First Impressions

So much can go so badly, so quickly.

It was the summer of 2009. I was unemployed, and getting desperate. It wasn’t until August that the day finally came when my job placement agent called. “We’ve got a position for you!” he said. “You don’t have to interview. Just start on Monday!”

Overcome with excitement, I learned everything I could about the company. I ironed all of my work clothes. I even got a haircut.

Everything was going smoothly until the night before my first day, when I brilliantly locked myself out of the apartment.

Now, this wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for two things: 1) It was 7 p.m., so the apartment office was closed, and 2) My roommates had just left for the Czech Republic.

The majority of the evening was spent borrowing clothes so I would look halfway professional on my first day. However, it wasn’t until seven the next morning when I tried on my friend’s belt and discovered it was three times too big.

After maneuvering through the gauntlet of DC morning traffic, my friend dropped me off at the office building. I jumped out of the car, ran into the lobby and froze. I had no idea which of the dozens of offices I was supposed to go to.

There was only one person I could call to save me: My mother.

I called and begged her to check my e-mail and give me the office number. While her computer was booting up, on impulse I grabbed a building security guard and asked if she knew where I was supposed to go. Amazingly, she did. I hung up on my mother (Sorry, Mom) and ran up five floors.

So I showed up late, panting, and with an oversized belt that looked like a leather hula-hoop.

The ladies in the office invited me to sit down and asked me questions about my previous employment. I was telling them about working at Nickelodeon when, Brrring! My phone rang. It was my mom, trying to call me back.

Trying to pretend nothing was wrong, I reached into my pocket and silenced it.

Thirty seconds later I was telling them about teaching ninth graders when, Brrring! My mom again!

This time I strangled my little phone until it turned off. I then asked, “Which project do you want me to start today?”

The two women stared at me.

Finally, one of them asked, “You do know this is just an interview, right?”

I blinked and stammered, “But … but the agency said that this was my first day at …”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Just an interview.”

Two hours later (after a five-mile walk in 90-degree heart while wearing borrowed dress shoes) I reached my apartment’s office and spent 45 minutes convincing the manager I was me. When she finally let me into my apartment, I discovered my air conditioner had been on full blast the whole time, and I had also left a plate of Chinese food out on the counter.

I also didn’t get the job.

During my junior year of college, my girlfriend Carrie invited me to join her on a weekend trip home to the Jersey Shore. Neither one of us had a car, so we caught a ride from her older sister Kristen. The visit turned out to be a nice, uneventful couple of days with her family — until I attempted to get some sleep on Saturday night.

My accommodations were in the basement, my bed a pullout couch. It wasn’t uncomfortable, and I had even slept well there the night before, but that evening insomnia struck. I was sharing the room with a couple of restless Bernese Mountain Dogs, a clock that chimed every hour on the hour, and a dehumidifier that loudly cycled on and off intermittently. I’ve never been someone who functions well without sleep, and I knew that we were planning to get on the road early Sunday morning. So when I didn’t nod off quickly, I began stressing out about it. It was a vicious cycle. I only got a couple of hours of shut-eye before I was awakened again for breakfast.

Already, my stomach felt unsettled; it was probably psychological as much as physical. But I showered and slowly ate a few pieces of French toast. I let Carrie know that I hadn’t had a good night, so she let me have the back seat to myself, and I stretched out and tried to steal a nap. Along the way, Kristen stopped at a convenience store and offered to buy us some snacks. The only thing I thought I could keep down was water, so that’s what I got. By the time we reached Delaware, waves of nausea were sweeping over me. I did my best to stay calm, breathing deeply and trying to think about anything else. It was easier said than done.

With a tinge of panic in my voice, I asked Kristen to pull over to the shoulder. She did just that as soon as she safely could, but it was a split-second too late. I threw open the rear passenger’s side door, lunged outward, and vomited … mostly on the road, but some of my stomach contents splattered on the interior door panel.

We cleaned up as best we could, although I seem to remember that Kristen did most of the work herself while I apologized profusely. Carrie later assured me that Kristen was the most easygoing member of her family, and that as such she wasn’t upset about it. Still, there are better first impressions one could make upon meeting the family.

The editor looks at me.

“You brought a change of clothes right?” he asks, grimly regarding me across a desk stacked with the detritus of a full day in the newsroom. Pens and papers are scattered across its surface. Somewhere, a phone rings.

There is noise — the unmistakable rhythm of a busy city desk — spinning out around me. People joking and laughing. The percussive click of fingers on keyboards. The smell of coffee and take-out food.

I look down at my blue blazer — tailored, if a little worn, and bought with the first bit of cash I’d had in hand after graduating from college. I’ve carefully paired it with a blue, button-down Oxford and a tie and khaki trousers.

I always wear khaki trousers.

“Yeah, sure,” I say, a little uncertain. “They’re in the car.”

“Good,” the editor says. “You’ll need them. Go and get them. And get changed. We’ll brief you when you get back.”

I go. Ten minutes later, in a gray fleece sweatshirt, jeans, and a pair of battered Adidas Stan Smiths, the editor and I sit down to talk.

It’s early 1995 and I’m sitting in the city room of the North Jersey Herald News, just across the river from Manhattan. The city of Paterson, N.J., home to two of my favorite poets, Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, isn’t far away.

I’m there on a job interview. A buddy from my current paper is the assistant city editor and had clued me in about the job. I’m 24, going on 25, and I’m ripe for a new adventure. So I get into the car, call my girlfriend and hit the road.

We’ve reached the point in the interview where I expect to be heading out on a try-out. No sweat, I figure. Maybe a bed race. A quick feature interview. Nothing too trying.

Then the editor lays it out for me: In Paterson, days earlier, a black youth had been killed by a rookie white officer with the Paterson housing police. The event has sparked three nights of street disorder and weeks of protests.

So, the editor tells me, they want me to venture into the city, interview some business owners, and ask them how they’re holding up. I look at my buddy and resist the urge to jump across the table and strangle him.

“You can say no,” my pal says, reading the murder in my eyes.

I think it over. A thousand scenarios play out in my head: I could get hurt. I could get arrested. I could get an A-1 byline and a new job.

“So where’s the road to Paterson?” I ask.

Five minutes later, I’m on my way. And Paterson isn’t hard to find. I take a left out of the newspaper’s parking lot and drive through an increasingly thick and menacing cordon of police until I hit the main square.

When I get there, many angry people are on the square. They are yelling something and protesting. I put coins into the meter — as if that matters. The cops have better things to do today than write a ticket for a twentysomething preppie from New England.

The first two business owners turn me away in disgust. So I head to a jewelry store. Predictably, there is a spiderweb crack across the glass of the front door. Inside, there’s a middle-aged black woman behind the counter. I am separated from her by at least an inch of Plexiglas.

I tell her my name and tell her I’m with the Herald News and could I talk to her. She dismisses me out of hand. Desperate, I go for broke:

“Ma’am, I’m here on a job interview. And I really want this job. If I come back empty-handed, I’m not going to get it,” I tell her. “I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. But can you please just give me a break here?”

She’s got her back to me. She’s walking away. Then she stops and turns. Her face, creased in anger, softens and then she gives me a sad smile.

“They sent you into this?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am,” I tell her. “I couldn’t believe it either.”

“Come with me,” she says as she takes me by the arm and leads me out of her store and into a shop next door. Inside, several older African-American women and one man, as I recall, sit or lounge behind a counter.

“This is John. He’s from … ” She pauses. “Where are you from, honey?”

“The Herald,” I tell her. She shakes her head. I get the meaning.

“Connecticut,” I say. “I’m from Connecticut. And I’m here on a job interview for The Herald. Can I talk with you all for a few minutes?”

They nod and pull up a chair. And we talk. And talk. And talk. I leave after an hour or more. I’ve got the story.

The next morning, I have a page-one byline. Two days later, the paper calls and tells me I’ve got the job if I want it.

I decline. I’ve got a better job closer to home. But now I’ve got this great story to tell, too.

Article © 2011 by Michael Barron