The summer of 1993, I was in real trouble. I’d just graduated from the University of Wyoming and come home to a two year old and needed work. The Master’s degree I’d earned might allow me to apply to jobs that I had never before been able to qualify for. I had high hopes and was living in a kind of dream world. But I wouldn’t know that until well into the fall.
I had come back to Kansas City and was living for a time with my uncle. As a father with responsibilities for my daughter every Tuesday and every other weekend, I set up a baby bed in the tiny room I had in the house. But after only a couple of weeks, it was apparent that this arrangement, living in my uncle’s house and trying to be a father, wasn’t going to work.
The stress built to the point that anxiety plagued me. Child support, rent, and utilities cost me what seemed to be a fortune. Fortunately, my car insurance company paid me out on a case in which I was injured in a bike wreck. So, I had some money in the bank, but I knew that wasn’t going to last. In a great stroke of luck, a friend of mine had a house on the other side of Gillham Park he could rent me for $400.
Once I moved into my new house, I felt a kind of freedom I’ve only ever experienced a couple of times in life. The place was a small two-bedroom, hardwood floors, and beautiful oak trim around the corners of the room and doors. I had spent the previous two years in a small dorm room and, on breaks from school, at my daughter’s mom’s house. Being in my own place was wondrous.
But the need for cash cut my halcyon days short. In the interest of stretching my money as far as it would go, I found a roommate after a couple of months and cut my expenses in half.
Meanwhile, I set to work. I put together a resume and started my job hunt. At first, I thought having an advanced degree and broad life experience would qualify me for all kinds of work. The newspaper classified section became my daily reading. I sent out applications and resumes to every job I thought I could do and do well.
I had thought big. My optimism flowed through the cover letters I wrote to employers. With just a little effort, I thought, I’d land in a good job, something that would make me legitimate and financially sound.
As the summer wore on, a new reality revealed itself. No one wanted a newly minted historian, not even libraries or archives. I applied for jobs at nonprofits, insurance companies, large Kansas City corporations. Rejection followed me everywhere.
At the time, I was yet not inured to rejection. Every rebuff sent me into storms of self-deprecation and feelings of failure. I remember standing at my computer one day. It was set in the dining room, where I had a small, humble wooden table that held an aging printer. I looked out the window and thought of all the opportunities out there and wondered how I might tap into them. At a loss, I put down my cup of coffee and sat at the table and cried.
It seemed I was never going to get anywhere. But I had an ally in my Uncle Bill, who knew people and people who knew people. He set me up with a headhunter by the name of Mack Harndon. Mack was a tall man. He was executive material and had all the polish of a man who makes a lot of money and knows how to wear good clothes. He always smelled of fragrant soaps. I went through another course of study with Mack. He administered aptitude tests. He taught me how to interview. He searched the Sorkin’s directories for all sort of opportunities I might apply for.
I don’t know that at that time I was able to absorb the lessons Mack tried to inculcate in me. He expected me to be confident but self-effacing, self-assured but humble. I really thought that the master’s degree would take me places. But Mack, in his own way, tried to temper me. The business world doesn’t care what you’ve achieved academically with a history major. What they cared about were worker bees who could slog through the leads and sell merchandise.
Summer faded into fall. Nights fell cool and with the smell of walnut leaves. Though I was in a constant state of anxiety, it was a magical time with my young daughter. When job hunting and failing brought me into states of depression and mania, we would take off for long walks. I’d hitch her up on my shoulders and take off through the city. Sack lunch in hand, we toured Midtown neighborhoods. We hiked down to the Plaza and had get cool drinks at Topsy’s. We never had the popcorn—I couldn’t afford it. We went to the museum and laid for hours on park lawns. We were out in all kinds of weather.
I didn’t appreciate at the time just how much my daughter helped me through that period. We made a checkerboard out of a beer flat. We found toys children left in the park. We often had the whole park to ourselves and played great games of hide-and-seek. The wading pool in Gillham Park took up our Saturdays, and Sundays we walked and walked. Had it not been for Sydney, I’m not sure how I could have continued on.
At the time, too, I started to write short fiction and travel stories. Here, too, I encountered rejection that sent me into withering states of self-criticism. But I was trying and trying just about anything to see how I would make it in this new world. It would be another couple of years before I accepted a writer’s life is one of constant rejection. But even in that formative period, I didn’t let rejection stop me. I kept on and kept on.
I applied for a job at the Ritz Carlton. For weeks, twice a week, I would call the HR department to check on the status of my application. I was willing to do whatever they had available—wash dishes, work in the laundry, carry trays in the banquet department, haul and set up tables as a houseman. What I found was that HR was very narrow minded. I applied for one job and that’s what they considered me for. It was only through my persistence that I landed a job in the banquet department in the nick of time.
I started that job on Thanksgiving Day, a full six months after graduating. My money had finally run out. I was starting from literally the bottom. We spent the next four years living on the edge of oblivion. I had a job. It paid decently but not well. I would bring home marbles and baubles from table centers for Syd to play with. I couldn’t afford to buy her anything and so we made do with whatever we came across. When winter came, we used carboard for sleds.
I recall that time now because I’m again out looking for a job. Where once I thought the Ph.D. would open doors for me, I find that it’s a hindrance. My age, too, is an obstacle to gainful employment. I’m finding that my broad experience and wide array of talents disqualify me for a number of jobs. Unfortunately, in the 26 years since that summer that everything fell so flat for me, I didn’t arrange my career or work life to being a worker bee.
I have to start at the bottom. But I’ve been here before. I might just have to take a job in the banquet department of a hotel. Just today, I interviewed for a position as flight attendant for a regional airline. The Postal Service is putting me through the steps of signing on as a letter carrier. I have fifteen applications pending with the federal government.
But there’s no magic in the air. I don’t feel like the world is wide open to me. That fleeting feeling of possibility I felt in the summer of 1993 hasn’t materialized. It’s all just work now. It will be a time of life we will look back on and see as hard days. If we make it through this, it will be due to plain, nose-skinning labor and nothing more.