Sunday, October 11, 2009

Interview for a cold day in ... London

You might know him as the co-owner of a trendy London bowling alley chain, or the man behind a popular Notting Hill club, but he’s more than that to me – he’s the guy who wants a naked personal assistant. And he's hiring.

"First, I want you to understand; it's nothing sexual," he said ten minutes into the interview.

Keeping his eyes fixed on mine, he lowered his head and cocked a brow. I braced for the 'but'.

He was handsome enough to expect to get away with it, dishevelled enough to be non-threatening, and posh enough to reveal his unconventional lifestyle as little more than an egoistic echo of boarding school rebellion. But really, why shouldn't we all get everything we want?

The justification he made easily. Since I'd work primarily from his home office, and since he occasionally prefers to be nude in the privacy of his own home, he'd appreciate an assistant who would be comfortable with that.

Fair enough – I'd found the ad on Gumtree (the UK's answer to Craigslist), and the internet is bound to live up to its reputation now and again.

“Very interesting,” I said, and promptly lost my battle for composure to a smirk that carved clear across my face. While I wasn't quite right for the job, what with my preference for clothing while ironing shirts and drafting letters, I couldn’t wait to retell the story.

But I had this sneaking feeling he’d only just scratched the surface with his peculiarities, so I resisted the urge to run off and regurgitate the story, straightened my face and did what I had to do – waited for the juicy bits.

“Again,” he reiterated, “I want you to understand it’s nothing sexual.” There was another ‘but’ in the air. I could feel it. And I wanted to hear it. And I egged him on because I knew the story would be better for it.

When it came, I began looking for hidden cameras.

The scene was too contrived, too scripted – something was fishy. I’d inadvertently stumbled into a gag for a British reality TV show – something akin to Candid Camera, but with a desperate job-seekers theme – I was sure of it. Timely, I thought, for the credit crunch, if not a bit cruel. The air vents, I suspected, was where they’d most likely be, and I gave them all an I’m-onto-you squint, just in case.

I thought back to the ad. He described himself as the owner of clubs and entertainment venues across London, looking to expand his business to the realms of adult dating, and required a personal assistant to help him stay on top of it all, someone open-minded and willing to dig right in and take care of whatever needed doing.

Spotting three red flags in the text – club owner, adult dating and the much-abused term ‘open-minded’ – my initial questions to him during my phone interview were direct. “What exactly do you expect from a personal assistant?” I asked, drawing ‘exactly’ out as long as I could without suggesting I had a speech impediment. Anything as menial as ironing a shirt before a meeting and helping him bounce ideas around for his business, was his tempered, professional answer.

“So there are no specific skills you’d expect that I might not have?” I asked, satisfied with his response and now wanting to clarify, thinking HTML or catering. He barely stuttered and went on about how the one-on-one nature of the job requires above all that we get along. Agreeing to meet, we scheduled a face-to-face interview in Notting Hill the next day. In hindsight, the stutter was either a blazing scarlet-red flag or a guardian angel intervening on my behalf to choke him.

“And because it’s really, really important to me that you are absolutely comfortable with me being naked,” he went on, “and that you know it’s nothing sexual…”

Brow cocked, dramatic pause engaged, he was about to deliver the payload. This, I knew, would be the biggest ‘but’ yet.

“I need you to demonstrate your comfort by occasionally being naked, as well.” And then he let out a little burp. Seems my guardian angel went deep.

As far as collecting stories goes, I couldn't believe my luck. But I had to think of something to say, settling on, “I get where you’re coming from,” as the groundwork for my own enormous ‘but’.

In a small way, I felt sympathetic to him. He’d been pleasant, up-front and maintained appropriate physical distance throughout the interview. He told me what he wanted, and asked me how I felt about it. It was an extension of the classic secretary fantasy cum affair. The difference being that he incorporates it into the interview process.

I’ve always questioned social norms – which might have something to do with my degree in Cultural Anthropology, or just having lived in liberal Montreal for a decade – and I do consider myself to be open-minded and non-judgemental. Lifestyles that buck convention have never personally offended me, so long as they’re consensual and respect basic human rights. The lines I draw for myself are, however, very clear.

“But, that’s just not something I can do,” I concluded for him, in case he couldn’t already tell from the look on my face. Had he stopped talking then, my opinion of him would have cemented at the extreme end of ‘quirky’. But making the same mistake as billions of his forefathers, he went on to justify his desires.

While he appreciates her naked body, and is very certain she appreciates his, he’s never “f*cked” his current assistant – despite being in an open relationship – because that would ruin the professional dynamic. I think he’s right about that.

And it went downhill from there.

A telecom blessing, his mobile rang and it was time for me to go. Leaving the club, I still expected a production assistant might jump at me with a disclaimer to sign, so I could make my first appearance on low-budget British reality TV. But that didn’t happen.

The only person outside the club on the posh Notting Hill street, was a high-heeled, bleach blonde in her early twenties, wearing a little too much eye make-up – the next interviewee.

Looking her over I thought, "She's about to make herself a lot of money."

All Star bowling alley, originally uploaded by Will Cheyney.

(Note: I got this photo from Flickr, and for the record, the photographer has nothing to do with my story, nor does use of his photo here express any opinion he may hold, whatsoever, about the story or people involved. He's a talented photographer, but is in no way related to the aforementioned events.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

One sad way to lose a job

If you know London, you know The City refers to the financial district – the new-money hub, the once sparkling centre rife with slick suits, the testosterone traders, the bankers – City Boys. Or so I hear.

By the time I came to England, the credit crunch was in full bloom. My boyfriend took a redundancy package not long after my arrival, and my dreams of jump-starting my international PR career began to wane.

Still, in the face of back-to-back refusals from recruitment agencies – the only real way to get a job in London – on the basis of being a foreigner without at least 6 months experience on the island, I managed to land a PR job through an independent ad. And after about 5 weeks, I quit. Not because I'm a quitter, but because the man I was working for was one of the most difficult personalities I've ever encountered. Even worse than that. And he'd just had an unplanned baby, so even worse than that.

Since then, I've held a total of eight different jobs – each with distinct advantages and horrors, an I've written about most of them in my blog. And it is the eighth job I'd like to introduce now.

You may wonder what happened to my recent 'chugging' job – face-to-face fund-raising for UNICEF – which I spoke about not long ago. Or you may just assume I've grown tired of strangers telling me to 'F*ck off' for the criminal act of saying 'good morning' while wearing a charity t-shirt. That's how I'd assumed it would end, but alas, that's not the case. It ended because I cried. I cried my face off. I sobbed like a 10-year-old, hyperventilated even. And not because someone was mean to me, but rather because I was surrounded by people who were so nice.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer was to be our next campaign. Everyone in the company was gathered in a conference room for a detailed briefing before heading to the streets to pass the word on. Looking around at my colleagues, I felt privileged to belong to a group so good-looking, bright and young. It's the level of overall group beauty to which I imagine cult leaders aspire.

I made it through the munch and mingle breakfast portion, and even a few minutes of the video presentation. But when pre-recorded personal accounts began, I choked up. My face burning hot, I looked to the floor instead of the screen, and began singing an entirely unrelated song in my head. My body needed to be there, sure, but my head requires no warming up to the idea of finding a cure for breast cancer.

When the video was finally over, I took a deep breath and passed a tissue to my tearful neighbour. For a moment, I was quite sure I'd recover. I was, however, very, very wrong. Next up was the mother of a breast cancer victim. Her personal story broke me into crumbly, gooey little bits – and I cried for everyone I've known, and for everyone I'd never had the chance to meet, who've battled this horrible disease, and for everyone who's lost someone they dearly love. And ultimately, I cried myself out of a job.

My manager comforted me in the reception room, the Breakthrough Breast Cancer employees brought me water and tissues, there were hugs all around, and I said good-bye to my other tearful colleagues. They were all incredibly sweet, which exacerbated the profound and overwhelming sadness I felt. There was no question about it, my manager suggested I not work on this campaign, but that I would be welcome to join them for Save the Children in a few weeks' time. Apparently, the global suffering of children I can handle.

After sleeping off an intense crying-related headache, I began worrying about where my next pay-cheque would come from. But I struck it lucky, and landed something within three short days. And get this: I work in The City.

The one profession left untouched by recession hysteria, in the heart of the financial district, is mine. I'm a full-time barmaid in a gritty old English pub. Sure, instead of helping people, I'm getting them drunk and sending them home to the wrath of their wives – who've apparently dubbed the spot, The Flying Toilet – but it's fun.

And so far, it hasn't made me cry.