It is noon. I’m sitting in the colonial style lobby of the Best Western Independence Park Hotel, surrounded by the trappings of early 19th century genteel living: there’s a marble and wood-paneled fireplace, next to which is a heavy wooden easel displaying a framed, yellowed map of North America circa 1800. A faded tapestry depicting an 18th century hunting scene hangs above the computer, which was until ten minutes ago, occupied by an elderly gentleman in faded denim shorts.
I saw the man this morning in the breakfast courtyard, where the hotel boasts a “European style buffet breakfast” but is really just a continental breakfast with a do-it-yourself Belgian Waffle station. The waffles come out with an imprint of the Liberty Bell, as though putting a historical American icon on a Belgian waffle reminds the guests that the Best Western is, at heart, a patriotic institution. The man himself was as American as the whipped cream and strawberry syrup he smothered his waffle with, as American as the bowls of Cheerios and Raisin Bran he devoured thereafter, and as American as the thin newspaper – The Philadelphia Inquirer – he read to tatters. He ate slowly, filling up with enough carbs for an elephant and before getting up to go, grabbed a shiny red Washington apple. A blue band-aid was wrapped around his thumb. He didn’t seem like a tourist. Philadelphia is a walker’s town and the man’s left knee appeared all but out of commission.
An old knee brace whose fuzzy Velcro seemed to be hanging on for dear life was strapped loosely about his leg, flapping futilely above ragged black socks and old black athletic shoes, filled to the ankle with orthopedics, no doubt. He hobbled down the hall to where the elevator was and out of sight. I returned to my own waffle, which I had also smothered with strawberry sauce and whipped cream. Now it seemed like a bloody mess.
I came to Philadelphia with great expectations – not for the city itself, but for a phone call from Mountain View, CA, where Google headquarters are located. By one of those serendipitous introductions, I met a girl who worked at Google through my cousin Larry who was visiting from Taipei. She treated us to lunch and, after hearing my lamentations about my ongoing job hunt, offered to refer me, saving me from having to write another falsely upbeat cover letter and an initial phone interview. The position was for Google Books and News Online Associate, which sounds much more glamorous than the interviewers told me it would be, but like the rest of the world, I thought, “God, it’s Google.”
I passed the phone interview, mostly because the guy was nice and didn’t deem it necessary to ask me anything too hard: “What do you think is good customer service?” and a week later, was overjoyed to be called in for an “on campus” interview. After calling everyone in the world about the good news, I put my studies on hold and prepped like a mad-woman, printing out every relevant article about Google dating back to 2004, and read the experiences of hundreds of other interviewees, none of which put my heart at ease. It seemed to me that those who had interviewed with Google were divided staunchly into two camps: those who hated the “grueling” experience, which was loaded with impossible questions like “How many golf balls can fit into a Boeing 747?” and those who thought, “Holy shit, I’m interviewing with Google!” Most of these were engineers, whose interviews lasted whole days – but mine was a one and a half hour affair – I would interview with three people from the Books and News team and then I would wait. What struck me was the number of people who thought their interviews went extremely well and were crestfallen to discover that they did not receive an offer.
To be fair, my interview was somewhere in the middle. I thought I did great with interviewers one and three, a little less great with interviewer number 2, who my friend convinced me was just playing “bad cop.” Number 2 seemed to have frowned her facial muscles into submission and gave no indication that she would hire anyone, ever. My jokes and self-deprecation hit her icy exterior like a glass wall, sliding unappreciated onto the floors of the Googleplex. But as the thirty minutes wore on, I began to ask her more questions and slowly, she seemed more human.
They didn’t ask me anything too hard – no infamous Google brain teasers or hypothetical situations I could not provide an answer to, and it was all I could do not to leave campus feeling, “Hey…I might have a chance at this.” The recruiters who contacted me walked me to my car and they too, seemed to be sending me subliminal messages of acceptance. This is what happens when a great pressure is released – and I drove off campus feeling as though the sun was shining at just the right angle and that the roads, the sky, my future – everything was bright as can be.
In the following weeks the pressure of interviewing gave way to the pressure of waiting. Most acute however, was the pressure of expectation and imagination. I began, in the most unhealthy way, to imagine what life would be like at Google. The friends I would make out of my coworkers and the stable, healthy, sunshine and gourmet food-infused lifestyle I would lead. Googlers are known for being immensely satisfied with their jobs (at least the three that I interviewed with seemed that way) and even if their jobs get dull, the Googleplex numbs that dullness (thereby canceling dullness out altogether) with the resort-like amenities it offers. I imagined life as a salaried, tax-paying, vacation-day-counting member of society, someone who used direct deposit, had a 401k, and fretted about what to wear to the company Christmas party. I could like that life, I thought, and best of all, saying “I work at Google,” was infinitely more gratifying than saying, “I’m still looking for a job.”
All the wrong reasons to want to work at Google? Or all the right reasons? A bit of both, I think. The hours ticked by and I found myself checking my phone as though I were waiting for a call from God – but of course God works longer hours than 9-5. I checked my email too, though with greater dread. I was certain that a call from Google would automatically mean: “Yes, you’re hired” while an email would be a dreaded, “Thank you, try again.” It never ever occurred to me that they would call to tell me the latter.
Then they called. I was in Reading Terminal Market, a Philadelphia landmark, a foodie’s dream treasure trove. I was eating a turkey hoagie from Spataro’s , enjoying the sandwich and the bustling, chattering noise of the hundreds around me when the phone rang – suddenly my appetite went away and I put the sandwich down. I fished the phone out of my pocket – a foreign yet familiar area code…it was Google. It had to be.
In my heart, I had already inextricably linked a phone call from Google with good news and it seemed to me that the only thing to do was listen carefully and smile as the recruiter told me the good news. She cleared her throat as my aunt and mother grinned at each other expectantly.
“Is this Betty?” she said.
“Yes it is.”
“Hi Betty, this is _____ from Google.”
Despite the din of the market, her words were very crisp, so clear that I could almost imagine her face and the shape of her mouth as she spoke to me. She told me that the interviewers thought I was great, that she too, thought it was great to meet me…and I nodded along, in a dream like daze, convinced that I was from that moment on, employed and without a care in the world…
Then a slight pause, and then, “But unfortunately…”
I froze as she continued: “We will not be continuing on with your application at this time…” My stomach dropped, for lack of a better word. I felt slightly sickened by the word “hoagie,” which leaped up at me from the messy remains of my sandwich. Her voice seemed to grow fainter, the din louder and louder until finally I could only hear a loud buzzing and myself saying very softly the requisite ‘thank you’ and ‘good bye.’
My mother was quick to comfort me in her way.
“No one gets anything that easily,” she said, “If you got a job with Google now, what in the world would you do in the future?”
“That’s right,” chimed my aunt, “You know, you’re young and hardy – you can take rejection. More rejection now means a smoother path in the future.”
I nodded, knowing they meant well, but I wanted to make the entire Reading Terminal Market disappear for ten minutes while I cried. But I didn’t cry. Instead, I turned to my right and saw this man, Mr. Domenic Spataro, the man who created the sandwich I could no longer bear to look at. He seemed to me one-hundred years old, with his back bent so impossibly forward that I feared he would burn his nose on the grill – but of course his sons and hired hands did most of the cooking now. But still, he stood in the back of the small shop, with an apron and his gnarled hands, coke-bottle glasses and a grimace (or was it a smile?). He caught my eye just as I turned to look at him and, leaning against the stainless steel sink as thought to rest his doubled-over body for a few minutes during the lunch rush, he gave me a little wave.
I waved back, feeling only slightly better. My appetite didn’t return completely, but I could no longer see myself throwing away the man’s handiwork. I chewed slowly, thinking about the future and what would have been and what it was I had wanted so badly. Security, self-provided, for one thing. And what else? An identity, attached to a larger, globally recognized entity…I shook my head, not wanting to head too far down the philosopher’s road, but for the moment, I knew Mr. Spataro stood, stooped over behind me, attached to nothing and no one but his tiny stall at the Reading Terminal Market. He was old, certainly, and most likely he was tired as well – but he had a job to do – people to feed, orders to bark (I imagined him to have a thick accent and a strong larynx), and I too, despite a temporarily wilted ego, had my work cut out as well.
Back to the job board, I thought, and finished the hoagie.