It Would Have Bitten Me

by Katherine

The first thing I noticed, once I parked my car and fed the meter with stray dimes and nickels from my purse, were the people meandering in and out of the red brick building.  I still had ten minutes left before I needed to go up to suite 407, so I sat in my car and watched three older women–walking separately and at different times–enter and exit the building.  I noticed them because each lady wore a pair of corduroy pants dyed some shade of purple.  No, it wasn’t the same woman; there were three of them.  No, they didn’t acknowledge each other.  No, I don’t know which women’s clothing store currently offers a sale on purple corduroy slacks.

I already had a weird, twisting feeling in my stomach, separate from the general anxiety and nervousness that accompanies me to interviews.  The morning felt weird, too bright, not cold enough even though the thermometer in my car red 25 degrees F.  I tried chalking it up to my nerves, and to the fact that this was my first interview after tons of applications spanning four-and-a-half months.  But it still felt off.  I sent Steph a text message, telling her I was worried this was all just a scam.  She responded that it sounded legit, that it was going to be okay.  So I turned my phone off, locked my car, and crossed the street to building 606.

I put my blazer on in the lobby in front of the bank of elevators.  I hate this blazer with a passion.  It feels bulky and over-sized.  I’m used to feeling like an elephant, or a stuffed sausage; I’m a big woman.  I always feel like I take up too much space.  Except when I’m in this blazer.  You might think this would be a welcome change, to feel small and shrunken and tiny, but it isn’t.  It makes me feel like a kid in an adult’s wardrobe.  I suppose it makes me feel weak and vulnerable.  I do not enjoy feeling weak and vulnerable.

After donning the dreaded jacket, I took an elevator to the fourth floor.  This is where the slight churning in my stomach began to grow stronger.  The hallways were well-lit as I passed suites filled with small law firms and a clinic.  But after turning the corner, the lights dimmed drastically, and it was almost hard to see.  There was a man standing across from a darkened suite, wearing a suit that fit him as poorly as my own blazer did.  He was holding a folder containing what I could only assume was his resume.

His name was Ivan.  Ivan was also invited to suite 407 for an interview at the small marketing firm that called me last Friday.  It was 9 AM by the time I reached Ivan in the dark hallway in front of 407, which is precisely the time my interview was supposed to begin.  Ivan looked sheepish; he had been waiting there, in the dark, since 8 AM.  His interview was scheduled for 8:30.

“This feels like a scam,” I said, trying to turn the locked doorknob before realizing that Ivan had probably already done this himself.  The suite was dark inside, empty.

“I hope not,” he replied, “because I came here all the way from west Baltimore.  My grandmother had to get up at 5AM to pick me up and get me to the light rail.”

My heart sank, and my anger surged.  What a waste of his fucking time, if this was a scam.  But I remembered that a woman named Lauren from the firm had called me that morning to confirm my interview time.  Why would they do that, if this was a scam?  And what would a scam achieve by luring two job-seekers to a darkened hallway, just doors down from several law offices?

I dialed Lauren’s number and was surprised when she answered. “You are in front of suite 407!  Okay!  I will send someone down.” I looked at Ivan and shrugged.  Five minutes later, a tall, young man with a scraggly beard and a pinstripe suit sauntered down the hallway towards us.  He gave a quick little wave and a punch of a smile before sticking a key in the doorknob of suite 407.

“You two here for the interview?  I’m Enrique.” He flashed us another punchy smile and pushed the door open, turned on the lights.  Ivan and I exchanged another glace before following him inside.

This was the office suite of the supposed marketing firm: a small reception area with a desk, some filing cabinets, four chairs for guests, and a huge, widescreen television.  Underneath the television, a shelf was filled with DVDs.  Movies.  My surprise only turned to shock when Enrique turned the television on and stuck a DVD into the player. Then he was handing us clipboards with resume forms on them.  We had to fill out our resume background, though Ivan and I had brought along our own copies.  I half-expected to see requests for my birthdate and my social security number, but there were none.  The synapses in my brain where firing at the speed of light, though, and I felt like I was standing on the tips of my toes rather than seated in the uncomfortable chair.  Under the home address section I wrote down false house and street numbers.

The DVD in the widescreen television loaded, and I couldn’t believe my eyes: Enrique had started playing the movie “Mean Girls”.  What kind of game was this?  I was still staring numbly at the TV when the receptionist entered.  Her name was Brandi.  She was teetering on high, high, high-heels, red suede, the same shade as her wool coat.  She had a friendly smile.

Brandi-the-receptionist saw me eye-ing the television incredulously.  “I can’t believe I get to watch movies while I work!” She said happily.  “Yesterday I watched “The Notebook”.”

Two more employees entered, both men.  Both wearing suits that looked as poorly tailored as the ones Ivan and I wore.  The first man was named Justice (I kid you not), the second was named Eric.  There were two other rooms in the suite: a small private office, and a conference room with a small table and several chairs.  Justice and Eric settled in the private office, barely saying a word.  I noticed a map on the wall of the office, showing the United States.  A few thumbtacks were pushed into it on the east coast.  I briefly wondered whether this was some sort of terrorist cell that was going to attempt to brainwash me into joining them.  I thought about telling Brandi-the-receptionist that I needed to go feed more dimes into the meter, so that I could make my getaway.

“Mean Girls” continued to play.  The main character joined the math club, sat with the popular kids, had flashbacks to her childhood in Africa.  I love this movie, but it sitting in the reception area of a potential employer, watching it, made me feel like I was having an out-of-body experience.  Who sets their office up like this?

Enrique came out of the conference room, and this is where it began to get really strange.  Brandi-the-receptionist looked up from her desk, a frown on her face.  She couldn’t find her white binder and black notebook.  Had Enrique seen it?  No, Enrique shook his head, but maybe Justice took it?  Brandi walked into the private office to speak to Justice, and Enrique quietly opened up a small storeroom behind the receptionist desk.  I watched out of the corner of my eye as he pulled a white binder and black notebook from beneath a heavy-looking cardboard box.  Brandi was still in the private office, her back turned to Enrique, her conversation with Justice drowning out the click when Enrique closed the storeroom door.  Enrique stooped down and I heard the small thud as he dropped the binder and note book.  He straightened, cleared his throat, then leaned down, a dramatic frown on his face.

“Brandi!” Enrique said. “I found it, it was right under your chair.”  He had a slight accent, a deep and raspy voice.

Brandi turned and laughed. “If it had been a snake…”

Enrique grabbed a pen off of her desk and turned to Ivan and I.  Whatever had just happened, it didn’t appear to be a silly gag, because there was no big reveal, no punchline.  Brandi sat down and opened her binder, and Enrique looked from me to Ivan.  I searched his face for any sign that he was aware I had been watching him.  Nothing.  He was just a big, creepy oaf of a man.  He invited Ivan into the conference room and shut the door.  They were in there for less than ten minutes, during which we could hear Enrique’s loud voice giving Ivan some sort of dull spiel.  I awkwardly watched the movie.  Finally, Ivan opened the door and grabbed his coat.  As he passed me on his way to the door, he gave me one last knowing look.  It wasn’t a good sign.

Enrique finally walked up to me and shook my hand.  His hands were dry, and though he looked at me, I could already tell he wasn’t really looking at me.  He invited me into the conference room and I took a seat with my back to the door.

At this point in an interview, I’m usually very, very painfully aware of my body language.  I’m a shy, anxious person, and when I’m nervous I tend to stammer or mumble my words.  So I am always acutely aware of how I’m physically presenting myself, and I usually do a decent job of it despite my nerves.

I felt none of that painful self-awareness this time.  I was already certain that this was a bust, and Enrique didn’t disappoint me.

He glanced at my resume, ran his finger down past my work experiences.

“What do you enjoy doing, employment-wise?” He asked.  He kept his eyes down, pen poised over the margins of my resume, printed on expensive paper and so neatly organized, clean, a painstaking work of administrative art.

“My experience is mostly office-related,” I replied.  “I’ve done a lot of office and clerical work, and I do enjoy it.”

“How well are you at communicating?” He scribbled something onto the paper.

I gave some sort of bullshit answer about communication.  I mentioned my previous volunteer work at a crisis and suicide hotline.  He raised his eyebrows and scribbled something else down. Finally, he looked up.  I noticed for the first time that one of his front teeth was badly chipped, and then of course I couldn’t stop staring at it.

“Do you have experience in marketing and promotional work?  Sales?”  Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly realized that there was another map of the United States in this room, too.  Instead of thumbtacks, the map was covered in sticky notes with zip codes written on them.

“No, I don’t.  Most of my experience is in office administration.” I wasn’t going to lie to him.  There was no job here.  I had nothing at all to lose.

He frowned and almost looked disgusted.  He shrugged his shoulders at me, and angrily asked, “Then why did you apply to a job to do promotional marketing?”

In any other situation, I supposed I would have attempted to remain polite.  But since I had already concluded this was a bust, I again answered truthfully, and bluntly: “I actually didn’t apply to such a job.  The job I applied for at your firm was for an office assistant position.  I didn’t apply to be salesperson or part of a promotional team.”

He was still frowning, but he nodded his head. “Yes, well, we filled the office assistant position last week.” He waved his pen towards the reception area. “Brandi.”

I remained silent.  Why bother pointing out that I had filled their job application weeks ago?  They were unorganized, forgetful, creepy.

“Well, I’m looking to fill five marketing positions,” Enrique continued. “This interview was just the first round.  The next step is to be observed while working with one of our program trainers.  I have an opening at 10 AM tomorrow, and I would like you to join us.  Do you think you can make it tomorrow morning?”

My smile was too-wide, a little triumphant, a teensy bit evil.  If Steph or my best friend or anyone who knows me at all had been in that little conference room, they would have seen the sarcastic glint in my blue eyes. “Of course, yes, I would definitely like to come in tomorrow!”  My voice was falsely cheerful.  I relished the lie.  After all the time they had wasted for me already, it felt good to know that I would hopefully end up wasting theirs.  I was also relieved that the interview was drawing to a close.

Enrique smiled back, and spread out his big, dry hands. “Do you have any questions for me before we say our goodbyes?”

“No, no, I’m good.  I’m just very eager to be here tomorrow,” I replied.  And I really did say that.  I’m just very eager to be here tomorrow.

We stood and shook hands a final time.  I saw myself out of the conference room.  I smiled brightly at Brandi as I walked by.  This smile wasn’t false.  I could tell, now, that she really was brand new, that she was a fresh hire.  She had a newly minted enthusiasm and flush in her cheeks.  She was on the phone, asking someone about which list of applicants she should be calling.  She covered up the mouthpiece to say goodbye.  I felt genuinely sorry for her.  If this was a scam, she probably had no idea yet.  This job wouldn’t be long-lived.

“Did he ask you back for a second interview?” She whispered.  I could hear familiar lines from “Mean Girls” playing in the background.  It all felt so surreal.  I realized that I didn’t even know the color of the carpet or the walls or the chairs.  Everything was a muddled, shapeless, blur.  Everything except for the television and Enrique’s broken tooth and Brandi’s excitement.

“Yes, he did indeed.” I replied.

“Fantastic!  It was nice meeting you, Katherine, and I’ll see you tomorrow!” Brandi waved goodbye and flashed her white teeth at me.  Enrique’s smile had been a punch; Brandi’s was a hug.  I felt wretched.

Ten minutes were left on my parking meter, so I sat behind the wheel and called my dad.  I stared at building 606 while I told him about what had just gone down.  It’s a fly-by-night sort of deal, he explained, and quickly agreed it was a scam.  People get a second ‘interview’.  They are then invited to go through the training program to become a ‘marketer’ or ‘promotional agent’ or whatever buzzword Enrique and his cohorts decided to use.  But wait, there’s a fee for the program!  Before you think it too outrageous, don’t worry: the program is highly rated and will guarantee you a job in marketing.  It’s a one-time fee.  Everyone goes through it at this firm, even ‘higher ups’.  Only some of this is speculation on my dad’s part, because the business’s poorly developed website confirms that all employees go through a rigorous training program.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails and a couple of telephone calls from ‘businesses’ that I later confirmed, through Google, as similar scams.  Come in for an interview, and then end up signing up for a training or certification program that you will have to pay for, with some sort of vague, off-the-record guarantee of a job.  But given the unorganized state of the marketing firm’s application process, as well as the office suite and how new and unkempt it was, I could tell this was a brand-new gig.  That explains why I didn’t find any red flags on Google.

I’m disappointed that I was roped into a bad deal like this, but at least I got out of it right away.  I would never sign up for a program from a ‘potential’ employer that I have to pay for.  Most businesses, if they require new employees to go through training or certification, pay for it themselves and/or send the employees to accredited programs.  But while I might know better than to put down money on a scam like that, a lot of people don’t.  It’s not because they’re foolish or unintelligent.  People are fucking desperate in this economy.  Any seemingly good news is fantastic news, and it’s easy to make mistakes, to lose your common sense in frantic hope.

After I talked to my dad, I drove over to my girlfriend’s work to meet her for lunch.  I told her everything.  She said calming words.  I only shed a few stray tears.  I was angry for a while, but now I just feel sad.  I’m sad that all that hope I had over the weekend is gone, and I’m sad for Ivan, who wasted even more time and money than I did getting to the interview this morning, and I feel sad for all the people confronting these scams and  being drawn into them.

A silver lining appeared near the end of my day, though: when Steph got home, she sat with me and made me write an email to the partner of an ad agency that interviewed me twice last fall.  I basically got the job, but then the job was cancelled.  I got the impression that he was impressed with me, so Steph convinced me to check in with him and let him know that I’m still available, should a new position open up.  Almost right away, I got a very positive, enthusiastic response from him, thanking me for my email and telling me he was impressed with my initiative.  He forwarded my email to his partners, and promised to get in touch with me in the next couple of weeks to let me know how it’s going with the position I almost had.  This is just enough good news to cancel out the shitty morning I had.  Everything has balanced out, I suppose.

And now all I’m left with is this long, strange story, a cautionary tale to anyone applying for jobs: scams abound, people can be so lousy and cruel, and you are not alone in your dogged determination to secure employment in this messy economy.