He's dabbled in call centers, census work and newspaper-hawking. Now, one New York newcomer opens up about the surprisingly comical side of life at minimum wage.
Ryan Patrick Bias (that’s me) sits on the toilet at his second new job in Manhattan, pretending to poop to pass the time, and it’s reminding him of the second grade when he was afraid. It wasn’t that he was scared of the numbers necessary to make long division magic. It was that he wanted to go college, but he didn’t know how to get there from where he was.
That’s what I thought about myself when I was thinking about myself when I was pretending to poop. At twenty-two, I had just moved to New York City to be famous, to run away from a stereotypically bad childhood, and to find a job. I found work at a Midtown call center. For the first time since I started looking for a job, phones rang all around me, but I didn’t wanna answer a single one—not until I had something to say.
I wasn’t only thinking about myself. I also spent a lot of time thinking about other people, including Izzy. She was the volunteer employment specialist at the underprivileged youth organization and quasi-homeless shelter where I had spent a few nights. She found jobs for people who did not have past professional work experience. Izzy helped me create a resume to showcase all the skills I had, such as conversation and closet organization. Izzy often asked me to stretch the truth for “employment probability purposes,” and we agreed to say that I was also good at food prep. She has a hit list of companies that she directs her clients to. I had never been a client before. And I wondered if I could put it on my resume.
“You’re not ready for Macy’s,” Izzy told me. What she really saw me doing was selling merchandise at a baseball stadium in the Bronx. If I got fired, I would become eligible for unemployment benefits. But she wasn’t so sure I could even get hired there, and I didn’t want to risk getting fired. I didn’t wanna come home and tell Neal—the man who had become my father figure—that I got fired.
I wasn’t ready for Macy’s and I wasn’t ready to be fired from Yankee Stadium, so Izzy sent me to the amNewYork newspaper. She said they hire everybody to give out the paper at the train station in the morning. She had heard that there was a tremendous opportunity to move up quickly within the company. I wondered if I could trust myself and my ability to eventually get my own column in amNewYork. It was all so exciting.
* * *
I had come to the city four weeks earlier. I was born in West Virginia and remain southern in nature. Despite my family’s frequent moves, living in many states for only the length of a lease. My folks and my landlords often didn’t get along, and instead of finding a new apartment, we just found a new state. Moving was fun as a kid, but when it was time for me to go to college, I started having big fights with my parents. They wanted to move one more time, from Albany back to Vermont, and I did not.
Around that time, I was developing an online friendship with a man named Neal, who had found the blog about my home life that I kept back upstate. Neal said that I was a good writer and should come to New York, which is how I ended up staying on the couch-bed in the parlor of his multi-million-dollar brownstone. I told all my new friends about my nightly suppers of delicious Campbell’s Chunky and Goldfish combinations, because I was proud to happily survive in New York on four dollars a day. But Neal wanted more for me. And I kind of did, too.
A week later, my brother said something like, “I hate my life.”
“Neal says you can come stay with us in New York,” I told him, which is how we ended up sleeping next to each other the night before we both interviewed with amNewYork.
The night before my interview, I was having trouble sleeping, so I started to write. I had to record the thrill I felt from the newfound freedom of running to the 24-hour deli on 4th Street for a Hershey’s Symphony bar (my most recent discovery in life) and not telling anybody. I was scared my brother’s alarm clock wouldn’t work, and I was scared I would miss my interview and get fired.
The alarm clock worked, but it turned out that getting hired at amNewYork was a process. Queens was different than Manhattan. Different like a warehouse underneath an overpass and trains in the sky. I entered the dark warehouse with my New York State ID and Social Security card in hand but wasn’t really sure where to go. A man in a chair asked me if was here for the interview, and I replied, “Yes, sir.” He pointed to a big box of pencils and directed me to a back room past the trucks. I followed the line. There must have been a hundred of us. We were in a big room with tables. I noticed some folks were talkative and others kept to themselves. Some men wore pinstripe suits; my brother and I wore our nice pants from Macy’s.
A lady came in and distributed W2 forms for us to fill out. She told us that we had two minutes to complete the forms. She outlined the instructions, and some people had questions about how many people they should claim as dependents. I only claimed myself. I felt grateful that Izzy showed me how to fill out my W2 the week before—she was my secret weapon.
All of us moved to the center of the warehouse, and an older man with crazy hair approached the microphone to speak in front of a mountainous stack of amNewYorks. He spoke about the ethos of the daily newspaper—to inform the people of New York City on the train—and about why we were all there. ‘I can’t believe I’m here,’ I thought. ‘I’m really having my first job interview.’ I wanted to be proud of myself, to be able to go back to Manhattan and tell Neal that I got a job, to tell my parents that I have a job, that everything was different now and that I was a man.
The older man continued to speak into the microphone. “You’re here because you want to achieve. You here because you’re selling drugs, you on crack, you just got out of prison, or you on the block.” After he spoke, he introduced another young woman who started as a distributor (of papers, not drugs), but was promoted to district manager within a month. She would demonstrate to us how the paper should be properly distributed, he said, and then all of us would have an audition. There were hundreds of us, and there were hundreds of am New Yorks on the stage. We all knew that it was time to prove ourselves.
The lady then showed us the ways of distribution. Within seconds, her stack of papers had dwindled and dissipated and soon we were each holding a copy of yesterday’s amNewYork and we didn’t know how or why. The intensity and passion with which she spoke—“Get your am New York right here! It’s free! Twenty percent off at Macy’s inside! amNewYork!”—was the mark of a gifted professional. I just wanted to be her.
After that, the older gentleman told us about the amNewYork vest. We were to wear it with pride, as we were representing the company and its fellow men. The old man divided us into groups according to our boroughs. Only a couple of folks lived in Manhattan; everybody else was from Brooklyn and Queens. So he put my brother and I with Brooklyn, and the Bronx with Queens. We were to battle each other. One-by-one we put on the vest, were handed a stack, and were simply told to go. We had to get everyone in the room to take our papers—anyone with hands, we had to get a paper in them. Some people weren’t very good. They were just being too quiet. I remembered what Izzy told me, that I would be hired if I could just be loud. Finally, it was my turn. I walked to the front. The man put the vest around my body and handed me my stack. I heard the bell, I didn’t think, I just went.
“amNewYork!! It’s free! Oh my God!!! Twenty percent off at Macy’s!!! Get your news right here!!! AAAHHHH!!! amNewYork!!! AAAAHHHHHH!!!,” I passionately exclaimed, all the while strongly suggesting papers into the hands of my audience.
People were screaming. Twenty seconds later, it was over. Silence. I looked down at my hands. There was nothing. I did it. I gave away all my papers. I marched up and returned my vest. I hoped that my brother would do O.K. too. I watched more and more people try to empty their hands of the inky paper. I know some of them were better than me, but I think I medaled. The older gentleman encouraged us, “Move your product! Sell it! Push it! Move your crack!”
At the end, he called out names, explaining that if we heard our name, we got the job and would start the next day. With each name, we cheered. We were family. But as spots filled, the unchosen began to lose hope. My brother’s name was not called. I made it to the second round, and then I was cut. New friends placed their hands on my shoulders saying, “You’ll get it next time, buddy;” “Wow, I thought for sure you would get it—you were really loud;” “It’s politics.” I wanted to find my brother.
I ran into another one of Izzy’s clients who had just gotten out of jail for selling crack and needed a chance at something better than pushing drugs, which Izzy said you can’t put on a resume. He didn’t get picked either, and had all these kids to claim as dependents on his W2. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him he was the best guy up there. I suggested that he try the Metro newspaper.
“What about you?” he asked.
“I think this is the part when I walk off into the sunset,” I said. He told me that I could just take the N train.
I finally found my brother. He told me that the older gentleman had approached him and said that he wanted to see both of us outside before we left to make us a lucrative offer, just like in the movies. But then the lady who’d been speedily promoted to district manager stepped up to the microphone and asked everyone to return to the center of the warehouse. She told us that we were all hired, and that we would be receiving phone calls within the week informing us of our designated subway stops. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” she said.
The crowd erupted with joy while my brother and I walked out to meet the man in the parking lot. He put his hand on our shoulders and offered us a flyer distribution job around Bedford-Stuyvesant. He told us that he saw a spark in us. “I’m the head nigger around here,” he said. He gave us his card to reach him. He told us it was his nigger card. New York is different than West Virginia.
* * *
My brother went to Bedford-Stuyvesant to see that guy , but it didn’t really pan out. It had something to do with drugs. amNewYork didn’t call me and I didn’t call them. I guess we just weren’t that into each other.
I ended up on the toilet at the call center with enough perspective for my guts to tell me that I was in the wrong place. Izzy had told me that this job paid minimum wage but increased to $7.50 after a month, and to eight dollars after two. The thought of making eight dollars an hour blew my mind, almost to the point where I didn’t even want to think about the promise of payment, get my hopes up, and possibly not be loud enough. I was surprised and relieved to discover that there weren’t any practice calls during the interview and training process, and the floor manager who spoke to all one hundred of us told us that if we were hired, we would begin our assigned shifts within the hour. Sixty minutes later, I had been calling people for an hour and was excited that I officially earned 7.5 dollars. I was “verklempt,” a word I learned in New York that means ‘fucking overcome with emotion.’ Everyone who was unemployed was technically beneath me, and it was so hard to believe.
I’d never had anyone beneath me before in my entire life.
The market research associates working with me at the call center were a cast of characters. One man who introduced himself to me had also been trained and hired that same day. He had been in jail for over thirty years for selling drugs and had just been released. This was the first job he got. Another guy I met shot the cop that killed his mother. And then there was one lady who I met as she sang from her stall in our curiously coed bathroom. I thought she might be a great undiscovered national talent. In my head I called her Susan Boyle. My brother didn’t really understand what I meant when I called him on my work phone and told him that I got to work next to Susan Boyle.
When you arrived to work at the call center, you were to immediately walk to one of the two computers in the corner designated for clocking in. You would enter your employee ID, and the screen would turn blue. If the screen turned red, that meant you were fired. Management enforced clocking in on time. Senior staff would stand in front of the door after the scheduled start time of the shift with arms crossed, and fired everyone who arrived late. I soon noticed that the ones who objected could stay. After clocking in, we were all to meet in the lunchroom. There were sheets of paper on the wall assigning us seats for the day, but sometimes these were disregarded or sometimes you weren’t on the list. We all had to wait for placement, and sometimes the process could take hours. After placement, we then had to be taught the day’s script. This was when we learned how to correctly pronounce California politicians’ Hispanic names. I almost got fired one time for reading ahead. Then we clocked in again on our computers and started dialing. We didn’t start getting paid until then.
Once I pressed “enter,” I was about to interrupt someone’s supper. The computer would call, a person’s name would appear on my screen, I’d ask for them, the person’s spouse would ask if they could do the survey, I’d say ‘no,’ and when I had the chosen person on the line, I would finally begin to read from my script while asking multiple choice questions. Do you strongly dislike abortions? Do you somewhat dislike abortions? Would you vote for Antonio Vega if you knew he loves abortions?
This was called “dialin’.” If I stopped dialin’ for longer than twenty seconds, a staff member, who in my head I called Mean Patti Labelle, would shout out, “Number 14C, why aren’t you dialin’!?” Mean Patti Labelle sat atop an elevated platform like a lifeguard and watched over all our cubicles. Managers listened in on the calls I made, and would pull me aside for performance reports, grading me on a one-to-ten point scale. If I ever got under five, I would be fired.
The most common criticism I received was that I wasn’t “fighting refusals.” But I would constantly use the “fighting refusals” guidebook that hung on every side of my cubicle. “Ma’am, your opinions will help improve products and services!” “This survey will only take a second, and then I will be allowed to stop calling you!” I felt awful. I knew the survey would take at least one hour.
I was written up for saying “O.K.” after I had received every answer, because my manager said that it biased the survey by implying that I agreed with the answer. But my only trick to completing a survey was to engage the person I was speaking to by making them feel like I was agreeing with everything they were saying. It was personally challenging to constantly agree with people in Pasadena who strongly dislike abortions. One night, I spent a long time talking to one lady who was telling me how her husband sabotages her diet by bringing sweets into the house.
Often times I sat on the toilet next to Susan Boyle, wondering if my colleagues had hit the quota. When we hit our quota for calls to complete the scientific ratio of the survey, Mean Patti Labelle would yell, “Stop dialin’! Hang up on them. Stop dialin’ now!” We were to punch out and leave the premises immediately, with no ‘thank you.’
I had mixed emotions about taking home only $7.50 for a day’s work. Neal, the lawyer, said it’s not legal and that I should sue. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had in my whole life. I told myself to just keep the job, but it was so hard. Neal was constantly telling me that I must push myself to broader horizons. If I get a job, celebrate—and immediately get a new, better one.
So I did. I was hired as a spa attendant at a fitness studio on the Upper East Side. I found this position from one of my social workers, who was sleeping with me at the time. He knew that another member of his youth staff was a spa attendant there too, and regarded that as an in for me and my brother. My social worker thought that they might hire us as unpaid interns, learning the ins and outs of a New York City business to boost our resumes. He came with us to the interview on Madison Avenue, and that’s where I met Matt, who was impressed with my conversational and organizational skills. He ended up offering us actual positions folding towels, lifting heavy boxes, and taking out the garbage for eight dollars an hour. “You guys seem nice!” he told us.
I resigned from my position as a market research analyst, and I was proud to earn the reputation as the most reliable and loyal male spa attendant at the company’s flagship location. I got a Christmas card that held money from the estheticians. I worked double shifts, lifted the heaviest of boxes with my bare hands, and relearned my high school Spanish from my co-attendants. I loved coming home physically exhausted, instead of emotionally exhausted. It made me feel like a manly lug, instead of a mom.
* * *
The next summer, I noticed a flyer for the United States Census Bureau. Actually, my brother saw it first, called the number, got hired, and made $18.75 an hour going door-to-door filling out census forms for folks. So I called the number. First, I had to take a math test at an assigned government location in my neighborhood. My brother tested at the library in front of Tompkins Square Park. I tested at an elementary school gym room in a public housing project on Avenue D. The people around me were different from the ones who used to work at all my other jobs. They were young—in their twenties and thirties. They bonded over living in Gramercy Park. They had MBAs, and resumes too. And they were unemployed. It made me want the job even more. I worried about whether my parents had registered me for the Selective Service. A lady told us that was the most important thing.
I thought about what Neal had told me. “Always get better jobs. And more money,” he said. I thought about what it would be like to know that I’d be making at least $18.75 an hour for the rest of my life.
I got the job. Census enumerating was very serious procedural business. We had daily meetings at Starbucks with my crew leader, always compounding and collecting more PII. PII stood for Personally Identifiable Information, like home addresses, Facebook profile pictures, dog food recipes and social security numbers. They sometimes called it PII, and sometimes PPI. I never figured out why. The enumerators were given PII on every household we were to visit with the objective of collecting more. We were trained so that, because of the nature of the PII, it was our responsibility that the personal information remained safe and confidential. I would often have anxiety when out in the field that either 1) My PIP, PPI, or whatever it was, would fly out of my hands in crosswinds and I would have to go running after it; 2) I would be hit by a car on the job, and the proper authorities would not know what to do with my PII as the U.S. Census Bureau is an independent organization from the state level, or 3) My federal government identification ID badge would fly off my jacket in a crosswind as well, making me unidentifiable to the citizens I served.
Even though I was making $18.75 an hour, I still spent time folding towels at the fitness studio because I liked doing the laundry and I was making friends there. I had never had offline friends before.
One day, my crew leader called me into a meeting at Starbucks and asked me to hand over all my PII. Apparently 4th Street to Houston from 2nd Avenue to the Bowery had been successfully enumerated.
* * *
Things in my life changed. I couldn’t sleep on the couch bed anymore, so I signed the lease on a modest ten-by-twelve-foot apartment of my own. I broke the lease’s contract by painting navy blue and leather brown accent walls, but my landlord hasn’t noticed yet. And anyway, I lined the hardwood floors with amNewYork first.
I prospered after my promotion to front desk at the fitness studio, becoming the top seller. As I taught myself how to file my tax returns, I looked back fondly on all my job-searching experiences. I remembered when I didn’t know what a W2 was, and I appreciate that I don’t know what a W4 is. I spent a lot of time thinking about my destiny. I dreamt about promotions to manager on duty at the fitness studio, then to front desk manager, then to spa director, then to global director of training, and ultimately to CEO. Then I could never be anything less than a CEO, because it would be on my permanent resume.
More things in my life changed. Neal passed away, and two weeks after that my brother got into college. Not being able to tell Neal about his acceptance must really have been hard for him. A year later, when I got into college myself, with a robust financial aid package in my very own hands, I agreed with myself that it truly does suck to not be able to tell the one person you really most want to tell, the one person with whom you really wanted to share your achievement. I know that he worried a lot about me and whether I was going to be O.K. in New York. I wanted to prove to him, and to myself, that I could.
There was a girl at work named Mary who managed the front desk. I didn’t really get to talk to her much, because I was always folding towels in the back, but I remembered her being super sweet, Southern, blonde, and beautiful. Before I knew her name was Mary, I called her Britney Spears. One day she got a better job and quit. On her last night, I gave her a pick-up hug goodbye, and she told me, “Ryan, promise me you will take care of yourself,” with enough sincerity to inspire me to go cry next to the dumpsters in the basement for a little while. Maybe it’s bad, but it felt good to be worried over.
* * *
Ryan Patrick Bias is a young writer living in New York City, just like Lena Dunham, and currently attends Borough of Manhattan Community College. He’s a regular columnist on Facebook, but you have to be his friend to see his updates.
Bill O’Rourke is an artist who lives and works in the Tri-state area. His latest project “RESTAURANT: 101” is a cartoon series based on his adventures working in restaurants in New York City. You can follow Bill’s work and cartoons on Facebook and on Twitter @billartistguy.