NYC restaurants are staffed by budding actors and LA is crawling with wannabe models, all starving for both carbs and attention. It’s a classic story: a waitress carries headshots in her apron, just waiting for her chance to lay it on a producer’s table, right next to his filet mignon. She’ll say “I’m not a waitress, I’m actually an actress—this is just my day job until I get my big break.”
[I wrote this a week ago, and haven’t had the heart to post something that’s so down. But, in an effort for full disclosure and to accurately represent what a 20-something’s life deals with in DC, I’ve decided it’s something that needs covering. Read through to the epilogue: there is a light at the end of the tunnel.]
It might surprise you, but DC is much the same way. I don’t think it’s possible to throw a rock without hitting some aspiring politico or journalist barely eking out an existence on an internship stipend or restaurant tips. We have countless accounts on Idealist, Devex, Indeed, Monster, and, of course, LinkedIn. Our MacBooks are filled with multiple resumes catered to different job descriptions, which we incessantly update and occasionally completely trash to start from the beginning. Maybe it just needs a new look? I bet that’s why I haven’t gotten any calls—I should have put my personal information in the top right-hand corner instead of centered in the middle! DUH.
We all talk the big talk about our areas of expertise and future professional brilliance, but each day laughs at us as we tie on our Starbucks apron strings or hostess nametags.
It wasn’t so bad, right at the beginning. When I moved here nearly a year ago (my god… a year??), I had just graduated and had no problem hosting while I job hunted and acclimated to my new city. It gave me the time to decompress and evaluate this new post-college world. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted a job in non-profits, or did I want to pursue my West Wing dream and break into political life? When the eventual “so, what do you do?” question arose, I’d laugh and say “I eat free hummus and boss my servers around in Arabic”. The world was my oyster, and all that. I’d graduated high school early at sixteen and was already ahead of schedule, no need to rush! Then I would talk on about one unpaid internship after another, increasingly clinging to the shred of intellectual legitimacy my free labor offered me among actual young professionals.
Because that’s all I am: an aspiring young professional. As if the term isn’t condescending enough, I have to add that I’m not even at the bottom of Washington’s food chain yet. I’m lower than that—my existence is subterranean.
I feel like a cliché—I am that actress/waitress. [Or is it waitress/actress?] I could have volunteered abroad. I could have pushed myself to find a job somewhere else, like Lebanon or Jordan. I should have taken the Foreign Service Exam last year, so that I could re-take it and actually pass this year. I could have been studying for the GRE’s this whole time, or knuckling down and focusing on working towards Arabic fluency. It’s stupid to say ‘I should have done this’ or ‘why didn’t I do that?’ It’s a waste of times and I don’t like regrets. But I can’t help it. When I talk about my job difficulty, people always have something to say.
“Have you tried USAJOBS.com?”
“The Senate and House post openings on their websites!”
“You’ve graduated into the worst job climate since the Great Depression, you know.”
Gee thanks, asshat. I have a degree from a well-respected university, but needed your condescension to clear that up for me! I hadn’t the foggiest before now.
So I bite my tongue. I know everyone’s simply trying to help; they feel like they have to say something. And just as there is no good way to break up, there’s also no good way to respond to someone’s job woes unless you can offer them one. Going off the handle on well-meaning people is no way to behave; it’s ungrateful. So I swallow my frustration and grind my teeth into a smile.
“Yes, thank you—I’m well aware of all that. It just isn’t that simple. In DC, you have to know people. You need to be practically related to half of the staff to even receive a phone call, let alone gain an interview. And before you suggest it, no, you cannot walk into an office on the Hill and hand-deliver a resume or inquire for a job. That severely pisses them off. Yes, same goes for phone calls. No, I haven’t been interviewed anywhere yet. Yes, I mean anywhere. I haven’t had a single interview since moving to this seemingly godforsaken city. No, I have no idea why—I’m obviously awesome.”
Without college to guide me or an internship to structure my life, it feels like I’m left with nothing. Some weeks, I’m borderline nocturnal. I fight it to retain some sense of normalcy, but my late restaurant hours mix with sleepless predispositions, and next thing I know it’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m just getting ready for bed. I’ve always been a night owl, and definitely struggled with insomnia in college, but this is ridiculous. Sometimes I swear those red numbers glare at me tauntingly in the dark, ticking my life by painfully. I try to get my ass back on a normal, healthy schedule, but it’s a daily struggle. I’m going through the motions, but not getting to live the actual life. And all those bottled-up retorts to job advice have been building my internal pressure for months. I’ve officially reached my breaking point.
I think today is the first day I have actually hated it here. It was bound to happen eventually, I suppose, but I didn’t expect it to hit me quite like this. Suddenly, I feel like the city around me is cold and patronizing. I hate being sad. I hate worrying about making rent. Most of all, though, I hate hating DC….because I love DC. This is where I’m meant to be, I know it. I belong here, even if Washington disdains to recognize it yet. I think one of the best things about dating so much here is the distraction of it all. Romantic rejection is so superficial that sure, it stings, but deep down I don’t really give a shit. There are always other guys, and they’re likely cuter, smarter, and funnier. But my employment abandonment hurts far deeper. This radio silence on the job front is just breaking my heart.
Some days, all a girl can do is sit on a park bench, call her mom, and cry. So I did.
Epilogue: Like I said, that was a week ago. I actually did cry to my mom over the phone, and definitely got some glances from the few people walking their dogs in the mostly-abandoned park near my restaurant. I didn’t really care—it felt good to finally let it out. I’m not the kind of girl that cries, well… ever, really [except when I watch the movie Up; you don’t have a soul if you manage that opening montage dry-eyed]. But I also have no shame in admitting the times I do cry, and it’s definitely a part of coping with the job-hunt struggle.
Since then, my mom came for a day visit. She brought my family’s new puppy and ordered in from my favorite pho restaurant. We spent the entire rainy afternoon reworking my resume and cover letter, and I began to feel much more confident. [Cuddle time with a three-month old puppy definitely helps.] As I explained the confusing way the House and Senate job bulletins are constructed [most of the time, you don’t even know which state you’re applying for—only their partisan orientation], she asked me to pull an example up.
I brought up the Senate Employment Bulletin, and right at the top were two openings for one of my own Senators. I’ve wanted to work for my home state here in DC since I was in middle school, and email their offices every few months. They ‘have my resume on file’, but I don’t trust that. Needless to say, we both freaked out for a hot minute at the kismet of it all before knuckling down to write a stellar cover letter. Then I pulled up the emails with one of his staff from the fall, and replied to her again in addition to the general Senate email listed. Both shot back the generic ‘only applicants selected for interview will be contacted’ automated response.
The next day, I also received an email from a girl I went to grade school with and ran into months ago– she works for his office, too, and asked for my resume if interested. The fact that she remembered me and put in the effort to reach out genuinely made my week infinitely brighter. Now I have hope that I might at least be called, if not become an actual candidate for the job. Now all I can do it wait and pray with all my fingers and toes crossed.