When I was 17, I was planning to kill myself. Well, actually, it was more of a dare, a threat, an ultimatum to force myself to do better in school. I had applied to 11 colleges. All 11 were, according to U.S. News and World Report, top-tier schools. So everything I did had to be absolutely perfect. I was in danger of failing a pre-calculus class. It was an experimental class our math teachers were making up as they went along. Our high school was a laboratory; we were its guinea pigs. There were no odd-numbered problems in the back of the book with their answers explained because there was no book. I was in danger of failing, but my math teacher, Dr. Cobb*, smiled and told me not to worry about it. She was a blonde with medium length wavy hair who could have lived in a Pottery Barn catalog. And I believed her.
I had to do well. I just had to, and if I didn’t, then my life would not be good enough to continue living. But unfortunately, I didn’t pass the class. And I couldn’t bring myself to commit suicide, either. I began trying to convince myself that the trials of my present teenage life would pass, that things would get better, that I would be rewarded for staying in school, for going to whichever of those 11 colleges admitted me despite failing pre-calculus.
But since then, there have been numerous times when I have thought that if I was still 17, if I knew what life had in store for me, that I would have just gone ahead and jumped out the window and gotten it over with.
I have watched my dreams get hijacked by other people. I have been shut out of entire industries for lack of experience. I have been offered jobs I don’t want and subsequently taken them just to pay my bills. I have missed out on so much because of my masochistic devotion to school. I have suffered through jobs that were not right for me simply because I wanted to have a particular title on my resume. I have collected unemployment and food stamps. I have deferred and downsized my dreams. This is not they way I thought my life would turn out to be when I was 17.
Sometimes, I see that part of my life as the beginning of something. Sometimes I see it as the end. I did what I was told and was expected of me. But not willingly. Not completely and not entirely. It is no different than now, I suppose, as I work at a job I despise.
It took me 41 interviews to get this job. The 41st was the one in which I had to come crawling back to the boss to ask to get my old job back.
I have been on every kind of interview, it seems. I have interviewed in the fall, at an office campus in Lincolnshire where the leaves of the maple trees turned a rich red delicious apple skin color. I have interviewed in searing summer heat. I carried my suit jacket and didn’t put it on until I got into the air-conditioned elevator of a Gold Coast high-rise. I have interviewed in the winter, carrying my fancy aluminum-clad portfolio amid the burgeoning snow drifts. I have interviewed for positions I found on Craigslist, by people who met me at Starbucks for reasons they never fully explained. I began going on interviews months before graduation. I was afraid I’d end up unable to find a job, which is what happened when I got my first degree, which was why I went back to school again to study interior design. I have interviewed, and interviewed, and interviewed.
I got my hair done for my interviews every time I possibly could. One former co-worker called my hairstyle perfectly professional. Nothing that would make the cover of Hype Hair magazine. Respectable. Inoffensive. Straightened my the searing heat of expertly wielded blow-dryers.
I have taken tests: AutoCAD tests, intelligence tests, personality tests, even drug tests. I’ve had to draw floorplans and once I even had to re-arrange a suite of furniture and determine just the right amount of rubber grapes and plastic croissants and fake champagne glasses to make it look appealing.
I’ve been turned down. I’ve been told I applied too early, or too late. I’ve been called overqualified, or else told they went with someone with more experience. Some people have even asked for my GPA. I was once berated for the way I drew an arrow pointing to something in an AutoCAD drawing.
I’ve been asked many questions. Questions like, “What do you have to offer?” Or, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” Or, “Why have you had so many jobs?”
I’ve been let down easy. And hard. One woman, most likely too racist to hire me for the measly little entry level position I had applied for, complimented my smile, my skin, said I was beautiful. I knew I’d been killed with kindness as I walked out the door. I knew I was never going to get that job.
I have sent out thank-you cards, even to the architect who insulted me for the way I drew the arrowhead.
“Thank you, Mr. Egotistical Prick Architect for insulting me and making me cry all the way home on Lake Shore Drive. Please let me know if you decide to hire me so I can come back for more insults!”
I have been desperate. I have gone back into my old revolving door job at Nordstrom. I have been reduced to manual labor, unpacking boxes , hauling trash, sweeping backroom floors, counting and re-counting pairs of Christmas socks.
When I was 17, it was bad enough that I had gotten a “D” in pre-calculus, bad enough that at my high school a “D” was a failing grade, and bad enough that I would have to take the class over again, but making matters worse was Mr. Stone*, who was to be my teacher when I took pre-calculus over again. “D’s” are not to be taken lightly at a school like mine, which proclaimed itself as a “pioneering educational community,” and considered itself more than an ordinary high school. A “D” in a class was a felony charge worthy of a staffing or whatever the heck they called that ridiculous public shaming which I, my disappointed parents, the principal, my resident counselor, 2 social workers, and Mr. Stone had to attend.
“What happened?” They asked.
We were sitting around a big conference table in some sort of a boardroom.
I was painfully shy, especially in the presence of angry and disappointed adults. But still I tried to speak up for myself.
“I tried so hard. I don’t understand. I went to tutoring. I really did try!”
Then Mr. Stone broke in:
“Nobody cares how hard you try. All they care about are results.”
I can’t remember if I cried. I know I wanted to. I have the kind of anger that turns inward very fast. It turns to grief, to shame. I never direct it towards others. It is a knife that I point at myself. But I can’t remember if I did cry in front of them. It would have made me feel even worse about myself, like a baby. 17 is too old to cry in front of disappointed adults, even if you’re a girl. So maybe I didn’t cry.
Nobody cares how hard I try, I learned from that exchange. And since I had no results to speak of, I felt even more desperate. Desperate enough to take a job with a leering, sneering, conniving, general contractor just so I could call myself a designer. I have put up with having to arrive at 6:30 a.m. to a dark and drafty old building where the upstairs was kept like a bachelor pad and the kitchen was too filthy for me to use the microwave. I have held my peace when assigned duties that shouldn’t have been in a designer’s job description, from writing checks for the tile-layers, to babysitting the boss’s son for six hours while he took care of business downtown. I even put up with harassment and verbal abuse when I voiced my displeasure with having to babysit his son and not getting paid for training. Finally, I had enough.
I finally fled my evil boss. Out of desperation I took the job I have now, the only other job I had been offered in all those months: selling carpet at a store 25 miles from home. I had nowhere else to go. Everyone else had closed the door in my face.
So I came here, where the carpet comes in every conceivable beige, where there is no music, where we must wear all black all of the time. I came here because no place else would take me. No one else wanted me. I came here a pariah, a leper. I came here, but my heart was never in my work. I came here, but I kept looking for work everywhere else.
I started looking here. Why not cross over and work in the interior design studio? Well, because they had a hiring freeze, of course. I tried other places. I persevered. Or perhaps perseverated, like an autistic child who can’t stop beating her head against a brick wall.
I got bad advice. A former co-worker of mine, now a self-appointed career guru, condescended to give me her services for free out of pity. She, the same woman who told me my resume was “unimpressive” before she condescended to hire me, (for half of what my predecessor had been paid) was no more impressed this time around. In the 2 years since I had worked for her I’d had several jobs. She crossed things off my resume that “nobody cares” about, like my full academic scholarship and my National Achievement Award. She berated me for not getting a Masters’ degree in interior design and tried to sabotage my plan to get one in art.
“It’s just a hobby, Tiffany. What do you need it for? Haven’t you ever heard of starving artists?”
Of course I have. And if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that, I wouldn’t need to worry about being a “starving artist” because I’d be a millionaire by now.
She told me I should work on my interviewing skills. She said I was “too serious.” She had no idea that my alleged “seriousness” only masked my inner fury. And she, who sat in derision and judgment of my most precious dreams, had the audacity to assign me an exercise in which I would write down my goals for the next few years. And I left that meeting thinking that if I did that exercise, there was no way I’d show her what I came up with so she could criticize that, too. And so the damage had already been done.
Driven on by her barbed words about me not even working in the field” and “just selling carpet,” I could no longer even pretend I enjoyed the work I was doing. I had to show her I didn’t need her help. I had to do something to make my resume impressive. And then, the next thing I knew, I was talking to the management across the street at Ethan Allen.
We sat there, June* and I, just after closing in the darkened front lobby.
She said, “When I saw your resume, I could see so much of myself in you.”
She, too, apparently, had made a career switch to interior design. How amazing that a woman who barely knew me, of another race, could so easily identify with me, yet a woman of my own race, a friend of a friend of the family, never really “got” me at all.
June told me all about the great things they were doing. There would be tuition reimbursement and a substantial discount on furniture after a year, and a trip to Connecticut for a week of training. She was so eager that she tried to get me to leave my carpet selling job right away. But I decided to be fair, to give them my 2 weeks’ notice. And Tim*, my boss, who’d fought so hard to get me to begin with, tried to get me to stay. He offered me what I’d been wanting all along: State Street. But I said no. I turned it down. All for a chance to call myself a designer.
And so I drove to training sessions 40 and 50 miles from home. I made sure I dressed professionally. Made sure my hair and make-up were just right. I tried to make friends with my new co-workers. I never really had a problem making friends at work before. But they were standoffish. Cold. The only time they ever spoke was to compliment me, not without a note of envy, on my clothes. Only one was every truly friendly to me. The rest, like the customers, either eyed me with suspicion or looked right through me. In spite of this I tried to have faith in myself. I prayed to God each day before work that I’d get customers. But they only bought small things from me. They took their time. There was no way to rush them. And when they called me back, and I wasn’t there, there was no way for me to check my voicemail. And when it came time to show them a computer rendering for a sofa with the upholstery fabric they liked on it, I couldn’t use that program either. The first issue was resolved after a month. The second never was.
A lot was going on at our store, as June, who had interviewed me, had stepped down from management to be a designer again and a designer, Hillary* was promoted to take her place, and an older woman named Candace* was brought in to be our project manager. And somehow in the transition, my trip to Connecticut fell by the wayside. And with all those managers running around our store, someone was always lurking in the next little display room and listening in to what I said to customers to see if I used the key words and phrases they told me to say. I was chided every time I didn’t use the standard sales script and was expected to do a quick floorplan sketch for every customer, even if they were just trying to buy a flower arrangement for their dining room table. It made me feel like I was under constant scrutiny. I tried to watch every word I said. But in spite of this I tried to be positive. I tried to set goals. I found a condo I wanted to buy.
I had taken on a lot. I had made a list of what I wanted to do, 25 goals for my life. And I was trying to accomplish most of them at once. I had started my art classes the week after I started at Ethan Allen. I divided my time between work and school. I had the art classes Tuesday and Thursday nights in the south suburbs. And on Tuesday mornings I took a refresher course in AutoCAD downtown at Harrington. When I wasn’t at work, I was at school, and when I wasn’t at school, I was at work. My downtime at work was spent learning about furniture. It wasn’t like the carpet department, with long expanses of time that could be filled with homework. My mornings were filled with meetings, and my nights were all too often occupied by appointments at customers’ homes. And my mind was all too often occupied with visions of my own home and how I could renovate, reconfigure, or otherwise tweak some sad little foreclosure (which was all I could afford) into a masterpiece for Cameron and I. Art history and painting were relegated to the few Thursday mornings I wasn’t otherwise distracted by lunch dates with Cameron or house hunting with his sister, a real estate agent.
The week of finals, everything came to a head. First I got a frantic phone call about the condo. They needed me to sign a contract. They wanted to close on the property ASAP. Then I realized I was running out of time to get my paper done. Time had gotten away from me. Reluctantly, guiltily, I decided to call in sick so I could finally buy myself the time I needed to go to the library and get the last few books I needed. I wasn’t lying. I really wasn’t feeling well. I felt feverish and my head was pounding from the stress of so much happening at once.
Thursday, the day of reckoning, I had to turn in my paper, take my final exam, and have my final painting critique. I wanted to cry at the critique, looking around and seeing how much good work everyone else had managed to do. I have had my critics before. I have been told I needed to draw a thousand shoes because the 3 or 4 pairs I had in my high school portfolio were not enough. I have been told I had no sense of composition and forced to take a remedial college art class we nicknamed “cut and paste.” I have been accused of being too cheap when I buy my paint by an instructor who then proceeded to take my brushes and paint half my painting for me.
But in this critique, the comments were actually positive. In this critique, I was told, for once, that I had some good ideas Unfortunately, this critique lasted for all of our class time. There was no time for me to cram for the final exam I had in the class that I had right after it. The last time I’d studied had been sometime during the previous week, at work, on the sly, while waiting to be called to the sales floor. The images that appeared on the projector screen before me grew increasingly unfamiliar. And it was then that I knew my grad school career was in serious trouble.
I have had that feeling before. In high school, when I failed the final exam in pre-calculus. In college, when I got so mad at the physical science final that I stormed out of the lecture hall and slammed the door behind me. But now when I know I’ve lost the battle, I can leave quietly, respectfully, and without tears of remorse.
I did not sleep well Thursday night. I woke up too early Friday morning, put on a nice outfit, and had enough time to stop and eat breakfast on the way to work. While having my French toast sticks, I read my brand new Ikea catalog, which had arrived on Thursday. I was saving it for this moment, once my tests were over. I read through it and imagined buying a few pieces for our condo.
It was sunny and bright, and not too hot. I went to work. I got there early. At the morning meeting, I did my best to participate. I met a new customer who had come in with her middle-aged daughter to replace her Ikea dresser that was falling apart. The mother talked like Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, or any other blue-blood rich lady caricature you might imagine. Everything about her was haughty, even the way she pronounced the word “bonnetière.” She bought a chinoiserie drum table from me. It had bamboo legs. Her daughter wanted to go home and take measurements to see if she if she had room for a dresser or a bonnetière before making a decision.
Another woman came in, talking on her cell phone. Unlike most cell phone customers, she was very kind. It turned out she used to work at our store a long time ago, before it became a corporate-owned store. She said I was helpful and gave me her phone number so I could call her in case any new chair and a half sofa beds came in. I still remember her name, Frances. Then one last customer came in before I had to leave for an appointment. She had actually been working with another designer, and I knew that from the beginning. Still, I answered her questions and even helped her pick out fabrics. She said I was so helpful and that we worked really well together. She thanked me several times for making it so easy for her, and even said she would leave a positive message for the store manager about me in the comment box at the front desk.
Then it was time for my measuring appointment for a client’s window treatments. I felt like she didn’t want me in her home. I felt like she thought it was somehow wrong of me to be standing in her kitchen with one hand resting on her cold granite countertop on the center island. Still, I made sure she was getting the right valances for the windows in her living room.
When I got back to the store, I went to the break room and had the lunch I hadn’t gotten a chance to eat. Then I took a look at the new wallpaper books and got ideas for my future living room. And then I was paged to the managers’ office.
I had been in a meeting like this before. Earlier this month, actually. Two weeks ago, to be precise. Then, as now, they were talking about my sales. They congratulated me on the $200 drum table I’d sold. But their praise quickly turned to criticism. What next steps had I taken to follow up with the daughter, who wanted to buy the dresser but needed to measure first to see if you could fit a dresser, or 2 dressers, or a dresser and a bonnetière? Why hadn’t I set an appointment to go measure it for her?
And at that moment Hillary’s already fine nose, thin lips, and beady eyes hardened into sharp-edged shapes.
“You should have set a next step with her. You aren’t making enough connections with customers. This isn’t working out and it’s not a good fit for you here, wouldn’t you agree?”
She nodded the way she’d taught us to, a manipulative and disarming gesture. Nodding, she’d told us at one morning meeting, made people agree with you.
Stunned, I said yes. Nobody cared how hard I tried. All they cared about were results, and mine were not good enough. Why remind them that most of the customers I’d started big projects with in June were on July vacations and would be back to seal the deal in August? Why beg to stay at a job where I clearly wasn’t wanted? Why stay where I felt betrayed by managers who had always faked niceness until now?
They told me Candace would go with me while I gathered my things.
I have lost jobs before, but I was only fired once in my life before this. It was my first job. It was an internship that went badly the second year, and I was not invited back. The second summer, weary from a long and terrible freshman year in college, I was not pleased to be trapped inside a cubicle all day. The college I attended was dry and academic; the company I worked for was dry and bureaucratic. Was my work suffering? Nobody told me. I didn’t ask. I never thought I had to. “Perfect! Right on time! Just what I needed!” My bosses would say when I’d hand them the vanilla-colored folders that contained whatever finished projects I’d done for them. There was never any mention of typos I’d overlooked, line spacing mistakes made on memos printed on the company stationery, or projects that were incomplete… Until my review at the end of that second summer. My boss was in tears when she fired me. She just didn’t know how to manage a 19 year old intern, I guess. And when I went home early that day on the Metra train, I looked around at all the other commuters on the platform, the men in suits, the women trying to stay comfortable by wearing sneakers with their suits and carrying the torturous pumps their jobs required. And I thought about the fact that all these people had jobs to go back to, and I didn’t. I had never felt so alone in all my life.
I lost another job 2005, the only good job I had while I was in design school, when Home Depot decided to close most of its Expo stores and the one where I worked, #1972 in Lincoln Park, was one of them. It was announced 5 months after I started. It happened just after I was becoming familiar with the fabric and wallpaper samples in the décor department where I worked. It happened just when I began to dream of making a career there after graduation and becoming a window treatment designer. I lost my job, this time through no fault of my own, as well as the benefits that came with it. I lost my chance to get tuition reimbursement about a week before the summer semester was over. I lost my job just after getting a taste of what I really wanted.
It was because of this that I lived the next 7 years of my working life in constant fear of getting fired again. I went out of my way to dress professionally, investing hundreds of dollars on work clothes I could wear when I got my “good job.” I came early and stayed late. I trembled in fear of the slightest mistake and apologized profusely. I followed all the rules, no matter how stupid I thought they were. Because everything I did had to be perfect, otherwise I’d be gone. They’d get rid of me.
After those 2 bad experiences, I never felt safe at work again. I never brought any personal items to work and left them there. I never bothered to decorate my desk or try to make an office “homey.” I never saw the point. Never—until Ethan Allen, of course.
Laboring under the delusion that things would work out this time, I actually took the time to select and bring color-coordinated desk accessories for work. I’d gotten spiral bound graph paper notebooks for sketching, and a pack of 20 fine-tipped Pilot pens. I’d brought my favorite design magazines and books from home. I had a lot to bring home with me. Perhaps too much. Candace stood over my shoulder, watching my every move. I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. I was afraid to take my notebooks. But I should have. They had all my clients’ information. And so what if that would be technically stealing? Following their rules was pointless now. Following their rules had gotten me nowhere. Why bother with rules and formalities? Well, unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who does.
They made me exit through the back door. Candace walked me to my car.
“You’re a great lady.” She said. “Good Luck.”
“Thank you.” I don’t know what I thanked her for. “I thought I’d have 90 days.”
She didn’t say anything. She just walked away and prepared to go on a trip to Connecticut, the trip I never got to take. The whole situation felt completely unreal and even alien to me. Nothing made sense. I was let go at 5 p.m. There was too much traffic and it took me 2 hours to get home. In those 2 hours, I talked to many people.
My friend Samekh was the one who told me Tim was looking to fill this position again. So I called him. At least I could still get the condo, I thought. After all, I had gotten prequalified while working here. I had time to think of a cover story: I would tell Tim I’d left because of schedule conflicts. He, for some odd reason, thought I was a good salesperson, so why ruin things?
When I got home, I checked my e-mail and discovered I’d gotten an e-mail from my painting professor. He’d given me an incomplete. I have until December to finish my paintings. And it was then—only then—that I truly felt a sense of grief. Nothing I’d done or tried to do the past few months was working out. I’d tried to do too much and gotten nothing accomplished at all.
Saturday I called to see if I could pick up a few things I forgot at Ethan Allen. Monday I went to pick them up. Well, first I had to talk to Tim to ask for my old job back. It was stark and still in the carpet department. When I arrived, the furniture floor seemed darker and more cluttered than before. I dressed as though I was going to work—not in retail black, the standard attire of Macy’s—but in the kind of creative business casual I’d worn to Ethan Allen. Tom was on his cell phone when I got there and had secreted himself away in the back of the department for privacy. In the 15 minutes I waited for him to end the call (which, if you ask me, is rude and not very professional considering we’d set an appointment) I was pestered by the other Tim, a mischievous and nosy older gentleman from the furniture department. He wanted to know why I’d come back here.
“I’m just visiting.” I lied.
Finally Tim, my boss, was off the phone. I gave him my little cover story about the schedule. He said he had no problem giving me the days I needed. But State Street was off the table. If I wanted a job, I’d have to drive all the way out here every day just as I’d done before. And things had changed. The pay was lower. Now instead of $12 an hour, it was only $10.50. Commission had been increased to 7.5%. But when business got slow, as they clearly were, I knew it meant I’d only be earning $10.50 an hour. So much for buying the condo.
I went across the street to Ethan Allen one last time. They refused to give me my notebook, saying it was their property, not mine. So I had no new drawings to add to my portfolio. And then on my way out, I saw a customer I’d been working with, just back from her vacation. She was ready to finish her living room—an $8000 project—now that I was gone. And stupid me, I didn’t have the nerve to steal her to be my own client.
When I was 17, that was the first and only time I had the nerve to steal anything. After I failed pre-calculus, at that dreadful meeting where the adults in the room got to decided my fate, it was decided that I ought to work in the math office. Everyone at our high school was required to do work on campus, 3 hours a week. I had been working in the library, a job I actually liked, a job where I got to work with a congenial group of ladies, a job where the other kids I worked with also loved reading. A job where I got to discover all kinds of wonderful books that I had never even heard of before. A job that would have been one of the highlights of my second semester of senior year, which was crowded with graduation requirements that didn’t interest me at all. A job that might have eased the pain of a life after failure and almost-suicide.
But the adults around that table—in utter disregard of my own impending adulthood—took it upon themselves to decide what was best for me. And because, they said—though they had no right to pretend to know—I was afraid to go to the math office and ask for help, I should work there. So now I’d get to see good old Mr. Stone every day, during and after class. How wonderful. Now I’d have the privilege of working for the teacher who lied to me about passing her class and the teacher who told me nobody cared how hard I tried. So as it got closer to the end of the semester and I was still dangerously close to getting yet another “D,” I did what I had to do. I used my access to the math office to steal the answer key to a problem set. And I gave Mr. Stone the results he wanted. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done that I do not regret. But my defiance has been worn down by all my recent failures.
And now I am back here. Now that I finally had a taste of what I really wanted, only to have it snatched away from me. Now that my dream of making enough money so that I can buy a condo for me and my fiancé has been destroyed. Now that my career as a designer has been derailed from its track once again.
This is the stone I roll constantly uphill before it rolls down on me. Sales are the thing just out of reach and always receding. This is my life in Retail Hell. I cannot use the Internet. I cannot check my e-mail. So I can’t use this time to find a better job. There are hardly ever any customers, and the ones that do come like to blame me for things that are not my fault. I can only take a 30 minute lunch break. We are always having a sale and opening early and closing late. It is a miserable place full of miserable people...
Well the ones they haven’t laid off yet, anyway.
If things still don’t work out, I may have to try another line of work, like art forgery or jewel thievery or something. I have tried to be honest, responsible, pleasant to customers, and professional to a fault. But nobody seems to appreciate what I have to offer.
I have been overlooked. I have been typecast as a salesperson when I am not even all that good at sales, and I don’t even like selling things to people. No one will hire me for the jobs I really want because I have no experience, but I have no experience because no one will hire me. Everyone else wants to rip me off and use me as an unpaid intern. But I have 2 degrees, and am working on another one. I am worth more than $10.50 an hour.
*I have changed the names of the people in this story to protect myself from a defamation suit, but this is what really happened. If, after reading this, you think I am crazy and don’t want to have anything to do with me ever again, that is your problem, not mine. So let the bridges burn. I don’t want to cross them again anyway.
©2007 Tiffany Gholar