One of my lowest points was when a potential employer asked me to remove my shoes before I interviewed with him. I thought to myself, If he asks me to remove anything else, I will leave. His office was out of his sprawling-by-New-York-standards apartment near Times Square. The sounds of traffic drifted up through the windows. It was clear by the decor and by his hair that his heyday had been in the 1980s. Many people ask you to remove your shoes before entering their homes. However, I was already seated across from him, and he was staring lasciviously at my feet. I am ashamed to admit that I slid those shoes right off. I needed this editing position for this “literary agent.” I got the job.
I have done the following jobs prior to my career, many of them simultaneously, all while attending college full-time: construction day laborer, box office attendant, dancing waitress at Denny’s, regular waitress at Applebee’s, busboy at Roy’s (a male-only job that they gave to me because I was “big enough”), front desk attendant at the YMCA, high school tutor, college tutor, sign twirler, law library assistant, regular library assistant, administrative assistant for a basketball agent, administrative assistant for a non-profit, editorial assistant to an author, literary events coordinator, online editor for application essays to MBA programs, and, yes, shady editor for shady, foot-fetish, literary agent. Within a few weeks of working for this agent, I realized he was taking cash up front from people with clearly unsaleable manuscripts, and I quit. With a few exceptions, most of the above jobs chipped away at my humanity, especially bussing tables, dancing at Denny’s, and twirling signs, likely because I had objects thrown at me regularly during the course of those jobs. I know there are worse jobs. I know there are five-year-olds digging through garbage piles for aluminum cans to recycle. I’m not feeling sorry for myself.
At the same time, it became quite clear while I was attending graduate school at an Ivy League university–very unfamiliar territory for me–that some people have very different lives, that some people travel to Thailand on their winter breaks rather than upping their hours, that some people who are not in fiction books actually attended preparatory schools and possess trust funds. That almost every rich person seems to speak French. One faculty member, not knowing my background, told me that it was nearly impossible for anyone who had attended a state school to be successful in the Ivy League. Another faculty member told me to stop working so much and focus on my writing. That would have been lovely. That would have been impossible. It became clear to me during that time that when you have privilege, it is very easy to continue to have privilege, and that this can have almost nothing to do with hard work. And doing an unpaid internship was out of the question; I needed an income. (This is a good article on that tangent.) I was at at this school because I worked hard, yes, but also in spite of it.
Just before the election, I got into a Facebook argument with some friend of a friend named Lonnie who said to me, “You are the exception.” His story was that he worked hard and that he made things happen for himself and he hates all of these “moocher” liberals who just want handouts. I told him that I had a story, too, and that I worked hard, too, but that I was also lucky and had help (like mentors and federal student loans and state tuition and scholarships), and that I didn’t consider myself a moocher, given that I had worked really really really hard. I suspect that Lonnie had help and luck, too, though he wouldn’t admit it. There is no such thing as picking yourself up by your bootstraps. We don’t do anything on our own, not completely.
I have an amazing job now, one that I love, one that inspires me, one that allows me sufficient time with my children, and even some time to write. I am, of course, still paying down my insane student loans, but without student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school either. I would love to take complete credit for working hard and shaping my own future and all of that, but the truth is that I am simply lucky. If I had entered graduate school only a couple of years later, I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t get all of those demoralizing part-time jobs when I was in college, I wouldn’t be here. If I hadn’t met the right combination of people who made me feel confident enough in myself to get through graduate school, I wouldn’t be here. No matter how hard I worked.
When I think about how much hustling I did between jobs and classes and homework and writing, I get exhausted. These jobs, however, in addition to the other opportunities I got, helped me get through college, and I am grateful for them. I was able to quit working for foot fetish guy because I knew there would be something else. There were jobs to be had then, multiple part-time jobs, and that is not always the case now. This past election made me feel as though maybe people realize, just a little bit, that the kind of gross inequality we have and are making worse with our policies is not a good thing, not even for the rich. I still think we need serious reform. Obama and the rest of them have been paid for. But I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about us. However heated things got on Facebook, the country voted fairly moderately. We put a lesbian in the Senate! In the states, there was marijuana! Gay marriage! Education funding! The most vocal lady-hating politicians all got booted. As difficult as things sometimes seem (side note: I really need to stop reading The Price of Inequality), this country decided to tell people like my friend of a friend Lonnie that we are not, in fact, in this alone. As a rule, I’m fairly cynical, but this gives me a little bit of hope.