Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Shoe fly job

My first job search took place during my senior year of college. I had a beautiful new suit (purchased at Petite Sophisticate; who knew this purchase would signify the beginning of a decade-long addiction?), resumes printed on cream-colored linen paper, and what I hoped were killer interview skills (which included staring very hard at the interviewer and hoping he or she would blink first). Since I was in the business school at the time, we had our own career center. To put in for a position, you would drop your resume into an envelope next to a job posting. If you were lucky, when you came back the following week, you would see your name listed on a new piece of paper, saying you'd be selected for an interview.

When I bought my suit, I'd traveled out to West Springfield, which is where all the haute-couture was. I hadn't thought, at the time, to purchase shoes. So on my first interview, I went all dressed up but with my black dress shoes on with the half-inch heel (most recently immortalized as the basket-weave style shoes here). I felt rather self-conscious, as all the other women who were lined up, waiting for their interview, were wearing shoes with heels of at least 3 inches or more. I had to console myself with the thought that at least my pantyhose hadn't 'run', like another girl's had at the knee.

Interviews came and went, and for a long spell, I got lots of first interviews and no second interviews. But I was optimistic. It was still early in the first semester and I still had a whole six months to go before I really had to worry about unemployment. I won't lie though and say it wasn't somewhat ego-shattering when I saw the same people over and over getting second interviews. One of them was a woman named Colleen, who was also a marketing major. She was tall, lithe, pretty, a sorority girl who always seemed to have her hair perfectly in place, in spite of the harsh western Massachusetts wind. Somehow she managed to avoid having white salt spots on her black pumps, and never ever did her lipstick smear off the corner of her lips. I also think she was immune to chapped lips. My friend Sarah and I -- blessed with unruly hair and an inability to apply make-up -- were irrationally annoyed with Colleen.

One day, I landed that magic second interview. I nearly flipped when the company -- a large semiconductor company -- telephoned. I called Sarah and she said, "I bet Colleen got an interview with them too." The interview was to take place at the company's headquarters in New Hampshire. It would be an all-day thing and I just knew that this was my job, and I decided I finally had to do something about the shoe problem, especially if Colleen was going to be there. We didn't have a whole lot of selection in terms of shoe stores in Amherst or Hadley, and I didn't have to time to bus it all the way to West Springfield and my friend was unavailable to give me a ride. So I ended up going to a Major Discount Retailer and purchased the only pair of professional-looking pair of black high heels they had; the only problem was they were a size 9 and my foot is a size 8.

It turned out that Colleen hadn't been granted a second interview with the company, and I thought I was doing well with the interview until the moment we were walking out from the Mexican restaurant where we had lunch and I realized that my size 9 heels were flip-flopping on my feet and I was in danger of tripping on the snowy pavement. I slowed my gait considerably, and for the rest of the afternoon, all I could think about were how obscenely large my shoes were and I was going to fall flat on my face. And I did, figuratively, because my mind wandered for the rest of the afternoon, as I wondered if the recruiter had noticed that my shoes were too big, and I kept worrying whether they would actually fall off. A few weeks later, I got a 'Dear Seema' letter from the company. It was the first of many rejections I would receive that year.

Incidentally, I ran into Colleen again about three years ago at Logan Airport. I had had a crazy day in the city, having been up since 5 am, and had just learned that my plane back had been delayed for hours and I wouldn't get home until close to midnight. I was a nervous wreck and as I slumped in my chair, the woman sitting next to me said, "You were at SOM at UMASS, weren't you?" And it was Colleen, wearing a nicely tailored suit, not a hair out of place, and writing thank you notes in her lovely handwriting. Picture me in my faded blue jeans, with the fraying cuffs, a purple t-shirt with a newly acquired oil stain on it (courtesy of lunch in the North End), and my hair going every which way. She was wearing shiny black shoes and I was wearing sneakers. I wanted to explain to Colleen there was a reason I looked this awful, that I'd started my day at 5 am at the beginning of the Green Line, that this was my second trip to Logan that day, that I'd gone all the way to Alewife, and then back to South Station, and to the North End, back to South Station, and now to Logan. But she spoke first.

Colleen said she was on her way to Atlanta, that she had recently gotten married, and she was an executive with a start-up. Then she asked me what I was up to, and I said I'd been to Boston for a friend's wedding, that I had a job at an insurance company I enjoyed and I was looking forward to starting my MBA in the fall. She nodded and said, "I always knew you'd be successful." And I felt like telling her, "Don't you know I'm the girl who wore mismatched shoes to her baccalaureate? Don't you remember I'm the one who didn't wear high heels for her first few job interviews and I could never get my lipstick to go on right?" But that's not what Colleen remembered about me, so maybe the shoes weren't as big of deal as I'd made them out to be. I realized I was trying too hard and being hyper-aware of every little inconsequential detail, rather than on the big picture. It's a lesson I'm still learning.

I never wore those size 9 shoes again, by the way, and when the annual Christmas drive came around, I put them in a plastic bag and dropped them into the barrel, hoping they'd prove lucky for someone else.

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