THE ARCHITECT of purgatory no doubt invented job interviews while he was at it. But it was left to the legal professions to refine a miserable experience into an instrument of torture.
I suppose I'm no more an expert on law office interviews than any other fledgling lawyer. One friend of mine, for example, had at least 25 interviews before landing a single mediocre job. But I like to think that my experiences have been worst than most, which makes me an expert of some sort.
My major problem is that I haven't the personality for job interviews. THEY want a polished and articluate, outgoing and scintillating young lawyer. As for me -- I'm presentable, maybe, during the first interview of the day. Then I am at my most spontaneous, my peak of interest. Shortly after that, the down-glide starts. It begins to occur to me that I don't want any job this badly. By noon I'm fading fast. That hundred-watt smile has gradually slipped down my throat, causing faint indigestion. By 5 o'clock my only heartfelt desire is to crawl into bed with a sixpack.
My latest round of interviews came last summer. I was flown to a large southern city to be interviewed by its leading law firm. At precisely 9:05 a.m. I arrive at their offices.
My first interviewer strides into the reception room a few seconds later. I'll call him Mr. Jones. If that's not his name, it should be. Jones is slight, bespectacled and faintly friendly. Once inside his office, he peers at me steadily over his glasses and talks quietly about the benefits of the firm. I sit back comfortably.
As I said, the first interview is not bad, as interviews go. Unfortunately, it is only the first of a mind-splintering, jawbreaking series of endurance trials. I'm led into and out of a Monopoly board of offices each 20 minutes. One after another: introductions, smiles, tentative handshakes. A kaleidoscope, I'd call it, but I've never seen a kaleidoscope of grays and browns and beiges. The offices are virtually identical: muted colors; diplomas matted and framed; cluttered desks; a wife and children smiling out from a silver picture frame. Each interviewer produces the same questions, the same felicitations.
How did you like the law review?
What were your favorite classes?
Why do you want to move here?
What kind of law do you want to specialize in?
What does your husband do?
Do you like to work?
Do you like to work hard?
What can I tell you about this firm?
What kind of job do you want?
I modestly acknowledge that, yes, I do have a good resume. I neglect to mention that I despised the law review. I confide that I am an extremely hard worker, and that I thrive under pressure. My area of interest is, coincidentally, the area in which they have a job opening.
It seems to be hours later. I surreptiously glance at my watch. Only 10:30; the day is young; it is only my third interview. Already I am sick of smiling, weary of appearing bright and interested. Actually, I am bored to death and faintly nauseous. I am suffocating.
Eventually, the oft-repeated litany of questions and answers anaesthetizes me. I seem to have a talent for appearing alert while mentally dozing. Interviewer No. 4 looks a great deal like Interviewer No. 3. Maybe he is Interviewer No. 3. Whoever he is, I ask him one of my favorite questions: "Is there a feeling of camaraderie in this office?"
The truth is, I couldn't care less. But it is a good question. They all like to consider themselves experts on the office Zeitgeist, and usually talk long and hard on the subject. I see that Interviewer No. 4 is one of these. He pinkens earnestly, draws a deep breath and plunges in. I promptly tune out, pleased with the mercifully long answer. I haven't the faintest idea what he's saying. I nod occasionally, saying, "Uh-huh," "Yes," "Oh, really?", without the slightest notion of what I'm assenting to. (You may have thought slavery a thing of the past . . . "Uh-huh." . . . but in our firm, you'll find that the associates bring back the hallowed days of the Old South. "Oh, really?"
He wants another question. I ask him about the other women attorneys in the firm. Another good question. They always like to brag about their token women, how they're accepted just like one of the guys, treated like anyone else (usually a big lie).
Well, that sounds encouraging, I say; how many women partners do you have? This, as usual, evokes a quick explanation about how women attorneys simply haven't been around long enough to have been made partners just yet. But old Doris Bloom -- she's doing such a terrific job that no one doubts she'll be a partner by this time next year. And she's such a wonderful person, too; everyone is terribly impressed with her. Old Doris.
It is now 10:50. The present interviewer, No. 5, wants to know what I'll be doing in 10 years. Worse, he uses the third person: "What will Ruth Pennebaker be doing in 10 years?" he asks me. I resist the temptation to reply about Ruth Pennebaker in the third person. I fabricate a plan that sounds definite. Suppose I told him the truth? That I haven't the faintest idea what I'll be doing even a year from now? That I can't imagine anything more boring that concocting a blueprint of my life? I think of my sister, who once held an endless series of low-paying, deadend jobs. Once when an interviewer spoke to her glowingly of what she would be doing on the job in another six months, all she could think of was: In six months I'll have blown this dump and you can stuff it, creep. The phrase, "You can stuff it, creep," echoes in my mind.
And now it is lunchtime. Jones reappears to whisk me away to a low-grade, high-rise restaurant. We are joined by another attorney who is rather breezy and jovial. Jones is neither. Whatever friendliness he previously displayed has fled. He is, for some reason, suddenly antagonistic. He asks me: Do I really think that I could handle a job of this intellectual magnitude?
I am notoriously thin-skinned; bamboo shoots under my fingernails would be infinitely preferable. I tell him that I have never encountered any job or any subject beyond my intellectual capacities. I long to take my plateful of canned spaghetti and smear his little vanilla wafer face in it. The thought of strands of spaghetti cascading over his wire rims, dripping tomato paste onto his starched white shirt, is tremendously satisfying. My self-restraint is magnificent.
Halfway into his meat loaf, Jones next begins an acid inquiry into my husband's chances for tenure at the nearby state university. What if he doesn't get tenure? What will we do? Where will we go?
What if an incensed interviewee cracked your balding skull with her pewter mug? Life is indeed uncertain. I icily inform him that my husband will, most certainly, get tenure.
Next he inquires about my former law firm. Did they work hard? Long hours after 5 o'clock?
I brighten at this point. They were an extremely hardworking, serious group, I tell him. Everyone worked at least 60 hours a week. I take pride in that baldfaced lie, embellishing it more and more. Yes, we worked almost every weekend.
I smile, thinking of how hard we all had worked after 5 o'clock, prying the lids off bourbon bottles, dividing six-packs of Lone Star. The parties, the three-hour lunches. A dedicated bunch, in our own way.
It's been a lot of work, but I've enjoyed it, I conclude.
Lunch is over, and the afternoon is, mercifully, a blur. Only one interviewer makes an impression on me, but one I will remember for several years.
The interviewer (No. 10, as I recall) is wiry and intense. Oddly, he is the only person to broach the verboten subject of money. In fact, he not only broaches the subject -- he thrashes about in it, naming figures and goals, hopes and dreams. "I am making $40,000 a year right now," he says, "and I am 32 years old." He smiles fondly. "In five years, I should be making $60,000. I want to hit $100,000 before I'm 45." He grows a little more excited as he mentions each sum. "I work long, hard hours to make that money. But when I'm here on week nights, on weekends, I know that the guy next door is here, too. He's working. And not on his own portfolio. He's working to make me more money, too. And that's a good feeling, let me tell you." He beams with satisfaction. I indicate that I am impressed.
Finally, an hour later, it is the last interview of the day. It is shortly after 5. I slump in the chair, slack-jawed and morose. My skirt is wrinkled; there is a tiny run in my stockings. Each tick from my watch echoes in my tender head. This day has produced a hangover-like state. I squint at the interviewer, silhouetted against the window.
"Well, how has your interview gone today?" he asks me. "Have you enjoyed it?"
One last time; one last effort. It's almost over.
I smile. "It's been great."