On my second day at work, we celebrated my supervisor’s birthday. She’s a tall, quiet vegetarian, a year younger than I and was one of the two who interviewed me. On screen she’d reminded me of certain British actresses, pretty in that romantic English rose way (though she’s from Vermont), with bright eyes, dark lashes, flushed freckled cheeks, thick brows and curly hair that she keeps in a low, messy but elegant bun. She’s slightly more expressive over our office instant messenger than in person, but only slightly. She’s very polite. Wears chunky sweaters and jeans, worn boots, simple jewelry. Her legs are strong and I wonder if she took horse-riding lessons when she was younger, or if she still does. She’s from a good, probably privileged family, but I’m guessing her father is a stern man who doesn’t believe in treating his daughters like princesses. When she sits, she keeps her hands folded between her legs and rubs one thumb with the other. One gets the feeling that she’s waiting for something better – a better job, a better guy – but also that she doesn’t know what she’s waiting for. One gets the feeling that she is, at her core, a very patient young woman.
At noon, the smell of cheese and tomato sauce filled the cold air of the copy room and in unison, a handful of girls yelled, “Surprise!” I turned around to find that a few senior girls from the copy team had ordered pizza, beer and Ben and Jerry’s and had quietly arranged it all over a giant round table in the center of the room. We pulled our chairs up around it and ate with plates on our laps.
“Any fun birthday plans?” we asked the birthday girl. She shrugged, her face flushing. She embarrasses easily.
“Just dinner with my parents,” she said softly.
“How’s it feel to be 26?” asked a 24-year old.
The girl groaned, as though she had been thinking all morning how to answer, “I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “It feels the same.”
“It’s all downhill from here,” someone said jokingly, and the half of the room that was older than 26 (but only slightly) turned to glare.
A few of the girls began inane conversations about old jobs, of which there had been just one or two, or none at all. I’m one of four new hires and on the older side of the copy team – 27 going on 28 – while most of the other proofreaders are 24, 25 and one new hire being just 23. 23 is the only black girl in the copy room (and so far, the only black girl I’ve seen in the company). She is exceedingly bubbly and, despite her obvious hurry to accumulate the markers of adulthood, seems childish compared to the more reserved, reticent copywriters. For one thing she joked twice in one morning about needing coffee (“Sooo much coffee. It’s so bad, I know. So bad,”) though she was just drinking it because she imagined real adults did so. She was clearly still running smoothly on the fumes of youth. She started working a week before I started; not long enough yet to tire of her commute from her parents house in Westchester County, which is about an hour and twenty minutes by train, her last transfer being the one, the same line I take to get downtown. Though judging by how fresh faced 23 seemed coming out of the subway station compared to my morning death mask (and my commute was only half the time of hers) I felt she could and would handle it for as long as necessary.
On my second morning we had exited the subway station together and I said hello at the crosswalk. She tugged out her headphones and smiled, “Oh hey!” and we walked into the building together. In the elevator she learned that I lived on my own in the Upper West Side.
“That is so cool,” she said, clasping her hands together, “My goal is to move out and have my own place in the city by 2015. I wanna move out here so baaaad.”
23 loves the job more than it will love her back – genuinely friendly people, according to disenchanted employees on the company’s GlassDoor profile, don’t make it far at Company X’s New York office, which is run at all levels by competitive, high achieving and mostly female staff– but 23 is well, 23. She’s starry-eyed. Optimistic. All the things a 23-year old should be. And she’s especially enthusiastic about the company’s perks, which include a gleaming kitchen filled with healthy, organic free-for-alls, unlimited soda, fresh fruit, tubs of Greek yogurt, a beer tap (yes, you heard that right. A beer tap. On my first day I filled a mug thinking it was hot water. “It’s beer,” someone said. I nodded, looking into the foam and then quickly dumped it), bagel Fridays followed by a weekly company-sponsored happy hour, discounts to high end gyms and team outings and plenty more – though admittedly, my gluttonous self is happy about these things too.
At the birthday lunch 23 was the most voluble and gushed about how much she was liking it so far at Company X.
“So different from my old job,” she said, telling us she’d worked at a textbook publisher, “You guys actually celebrate birthdays here and that’s awesome.”
She proceeded to share several more things about the company she found “awesome,” and I sensed the senior copywriter, the one who had probably hired twenty-three, doubt the 23-year old’s vocabulary.
No one asked me about my last job, which seemed very long ago. Instead, a few of them had heard through the grapevine that I was a grad student.
“English?” one of them guessed.
“Creative writing,” I said. Then it occurred to me to ask, “Was everyone here an English major in college?”
They looked around at each other at first, hesitating as though I had accused them of something embarrassing, until one by one they began to nod. All the girls save for two said yes (we are all girls except for one guy, a part-time copywriter whom I can’t decide is gay or not. He’s an actor and-playwright and is currently starring in a Fifty Shades of Grey parody called “Cuff Me.”). The exceptions had studied psychology and art history (“But with an English minor,” she said with a conspiratorial smile).
I nodded, “Oh cool.”
They too thought it was “cool”, that I was studying creative writing, but I got the feeling they meant “cool” in the way things you used to want were cool, until your priorities shifted and you decided that having a stable job with health benefits and a retirement plan were cooler. I don’t blame them. Security and a sense of direction (up, up that ladder!) can be pretty cool. I sensed that to this particular, well-dressed group, being an English major and all the fleeting little hopes that came with it (wanting to be a writer, maybe getting a PhD and teaching or working as an editor at a publishing house or magazine) had fallen away as the realities of making a living anywhere (and especially in New York City) manifested.
It was like a dress they used to love but couldn’t bear to part with, so instead they kept it in the back of the closet. They still took it out to look at from time to time but either couldn’t fit into anymore or simply had no place to wear it.