When two guys walk through the door of the Q train with ‘80s boom boxes, I avoid eye contact: I look at my phone (I don’t text), I browse my Kindle (I don’t read), I put in my headphones (I don’t turn on the volume). I do all of this, not because I hate watching a couple of tattooed revelers dance—who wouldn’t want to see that, even on their bleakest of days?—but because I don’t want to pay them a single dollar. There’s a certain poesy to sitting on a New York subway at six in the morning: falling asleep for a stop, reading a paragraph from a book you’re not going to finish, trying your best, as you stand, not to grip the disease-ridden, stripper-like pole with two hands but one. It’s a rhythm of mundane monotony before a day’s work. It’s the last luscious interlude before arriving at a job of which I’m overqualified and too proud to adequately perform.
The gymnasts interrupt the cadence of my commute. They ride a line in which they know they’ll have room to kick and spin and stretch, and though the show lasts only a few minutes, their choreographed routines rarely differ. They swing on the bars, scream for the “ladies,” land the occasional back flip. They each take turns dancing: one stands, conveniently, by an exit door and claps, the other hangs upside down from the ceiling, the world inverted. As the dangler sways, his feet attached to the long bar across the top, the commuters glance, almost voyeuristically, at the scene. No one wants to look—it’s only screech and silence and static club music—but when the dancer loops his feet around the metal, and his cheering friend drums the fat above his knee, people finally stare: an interval, however brief, of calculated acknowledgment.
I assume the travelers hold the belief, as I do, that even the slightest eye contact calls for coughing up whatever’s stashed in your pockets. I’m always weary of anything free, just as I’m convinced if I’m generous to one, I must be charitable to all. I don’t have the means—or frankly, the desire—to feel sorry with such unabashed frequency.
It must be the same, I’ve grown to realize, for recent graduates in the job market. In the last five months, I’ve sent out hundreds of applications and heard back from merely a handful—from those companies, I imagine, that feel bad, that, like the businessmen who toss crumpled dollars into the dancers’ hands, do so not in support (I received no employment from the desperate links I clicked in haste on Craigslist) but as blind encouragement.
I left Boston University last May with two degrees that aren’t as “marketable” as others’—I majored in English and film, not accounting or engineering—I felt, by now, that I’d be doing the one thing I thoroughly enjoy: creative writing. I’m not sure in what capacity, but I figured I’d be applying my education toward something I might, in the least, be willing not to immediately abandon.
Instead, I’m a Page at CBS News, given the position because I had a connection—because the opportunity fell so hard in my lap it practically pulverized my balls. When I inform people I work at CBS, they usually assume I’m employed at the pharmacy. The CBS/CVS confusion could stem from the way in which I deliver the news—I’m not a person to brag, especially when I’m in a state of professional misery each day—but it might also hint to the fact most assume, even with my education, that I have no reasonable employment. And, in reality, they’re right. Ignoring the incessant comparison to Kenneth from 30 Rock and the so-called “name brand recognition” of the company, my job primarily consists of pointing audience members to the bathroom. My boss pays me, understandably, for what he values a finger gesturing toward a clearly labeled door to be, and despite others’ passions, I never strove to work in hard news. And I still don’t. In what has become something of a routine, middle-aged men and women tell me every day how lucky, or spoiled, or arrogant I am about my occupation, and though I’m probably all of those things, I can’t see past the structured promises of my schooling. High school, competitive college, rewarding job: an automated life, now with a broken engine.
I’m not positive what will come. For a long while, I thought of pursuing a PhD in English, and although the aspiration remains, I’ll never forget the bizarre mix of encouragement and warning I received from my professors. Most of them, if not all, described the path to an advanced degree as a sort of sacrifice, as if I were eager to storm 70’s Vietnam unarmed, while my friends fled to the blissful land of job security. The struggle I’ve had applying to graduate school—taking the GREs, drafting a personal statement, editing an essay I never wanted to see again into a writing sample—only adds to the uncertainty fogged around my post-grad existence. I question, that is, if I want to stay in school solely to delay the transformation of a full-time student to a member of the working-class, or if I really hope to dedicate my entire life to the words left by men hundreds of years ago. In other words, I wonder if I truly wish to leech onto literature, or if I simply don’t know what the fuck else to do. No one will hire me, and like the rest of my generation, I’ve spent the considerable part of my early twenties bitching: I complain about the stubborn baby boomers who refuse to retire or die; I whine about the recession and the greedy bankers who contributed to the crash of the market; and I moan, most frequently, about employers—strangers—who won’t even offer me an interview.
Success might be had elsewhere, if I was content in relocating. However, I’ve never considered living in a city that wasn’t New York, or LA, or San Francisco, and while that probably contributes to the problem, I believed the sooner I escaped my New Jersey suburb and arrived at an artistic haven the closer I’d be, somehow, of becoming a writer. I glamorized the endeavor, and it’ll probably be a long time before I drop the grudge that I should have been an expatriate in 1920’s Paris. Still, I’ve tried to form the caricature of what I one day pray I’ll become. When I moved to Brooklyn, I bought tortoise shell glasses and ratty plaid shirts. As months went by, I neglected shaving because all my favorite authors had beards, and I was certain this would be the place, at last, to fully test my testosterone. I had waited for this moment since I got the first floss-like strands of stubble my senior year of high school. There would be a time, I knew then, for a full commitment toward my art, and it had just arrived: soon, my cheeks would be full and gray and Annie Leibowitz would pose me in a turtleneck.
In short, I’ve done everything but actually write. After returning home from a day of labor and utter irrelevance, I’m persuaded I don’t have the time. For the most part, I’m concerned with making money and the concerns that go with making money—paying rent, obtaining health insurance, buying groceries—and I resent the words I haven’t written. I hate dealing with dollar signs and numbers, and that doesn’t, as those older than me insist, come from a sense of entitlement.
Recently, there have been many jabs about those born in the eighties and nineties—we want not only a financially rewarding career, but one that fulfills us culturally, spiritually, and intellectually—and like my fellow millennials, I find nothing wrong with nursing such desires of my own. If I’m not driven to do better than my parents, I don’t know what else motivates me. In a way, that’s not saying much—my dad’s a convicted criminal, and my mom abandoned her career to raise her children—but I knew, at a young age, I didn’t want to do the things they did. My mom’s side owns a scrap metal business in Newark, and though I’ve spent summers at their yard in a humid desperation for cash, I knew, quite early, that buying steel from heroin addicts wasn’t for me. I’ve only ever longed to be an author, and at twenty-three, I’m running out of excuses for my inactivity. I don’t have the leisure, like Henry James, to pace a candle-lit room, dictating my prose.
In the end, I decided to write this essay on my iPhone, riding subways beneath the city. As I typed and squinted, I was interrupted, more times than I can count, by the subway Spider-Men whose feats will only go so far, perhaps, as to be featured on a segment of Ellen. I’m rarely awed. They mean nothing to me and leave no lasting impression. I don’t know any of their names, and the second they step onto a random platform, they depart my life for good.
Yet here I sit at my computer, emailing strangers I too am unlikely to encounter more than once. I flaunt talents, flail accomplishments, flip through experiences and internships and contacts. I wait, hoping someone might give me more than a dollar, but so few, if any, reply to my pleas. All I ever get are the balled up bills of pity.
And still, day after day, I put on my tank top and turn up the fucking music.