The light rail train pulled into Government Plaza station, smooth exterior coated in icy shards, windows thick with fog. With great reluctance, he pulled his thin coat more tightly to his chest. This garb was completely inappropriate for the weather. Slim and worn, the jacket was barely suitable for a crisp fall day much less the dead of winter.
Nor was it really suitable for his eventual destination. It was a year later, and he was finally making some progress on moving in the direction of a career. He was still working at the complex, but he was also volunteering at a non-profit literary center in Minneapolis doing communications. Most of his responsibilities there were rudimentary, but his bosses were engaged and genuinely interested in making sure he got something out of it. Just the other week he had started posting a bit on the center’s social media accounts. And there had even been some talk of letting him someday take a crack at the Holy Grail: a press release.
There was still a long way to go, but now that he had started to accrue some real-world experience, a few encouraging offers had started to trickle in. The most recent of which was a part time contract position as a communications associate with a company called Red House Media.
The hiring process for the job had been long and arduous: A phone interview had begot a video interview, which had then prompted the submission of a writing sample. And just when he was starting to think the hassle was maybe not worth $16 an hour + 0 benefits, he got a call to come in for a final interview, at least with the headhunter firm he had been working with up to this point.
That call was a few days ago, and his life had been flurry of activity since then, a blitz of scheduling and logistics. He had no real dress clothes, an alarming albeit unsurprising fact. He had never really needed them before. Well-pressed slacks hadn’t been much use when his working life had been largely spent swabbing dog kennels and picking food particles out of restaurant carpeting.
But all that was about to change.
He didn’t truly believe that, at least not passionately. But he also was no longer mired in existential despair, a sickly, deflating hopelessness about his inability to get into a career and, even worse, his inability to perform the job’s functions if he ever did. It felt like there was a chance, and that was something.
He walked down 3rd Avenue South, passing the Hennepin County Courthouse on the left. The courthouse was an immense, imposing structure, towering over him like one of the ministries from Orwell’s 1984. On his right, the glassy, reflective surfaces of the Star Tribune building glittered in the frigid winter air, the sun’s rays creating a blinding solar flare.
When he reached 7th Street South, it hit him that his plan for getting to the interview was seriously misguided. The recruitment firm that he was set to interview with had offices in the IDS Center, the tallest building in the state. On Google Maps, the building had looked like it was merely a few blocks from a light rail stop and that it would be conceivable to walk from the train, saving him the hassle of driving and parking downtown.
He had not accounted for the severity of the cold, however, which cut easily through his thread-bare coat, chilling him down to the bone marrow. Wind whistled through the downtown skyscrapers in a way that felt hateful and intentional. And his very movements began to feel slow and impeded as he pushed forward.
The IDS building was only a few blocks away, but he didn’t know if he could make it without a reprieve. Yet it was possible that he didn’t have much in the way of choice. Most of the buildings in his immediate surroundings were governmental or commercial offices, complete with controlled lobbies and security guards who would have no qualms with telling him to turn tail and head right back out onto the street.
He stumbled down 7th Street South, eyes stinging and watering in the cold. His consciousness, which was almost always rapid and unrelenting, was suddenly torpid, listless, a crackling conduit that was now sputtering to a stop. In desperation, he jerked his head sluggishly around the frozen road, looking for some place to temporarily warm himself.
Directly across the street, he spotted a 24 Hour Fitness. The gym looked sad and rundown, but more than likely it had working heat. He walked over to it, narrowly missing a rusty, sputtering car that was driving shakily down the street. The doors of the 24 Hour Fitness were closed, locked, but it wasn’t defunct. Looking around for some sort of explanation, he found a small sign indicating that the gym was indeed open every hour aside from the one that was currently transpiring.
“Oh come on,” he groaned to no one.
After a few more minutes of brutal cold, he found himself at his destination. The IDS Center stood over him, soaring nearly 1,000 feet into a deep, blue sky. Pushing his way through the foggy revolving doors, he shuffled into the building’s “Crystal Court” like a man on his last legs, hardly noticing the soaring atrium despite having only visited the court once before.
The court spread out around him in each direction, surrounded by retail and encircled completely by a second floor walkway. Seven stories above his head hung an enormous American flag, its dark red, white and blue tones highly-visible against the silvery, geometric frames of the court’s ceiling. For the most part, the court was a relic, an anachronism. Constructed in 1972, the space felt dated. There was a harshness here, the whiff of brutalism.
Still, the court wasn’t entirely without merit. Several benches and trees stood at its center, forming a circle around a marble pool which served as the base for a 105 foot, ceiling-to-floor water fountain. He stood watching it, and feeling began to return to his appendages. It was a warm, tingling sensation that reminded him that he was not yet dead.
There wasn’t much time to spare; the clock was ticking ever closer to his interview. Watching it, he was struck by the meaninglessness of human desire. The clock and the process it represented was indifferent to everything and anything he hoped and wished for. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t ready for the interview; he had to become ready.
He walked up one of the court’s staircases to the second floor, stopping on the walkway that overlooked the area. He was reminded immediately of a scene from Purple Rain where Prince had stood in roughly the same position. That was where the similarities ended, however. While Prince’s “The Kid” had been an aspiring rocker who lit up the stage of the First Avenue nightclub, he was a nascent communicator aspiring to be little more than a low-level office drone.
The elevator whisked him upward, defying gravity and levitating into the sky. He watched the number of each subsequent floor light up and felt his anxiety rise. It snaked up his back and throbbed deeply inside his muscles. The elevator eventually came to a stop and, with a small ding, opened on the 19th floor.
He walked down the hall, searching for the unit number of the recruiting firm’s offices. The hallways were dull, grey, their most notable features being stray windows that looked out on Minneapolis’s increasingly impressive skyline. The only sound was the slight hum of the building’s heating system, which he imagined in another circumstance might be quite calming.
As of right now, though, there was nothing that could bring him to a more stable place. His heart was beating rhythmically in his chest, and his veins felt tight and pinched. A dull ache was encircling his head, and his stomach felt inflamed and sore, as if suffering from an excess of acid.
Yet he was still functional, and, amazingly, his feet and legs carried him swiftly to what felt like an execution. The door of the recruiting company’s offices were plain and uninviting. Opening them with a slightly-shaking hand, he stepped across the threshold into a rather uncomfortable-looking waiting room complete with a receptionist desk, a water-cooler, a small wooden table and several chairs. From this vantage point, it looked as if the entire office could be dissembled and placed on a truck in under an hour.
“Hello. Good morning,” said the man sitting behind the reception desk. He was a man in his late twenties with an oblong face, blue eyes and an expensive-looking pompadour haircut. “How can I help you?”
“I have an interview today, uh, with Jessica,” he responded, hoping his voice didn’t sound too robotic.
They exchanged a few more words, and then the receptionist took a phone call, revealing a gold bracelet at his lifted the landline to his ear. He sat and waited, thumbing his way through several magazines that sat in a lopsided pile on the wooden table. On the adjacent wall, a poster leered down, one of those cliched, “motivational” posters filled with platitudes so often found in office environments.
This particular one said “Perseverance” and featured a trio of rather surly-looking bald eagles standing on a snow-covered branch in the midst of a winter storm. Below this image was text that read:
In the face of adversity, setting aside one’s pride to come together is the only way to weather the storm.
He stared at the poster, and it almost seemed stare back. The eagles’ eyes had a menacing quality, but not necessarily a conscious one. Instead, they were apathetic and vacant, devoid of anything recognizable or human. After a few seconds, he felt a strong, visceral need to turn away, taking several deep breathes in the process.
“Excuse me,” said the receptionist, breaking into his thoughts. “Jessica is ready for you now.”
He followed the receptionist down a blue-carpeted hallway, passing several offices and a conference room encased in glass. As he walked, he tried to collect his thoughts, but he generally just felt off-balance and weightless, mind clouded by onerous weight that felt like it was pressing against the back of his eyes.
They passed more motivational posters, each more horrible than the last. Diving whales encouraged him to embrace “Destiny.” Tiny forest saplings promulgated the virtue in “Determination.” Flocks of migrating geese extolled the value of “Teamwork,” and mountain climbers championed the power of “Hard Work.” Privately, he wondered if this whole experience was a dream.
Before he knew it, they had come to a stop in front of a closed office door. The receptionist knocked and a cheerful voice called out.
The receptionist opened the door, revealing an office that was cluttered and cramped. Standing behind a metallic desk with a wooden top, the curly-top of Jessica’s head could just barely be seen behind a long DELL monitor. Hearing them enter, she stood up abruptly. She was a young woman wearing a black-and-white-striped suit. Her eyes were dark – a deep, chestnut brown. Yet they stood out against her round face and smooth, olive-colored skin. He was immediately intimidated, both at how professional she looked and at her age. She couldn’t be more than a few years older than him, but she was clearly so far ahead. Leaps and bounds really.
She smiled at him as they walked in, revealing teeth that were dazzlingly white. Then she gestured to a rigid, black chair that stood directly in front of her desk. They exchanged the normal pleasantries, the receptionist disappeared and he sat down.
“So glad you could make it,” Jessica said to him.
“Absolutely. Excited to be here,” he stammered, lying through his teeth.
“So I thought we could start by you just telling me a little bit about yourself.”
It was a prosaic and rudimentary question; yet it caught him flat-footed. His mind went blank, and he quickly began to feel a familiar sinking feeling, the press of unseen forces that made him feel like he was drowning in dread and panic.
“Do you mean my working background?”
“Oh, just whatever you think is relevant.”
He took a breath and began, charting the course of his relatively short life. The twists and the turns were few and flat, nothing of major interest. Although he knew it was probably his imagination, at certain moments in his long monologue he thought he could almost see Jessica’s eyes glaze over, becoming encased in a film of glassy indifference.
“Ok, great,” Jessica said, in a way that felt slightly abrupt.
It wasn’t as if she had butted in. He had trailed off with his life story, closing the tale with a lame, “And that’s about it.” Her transition to the next question was actually, in fact, quite merciful. He had been rambling, something that he had sworn he wasn’t going to do.
“So why don’t you walk me through your resume,” Jessica said, pulling a copy of his CV out of a jumble of other papers, an action that caused stray paper clips to tumble from the top of the pile.
Another question. Another sensation of dread wiggling about in his stomach like an irate eel. He tried to focus, and, taking a deep breath, he dived into the various bullet points of his working life. There were tons of omissions. He chose not to reference how he’d spent one summer scooping ice cream at Navy Pier. He also didn’t discuss two out of his three dog kennel jobs. Cleaning urine, disposing of turds and breaking up fights were experiences that didn’t seem like they would be overly relevant to working in a plush downtown office, at least he hoped they wouldn’t be.
However, he did cover most of his working past. And despite aspiring for succinctness, he soon found himself again losing control over the narrative, his speech punctuated by pervasive “ums,” by dramatic run-ons, by free-flowing insanity. His small, disciplined antidotes were quickly descending into pure, unadulterated chaos.
He felt alienated and adrift from himself. He could hear his own voice, feel his own body, but he wasn’t exactly there. It was as if he was a machine whose internal processes were running entirely independently from one another. He was performing but also analyzing. He was acting and also critiquing.
He continued to blather, and he felt his horror grow. Why couldn’t he just arrive at the point? He had many flaws, but “reading the room” wasn’t one of them. Jessica was putting up a good front, respectfully “listening” to his inane, unfocused ranting. But she wasn’t engaged; he had lost her several sentences ago.
He finally bowed out, closing with an insipid, “And that brings me up to now.”
“Alright, great,” she said, looking slightly relieved. “So let me tell you about this job.”
She dove into the job’s particulars, rattling off much of what he had already read from the digital job description. He tried to listen as intently as possible while framing his features into a mask of bright, chipper earnestness. This was something that felt both instinctual yet profoundly unnatural. He had always fallen into it during job interviews. Yet it was a level of focus that he never projected in other areas of life. In normal conversation there were breaks in eye contact, the allowance of occasional stray thoughts. Such normal behaviors were not permissable in his conversation with Jessica. The office around her was became dimmer, blurrier. It was fading away; and soon she was the nexus of all.
“And pivot tables?” she said.
His heart sank. Of the all the “Desired Skills” that had been listed on the job description, he had somehow missed pivot tables and charts. He had practiced responses to nearly everything else or, at the very least, had come up with strategies for talking around any inquiry.
“Pivot tables?” he replied dumbly.
“Yeah. You have experience with them right?”
He reeled around inside his head, and his heart began to pound.
“Yep,” he croaked weakly. “I definitely do.”
Jessica gave him an unconvinced look before making a mark in a wire-bound notebook. He quietly gulped while attempting to quell the anxiety rippling from head to toe.
He was back standing in the Crystal Court, and it was as if the interview had never happened. He stood directly in the court’s center, staring up into the glassy ceiling and the grey sky beyond. He remembered a story he had once heard about a suicide that had taken place here. A man suffering from depression had jumped from something like the 30th story of the IDS Center, falling inevitably to earth and crashing violently through the court’s ceiling in the process. He closed his eyes and saw himself doing the same. His pinwheeling body falling freely through the air. His brain already switched off. The crash of glass strangely musical. The sickening impact not.
Turning around, he walked out on the street and found that he was much less sensitive to the cold. Its biting, razor-sharp edge had become muted, dulled, and he couldn’t tell if it was due to an actual change in temperature or a change in his own mind. Back at Government Plaza station, the train came quickly, and the entire ride down Hiawatha Avenue passed by without meaning, form or note.