A few weeks before graduating from college with $185,000 in student loan debt and a few weeks after my editors at the job I’d anticipated becoming full-time demoted me to a “freelancer,” I attended a career fair in the gymnasium of my school. Carrying a wrinkled stack of resumes—detailing my experience writing about Pomeranians being rescued from hot cars by limbless veterans who then did something unbelievable!—I surveyed the options. Canvassing for the DNC. Marketing for Live Nation. Soul-assassinating for a millennial-minded creative agency.
“No,” I said, fingering the brochures laid out on the Boston Ballet’s booth. “I don’t dance.”
As my mother’s child, I could place the blame, with great élan, on my last job for letting me go so late into my senior year. But as a shame-riddled homosexual raised Catholic, I’m cursed to bear the guilt of regularly showing up 20 minutes late and writing one-and-a-half articles per eight-hour-long shift. I didn’t love it there so, while it wasn’t a shot to the heart to walk out of those doors for the last time, it was a stab to my checking account. A checking account that would need to pony up $750 a month for the apartment lease I’d signed the same week I got fired.
“See, Brian, this is why you should have gone to community college,” said my mom, sympathizing over the phone. “Like your sisters did.”
Thanking her for the advice, I resumed screaming my credentials into the void commonly known as Indeed.com. No less than fifty emailed cover letters later and I’d heard back from three companies total, each wording “we already gave this job to Brenda-in-HR’s son, you stupid fucking idiot” in their own brand-specific manner. Considering I was applying to the kind of jobs I’d sooner slit my wrists than willingly accept, I wasn’t so much discouraged as frantic. Not so much disappointed that I had nothing to show for an altogether successful collegiate tenure as terrified that I’d have to break my lease and move home to New Hampshire. A fate far worse than defaulting on my master, SallieMae.
After working for eight total hours at a restaurant that required me to wear a t-shirt with “Don’t be a pansy, order a Jameson” written on the back, I assessed my options and reached out to Molly, a girl from school I knew well enough to be Facebook friends with. Having spent a considerable amount of time stalking her Instagram and recalling the peripheries of a shrieked-party-conversation we once had, I knew she dog walked. With two Welsh Corgis at home and the ability to cry on command about My Dog Skip, I felt that my EQ was well matched for the position.
“The pay is okay and the hours are long,” Molly responded. “But you’ll be exercising all day which is killer for that summer bod. It’s such a rewarding experience, I could definitely get you a little something on the side. But, besides working with dogs, have you ever considered starting out in hotel management?”
Having applied a few days before, within the span of a single hour, to be a substitute teacher and a copywriter for the Girl Scouts of America, I resisted the urge to tell Molly there was no longer room for selectivity in my life. Molly went on to tell me that her other job was at a hotel down the street from our school and that they were looking to fill a front desk position. The place had gone from being a rent-a-hole-in-the-wall-by-the-hour Howard Johnsons my freshman year to a music-themed boutique hotel a few years later. I’d walked by it more times than I could count, always getting the sense that it was like that Aerosmith ride at Disney World but less subtle. The closest experience I had to the hospitality industry was being an RA during my last two years of college—a position where I spent most of my duty nights drinking cabernet sauvignon alone in my room while watching the best of Geena Davis. But with Molly’s assurance that she acclimated just fine to the job sans any hotel experience of her own, I sent along both applications.
Two interviews and an internal conflict about whether or not to wear shorts when meeting the owner of the dog walking company later, I was employed. To celebrate, I splurged on a Clif bar that I would have otherwise stolen from the supermarket and turned off email notifications from LinkedIn.
“So, I’m taking something of a gap year,” I said a few weeks later, ad nauseum, to each and every aunt, uncle, neighbor, and mom’s-gym-friend at my graduation party, gradually committing this spiel to memory. “Part-time with the hotel, sun-time with the dogs. Ha ha ha. Writing material, you know, before I make the move someplace else. Oh, I’m thinking New York. It’s always been my Israel. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
Considering most everyone I knew was either moving back home or remaining at their same waitressing job once they crossed the stage and accepted their diploma, I figured the family party would be the last speed bump along my sojourn to underemployment. That, from then on out, my decision to make a living out of picking up Weimaraner shit would no longer need any sort of justification. That the only entity I’d have to answer to would be my Moleskine. And God knows I would.
“See, I really hate talking about work.”
Some Saturday in July, I was at an apartment belonging to a few of my friends and had been abandoned to chat with one of their boyfriends. If there’s anything worse than getting involuntarily trapped in a one-on-one conversation with someone you hardly know, it’s getting involuntarily trapped in a one-on-one conversation with someone who responds to your attempt at small talk with the word “hate.” From Russia, this boyfriend lives up to some of the stereotypes often associated with his countrymen. He doesn’t wear an Adidas tracksuit and I don’t know if he drinks his orange juice hot but the boy can be blunt.
“I work at an engineering firm,” he consonant-sounded. “It’s all right. And yourself?”
Whenever acquaintances I’ve run into this summer asked the obligatory “and how are the dogs” question, I’d—in a manner bordering on mania—gush. Getting paid to tan, tone my quads, judge the interior design of the South End elite, and make-out with their dogs? Sign me the eff up. And for those involved enough in my daily happenings to know about my hotel job, my response was no less positive. After much fear that the months following graduation would be a slap to my face, ego, wallet, emotional wellbeing, etcetera, I was shocked that things were good. Better, even.
“So, I’m working at that hotel on Boylston that used to be the Howard Johnsons,” I said, wiping sweat away from my upper lip and taking sips from the empty cup in my hand. “And I dog walk. And, yeah, I really enjoy them both. They’re incredibly…fulfilling. I get a real taste of, you know, the human condition. And canine. And I have the keys to all these South End palaces and I get to live vicariously through their lives. Which is just…so captivating. And I have time to just, you know, breathe.”
Captivating? I asked myself, words continuing to topple out of my mouth. Human condition? Breathe? Whatever happened to the Underemployed Apostle’s Creed I’d memorized a few months back, I had no idea. In its place, I found myself justifying every postgrad decision I’d made thus far to a Russian guy I didn’t know from Baryshnikov. Grateful that he was as invested in the conversation as I was, I immediately excused myself to the bathroom and chanted into the mirror, “Madonna worked at a Dunkin Donuts when she first moved to New York, Madonna worked at a Dunkin Donuts when she first moved to New York, Madonna worked at a Dunkin Donuts when she first moved to New York” until I felt better about myself.
“I love it here, man,” said one of the door guys, a fellow English-majoring recent graduate, as he waved us all into a bar called the Common Ground. “I get to chain smoke, read, and judge people from my own corner of the party. And get paid.”
Tearing my eyes away from his immaculately stringy hair, I stole a look at the book he was reading. The Paris Review. Wondering if Zadie Smith still packed the same punch when simultaneously checking the IDs of suburban Massachusetts’ finest, I entered the bar. I’d been here one time before and it lived up to its name. Fireball flowing like water. American Eagle jeans and white-rimmed sunglasses still decidedly en vogue. Shrieks piercing enough to beach dolphins once “No Scrubz” got played.
In microcosm and microskirt, this dance floor tableau pretty clearly captured what it is to be 20-something-years-old in this city. I didn’t know any of the people spilling their Bud Lites to the beat of “How Bizarre” but, all the same, I saw them. Cheersing to the weekend, making eyes from across the room, consoling their crying girlfriends before throwing their hands up in the air with a defeated, “what the fuck, Britney?” I told myself I’d stay until I finished my drink. That I’d spend the last seven-or-so more sips listening, intently, as this or that person told me how driving into the city from home really isn’t that bad. That I’d mock-wearily roll my eyes at all the right times and pose for all the Snapchats I’d never see. And that I’d lean into the ear of whoever asked why I was leaving so early and, with regret in my voice, say, “I have work.”