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.
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)
On a cold morning in the middle of November just north of downtown Minneapolis, I waited in my car at the end of a short driveway that led to a windowless two-car garage.
Soon, a rusty Chevy pickup pulled up and two men got out. The passenger was a lean, fair-haired man with a faded Carhartt jacket and tattoos on his neck. The driver was Tom Nelson, a tall and hefty bald man with salt-and-pepper beard and a friendly face. Tom had placed an ad on craigslist looking for help and, after a pleasant phone conversation, he asked me to come down and meet him at his shop the next day. After short introductions, Tom went up to a door at the side of the garage and unlocked a pair of deadbolts. Once inside, he threw a few light switches and the cold room took shape.
Two vehicles were crammed into the dark space: closest was a mid-nineties pickup, its wheelless front end jacked-up on cinder blocks; on the far end was a project car, a nineteen forties Ford Deluxe Coupe, covered in a layer of dust. Dollar store table lamps, stripped of their shades, lit up the place. A couple of lamps sat on the floor, their lonely bulbs painfully bright. One lamp was stuck under the fender of the pickup while another was tucked inside the engine compartment. Extension cords and multi-connectors hung from the rafters like ivy and there was a sour smell in the air.
“I know you got some mechanic skills,” Tom said as he shuffled into the garage. “You think you could replace the pulley on this pickup and put on the new belt? After that we can find you something else to do.” The floor was littered with dirty shop rags, random screws and bolts, various wrenches, pliers, and other discount tools. Tom lit a small propane heater as I stepped up on a cinder block to look under the hood of the pickup.
My wife and I had been married almost a year when we moved from Seattle to the Twin Cities. We’d come here to try something new and to be closer to our extended families — she grew up on Long Island; I in southeast Wisconsin. I wasn’t overly concerned about finding a job once we arrived. I had a good education and a solid work history. I’d worked the past ten years in Seattle as a mechanic and service manager at a shop that specialized in SAABs. Prior to that, I’d worked for five years as a tile setter and stone slab fabricator and installer. Farther back, I had taught a couple of university-level courses, and a little farther back still I worked as a contractor for a business-consulting firm. I had my mechanic’s tools, reliable transportation, a couple of good suits, a few nice ties, and a healthy dose of optimism.
My wife, too, was confident she could find work. Having just received her MA in counseling, she was ready to accrue hours toward licensure. With good timing, she found a position at a mental health crisis center, and this job, it turned out, would be the key to our survival over the next several months.
Back at the shop, it wasn’t long before I had the belt and pulley installed in Tom’s pickup. After I tidied up the garage a bit, Tom took me out to the driveway, pulled out a roll of bills and peeled off the sixty bucks that he owed me—ten bucks an hour with an extra ten dollar bill on top.
“It isn’t much, I’ll admit,” he said, “but you know what you’re getting and you get paid at the end of every day.”
We talked about the next day’s work and then I left, the acrid smell of Tom’s garage glued to my clothes. I was excited to show my wife some cash and I was happy to see that Tom was a decent guy.
The next day, Tom put me to work installing a suspension kit in the front springs of the truck. I hadn’t done this before, but the instructions were straightforward and it didn’t take long. Next we mounted the front wheels, took away the cinder blocks and dropped the pickup to the ground. We took the truck out for a test drive and that’s when Tom began to talk about the work he had in mind for me.
He asked me how I felt about driving a snowplow. (Tom did lawn care for a list of clients in the summer, and during the winter he put blades on his pickups and plowed snow.) I shrugged a bit and confessed that I’d never driven a snowplow before.
A little later on our drive, we pulled up to a small grocery store lot where Tom had constructed a steel gate for the owner’s dumpster bay. It was a strong gate, painted brown, and Tom was proud of it. That’s when it hit me: the smell from Tom’s shop was the smell of welding sticks. He had welded the sections of gate on the floor of the garage and put them together here. When we got back, Tom got out his money wad, paid me for the day’s work and told me he would text me that night with specifics for tomorrow.
On the drive home, I started to wonder what I was getting myself into.
I was a little worried about operating a snowplow. I didn’t have my Minnesota driver’s license yet, nor did I have snowplowing insurance (if there was such a thing), and I envisioned myself taking out a mailbox or a flowerpot or backing into someone’s car, all of which conjured images of police lights, screaming property owners and accumulating legal fees.
Also, my heart sank a bit when Tom showed me the gate he built. It wasn’t that I couldn’t help with that sort of thing—I had done a bit of welding in the past—but the thought of spending hours in that dark garage fitting together steel bars on an ice-cold floor seemed daunting.
Lastly, working under a pickup without jack stands was a professional no-no where I came from. If my old boss caught me crawling under a truck balanced on a stack of cinder blocks, he would have me filleted with a socket wrench.
On top of these concerns was the bathroom arrangement at Tom’s shop: a “pee bucket” sitting in the trunk of the coupe. When you had to go, you got the bucket, did your business and then took it behind the garage and tossed its contents into the bushes. There was a gas station down the street for bigger projects.
Of course, none of this information would reach my wife. If she had any idea that I was up to something questionable or unsafe, she would pull the curtain on the show. But we were getting desperate for income. Our savings was evaporating and my wife wouldn’t see her first paycheck for a couple of weeks. In the seven weeks we had been here, I must have sent out at least 25 job applications for all kinds of work—cover letters and resumes, the whole nine yards—and I hadn’t heard so much as a peep. Working for Tom was the only positive thing I had going and I was reluctant to jump ship just yet.
When Tom texted that night, he said he wasn’t feeling well and he would let me know the next day how things were going. I waited a couple of days and then texted him; then I texted him again later that weekend. No response. When I finally called him the following Sunday, he told me about how sick he’d been and that he probably should have gone to the hospital. He also told me that he suffered from depression and that sometimes took its toll. I told him his health should be his first concern and that he should call me when he was feeling better. A few days slipped by and no word. By the end of the next week there was still no communication, so I let the situation go.
Before our move to the Midwest, I had never used craigslist to find a job. In fact, I had never used any kind of job board to find employment. All the work I’ve ever had was found through personal connections.
My first job out of college was with a consulting firm for which my sister had given me a referral. She was my “in.” After that, a roommate in Seattle connected me with his boss and that got me into the tile and stone business. A few years later, a good friend of my then-girlfriend helped me land a decent job at one of the Washington State universities. Finally, in about 2003 (after the relationship was over and I was back in Seattle installing stone countertops), I bought a used SAAB through craigslist and the owner recommended that I bring the car to her mechanic. The mechanic saw my name on the check I gave him and it turned out that he had been an old college classmate of two of my cousins back in Minnesota. I asked if he needed help and in a couple of weeks I was turning wrenches in his shop just south of downtown Seattle. This connection turned into a 10-year job and one of my better life experiences.
My wife and I hardly knew anyone in the Twin Cities when we arrived. I was forty-four, and as we contemplated starting a family, I was trying to steer away from blue-collar work and find something more physically sustainable. I quickly learned, however, that being employed as a mechanic for ten years was a glowing heap of plutonium when it came to getting a job working, as a friend of mine would say, “from the neck up” (working with your head and not your hands.) Trying to land a low-tier university administrative job was a tough sell when a prospective employer pictured you in greasy overalls and a wrench in your hand. My work as a mechanic seemed to have me pegged.
“You’re lucky,” my friends often reminded me before we left Seattle. “You can always fall back on your skills as a mechanic.”
And fall back I would…
After my short stint with Tom, I was back on craigslist looking for work. I had a couple of interviews that didn’t lead anywhere and a number of email exchanges that dropped off. I worked one weekend on as a location sound recorder for a short film (I found this opportunity under the “gig” listing on craigslist), but it wasn’t paid. By the end of January, I was getting desperate and I started considering going back into the auto repair business. I found an ad on craigslist under the “skilled trade/craft” heading looking for a mechanic “that could assist the lead and become a part of a great team.” It was at one of those franchised quick-lube businesses, but it was closer to home. After the interview, the owner hired me on the spot.
I knew SAABs well enough that I could work on them with a blindfold on. I knew all about the quirks and idiosyncrasies that made me an efficient SAAB mechanic, but put me in front of a 98’ Honda Accord and it might be twenty minutes before I find the fuse box.
I made this all clear to my new boss before he hired me, but he said had faith in my skills. He would pay me twenty-five dollars an hour, flat rate, which means that compensation was determined by book time. If the book (this is fairly standardized in repair shops) says a job should take X number of hours, then when the job is done I get paid X hours of work, even if the job runs shorter or longer. This makes things predictable for both employer and employee, but in January, when I started, business was slow–dead slow. There were a couple of days when I was in at seven in the morning and out at four and I only put fifty bucks in my pocket. Anyway, that’s how it goes.
I got along well with the lead mechanic, Omar, and the other fellow, Flynn, who was doing most of the “non-mechanical” lube services. I spent a lot of time learning where things were and getting to know the rhythm of the shop. The owner was rarely in, so I was taking de facto orders from the service manager…a different guy who sat up front and did all the customer relations stuff. His name was Barney.
Sometimes your hair stands on end when you meet someone for the first time. Your instincts are telling you to watch out for this guy. Well, this was what happened when I first met Barney. One of the things Barney said right off the bat was, “I hear SAABs are the s#*tiest cars ever made. I guess if you can fix a SAAB, you can fix anything, right?” Some people I mentioned this too took this as an underhanded complement. I didn’t. To me it was a sucker punch—a way to get under my skin. Usually, when a guy goes after you like that, it’s because you’ve made him nervous. You’re a threat, in some way. I was the new guy, so I let it slide. But if Barney wanted to lock horns, I wouldn’t back off.
About two weeks into the job, when the owner wasn’t there, Flynn called in sick, so they shuffled me over to the lube bay: the bay close to the customer lobby and close to Barney.
The “quick lube” area is the busiest section of the shop, and I was doing what I could to get the oil changes in and out as efficiently as possible. I changed the oil on a Honda and then a Toyota after that. Then a small pickup came in and Barney handed me the work order and it included a couple of punch list items beyond the oil change. Earlier, I could hear him in the background huffing about how slow I was moving, but I tried not to let it bother me. (My default speed is slow when it comes to working on something new. My policy is to do it right rather than do it fast.) When the pickup was in the air and I was draining the oil, Barney came by and asked if I had lubed the chassis yet. “Lube the chassis?” I said. “Yeah,” he said. “I wrote it right here,” he said has he hammered his thick finger down on the work order. “I thought you could read?” he said to me before stomping off to his office.
I was already flustered with my new situation, and now Barney was raising his voice at me. After that, Omar came over and guided me through the work order, and after he went back to what he’d been doing, I waited for Barney to come around. When he came by I motioned him over and said, “Listen, this isn’t going to work. You’re loud. You’re aggressive. You’re insulting me. I’m not going to be treated like this.”
Barney went red. His eyes bugged out and steam was ready to shoot from his ears. “Well, why don’t you go, then?” he said, trying to keep from blowing up.
“All right,” I said. “I will.” I put my tools away and then went about disassembling my toolbox. I took out all the drawers and all the heavy tools from the base, and then I backed up my car to one of the empty bays and hauled out all my gear…undoing everything I’d done two weeks before. Omar gave me a hand every now and then, but mostly he stayed out of my way. He was quiet. My troubles weren’t his.
Three trips over the February snow-packed roads and I was completely pulled out of the shop. After the first trip, I called my wife to tell her what had happened, and she was supportive. Then I called the owner and explained the situation. “Nothing much I can do now, I guess,” he said. I told him that I didn’t think there was. He was understanding and there were no hard feelings in the end.
I suppose I could have handled things differently. I suppose I could have been less confrontational with Barney, or I could have waited till the end of the day and taken it up with the owner. But hindsight provides all kinds of sensible solutions. At the time, I felt like a dog that was getting kicked around. Someone needed to stand up to Barney, I thought. I had the opportunity, and I did.
Another reason why I wasn’t too scared to put my foot down when it came to Barney was that I had other things cooking on the employment end of things. A couple of days earlier I got a call from the owner of another shop not far away. He was offering me a job as a tech at twenty-five dollars an hour—not flat rate—and that was way more than I was getting at the lube shop. It seemed like the perfect time to make my exit.
The owner of this new shop, Phil, ran an ad on craigslist in late December and I had interviewed with him in early January. Phil had offered me a job at the time, and then retracted it: something about needing to find the right time to “release” the guy that was currently in the position. (I thought this was a little weird. I didn’t like the thought of a boss looking to replace an employee before the employee had gone. But I didn’t have all the facts, so I didn’t worry about it.) Then Phil started a series of emails detailing what he wanted me to do if I were to be hired. I was to start off mostly as the desk guy, or service writer, (“80% at the front desk,” he said, or something to that effect) with a little bit of oil change work when the floor mechanics needed help.
I liked this idea. I wasn’t excited about getting into heavy mechanical work any more. I was getting old! And the idea of being parked at the front desk, ordering parts and dealing with customers, seemed like a good alternative for the kind of “above the neck” work I had been seeking. Unfortunately, this proposition changed over a course of emails. In his last phone message—the message I got while working at the lube shop—was that he wanted me to come on as more or less a full-time tech, with only a little bit of work at the front desk. The deal was still too good to pass up.
I dropped by Phil’s shop for a tour of the place about a week after leaving the lube shop. It was an old building; a family business that had been passed down, and the place seemed frozen in time. Old dusty signs of discontinued products hung on the wall; old boxes full of vintage tools were pressed against dirty brown walls. Past-dated calendars hung here and there above worn and oil-infused shelving. There were ghosts here, I could tell. But they were keeping to themselves.
Within a week I had my shop uniform with my name tag stitched over the left breast. I carved out a little corner of the shop and set up my toolbox and things were good. The two other mechanics were more or less friendly and I got to work up at the front desk when Phil went on vacation. After Phil returned from his Gulf cruise, though, I was relegated to the garage again. And that’s where I stayed. Day after day, as I cut out exhaust pipes and hammered away at rusty rotors, I listened to the obligatory Steve Miller and Van Halen blaring on the radio from the far corner. I had to bother the other mechanics for tools I didn’t have and I sought their advice on makes of American cars and trucks I’d never worked on before. I listened to them while they talked about Fords and Chevys and gun collections, and over time they seemed less and less interested in me. Then came the whispered conversations that dispersed the moment I approached. If I had any sense, I would have seen what was coming.
I was forty-four years old, and I had never been fired in my life. I was stunned. In the six weeks I’d been there, there had been no indication by Phil that things were amiss—no lead up—just a “We’re making some changes here…” and that was it. I called my wife on the drive home and told her what happened. “It’s all right,” she said in her comforting way. “We’ll be okay.”
I turned in my uniforms and had my box out of Phil’s shop the next day. He said he had another guy coming in the day after to replace me, and I saw the grim irony of it all. I felt sorry, now, for the guy I had replaced. He had probably gone through similar humiliation.
I left my toolbox in the back of my car for a few days after that. In order to get the box into our apartment, I had to take it apart and carry it up a couple of flights of stairs, and I didn’t want to go through that cursed dance again. When I finally got the box out of the car, I dragged it to the back yard and disassembled every last screw until I could dump the whole thing, all hundred pieces of it, in our storage area. I swore to myself (with my wife’s blessing, of course) that I would never work as a mechanic again.
It was almost May. Rent was coming up and my wife had student loan payments that were coming due. With a heavy heart, I started looking for jobs again. Eventually, I wound up back at craigslist.
(Part 1 of 3)
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