Originally published November 9, 2012
There Are No Jobs Worth Lying for in Austin
by JAMES WEST
A year and a half ago I moved from Dallas to Austin, a reckless decision that led to an unprecedented amount of mistrust and isolation from almost everyone I love. I feel I am still recovering from my losses of this venture both socially and monetarily, the latter of which you may understand a little better upon reading the desperation of my actions in this story.
I had been working in a “fast-casual” restaurant and was anxious to do something more with my life. My drummer had moved to New York City to be a writer and my guitarist had moved to Austin to be an actor. My good friend Court had returned from his Fulbright scholarship in Vietnam and we imagined working medium-to-low-wage working class jobs in Austin, starting a band in our spare time, and playing shows on the weekends in the so-called “music capital of the world.” All this while I maintained a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend in Dallas, and he maintained a long-distance crush on her roommate.
With just over one week’s notice, I quit my restaurant job and drove to stay with a friend’s parents in Austin a week before I could move into my apartment. I had to come early in order to attend the training exercises for the crappy job I had managed to put together on a previous visit a month earlier. This would be my brief stint with a fundraising environmental group based in Austin which went door-to-door all over the city and its suburbs asking for money to stop electrical pollution and to petition for a bag ban.
There was a cult-like atmosphere to the group, evidenced by the fact that everyone seemed to have a code name (presented as a nickname), and the ritualistic cat-calling of that code name before said employee would give a very serious speech about the destructive nature of the pipeline that had been proposed to stretch across the Midwest. Or the successful raid of the Walmart across the street from the company’s corporate home office, located in Nowheresville, Arkansas, where the police had shown up after they had left, and the only press they received was a YouTube video they made themselves that now has barely over 300 views. Overshadowing the meeting room was a cardboard cutout of Governor Perry smiling fiendishly with devil horns protruding from his forehead, along with some jarring language criticizing his education policies written on his torso in Sharpie.
Although during training I got to knock on the doors of the downtown, residential, UT hipster neighborhood, when it came to the real thing they bused me to one of the most miserably conservative suburbs of Austin. It got to the point where I could not impress anyone to keep their door open long enough to ask them for water. They gave me one more day to try to reach the fundraising goal but they shouldn’t have. I was gently fired the next evening, which left me feeling, not so surprisingly, pretty good, after the grueling experience of attempting to sell environmentalism to the families of half the troops in Iraq. I went home, threw off my clothes in the doorway of my room and took a bath. When I got out, I stepped on my phone, cracking the display and rendering the unlimited text messaging plan pretty obsolete for the next seven months.
A week later I was working in an Italian restaurant called “Joe’s” where they paid me under the table, and I began to realize they were shorting me for some of the hours I had put in. When I brought it up with the owner (an Albanian man whom customers would affectionately call “Joe,” never suspecting his real name), he told me to stop having a bad attitude and that if I didn’t like it I should leave. The next day my manager, the owner’s son, told me to comb my hair and to show some self-respect. He had received a tip that the health inspector might come the next day, so he asked me to stay late that night to help him clean. As I scrubbed black mold off the two-foot dough hook, I interpreted the events of the past couple days as an ill omen and resumed my job search.
The Job Search:
I now had a couple of leads: One for Kinko’s and one for an Apple call center through a staffing agency. Although I had scheduled my Kinko’s interview a week in advance, the staffing agency had been pretty quiet. That is, until I noticed a voicemail and a missed call (interpreting the cracked screen as best as I could) on the night before my interview with Kinko’s “Hi James, it’s Katie. Just following up with you — I sent you an email that you haven’t responded to, so I’m calling to confirm that your interview is tomorrow at nine in the morning. Please call me back and let me know if you’ll be able to make it.”
Nine in the morning. The same time as my other interview. I had been at work all day, so I had missed her late-morning email, and of course, her early-evening phone call. I checked the voicemail in the men’s room after the dinner rush and phoned her back without hesitation to leave an after-hours voicemail confirming my attendance. When I left the bathroom and rejoined the loitering staff by the counter, the owner asked me where I’d been, so I lied and told him I’d been cleaning the restroom. This would be one of the first of many pointless lies; the day of my interview was supposed to have been my day off, but because one of the waitresses had stopped showing up, they ordered me to come in for the lunch crowd. I agreed I would and never came back.
The Lie & Fallout:
I stayed up late preparing for both interviews. How I would make it to both was unclear to me still, but I knew I’d come up with something. I woke early, showered and put on my suit. An hour and a half before my interviews I called Kinko’s and explained I would be late due to car problems, but would be there at 11 at the latest, explaining my roommate would get off work by then and could surely give me a ride. This went over pretty smoothly, although I could tell the manager I spoke with was disappointed.
Spirit undaunted, I arrived for my interview with Apple, where the security is so tight that they manufacture 90% of their products in China (according to Forbes) and it is therefore expected that an interviewee would need a name tag. There was a presentation. There was a pop quiz. The interview was good, but I wouldn’t describe it as knockout good. Fueled by five hours of sleep, several cups of coffee, and nearly manic, I hopped in my car and drove like a madman to my next interview. I was really impressed with myself when I pulled up at 11:01 in my Toyota Corolla.
It occurred to me at this point that perhaps they would notice that I had driven my own car and constructed too many details to explain why, in the end, I hadn’t needed a ride from my supposedly fastidious, early-rising roommate who works mornings. I decided the best lie would be that my battery had died, and that a neighbor who has a hoard of useful junk in his garage, including several car batteries, had helped me install a new one. I even had an excuse for why he had not been at work that day — just in case it would arouse suspicion that one of my neighbors was unemployed in a college-town city at maximum capacity, where having a job seemed to hold about the same likelihood as attending church or voting republican.
My interviewer had been listening with apparent pleasure to my story and expressed her satisfaction that I had been able to make it in time, and commented on what a great guy that neighbor of mine is. She changed the subject and began asking me various stock interview questions, most of which pointed to the fact that I seemed overqualified for the position, based off my abundant experience with basic retail jobs, as well as a college education. She seemed impressed by my answers, which all but indicated I was gunning for her position and a lifetime career at Kinko’s working my way up from the bottom — “Exactly what we need,” she said. “Someone with ambition!”
I think the irony of this statement was lost on her, after years of desensitizing upper management. HR employee motivation attempts written by people who spend Thanksgiving with their families while their employees work overnight to finish printing the corporate staff’s discounted Christmas cards. She asked me more questions about my job history and some tough “What would you do if” situations to her satisfaction.
It was at this point that she asked me why I was wearing a name tag, which had a little Apple logo at the top, and prominently displayed the staffing agency’s name. I was not expecting this and did a kind of tilde in my head, searching for any plausible explanation. Confident that the interview was going well, and deciding that I could ad-lib this one with another simple lie, I explained that I had been to the staffing agency’s office headquarters this morning before I had come to my interview. She told me Kinko’s sometimes hires people through the same staffing agency, and had thought that perhaps I was representing them this morning. I dispelled the notion. No, I have been working with them to find a job, but I have not had much success. When I was there this morning they had not had any opportunities to offer. An opportunity with Kinko’s would be much better. I peeled off the sticker and laughed nervously, telling her how embarrassed I felt that I had forgotten to remove it. I don’t think she needed me to tell her that.
She was not cold. She asked if I had any more questions about the position. She shook my hand amiably. I left with a smile on my face — the kind of smile that says, “I have lied and gotten away with it,” before you realize the gaping inconsistencies. I exited the building through the sliding glass doors, walked smoothly to my car, turned it on, and shouted a profanity.
How could I have gotten to the interview just in time after all the car trouble if I was just at the staffing agency’s office? There is no way she did not notice that. So stupid! I was literally berating myself in my car as I drove home. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I yelled, banging the steering wheel as I entered the highway. “How could you be so stupid!”
“I can fix this,” I heard myself suddenly say. “I can still fix this.” Explain that I had meant to say that I had been at the staffing agency’s office yesterday morning. After all, it was plausible that I might wear the same button down shirt two days in a row, and might have forgotten to remove the name tag from yesterday’s events. She would understand that I had more than one interview, and it might even make me a more attractive commodity if she knew other places were interested in me. Yes, very attractive indeed. I opened my phone. I was going 80 down the highway.
I asked to speak with my interviewer. Five minutes passed. I was exiting the highway. “Hi, this is _____. What can I do for you James?” I imagined that she almost sounded smug. She had no idea who she was dealing with. Or maybe she did. Smug? Oh no. I was going to set the record straight. “Hey, it’s James — sorry to bother you again, but I wanted to clear something up with you really quick.”
“Oh?” She asked. “Is everything alright?” Dripping with — something.
“Yeah, it’s just — when I said I had been to the staffing agency’s headquarters this morning,” I strained, “I meant to say that I had been there yesterday morning.”
“I just wanted to let you know, because I know that wouldn’t have made sense — what with the car trouble and all.”
“I just didn’t want you to think I was — lying — or anything.”
A beat. Then, very friendly, “That’s okay! I understand how tricky these things can be.”
“And thanks again for meeting with me,” I said, painfully regurgitating what I had said as I had shaken her hand at the end of my interview. “I’m really looking forward to hearing from you again.”
“We’ll be in touch,” I was assured. “Take care.” Click.
I imagine her saying that as she put down the receiver. “Click.”
“How did it go?” my roommate asked, getting up for work as I walked back into the apartment. “Well, the first interview was pretty good. And the second one went — okay.”
“Just okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Actually it was going pretty well. Up until this one thing. And then I think it went pretty bad,” I said, recounting the tale for him. It felt foreign and a little scary, like I was recalling an unsettling dream.
“First off,” he interrupted near the end, “she does not care if you are a liar. She just wants someone to consistently show up to work for so many years. I always say I can envision myself staying there for at least two years.”
“Me too,” I replied hollowly.
“And even if she had wondered if the car problems were made up, she couldn’t prove it, and she might even have admired your resourcefulness in constructing a lie to attend, as you obviously did, another interview the same morning.” I was speechless. I was beginning to regret the phone call I had made on the freeway. “And secondly, when you lie you should never draw attention to the lie by giving too many details.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like all that stuff about the neighbor. And when you called to tell her that you hadn’t been lying. That might have been a red flag.”
“I think — I think I probably won’t get that job,” I concluded.
“Yeah. I would definitely not count on it,” he said shortly. He was angry with me. Maybe because I have no idea how to lie and I am 25, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was jobless and the rent was upwards of $1000 every month. I probably could have done without the fundraising job whose cause I did not believe in; could have walked out on the Albanians at Joe’s when they gave me the first opportunity; could have called Kinko’s to cancel or reschedule. And maybe if I’d cut the trend of lies from the start — from the very beginning — I could have just stayed in Dallas where I belonged. I had already been fired from one job and walked out on another, and even though both had been oppressive and had seemed to violate certain inalienable rights, money is money. And I had none.