Chapter 16
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Coffee Dates

A liberal-arts graduate endures the indignities of a job search

These days everyone’s talking about the economy—unemployment rates on the rise, America’s small businesses struggling, Obama and Boehner at another impasse. But what does all of this mean for ordinary Americans? More specifically, how is it affecting the job prospects of liberal-arts graduates? And how do you pronounce Boehner again?

Two months into my job search, all roads lead to Applebee’s. I wake up in the afternoon and commence a sad meander through my childhood home. It’s muscle memory at this point. Portraits of my twelve-year-old self stare at me as if to say, “Get a job, you pathetic loser.” Then I yawn for twenty minutes. Next, I eat cereal until I can’t see straight and stumble to the computer, where the real work begins. It’s a slow start to the day, but I’m the kind of guy who finds something that works and sticks to it.

Here, it’s important to clarify one thing: there’s a big difference between a job search and a Google search. I’ve done a fair amount of Googling, and I can report that if you’re typing things like “jobs Nashville” into Google, you are on the road to nowhere. Either that or you’re making great progress toward becoming a foot-fetish model for single men in Antioch. You’d be amazed at the need for foot-fetish models in Antioch, Tennessee.

I’ve found it much more effective to use the alumni database at my college to contact employers. Once my Fruit Loops-induced high wears off, I compose emails to graduates of my alma mater, writing as though we’re not complete strangers and asking them if they’d like to get coffee sometime. Somewhere in the email I reference our school mascot in a desperate attempt to say, “See, we’re all friends here, right?”

These coffee-date emails are extremely successful. The coffee dates themselves are less productive. Here’s what usually happens: I buy an overpriced cappuccino and spend twenty minutes saying things like, “Even though I majored in English, I really feel that Hospital Hedge Fund Analysis is the right career for me.” Then I go home and send a follow-up email, which generally consists of insincere thanks for inapplicable advice: “Thanks again for meeting with me, Mr. Wilson, and thanks for all of your suggestions. I can see why you think business school is a good idea if I’m looking to pursue a career in Prospective Profit Investment Databases. Also, go Wildcats!”

In one particularly uneventful coffee date, I met with a man who works in the industrial dishwasher business—real liberal arts stuff. As we waited in line, he talked about replacement parts for the rinse arm, but I found this line of thought difficult to follow in the context of a coffee shop mobbed by people in the middle of the work day. Are all these people unemployed too?, I wondered.

It was time to order. Our cashier was a guy named Dave who could benefit from a couple of trips through a weapons-grade dishwasher himself. My date ordered a caramel macchiato. Then it was my turn. I wanted to ask Dave how he slept at night with the prices they were charging for coffee, but I wasn’t entirely sure that Dave had ever slept at all. I ordered a small coffee, black.

“I know I don’t have to tell you the importance of a sturdy unloading tray,” Mr. Ashcraft chuckled as we sat down.

As our date continued, I resisted the urge to sprint out the door and so I learned some things about the industrial dishwasher business. For example, it’s important to ship replacement parts to the right location in a timely manner. It’s also important for there to be a somewhat consistent demand for replacement parts. For this reason, the manufacture of faulty parts plays a huge role in the dishwasher industry, just as it does in other fields, like car manufacture and healthcare.

“Our old sales associate actually swore by the CE-15 model. He was a riot,” Mr. Ashcraft said as we stood up.

I walked back to my car, another potential career checked off the list, another $8.50 down the drain. These coffee dates tend to leave me discouraged. Also slightly bloated.

With industrial dishwashing out, I’ve started doing yard work for my aunt. She decided to remodel her yard, so she hired me. That’s one version of the story. In the other version, my aunt heard that her unshaven nephew was spiraling into a cereal-induced decay, so she decided to remodel her yard. Either way, the work’s not bad. I get to be outdoors and dig up root balls (that’s “ tree stump” to you non-liberal-arts majors), and I spend my evenings performing tick checks.

Believe it or not, I’m not the only one in my graduating class who has to worry about catching diseases on the job. My friend Henry’s in the Peace Corps and stationed in Paraguay. In Paraguay they drink red wine mixed with Coca Cola, and they’ve probably given up trying to ward off germ-infested parasites, like ticks and my friend Henry. Henry was an English major, too, and although it may seem as though we’re on different paths, he, like me, is facing some of the obstacles that lie at the core of a career in literature: 1) innate poverty, 2) flatulence, and 3) ticks.

So here I am. I wake up every afternoon thinking this might be the day my father drives me from the house with a cattle prod. Until that happens, my personal worth is trickling away one cappuccino at a time, and my aunt’s yard is starting to look like a warzone. Somewhere out there is a job for me, I know. Somewhere out there is a man cursing his broken industrial dishwasher. I just hope I find the right job first.