2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
"FUNemployment: A Lesson on Getting Fired From My First Job in Brooklyn"
by Whitney Van Laningham
“Are you almost ready to go?”
“Well,” I replied, jamming my laptop into its case along with the little owl-shaped dish where I kept my keys. “I just got fired. So we can go now.”
“Are you serious? Why?” My (former) coworker looked stunned. Three months ago, I had taken a job at a little production company down in Gowanus on her recommendation. In world-record time, I had managed to screw it up.
I shrugged. “Let’s get out of here.”
We went to a restaurant, and then a bar, and then another bar, where I proceeded to spend the rest of my last week’s pay on Patrón shots and Fireball bombs.
“You’re gonna find something better, don’t worry about it.”
I called my parents in California. They didn’t believe me. My mom cried and my step-dad tried to console both of us with his British accent.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll all turn out right in the end.” For a second, I wanted to believe him.
I started to dial my ex-boyfriend’s number and changed my mind.
He would only be relieved that his timing was perfect. Who would want to date an unemployed loser like me?
I woke up early on Monday even though I had nowhere to go. I reached for the phone and dialed the number for the New York State Unemployment Department in my pajamas. I fiddled with my hair until the operator picked up.
“I got fired,” I blurted out.
She didn’t care.
“What’s your social? Where were your last five places of employment? Do you know the consequences of a fraudulent report?”
She probably had Hurricane Sandy victims to worry about. She probably had five mouths to feed at home. She probably hated her job as much as I hated not having a job.
She signed off on a check for $175 every two weeks. It was less than I made working retail when I was 16. My stomach flipped over at the thought of hanging my head and asking for my job back as a cashier at Urban Outfitters.
Over the next few weeks, I would text former co-workers and make them perform subtle acts of guerrilla terrorism at the old office.
Steal all the string cheese. Hide the mouse pads. Eat all the gluten-free crackers. Take home the padded manila mailing envelopes. Send.
I had spent the past year trying to figure things out. Trying to plan everything, trying to micromanage, trying to be better than what I thought I could be. I juggled school and an internship and my impending graduation. I got a job that paid nothing, so I got a second job on top of that. I paid my dues. I started at the bottom. I worked 13-hour days and I gave up eating food and sleeping and seeing my boyfriend. And then, my boyfriend left me. And my boss let me go. And for the first time in thirteen months, I had no idea what the next move was.
I was sick of living in Brooklyn. I was sick of feeling lesser than all of the success that surrounded me. I was sick of being told that I was “too laid back” when all I could feel was suffocating stress and constant pressure. I was sick of not being the best.
I watched Mulan one night during one of my Netflix binges.
“Be a man,” they told her, and she climbed to the top of that wooden post with weights around her wrists faster than any of the other guys. Hadn’t I tried that? Hadn’t I?
I applied for ten jobs a day, every day, but nobody bit.
I networked with everyone I wasn’t too embarrassed to talk to. I was terrified to see half of the people I was friends with, because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want to hear them say, “I told you that you weren’t cut out for this.” I didn’t want to not-hear the things they would say when I left the room.
I stopped calling my parents because I didn’t want to have to lie to them and tell them I was okay. I was only okay when I was distracting myself long enough to forget about my dwindling bank account. I felt like there were hundreds of people rooting for me to make something of myself back home, and I had failed all of them.
I wanted to call my university and tell them that with all of their tests and pop quizzes and attendance policies, they didn’t prepare me for this. I wanted to blame my parents for giving me everything and not teaching me how to live without a paycheck. I wanted to hate every single person who had ever believed in me, because maybe if they had believed in me less, it wouldn’t have been so devastating that I had failed. I wanted to get in their faces and say, “YOU WERE WRONG. I’M NOT TALENTED OR SMART OR FUNNY OR ANY OF THOSE THINGS.” But I didn’t.
Instead, I helped a friend move in to her new apartment. I re-joined the living, and began taking writing classes. I listened to my folks, and I tried to breathe a little deeper every time I inhaled. It wasn’t always perfect, but I tried.
Maybe I could be a janitor? I thought to myself half-heartedly in line at Crif Dogs for the fifth time that week. Or a stripper. Or a bartender. Or one of those sex-hotline operators.
You’re a terrible dancer, I reminded myself. Stop it.
I went to the Natural History Museum and climbed inside a giant replica of a whale’s heart. I folded my legs Indian style like I did when I was small, and listened to the rhythmic thud of the blue whale’s heartbeat until a guard asked me to leave. I went to bars and parties and art exhibitions in Bushwick where I drank too much and stayed out too late. I bought fresh cherries at the Farmer’s Market and sang the White Stripes at karaoke. I spent hours walking up and down the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, daydreaming and making fun of tourists to myself.
I still had tiny explosions of panic, usually when I was completely alone. I saw my bank account drop down to 58 cents and I cried in the Staples Print / Copy Center where I had ironically just spent my last pennies printing copies of my resume. I would forget to eat, and then I would eat five cupcakes in a row to counter-balance it. I tried to hide the crazy from people by telling really bad I-just-got-fired jokes. I dubbed this period in my life “FUN-employment” and pretended to be having the time of my life running around Brooklyn, but honestly, I was terrified. I loved every single minute of free time, but I was also completely frozen with panic.
One night, I ventured down to Williamsburg to watch Goldfinger in an industrial park. I stuck a temporary tattoo to my upper arm and drank Brooklyn Summer Lager beneath the bridge in the moonlight. Somewhere between the red “Save Domino” Christmas lights on the side of the old sugar factory building and the Bedford L train, I started to panic My heart rate increased to fifty times the BPM of the blue whale’s heart at the museum. I couldn’t breathe. My fingernails were digging into the palms of my hands and I wanted my black flats from Target to hold me to the sidewalk, but I didn’t know if they could.
“I’m a mess!” I screamed at no one in particular.
But then, something really rare and really beautiful happened. Something that hardly ever happens on the subway; a tiny miracle that only graces the broken New Yorker in their hour of need; the New Yorker who moved from another city to follow their dreams, the New Yorker who was born here and waited for decades to find out if this is where they’re meant to be, the New Yorker who visits and falls in love with the place and is searching for a sign that they should stay.
I descended into the nearly deserted subway, and suddenly I felt the roof open up and the floor fall away and a guy in a beat-up American Apparel sweatshirt began playing the first few chords of Blackbird by the Beatles, my absolute favorite song.
And that’s when I fell in love with Brooklyn for the very first time, amongst the giant subway rats on the tracks, and the exhausted, lonely people sleeping on the stairs, and the dirty air rushing past us in the wake of a southbound train, and a skinny little hipster singing the only words that my heart needed to hear:
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.