“Why do you want to work here?”
He doesn’t ask the question with the tone of, “What intrigues you about the gas station/convenience store industry?” It’s more, “How bad did you screw up your life that you ended up here?”
“Why do you want to work here?”
I have nothing.
The question stumbles out of his mouth, barfs on me and passes out at my feet. I want to kick it under the desk and move on to the next question, but there it stays, dry heaving on the floor, waiting to be answered.
I know what I want to say. That’s easy. “I don’t want to work here. No one does. No one has ever wanted to work here and no one ever will. I’m pretty sure even you don’t want to work here.”
But the manager of this gas station/convenience store isn’t on a quest to find the larger truth. He has no intention of keeping it real with me. He just wants to hear my damage.
The truth is all I got. “I need a job.”
I see in his eyes it’s not enough. He wants more. He wants my story, my tale of woe, or at the very least some explanation of why. Why? Why do you want to work here? There must be a reason.
Stories fly from my brain to my lips, but I refuse to open my mouth. False stories. Stories that will appease his curiosity of why a middle-aged woman is looking for an after school job.
I’ve taken a wrong turn in life but am working my way back… one day at a time. Man. Just one damn day at a time. I should methodically flip a 30-day chip through my fingers to drive home my commitment to sobriety.
Or I am a stay at home mom. My youngest has entered high school, so it’s time for this lady to get her life back. Exclamation point. Smiley face. I am woman hear me roar!
Or better yet, I was a corporate attorney making millions until I realized it was meaningless. I checked out of the corporate bullshit game, and now I want to serve humanity by selling Bud-light and Marlboro Reds. Fuck the system.
Instead, I stick with the truth. I need a job. Like millions of Americans, I’ve always held a job, not a career, a job. Crappy jobs that no one wants. Jobs that are meant to be the starting off place, not the ending up place. I’ve been a waitress, a bartender, an administrative assistant, a background researcher, a retail clerk, a dog sitter, a gardener, a waitress, a waitress, a waitress…
I once tried out to be a maid. During the initial interview, the couple hiring couldn’t decide who would be best suited to clean their toilets and load their dishwasher. They were conflicted and told me as such. A woman had interviewed earlier, and I had some stiff competition. I sat on the edge of their ginormous couch and answered their questions with a manic enthusiasm better suited to a game show than an interview as a housekeeper. It really was the biggest couch I’d ever sat on. I didn’t dare sit all the way back or my feet would have stuck straight out. The position I was applying for had me feeling small enough without being swallowed by the mother of all couches. I suppose, to be fair, the couple needed a giant couch. A regular couch would have resembled doll furniture in their mammoth living room.
In the end, my perky cleaning enthusiasm wasn’t enough to seal the deal. But it was enough to keep me in the running. The couple decided to have the two finalists come in for a test run of scrubbidy dub and fluffity fold. They were holding a cleaning one-off, a mop and glow smack down. May the best poor person win! Anyone with a smidgen of dignity would have told them to piss off. Anyone with rent due in a couple of weeks asked, “What time do you want me there?”
After scrubbing my little heart out, I didn’t win. There is no way to recover from losing a competition where the grand prize is you get to be a maid. Six years later, I replay the day in my mind and cannot pinpoint the exact moment I blew it. My best guess — I struggled with the shelves in the refrigerator. I took them out easily enough to wash, but putting them back was a challenge. They refused to slide correctly. At one point, I panicked thinking I’d broken one, but I recovered like a champ, and no one was the wiser. The lady of the house was upstairs blissfully unaware that her side-by-side nearly got the best of me.
Unless of course, there was a nanny cam. For all I know, a dinner party is winding down right now, a group of millionaires crowded around the latest Mac Book Pro, sipping expensive wine and howling with laughter at the nincompoop who couldn’t figure out how a refrigerator shelf worked.
“Look, look, you can see the moment she starts to panic.”
“Don’t play it again. I’ll wet myself!”
“I take it you didn’t hire this genius.”
“Oh God no. Wait. Wait. Here’s my favorite part. Look around dum dum and make sure no one is watching. When will these people learn, someone is always watching?”
Most days I don’t think about my crushing defeat. Most days. And I don’t dare mention it to the gas station/convenience store manager who’s now holding my application. It’s a secret I will take to my grave.
“Do you know how to work a register?” he asks.
Come on now? Do I know how to work a register? Name tags and registers are my areas of expertise, pal.
But before I can answer he ups the game with, “A touch screen register?”
Ah. Bringing out the big guns.
I do know how to work a touch screen register, but not from a job I’ve held. I know from shopping at Walmart with food stamps. They’ve installed self-service checkouts, and I like to use them even though I know they’ve cost someone a job. Self-service checkouts are anonymous. No one can see you discreetly swipe your SNAP card. People in self-service stand back a few feet. They give you space. They have boundaries. Respect. Or maybe they’re all on food stamps too.
Full-service customers breathe down your neck, especially those fuckers, shifting their weight from one foot to the other, in the 15 items or less line. Are they afraid someone will snag one of their items from across the rubber barrier? Why do they need to be up everyone’s ass? Maybe because they are full service, they feel entitled to know what’s going down in their line. They sigh a lot. They roll their eyes. There are rules to be adhered to. If you dare to write a check, like some throwback to the Kennedy era, you better have that shit filled out before you reach the cashier. No one has time to put up with your nonsense. And if you even think about paying with food stamps, your cart best be filled with white boxes stating what’s inside, crackers, macaroni, cereal, milk. No name brands for you, you lazy bastard. Full service is full of rules and judgments. Know your place or step aside.
I prefer self-service. Self-service understands to mind their business.
I don’t tell him the truth about Walmart, food stamps or my experience with the self-service register. I nod and say, “Yes, I’ve worked a touch screen before.” It’s a small lie. One that I can live with.
We sit in silence. I stare at him. He stares at my application. Something is bothering him. I can tell by the way he rubs his beard and won’t look at me. “You have a working vehicle?” he mutters not looking up.
“Yes.” It’s another lie. I don’t own a car, but I live with a friend, and she owns a car, and I can borrow it whenever I need, so for me, it’s the same thing. How I perform the job is his business. How I get there is mine. Self-service, Bud. Self-service.
And we are back to silence. He twists his chair, swinging to the left, swinging to the right. He sighs.
Finally, he says, “The last job you had was in 2012?”
“Yes.” I offer no other information. I’m hoping he is going to let this slide since I’m applying for a position as a store clerk, not gaining government clearance for the CIA. He gives me the side-eye. It lets me know he has no intention of letting this slide.
I say that I am a writer and try to tell him, in a jumbled mess of un-writerly words, that I wrote some things and was able to not work but that really I was kind of a stay at home… Stay at home what? Girlfriend? I trail off not finishing my sentence.
I don’t tell him that the boyfriend and I shared a truck, and he needed it for work, so I stayed home, but in that time, I started an online journal, wrote three books and completed real estate school. I don’t tell him I never took the real estate test because the boyfriend cheated and I left so now I’m in Washington and my California real estate education is worthless. I don’t tell him that since 2012, I have moved from Washington to Arkansas to Kansas, back to Arkansas, to California and now back to Washington.
“What kind of stuff did you write?” he asks. I don’t think it’s necessary to raise his eyebrow, but he does. It feels skeptical, and I wish I were hiding a meth addiction instead of my writer-ness.
I shrug the question off and play at being small enough to work at a gas station/convenience store. “Just some essays. Nothing, really.”
I want to throat punch him for making me bring that part of my life into this part of my life. I want to scream, “Haven’t you ever seen a failure before?” Instead, I smile and say, “I only live a few miles away, so if anyone is sick, I can be here right away. I don’t have kids or anything.” Now I sound pathetic, and I hate him for it.
He sets my application down on his desk and says, “I have some other people I need to interview, but I’ll call you.”
We both know that’s a lie.