The surprisingly comical side of life at minimum wage
Call centers, census work, and newspaper hawking — oh my!
Ryan Patrick Bias (that's me) sits on the toilet at his second new job in Manhattan, pretending to poop to pass the time, and it's reminding him of the second grade when he was afraid. It wasn't that he was scared of the numbers necessary to make long division magic. It was that he wanted to go college, but he didn't know how to get there from where he was.
That's what I thought about myself when I was thinking about myself when I was pretending to poop. At twenty-two, I had just moved to New York City to be famous, to run away from a stereotypically bad childhood, and to find a job. I found work at a Midtown call center. For the first time since I started looking for a job, phones rang all around me, but I didn't wanna answer a single one — not until I had something to say.
I wasn't only thinking about myself. I also spent a lot of time thinking about other people, including Izzy. She was the volunteer employment specialist at the underprivileged youth organization and quasi-homeless shelter where I had spent a few nights. She found jobs for people who did not have past professional work experience. Izzy helped me create a resume to showcase all the skills I had, such as conversation and closet organization. Izzy often asked me to stretch the truth for "employment probability purposes," and we agreed to say that I was also good at food prep. She has a hit list of companies that she directs her clients to. I had never been a client before. And I wondered if I could put it on my resume.
"You're not ready for Macy's," Izzy told me. What she really saw me doing was selling merchandise at a baseball stadium in the Bronx. If I got fired, I would become eligible for unemployment benefits. But she wasn't so sure I could even get hired there, and I didn't want to risk getting fired. I didn't wanna come home and tell Neal — the man who had become my father figure — that I got fired.
I wasn't ready for Macy's and I wasn't ready to be fired from Yankee Stadium, so Izzy sent me to the amNewYork newspaper. She said they hire everybody to give out the paper at the train station in the morning. She had heard that there was a tremendous opportunity to move up quickly within the company. I wondered if I could trust myself and my ability to eventually get my own column in amNewYork. It was all so exciting.
I had come to the city four weeks earlier. I was born in West Virginia and remain southern in nature, despite my family's frequent moves, living in many states for only the length of a lease. My folks and my landlords often didn't get along, and instead of finding a new apartment, we just found a new state. Moving was fun as a kid, but when it was time for me to go to college, I started having big fights with my parents. They wanted to move one more time, from Albany back to Vermont, and I did not.
Around that time, I was developing an online friendship with a man named Neal, who had found the blog about my home life that I kept back upstate. Neal said that I was a good writer and should come to New York, which is how I ended up staying on the couch-bed in the parlor of his multi-million-dollar brownstone. I told all my new friends about my nightly suppers of delicious Campbell's Chunky and Goldfish combinations, because I was proud to happily survive in New York on four dollars a day. But Neal wanted more for me. And I kind of did, too.
A week later, my brother said something like, "I hate my life."
"Neal says you can come stay with us in New York," I told him, which is how we ended up sleeping next to each other the night before we both interviewed with amNewYork.
The night before my interview, I was having trouble sleeping, so I started to write. I had to record the thrill I felt from the newfound freedom of running to the 24-hour deli on 4th Street for a Hershey's Symphony bar (my most recent discovery in life) and not telling anybody. I was scared my brother's alarm clock wouldn't work, and I was scared I would miss my interview and get fired.
The alarm clock worked, but it turned out that getting hired at amNewYork was a process. Queens was different than Manhattan. Different like a warehouse underneath an overpass and trains in the sky. I entered the dark warehouse with my New York State ID and Social Security card in hand but wasn't really sure where to go. A man in a chair asked me if I was here for the interview, and I replied, "Yes, sir." He pointed to a big box of pencils and directed me to a back room past the trucks. I followed the line. There must have been a hundred of us. We were in a big room with tables. I noticed some folks were talkative and others kept to themselves. Some men wore pinstripe suits; my brother and I wore our nice pants from Macy's.
A lady came in and distributed W2 forms for us to fill out. She told us that we had two minutes to complete the forms. She outlined the instructions, and some people had questions about how many people they should claim as dependents. I only claimed myself. I felt grateful that Izzy showed me how to fill out my W2 the week before — she was my secret weapon.
All of us moved to the center of the warehouse, and an older man with crazy hair approached the microphone to speak in front of a mountainous stack of amNewYorks. He spoke about the ethos of the daily newspaper — to inform the people of New York City on the train — and about why we were all there. "I can't believe I'm here," I thought. "I'm really having my first job interview." I wanted to be proud of myself, to be able to go back to Manhattan and tell Neal that I got a job, to tell my parents that I have a job, that everything was different now and that I was a man.
The older man continued to speak into the microphone. "You're here because you want to achieve. You here because you're selling drugs, you on crack, you just got out of prison, or you on the block." After he spoke, he introduced another young woman who started as a distributor (of papers, not drugs), but was promoted to district manager within a month. She would demonstrate to us how the paper should be properly distributed, he said, and then all of us would have an audition. There were hundreds of us, and there were hundreds of amNewYorks on the stage. We all knew that it was time to prove ourselves.
The lady then showed us the ways of distribution. Within seconds, her stack of papers had dwindled and dissipated and soon we were each holding a copy of yesterday's amNewYork and we didn't know how or why. The intensity and passion with which she spoke — "Get your am New York right here! It's free! Twenty percent off at Macy's inside! amNewYork!" — was the mark of a gifted professional. I just wanted to be her.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.