A Year on Craigslist: A Forty-Four Year Old’s Search for a Steady Job – (PART 3)
One of the things you learn when hunting for work on craigslist is that timing can be the difference between getting the job or getting passed by.
There were several occasions when I responded to an ad, especially for a day job, only to discover that the position had already been filled. See, the moment an ad goes up on craigslist, there are all kinds of people waiting to pounce. More than once, I found an ad placer frantic to get things under control. There was one woman who posted looking for part-time yard work help. When I called her she could hardly speak. “I gotta pull that ad,” she said. “I’ve had twenty calls already, and all I needed was somebody to pull weeds for a couple hours.”
Well, of course this is what happens. You’ve got hundreds of craigslist jockeys like me hovering over every new post, chomping at the bit to land that perfect gig (and this is particularly true as rents come due at the end of the month). We sit, we watch, we wait…always hoping some job will pop up that will lift us out of our rut, and there are times when we become so addicted to these updates that we lean closer and closer to our computer screens…lost in the pixilation and a slave to immediacy.
In many ways, craigslist is a virtual Home Depot parking lot, where workers stand and wait for someone to drive by who is looking to hire help. If you don’t elbow your way to the front of the crowd when the pickup pulls to the curb, you won’t get the gig.
One evening in late spring, about a month after I’d been fired from my job at the service garage, I was going through my daily craigslist routine when a post came up looking for greenhouse workers for an online plant sales company. There was a sense of urgency in the ad. He was looking for managers, order pickers, among other positions, and it occurred to me that this might be something worth my while. I wouldn’t be lugging wheels around and inhaling Teflon lubricants, for one thing, and the idea of working in an oxygen-rich greenhouse rang with a note of spiritual clarity. I sent off a short cover letter and résumé right away, and the owner of the company called me within the hour. We agreed to meet the next morning.
There are a lot of things going through your head when you’re preparing for an interview: you wonder what kind of clothes you should wear, if your hair is in need of a trim, if your teeth have yellowed over the years, how well you’ll get along with the interviewer; and if you do get the job, how will this change things? The anxieties running through your head are infinite, but you have to stay focused and believe in yourself and be reminded that anybody, this potential employer included, would be a fool not to have you on his or her crew.
The next morning, when I approached John Nilsson to introduce myself, this affable and bespectacled person loomed over me like an elm tree. He was tall—six-and-a-half feet at least—and shaking his hand was like grabbing hold of a catcher’s mitt. The gentle hunch to his back was the result of his humble personality and years spent leaning over to better communicate with terrestrials. John had started his plant sales business in the nineteen-eighty’s, some time after a season playing pro basketball in Europe, and after restructuring his business that spring he was exhausted and eager to get things going.
John gave me a tour of the property, where long tables crowded with plants stretched out under giant swatches of dark shade cloth, and through the greenhouse where thousands of small potted hostas and coral bells were staged and waiting to find new owners. He explained the process to me: how the plants were picked and packaged and then sent; and he explained the role of the manager (which it was assumed I was applying for) and the responsibilities that came with the position. I liked John and what he was doing, and when we parted there seemed to be a level of mutual respect.
We exchanged emails and phone calls over the next few days. In the end, John told me that he was going with someone else for the management position. The other fellow had a degree in horticulture and he had greenhouse management experience. “Well, that makes sense,” I said. There were no hard feelings on my end. If someone else had experience managing greenhouses, then by all means, let him manage a greenhouse! But I asked John if there was anything else I could do for him? And, indeed, there was.
In the span of a week, serious concerns had emerged regarding the location of John’s new greenhouse. The renter of the property had assured John that the space was zoned for agricultural use, but this turned out to be incorrect. In order for John to legally run his business, he’d have to fast track a municipal re-zoning, and it was unlikely that this could happen in such a short time. Also, a neighborhood group had convened, and it was pressing John to follow a number of rules regarding parking, loading, and retail traffic, and this only added to John’s headache.
John had spent nearly two months getting the new location ready, at great labor and expense, but by the end of the week (only days after I’d met him) he had rented a different greenhouse at a different location, and he asked if I could help him with the move.
That Saturday, John rented a twenty-four foot moving truck, and the three of us (John, John’s friend Pat, and myself) worked throughout the day shuttling plants and equipment down the road a couple of miles to the new location.
There were thousands of small hostas and coral bells that needed to be sorted and placed onto steel-wire plant carts. When loaded, one of these six-feet-tall carts was wheeled over to the lift where the three of us would steady it while the it was raised. Once on the truck bed, the cart was wheeled to the back and secured alongside the other carts.
A cart fully loaded with plants could weigh from three to five hundred pounds. It was intimidating to lift these heavy things into the air. If the wheels on one of the carts decided to roll off the edge, it could mean trouble. A caster could get pinched between the lift and bed; or worse, if the cart was top-heavy, the whole thing might want to topple. It was a little scary, but once we had four or five carts on the truck, we had our method down.
After a few hours of work, we delivered our first load to the new greenhouse without incident. Once we had the carts back on the ground, the greenhouse picking and sorting crew (about four or five people that were John’s regular seasonal workers) pushed the carts into place and then moved the plants into the shelter of the new greenhouse.
We were pretty proud of ourselves after that first run, and John took us to the tavern nearby and treated us to burgers. Pat and I had iced teas. John had a beer. The weather was holding (rain had been forecasted, but it had stayed dry) and things were taking shape.
When we got the truck back to the old greenhouse, we figured we had enough time left for one more run. We probably had a third of the plants left to move, and that became our priority. After the plants, any space left over in the truck would be used to haul tables and shade cloth.
After getting a few of the carts onto the truck, there was a moment when Pat hadn’t caught up with us, and John and I found ourselves alone with a cart that was ready to load. I don’t know why, but for some reason we went ahead and attempted the operation without our third guy. We pushed the cart onto the lift and I climbed up onto the bed to activate the hydraulics. I had one hand steadying the cart, and John was in his usual place, standing on the ground with his shoulder against the cart to keep it from rolling back.
As the lift started rising, the cart began to move sideways, and I noticed John was struggling to keep it in place. My first thought was to abort mission and lower the lift back to the ground, but John’s strategy was to keep his weight against the cart until the lift leveled off. The more that lift gate rose, though, the more it looked like five hundred pounds of plants and steel was going to come right down on him, so I hit reverse. I heard John call out (insert swear words here)…and the casters went over the edge and the entire works came crashing down.
From my angle, I had a hard time seeing what had happened. The cart was on the ground—overturned and on its side—and the plants were strewn all over the asphalt. About ten feet away lay John, and he was on his back and dazed. I jumped down to the ground and rushed over to see if he was okay. He was wincing in pain and holding his head in his hands. His glasses had been knocked from his face and sat a few feet away on the black road.
I scanned him for injuries. I got him to move his hands so I could look at his head, but there was no sign of blood, only a rosy abrasion. A little bit later John sat up. He was shaken and confused and he was trying to assess the situation. Soon Pat was over with a few of the neighbors that had houses on the street. Apparently, quite a few people had witnessed the incident.
After a little while, John dusted himself off, and we walked around to survey the damage to the cart and plants. Most of the plants were destroyed: their soft stems were severed or they had torn or damaged leaves. These were unsellable. At least a thousand dollars of product had been lost, and John was gracious and careful to withhold blame. We were fortunate that nobody was seriously hurt, but the event cast a pall over the day’s work. We had failed in some way, it seemed.
After talking about what had happened, everything seemed to go back to the understanding that loading a full cart on the truck was a three-man job. Then why had we made the foolish mistake of attempting it with only two? We attributed it to being overly ambitious and to the late hour of the afternoon. We found out later, after a little measuring work, that some of the carts were of different design. The wheelbase on these carts was slightly wider than on others, and it turned out that the cart that fell was one of those wider carts.
We took Sunday off, and John was happy to report neither nausea nor dizziness, so a concussion was ruled out. On Monday, Pat’s back was acting up, so John got his friend, Terry, to help me with the rest of the move. John decided to tend to administrative details that day while Terry and I did the heavy lifting. We made several trips (me driving that big truck) and we hauled hundreds of canopy rods, dirty shade cloth, tables, old plant carts and irrigation hoses that needed to be dug up from the wet soil, and sprayers and sundry equipment…you name it, we got it on the truck and took it to the new greenhouse. We got paid in cash that evening and I remember how sore I was over the next few days.
John and I spoke off and on throughout the week. During the move that previous weekend, we’d talked about doing some promotional videos for his website, and I forwarded him a few links with ideas I thought might work. I was also trying to plant the seed in his head that I was available to work in the greenhouse, if he wanted me, but he was very busy, scattered, almost, with all the things he had to organize.
I think it was the next weekend when he called me to touch base and he seemed a little depressed. “I’m going to tell you something, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention this to any of the other employees right now,” he said. I didn’t know what he was getting at, but I assured him that he could trust me.
“I’ve parted ways with my accountant,” he said. “She’s decided to leave…and she’s been with me for many years.”
I said that I was sorry to hear that. I didn’t quite know what else to say. John went on to tell me that the accountant had been his sister-in-law (or something like that) and that the parting wasn’t on the best of terms. “I’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself for the time being,” John added. It shouldn’t be a problem, I said. And that was the last time I talked to John Nilsson.
I’ve had this feeling, now and again, that when a coworker or employer brings you in on a secret, or attempts some type of awkward intimacy, that this is really just a way of delivering an apology. It’s an act of atonement—an attempt to right some wrong—and I felt this way when I had this final conversation with John.
I wasn’t involved with John’s company accounting, by any means. There was some abstract connection regarding the accountant’s son, who had a video camera and was interested in learning video production, and it was suggested we might work together on shooting some footage for John’s website. But, other than that, the accounting end of John’s business was something I played no part in.
I think that John was trying to convince himself that he was human, and he was trying to figure out where I stood in his casting call of life players. I was a little let down as the days went by and I hadn’t heard from him; so, once again, it was back to craigslist and back to staring at that mesmerizing blue and white screen.
As I have said, my wife and I didn’t really know much about the Twin Cities. We had a fairly good feel for the I-94 corridor and how to find our way to Wisconsin, but when it came to the neighborhoods and suburbs surrounding the metro area, we were clueless. So, a week or so after working with John—after seeing an ad on craigslist looking for tile setters to work in Wayzata—I opened up a Google map to get an idea of just how far away this place was. I called the number on the ad and a guy named Paul answered. I asked about the job and what the pay was, and right away he started needling me to come out and take a look. I was a little nervous—I hadn’t set tile in quite a while—but I agreed to meet him that afternoon.
When I reached the site, I found a lake house about halfway through the process of a complete gut and remodel. I met Paul, a gentle and friendly person in his mid fifties (he was the owner of the house), and he walked me through the job. He said that early the next month renters were scheduled to move in. The delivery date was the Forth of July holiday, and he was hoping to have the place nearly finished by then.
The job was colossal. He wanted the living room and kitchen tiled in eight by twenty-four inch Italian porcelain: the entire area was just under two thousand square feet. There were also three bathrooms he wanted tiled, two of which had large showers with complex wall designs. Lastly, he wanted the expansive balcony tiled with the same Italian material that was going in the kitchen and main hall…a balcony deck that was almost another thousand square feet, with plenty of difficult angle cuts. By the time we returned to the front of the house, I was numb with the size and scope of the work. Not only was there tile to set, but the house was a zoo with carpenters, electricians, HVAC guys, painters, and plumbers…all stomping around and playing music and kicking up dust. It was a madhouse.
I told Paul that the job might be too big for me. I could never get that amount of work done in three weeks. I also told him that I didn’t have any tools and that it had been a while since I’d set tile and that this might be something out of my league.
But Paul didn’t care. At this point his was desperate to get something done. He had all the tools and all the saws I needed. He also said his son would pitch in to lend a hand. Finally, the job paid twenty bucks per hour cash, which would be paid at the end of each day. I swallowed hard and told him that I’d take the night to think it over and I’d give him a call the next day. On the drive back home I chewed over my options.
In an hour, my situation had changed. Rather than being starved for a job, I was getting one crammed down my throat; one of which I wasn’t sure I could handle. The carrot dangling in front of me was the cash, of course, but how in the world would I ever manage all that work?
After going over it with my wife, I called Paul back and said I’d help him, but that I couldn’t make any promises on how quickly things would go. He said that was fine. He had hired a few other tile setters in the meantime, he said. There were a couple guys who might help in the living room and there would be two or three other setters working in the bathrooms…but if I could get started on the main floor, that would be great. And so it began…
I started working for Paul the next day. The lead carpenters (Wade and Sam) showed me where all the trowels and buckets and saws were and where I could get water for the thinset, and so forth. We worked together to mark our centerlines in the main room and I got several courses of tile set before going home. Aaron and Eric, two of the other tile setters that Paul had hired, had set up their gear and were working on the bathrooms. By the end of the day I had one hundred fifty bucks in my hand (the kind of money I hadn’t seen in a while). Over the course of the day, Paul was supportive and glad that things were progressing, and I didn’t have to use Paul’s son, like he’d suggested. Sometimes, when you get help from a guy who doesn’t know the trade, you have to keep a close eye on him. It can be a big waste of time.
That weekend, Paul had the place crawling with workers. He had two guys, Miguel and Carlos, take over in the main room (they were pros and knew what they were doing, and they had most of the living room and kitchen set by Sunday evening), while I floated over to help Terry grout a bathroom floor. For two straight weeks I set tile, mudded and painted, landscaped, and did some minor carpentry. The place wasn’t done by July fourth, so Paul had us working through that following weekend. I made a good chunk of change and I made a few friends.
It turned out Paul had been living in the house with his wife for a year while they demoed and prepped the place for the remodel. They hired an engineer do some concrete jacking to level the house, and a few more specialists redesigned the main room; but after that, they got all their tradesmen from craigslist.
They had two or three other properties around town that they had bought and remodeled in a similar way, and they had built up a few good relationships with some of their workers; but, as Paul explained to me later, it was the hardest thing for him to find anybody who would commit to a schedule. None of the people they asked could make a solid commitment on when they would show up, and as the deadline for the renters moving in approached, the natural thing for Paul to do was go to craigslist.
And here we all were, from the electricians to the plumbers to the HVAC guy; to the lead carpenters and to the tile setters…we’d all connected with Paul through craigslist. We needed the work to make our car payments, pay our medical bills; to pay our heating bills and rent. We were there, working hard for Paul, to make ends meet.
This was a good job with a good employer, but it would soon end. I got one more job from craigslist later that summer. It was to help the couple set up the pottery booth for the trade show in Bloomington, just south of Minneapolis. This was the “questionable” job where Tim picked me up in his black van before driving me round to the loading dock. Tim and his wife turned out to be great people, and working for them was an honor. The thing I remember most about that gig, though, was getting trapped in the hotel during a hailstorm at the end of the day. The wind from a powerful front blew open the hotel’s main doors and threw the chairs across the lobby. The hail was the size of golf balls and a number of us, guests and hotel employees alike, stood at one of the hotel’s back doors and watched the hail bounce off the ten story walls before slamming down on the pavement in sharp and sinister thuds.
I wrote this piece with no intention other than to give a firsthand account of what it was like to be unemployed for a year and looking for work on craigslist. I wanted to show how hard it is to hunt for work, and to show others who are in the same situation that they are not alone.
In a sense, craigslist is a virtual kiosk…a place to hang your ad and a place for others to find it. It is a conduit that allows labor demand to meet with labor supply—a platform for communication between those requesting help and those prepared to offer it—and what comes after that is the very un-modern process of human communication and negotiation.
I’ve had two jobs since last fall when I eliminated craigslist from my job-hunting strategy. The first job I received was the result of a cold call to a small tile-setting company in Minneapolis. After a short conversation with the owner, he offered to try me out. I worked with him for a little over three months before the polar vortex descended on the northern hemisphere and brought all things construction-related to a halt.
The second job I started (and I am still there) is at a used bookstore just south of Minneapolis. I filled out an online application and got called in for an interview. At the interview, the manager asked why, at my age and with no bookstore experience, I wanted to work there? I told him candidly that I liked books and I liked the benefits. I was hired on the spot.
It’s been four months and I have acquired what appears to be a steady job. The pay is less than half what I made when I was working on cars, but I am in a warm place with people who are smart and friendly and have a passion for ideas. I also get medical insurance through this job, and with a little juggling we’ll be able to take some of the weight off of my wife’s financial burden.
Most importantly, though, I am working in proximity to other histories and accounts…the stories of other lives and their hardships and successes. Nothing lasts forever, I am quick to remind myself. In the meantime, though, I appreciate what I have. I appreciate the people and I appreciate learning the business of how stories find their way into people’s hands.
I am in good company.