In “First Jobs,” Merritt Watts interviewed dozens of people about their early entries into the workforce. She heard stories of a future mayor shining shoes, an atheist selling Bibles and an Iranian who ran his own printing shop. One woman, Melissa O’Neil, opened up about her summer at a video dating service. O’Neil, 42, now works as a senior manager at an online media company (and, yes, she met her boyfriend online). Here’s her story, as told to Watts:
The summer after my first year of college, I registered with a temp service. When I found out that I had been assigned to work in the office of a video dating service, I just started cracking up. I thought it was crazy that people would try to find dates by watching videotapes! But a temp service will send you anywhere that needs a bit of help. I’d already had a few short gigs that involved shredding paper in a back room all day or putting random files in alphabetical order. I figured that at least the video dating service would be less boring!
Video dating was the ’90s version of online dating. To join, you’d pay a fee and then come in to film your video. The video was just you talking about what you were looking for in a partner, telling them a little bit about yourself and what you liked or didn’t like. Then you could go into a huge room filled with other people’s VHS tapes that had their names and vital stats written on the label. Someone would lead you to the area for people in your age range and you would pick a few that sounded interesting. You could watch them in a screening room right there in the office or check them out and take them home, just like you were at Blockbuster.
On Friday nights, the dating service hosted mixers where everyone would come and have cocktails and check each other out in real life. My job was to sit at the front desk to greet people when they came in and to check their membership cards. It was definitely a lesson in being professional. People were coming in with their hearts on their sleeves, just hoping to find love or at least a date, which was really sweet. I had to be as polite as possible in sort of an awkward situation. I mastered the art of joking around with people without crossing the line, just making it a welcoming and relaxing place.
There were definitely a couple of guys who confused my friendliness. They’d say, “So, are you a member?” and I’d reply, “Oh, I’m not old enough to be a member.” That shut it down pretty quickly. It worked out nicely to have a quick way out without having to be rude to a client. I befriended the guy who made the videos; he was a film major who was just a couple of years older than me. He wanted to be a commercial film director, and this was his idea of great practice. Whenever someone would come in to film their video I would run over to him as soon as they left and ask, “What was her tape like?” or “What did he say?”
I never got to actually watch the tapes, but he did put together a “blooper reel” of all the best outtakes, and one night we watched all the material from the cutting room floor. It was hilarious, but also a huge learning experience from a dating perspective. The guys always went wrong when they were trying to describe what they wanted physically. They’d be like, “You know, not too fat.” Stuff you’re not really supposed to say because it comes off so badly. With the women it was a lot of insecurity stuff. They would spend tons of time talking about their flaws and what they’re not good at. And, to me, it was really obvious: Don’t talk about what you don’t like about yourself, keep it positive and focus on the good things. Simple stuff.
I always thought that the real life mixers were the most fun. Everyone was in a good mood because they were about to get their drink on and chat people up. I always made a special effort to tell the ladies how nice they looked. I’d say that I liked their shirt or dress or what ever, because they had clearly put some effort into that and I wanted to make them feel as good as possible before walking into the room.
One time a guy named Joe checked in and asked, “Have you seen Mary? Is she here?” and then a few minutes later Mary came and asked, “Is Joe here? Which one is he?” I thought to myself, “That one might work out!” When they left together, I knew it had gone well. That was the only match I ever witnessed.
Excerpted from “FIRST JOBS: True Tales of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks, and Small Paychecks,” edited by Merritt Watts, published in April 28, 2015, by Picador USA. Copyright © 2015 by Merritt Watts. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved