by Dana Norris
I am 22 years old. I have just graduated with my Masters degree. I am sitting on the carpeted floor of my apartment in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune classifieds are spread out before me, carefully placed so as to cover a large red wine stain. An ad catches my eye. It reads: “Work for a Fortune 500 cosmetics company. Earn $60,000 a year.”
I am stunned. “I wear cosmetics,” I think. “I could use $60,000 a year.”
Now, you must understand that I was young and naïve on that morning three weeks ago. I know that people right out of school aren’t supposed to get jobs that pay $60,000 a year, particularly when they wrote their Masters thesis on comparisons of Judeo-Christian and Post Modern conceptions of suffering as exhibited in the plays Job and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But I’ve always labored under the delusion that I was somehow special, that money and prestige and things of this nature would be easily acquired. On account of the specialness. And so far in my young life, this had been true. Maybe not the money part, but I had received honorable mention at several speech contests and dazzled audiences as a member of the Mystiques, my high school show choir.
I accidentally majored in Religious Studies in undergrad. I took an Old Testament class as a general education requirement during my first semester and it rocked my world. Everyone was fighting and having sex and dying and the prophets were so crazy in their loin cloths. My professor wore red velvet blazers with elbow patches and had hair like Eleanor Roosevelt. The day I approached her to discuss maybe possibly considering a Religion minor she became so excited that she called the department chair into her office. He came running down the hall, a “Major Declaration Form” clenched in his fist. I was the first freshman to express interest in religion. I was the only freshman to express interest in religion. Their combined giddy enthusiasm overpowered me. I became a Religion major and I became excited, too.
I was also an English major, because everyone needs a safety major. But the Religion Department was my home. The professors cared about me. They took me aside at the end of class to tell me how delightful I had been. They jumped between me and fundamentalist freshmen before I could make the freshmen cry. They didn’t mind that I stole coffee from their break room every morning. Religions were offered to me as though they were delicate cupcakes for me to nibble on at my discretion. It was wonderful. I always wanted to belong to the Religion department.
At the urging of my professors, I applied to graduate school in Religion at the University of Chicago. Most of my professors had attended the University of Chicago and they wrote me lovely letters of recommendation. Once there I planned to study the great religions of the world, peer inside them and discover the point at which they all intersect. I was then going to take this knowledge and use it to publish brilliant academic papers, which would naturally assure me a position as a Religion professor and a lifelong academic. I was going to find absolute truth and, even better, I was going to avoid looking for a job. I had been dreading looking for a job since the day I started college and grad school appeared to be a lovely alternative. Both of my parents worked in offices and I had told them loudly and often that I was never going to work in an office. I was going to do something different. Something special. Religion was my answer.
Problem was that I couldn’t stand grad school. If undergrad had been a bakery full of delightful cupcakes, then grad school was a grim assembly line where you are forced to eat cupcakes until you can’t remember why you ever enjoyed the damn things in the first place. There was an entire canon of books of which I was completely unfamiliar. My classmates referenced these books so causally and so often that I found myself unable to understand their conversations. In class, I would sit in the back row and watch the clock. Thirty seconds before the end of a three hour class, a person in the front row would inevitably raise his/her hand and ask something like, “Could you please expand upon the hermeneutical aspects of the author’s approach?”
The professor would talk and the other students would diligently take notes and I would close my notebook. I would sit as the class stretched on and on, writing nothing. For the first time in my life I wasn’t one of the smartest people in the room. For the first time in my life I didn’t even want to be in the damn room. I had not discovered the point of absolute truth, nor was I going to. I was going to get my Masters and get the hell out.
This epiphany cost me $40,000 in student loans. I graduated and became a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies. I had a part-time job tutoring children for $800 a month. My rent was $400 a month. I had no health insurance. My previous career goal had been to be a college professor or, at the very least, not to work in an office. My goal quickly changed. I would now work anywhere that would pay me more than $800 a month.
I created a sparkling resume with mounds of action verbs: Promoted! Sponsored! Performed! Filed! Even though I had taken a non-traditional path, I was sure that my advanced degree would only help me in my job search. After all, I had forced myself to read Derrida and had kind of understood it. I was sure that I would find, interview for and be hired to work at an amazing job within the first week of my search.
I e-mailed my resume for the $60,000 cosmetics job and was not at all surprised when a woman called the very next day to arrange an interview. I simply assumed that my talent and ability had burst off of the pages of my resume, blinding the HR director and injuring several interns: “She attended the University of Chicago and is now completely changing career paths! We must have her!”
The woman who called introduced herself as Karen. Karen was perky and mentioned how excited she was to be talking to me. I took this as a given. I was convinced of the inevitability of it, so much so that only after arranging the place and time of the interview did I absent-mindedly ask, “Exactly what is the position?”
“Well, we are a Fortune 500 cosmetics company. And we’ve been featured in Forbes magazine several times. As a Fortune 500 cosmetics company. And we here at Mary Kay are looking for someone with exactly your qualifications.”
I momentarily considered hanging up the phone. And sterilizing it. But Karen kept talking.
“You know, we do have a position open for a corporate trainer. I think you would be perfect for it.” A corporate trainer. The richness of the phrase is what sold me. It invoked images of me in a dark blue suit, holding a long, wooden pointer, and spinning around in my very own leather swivel chair. Instead of teaching Religion, I would teach makeup.
The morning of the interview, I woke up very early. I was giddy. I was going to get a great job from my first interview. I took a long time picking out and ironing my most professional outfit. Long, black skirt with a small blue paint stain on the back that you could hardly notice. Black cardigan. Gray tank top that wouldn’t show too much cleavage, as long as I remembered to occasionally yank it up. I took 45 minutes applying my makeup. This was going to be my first real interview for my first real job. I wore pink lip gloss.
The location of the interview was a fancy hotel in downtown Chicago. It had valet parking. Never mind that my car was full of empty Diet Coke cans, coffee stains, and a florescent orange dust that had once been Cheetos. Also, I did not technically have the $22.00 required for valet in my checking account. But I didn’t care. I gave the valet my keys without shame. I was going to be a corporate trainer.
I walked into the hotel. We were meeting in the courtyard, in front of the Coffee Bean. I was slightly dismayed to find that the courtyard was a public space where just anyone could come in and sit down among the palm trees. I spotted Karen. She was the one wearing the pink dress with the pink cardigan thrown over her shoulders. I sat down, introducing myself. Karen smiled at me while complimenting my outfit. We talked and all the while I was sure to make strong eye contact, smile, and be as articulate as humanly possible. I told her about my academic studies and my goals. I told her about my career ambitions and my incredibly strong work ethic and…I realized Karen wasn’t paying attention. My eye contact, my smile, my articulation were all falling on a woman whose posture indicated she was listening, but whose eyes were scanning the room. And then they recognized someone.
Another woman approached us. She looked like Satan. Tall, very thin. Her outfit was all black and she carried a long, slim briefcase. Her hair was a brown shell that must have taken thirty minutes to spray into submission. Her face and neck were a rosy orange color that neither matched the rest of her skin nor occurs in nature. Five of her ten fingers displayed diamond rings. Her eye shadow went far past the point where her eyelids technically ended and she was employing a frosty red lipstick/lip liner combination that only the Beelzebub herself would be brave enough to wear in public. She was my own walking, talking version of hell and I moved my chair back an inch as she approached.
She was corporate. A Mary Kay Lady who had climbed the ranks to the national level and was now the overseer of all local Mary Kay Ladies. The woman who had been interviewing me, Karen, cowered in her presence. Satan smiled, her blood-red nails curling towards me for a handshake. I shook her over-moisturized hand and she sat down.
Satan had a strong southern accent. “Well, I’m just pleased as punch to meet you. Karen has told me so much about you. Apparently, you’re our next corporate trainer.” I suddenly realized that Satan wasn’t so bad.
She opened her briefcase to reveal a black folder. In the folder was a stack of magazine articles that had been laminated. Satan began a presentation, using these articles to illustrate her points. The articles told me that Mary Kay is a pro-woman company that is the perfect place for working mothers and ambitious women everywhere.
“Mary Kay gives you freedom and security. Mary Kay lets you work and care for your children. Mary Kay lets you…” Satan motioned for me to move closer, whispering “make more money than your husband.” She stared at me with wide eyes, her mouth an excited “O”. I tried to convey that I, too, was delightfully scandalized. Satan continued, “As you can see, Mary Kay is really a wonderful company to work for. Mary Kay improves the lives of not just those who sell it, but the lives of women everywhere.”
Satan paused. I realized it was my turn to say something. To comment on the wonderfulness that had just been placed in my lap in the form of laminated magazine articles.
“How does Mary Kay improve all women’s lives?”
“Oh, well…I’m glad you asked me that. You can sell Mary Kay to all kinds of people. You see, the way you sell Mary Kay can make a difference. When women look good they feel good. You can give facials to victims of domestic violence.”
I imagined myself in a room full of women with black eyes, gingerly applying makeup to one: “This will make your pores look smaller.”
“Do you have any other questions, dear?”
“Oh, uh…will I be selling Mary Kay? As a corporate trainer?”
“Well, at first you will. You see, everyone at Mary Kay starts off selling the product, so we can all learn about it and what a wonderful product it is.”
The back of my neck went cold. “But, you have a job open for a corporate trainer.”
“Yes, we do. And you are more than welcome to it. All you need to do is sell Mary Kay the very best way you can. Then, when you convince eight other lucky ladies to do the same, you’ll be a corporate trainer. You’ll be training your team. Karen here is half-way there.”
The coldness spread down my spine. I suddenly realized that my palms were sweating. I suddenly realized I was in the middle of an interview to be a Mary Kay Lady, a job whose only requirements are a drivers license and $100.00 to buy the starter kit. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t going to get health insurance today. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t going to find an office job easily. I have trouble remembering exactly what was said immediately after that. I think I blacked out.
When I came to, Satan was smiling at me, running her pink tongue over her glistening teeth, ostensibly checking for lipstick. I had a strong and, I believe, valid fear that she was going to bite me. “Now,” she drawled, “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 meaning that you want to start right now, how interested are you in joining the Mary Kay team?”
I closed my eyes. I breathed in. I didn’t have $100. Maybe my parents would loan it to me. Maybe I could do this. I could buy a pink suit. I could go to the grocery store and stand in the frozen food section. I could find a woman, shopping on her own, trying to decide between bags of peas. I could start chatting with her and compliment her skin and before she knew it I would be slathering her with cream.
I opened my eyes. I said “8″. I immediately deeply regretted it. “But I don’t have the $100 to start, not just yet.” Karen and Satan understood and they walked me to the front of courtyard, promising to call me the next day. I walked to the valet parking. I overdrew my checking account to retrieve a car full of Cheetos dust.
When I got home, I found that I had a new voicemail. I deleted it as soon as I recognized Karen’s voice.
I began to send out dozens of resumes. My mom bought me an interview suit. It was black and a little too tight. I wore it with shoes that pinched my feet. In four months I was called for a single interview, as an administrative assistant at a brokerage firm. The woman interviewing me was tall and was not impressed by my suit.
“We’re not going to hire you.”
“The Masters degree. It’s a hindrance. Why did you get it? Since you have it,
why do you want to work as an administrative assistant? All it tells me is that you have other plans, and that you’ll probably not stay at this job very long. I mean, why do want to work here?”
“I need to buy new glasses and I haven’t been to the dentist in over three years. Because I don’t actually give a crap what I do, as long as I can pay my rent and not move back in with my parents. Because I need money so I can buy food.”
What I actually said was: “Because I’m very interested in this brokerage and I am looking for a position with which to start a career.”
I didn’t get the job. I wasn’t an academic. I wasn’t a Mary Kay lady. And, apparently, I wasn’t an administrative assistant at a brokerage firm.
I kept sending out resumes. One month later, I got a job teaching students from levels Kindergarten to Adult how to read. And I was paid slightly more than $800 a month.
Dana is the founder and host of Story Club, an open mic for stories in Chicago ( www.storyclubchicago.com ). She graduated from Wittenberg University with a Bachelors in Creative Writing and Religion and from The University of Chicago with a Master in Religious Studies. Dana also has a Certificate in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of Chicago. She recently won a Writers Studio Student Prize from the University of Chicago Graham School, was a finalist for the Guild Complex Non-Fiction Prize and was chosen to represent Northwestern University for Nonfiction in the AWP Intro Journals Project. She is a graduate of the Second City Conservatory Improv program and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Northwestern University. Her cross bow shoots marshmallows.