Monday, November 10, 2014

Alice Has It All

We open on New York City, Union Square. It is a chilly, rainy Thursday afternoon. The sky is gray, the sidewalks are gray, the people are gray.

Our heroine is Alice, a woman in her late 30s. She is running almost exactly on time, which to her is the same thing as being late. She is the type of person who not only hates being late but hates being afraid of being late and often experiences preemptive cautionary anxiety. It arises slowly in her brain and once there begins to transform into a burgeoning panic at the base of her feet, threatening to rise up. There is a well dressed gentleman ascending the stairs in front of her and he meanders at a snail's pace, making her quietly insane. As she has for the previous fifteen years using NYC public transportation, she's exited the subway at the exact wrong exit and must do one of those turn around in a full circle while looking into the sky confused moves in order to get her bearings. The music playing here should be quick-fire violin arpeggios. Naturally the building where she needs to be is on the opposite side of Union Square and so she breaks into a sprint. She's on her way to a job interview which is scheduled for 3pm. It is now 2:57. Something, probably desperation, propels her forward quickly, despite her business heels.

After finding the building, she enters through a small, rusted, metal door which belies the openness of the lobby that greets her. At some point in history, this was probably a grand entrance. The ensuing years have not been kind. To the left is one squat man hunched over some paperwork at a podium like desk with a sign that reads "INFORMATION" in red and white lettering. At the squeak of the opening door, he looks up hopefully as she enters, smiles and asks if he can be of any help.

"Hello, yes I'm here to see Darla. I have an interview at 3 pm, So sorry to be late." It is 3:01.

"I actually just saw Darla leave so you probably have to meet at our downtown campus."

"No, she specifically told me to meet at this Union Square location. At 3 pm?" For the briefest of seconds she doubts herself. And when in doubt, her inflection always rises to a question. It was a condition she called "Valley Girl Doubt."

"Well, she WAS here but I definitely saw her leave. What is the job?" He becomes jittery and starts to shuffle through the papers on his desk.

"It is for the library. A librarian job? Part-time?"

A look of satisfied recognition crosses his small features."See, I knew it. The library is downtown. You have to go downtown."

She feels the first tinge of mild panic in her feet.

"Downtown? See I know the library is downtown? But Darla said to meet her here?" Actually what Darla had said during the miles long email chain was that should "anything change" Alice should expect an email saying as much. Darla had indicated that there was a slight possibility that "you will need to go all the way downtown to our financial district campus" but that she would send an email the day of the interview indicating if that was the case. This part of her email, likely thrown in off handedly by Darla had become a source of obsession for our heroine. She had checked and rechecked and checked her email again and again all morning, just to be sure. No email was received. She checks again now by refreshing the page on her cell phone. Nothing.

"I have the email? It says Union Square? See?" Her voice echoes against the lobby walls. It sounds hollow. She shows him the email. He remains dubious.

"Well, I guess I can try calling her cell." He punches in the numbers hurriedly. "She's probably on the downtown subway by now though."

As she waits for him to make the call she is forced to hover over his desk, there being nowhere else to stand. She wears a slouchy rain jacket over her black interview dress, her stockinged feet are damp and becoming uncomfortably cool in the drafty room. She holds her comically large umbrella in one hand and her cell phone in the other, opened to the email, the only proof that she belongs there, she was invited there. As she stands there, anxious, she notices for the first time what was on the other side of the used-to-be-grand lobby.

Across from where she stands is a bank of about seven desks, each manned by an employee in a red polo shirt. In her harried state she had overlooked them. Seeing them now, they make her think of pledge drives or call centers, places that make and take a high volume of solicitations or donations. None of the employees are actually on the phone here, however. They are seated, talking to each other or staring at computer screens. They are of varying ages but all male. Someone is discussing the director Lars von Trier with a totally disinterested desk mate. Another one is mumbling to himself. That there should be a bank of silent telephones in an otherwise empty lobby with none of them ringing seems bizarre, an idea gone glaringly wrong. If this was, as it purported to be, a place of higher education what were the phones for and why were there so many? She started to retrace the steps that led her here.

She had answered an online posting for a librarian job, despite the fact that it had been both vague and all encompassing at the same time. Things in the library world generally were both vague and all encompassing. Neither and both. The ad had read as though whomever had posted it had taken a brief description of the profession from some occupational encyclopedia and decided to cut and paste it, inserting their institution's name accordingly. Ostensibly, it was to be a part time librarian for a film school. The hours were not mentioned, nor the salary. But after being unemployed for six months, going on seven, she needed a job and was going to take on all comers. She had sent her resume, along with about ten others one Sunday afternoon after drinking a beer or two and marathon watching Portlandia, So when the response requesting an interview arrived in her mailbox four days later, the job had sounded only vaguely familiar. One of hundreds. A week and a half of lobbing emails back and forth with dates and times ensued and they had arranged for a time to meet, only to have it be cancelled at the very last minute, via email, the day of the interview. The whole process had left a faintly disorienting sensation in her brain, like exiting an elevator a floor too early. It should have been a red flag.

However, here she was, hovering over this "INFORMATION desk"as he jabbed his fingers into a phone keypad, hidden from her view. He hung up with a sigh.

"As I suspected she left but I was just told she'd be right back. She went to get something to eat." He shrugs as he said this, perhaps knowing how profoundly strange it was to leave for lunch at exactly the time she was to interview a potential employee.

"Well, can I wait somewhere?" She asks quietly, attempting to soften the edge in her voice.

"Unfortunately we have no couches. You can stand here."

Fine. She thinks. Fine. I'll just stand here, over you until you feel as awkward as I do and you come up with another solution. This isn't awkward. Nope. 

After 30 seconds, it becomes awkward. She moves a little further back, away from the desk and attempts to find a focal point for her sojourn into interview limbo. Suddenly, one of the red be-shirted call center employees breaks out into song. This is noteworthy, she thinks, for two reasons. Reason one: The bellow of unexpected song, like her voice just minutes before, echoes off the old marble walls of the enormous lobby and it startles her. Reason two: the song choice. For a reason unknowable to anyone but himself, the singer chose the song "Higher" by the "band" Creed. She thinks of Creed as a "band" in quotation marks. She thinks they exist as an idea more than an actual band. This is a self preservation technique: fictionalize the terrible.

Can you take me higher
to a place where blind men see

She hears these lyrics and prays that Darla will not show up after all. She hears this voice as a harbinger of bad things, a warning to run back out into the rain. But just as she turns to exit, in comes a small, pretty Asian woman with a rain jacket and the shortest skirt possible.

"Darla!", shouts the information desk man. "I've been trying to reach you! Your interview is here."

"Oh, cool. Hi! You're...." She pauses with an expectant look on her face.

"Alice?" Valley Girl Doubt.

"Right! Alice! Have you been waiting long?" Darla turns and begins walking towards the elevator before Alice can answer. When she does, Alice sees she is not only wearing a barely there skirt, but she is also wearing knee high striped socks, lending a very school girl air to this recruitment manager. Not being judgmental is something Alice prides herself on however, judgment can be an involuntary muscle. She feels suddenly that she will be interviewed by a college student. No apology for lateness is forthcoming so Alice simply says, "Yes, about ten minutes now."

"Oh, well, today you'll be meeting with the provost and the director of the school." Darla says as she jams her long fingers into the elevator buttons. She smells dipped in perfume. For various reasons, this annoys Alice.

"Right now they are in a meeting with each other so I'm just going to have you wait awhile longer."

"Sorry? They are in a meeting with each other?"


The elevator opens to a cluttered room. To the immediate right there is what looks like an unmanned box office, to the left is a walled off work area with a cluster of desks inside. Next to the walled in cluster is another cluster of tables, however these are out in the open. There are several Mac workstations on each table and about five people are working intensely at a few of them. She thinks these are students but it is not clear what exactly this room is so really they could be anyone: students, employees, fellow interviewees. She decides that when she tells the tale of this interview, she will refer to this room as Clusterfuck Corner.

"You can wait there." Darla holds her lunch in a plastic bag and uses this arm to casually gesture to a set of leather armchairs along the wall. "I'll come get you when their meeting is done."

Their meeting with each other.

Alice looks at a wall clock. It is 3:15. Resigned, she removes her rain jacket, plops down on the chair and takes out her phone, beginning a pro/con list. She is, in fact, desperate for a job so the list will have to be a good one if she has any hope of justifying not taking the job, if it is even offered to her, if a job even exists. For the first, and hopefully last, time Creed makes the list. As she sits there, a parade of people shuffles in an out of the room toward indiscernible, hidden from view locations. Most are young, good looking and relaxed. Her suspicions that this is a study hall are proved false when she notices Darla seated at her desk inside the walled off "office", taking a small sandwich out of the bag she was carrying on the way up. She says something to the young man seated next to her and they laugh loudly, in quick bursts, their energy kinetic. Alice feels suddenly exhausted.

She scrolls through the email on her phone and receives a sporadic job alert. It is for a Librarian. She clicks on the link, feeling bland, like her face would be blurred out from a distance. She has the urge to fake a coughing fit, just to make the random people inside this random room notice she is sitting there, waiting. The job ad reads:

Mid-size college seeks entry-level librarian for start-up library. Must have minimum of 10 years of increasing responsibility experience in an academic library setting.  Demonstrated ability to meet a high standard of quality work independently and expeditiously is required, along with coordinating and training to meet a heavy workload. Must be able to lift up to 55 pounds. Second Masters degree strongly preferred. Fluency in more than one Germanic language required. Salary from mid 30s. 

Sighing, she uploads her resume. Alice has it all: 11 years of experience, increasing responsibility, expeditiousness in droves. The languages she can fake if it ever got that far. The salary, for a job requiring a professional Masters degree and a second language, is so low that she decides to think of it as an abstract idea; a random number somewhere far in the distance. Seven months without a job makes real world issues like not enough money seem very far away.

Her eyes wander around the room. All along every wall are film posters, cheaply framed and worn looking. Some of the films are garden variety "classics": The Godfather, Citizen Kane. There are two copies of the poster for Bad Lieutenant, which features a naked Harvey Keitel underneath the film's title. It is a film she has never seen but has always struck her as being one of those films that people claimed to really like but in reality were lying. Then again, she has that same thought about many things most people claimed to like. She is an autodidact of film appreciation and the prospect of working as a librarian for a film school had excited her. She had had hopes of discussing the finer points of her favorite films with students and envisioned glamorous happy hour parties after work filled with creative types and filmmakers over bourbon and cigarettes. But there is something about this room, its actual purpose a total mystery to her, that rings false.  The film posters struck her as arbitrary, showy and insincere. One of the Bad Lieutenant posters hangs above a closed black door. On the front of the door hangs a plaque that reads Federico Fellini. She assumes this is in homage to the great Italian director and she wants to peek inside; perhaps Marcelo Mastroianni is inside, lighting a cigarette and sporting a skinny tie.

She looks at the clock. 3:35. Darla continues nibbling on her sandwich in her walled off room, avoiding all eye contact with Alice through the glass. No new information appears to be forthcoming. Frustration begins to gather in whorls at her feet and she decides that if, in exactly 10 minutes from now she is still seated there, uninformed and unmoved, she will get up and leave. Maybe I'll cause a scene she thinks. Maybe I'll laugh maniacally and say the time out loud over and over again. She becomes so enmeshed in the entertainment of these fantasies that she nearly misses the thin man standing above her.

"Pardon me?" She was disoriented.

"Are you Susan?" He looks at her quizzically behind his square framed glasses. He has a head of wavy, mildly red hair and a friendly demeanor, but he is unprepared and confused.

"Alice?" She asks, both questioning her own name and feeling strangely apologetic for sitting there.

"Oh we are supposed to meet with you. Please follow me." She gets up too quickly, too eagerly and feels instant embarrassment. She rushes to gather her rain jacket and umbrella and scrambles after him; he was already ahead of her, heading directly toward the Fellini room. There is a sudden flurry of activity in Clusterfuck Corner and she feels nervous.

Marcelo Mastroianni is not in here. This Fellini room is not full of stylized, curvaceous Italian women in pencil skirts, hanging laundry or dancing on the beach nor does it contain sunglassed five-o-clock shadowed men on Vespas. What is here is a row of rusted folding chairs, arranged in a jagged, random mess atop a visibly dirty, black and white checkered floor. There is a scratched chalk board at the front of the room. On the wall opposite the door is a huge, gaping hole from which both rain and cold air is entering the room. She shudders. The harsh fluorescent lighting gives the room a stark, accusatory feel and to her horror, she realizes this is the room where she will be interviewed. She sits on one of the folding chairs and it wobbles loudly.

She is about to change chairs when a second man enters. He is small, broad chested and is wearing a casually buttoned blue oxford shirt with gray flannel pants. He appears to be rushing in from somewhere and Alice gets the impression that this is a permanent aspect of his personality. In his hand he holds a wrinkled piece of paper rolled up like a scroll. Alice sits again quickly and her chair wobbles again.

"Hi, I'm Joel." He offers her his hand as he says this, shakes it roughly and stares expectantly at her, as though he is pulling the lever of a slot machine and is waiting to see if all the cherries line up.

"I'm Alice?" The dirty room and the intense stare from this man who seems on the brink of having to leave the room because of a family emergency makes her a little nervous. However, she remembers that they have not apologized for their lateness and the nervousness passes quickly into something else.

"Alice, this is Bob," he says too loudly as he gestures toward the red haired man who regards her with a kind smile. He is wearing a black sweater and jeans and sits back in his chair, relaxed and slightly amused looking. "He's the director. I am the provost."

Together we are Drovost, Russian superhero cops. Her thoughts become stupid. She hopes that Bob will do most of the interviewing. Naturally, Joel begins to speak.

"So basically we are looking to build a library pretty much from the ground up. We want something that will support our students and that will work within our approved budget. We had a librarian here but she had to leave for a personal emergency and she was in the middle of building up our collection and circulation and inventory system and it never got finished." He looks at his watch as he says this. "So, tell us Alice what do you envision for a library like this?"


He gestures toward the rolled up scroll in his hand. "I haven't even read your resume so I'm not sure of your background but tell us what you envision."

"I think that..."

"Because we would need someone to have an open mind while being able to work within a budget. We would need someone who can work alongside and within the parameters of our school's philosophy and who can also help bring us into the most current technology possible. Is that something you could do? Like I said, I haven't read your resume." He shrugs as he repeats this, flippant.

"Yes, you mentioned that." If annoyance sprouted in the elevator with the be-perfumed Darla, it was about to blossom fully, right here in Fellini's ghetto.

"What Joel means is that you would be working with a few restrictions but that we would rely on your expertise a large amount of the time." Bob has a kind demeanor and is less direct with his eye contact. She feels less an object appraised and more, well, more like a librarian being asked a reference question. "Do you have experience in start up libraries?"

He hadn't read her resume either. "I have experience in every type of library; I've worked in various ones, doing various things at various times. I don't really know anything about your library or lack of one. Could you tell me what exactly it has or, um, where it is? Could we take a tour?"

Joel sighs and seems annoyed. "It is at our other campus, of course. We just want a general idea of what you would do, given free reign of the library, with limitations."

Free reign with limitations. Vague and all encompassing. Neither and both.

Bob interrupts. "The previous librarian begun ordering things so there are some boxes still there. The library has been open this whole time, about six months, with students allowed in and out. So we do expect some loss of new materials but you would have some things to work with. Overall though, it would be like beginning a new library. It would be part time hours."

And with that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome scenario, she decides that she has no intention of taking this job, that in fact, she lacks the necessary mental illness and sadomasochistic leanings to take a job like this. She does not feel nervousness or confusion. She feels only pure irritation, this interview has become like a mosquito in her sleeping bag.

Joel says, "Right right. So anyway, what do you envision for this type of job?"

"For this particular job? This start up library on a part time basis? Free reign, with limitations?"

They shift in their chairs, one of which creaks loudly. Her chair wobbles again underneath her.

The wobbling chair, the creak...this annoys Alice. Annoys her more than getting laid off from her job of six long years where she wasted most of her best decade staring at a screen and planning to leave and that the most she can hope for is another job where she sits and waits for the next big thing to happen in her life. It annoys her more than the neverending lacquered runway of fruitless job searching, strutting unsteadily with her list of qualifications on display for dissection and critique and, at least in this case, disregard. Annoys her more than the now persistent echo in her brain which, even after a few moments of silence, Joel and Bob watching her expectantly, becomes louder and louder.

"Well for starters, I envision big stars and bright lights. Part-time stars and lights, of course. I would go big or go home, so to speak. Get the newest, brightest most high tech technology possible. A chicken in every hot pot and an iMac in every dorm room. I'd have a library open house with guest speakers, maybe some entertainers. I'm not talking just any guest speakers. This is New York City and you are a film school. Would it be unheard of to hire Robert DeNiro to just do impressions of himself for a few hours? How about Woody Allen? Could we get him to direct a trailer for the library? I'm thinking on location at the Trevi fountain. Maybe you two can wade through it and cavort, Fellini style. I can just feel him in here you know. Maybe he's coming in through that hole in the wall, haha! Anyway, as it says on my resume, I danced for three years with the Ballet Russes so, even after all these years, I know Diaghilev's nephew can pull together something cinematic for the grand opening. In fact, let me call him now before they break for lunch."

Alice stands from her chair and the creak this time sounds like relief. She grabs her rain jacket and umbrella dashes out of the room to Clusterfuck Corner. The same people are seated at the same desks doing the same nothing they were doing for the last ten or so minutes it has taken to burn this particular bridge. She waves to naked Harvey Keitel as she walks past the elevator to find the stairs. She gets to the lobby and passes the telephone bank and one person is on the phone saying "...self addressed stamped envelope to us and we will mail..." she is out the door before he finishes.

It has stopped raining. The sky is still gray but now has patches of faded blue peeking through. Union Square remains bustling with people on their way home or to dinner or to their jobs inside clusterfuck rooms or holey classrooms. She walks to the subway, oddly contented, her earlier anxiety a deflating balloon in her chest. As she approaches the subway entrance, she removes her cell phone from the pocket of her rain jacket to see if she's missed any calls or emails. There is one new message in her inbox. It's title reads: Entry-level librarian position--Invitation for Interview. She shuts her phone off and descends the stairs.

She walks against the general flow of foot traffic and the mob of commuters ascending the stairs and the rushing crowd has to part to let her through.