Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Red Ticket: The Interview

It was the strangest doorknob I’d ever seen: a brass hand sticking straight out of the main door to the building. To get to the lobby, you had to shake. I grasped the hand and just stood there for a minute, seeing what it was like. It felt unsettling, like I’d struck some kind of deal with this building.

The lobby was decorated in what could be described as Rio-era Duran Duran. Everything was black and gold, with lines swooping everywhere. I sat there, waiting for Jason Stanford, the Moscow Guardian's Managing Editor, to come down and meet me. I was wearing my “nice sweater,” the dark green wool one, and a pair of jeans that had a conspicuous yellow stain on the left thigh.

Not interview shoes.
On my feet were the only shoes I had, a giant pair of blue LL Bean rubber duck boots. Around my left wrist, over the burn, I’d loosely tied a white bandanna. This was never going to work. Jason would see me and think I was a lumberjack, or a Flashdance fan. Not a writer. My resume would confirm this. One of the three items on it was “camp,” as in, “This one time, I went to camp.”

Reading our 'zine.
The other two items weren’t much better. “Editor for Cutting-Edge Music Magazine, 1986,” referenced the time when I was 16 and Dee-Dee got me and Elizabeth and Shaula to help her create an “underground ‘zine.” We ran it off on my stepmother’s copy machine and only produced 3 issues before our final release nearly got us all thrown out of high school.

Then there was the summer that I was bored and had answered an ad seeking a photographer for "Spiff," a new arts magazine coming out in our town. So what if I was 16 and still in school? I’d get this job, drop out of school, and photograph the residents of Jacksonville in all their Diane-Arbusy glory.

I went downtown with a stack of photos I’d printed and met with a flamboyantly gay boy who was not much older than me. We spent the rest of the summer walking around the abandoned downtown, chatting up bums in Hemming Plaza, rooting through dusty rolls of film in the building next door, and reading to each other from a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook that we’d found at the local Army-Navy supply store.

So, “Photographer for local arts publication, 1986,” I wrote at the bottom of the list.

And that was it. This was never going to work.

“Are you Robin?” A man exactly my age was standing halfway down the staircase. I’m sure he looked friendly and professional and confident, but all I saw was that he had an enormous black eye. It was a real shiner, all blue and gray and lividly swollen. I’d never seen a black eye that bad before, definitely never at a job interview. I felt a little better. Maybe this would work out after all.

We walked down the purple and mauve hallway into the Guardian’s offices. A man in his mid-twenties was crouched on the floor, his hand curled around the handle of a filing cabinet drawer. “Hey!” he whispered at us, waving us over. He pulled open the bottom drawer, which was labelled “S-Z.” Inside the drawer were a cat and her 5 kittens. The cat lay there, nursing and purring. “They should have filed this under C,” said the man.

Jason and I sat down at his desk. “We need a new writer because our last one ran off,” he explained.

“Ran off? Where?”

"With Madness.” Jason shook his head like it was a shame.

“Madness? The ska band?” This was precisely the trajectory I hoped my own career would take. I wanted this job so badly I felt nauseated, and dizzy. I felt like I might start crying.

I pulled my story out of my coat pocket and held it out to Jason. “Here’s the story I wrote,” I said. “It’s about Russian home remedies.”

I sat there and watched Jason read through his one good eye. Was it ok? Was it bad? Did he like it? I shifted around nervously, and noticed something. My left thigh was wet. Again. I’d had my arm resting on it the whole time, and the wound had wept through the bandanna completely, stiffening my pants leg with pus. I was mortified. I scooted my chair closer to Jason’s desk, so my thigh was underneath the top. Maybe he wouldn’t notice.

“This is a good story,” said Jason. “But you really have no experience at all as a writer.”

“Yes!” I said forcefully, hoping I’d follow with a big, convincing “but.” But I couldn’t think of anything to say. Jason was right, I had no experience.

“But look,” I wanted to say, “I can write about the pillaging Azeris, the siege of Leningrad, the poisoned cheese, Lenin’s brain, Volodya the TV repairman, naked old people swimming in ice, the woman at the market selling burnt-out lightbulbs on purpose, the perfect irony of McDonald’s in Pushkin Square, the family living in the dorm or the block of buildings that exploded because someone left the gas on. Which do you want first?”

Instead, I said, “But I have a really interesting life. You’ll see.” It sounded pathetic and not at all convincing.

Jason stared at me for a second and then unlocked a drawer. He put a $100 bill and a copy of TheElements of Style on the desk. “You can be freelance for now,” he said. “We’ll call you.”

I don’t remember what happened after Jason said “We’ll call you.” Did I fill out paperwork? Did I say anything about how I didn’t have a phone? Did I even remember that I didn’t have a phone? I don’t know. All I knew was that someone who was not related to me had liked my writing enough to give me $100.

I staggered out of the building and stood on the sidewalk in the snow, trying to stay calm. I felt psychotically exuberant over this turn of events. It would not do to be alone; I needed to talk to somebody. I decided to go to the Irish House Bar and Supermarket. I could get a beer there without having to bribe somebody.

The Irish House was packed with oil executives, lawyers, and managers of construction companies. They were from all over Europe and North America, and nearly all of them were men. There were very few Russians in the place, but I wound up next to one of them at the bar.

Right: One of those new Russians.
We stood there, waiting for our Bittburgers. He was wearing an elegant gray coat and was bobbing his blonde head in time to the tune on the Walkman he was wearing. This was one of those New Russians I kept hearing about. I should talk to him, maybe take some notes.

“Excuse me,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. “I’m working on an article and wondered if I could ask you what you’re listening to.”

He took the speakers out of his ears and smiled at me. “Howling Wolf,” is what he said.