My first job after college was selling pantyhose for Carson Pirie Scott at the River Oaks Mall in Calumet City, Illinois. I was crushed. Selling pantyhose was not what I had signed up for. I had a degree, yo! I had done everything I was supposed to do, yo! I was better than this, yo!
Ha! I look back now and want to tell my 21 year old self to cry me a river. Boo hoo, sweetie, life is rough.
Sometimes I think about those years and how lost I felt. Entitled, too, to be sure. Lost and entitled is the plight of most 20-somethings, isn’t it? I would stand behind the counter and ring up the sales and wonder what on earth I was doing there. On a good day, I got to switch to the Coach counter and sell handbags to the fancy ladies. Then, inevitably, I would trudge back to legwear and listen to the excuses the gals would make while handing me their worn hose with runs in them, “This had a run coming out of the package!” I never believed them, but what did I care? It wasn’t my money I had to return.
After a year of that nonsense, I followed my Dad’s advice (my Dad whose roof I was living under), and found a secretarial job in “the City,” as surburbanites like to call Chicago. What an ego blow that was. Yet again, another attack of, “I have a degree! I am smart!” As if secretaries are not smart or degreed. My 22 year old self had a lot to learn, too.
Turns out, my Dad was the smart one. “Getting my foot in the door,” as he used to call it, was the best thing I could have ever done for myself. I had some $ for the first time. I got a sense of how little I knew about the world. I got a thirst for the City and living an adult life independent from my parents and family.
My eyes were opened and I liked what I saw.
There were clubs and crushes and socializing and a first apartment. I spent too much money on a DKNY top that I called my “magic sweater,” cause when I wore it out to the clubs, I magically never had to pay for a single drink. I took a four week vacation and tramped through Europe with my college roommate, flopping in hostels and oogling Italian men. I was still a squirrel then, so I didn’t take advantage of the fifty cent beer in Prague, and was shocked (shocked, I tell you) by the proliferation of semen stains on the thin hostel mats. Come to think of it, I didn’t take advantage of the Italian men, either. Pffft.
Life was good. Life was great.
After a while, though, I wanted something more. I wanted meaning in my life. Meaning was very important to my 24 year old self. I applied to three graduate schools of social work and was rejected by all of them. Sigh. But, dammit, I wanted meaning and I would have meaning! I spent some time volunteering — adult literacy tutoring and rape crisis counseling. I applied again. I was accepted. Hooray!
The cheap thrills and expensive shoes were no longer so important to me. I was a grad student, serious and committed. My admission essay was about the parallels between me and Jane Addams. Egads, I was insufferable. I cut my hair super short and started wearing glasses instead of contacts. I fell in love, really fell in love.
Life was good. Life was great.
I left my secretarial position to focus on school completely. Twenty years later, I am still paying the student loans for that year of intense focus. Graduation came bearing down and I got nervous. Transitions always make me nervous. Would I be selling pantyhose again? I accepted the first job that was offered to me, a month before graduation, as a therapist in an outpatient group program for mentally ill older adults. Glamourous.
A close friend from graduate school accepted the same position and we wonked out together as newly minted therapists. She was amazing, this gal. Really smart, really driven. We would “process” together every day after group therapy. She made me a better clinician. But still, I was unhappy. I wanted out. After two years in graduate school, I had accepted a job where not only was I responsible for the mental health of a bunch of older adults, but I also helped them in the toilet and drove them home in the 15 passenger van we used every afternoon.
Again, I was crushed, lost, and entitled. (Are you sensing a theme yet?) What I was doing did not resemble the therapy position I had imagined for myself. It was my dear friend who set me straight. She educated me about the significance of wiping your elder’s bottom, them sitting across from them in a group therapy session — if you could gain that person’s trust, BAM, you could gain any person’s trust. She was right. But I was still pretty miserable.
Sometimes, folks, life is not what we want it to be. We think life betrays us, that we don’t deserve the circumstances we find ourselves in. That we are due better, more, different.
I am so grateful for my time selling pantyhose and wiping the bums of mentally ill older adults. I deserve nothing. I only deserve what I make, what I create, what I strive for. Those years of feeling resentful and betrayed by life were a better education, by far, than my college or graduate degrees. Those years taught me about humility and patience and strength and weakness and compassion and empathy that all existed within me, but I hadn’t quite yet tapped into.
I hope I am smarter now, and less entitled. More found than lost.
Regardless, pantyhose still suck.