I graduated from college with what I thought was an ironclad plan: I would apply to a year-long fellowship in Philadelphia, get exposure to the non-profit industry, and then get a full-time job doing something similar, which I would presumably do until I retired.
It took me less than a month to realize I was wrong. The fellowship itself was fine, but I realized that my interest in education reform wasn’t enough to make me want to sit at a desk and cold-call principals in high-needs schools to offer the services of our very odd stable of volunteers. I spent 11 months in limbo and ended the year with no more insight into what I wanted to do — other than not this.
I was stuck in a shitty job, hoping to figure out how to get something better
Moving to Boston came with its own shocks, but after a year of spinning my wheels, I felt good. I spent my free time alone, but it was summer, and I thought it would get better. Midway through the internship, an opportunity to work full-time at the company opened up, and I took it without much hesitation. I didn’t know what else to do or where else to go. I had made college work for me, despite my initial hesitations about living so far from home. I could make Boston work, too.
I became the sole customer service representative for the company’s online cooking school, a relatively new endeavor. I responded to inquiries via phone and email, and, in my free time, I wrote for the blog. My job came with a long list of pre-written responses to every kind of customer inquiry, from “I love your chicken soup!” (“Thanks for the feedback, we’ll let the cooks know!”) to “Why won’t the website accept my credit card?” (“It’s probably a caching problem, here is our best attempt to explain how to clear your browser history to someone who has no idea what that is.”)
But I hardly got to use any of those responses. The vast majority of the inquiries had to do with just one issue: “Why are you billing me?” Our biggest source of new students came via a free trial offered when customers signed up for another one of our sites. Some people entered their credit card numbers twice without even realizing what they were doing. Other people didn’t realize that you had to cancel both services to avoid being charged. Either way, they wanted to stop being charged for a service they weren’t using, and they wanted it done yesterday.
The vast majority of the inquiries had to do with just one issue: 'Why are you billing me?'
I realize some people do this for years, even for their entire careers, in call centers where the phone rings nonstop. My calls came through intermittently, and for the most part, I spent the day responding to emails, which were easier to handle. Still, it was thankless, monotonous work, and I was floundering.
I was too thin-skinned to absorb the rage of these faceless customers. I would cry silently as I apologized for their frustration. Some days, I would hold it together in the office only to burst into tears on my lunch break. When I moved to Boston, I fell in love with the New England summers. Now, I was dealing with the other side of the coin: the long, cold winters. To get away from my desk (and the ringing phone), I would sit in a small neighborhood park, my mood perfectly matched by gray skies and leafless trees. If I called my mom, just hearing her voice was enough to trigger the waterworks. Once, all it took was seeing a lost glove on the sidewalk. I was struck with such a sense of sorrow for that poor, lost glove — and I started sobbing, right there.
I never thought of quitting without another job lined up, but I didn’t really see how I could stay. Logistically, I was too emotionally wrung-out at the end of the day to write cover letters, and the thought of waiting it out while I built my escape ladder was becoming untenable. I was debt-free, single, and childless. The only thing tethering me to Boston was this job and a lease on the apartment. The breaking point came when I told my mom how badly I wanted to leave. Most of my friends were happily living in New York. She asked how many people I knew there, and when I listed names in the double digits, she told me to go ahead and do it. It was all the encouragement I needed.
I was struck with such a sense of sorrow for that poor, lost glove — and I started sobbing, right there.
Coincidentally (and metaphorically), my first day in NYC was Easter. Even as a lapsed Episcopalian, I savored the symbolism. This was a rebirth. What followed was a cobbled-together life of paid and unpaid work: I nannied, I interned for free or very little, I found a steady gig as a freelance audio producer. It paid enough that I could cover rent, but not well enough that I could get comfortable. I turned my job application process into a well-oiled machine, and that led to my current job at Refinery29.
Looking back, it all seems like a tidy narrative. I am sometimes tempted to think of it as fate. But even if I still appreciate occasional religious symbolism, I know that nothing, however nicely packaged, is meant to be. I got lucky — luck that was also mixed with a healthy dose of hard work and talent. But maybe that’s a lesson in and of itself: If you’re willing to take the risk, one day, you might be able to create a narrative out of it. If working customer service is the reason I now am where I am, then I can be grateful for that.