The college job I regret you can no longer have

When I arrived home from my first year of college, my mom ceremoniously opened the garage to reveal a brand new silver sedan within. My dad had recently insinuated he might be able to secure me a job with the county auditor, one I’d be required to drive to different neighborhoods every day. This kind of parental headhunting was unusual, given the prior two years of high school when I had worked two jobs, riding my red mountain bike to and from Dairy Queen and being dropped off at my real estate office job on weekends.

The car offered incredible freedom. In the mornings, I ferried my sibs to their camps and other activities. This was also how I came to take the afternoon shift for the traffic survey corps that summer.  Nowhere else that I knew could a college student make $7/hour in my city in 1999. A full tank of gas would cost me around $30. After barely managing a C in college math, this was calculus I could understand.

At traffic survey orientation, a couple dozen high school and college students sat wearing cargo shorts, popping gum and looking disaffected in a sterile conference room. The supervisors laid out the expectations, told us the high penalty for abandoning our stations. They were not afraid to fire employees, they said. They had done it before, even in the middle of the season.

We were now a part of the county’s Traffic Survey Corps. Our job for the next three months was to essentially count how many cars passed through different intersections at appointed hours. The data was to be collected, presumably, to ensure stoplights were appropriately timed depending on traffic flow. We were to represent the department accordingly, mainly by showing up and doing the work.

After our orientation, my seasoned surveyor friends identified the supervisors to fear. “That guy over there?” my friend Colleen explained, “He will sneak up on you. He’ll park down the street and watch you from behind just to make sure you’re working.”

My friends took the morning shift so that they would be done by 1p and have the rest of the day to themselves. Plus, If you wore sunglasses, the supervisors couldn’t tell if you were sleeping, they confided.

Right away, I could tell the afternoon shifters were a much different lot than the morning crew. We would arrive at different traffic intersections around the county every day, to relieve the morning shift. The morning shift had coolers, sturdy lawn chairs and plenty of sunscreen. I had just completed my first year of college and it was clear to me that the morning shift were probably the same kids who didn’t mind 8 a.m. classes. They were probably the treasurers and secretaries of their sororities.

Whereas the afternoon shift were an ashtray full of cigarette butts, all still ashing from the night before.

My first shift was in a neighborhood I’d never been to. I used a county-provided paper map to find my intersection, because I was lazy and didn’t want to Mapquest directions and print them out the night before, as was the custom of navigation in 1999.

I parked in a tiny parking lot next to a bar with rotting shingles on the side, right next to where the morning shift were tossing the metal signs identifying their station “TRAFFIC SURVEY” into their trunks. They sped off just as the rains came.

“Are you here for the traffic survey?” asked a guy in a white sedan who had just rolled down his window.
“Yeah! What are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. Want to park next to me and we can just work in our cars for now?”

Our supervisor met us a few minutes later and advised we sit in the same car while the rain ensued. My new co-worker and I sat in my car, our mechanical tally boards resting on our laps, as we peered out the rain-soaked windshield and tried to count the cars passing through.

As sheets of rain pounded and the mechanical clicks of our boards filled the first hour, I couldn’t believe this was going to be my job for the next 10 weeks. Just counting and looking. Rinse and repeat.  

Of course, no one yet had a cellphone. There was no distraction from what was before us, no social media apps to inspire FOMO of our friends’ enviable country club jobs. There was only this: six hours of conversation, minus a 30 minute break. Perhaps a car radio if you were really lucky.  

My partner for that first day of surveying in the rain was a quirky boy, the kind who likely owned whole shelves of comic books, and he told me about a show on HBO called “The Sopranos.” I’d never heard of it before.

This would be a personal refrain for me in the traffic survey summer song Oh. I’ve never heard of that before. But now I had, thanks to the afternoon shifters.

Because where the afternoon shifters were not particularly dedicated to providing accurate counts for any intersection at any time on any day, they were fiercely devoted to making sure there was as much mischief occurring during the afternoon shift as possible.

We changed partners every day. I preferred working with the quirky guy--he always kept the conversation tame. In contrast, supervisors and other co-workers alike spoke at length and regularly about sexual romps. I didn’t know a hostile work environment was one in which one was constantly subjected to unwanted stories of sexcapades. I just thought I needed to buck up and ignore it. Sometimes I brought headphones and listened to a book on CD.

I also learned countless card games I no longer remember how to play, but still recall fondly how we could conceal a full deck of cards while masquerading as someone looking up at the intersection and pressing the car tally rhythmically.

One day, on the very grounds of a church in my own neighborhood I had grown up passing almost daily, one of my partners rolled a joint and smoked it for a solid hour. I had taken this particular partner to my high school prom just a year before. Now we were co-workers and he was smoking an illegal substance on company time. On church grounds.

By August, nothing surprised me.

Geographically, I learned that neighborhoods changed one street at a time. I learned that in some of the poshest neighborhoods, people felt comfortable asking what a traffic survey was and whether or not we had any questions they could answer. It seemed everyone had seen the traffic survey corps. No one seemed to know what we did, what our method was, who we were. For the most part, on most of those accounts, neither did we.

By the end of summer, we were all sunburned irrevocably on the fronts of our bodies. The backs of our legs belied the oddly pale people we had been in June. Ones who hadn’t yet spent hours baking--for some of us in more ways than one.

I never went back to the traffic survey; one summer was enough for me. I’m glad I got in while the getting was good, though, since the traffic survey corps. no longer exists. A better way of calculating traffic patterns had already been developed that didn’t depend so entirely on erroneous college student reporting, but our county held on to that vestigial system for as long as it could. Unfortunately for the county, I don’t think the data collected in 1999 was very accurate. Fortunately for us, though, it paid really well.

In fact, I believe I am still earning dividends on the experience that taught me how to abide boredom. The ability to endure--monotony, hot temperatures, the close company of unsavory characters with bad taste in country music-- is something I lament my own children may never experience to this degree. The ability to just be in one place, without a digital feed of reminders of what is happening elsewhere, is a luxury I took for granted. While cars passed me all day, motoring toward destinations unknown, I was sitting still and counting--counting the vehicles and the hours and the paychecks that would advance me toward the end of summer when my supposedly real life would begin. But the realest life I can imagine is one that has to consult a map regularly, to find the good in people whose company you don’t get to choose, to cultivate an awareness of what is happening around you.

Except for the part about your dad leasing the car for you. That is not real life. At least it hasn’t been mine for twenty years.

On dressing mannequins

Ann Taylor occupies two floors in Boston’s Faneuil Hall historic shopping plaza. On the second floor, there are narrow shafts for window displays that are only wide enough for my 23 year-old petite body to stand very still. Problems ensue when I am tasked with dressing one of the mannequins (size 2, all of them, because when have you seen a mannequin holding a hamburger?). My managers at Ann Taylor never say, “Oh, Kendra, can you go simply drape this fetching scarf around the neck of a mannequin upstairs?” They never ask, “Could you be a dear and quick like a bunny change out the broche on that one’s blouse up there?” They are prepared to exploit me for their big window dressing asks, like a child with tiny fingers taken out of school to sew sequins onto gowns. Only I am being paid a fair wage. And am not denied an education. (Forget the child labor comparison. I was being hyperbolic.) My managers see that I am scheduled to work and order the full rack of tweed blazers steamed and for the mannequin in the upstairs windows to don the new angora turtleneck and wool pants with no zippers.

Photo by  Fancycrave  on  Unsplash

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

I am a visual assistant at Ann Taylor in the hours before the shop opens. Except I am not assisting anyone, per se, besides the mannequins out of their naked Barbie doll ignominy and into the season’s latest couture. This early shift is an absolute idyll for an introvert. It’s so peaceful up in the window shaft. I get to watch the cobblestone paths of this Boston tourist destination come alive. From the second floor window, I see a queue of New Bostonians preparing for their citizenship swearing in outside of Quincy Market. I observe flocks of pigeons pecking at last night’s stale popcorn. I wrestle the mannequins and watch the sun come up. The best and worst part is: not a soul bothers me.

So when I get stuck in the window, no one can hear me banging. The door to the window shaft has suddenly swung shut and I cannot seem to bump it open. I knock on the window, but no one looks up from below on the cobblestone because it is mainly just pigeons and a hungover security detail. Actually, no. That guy doesn’t work security. He’s a leftover from Cheers last night. No one inside the store can hear me yelling, because it is just the manager and I and she is a volunteer gospel choir director, so she is most likely opening up the cash wrap downstairs and practicing, “I Surrender All” while I am upstairs singing, “Here I Am, Lord!!” and hoping that a merciful god/manager lets me out of here soon. I begin to think about how little air there really is in this window shaft and how sad that I may spend my last Christmas on earth with the Madame Tussaud’s rendering of my junior high nemesis and just as I begin to feel tears pooling, Nestor, the custodian, just happens to be swapping out a broom upstairs and hears my plight. Nestor does not speak much English and my Spanish is mostly garbage, but!! That day, Eso dia! He heard my cry for help and answered the call perfectly. I won’t be spending Christmas as a mannequin in rigor mortis after all. Praises be!

Nerding out about America's First Ladies

When nightmares plague me about college, they usually involve some fearsome failure of mine to alphabetize my bibliographic entries. (I am still in rehabilitation from serial citation offenses. I hope we can still be friends.) I wake from those dreams drenched in sweat and pleading for grading mercies from a phantom professor. When I daydream about college, I am usually transported to a beach blanket someone had laid out in order for us to “study for finals” where I remember promptly studying the back of my eyelids for a few hours. It is rare that I can recall anything of substance from my classes; the memory of what it was that I majored in is all but dissolving into a hazy solution of all the Mountain Dew and cheap beer I drank (and inexplicably somehow never gained weight).

There was one class, though, from which I derived something memorable, a pocket full of trivia and a new set of lenses for viewing women in history. I think we all have that class, no? Or that teacher or job that helps us to adjust the prescription to rightly view our privilege or prejudice? I regret that students can no longer take America's First Ladies from the great Dr. Treckel who wisely retired before the students who refused to alphabetize their bibliographies forced her into an early grave.

The course covered the lives and passions of the then forty women whose important causes and presidential pillow talk shaped our nation. My classmates and I were also a bunch of women, most of us still fighting teenage acne and learning how to correctly pronounce “segue” (NOT SEGGGG, turns out) whenever we wanted to pivot from a salient point.

It’s a job, being a First Lady, we learned over and over throughout the course, as was evident in every account from Abigail Adams to Lady Bird Johnson, from Mamie Eisenhower to Hillary Clinton. The basic thrust of the class was basically the same premise of “Hamilton” without Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhymes: women matter, women endure, women are changemakers even if they don’t always get the limelight or the credit. Instead, history has been hard on First Ladies, scrutinizing what they wore, how they coiffed their hair, and occasionally taking issue with their issues. So the verbiage of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign wasn’t the finest moment in public health. There are worse messages to come out of the 80s, than “Just Say No,” people. Clearly the elastic chokehold from wearing double socks and pegging our pants has blocked our remembrance of how bad people with AIDS were treated, how ineffective the stranger danger caution has been, how problematic the character of Long Duk Dong is in “Sixteen Candles.” The mix of aerosol hairspray and second hand smoke must have been killing off the rest of the brain cells the pegged pants didn’t quite get.

Just say no to trashing First Ladies. We should listen more to them rather than examining the hem of their pantsuits and the hue of their lipsticks. They have been the eyes and ears of a nation in ways that their husbands could not be. Someday soon, I’m hoping we’ll get to call a woman President and her husband a First Gentleman. (Or maybe she’ll be married to a woman. Hurrah! More women in the West Wing!)

President Obama lovingly paid tribute to the job for which his wife Michelle Obama wasn’t elected but fully accepted, “You took on a role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own--with grace and with grit and style and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody….you have made me proud and you have made the country proud.” Everyone got misty-eyed including Sasha who was supposedly at home studying for her exam the next day but--c’mon. She just didn’t want to do the ugly cry on national television and I cannot blame her.

We didn’t get to build an altar to Michelle Obama when I took Dr. Treckel’s class because we were only up to the Clinton years when I started college in the last millennium. Oh but what a time it was to be alive and studying First Ladies when Monica Lewinsky was the name of a soap opera that unfolded with more salaciousness each day: a blue dress and a cigar and impeachment, oh my! Hillary Clinton was a resoundingly sympathetic character in America at the time, having to live with that dog Bill when she was eminently qualified to do a better job than he. The humanity and the ignominy of those who worked and dwelt in the White House were all a part of our learning lab. Just a couple years later, I took the semester off to intern in DC, just a couple of blocks from the White House as it was ushering in a new administration. I still think it’s hilarious that Clinton’s staff removed all the “W” keys from the keyboards as they simultaneously handed the proverbial White House keys over to the George W. Bush administration. I like pranks where nobody gets hurt and people are just inconvenienced enough to get a little bothered under their starched collars. I love a good public servant who can take a joke, but it never seemed as though the leading ladies of the White House were given any grace, any margin for error. If they had a bad hair day or weren’t hyper aware of optics at all times, they were swimming in scandal. America’s First Ladies class just served to reinforce how it’s always been a damn hard business being a woman in the United States, especially during the years when dying in childbirth was common and grocery delivery was uncommon. Being married to the President of the Free World? No plum assignment, but marginally better now than it used to be when Abigail Adams had to write to remind her husband to remember the ladies. And how they exist and don’t like being their husband’s property and stuff.

When I toured the White House with a bunch of other interns, we got a peak of Laura Bush taking Barney the First Dog for his evening constitutional. We even got to pet him. Laura was wearing casual slacks and a blouse and it was such a lovely sight to see her letting her hair hang down, as it were. I wondered if she and her girls ever did cartwheels and ran barefoot in the Rose Kennedy rose garden just because they could.

During my internship semester, I also took a journalism class in which Bob McNeely, the official photographer of the Clinton administration was invited to be a guest speaker. His stories were fascinating but one still sticks with me since it was so surprisingly editorial. He described a wonderful tableau of the White House preparations for Christmas. He recalled Hillary sweeping through one of the rooms and noticing a particular tree with an ornament just askew. She paused and straightened it before proceeding off to other, more pressing matters. The way I remember McNeely describing it was as though he had just witnessed someone yanking a bottle out of a baby’s mouth. He recalled that this was Hillary’s modus operandi--that this sort of rectifying the work of others perfectly encapsulated her. She may not have decorated the tree herself, but she knew the way it was supposed to look.

I hate to toss a bad pun in here to criticize a photographer but I think Mr. McNeely may have been short-sighted. The condemnation seemed unfair, especially given Hillary’s storied experience as a dynamite litigator. I’m sure her attention to detail was legendary. Further, that Hillary had to worry about optics during her tour of duty in the White House is an understatement. She was fighting for her family while America sat back and popped popcorn and waited for the trainwreck. So she wanted the glitterball ornament to sit a bit more upright. Her husband was being impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. But ol’ Hill just couldn’t cope with the wonky partridge in the pear tree. Burn her at the stake why don’t you!

In addition to the fairly sexist description of OrnamentGate, McNeely’s story is also memorable to me as it was one of the first times I got to see pictures of the White House in all its holiday splendor. It seemed that the decking of the White House halls was a First Ladies detail since before electricity’s invention. They appear to have embraced the holiday decorator role with relish. Betty Ford went with a folksy craft theme for her Christmas tree. Barbara Bush carried a family literacy motif through her tree and I do not know how you can get credit for activism and interior decorating at the same time on the same plant but Babs pwned it.

I had not known until McNeely, though, that the public had often been invited to visit the White House and judge its ornament placement for itself. Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, for example, hosted a Christmas carnival and invited 500 children. Can you imagine a time where the President invited 500 kids who probably weren’t entitled punks and who didn’t try to steal the soundbar and actually lost their minds at the presentation of...wait for cream shaped like Santa Claus? What was it even like when a major event occurred for which there wasn’t an official hashtag nor any helicopter parents to humblebrag their Santa-shaped ice creams on their InstaStories? It all must have been so quaint. Please believe this does not in any way diminish my burning desire to receive an invite to a big holiday open house at Casa Blanca so I can humblebrag it on my InstaStories.

My friend Rory, on the other hand. He’s always got the hottest tickets in town. I will not begrudge him the time he got invited by the Obamas to their Christmas open house. Rory is a mega-talented Broadway star and non-profiteer and still answers my text messages. I’ve known him since high school when he starred in every high school musical and I was the sweaty girl behind the concession stand eating selling the popcorn during intermission. He charms the pants off of everyone he meets with his self-deprecating humor and I’m confident he pretty much single-handedly overturned the Defense of Marriage Act so that he could marry his boyfriend Gerald. I’ve only ever overturned a jello mold when it wasn’t yet firm so Rory impresses me.

Rory also impressed the Obamas enough to get an invite to their holiday shindig in 2014. Rory posted pictures of himself on Facebook ambling around the many White House rooms, festooned with ribbons and holly. He captioned the photo of himself in the Lincoln Room, “Me at the buffet by myself. A common sight. Abe Lincoln isn't usually there though.” See? Impossibly charming, that Rory.

Since the changing of the guards at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though, I’ve not been as keen to receive an invite to any function within its gates. I doubt Rory has either.

Oh, but my interest was surely piqued when the official YouTube of the White House released its “Christmas Decorations at the White House,” video, a title that is only befitting under this Trump administration that sees your inclusive Holiday Decor and raises you a We will Christmas if We Want to Here. Within the first 12 seconds of the video, First Lady Melania Trump is seen ::gasp:: pulling a Hillary and examining one of the ornaments on a tree that she presumably did not decorate herself. Where are the First Lady decorating police? We’ve found another offender! High crimes and misdemeanors!

But by far, the very best part of the video is when the film crew, wanting to really bring home the message that Melania had her hands alllllll over this decorating business, has dragged a big-ass wreath into some back cabinet office and Melania is seen rearranging the fronds of said wreath with a staff member looking on approvingly. See Melania the Model using her hands! See the staff member, possibly Latina, helping her! Look at Santa’s styley elves at work!

Hold on one second. Literally, please press pause when the video reaches 27 seconds. Because within this scene is some kindly woman in the background sitting at her cubicle just trying to eat her pear. She probably just broke up with her boyfriend in the Secret Service and doesn’t want to run into him in the White House cafeteria. So she’s trying to have a nice desk lunch except the campaign to show Melania Loves Mexicans (unlike her husband whose affection seems restricted to Mexican food) has hijacked the office. But by jove, she’s not moving! Surely they’ll be done soon and she can go back to her power lunch in peace.

I know I told you that the First Ladies class helped me to adjust my historical focus on women in the White House and this is perhaps the greatest exhibit A I could offer you. Women are contending for their rightful spots in every corner office in the country, but they continue to operate behind the scenes of history unfolding. Most of the time, we should recognize their efforts and call them into the spotlight for their meaningful contributions.

And other times, we should let them eat their pear. In peace. The Christmas wreath already has a partridge. We don’t need a pear tree, too. And if we do, you can bet a First Lady will find one.