In the early 1990s, fresh from graduate school, Joanna Rakoff moved to New York City to become a poet and landed a job working for J.D. Salinger’s literary agent. Her memoir about the experience, My Salinger Year, was published on June 3rd.
My first job—which is the subject of My Salinger Year, my new book—was a doozy: I worked for J.D. Salinger’s literary agent. Yep, for real. She was a true grande dame of publishing, who swept into the office after the rest of the staff had arrived, swathed in an enormous whiskey mink, her eyes covered in huge sunglasses, a cigarette clasped in one slender hand. When she wanted someone—like me!—she tended to simply yell from her desk. Though she also liked to pad out of her office and come up behind me to see what I was working on. She had worked at this agency for so long—decades—that she took all of its rules and protocols for granted. Which meant that on my first day, she somehow just kind of assumed that I’d know how to do everything, from turning on my typewriter to using a bizarre, outmoded machine called a Dictaphone, from when to take lunch (and for how long) to how to properly wrap a manuscript box in brown packing paper.
Yep, you read that right. A typewriter. No, I am not a thousand years old. I am not the prototype for Peggy Olsen. I worked for this agency in 1996. By which point the world was pretty much computerized. All my friends worked in offices that had gone paperless, sitting in little cubicles, chatting with their coworkers across the room. I happened to fall into a job at an institution—for that’s really what this agency was (and is)—that felt very strong about Doing Things the Way We’ve Always Done Them. Which meant typing letters on an ancient typewriter. Which meant a receptionist answered the phones and if she went to lunch or the bathroom, they just rang and rang. Which meant stopping work at 4pm on Fridays and drinking scotch in the foyer. (I know, that part doesn’t sound so bad, right?)
My first days on the job were a bit nerve-wracking. It was so strange and disorienting, never fully understanding what was expected of me, or what had to be done when. The stakes were perhaps higher for me because of the, er, Salinger factor: I was warned, on my first day, that an endless stream of reporters, grad students, producers, and just plain fans, would call and write, begging me for Salinger’s address or phone number, or simply for me to send their letters or pleas or prayers on to him. I was warned, too, that if Salinger was to call, I was to say as few words as possible to him, to not waste one second of his time. If I slipped up in any way, the consequences would be dire.
I managed not to slip up—too much—and found, to my surprise, that Salinger often kept me on the phone, amiably chatting, but my boss still sometimes grew impatient or irritated with me, especially in those confusing early days. There was a way, I suppose, in which all her assistants blended together for her, and she simply forgot I’d only just started and didn’t yet know the—pretty unusual—office practices inside and out.
If you’re reading this right now, there’s a decent chance you recently spent a hot, humid day sitting in a folding chair, sweating through a disappointingly flimsy polyester gown, fighting to keep a mortarboard on your head while a succession of relative strangers delivered speeches on a stage you could barely see. And right about now, you’re at the mall with your mom picking out suitable attire—according to your mom, that is—for your own first job.
Maybe this job is your dream job: interning at The New Yorker, writing dialogue for Pawn Stars (that actually was my nephew’s first job; my family specializes in exciting first jobs), researching e. coli for the NIH, crunching numbers for Deloitte. Or maybe it’s simply be a job, a way of paying rent and student loans and generally living in the world.
Here’s the thing about first jobs: Maybe that dream job will turn out to be less of dream than you expected—the fancy internship that mainly involves Xeroxing—or that boring job will turn out to be fascinating, will come to define your life, to define you.
Which is, I suppose, why our first jobs are so special. (And I’m not a person to use that term lightly.) Because we come to them a blank slate, open to any possibility. Because everything is new to us. Even if you abandon that first career path, that first job somehow molds the bones of the life that comes after. It turns you into a grown up. Which is not necessarily a fun thing. In fact, first jobs tend to be scary, disorienting. For eighteen years, you lived with your parents, who loved you, who wanted you to be happy, for whom you were the center of the universe. For four years, you went to college, where you formulated opinions which were taken seriously by your professors, where you stayed up late talking over serious matters—of life, of philosophy, of science—with your friends. Perhaps you went to grad school—like me—for more of the same.
And then, one day, you put on some semblance of grown up clothing and arrive at an office. No one gets your name right. No one tells you where the bathroom is or that there’s a code for it or how to get the code. No one tells you when to go to lunch or when you’ll be paid. Or they tell you that lunch is between 1 and 2, but then you realize that no, everyone actually eats at their desk, works through lunch, and you’re expected to do the same. Your boss may yell at you. Or may act like she’s your friend but then snap at you when you make the slightest mistake. Your mother doesn’t understand that you can’t chat with her all afternoon on your office phone. When you’re tired or in a bad mood or devastated that your boyfriend has dumped you with no explanation, you can’t just not show up. In fact, you still have to show up and behave like a normal person and do your work, your often tedious work. And care about your work. They expect you to care. To take care of someone other than yourself.
All this was hard for me, in all ways. I was pretty shy and I had to learn to speak up, to ask questions, to ask for help, to seek out mentors within the agency other than my boss. I also had to learn to dress properly, and not stay up or out too late, and to understand my role at the agency and in my boss’s universe, which was partly to learn from her, not just about publishing or literature, but about, honestly, how to be a person in the world, rather than a person at the center of the world. Eighteen years later, I feel this weird, complicated gratitude for her.
My first job—for all its discomfort, especially in those early days—turned me into a writer (see My Salinger Year for this to make sense), turned me into the person I am today. It made me. And if I have one hope for you, it’s this: That in ten, fifteen years, you’ll look back on your first job and say the same thing.
What was your first real job?