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Literary labors lost
On being a freelance writer over 40 in a retracting economy

Donít let anyone tell you differently: in this economic climate, especially at this time of year, the term "freelance arts writer" is a euphemism for "unemployed." Ad sales are down. Papers are relying on staff reporters. Thereís very little to write about because there are so few shows and new record releases, and there are simply way too many writers to fill the void. So Iíve been living close to the vest (note to Bill Safire: just what does that mean?) and watching the bills pile up.

Recently, therefore, I did something I swore Iíd never do: I went to a suburban shopping mall and applied for a part-time job at a record store.

Needless to say, it didnít go well.

The application

This is the tough part. I pretty much have to lie completely. In essence, I have to be the antiĖGeorge OíLeary, who, in his résumé for Notre Dame, claimed to have more degrees than the Mojave Desert at noon. I have to eliminate the masterís degree in literature because I donít think those in search of J.Lo need the down-low on Rimbaud. I have to dumb down the thing so they wonít think Iím going to bolt if a few magazines come calling.

Age: Iím 42, which is way too old for almost anything these days. Jesus got it all together and became as popular as the Beatles in only 33 years, so what have I been doing? I write 33.

Sex: when I was 24, just out of grad school and in search of a job in the Reagan recession of 1984, I applied to a bookstore. In the box marked "Sex," I wrote "infrequently." What the heck, I thought: give them a laugh. I got the job, but a few weeks into it the manager told me he almost didnít hire me because of my attempt at humor.

"It was a dumb joke," I agreed.

"No," he said. "I thought you were serious, and I know that an employee who isnít fucking is an unhappy employee, and an unhappy employee is a bad employee. The more you fuck, the more you want to sell books. Itís that easy. So on your next application, write ĎFrequently.í Thatís the science of retail."

Of course, there wasnít a next application, because after that job I got the hell out of retail. But here I am again, pondering the same bad joke. In the end, I just check "Male."

Potential co-workers

Iím filling out the application at the same time as another guy, who looks like he used to be a roadie for a Marilyn Manson tribute band. Heís got a tattoo of Jesus on the cross with a woman straddling him; it says IN GOD WE LUST. Heís peering over at my application like weíre taking a trigonometry exam.

"Iím not from around here; just moved to the area," he says. "You think thatíll make a difference?"

"Donít see how."

"Iím from Pennsylvania ó Amish country," he says. "You know any Amish?"

"Er, Martin and Kingsley," I reply.

"Really? What were their last names? Maybe I know them."

I donít think so.

Heís amiable as we wait for the manager to show up for our interviews. "I cooked at a couple of Dennyís for a while, and then an IHOP. Pancakes with those M&Mís are a bitch." He laughs. "Got fired from one when a manager overheard me tell a waitress a joke. ĎWhat do you call a man with his hand up a horseís ass? An Amish mechanic.í Shit, I didnít know that the managerís wife was Amish."

I nod my head and chuckle, wondering if I could deal with this on a daily basis.

The interview

The record-store manager returns from lunch. He canít be more than 23. Iím old enough to be his father ó and weíre not even from the South. For some reason, Iím nervous, like Iím standing before the arts editor at the New York Times and heís about to decide whether Iím going to get Jon Parelesís job.

"Step into my office," he says, and leads me out to a bench in the mall. I laugh at the joke and follow like a sheep on Valium. "Okay, Iím going to ask you a few music questions just to see if youíre up to speed with what is happening today." What does he think, that Iím going home and spinning Lawrence Welk? Do I look that old? Do I have Big Daddy Kane etched across my forehead?

"How old was John Lennon when he was shot?"

What does this have to do with todayís music? Iím talking to Regis Philbin here. Who the fuck knows how old Lennon was? Next heís going to ask me what book Hinkley was carrying when he pulled the trigger.

"Er, Lennon was" ó lifeline to get-a-life Beatles fans ó "he was 39."

The manager nods knowingly. "Forty. Close," he says, then comes up with his next question. "Marcus Camby plays what instrument?"

Now Iím really stumped. Is he trying to trick me, or is this some kind of fluff that only NBA insiders know? Cambyís close to seven feet tall, has thin fingers ó so probably the piano. But it could be the fucking tuba.

"Iíll give you a hint. Heís blind, and heís played with Wynton ..."

"Er, you" ó I have to say this delicately because I donít want to show up what could be my future boss ó "you mean Marcus Roberts."

"Yeah, yeah," he says. "What did I say? Marcus Camby? Watching too much SportsCenter."

It goes on like this for another 20 minutes before he lets me go.

The outcome

Did I get the job? No. The record-store manager never called. I try not to take it personally. I say itís because of the tight economy. Because Iím too old. Because I should have written "Extremely frequently" in the "Sex" box. Because I never read John Lennonís death certificate. But here I am, itís March, and things arenít picking up much. And with my bank account holding more negatives than Kodak, itís time to get a job.

Hell, look in the mirror: itís time to get a life.

Employment offers can be sent to Ken Capobianco at

Issue Date: March 14 - 21, 2002
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