Unemployment isn’t funny — especially when you’re pushing 60, as I am. Yet having unsuccessfully applied for countless jobs since getting laid off three years ago, I’ve gradually found myself chuckling darkly, if only to keep from banging my head on the wall.
It’s not because I was getting rejected for jobs that required nothing more challenging than telling customers: “Forks are in aisle three.” Or for office jobs that required 50 WPM typing skills, when I could knock it out at 70.
No, it was the way I was turned down.
Unwelcome Greeting at the Greeting Card Store
A while back, I applied for a job at a greeting card store with a Help Wanted sign in the window. The store manager, who may have been all of 30 but appeared literally sophomoric, greeted me in a friendly manner.
I had to stop myself from laughing because the whole conversation was so transparent, so damn unsubtle.
“Hi, can I help you?” she asked.
“I saw the sign in your window,” I replied in an equally friendly tone, “and I’d like to apply for the job.”
Let me backtrack a moment. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I learned the art of immediately reading people’s expressions in order to finesse a situation. It’s come in handy over the years, because this is also the only way to get the truth from someone trying to be clever.
But back to the card shop. The manager said nothing for a second, but her eyes and gentle drop of the mouth screamed: Are you kidding, gramps? You want me to hire YOU, a dinosaur who ought to be trimming his yellow toenails somewhere in a Florida retirement home?
A Discouraging Job ‘Interview’
From that point on, she did everything in her power to discourage me during the “interview.”
Remarks along the lines of, “Have you got retail experience? The job involves knowing the product, helping people on the floor and working the cash register” were spoken like a kidnap victim trying to appease her captors.
Her eyes registered pure, animal fear, as if to say: Please, sir, just go away!
When I assured her that, yes, I did have retail experience (although I didn’t mention that it was in the 20th century) and that I was willing to learn the herculean task of punching numbers into a cash register, she pulled her trump card.
“This is only a part-time position,” she emphasized.
That the sign in the window offered full-time positions went unspoken by both of us.
“Part-time is fine,” I replied, with a sunny smile.
She didn’t quite get the message.
“So… do you want to fill out an application?” she asked, half-heartedly.
What I Should Have Said
It all would have been hilarious if this had been an episode of, say, Louie. In fact, I had to stop myself from laughing because the whole conversation was so transparent, so damn unsubtle. I should have given her a fatherly touch on the shoulder and sighed, saying: “This is obviously very uncomfortable for you. You want someone younger, like the other people I’ve seen working here.”
Instead, I replied, “Yes, please,” and filled out the application.
That was a waste of time, of course, but it felt good to momentarily put her on the spot. To let her know that someone unexpected was going to take that little sign in the window seriously, even if that person resembled her uncle in Toledo.
I wouldn’t be surprised if she dropped my resumé and application in the nearest wastebasket as soon as I left. And yet, I felt like swinging by the following week with a cheery, “Hi! Remember me? Just wanted to see if I was still in the running for the job!” I’m a real kidder that way.
I didn’t bother. And she didn’t call.
Coming Up Dry at the Liquor Store
Perhaps, I thought, I’d have better luck at the local liquor store. The place seemed to have a pretty regular turnover with some of the staff. Even better, the owner was in the same neighborhood as me, age-wise. Or at least within the city limits.
Making sure to arrive early before the store got busy, I greeted the owner, who immediately recognized me. After exchanging pleasantries, I inquired: “Are you going to be hiring anytime soon?”
You know how a person involuntarily tilts their head and squints at something they can’t quite figure out? That was the owner. It was as if he had just seen a two-headed baboon singing Strangers in the Night while playing accordion.
His expression was clear: Am I hallucinating? Let me investigate further.
“Um… are you asking for… someone else?” he asked hopefully.
When I told him no, that I was the one who wanted to work there, he asked: “Why?”
Why the hell do you think I need a job? I felt like screaming. It’s got something to do with the concept of payday!
Instead, I gave a brief rundown of my situation, and explained that I could quickly learn whatever I was assigned to do. (I mean, how long does it take to figure out that the zinfandels go in the section marked ‘ZINFANDEL”?)
But he still had that look on his face, as if, along with singing and playing the accordion, the two-headed baboon was now harmonizing with himself.
“What kind of a salary are you looking for?” he asked.
This was starting to sound eerily like my experience at the card shop. “Whatever you’re paying,” I answered, adding that I lived close enough to walk there in about four minutes. That alone, I thought, should work in my favor.
“Well,” he admitted, “I am hiring now. But… I’m interviewing someone else later today.”
Well, hell, he had me right now, what more did he want?
“OK,” I said, and handed him my card. I’m sure it, like my application at the stationery shop, immediately went into the circular file.
He never called either.
Since then, even applying for seasonal work at one of New York’s prominent department stores hasn’t panned out.
Is it my age? Of course.
Still, I don’t look that old to myself when I look in the mirror. Apparently the one face I’ve never been able to read is my own.