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In the recession, all roads lead to home

By Eli Saslow
Friday, November 20, 2009 6:36 PM

MISSOULA, MONT. -- Her parents redecorated her bedroom soon after she left for college, as sure as everyone else in this town that Melissa Meyer would not be moving back. They took down the photos of Melissa meeting the Dalai Lama and laughing alongside Joe Biden, placing them in the closet. They packed away dozens of high school honor certificates -- valedictorian, class president, outstanding chemistry student -- and stored them in plastic boxes under the bed.

Melissa had always been too big for this town, her father liked to say. She was editor of the school newspaper, an intern in the U.S. Senate and the only student from Sentinel High School's class of 2005 to attend college on the East Coast. On her rare visits home from George Washington University, longtime friends liked to tease her: "Hey, Melissa, are you president yet?"

So, how to explain this? Each morning, Melissa wakes up in her old bedroom, scans the foreign decor and thinks: This is the guest room now. I am the guest. I am not supposed to be here.

She graduated magna cum laude from the GW Business School in May, applied for 30 jobs at some of the nation's best-known companies, and it went nowhere. After visiting the campus career center and redesigning her résumé, she applied for 10 more. Still nothing. The lease expired on her Foggy Bottom apartment in June. There was no place to go but home, with a collection of rejection letters and a haunting sense of betrayal. For 23 years, she had advanced down America's path to success -- perfect grades, a $200,000 college degree, a folder overstuffed with business cards -- only to have it dead-end back where she started.

"What was the point?" she asks.

For Melissa, that question is the legacy of the recession as she rises one Tuesday morning in early fall and begins her day with the same routine that defined her adolescence. She rummages through the refrigerator, eats leftovers from a dinner party her parents threw the night before and then retreats upstairs to prepare for a fill-in shift at the same job she held throughout high school. After changing into cowboy boots and a skirt, she borrows her parents' car and drives three minutes to work at Rockin Rudy's, a record store with a peace sign hanging at the entrance.

The shop smells of incense. Classic rock plays through speakers. Customers come and go in tie-dyed T-shirts as Melissa stands behind a register and rings up CDs, bandanas and a gigantic bronze frog.

Midway through her shift, a man approaches the counter ready to buy three necklaces. He introduces himself as a palm reader. Melissa sticks out her hand.

"I know nothing about my future," she says.

* * *

Once, she thought she knew exactly what to expect. She would follow the same direct path to achievement as her father, a partner in his own accounting firm; as her mother, a public health nurse; as her sister, a Truman scholar pursuing a doctorate; as her brother, a pioneering accountant in Australia. For the Meyer family, success had always been defined as a straight line: education, career, hard work and a salary big enough to provide the next generation with a head start toward the same goals.

With that tradition in mind, Melissa applied for a handful of positions during the first semester of her senior year at GW and earned interviews with Procter & Gamble, Deloitte and General Electric. After a few hopeful weeks, she received similar e-mails from all three companies explaining that they were no longer hiring.

Melissa's father, Jack, suggested she could improve her odds by networking, so she chatted up customers while working as a hostess at Kinkead's restaurant in Washington and joined the GW alumni association, introducing herself to strangers during meet-and-greet happy hours. A school counselor told Melissa that she could sharpen her applications by taking a career aptitude test, which revealed that she could market herself as "energetic," "enthusiastic," "flexible," "assertive" and "a good communicator."

For a stretch of two months, as spring turned to summer and the jobless rate continued to climb, Melissa applied for at least one position every day, sending applications to Philadelphia, Washington, Seattle and Portland. She spoke with hiring managers at a company in Seattle that once had recruited employees with an in-house gym and wine bar, but now the wine bar was closed, and the company asked Melissa to check back in six months.

As graduation neared, Melissa spent her culminating business class comparing rejection e-mails with classmates. Forty students were in the room. Three had jobs.

Melissa redesigned her résumé one final time before she moved home to Missoula. She had all but given up on launching a career now, instead aspiring to any job that would prevent her from being completely dependent on her parents. Her professional résumé seemed too striving to submit to shops more accustomed to hiring high school kids, hippies and transients. Melissa deleted mention of the $36,000 she raised for alternative spring break trips and the 50-person events she coordinated for a women's leadership program, replacing them with new categories.

Restaurant Host: "Greeted patrons, scheduled reservations and arranged seating for a restaurant with 64 tables."

Reception Assistant: "Aided reception staff by answering phones, preparing billing statements and scanning documents."

Sales Associate: "Organized, cleaned and displayed inventory to create a stimulating shopping environment."

This is the résumé Melissa carries with her one September morning as she enters an orientation meeting for prospective Missoula substitute teachers. She has never taught before, nor does she particularly enjoy children, but she has been turned down by a restaurant, a bakery and an herbal shop during the past two weeks.

More than 75 others are crowded into a room when Melissa arrives. There are women in business suits and men in ties, all carrying three letters of recommendation and hoping for a chance to earn $10.29 an hour without benefits by substituting in a school district that has only three high schools. A middle-aged man stands at the front of the room and explains the order in which Missoula substitutes will be selected. He asks those who qualify under each category to raise their hands.

"Who here is an assistant teacher?"

Six hands shoot up.

"Okay. Who has a teaching degree?"

Fifteen more people raise their hands.

"Great. And who has a college major that is taught at the high school level, like English or science?"

Practically the whole room is reaching toward the sky now, but Melissa, who majored in marketing and business administration, continues to scribble on the cover of a seminar handout. Not until 15 minutes later, near the conclusion of the seminar, does the instructor explain how "less-qualified" teachers like Melissa can win substitute assignments. She should print out business cards and hand them to her old teachers at Sentinel High School, he suggests. Maybe the staff will help out a former valedictorian by requesting her as a substitute.

"My triumphant return!" Melissa whispers sarcastically.

Soon she is out the door and back in her parents' car. She drives across town for a job interview at a restaurant called the Depot, where the new résumé -- and particularly her experience at Kinkead's -- helps her earn a part-time job as a hostess. She will work three nights a week, from 5 until close. The Depot manager offers his congratulations and reminds her to "smile big and wear sensible shoes."

It is the first good news Melissa has received after six months and 60 applications, but she can hardly feign excitement.

"Sometimes, thinking about what I'm doing right now, it becomes a little depressing," she says later, while driving home.

She turns a corner and her parents' house comes into view. She has plans to have lunch with her dad, maybe go for a hike. Then, nothing.

"I know I am under-selling myself," she says. "But maybe there's more to life than what position you have and all those things."

* * *

A few days later, Melissa sits in the living room with her parents, Jack and Shelly. She is dressed for yoga class. Her parents are dressed for work. Shelly puts a hand on her daughter's knee and asks the question that now rules over so many of these moments, even if it often goes unsaid:

"So, have you thought any more about what's next?"

It has been more than four years since Melissa has lived with them, and Jack and Shelly now revel in the company of a daughter who lingers with them at the dinner table and offers to help with the dishes. She visits Jack for lunch at his office, goes to exercise classes with Shelly and teaches her parents how to play a game on their porch that involves swinging at rotten fruit with a cricket bat, until they are all competing in a make-believe home-run derby and laughing like mischievous 10-year-olds. The highlight of their autumn has been having Melissa home.

Melissa loves being with them, too. Spending so much time with family in Montana has helped her "thaw out from the go-go-go of D.C.," she says. Her dad had a health scare not long ago, and now Melissa watches football with him and asks his advice on relationships and work-life balance. Her parents treat her like an adult, allowing her to come and go when she pleases and to sleep at her boyfriend Will Freihofer's house. But most of the time, Melissa prefers to bring Freihofer home so they can spend evenings watching movies with Shelly and Jack.

And yet there remains this one topic that divides them.

"I'm still figuring out my plans," Melissa says. "I don't know yet."

"When will you know?" Shelly asks.

"I don't know," Melissa says.

"How long will it go on like this?" Shelly asks. "It can't go on forever."

They taught their children that a respectable life begins with hard work. Jack's father, a shoe salesman, died when Jack was 14, so Jack went to work at the shoe warehouse to help his family compensate for lost income. Shelly's father, an airline technician, moved six times in 10 years, following his job. Both Jack and Shelly were among the first in their families to attend college, and they graduated from the University of Colorado and have worked ever since.

With each paycheck, they stockpiled money into education funds for their three children, promising each fully paid tuition for a state university or a heavy contribution toward the bill at a private school. Melissa's education cost the most -- about $100,000, even after scholarships and financial aid -- and Jack and Shelly paid every cent. An investment, they called it. The return was implied: good grades, a successful career and income to create college funds for children of her own. The straight line.

Maybe, Melissa thinks now. But maybe there is something else, a more wandering path to fulfillment. She is falling in love with Freihofer and indulging whims like searching for Montana's best beef jerky, writing letters by hand and hiking each morning. When Freihofer, who works as a rafting guide, asks what she will do next, she mentions not career possibilities but possible adventures she has researched online. "Why waste my time continuing to apply for jobs that don't want me?" she says. Instead, she imagines a future far away. A yoga ashram in Nepal? Trekking through Argentina? Picking grapes at a vineyard in New Zealand? A road trip across Australia?

All she knows for certain is that she wants to save $4,000 for airfare and depart in early 2010, for somewhere. "I don't want to look back after 30 years in a cubicle and think, 'I should have . . .' " she says.

It is an outlook some in her family struggle to comprehend. When Melissa mentions the yoga ashram, her sister responds with an e-mail demanding a more practical plan, "by the end of business hours today." Her brother visits from Australia and, during a fight over access to the shower, calls Melissa worthless for living at home. Shelly comes upstairs to referee. "You two figure this out," she says, "because I really don't want either of you here." It is an untruth spoken during a moment of irritation, but Melissa bursts into tears and rolls the words around in her head for days. Has she become a burden to her parents? It is the one thought that makes her want to find a cubicle, fast.

"We just want you to be happy," Shelly says now, in the living room.

"I know," Melissa says. "Me, too."

"It will work out," Shelly says.

"I hope so," Melissa says.

They are silent for a moment, looking at each other, and then the conversation begins again.

"What do you think you will you do?" Shelly asks.

"I don't know," Melissa says.

* * *

She has invented a dozen ways to say those words -- "I don't know." When former teachers or her parents' friends ask about her plans, Melissa's answer is professional: "I'm looking at my options." When she sees inquiring high school friends, her answer is more casual: "Oh, I'm still figuring things out."

"I used to tell people about the jobs I was applying for, and at least that sounded better," she says. "But now I'm not applying for anything, and I don't really know what to tell them. 'Oh, I'm just hanging out.' Or, 'Oh, I couldn't find a job, so I'm living at home.' You end up getting all these awkward responses and weird looks."

The other possibility would be a complete, honest answer: that, actually, she doesn't feel in a hurry to find a job anymore. That she is now wondering why she ever felt hurried. That maybe this whole thing is a blessing. That maybe the roundabout path offers more than the straight line.

But that answer, she thinks, would sound strangest of all in this place she once left with such determination, so she reserves it only for Freihofer, who mostly listens and nods and one day agrees that they should leave town and go for a long drive just because they can. They pull away from the guest room, out of Missoula and into the mountains. The air is crisp, and Melissa rolls down her window. Every mile brings a new ambition. They pass a mountain. "I want to climb that," she says. They see a wolf refuge. "I want to visit there."

She drives and eats homemade puppy chow while Freihofer strums a miniature ukulele in the passenger seat. Their eventual destination is Glacier National Park, to the north, but they zigzag across the state to buy beef jerky, pose next to a tacky plastic dinosaur and drink whiskey at a bar in Great Falls, Mont., where a woman dressed as a mermaid swims in a pool behind the bar. All told, it is a detour of 24 hours and 200 miles.

As they continue to drive, Melissa and Freihofer make a game of counting how many of their friends have secured jobs. Freihofer, a part-time rafting guide with plans to spend the winter exploring Antarctica, knows three who have moved abroad to travel, two who work as adventure guides and two more who have become teaching assistants. "Jobs, but not really career-type jobs," he says. Melissa knows of friends who are "hanging out" at their homes in California and New York, and of a former roommate who is interning at GW. Another one of her friends was hired by a publishing house in New York but has been laid off.

"The economy is almost convenient in a sick way, because everybody is off on adventures," Freihofer says. "It's an excuse to do whatever you want."

"Yeah," Melissa says. "I don't think my parents would understand if I was turning down jobs and doing this."

"I figure if I don't have a real job in two or three years, my parents will get on me," Freihofer says. "My dad doesn't want me to get too comfortable floating around and selling myself short."

"I probably have a year," Melissa says, "but I can stretch it."

"Vague, short-term goals -- that's all anybody has right now," Freihofer says.

"We can figure out the long-term stuff later," Melissa says.

They pass through an Indian reservation, continue over the peaks of Glacier, exit onto a dirt road and travel toward the Canadian border. Finally, just before dusk, they arrive at a tiny outpost called Polebridge and throw their sleeping bags onto a sagging mattress at the North Fork Hostel. The town, population 50, lacks electricity, so they use propane lamps and candles to play cards late into the night. They walk outside at 10 p.m. to look at a sky littered with stars and scan the surrounding mountains for mountain lions, moose or bears. "I think I see something," Melissa says, before deciding it's only a bush.

The sun wakes them up early the next morning, and they decide to go hiking. Melissa knows of a trail that ends at a fire tower, so she leads. She follows a dirt path around one switchback, then another, and another, until she has ascended a mountain and reached the base of the tower. She climbs a ladder to the top, stands on a platform and surveys the vista. There is nothing to hear but the wind. There is no one to see for miles and miles. There are no office buildings, no expectations.

All she sees are deep blue lakes, snow-capped mountains and clouds floating above dense forest. The view seems endless. So do the possibilities. She turns to Freihofer.

"I wonder what our friends are doing right now in their cubicles," she says.

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