to her senior prom. Every morning, Iíd wake up at 10, shower and jot notes on my word processor until I had to be at work at 5, expecting the phone to ring any second. Oh, it did ring. Salesperson, friend from college, another salesperson, mother, cousin, another salesperson, friend from work. But still, as we rapidly approached the three-week deadline, I hadnít heard anything.

As you can probably guess, I handled this stressful period of purgatory with my typical panic. I get stressed out when I order drinks; when Iím waiting to find out where Iíll be spending the next few years of my life, Iím borderline catatonic. Still, I realized there was simply nothing I could do, so I waited. And I waited. When I got bored, Iíd take a break, and then I would wait some more. Rinse, lather, repeat.


Now, I know youíre expecting some big dramatic end to this column. My dreams were dashed, destroyed by not getting the job. Or, surprise, maybe Will isnít that much of a loser after all, because he just got a cooler job. Iíve deliberately not mentioned whether I got the job or not, in a pathetic attempt to try to build suspense.

Well, guess what, folks? It has been three months - count Ďem! - since I left the interview, and, in the one scenario I didnít anticipate in the slightest . . . I still donít know if I got the job. Iíve had a bit of correspondence with people at the Times, and they keep telling me to hang on. Thatís fine, but I needed a column this week, so here it is. At the very least, all my friends who ask me every single time they see me if Iíve heard about the job will stop, because theyíll have read this column. I had to deal with enough questions during the interview.

Besides, itís been three months. I think thereís some kind of statute of limitations on writing about job interviews, and itís got to be less than three months. This column might not be wise, but itís honest.

One thingís certain. Whether itís at The Sporting News or at The New York Times, Iím not getting a 401k plan. I donít have to grow up if I donít want to.



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