Day Jobs - I Love New York and It Likes Me Okay - Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) - Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) - Mindy Kaling (2011)

I Love New York and It Likes Me Okay

Day Jobs

IN OTHER PLACES in this book, you’ve seen the fruitless attempts I made while living in New York to pursue my goal of show business employment. This section is about my attempts to get day jobs. At first I called this chapter “Mama’s Gots to Pay da Bills,” but I thought that title made it sound like maybe I had been a stripper or had a brood of illegitimate children.

It was October 2001 and I lived in New York City. I was twenty-two. I, like many of my female friends, suffered from a strange combination of post-9/11 anxiety and height-of-Sex-and-the-City anxiety. They are distinct and unnerving anxieties. The questions that ran through my mind went something like this:

Should I keep a gas mask in my kitchen? Am I supposed to be able to afford Manolo Blahnik shoes? What is Barneys New York? You’re trying to tell me a place called “Barneys” is fancy? Where are the fabulous gay friends I was promised? Gay guys hate me! Is this anthrax or powdered sugar? Help! Help!

The greatest source of stress was that it had been three months since I’d moved to New York and I still didn’t have a job. You know those books called From Homeless to Harvard or From Jail to Yale or From Skid Row to Skidmore? They’re these inspirational memoirs about young people overcoming the bleakest of circumstances and going on to succeed in college. I was worried I would be the subject of a reverse kind of book: a pathetic tale of a girl with a great education who frittered it away watching syndicated Law & Order episodes on a sofa in Brooklyn. From Dartmouth to Dickhead it would be called. I needed a job.

CARING FOR THE YOUNG AND EATING THEIR FOOD

By placing hundreds of neon green flyers all over the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, I finally got a job babysitting. I was paying my $600 portion of the rent taking care of two adorable girls named Dylan and Haley. Dylan and Haley were from a wealthy family in Brooklyn Heights. Not wealthy in a simply went-to-private-school way. Wealthy in a each-had-her-own-floor-of-a-historic-brownstone-in-Brooklyn-Heights-and-wore-all-organic-clothing way. I guess “crazy loaded” is the more accurate way to say it. Their dad invented the Internet, or something like that (not Al Gore), and whenever I walked into their mansion on Pineapple Street, I always whispered to myself, This is the house that inventing the Internet built. Dylan and Haley’s parents had divorced years before, and I never met Internet Inventor Dad. I only interacted with gorgeous Internet Inventor-Marrying Mom, who looked like a slightly older Alicia Keys. Internet Inventor-Marrying Mom hired me on nights when she went out on dates or had plans for a girls’ night with her all-black, all-glamorous friends. Later I read that Internet Inventor Dad was seriously dating an internationally famous supermodel. They rolled high. If my babysitting stint were taking place now, they would have a dynasty of reality shows on Bravo, and I’d be the pixilated chaperone in a cable-knit sweater escorting the girls to Knicks courtside seats.

Once Internet Inventor-Marrying Mom gave me an unopened bottle of Clinique Happy that someone had given her and she knew she’d never use. “It’s not fancy or anything,” she said sheepishly, as though she were handing me a bottle of Lady Musk by Walmart.

What is this world? I thought. Clinique isn’t fancy anymore?

I was a little worried about babysitting at first, because though I have the voice of an eleven-year-old girl, I have no natural rapport with children. I’m not one of those women who melts when a baby enters the room and immediately knows all the right age-specific questions to ask. I always assume the wrong things and offend someone. “Does he speak yet? Does what he says make sense, or is it still gurgle-babble?” Also, I’m always worried I’m going to accidentally scratch the kid with my fingernail or something. I’m the one who looks at the infant, smiles nervously, and as my contribution to small talk, robotically announces to the parent, “Your child looks healthy and well cared for.”

So it was surprising that I killed it as a babysitter. Er, maybe “killed it” is a wrong and potentially troubling way to express what I’m trying to say. The point is, I was an excellent babysitter. It helped that the kids thought I was a genius. It was so easy to seem like a genius to Dylan and Haley when helping them with their homework. For instance, one night, I explained that the mockingbird in the title of To Kill a Mockingbird was actually a symbol for the character Boo Radley. Dylan looked at me with wonder. “Why are you babysitting us?” she asked. “Why aren’t you teaching at a college?”

I also knew what little girls want to talk about, which is boy bands. Haley and I would talk for hours about which member of ’N Sync we’d want to marry. After long deliberation, the answer was always J. C. Chasez. Joey Fatone’s last name was going to be “Fat One” no matter how great he was, and even though they didn’t know at their age that Lance Bass was gay outright, they sensed he’d make a better good friend and confidante. As for Justin Timberlake, well, JT was the coolest and hottest, but too flashy, so we couldn’t trust him to be faithful. J. C. Chasez was the smart compromise. We would talk like this, in complete unironic seriousness, for hours. The reason I was better than other babysitters was that I would never rush them. In me they had an open-minded listener to every pro and con of spending the rest of their lives with each band member of ’N Sync. I may have gotten more out of it than they did.

When the kids went to bed, the real fun began: me turning on Showtime at the Apollo in their tricked-out den and going to town on all the kid-friendly snack food in the house. Kid-friendly food is the best, because kid-friendly simply means “total garbage.” I ate frozen chicken nuggets shaped like animals, fruit chews shaped like fruit, and fruits shaped like cubes in syrup. I discovered that kids hate for any food to resemble the form it originally was in nature. They are on to something because that processed garbage was insanely delicious. I spent some excellent Saturday nights watching Mo’Nique strutting onstage at the Apollo while I ate a handful of children’s chewable vitamins and wrapped myself up in my boss’s cashmere kimono. I did it so much that it became a problem. One evening after her bath, Haley pulled me aside, wracked with guilt: “Mommy wanted to know who ate all the turtle-shaped bagel pizzas, and I knew it was you, but I lied and said it was me.” She burst into tears. I hugged her and told her, “You can never tell her the truth.” And then I let her stay up an extra hour watching Lizzie McGuire. Bribes and boy bands. That’s all you need to be a babysitter.

Babysitting did not pay the bills or give me health insurance, which I guess is good, because otherwise I would probably be an au pair somewhere right now. I needed to get a real job.

NETWORK PAGE DREAMS

The page program at the network TBN is very prestigious, and famously harder to get into than Harvard. No, TBN is not the real name of the network, but there is an old saying, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” which applies here. The TBN page program turns ambitious, overeducated twentysomethings into friendly, uniformed butlers. I wasn’t sure it was really my style, but it seemed like the first rung on the ladder to somehow working in TV. Young television writers all aspire to be TBN pages, in the hope that a late-night talk show host like Craig Ferguson or David Letterman will eventually overhear them uttering something witty while leading a tour, and then say, “You’re brilliant! Why don’t you come work for me and be my best friend?” They hire only seventy or eighty pages a year, out of something like forty-two million applicants. I decided the odds were stacked against me, which strangely made me feel like I was going to get the job even more. Sports movies had brainwashed me into the belief that when the chips are down the most, that is when success is the most inevitable.

I’m the kind of person who would rather get my hopes up really high and watch them get dashed to pieces than wisely keep my expectations at bay and hope they are exceeded. This quality has made me a needy and theatrical friend, but has given me a spectacularly dramatic emotional life.

Anyway, I got called in for an interview with the program. I wore a pin-striped skirt suit I ordered from the clothing section of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. You know that section, where they can make a woman modeling a pair of overalls look slutty? Yeah, it’s amazing.

I thought I looked pretty awesome—like one of Ally McBeal’s friends in cheaper material.

I arrived fifteen minutes early for my interview, which was the first of my three mistakes. I was interviewed by a paunchy and balding man name Leon. He was one of the guys who managed the page program, and it was obvious that lunchtime was his thirty-minute respite from this hell job of interviewing an assembly line of ambitious, obnoxious liberal arts school grads. He didn’t have an assistant to tell me to wait outside. There was no “outside” to his tiny office. Or a waiting area, as I thought there would be. It wasn’t a posh enough job to have earned him all these extra rooms. My early arrival meant that either he would have to interview me or I would have to wander around Midtown for a while. Unfortunately, he chose the former. He reluctantly shoved his Quiznos sub aside and told me to have a seat. Strike one.

Life had been hard on Leon, his portliness and baldness obscuring his relative youth. Looking at a photo on his desk of him with two little kids, I asked, “Oh, are those your kids? They’re so cute.”

He looked aghast. “I’m twenty-five. Those are my nephews. You think I have kids?”

I was unable to conceal my surprise. “Oh! It’s just that, you don’t look, um, you seem more mature than that.”

Leon gestured to me. “We’re basically the same age.”

Without thinking, I immediately responded, “Well, I’m actually three years younger than you.” Why on earth did I correct him on his point? Oh, because I was a snotty little idiot.

Strike two.

Leon asked me, while eyeing his Quiznos sandwich longingly, why I wanted to be a TBN page. I answered honestly, saying that I would be honored to work for a terrific company that had been host to all my favorite shows growing up, and that the opportunities that came from the page program seemed amazing.

“Hold on.” Leon stopped me. “So you only want this job for the opportunities it affords?

I was puzzled. “I mean, that’s part of why I’m applying, yes.”

“This job is more than just a stepping-stone.” Leon jotted down a short word on my résumé that could only have been hate or yuck. Strike three.

Leon was now openly disgusted. What had he wanted? For me to say that all I wanted to do into my twilight years was give people backstage tours of morning talk shows? Oh, yeah. Yes. That’s exactly what he wanted me say. I left knowing with certainty that I had not gotten the job. It was hard to be devastated, because it had been such a top-to-bottom disaster.

Now when I watch my friend Jack McBrayer excellently portray Kenneth, the career NBC page on 30 Rock, I understand what kind of commitment Leon wanted from me. I wonder if Leon is a consultant for the show. Or still a page.

I WORK FOR A TV PSYCHIC

Still babysitting, with no health insurance, I began to become a germaphobe, because I could not afford to get sick and go to the hospital. From a friend of a friend, I landed an interview for an entry-level job as a production assistant on a show I’ll call Bridging the Underworld with Mac Teegarden. This was a cable program featuring the psychic Mac Teegarden, who relayed messages to members of the studio audience from their dead friends and relatives.

The morning I interviewed for the job, I had an enormous pimple on my face. A giant pimple is bad news for everyone, but if you have dark brown skin and a huge whitehead in the center of your forehead, it is especially disgusting. It wasn’t even one of those stoic pimples that goes quietly when you pop it; this one was cystic and painful and had roots that seemed to extend into my brain. I wanted to postpone my interview but it would have been a last-minute change, and I wanted to hide the fact that I was a vain flake for as long as I could. (Coincidentally, Vain Flake is the name of my perfume, available at your finer drugstores and coastal Kmarts.) So, with my zit throbbing like a nightclub, I went to the interview.

My interview was with a segment producer named Gail and the exec producer Sally. Sally was a stout, masculine-looking woman, but not unattractive. She reminded me of a blond Rosie O’Donnell in her height: appealing, confident, and a tiny bit brusque.

They were both very nice, and seemed highly concerned about filling a position made vacant by their last PA, who had left abruptly for Teach for America. (Thank you, Teach for America! Luring away America’s finest minds so that the rest of us can snatch up their jobs.) My interview lasted eight minutes. I could type, I could get coffee, I didn’t have an accent. I guess Old Throbby on my forehead was my lucky charm!

Working for a TV psychic was not what my parents envisioned after investing in my degree, but the job had health benefits, and this pleased my mother. My mother is a doctor, and somewhat of a militant on the subject of health benefits, which is why I may seem slightly obsessed with them. The description of the PPO was more exciting than the job itself. I was working at a job that was vaguely in the world of television making $500 a week! Cue Madonna’s “Holiday”! It’s margarita time!

I always thought mediums were supposed to be old crones with glass eyes of the Drag Me to Hell variety, but Mac Teegarden turned out to be a wildly normal guy. He was a thirty-ish former phlebotomist and ballroom dance instructor with a Long Island accent. He was attractive in a Mario Lopez way, with slicked-back hair and a wardrobe of tight long-sleeve T-shirts. He looked like the kind of guy who lifts weights twice a day, is a great husband, and goes to Manhattan nightclubs with his wife four months after Justin Timberlake went there. I liked him a lot.

My immediate boss was Gail, the one who’d interviewed me. Gail was forty, single, and loved the world created by Sex and the City more passionately than any other person I knew; I think she would’ve disappeared into the show if she could have. (Let me take a moment here to stress again just how pervasive the Sex and the City culture was in New York in 2002. You could be an NYU freshman, a Metropolitan Transit Authority worker, or an Orthodox Jewish woman living in a yeshiva: you watched Sex and the City.) Without knowing me at all, Gail nicknamed me Minz. I respond very well to people being overly familiar with me a little too soon. It shows effort and kindness. I try to do this all the time. It makes me feel part of a big, familial, Olive Garden-y community.

Gail would talk at length on Mondays about Sex and the City (the day after the show aired) and how it perfectly mirrored her life. I could tell she wanted to have a TV-show-worthy Manhattan existence, and I knew I was a disappointment to her when I failed to fill the adorable minority sidekick role. (By the way, I in no way mean to impugn the fun job of minority sidekick. Minority sidekicks always get to wear Hawaiian shirts and Tevas and stuff. I would gladly be the Indian female version of what Rob Schneider is to Adam Sandler, to just about anyone.)

“How is your love life, Minz?” she would ask hungrily, hoping to be entertained by raunchy details.

I had none. “Um, you know. So hard to meet guys,” I answered vaguely, hoping my lack of a sex life would seem mysterious and not pathetic.

“You’re such a Charlotte,” she replied. Gail found lemons and made lemonade. That’s the one nice thing about being a dork about men: you can sometimes play it off as restrained and classy.

Gail loved to talk about how stressed she was. She would do this thing where we’d be walking in the hallway, and suddenly she’d stop in her tracks, rub both of her temples with her index and middle fingers, and theatrically let out a deep guttural moan: “Mooog.”

“Mooog. Minz. I am just so stressed out,” she’d say. “I just want to go home, open a bottle of red wine, draw up a hot bath, light some candles, and listen to David Gray.”

A note about me: I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway. No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.

This is entirely because my parents are immigrant professionals, and talking about one’s stress level was just totally outlandish to them. When I was three years old my mom was in the middle of her medical residency in Boston. She had been a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in Nigeria, but in the United States she was required to do her residency all over again. She’d get up at 4:00 a.m. and prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for my brother and me, because she knew she wouldn’t be home in time to have dinner with us. Then she’d leave by 5:30 a.m. to start rounds at the hospital. My dad, an architect, had a contract for a building in New Haven, Connecticut, which was two hours and forty-five minutes away. It would’ve been easier for him to move to New Haven for the time of the construction of the building, but then who would have taken care of us when my mom was at the hospital at nights? In my parents’ vivid imaginations, lack of at least one parent’s supervision was a gateway to drugs, kidnapping, or at the very minimum, too much television watching. In order to spend time with us and save money for our family, my dad dropped us off at school, commuted the two hours and forty-five minutes every morning, and then returned in time to pick us up from our after-school program. Then he came home and boiled us hot dogs as an after-school snack, even though he was a vegetarian and had never eaten a hot dog before. In my entire life, I never once heard either of my parents say they were stressed. That was just not a phrase I grew up being allowed to say. That, and the concept of “Me time.”

It is remarkable that I worked in the administrative offices of Bridging the Underworld without ever fully examining whether I believed that what Mac was doing was real. My only interaction with Mac Teegarden involved working for his producers. If you’ve never seen the show, Mac enters a room with a studio audience and asks questions that are presented as information he has received by communicating with dead relatives or dead friends of people in the audience. After he contacted the dead, he’d relay a message, and the show was over. Then a producer would pull that particular audience member aside, interview him further, and create a segment around him. I was one of the assistants who scurried around the selected audience member, collecting photos and getting him or her to sign releases.

When the audience members went back home, some of them would continue to call me. They saw me as the messenger’s messenger. I have to admit that it was far more interesting to play a psychic conduit than it was to scan photos all day long. I spent hours talking to people, uninterrupted, about their loved ones who had passed away. I had no new psychic information, but I was someone new to talk to and confide in. I was great at it, and it became the best part of my day. It was strangely a lot like babysitting. People wanted to talk to me about what interested them, and I was good at listening to them and not telling them to stop talking. This would come in handy for me later when I became a producer on The Office.

If I had to testify under oath, I would admit, no, I don’t believe Mac Teegarden is psychic. I’ve just been made too aware of people like Carl Sagan and basic science and stuff. I am certain, though, that Mac Teegarden provided an enormous amount of comfort to people who had unexpectedly lost loved ones. I don’t know if it was psychic, but it was cathartic, and therapeutic, and it helped people.

MINDY KALING, SEXUAL HARASSER

I was living in Brooklyn with Brenda and Jocelyn, but Bridging the Underworld was taped in Queens. If I took the nicer subway, it meant I had to go through Manhattan every morning to get there, and that took a really long time. The subway line that ran the short way was the G line, which stopped exclusively in Brooklyn and Queens. That might be the only time the word exclusive has been used to describe the G train. At that time, the G train wasn’t so hot. (My apologies to the train. I’m sure it’s amazing now, with, like, a community garden and charter school in it. But not then.)

My coworker Rachel also lived in Brooklyn and took the G with me. Rachel was a pretty Jewish girl my age who was the heiress to a gourmet pickled Jewish food dynasty in L.A. She was an amazing cook who made her own bagels—a supremely cocky thing to do in New York—and other delicious food. When I went over to her house to watch TV, there would be homemade rugelach for snacks.

Rachel and I jokingly (and hilariously) called the G the Rape Train. One morning at work we were joking about it in the commissary. We did not see Sally, the producer, standing a few feet away.

“Did you hear the Rape Train added new stops?” I said to Rachel.

“Yeah? What are they?” she asked.

“Lurk, Stalk, Stab, and Dump Body,” I said, very pleased with myself. Rachel laughed. We high-fived.

Suddenly, Sally appeared behind us. She looked really upset.

“Do you girls feel unsafe when you come to work in the morning?” Sally asked.

I was surprised she’d heard us. When you’re that low on the totem pole, you sometimes think you’re so unimportant that no one can hear you. My sense of invisibility had made me loose-lipped.

We hastily assured her that it was just our unfunny, pejorative nickname for the train, and that, based on the empirical evidence we had gathered so far, real rapists didn’t traditionally attack two girls at once at seven in the morning, and that we were the real creeps, and we were sorry.

Sally looked displeased. “It’s not a very funny thing to joke about,” she said. “It’s extremely inappropriate.” She turned and left.

We were horrified. Later that morning, Rachel and I both got notes saying Sally wanted to see us in her office.

“She’s going to fire us for sexual harassment!” Rachel worried.

I was freaked out. Sexual harassment was a real thing. You can’t just joke about rape at work. We had endured a lengthy sexual harassment seminar on how fireable this behavior was. Sarah Silverman could make jokes about rape because, the fact of the matter was, she was much funnier and cuter than us. This was the problem of living in a post-Sarah Silverman world: lots of young women holding the scepter of inappropriateness did not know how to wield it.

I began wondering what I would tell my parents about getting fired. It would be embarrassing, especially since I had just bought my mother an expensive pair of Uggs with my new money. They were “I’ve Made It!” Uggs. I didn’t know how I would tell them. I figured I could conceivably go three weeks without their noticing, living off graduation cash my aunt and uncle had given me. After that, I was toast.

When we were called in, we found Sally waiting with Joel, the head of Human Resources. Joel had a really tough job, because, as anyone knows, it’s absolutely terrifying when someone from Human Resources is meeting you for any professional reason. Even if Joel simply wanted to share your table in the break room to enjoy a cup of coffee, you cringed a little. “Oh God, is Joel going to tell me my dental care is no longer covered?” I pretty much could only handle Joel for the ten minutes he was sitting with me going over my start paperwork. Then I never wanted to see him again. He’s a lot like the Toby character from The Office.

Our situation looked bad. Now we would not only get fired and escorted immediately out of the building by security, but what we’d done would go in our Permanent Files, following us from job interview to job interview, ruining our careers.

“Girls,” Sally said, “I took what you said very seriously this morning.”

I was already making distancing body language from Rachel in my chair. I didn’t want them to think we were attached at the hip. You could fire Rachel and keep me! I’m a minority!

“We want a town car to transport you to and from work. We can’t have you be unsafe.”

I couldn’t believe it. Being potentially litigious young women had just landed us free car service to and from work, as though we were investment bankers. My inappropriate, unfunny remarks were getting us special treatment rather than fired. I felt like Ferris Bueller.

It actually cost the studio more to transport us by town car than it did to pay us. Everyone was instantly jealous. People began sucking up to us, hoping to wheedle a ride home in our town car. I treated that car like an interborough shuttle for all my friends. This is when I learned that crime pays. From Dartmouth to Dirtbag!