francie and neely.

this staffing agency was crazy. before i checked in, i set off the metal detector, and a somber looking indian fellow asked if i had any cds or dvds in my bag. i had grizzly man on me, and i had to turn it in. that's when people started pouring in, by the dozens. i hadn't seen so many unhappy, pessimistic college grads put together in a room since my last national americorps conference.

yes, today about 50 of us visited CTB - McGraw Hill to "apply" for the test evaluator position. and by "apply," i mean show up. there were no "group interviews," as the website had indicated. it was more of a presentation. the woman, jan, who told us about kelly services (the temporary staffing agency) and its partnership with McGraw Hill, first asked if anyone knew what McGraw Hill was. some nerdy white boy raised his hand. "it's a textbook publishing company." "very good," the woman answered. before i go any further, i should note that she was a very scary, not intimidating, but scary, woman. she had spiky white hair, eyes as black and beady as the devil's, leathery skin and dark eyeliner. she reminded me of a previous employer, caitlin, my boss at the aids alliance thrift store. the woman who got really pissed when i accidentally sacked her partner's dog with a large black bag of unsellable items. i still picture the dog, running up the stairs, and me, letting go of the bag just a second too late, almost as if it were in slow-mo, and then the dog, surprised, yelping as he hurdles backwards down the last three steps, and his black, hairy asshole almost meeting his face.

the dog didn't run around the store so much after that.

jan kept stressing how we should "not come in with preconceived notions about how to grade a standardized test," and that standardized tests were "the only effective way of measuring a student's academic progress." yes, we unemployed college grads could really make a difference, by sending vital information about a students ability to fill in bubbles to his teacher. i couldn't believe how secretive and professional these people acted.

it made me think about my own experience with tests. how i did really well in the beginning, and then not so much come sixth grade. by the time i went in for my SAT's, my confidence was so shattered that i scored a 1040. don't worry, you can take it again, my parents and friends told me. i scored worse the second time.

i never really felt good when i scored well. i only felt bad when i scored bad. that's all the tests are for: confirming our inadequacies, letting us know of our shortcomings.

as a surprise, the application included a short "essay" question we would have to fill out before our "interview." the question read: "what are your thoughts about standardized tests." as if to warn us, specifically me, jan addressed the question and shaped our responses: "now, do you really think that if you write, 'i don't believe standardized tests do any good.' that we'll still offer you employment?" i wanted to say, 'yes' and that it was a trick question to test our ability to answer honestly, but everyone was shaking their heads no, and jan looked a little too satisfied with our collective defeat.

another funny thing happened. "now," jan said, "was anyone recommended this position by a friend?" a handful of folks raised their hands. "ah, what's your name, my dear?" "angela." "and angela, who recommended you?" "her name was stephanie crane." at this, jan handed angela a small sheet of paper. "read it out loud, angela." angela read, "anyone who recommends a friend to work for kelly staffing will receive $50 once their friend has completed 160 hours of work." had it been a studio audience, the ooh's and ahh's would have been cued. jan's intial response: "angela, i want you to scratch out the '$50,' and in its place, put $80. that's right. when you recommend a friend, you'll get $80 once that friend completes 160 hours of work. now, come on. tell me you don't have some friends who have college degrees..."

that's about where i tuned out. i told them i'd really only like to work night shifts, 5:30 - 10:30. "we don't have any work this coming week. would you be willing to wait?" i'll wait.

"will you start work on monday?" the indian man asked me. "no, i won't." i grabbed grizzly man and left.

i went to the library, my only sanctuary these days, to pick up a vhs copy of a tree grows in brooklyn. my favorite library clerk was there. she's probably in her fifties, has a dark, brunette streak that goes down the middle of her golden hair, almost like a cat's. if it were the 1950's, 1960's, she wouldn't look a moment out of place.

"how's it going today?" she asked. "pretty good, how are you?" i asked. she smiles. she's always smiling. maybe because i'm always frowning, at least inwardly, that this friendly encounter never fails to bring me joy. what a sap, i know. "i'm doing well," she says, then adds, "it's always good to, you know, get the day going. always a good thing." it's an instant connection, as if she understands that, what some unenlightened others would consider mundane, something like checking out old vhs tapes from the local library is a sure way to make use of your day. better than complaining. better than regretting. better than shopping. still smiling, she asks, "by any chance, are you related to penny tan?" "who was that again?" "penny tan?" "no," i said, regretfully. "oh, she was just an old childhood friend of mine. i've always been curious. anyway, i'll meet you on the other side." she hands me my tape, and i thank her.

in a tree grows in brooklyn, there's a scene where francie wants to check out a book called the anatomy of melancholy. the librarian says it's too big for her, and that it will probably go over her head. francie tells her that she doesn't care, that she's reading all the books from A-Z, and that she "wants to know everything in the world." the librarian senses her urgency, and recommends another book to counterbalance the dryness of anatomy of melancholy. it's a fine scene; one i wish to relive with my own librarian every waking moment.

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