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Philadelphia Spring, New York Summer and My College Graduation

In 1993, I had choices to make that would impact my present and my future

By Caren Lissner

Early on a Sunday morning in May 1993, I was strolling along the brick walkway through my college campus in Philadelphia, cooled at various intervals by the shade trees blooming above me. Despite the beauty of a spring morning, I had a growing sense of doom.

A row of brownstone buildings in New York City. Next Avenue
"Most of my college friends were heading home to their parents...I, on the other hand, was going to start my post-college life with only the $1,800 I'd saved."  |  Credit: Getty

Graduation had come and gone in early May and I would lose my housing in two weeks, with no job lined up and no idea where to go next. I was hoping to be one of the first people into the campus library that morning so I could snag the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and New York Times before anyone else, to search for a full-time job.

I had $1,800 saved up for an apartment deposit and a month's rent, money I'd earned from typing people's term papers at $1 a page and from a part-time job that semester. But in order to choose an apartment, I needed to know the city in which I'd be working. Time was running out.

In order to choose an apartment, I needed to know the city in which I'd be working. Time was running out.

New York City, two hours away, seemed to have a lot of jobs open that could use the skills I'd honed in editing and writing, even if I started as a low-level assistant with a chance to grow. On the other hand, Philadelphia's apartments were less than half the price of Manhattan's — sometimes as low as $275 per share — but the city had almost no jobs available, even as an administrative assistant.

What Kind of Job?

A few times, I had taken two trains to New York City in pursuit of the entry-level $17,000-per-year editorial assistant jobs that we English majors were practically dueling each other over. The interviewers in the Big Apple seemed shocked and concerned that I didn't live there yet. And they were not very forgiving. I proudly told one of them I had just gotten voicemail — a relatively new feature in 1993 — in case I missed a call about a job. He snapped, "I don't talk to machines."

But how could I take a pricy apartment in New York if I wasn't sure I'd have a job there? While I expected to be relatively poor, I didn't want to wind up homeless; I'd been in that situation already.

The previous summer, I'd slept in a car several times with my mom and brother, who were between apartments and had trouble finding something affordable, even as they bounced around dying resort towns in Upstate New York. I had always hoped when I graduated to have a steady job and apartment so I could help my family out. I wasn't going to put myself back in that situation.

Starting with Only $1,800

Most of my college friends were heading home to their parents if they didn't have a job lined up. I, on the other hand, was going to start my post-college life with only the $1,800 I'd saved.

College had gone by too fast for a shy, sheltered kid like me.

That morning, I climbed the library steps, found a long table, and sat down to page through the newspapers. The library was quiet. Above me, the mezzanine was packed with spines of books that reminded me of the skinny row homes in Philly's historic district.

I really wanted to stay in Philly longer and explore. I was a late bloomer at everything, slow to catch up to my peers. I was just starting to feel comfortable talking to new people and wandering off campus. College had gone by too fast for a shy, sheltered kid like me.


I opened the New York Times. I always looked at the same four subject heads: College Graduates, Communications, Editorial, Entry Level. There were fewer jobs listed in those categories in Philadelphia, but I found a few. I jotted relevant addresses in a notebook.

My next stop was the campus computer room, where I printed out eight copies of my resume on pretty peach paper I'd found at Kinko's for $6.95. I thought about my recent interview at Random House in New York, where I'd spied a tall stack of other pastel resumes on an interviewer's desk.

I'd come clean to everyone I knew about being broke and not knowing where to go next.

I'd read the top resume upside down and it said, under Education, Radcliffe Publishing Course. This seemed an anachronism, a throwback to a time when women only had a few careers open to them, and in order to get an edge, wealthy people would pay for a summer workshop in the industry. But of course, this was still happening in 1993 and these advantages were still open to the elite.

After mailing out my resumes, I made a decision: I'd come clean to everyone I knew about being broke and not knowing where to go next.

I wasn't very good at opening up to people. In the past, my former roommates and other peers had seemed confused about my home life. I had vaguely shared that my mom didn't have much money and we sometimes slept in cars, and they'd said things starting with, "But can't you just …" as if there was some snappy solution I hadn't worked hard enough to find.

Time to Take a Risk

While I'd thought my life was sheltered, apparently, I wasn't the only one. I knew my peers were angry on my behalf, but they were also angry at me, perhaps because I was disrupting the fairy tale that if you just worked hard, life would fall into place. Sometimes you had to ask for help. Sometimes you had to take a risk. And sometimes you had to step out of your comfort zone.

That's what I would start doing. I talked to friends, classmates and ex-bosses at work/study jobs. My college adviser happened to mention that one of her former students, who'd graduated the year before, was looking to rent out a room in her two-bedroom apartment in Weehawken, New Jersey. I didn't know anything about Weehawken. The room was only $330 a month.

There was no internet to search, but I found a map of New Jersey. Weehawken appeared to be across the river from Manhattan. There was no train to New York, but there were buses. Perhaps I had to broaden my horizons beyond Manhattan.

I actually knew the student in question. She had been a sort of "big sister" to me through a program when I was a freshman, giving me advice. She told me she was renting out a room in her two-bedroom because she had injured her leg and needed to earn extra money that summer. She also said her apartment offered a view of the Empire State Building, if you stood in the bathtub and peered through the bathroom window. Hey, a view was a view!

I went to visit. The apartment was clean and safe. It wasn't in a vibrant city full of young people, like New York or Philly. But it was a start. I packed up my milk crates and made the move.

I still live in an apartment across the river from New York, but without a view of the Empire State Building.

Now, I was able to get well-paying temp jobs in Manhattan each day, because my experiences typing people's term papers meant I aced typing tests at employment agencies, clocking in at 80 words per minute.

Months later, I accepted a $17,000-per-year job at the weekly New Jersey newspaper that kept landing on my doorstep, the Hudson Reporter. I was still interviewing at publishing houses across the river, but I was tired of dressing up just to fail. I imagined what it would be like to spend my days talking to small-town folks and telling their stories. The answer seemed obvious.

The Right Career Choice

Now it's thirty years later and I still work in small-town journalism — but when I interviewed for my most recent job, I didn't have to take a typing test or ride two trains to get there; instead, I talked to four people in a row on the phone and was hired without meeting anyone in person. I still live in an apartment across the river from New York, but without a view of the Empire State Building.

I have two kids who are pre-teens, and in a few years, it will be their turn to make adult decisions: Whether to go to college, where to start a job, what to do as a career. Obviously, they'll face a different landscape than the ones faced by my generation — even though it was only three decades ago.

They probably won't have to search through newspapers for employment. They probably won't tuck shoulder pads into suit-dresses and commute to an interview. Still, they will likely face uncertainties and have a lot to think about. But amid their deliberations, they will eventually get to spring, and spring is always a chance to start anew.

Caren Lissner's first novel, Carrie Pilby, about a socially isolated young woman in New York City, was adapted into a romantic comedy film currently showing on Netflix. She's also a local news editor who has published essays and articles on and the Washington Post. Read More
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