‘What Brings You to the Warehouse Business?’

I recently had a job interview. Six months after moving from Boston to New Orleans, it’s one of only a handful I’ve secured in that time. And while it’s not for a glamorous or exciting job—cashiering at a local grocery store—it’s honest work, and I’m at a point where I can’t afford to shrug off an opportunity. I won’t know if I got the job for another few days, most likely, but the interview seemed to go well.

I should be happy, crossing my fingers, optimistic that my financial situation might be starting to turn around. But I’m not happy, because I had to lie about myself to even get the interview.

None of the countless cover letters and résumés I sent out since moving here attracted any attention until, on the advice of a few friends, I scrubbed them clean of my M.F.A. and played down my five years’ experience as an adjunct teaching writing at a few colleges in Boston. Improbably, the weird imbalance in my employment history that appeared when I excised those details is less of a red flag to potential employers than my time spent in academe. My credentials have become a liability, and so I’ve begun to fake them—well, fake not having them.

Before, my résumé was decent. Granted, it was tailored to academic work, but the skills and experiences I accrued as a teacher could apply to a variety of jobs, academic and otherwise. And when breaking into New Orleans’s adjunct circles proved more difficult than I thought it would, I adjusted my experience to appeal to a wider array of employers, and broadened my search. I applied to be a librarian assistant, a receptionist at a synagogue, a barrista, a stock clerk, a cashier at a museum gift shop; all to no avail. Once, I managed to talk myself into an interview at a furniture warehouse and watched the expression on the manager’s face change from neutral to puzzled as he scanned my résumé. “A teacher,” he said, finally looking at me before asking, “What brings you to the warehouse business?”

I stammered something about enjoying different kinds of work and my past experience in a stockroom. But it didn’t matter, as he’d already made up his mind when he saw that my most recent workplace was a classroom. I could’ve told him that working in a warehouse was my sole ambition, that I’d do it for free because I believed in the work that much, and he’d still have told me, firmly but politely, that he didn’t need me. (To be fair, he singled out my lack of previous experience with carpentry and furniture repair as barriers to my employment; however, the job post I responded to had mentioned none of those skills.)

Now, after a little rhetorical surgery, I hardly recognize my résumé. I remember writing it, I know the skills it details are things I can do, and I remember working the jobs it lists (visitor assistant at an art museum; tutor; overnight stock crew member). But it no longer describes me. It describes someone who made different choices, a divergent reality in which I abandoned my grad-school applications and was seemingly adrift for several years afterwards. I’m sure he’s a great guy, but he isn’t the one who’ll be standing behind the register, or sitting at the desk.

Rationally, I know the changes are only letters on a page, little white lies to get my foot in a door, any door. But hiding work and experiences that I’m proud of, and that form a substantial part of my identity, means living with shame and guilt. It seems glib to compare my newly invisible credentials to being closeted. But even if the stakes are significantly lower in my case, it’s still possible to make that analogy to understand some of the frustration and pain I feel.

My monthly student-loan bills are the grim punch line to this dark joke. You can distance yourself from your education on paper, but there’s no escaping the thousands of dollars you borrowed at a criminally high interest rate. With every check I write—for now; soon I won’t be able to make my payments—I’m paying for the privilege to rewrite my own story and pretend those years never happened. Faking my death and starting from scratch would probably be cheaper, and more effective.

The label I’ve been stuck with, “overqualified,” is a brutal bit of Orwellian logic that demeans both labor and education. The common wisdom seems to be that because my heart won’t be in the work, I’ll jump ship as soon as I can find a more satisfying job, and employers will be stuck with another search. It’d be dishonest to pretend I would be content as a cashier, but it’s equally dishonest to assume that anyone would. The value of work, nonspecialized work in particular, isn’t determined solely by the experiences and qualifications of the person doing it. By the same token, a second degree doesn’t preclude anyone from learning how to do a new job. On-the-job training is, apparently, a thing of the past.

An acquaintance recently explained the employers’ point of view to me at a party. “It sucks, but you can’t blame them,” he said. He’s half right.

Aaron Block received his M.F.A. from Emerson College. He writes for the Chamber Four Web site and appears regularly on its Page Count podcast.

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