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The opportunities are limitless - until the interview

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2003

I was in the corner office, seated in the interview chair. I had folded my arms across my chest early, and now they were pinned there like I was wearing an anxiety straitjacket. My interviewer, a gruff, unimpressed editor, paged hastily through my resume.

"Oh, Smith College, huh," he said, glancing over the education portion. "That looks like a useless degree."

I heard myself giggle. The interview was like being lowered into shark-infested waters holding a bloody piece of ahi. Every time the editor opened his mouth, he took a gash out of my once-intact hopes of finding a writing job in Portland.

So far he'd told me that it would be impossible for me to actually work at his paper because people love their jobs there and they never quit. He said I could e-mail him (please, don't call, editors hate it when people call) six story ideas, and he might let me write the one he hated the least.

"So you've been here three weeks, you've been reading our paper, what do you think of it?" he asked.

I stared at him and blinked a few times. I had read his newspaper, but when I went to retrieve any thoughts I'd had while reading it, I found that my mind was as empty as my bank account. Seconds slid by. I had to answer.

"You know," I said. "I really don't have any in-depth thoughts at the moment."

As soon as the words escaped my mouth, their impact socked me in the gut like a wrecking ball. What had I just said? This was a question designed to test whether I could think critically, and I had basically looked at him and said, "Actually, no, I can't think critically at all."

I felt sweat circles forming in the armpits of my second-hand-store interview shirt. My one interview, my one chance to make a good impression, and I was having no in-depth thoughts? It was like I had been kidnapped and replaced by a dopey, inarticulate evil twin. I started to talk about the writing samples I'd brought, but after about a minute he stopped me and said, "Yeah, yeah, I'll read 'em."

And, about a minute later, I was standing on the street outside his office, listening to buses gasp and a homeless woman sing "You've got a friend" along with her duct-taped Walkman.

The next day, in an effort to take my mind off my searing interview failure, I went to an appointment at a temping agency recommended by a friend.

"I was working like a week after I signed up," she told me. "The only people who don't get jobs are morons who can't pass their grammar and Microsoft Word test."

Sitting among the modern art and fake houseplants in the lobby of the agency, I felt confident. Sure, I couldn't get a newspaper job just yet, but in the meantime I could at least temp. Only morons can't temp.

After I filled out my grammar test, a receptionist led me to a little room where I took the computer test. I was about two-thirds through when the computer started asking me questions I had no answers for. Could I mail-merge a document? Could I write a macro? I've been using Microsoft Word since I was 11, and I swear I have never heard of a macro. I figured it must be an extra-credit question, until I had my consultation with a pretty, ponytailed woman who gave me a look I'm sure she also gives stray kittens.

"Well, you did very well on the grammar portion," she said, and then wrinkled her well-groomed eyebrows. "But you did a little less well on the computer skills."

On the way home I stopped at Starbucks and picked up an employment brochure that listed the various positions one could hold, including barista, shift manager and store manager.

"THE OPPORTUNITIES ARE LIMITLESS!" it read, in all caps.

"The opportunities are limitless," I repeated to the heavily eyelinered barista behind the counter. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or to cry.

When I got home there was a message on my phone. I figured it was my mother, but instead it was an editor from another newspaper I was sure would never call me back.

"We read your work and we liked what we saw," the voice on the machine said. "We'd like you to come in for an interview." I had to play it three times before I could call back.

A week later, I found myself sitting in the lobby of a marble newspaper building. The elevator opened and a smiling man came out. He took me upstairs where we chatted pleasantly for a few minutes, and then he introduced me to some other editors, who told me they would give me a freelance assignment. After I freelanced for a while, they said, I might be able to get a regular job when the economy improves. "We all started out that way," one of the editors told me.

Standing on the sidewalk outside the newspaper office, I took a deep breath. A businesswoman clicked by me, laughing into her cell phone. For the first time since I left Juneau, I felt more excited than scared.

I had a start, and when I peered into my future, it seemed at least for that moment, that the opportunities were limitless.

• Former Empire reporter Julia O'Malley will continue to write columns twice a month from Portland. She can be reached at julia_o_malley@hotmail.com.



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