Instead of going somewhere wonderful for my year off from school, I went to Philadelphia. I had to get a job. My mom made that super clear, after I’d taken a leave of absence without permission. “Get a job, get an apartment,” she’d said in more elegant words. She was angry, she didn’t want me to screw up my life, and here I was, leaving school.
I went all over the city looking for a job. I couldn’t get a place until I got the job, so it was an imperative. My resume was basically a blank sheet. I’d worked at an ice cream place the summer before, and an anarchist bookstore, and an independent bookstore in Bronxville, near my school. This vast experience made up a scanty 6 months on my resume, and there was nothing else, not even a major- my school had concentrations, and I hadn’t picked one. I’d worked these jobs, but none of them had been super necessary. I needed money, although if I hadn’t had money, I still would have had a place to live, food, clothes, tuition. Moving back home, however, I’d broken the terms of the contract- I wasn’t in school- so the deal was, temporarily, off.
To say that I had a privileged upbringing is one hundred percent accurate. Despite the domestic messes, everything to sustain life was thoroughly taken care of. Food, shelter, clothing, books, entertainments, desserts, treats, presents, vacations, good schools, clean sheets and towels, a clean home, space to run around, toys, games, clean air, it was all there. Every bit of it. These things were just part of life. The concept that there were people, in our own country, city, town, for whom these things were not available was unknown to me. I figured that in far away places people were lacking these ammenities, but even that I didn’t understand for sure. Deprivation is not a thing that makes itself known to an upper-middle-class/wealthy American youth. I’d volunteered at a homeless shelter in middle school. Service was a requirement for confirmation at my church, and while I would have been happy assisting at the CYO dances, my step-mom was determined to have me actually do something worthwhile. The men who came down the supper line at the shelter kitchen were clearly broken men. I had trouble looking at their faces. They looked like men I could have known. I didn’t realize that life can take odd turns. Life can just drop you off, miles from your destination.
I went to every shop in Center City Philadelphia, my barren resume in hand, my best Doc Martens on my feet. My hair was bleached blonde, my attitude was shitty, probably entitled, although I remember feeling very humble, humbled by the experience of asking for things, asking for work. It was January in Philadelphia, but it wasn’t super cold. I spent hours going from store to store, then getting on the Regional Rail and heading back to my parent’s beautiful home.
It had been about a month of looking, which in today’s climate seems like not so long, but I was young, and it was the 1990’s, so it felt like an eternity. I’d had a miserable interview at a children’s clothes shop, and on a lark crossed the street to the only other commercial establishment on the block, an Au Bon Pain. I walked up to the resgister and asked if they were hiring, and Debra called the manager. Eric came out and smiled. He seemed surprised to see me, and I knew why. Pretty, white, college girls didn’t tend to walk in to his Au Bon Pain and ask for a job. The shop was staffed with Dawn, an overweight, outspoken woman in her early 30’s, Kathy, a mentally retarded self-described Gypsy dwarf, both from South Philly, the North Philly contingent of Cliff, who had a side business procuring crack for his incredibly quiet, tall friend Ty, who did the sandwiches, Debra, who was taking care of three kids, an umemployed husband, and her parents, Wylene, who was about my age and lived at home, and a woman whose name I can’t remember, both from West Philly.
I was hired on the spot, and came back the next day ready for work. It was a weird thing, because I sort of knew I’d get hired before I even walked in the store. It felt wrong to know it, but I knew it anyway, and I’d wanted the job. I was pretty, white, and presentable. I got things I wanted. I had to earn the right to not be treated like a temporary oddity, even though that’s exactly what I was. I was on the register line at a lunch rush one day when the parents of a high-school classmate came in and ordered their sandwiches. As I took their money and made their change, I felt a shame that I am now ashamed of.
I worked there for four months before my mom connected me with a friend who got me a job working PR for the local international film festival, which lead to more jobs in PR, and its off-shoot, development. I hadn’t fit in at Au Bon Pain, but I didn’t fit in at the PR office either. I bounced from job to job that year, going from the film fest to a record shop to a hat store, and then back to school. I was hired at each of these places because I was a pretty, presentable, credentialed white girl, despite my attitude and my lack of experience. But Au Bon Pain was the only place where I actually had to earn the job once I had it. I had to earn my place on the line, and when I wasn’t fast enough, I had to learn how to make sandwiches to order, quickly, hygenically, and with a positive demeanor. This is where I learned to use a mop bucket, and that being the workplace weirdo brings with it the resposibilty of cleaning homeless man shit from the walls of the bathroom.
I was in Philly overnight last night, to see a dear friend’s daughter in her school play. I love these people like family, and was thrilled to have the time and childcare (my husband), to make the trip solo. When it was time to grab a snack before my train, I remembered that there’s an Au Bon Pain at the station. I went in for a chocolate chip cookie, which I always used to eat warm, right off the rack, for 20% off.