Having been a real estate attorney in stressful New Jersey, I was generally satisfied with retirement in North Carolina. But after two years of having me at home, my wife was looking for something for me to do.
“Look at this,” she would say, while perusing the want ads in the paper. “Are you interested in a career as a car salesman?”
“No,” I would reply, trying to be cheerful but clear.
“Here’s a good one…” she continued, “…mortgage officer at a bank. You know all about mortgages.”
I recalled the harried and desperate mortgage officers I’d known in New Jersey. “I’d be more comfortable trying to sell cars,” I replied.
A version of this routine took place about every two weeks. Our banter was not clothed in seriousness. However, in the way a put-down can be defended as “just a joke,” some shred of earnestness was doubtless below the surface.
One morning, I was playing tennis against a thirty-ish fellow named Tom whom I’d been matched with through a computer. We had played close games several times, but we rarely spoke beyond standard greetings and match-related comments. We barely knew each other, so I was surprised during a water break when he felt a need to explain to why, this particular morning, he was having such a hard time winning any points. I had hoped it was because of the depth and precision of my shots.
“I’m crushed at my store,” he said, downcast.
“Really?” I asked, feigning concern.
He sat down on the white plastic bench and sighed.
“Yes. We have several high school kids on staff, and they don’t always show up. And one just quit altogether, and I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“What kind of a store is it?” I asked, starting to subtly back-pedal towards the court to hint that the water break had been long enough. I failed miserably, as Tom leaned back even further on the bench and put down his racquet beside him.
“I’m assistant manager at Delta Sports,” he explained. “We just can’t get dependable help.”
He looked so dejected that I considered going easier on him, that is, if we ever resumed playing.
Tom continued: “If I just knew someone dependable, someone who knows something about sports, someone who would just show up two or three mornings a week…. That would really help me out.”
A thought flitted through my mind. I was dependable. I knew about sports. And if I were out of the house for a couple mornings a week, my wife and I could end our charade. I took a deep breath and declared: “I might be interested.”
Tom perked up: “Would you really?” He brightened with excitement, but then paused. “You realize it’s just a minimum wage job, right? I mean, I might be able to get them to pay you $9.00 an hour since you’re so, um, experienced.”
“I understand,” I said. “I wouldn’t be doing it for the money. I’d really like to help you out,” I added, feeling magnanimous.
“Wow! That’s great,” he enthused. “I’ll set you up for an interview.”
“Interview?” I said, surprised.
“Oh, it’s just a formality,” he said. “The manager would need to meet you. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to have a mature individual on the staff.”
Several days later I entered Delta Sports and asked for Tom. He emerged from amidst the sweat-socks and greeted me like his dearest friend.
“Come on back and meet Debbie,” he said, “the manager.”
Tom ushered me towards a cinderblock office tucked between displays of running shoes and ping-pong tables. Awaiting me behind a paper-strewn card table was a twenty-three-year-old woman of nondescript appearance but an impressively domineering attitude, given the circumstances. I moved some shoeboxes and sat down on a folding chair across from her. Tom stood off to the side.
Debbie started abruptly: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Uhhhh,” I stumbled. “Since I’m over fifty, I’m not really looking to make this a career. I just thought it’d be fun, and I would help Tom out.”
She looked unsatisfied.
“What do you bring to the company?”
“I’ve ahhh, coached my kids’ teams and I played soccer….”
She broke in: “I don’t really need your history. I want to hear you speak in the future tense.”
I looked over at Tom. He averted his eyes. I tried to think of a way to convey that I had owned my own successful and lucrative law practice for twenty-five years and that I had grown up around my father’s retail business without talking in the past tense.
“Well, I’ll always show up when I’m scheduled and….”
Debbie interrupted again: “How do you feel about working with younger people? Can you relate?”
“I have three college-aged children who still talk to me.” I offered a smile.
Debbie remained stone-faced.
“Have you ever had a female boss?”
“Well, I’m married, heh-heh.”
Debbie did not laugh.
“This position requires a lot of energy and concentration,” she said. “It’s not a joke.”
I looked over to where Tom had been standing, but he had retreated and was intently folding a pile of T-shirts.
Finally, after an awkward silence, Debbie stood up and said: “We’ll be in touch.”
On the way home, I pondered what it meant to have failed in an interview for a part-time, minimum-wage position. I was torn between resentment at blatant age discrimination and relief at not having to work. I did derive some benefit from relating the experience to my wife. It took several months before she looked up from the paper, and asked: “How would you feel about driving an airport shuttle bus?”