It’s bound to happen someday. If you keep spending your money like there’s no bottom to your pockets then one day you’re bound to find that bottom.
Sadly, this isn’t a commentary on out of control government spending but instead the obvious outcome of coming to college with only $736 to my name.
Of course, this wasn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. For one, careful spending was a financial lesson my younger self needed to learn – and sooner rather than later. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered this in line at a Sbarro. As places to not be able to afford an intended purchase go, it was probably one of the best.
I politely apologized to the cashier and went on my way, suddenly relieved the line had been too long at Panda Express, saving me the trouble of being embarrassed somewhere that served actual food.
Luckily, I still had a meal plan in the dining halls, so I was in no immediate danger of wasting away to nothing. Or at least, I was in no greater danger of wasting away than I previously had been due to my excessive metabolism. I feel it paints a fairly accurate picture both of what was at stake and the poor spending habits (including eating out when I could eat for free in the dining halls) that led me to that low point in my life.
I knew I had to do something. And short of some rich widow paying me to do work around her house while shirtless, the only way I knew to make money was to get a job. Having neither the knowledge nor the physique to pursue a fulfilling career as eye candy, I decided to buckle down, roll up my sleeves and…ultimately, reconsider and roll my sleeves back up, as even that was more of my upper body than anyone wanted to see.
It was then, in that sobering moment, that I realized I knew roughly the same amount about finding work as I did about seducing lonely older woman.
So how could I be so unprepared for the one thing I’d eventually be expected to do as an adult? Well, for that, we have to jump back a bit. Because if there’s one thing this story needs, it’s a fourth time period to keep track of.
Aside from the aforementioned failure of high school to prepare me in any way to join the workforce one day, I worked only a single job in high school, and it wasn’t pretty.
I want to be 100% clear here in explaining that I know how the game works. I’ve yet to meet anyone whose first job was much better than terrible. It’s for that reason, furthermore, that I’m not trying to make this a contest. I have no doubts that six or seven people in the world worked in worse places than I did. I mean, I’ve seen those crab fishing shows. Some of those people look like that might be their first job, right?
I spent a summer volunteering at an animal shelter. I cut the grass. I painted. I bathed and watered the dogs. I even once played with the cats, which was a lot less “play” and a lot more “horribly abused animals lashing out at me in terror.” The hours were long. The days were unbearably hot. The work was thankless. And, as it turned out, those would end up being my very best memories of working there.
What I never knew (and refuse to learn now) was that the owner ended up having a small (large) problem with animal cruelty. So far as bad qualities in owners of animal shelters go, that’s probably one of the worst. A jury later agreed.
Aside from that entire mess, applying to work as a volunteer is fundamentally different from applying to work a real job. I’d gotten the shelter position by walking in and saying I’d like to do whatever they told me in exchange for no pay. I was hired on the spot – no need for applications or interviews. Heck. I barely remember eye contact.
As a college student the system broke down a bit, not least of all because a number of those students competing for jobs were more than happy to work for nothing.
Allow me to explain. In a system with high competition, a job applicant has one of two options. They can either distinguish themselves from the pack or they can lower their standards so far the rest of the pack looks like greedy monsters for daring to ask for minimum wage.
As a pack consisting almost entirely of those who had worked only one job (or less) in their lives, it was far easier to do the latter than the former.
I still remember walking into a store that needed a cashier position filled. I was one of two college students applying and, as the job needed filling that day, we were told to expect to be put to work immediately. The first student went in to be interviewed. Five minutes passed. And when the student walked out again I was curtly told that the position had been filled. I wasn’t upset. But I did have some questions.
Assuming (incorrectly) that I’d simply been outshone by a person with at least one job as a cashier, thus dwarfing my own experience, I stopped to talk to them before I left.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said to the store’s newest member of the team, “how bad did you have me beat on experience behind the register?”
They gave me a blank stare before a look of realization dawned on their face. “Oh, it’s not like that. I just told them I’d work under the table for $3 an hour.”
I suddenly felt like I dodged a bullet. “I can’t believe they asked you to do that.”
“No, no, no,” they explained, the pride in their voice not matching the stupidity of what they were about to tell me. “It was my idea.”
“Why in the world would you do that?” I asked, dumbfounded.
They just shrugged. “Hey. Can’t argue the results, right?”
Afraid I might catch their bad judgment if I kept talking to them much longer, I asked just one more question. “Isn’t $3 way too little to get by on? You’d have to work two or three hours just to make as much as anyone flipping burgers.”
“Well, yeah,” they agreed. “But once I’ve worked here a few months they’re bound to bump me up to $4 or $5. I could be making minimum wage by junior year.”
I didn’t argue that they, as one of two people applying for a job, had a fifty percent chance of making that same amount immediately had they simply not offered to work for half that. I wished them well, being keenly aware that wishing was likely their only path to any level of “wellness.” And then, I went on to the next store window with a “Help Wanted” sign.
It was a sobering moment for me, but I’m not sorry it happened. In fact, I’m very happy it happened with the first three jobs I applied for. Otherwise I might have wondered at why I kept being called in for interviews only to be sent home as soon as I arrived. Often with strange explanations like, “After we interviewed the first candidate we realized they were a better fit for the job (than you, person we never spoke to and know literally nothing about).”
“But Matt,” you might suggest, “it sounds like these people were offering something you weren’t willing. It’s no different than someone willing to work extra hours under the table and not be paid for overtime.”
And I would absolutely agree, because both those things are illegal and stupid.
Honestly, I didn’t much care that students were offering their services for next to nothing. Or, in the one case I can confirm, literally nothing. Whatever misguided notions someone held about ingratiating themselves to an employer by engaging in actual slavery, it wasn’t my problem. Where it became my problem was the point it became so commonplace that a few of my potential employers had expressed open disappointment in my request for “minimum wage” on my application.
I won’t claim this was responsible for every job I didn’t get. And to some degree I was even happy to be turned down for more traditional reasons. But the outcome was largely the same in terms of my aforementioned empty pockets.
Even knowing what I did, I kept up the search for a full week, stopping only when I’d been up and down the town’s main streets three times with nothing to show for it. In some ways, I’m proud of myself for trying so hard for so long. In other, more accurate ways, I’m disappointed my younger self had wasted so much time on something so obviously pointless.
And so, I walked home utterly defeated, while my peers were making literally dozens of dollars all around me.