When you are fresh out of college you look for jobs in the most unlikely places. Sometimes, you even accept them.
In 2008, about a year into my life as a college graduate, confident in my ability to adapt to any work environment and rise to the occasion of any job (read: PLEASE HIRE ME), I answered a Craigslist ad seeking a “Web Guru with Blogging, Marketing.” Since that could mean just about anything, I figured it was right for me; a clueless 22 year-old mentally prepared to do just that – anything.
I emailed the gibberish Craigslist address using the same pitch I was sending everyone at the time. It harped on my freelance writing gigs, ran through the varied number of publications for which I’d provided some form of content, and carried on with a bunch of braggadocio about my aptitude and energy in all sorts of fields related to the creative arts and production and yadda and blah and hee haw and whatever. It was the old “I’d be great for you doing anything you need, just let me do it,” a.k.a. the mantra of every young milksop college graduate trying to sell people by way of their teeny-tiny resumes full of minor successes.
The person who posted the job replied two hours later. “I must say, an impressive first contact. When can you come in?”
Nice, I fooled him.
Turns out the fellow sold a company, made a lot of money, and started a new venture because he a.) liked bicycles and b.) wanted to create “virtual rides,” or cycling DVDs where the user sits on a stationary bike while watching a first-person video of someone cycling so they feel like they are on the ride. Just like Peloton did very successfully, but way more ghetto and entirely produced by people with absolutely no professional production experience.
In other words, the company was a passion project. Also known as not a great reason to start a company. Perfect! I was hired and started two days later.
The physical establishment was a health club / yoga studio / Spin studio / video production company / smoothie bar all in one unit situated at the tail-end of a dilapidated strip mall in a fledgling Pittsburgh suburb suffering the collapse of heavy industry. Walking inside, the owner’s ornate, wooden, William Randolph Hearst-looking desk was the first thing that caught your eye, situated cock-eyed at the left side of the main vestibule, littered with papers and surrounded by stacks of whatever stuff he was poring over at the time, totally out of place at the helm of a business establishment billing itself as a fitness center. A door at the right side of the room, next to a nook selling wildly-overpriced Garmins and rubber cycling clothing, was a door that opened to a segregated yoga studio. To the rear of the main area sat a coffee/smoothie bar, and tables were littered about the main area for people to relax and enjoy their beverages while being stared at by the owner from his huge desk. Of course, I never once saw anyone come in for a smoothie or coffee. I believe the cafe was only ever used by employees.
Even farther behind the smoothie bar, just next to the bathrooms, was my office – a former bank vault – left over from the building’s use in years past. The enormously heavy vault door was still in place and I’d have to swing it open each morning to reach my desk, which was utterly devoid of cell reception within the confines of the thick steel box.
The club’s basement was an odd combination of a weight room, a training room, a bathroom with a shower, and a messy wood-paneled dump full of old bicycle parts and my co-worker’s computer editing station from which he put together the cycling videos. The topmost floor housed the dark virtual cycling studio where members would actually pay money to come and take Spin classes.
Altogether, the facility was the most hodgepodge fitness studio imaginable, very ambivalent and unsure about its own identity or purpose. I’m sure that is part of why it was so hard to brand (and why it hasn’t been in business for quite a while now.)
The owner was a bullheaded Howard Hughes-type full of big ideas he’d go absolutely nuts over for a day or two and then completely abandon, always switching focus, making it so we were never really sure what our top priorities were. He was a genuinely good guy with great ideas and burning passions. We enjoyed him immensely, but only as equally as we found his management style irritating.
I’ve mostly forgotten the work we did. I know we made a promotional video parody of that time Christian Bale blew up on that set guy while filming Terminator: Salvation. I know we drank a lot of coffee. I know sometimes the owner would shower in the basement bathroom next to the editing studio and it was awkward being at work knowing our boss’s naked body was five feet away. I know sometimes I’d get there way earlier than everyone else and accidentally fall asleep for a little bit.
The boss’s daughters and sons and grandchildren were always milling about. On my second day of work, one of his sons was passing by my bank vault desk and caught a glimpse of me mawkishly hunched over my computer, trying to learn anything and everything about cycling and fitness in a day’s time so as to not appear inept. He popped his head in to ask, “Do you work here now?”
“Yeah, this is my second day,” I said.
“Oh, cool. My dad is always bringing people in,” he said as apathetically as possible. It worried me a little as I hadn’t seen any other employees at that point. I wondered where these people who were “always being brought in” all ended up. I never found out. Nobody ever mentioned prior help again. Nobody else was ever hired.
The owner’s wife would also constantly linger and taught many of the cycling classes. I started going to them on occasion, doing my best to be a company guy. I remember taking a class set to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack as we “rode” through Italy. It was… unusual.
My office remained in the vault until I moved into the basement, where myself and our video editor Ryan spent a lot of time making up stories about what Pelonis, the small tan space heater responsible for keeping us warm all day, did for entertainment while we weren’t there. We also took naps and farted a lot. The latter, plus Pelonis, kept us warm all day.
Once or twice a day, I’d emerge from the basement to refill my coffee thermos. A few months into my employment tenure, the owner’s wife and I were talking near the coffee bar. Lord knows for sure what we were talking about, but I believe it was the distinction between dog hair and dog fur, which of course are different and depend on the animal. I must have said something that sparked her as off-kilter. She responded with one of the great compliments I’ll remember all my life:
“You’re not normal,” she said. “You’re like some kind of pod person who operates on a different brain processing level from us normal folk. You have your own wavelength.”
It probably wasn’t meant to compliment me, but I loved it.
It may have even offended some people. Not everyone likes to be called out as if they’re some sort of oddity. But isn’t carving our own path as individuals what life is all about? Don’t we want to distinguish ourselves from others as a natural part of forming our identities?
Articulating what makes us different from others can be one of the most challenging things to do. So much of our personality and character has to be witnessed and explored through conversation and time. We can’t always put it into words. What she said ended up proving the most valuable lasting nugget I took away from that job.
Not long after that company folded, I had a job interview at a tech startup in Pittsburgh. I don’t remember the name of the company, but I recall near the head of the interview, the interviewer asked me to describe the way I think other people interpret me.
My eloquent answer was something to the sound of, “I don’t know. Hopefully as intelligent but kind of a goof, and a little bit weird.”
“What makes you weird?” he asked.
“I’m just different from a lot of people, I guess. People tell me I’m weird.” I was really going places with this interview, for sure.
“Okay, but why are you weird? I’m different and like unorthodox things. Am I weird?”
I had no answers for this guy. I didn’t know how to articulate my perceived identity. I had not figured out how to express what made me, me. The rest of the interview was a blur before I left the building. I knew I had blown it right away. But as I walked out of the building knowing I’d never hear from them again, I wondered – what was the right answer? How could words truly satisfy that line of inquiry? How could I describe the nuances and quirks and mannerisms that differentiate me as being me? Or, at least, how could I have said it in a way that would have pleased him? Everyone interprets you differently, right? The only explanation you have for yourself is your interpretation. How could you answer for everyone else?
Ultimately I’ve come to believe it’s very difficult to summarize the essence of your self using mere vocabulary. It’s impossible to know how other people interpret you because it depends on so many unique and unknowable variables within each individual person doing the interpreting. His question was a bad one, designed to see if I could provide an answer he wanted to hear.
That is likely why what my cycling DVD boss’s wife said struck such a chord. The way she described me made it seem like she understood what I was trying to express to the interviewer at that startup. It took her months of seeing me every day and getting to know me to learn who I was as a character, and that was the way she chose to express it. In her mind, “pod person” summed it up.
Whatever the case, it was an interesting time working at the cycling studio. The job is a distant memory now, though I often sit and wonder what became of Pelonis.