A Year on Craigslist: A Forty-Four Year Old’s Search for a Steady Job – (PART 2)
After I was fired from my job as a mechanic, I returned to craigslist and started applying for just about any opening I could find.
I applied for work as a bagel baker, a construction laborer, a screen printer, an interior painter, an exterior painter, an online pet memorial salesman, a landscaping foreman, a front desk dental office assistant, a video production assistant, an editor for a new blog (the job required a computer, and that you worked from home), a copywriter for a new sports blog (again, the work would be done at home), construction site cleanup, and a granite countertop measurer, among many, many other positions. I sent out resumes and short cover letters to every one of them, each tweaked to fit the new circumstance.
I tried to avoid getting involved in anything that might cause serious injury. At forty-four I valued my sometimes stiff, yet healthy, back, and I wasn’t about to risk vertebrae dislocation just to get some college student’s couch up two flights of stairs.
But of all the jobs I applied for, I hardly heard a thing from any one of them.
You’re supposed to follow up on applications, the advice-givers say, but most ads on craigslist don’t include follow-up phone numbers or contacts. Usually, when applying for work through craigslist, you are sending your resume out into the ether with the simple hope that it finds its way into safe hands. There is a chance, of course, that some of these ads are run by crooks. It could be that they are phishing schemes—phony companies set up to lure you into providing them with your personal information—but you can usually spot these scams from a mile away. The grammar is bad or they have corporate logos that look like graphic design rejects. It’s true, you take a risk when responding to online advertising, but at some point you have to leave things up to fate.
I did get a few interviews through craigslist; some of these were mentioned earlier. One interview I had was for transmission repair franchise that was looking to hire a service writer. The shop was in one of those beige storefronts glued to another beige franchised tire shop, kitty-corner to a beige franchised sandwich deli. After a couple of phone conversations, I was asked to come in for an interview. A day or so later I met with the district manager—the guy who helps the owners of the transmission franchises find employees—and he gave me a quick tour of the place.
The front office was slightly bleak: soft country music and the smell of burnt coffee hit you right away, and the carpet was beige, the desk was beige and the furniture was beige. Behind the desk sat the ample wife of the owner, phone teetering on her shoulder, and she smiled thinly at me through heavy lipstick before turning back to her computer and her call.
After the tour, the district manager took me across the street to a cafe where we found a table and sat down; soon after, the owner of the shop came across the street and joined us. He was older than me by about ten years and had broken blood vessels on his cheeks from hypertension…or maybe he was a drinker. The interview went well, I thought. We chatted loosely while they asked me questions and outlined the job responsibilities. For the most part, the work would be service writing, but there would be some helping out in the shop when needed.
At the end of the interview the owner asked where I wanted to be in ten years? I said, perhaps a little recklessly, that I couldn’t see myself working in the auto service business long-term. I told him that most of the guys I knew over fifty who were still repairing cars were in poor shape. They were struggling with health problems: neck or hand surgeries and back issues. I didn’t want to wind up like that, I said. I was never called back after the interview.
One thing about that interview that bugged me was that the moment it was over, I noticed that the next interviewee was sitting at the table next to ours, awaiting his turn. When the interview was over, I got up, shook hands with the owner and district manager and then I turned to the other candidate and said, “good luck.” I left with an uneasy feeling. I didn’t think it was considerate to have us square off like that.
Another interview that was more up my alley was for a service writer job at a foreign auto service shop. This was a smaller shop—non-dealer—and after seeing the ad on craigslist I sent my resume and then took the initiative to drive over and introduce myself. I met the shop manager and he showed me around the place. We hit it off well. I met a couple of the mechanics and I described my experience in the business and the manager told me before I left that he’d be in touch in the next two or three days.
It was a Friday, three days later, and I still hadn’t heard from him, so I called and caught the manager on the shop phone. He was glad to hear from me, he said, and he told me they were setting up interviews the following week. They were extremely busy, he went on, and it had been difficult organizing the hiring process right in the middle of the rush, but I should expect a call. I told him, in all good humor, that that would be fine and that I looked forward to hearing from him.
By Friday of the following week I still hadn’t heard anything. So I called again and once more I got the shop manager on the phone. He apologized and reiterated how he appreciated my persistence. He went on to say that the following Monday they were definitely setting up the interviews and that I’d get a call on Monday or Tuesday to meet with the owner. I was relieved, somewhat, that I was still in the running, but the process was starting to drag on. This should have been a red flag, but when you’ve been searching for work for so long, you tend to hold onto any thread like it’s your lifeline.
By next Tuesday I still hadn’t heard a thing and I called late in the day and left a message on the shop phone. I didn’t hear back and I was about to give up on the whole prospect when, to my surprise, I got a call the next day from the owner, Todd, asking if I could meet with him at a café that Thursday.
Great! I finally had the interview with Todd. We met at a café the next morning and had a nice chat. After a half hour, he told me that Al, the shop manager, would contact me early next week for a follow-up interview and that that’s where things stood. I messaged Todd later that day and thanked him for taking the time to meet with me, and he responded with an equally amicable text.
By the middle of the following week, however, I had heard nothing. I texted Todd that Friday to find out how things were going. He didn’t respond. What else could I do? He had my number and email address. I knew that he received my text after the interview. Did they hire someone else?
Perhaps. It was hard to say.
I couldn’t tell what had happened from looking at the company Facebook page. Either way, I felt depleted and let down. Even if Todd had his doubts and he had a different service writer in mind, professional courtesy would have been to call me and let me know that they had gone with another candidate, right?
This experience is an example of the emotional roller coaster ride you’re on when money is tight and you haven’t had luck finding work. This would have been a good job, and my wife and I were hoping our luck had changed, but nothing ever jelled. Finally, after scoring the interview with the owner, we were once more optimistic. Soon enough, though, we were back at square one. An entire month was lost on false expectation. Pick yourself up and move on, is what you tell yourself. You’re a little less confident and a bit beaten down, but what else is there to do…
Under existing cultural context, when one person in a couple is out of work it can put a strain on the relationship. When finances are tight and one person is carrying all the weight—paying the rent and all the bills—it’s easy for the other person to feel the effects of what I consider an imbalance of influence (a power disparity, in amateur psychological terms.) It becomes a kind of existential task for the unemployed person to assert himself in different ways.
When you are the one without a job, you find ways to contribute, even if the contribution doesn’t involve money. You do the dishes and the laundry and the vacuuming. You do what grocery shopping you can. You walk the dog. If you know something about cars, you check the oil and tire pressure and warm the car up for your wife when the mercury dips below the zero mark. When the breadwinner comes home after a night of work (my wife worked second shift in a busy mental health crisis center—the profession that infamously coined the term “burnout”), and your days of unemployment are stretching on, you give her a wider berth when she’s exhausted and under stress.
In Seattle, before our move, the shoe had been on the other foot. Back then, I was the one with the job and my wife had just finished her degree and was coasting on the tail end of her student loans while she looked for work. Now I was the one trying to keep the kitchen clean, the dog fed and dust from accumulating in the corners of the room. You do these things, not only to be helpful, but also to prove to yourself that you’re still useful. You do these things to distract yourself from darker thoughts…that you aren’t capable of success, or that you’ve somehow failed at life. You tighten screws on the electrical outlets and you wash the floor and you seal the storm windows.
Over time, though, tensions percolate and there are words and tears and despair. “We could find a cheaper apartment,” it is suggested. We could make cuts here and there in our budget. We’ll put off starting a family. We could move back to Seattle where we have friends and better connections. Wait, how would we get the money to do that?
We weren’t on food stamps, but we had been shopping at the cheaper grocery stores for a long time now and we rarely went out. My wife was a genius when it came to getting a two-for-one burger through the mail flyers and we started carrying around pocketfuls of coupons whenever we went shopping. In a worst-case scenario, of course, we could reach out to relatives, but we never let our situation appear that dire. I was forty-four, after all. To be economically unviable was shameful. Also, the running subtext in conversations with family (whether real or imagined) was that if you’re not making it, you’re not trying hard enough. Soliciting charity from relatives would be crossing over to the Dark Side. Nothing good would come of it.
Can this continue, you wonder? Is the situation sustainable? Do I need to shut up and put up with guys like Barney in order to get by? Was I fired because of some fundamental flaw in my character? I was strong and healthy and intelligent, but why couldn’t I get a decent job? But maybe the truth was that my resume was a joke…maybe, at forty-four, I’d simply missed the boat where a career was concerned.
These are the thoughts that haunt you, but somehow you press on. Your unemployed status is temporary, you remind yourself. You’re in transition and doing what you can to make things work. The path is obscured, but soon will come clarity.
At times along my craigslist journey, I started to wonder if I’d left reality and entered the realm of absurdity. All the applying and calling and emailing can lend itself to some strange exchanges.
One Monday, in the middle in the summer, after I’d been let go from my auto-repair job, I got an early morning message, around six o’clock, from a gravelly voiced caller reading off what must have been a scripted message. It went something like this: “Framers needed for two-weeks in central Minneapolis. Must have tools and transportation.” I called this number later in the afternoon and no one answered, so I left a message mentioning my name and that I’d been called. I didn’t get a call back.
A few days after that, the gravelly voice left a similar message. For some reason I wasn’t able to return the call, but he was looking for an experienced carpenter and left a brief description of the job. I wasn’t an experienced carpenter, nor had I claimed to be, but I started to wonder if this was one of the many staffing companies on craigslist that I’d sent resumes to.
Another day or two passed and I received another early morning call: same gravelly voice and the same obscure job description for a skill I didn’t have. I called the number back that afternoon and I actually got the guy with the gravelly voice on the line. I told him my name and that I’d got a voicemail earlier that day…and the guy cut me off. I could almost hear him shaking his head. He said, “Sorry, buddy. That was your third strike. You’re done.” So, before even getting the job, I’d been fired for work I wasn’t even qualified for. How’s that for a morale booster!
Another time I got a return call from an ad I’d applied to on craigslist looking for a carpenter’s helper…someone who had minimal experience but could work independently and who had transportation and a few tools. I remember this well because I was in the car with my wife when my phone rang and I had to pull over to call him back.
His name was Dave, and we talked about my experience and what he was expecting in an employee. I told him that I was excited to learn more about carpentry and I told him about my tile and stone background. We also talked a bit about my personal background: some biography and that kind of thing…why we moved from Seattle and so forth. As the conversation continued, however, I realized that he had a lot more going than just the finish carpentry he had pictured on his craigslist ad. There were painting and carpet-laying jobs he was doing. He was also installing appliances and doing other odd jobs. The more I learned, the more this guy seemed like a Tom Nelson type of character.
When he asked what I was expecting to get paid, I told him that fifteen per hour would be reasonable. He went kind of cold after that. He said that might be hard to meet, and he started to list my shortcomings: my lack of tools and lack of experience. He was angling for ten an hour. I told him that might be okay, but it would be up to negotiation after a few weeks.
“You know,” he said as the conversation was winding up, “I usually like to meet up with a guy before I hire him. Size him up, you know.” I told him I understood. “But I’m so busy,” he went on, “that I just can’t fit it in. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got the job.”
I thanked him and accepted and we agreed to go over the details later. Then he went on: “You know, this is a big weight off my shoulder,” he said. “I got about ten other problems to deal with today, and nine of them are personal. Boy, if I could tell you all the shit I gotta deal with…”
After starting up the car and driving for a few minutes, I looked over at my wife and said, “I don’t think I can work for that guy.” She nodded. I needed the work, but she trusted me. She had been listening in on the conversation: “This guy doesn’t sound like he’s got it all together,” she said. Later in the afternoon I called Dave back and lied about a cousin who got me a short-term job setting tile. I left the message on his voicemail and I never heard back.
Dave kind of reminded me of a guy I worked for in Seattle before I started working as a mechanic. I was always running damage control for all the promises he made to clients and never followed up on. Also, when pay checks were cut every two weeks, I had to chase him all over town to get my dough. The hardest thing in the world for that guy to do was part with his money, no matter how devoted his employees were or how much we busted our tails for him. A piece of advice for bosses: when you owe an employee money, track him down and get the check in his hand. Be respectful and don’t make your workers run all over town looking for you on payday.
There were a number of other strange exchanges I had when applying through craigslist. One guy posted this ad: “Searching for a Super Hero Service Advisor.” He had a startlingly poetic post, complete with motivational quote from Black Flag front man Henry Rollins. I didn’t know what the work entailed, but if this guy is posting an ad with a Henry Rollins quote, I figured he couldn’t be that bad.
After I sent a response, I got a voicemail from the owner of company within a few hours. I called him back and we had a brief chat, but he said he was on his way to a meeting, and we agreed to talk more at the end of the week. “The end of the week” rolled around and he never called, and I never called him. A little Internet work, though, and I found out that the owner had some vague company that did vague marketing and advising work. But in all the places where his name came up, I couldn’t figure out what kind of business he was in.
One thing you start to learn when looking for work on craigslist, is that the less an ad tells you about the work they expect of you, the more skeptical you should be. And if the prospective employer is shoveling out the motivational speech on his or her craigslist ad, that person is most likely working through his or her own motivational crisis. I think this guy needed a “Super Hero Service Advisor”, not for my benefit, but to swoop in and either start or save his own company.
Just about the time I was waist-deep in my craigslist hunt for work, the news about the trial of the Craigslist Killer was circulating in the press. It worried my wife more than it worried me, but it kind of makes you think. One weekend I got a short job with a guy opening a booth in a trade show in a hotel south of Minneapolis. He told me to be at the hotel lobby at seven in the morning. When I got there I called him on my cell phone, and he told me that he would pick me up in a black van in front of the main doors. I went over to the doors and sure enough, a minute later I saw the van. It pulled up to the curb and idled.
My first thought was that this was a little bit weird. I didn’t know exactly what to expect with regards to the day’s work, but I never thought I’d be climbing into a sketchy van with a stranger. Where would we go? Were we leaving the hotel, I wondered? How far do I let this guy take me before I insist that he pull over and let me out?
As I climbed into the van I did a quick “survival” assessment. In a few short seconds I scanned for threats: weapons, or any type of material that could be used to subdue me. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. There was the typical stuff you’d find in any front seat of a van: folded maps, tissues, spare change in a coffee cup. Deciding that things looked fairly normal, I cast a glance into the back of the van and found a load of neatly stacked tote bins. Tim gave me the low-down on what we were about to do (we were going to set up a booth to display his pottery in a merchant trade show), and as we pulled up to the loading dock at the back of the hotel I realized that everything was going to be okay.
In some sense, I think he was about as nervous about me as I was about him. He was taking a risk, too, by calling on strangers to help him set up for his trade show. In the end, Tim and his wife turned out to be very a very nice couple and we parted with mutual appreciation. It was a short job, and not especially well paid, but it felt good to work for a pair of good people.
The following weekend, when I was trying to drum up work on craigslist, I noticed an ad looking for help to set up horse stables outside of the cities. It was about an hour’s drive into rural Minnesota. I told my wife as we were going to bed that I was thinking of responding to the ad. She flung her arms around me and said, “I don’t want you to go out there and get murdered.” With the story of the craigslist killer fresh on our minds, and my account of the harrowing meet-up with Tim, my wife wanted me to stay home that weekend. I couldn’t find any reason to object.
(Part 2 of 3)